Monday, January 24, 2011

Think Like Reality

The next time someone says something like, "it's incredible that consciousness can emerge from electrical impulses," here's how Eliezer Yudkowsky would like to you to reply:
Reality has been around since long before you showed up.  Don't go calling it nasty names like "bizarre" or "incredible".  The universe was propagating complex amplitudes through configuration space for ten billion years before life ever emerged on Earth.  Quantum physics is not "weird".  You are weird.  You have the absolutely bizarre idea that reality ought to consist of little billiard balls bopping around, when in fact reality is a perfectly normal cloud of complex amplitude in configuration space.  This is your problem, not reality's, and you are the one who needs to change.
Human intuitions were produced by evolution and evolution is a hack.  The same optimization process that built your retina backward and then routed the optic cable through your field of vision, also designed your visual system to process persistent objects bouncing around in 3 spatial dimensions because that's what it took to chase down tigers.  But "tigers" are leaky surface generalizations - tigers came into existence gradually over evolutionary time, and they are not all absolutely similar to each other.  When you go down to the fundamental level, the level on which the laws are stable, global, and exception-free, there aren't any tigers.  In fact there aren't any persistent objects bouncing around in 3 spatial dimensions.  Deal with it.
The principle extends beyond physics.  Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, "I just don't understand how a PhD physicist can believe in astrology?"  Well, if you literally don't understand, this indicates a problem with your model of human psychology.  Perhaps you are indignant - you wish to express strong moral disapproval.  But if you literally don't understand, then your indignation is stopping you from coming to terms with reality.
Really, try it.


  1. That's really interesting -- thanks.

    While I agree with his sentiments, it doesn't want to make me change my behavior because I am not out to come to terms with reality. I'd rather be amazed. When we encounter something surprising, that's when we get curious, and that's when we adjust our mental models (= learn).

  2. I agree with you Justin. Personally I want to be in touch with reality as much as possible, however, I think few of us have the mental fortitude to be able to change our behavior (me included). True intrigue catches us by surprise and we generally have little choice but to be sucked in by it. While not necessarily right (ie: rational), it is practical.