Attempting to Deconstruct "Real"

post by herschel (hrs) · 2023-07-09T16:40:53.140Z · LW · GW · 23 comments



I see some current contentions which have a relatively invisible crux with respect to the concept of real. I'm increasingly doubtful that the concept means very much. I think ‘real’ or ‘reality’ is probably a mostly needless reification [LW · GW] over several different and not fully compatible distinctions. Note this is largely a cold take in a good part of my circles, but it’s not yet common knowledge, and so seems worth laying out explicitly.

It doesn’t seem like a primate nervous system comes out of the box with a notion of “reality”. Experiences are meaningful with respect to our values, capacities, and channels for meaning, regardless of their truth values or the accuracy of our world-models.

Certainly, there are lies, and there are dreams, and there are hopes that do not come true. On the other hand, there is mathematics, and there are models of deep time (let alone QM or Tegmark levels), which we cannot touch but still believe in. 

Physicalism has no account of the truth of logical statements, nor does logical consistency of the predictive power of physical models. Nor, importantly, do either of these on the emotional and psychological reality of violence, music, winning, or love. These are just some important kinds of realities.

There have been various attempts to construct reifications of the various realities which we encounter, in terms of one another, or grounded in some metaphysical ontic, which is never to be found. I have yet to see an account of ontology which can do anything but wave its hands or stomp its feet when it comes time to narrow down what “reality” actually is. I see this as making the same mistake as “is it really a blegg? [LW · GW]”

This is the basic mechanism of reification. I claim that reification is simply the process of the construction of salience or weight, phenomenologically. 

Furthermore, I have yet to see an account which captures all of the realities under one roof. “That which cannot be denied” might almost suffice, but some of these views lead people to deny experience whatsoever [LW(p) · GW(p)].

This doesn’t mean you should start believing in magic. (Though, having messed around with this stuff, some kinds of magic seem to be much more real than I had originally thought.) 

I’ll be direct about what I’m contesting here: it’s not clear how we should regard the ontological status of prayer, meditative experiences, “energy practices”, etc. I think that existing reified ontological theories are causing a good amount of trouble in figuring this out–on both sides. Traditional theories of these phenomena are also high reified and confused. 

This is a legitimate question for me, I’m not a committed hippy trying to convert people to my side. I’m quite confused as to how to regard these phenomena, and I’m very frustrated by the quality of current conversations about them.


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comment by Dweomite · 2023-07-10T00:08:15.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You may want to read the sequence Highly Advanced Epistemology 101 for Beginners [? · GW], and in particular the first post in that sequence, The Useful Idea of Truth [? · GW].

Or, for a less-formal analysis of some of the same ideas, The Simple Truth [LW · GW].

comment by Dagon · 2023-07-10T00:48:59.393Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At a colloquial, but incredibly useful level, Philip K Dick resolved this decades ago: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  

As a more bayesean explanation, reality is the stuff that makes predictions work.  It's the consistency of experiences and evidence.

comment by Gordon Seidoh Worley (gworley) · 2023-07-09T22:11:45.461Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's hard to remember that the only thing that's "real" are our experiences and not the things we think we're experiencing. Our brains are so good at thinking in terms of a supposed external reality that it becomes difficult to remember that everything we know about some such external reality is yet more of the map. The territory that we explore is not physical reality, but our experiences. We may postulate and have high confidence that physical reality is the thing we're experiencing, but it's not the absolute truth we're able to tap into when we simply notice what our senses are reporting prior to interpretation.

Replies from: Signer
comment by Signer · 2023-07-10T02:56:46.989Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any specific experiences are also a map - you can't be sure what you saw a nanosecond ago.

Replies from: gworley
comment by Gordon Seidoh Worley (gworley) · 2023-07-10T03:51:28.279Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Memories of experiences, sure, but at some point this map and territory metaphor breaks down. At what point does something enter the map as it progresses through your nervous system? I'm not sure we can cut a clean divide. So I gloss a bit here because zoomed out enough the distinction is obvious and meaningful but zoomed in it becomes a source of confusion.

Replies from: Signer
comment by Signer · 2023-07-10T04:37:55.139Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The clean divide is at the point of the maximum zoom out - you can be sure that universe exist. Anything else is uncertain, including any sensations. The destinction between senses and theories is meaningful, but is not fundamental.

Replies from: gworley
comment by Gordon Seidoh Worley (gworley) · 2023-07-10T04:46:04.214Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's this universe you speak of?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2023-07-09T19:08:58.668Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reality is the emphasis a frame [LW · GW] should [LW · GW] give to a thing [LW · GW].

comment by StartAtTheEnd · 2023-07-10T15:15:05.216Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think we overcomplicate things.

"Real" is whatever actually exists, and we experience this as it relates to us, which is also real, since we're real.

People seem to assume that something is "false" if it's not unique. But the principle of relativity applies to truth.

All thoughts, ideas, and things like logic don't actually exist physically, all they are is self-consistent formal systems. They're real, they're just not universal or fundemental. They're arbitrary creations.

I don't think anything universal can exist, as everything which exists is specific, and the more general you get, the less specific you will be. I also don't think anything exists "in itself", since boundaries seem to be our scope of abstraction rather than something fundamental.

But this doesn't matter beyond our need to believe in things as real (for the sake of mental well-being), and of course scientific research, where mathematics and experimentation seems to work out, regardless of how correct our explanations are.

Right now I'm communicating using language, which is just a self-consistent formal system. This system can only speak and reason about itself, anything outside of the formal system is out of reach. When we speak of things, we attempt to re-create them within another system (like language or math) as we think they are, and then draw various conclusions, and hope that these map back to reality. We're approximating a blackbox through trial and error, and all we can verify is that the two seem similar.

Our desire to explain this question doesn't make it valuable or important, it just reveals the human tendency to make sense of things and model them, and for the same reasons I expect this comment of mine to be an uncomfortable read. And you can probably argue for why I'm wrong, simply by choosing a self-consistent system which conflicts with what I've written.

An infinite amount of different self-consistent systems can exist, and they're all seem real and correct from the inside, and they all look like various degrees of nonsense from the outside.

comment by Signer · 2023-07-10T03:00:26.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Physicalism has no account of the truth of logical statements

Sure it has - you can both derive from physical equations how calculator works and how notion of contradiction works in human brains.

Replies from: Dweomite, TAG
comment by Dweomite · 2023-07-10T06:53:32.298Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose we create a second device that looks like a calculator but displays different answers when you push the same buttons.  Both devices are equally physical, and you can explain using physics how either of them works.  But our common intuitive notion of truth would like to be able to say that one of those devices is giving true answers and the other is giving false answers.

(Or, more rigorously, that one of the devices is completing strings of symbols in a way that conforms to our axioms of arithmetic.)

It's not clear to me how physics gets you closer to that.


I've already linked the sequence in another comment, but Eliezer's account of the truth of logical statements is given in Logical Pinpointing [? · GW], and I think I pretty much agree with him.

Replies from: AnthonyC, Signer
comment by AnthonyC · 2023-07-10T14:47:54.643Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the second device is broken or false. It's either using a different language that happens to use the same alphabet, like if I feed the same string of letters into brains that speak English vs. German (most such strings will be gibberish/errors modulo any given language, of course, but that is also a kind of output which can help us learn the language's rules and structure), or else it is using the same keys to encode information differently, like typing on a keyboard whose keys are printed as QWERTY layout but which the computer is interpreting as Dvorak layout. Colloquially, someone who thinks they're talking to an English speaker or thinks they're typing on a QWERTY keyboard may find this extremely confusing and think the resulting outputs are false, but they are making an error based on their own limited understanding of the situation and context.

The device may be giving answers that are wrong according to your mental model of what certain symbols mean (aka, your model of arithmetic). But, there exists a mapping from key-presses to outputs, defined by the physical structure of the device itself, that is logical and consistent. In every individual case, there is a well-defined answer to "What will the device output, given a set of key strokes?", the determination of that output is purely physical, and the way your mind tries to map that relation into a logical understanding or truth value is also purely physical. The same applies to patterns of symbols in a text that your mind receives as input, like reading a math paper containing a proof or a book containing an argument. 

The role physics serves, here, is that it's the part of the logical structure that's common to every interpreter, every device, and every source of data. It can't be changed. (Our understanding of it can be changed and refined in response to new data which our previous model of physics failed to correctly predict, of course.) The better you know that part, that base layer, the better you will be at analyzing and understanding the operation of all the other parts. 

I would also point out that thermodynamics predates information theory by more than half a century, and has much of the same logical structure for some of the same reasons, and as I understand it von Neumann spotted the similarity immediately when Shannon proposed it even if Shannon wasn't aware of it. My take is that entropy is in some sense logically prior to any specific set of laws of physics, but that for any set of laws of physics that has enough logical structure to support a universe with life, there will be some equivalent structure that looks like thermodynamics/statistical mechanics/entropy.

Replies from: Dweomite
comment by Dweomite · 2023-07-10T17:01:27.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's either using a different language that happens to use the same alphabet, like if I feed the same string of letters into brains that speak English vs. German (most such strings will be gibberish/errors modulo any given language, of course, but that is also a kind of output which can help us learn the language's rules and structure), or else it is using the same keys to encode information differently, like typing on a keyboard whose keys are printed as QWERTY layout but which the computer is interpreting as Dvorak layout.

The overwhelming majority of all possible broken calculators are not doing either of those things.

For example, you could have a device where no matter what buttons you push, it always outputs "7".  That is not a substitution cipher on standard arithmetic or a new language; it's not secretly doing correct math if only you understood how to interpret it.  You can't use it to replace your calculator once you're trained on it, the way you could start speaking German instead of English, or start typing on a Dvorak keyboard instead of a Qwerty one.

Replies from: AnthonyC
comment by AnthonyC · 2023-07-10T19:39:44.987Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I guess those examples weren't as good as I initially thought. You're absolutely right. I don't think that changes the underlying point that no matter what, there exists a correct answer as to what the system is doing, and what it will do in response to any possible input (not necessarily deterministic). But regardless, calling the output "true" or "false" is only relative to the model in your mind of what the inputs and outputs "should" "normally" mean. What is "real" is that the system will behave a certain way, and that you have certain expectations about that behavior which may or may not be accurate, both of which are physical facts as well as logical ones.


I guess I'm also thrown by the OP's comment that "It doesn’t seem like a primate nervous system comes out of the box with a notion of “reality”." (Frankly I'd be surprised if we had this as an explicit conscious thought from birth, since it doesn't seem like the kind of thing evolution would/could have been likely to build in over the short amount of evolutionary time conscious thought has been a thing, or the kind of thing that would be easy to code in DNA). Instead, though, we actually have some pretty strong clues and data as to how/when/whether we and some other species of animals acquire pieces of such notions. Do they recognize themselves in a mirror? If they're by a mirror and you talk to them, do they turn around or look at your reflection? Do they have object permanence? Do they rely on memory or their senses to find things they want? Can they attempt deception based on information they know but think you or another animal does not? Can they learn signs and/or symbols and use them to share information? Can they do to reference people and things that are not present? How variable are these capabilities within a species?

Replies from: Dweomite
comment by Dweomite · 2023-07-10T19:50:19.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then is an expectation that 2 +2 = 3 just as valid as an expectation that 2 + 2 = 4?  If so, what is the difference between those statements that makes one of them pragmatically more useful than the other?

Replies from: AnthonyC
comment by AnthonyC · 2023-07-11T04:14:35.928Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, but an expectation that device A will return "3" in response to the string "2+2" can be that valid iff device A actually does return "3."

The thing that makes the 2+2=4 device more useful is that it encodes the same functions using thd same symbols our brains do, functions which we have because we developed formal systems we call arithmetic that correspond to aspects of the world in which we operate. If it were the case that 2+2=3, we'd have developed different formal systems and would build different devices based on them.

Replies from: Dweomite
comment by Dweomite · 2023-07-11T04:43:43.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

that correspond to aspects of the world in which we operate. If it were the case that 2+2=3, we'd have developed different formal systems and would build different devices based on them.

Which aspects are those?  What parts of the world could have been different to make 2+2=3 work better than 2+2=4?

You've replied 3 times and it seems to me that you have not yet given a clear answer to the original question of where mathematical truth comes from.

It seems obvious to me that 2+2=4 is special in a way that is not contingent on humans.  There are no aliens that just happen to use 2+2=3 instead of 2+2=4 and end up with equally good math.  So all this talk about correspondence with stuff in human brains seems to me like a distraction.

Replies from: AnthonyC
comment by AnthonyC · 2023-07-11T12:38:30.583Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're right, it doesn't matter that we have human brains. It matters that we evolved in a world where 2+2=3, regardless of humans. But if it did [LW · GW], then it would mean something deep within the structure of the world was different in some way I find hard to imagine, and then I'd have a different kind of mind that evolved in such a different world. And while that specific scenario, 2+2=3, is very hard for me to imagine, it is very *easy for me to imagine scenarios where it could be meaningful to say that 2+2=1 (modular arithmetic, mod 3 in this case) or 1+1=1 (entities that lack discrete structure but instead just merge when combined, like counting clouds before and after they collide) or 2+2>>4 (two pairs of particles with complex interactions that result in a multitude of Everett branches).

My current understanding is that mathematical truths come from the internal relations of the rules of formal systems. Some of those systems are useful because their structure corresponds to aspects of the world, and those are the systems we bother to deeply investigate, give names to, and so on. One of the long-standing open questions in physics is where the laws of physics come from. Einstein: "What really interests me is whether God could have created the world any differently." I don't have all that much insight into that beyond the fact that some models of physics try to derive the apparent laws of reality from deeper structures, like the geometry of spacetime, but that just pushes the question back a step.

comment by Signer · 2023-07-11T04:44:38.354Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People make more working calculators than broken ones. Because they are useful because their answers model other parts of reality. And the axioms are in the human brains. Yes, you can't derive axioms from physical equations without bridge laws. But you also need bridge laws for anything else high level like utility or physical description of gaining knowledge from experiments. And that is also fine for logic, because you couldn't perfectly access logical truth by any other procedure anyway, because your implementation of it is failable.

comment by TAG · 2023-07-10T12:17:54.083Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Broken calculators and irrational brains also follow the laws of physics. You would have to know what is normatively correct before you can do that.

comment by shminux · 2023-07-09T19:56:50.093Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are dragons real?

comment by Nate Showell · 2023-07-09T18:56:20.720Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nor, importantly, do either of these on the emotional and psychological reality of violence, music, winning, or love.

I disagree. Psychologists have been experimentally studying emotions since the earliest days of the field and have produced meaningful results related to the conditions under which they occur and the physiological and cognitive properties they exhibit. All of the psychological phenomena you listed are very much amenable to investigation using the scientific method.