Us and them

Human beings naturally group people into those we identify with and “others.” We understand and empathize with “our” kind of people, but simplify others into stereotyped models. We treat our family, school, city, country, race, sport team, political or sexual identity, or whatever with various degrees of familiarity.

And then perhaps we travel to another city or country or social circle and meet some people who are different. Perhaps we get to know some of them. And when we return to our old grounds and see someone from the new group we have gotten to know, perhaps we feel a little different and a little less “otherness” about them. Perhaps we repeat this process a few more times. Everyone does this to some extent.

I think some people always feel a need to categorize other human beings into “us” and “them.” But travel allows some of us to make a generalization about human beings: there is no “us” and “them.” There are only human beings, and we all have dreams and fears and hopes. You can call that awareness empathy — the intellectual and emotional integration of the knowledge that other beings have a consciousness just as you are conscious. Even animals and plants, in their own ways. Maybe for some people this is natural, but I think for the vast majority it is something that has to be learned. This is one of the virtues of travel. Unfortunately, I think many people are never really aware of their own consciousness, so cannot see it in others. They see only the meaningless, superficial traits of physical appearance and cultural trivia.

I think once you see parts of yourself in others, it changes how you treat people. If you come to learn that you are flawed and believe in and love the good in you nonetheless, you will love it in others. You still see the good and the bad — without expecting the same understanding in return. You will not feel hate or anger because they are different from you. You will celebrate their values just as you celebrate yours and maybe feel some sadness when you see the consequences of bad ideas, but only in the sense of a lost opportunity, not as a wall between you or a fault which you must correct.

To accept the values of others as inherently justified is to accept other people as ends in themselves, just as your life is an end in itself. Accepting that others are ends in themselves means accepting self-ownership, and this is the key to peaceful, non-violent coexistence.

To recognize the commonality of life is also a means come to terms with mortality. Your life is important and unique, but it is just one combination of many. That particular combination will never exist again, but many other sets containing the same values and ideas will. The meaning of life is creating an aesthetic and authentic expression of elements, not mere survival.

Does the idea of universal empathy seem like a utopian dream? It’s an ideal — not a destination, but a direction. But I think it’s a path which contains some truth and practical usefulness.

Self-understanding is a requirement for other-understanding. We build models of other people’s consciousness by applying our self-image to them. At the same time, we form our own self-image by observing and interacting with other people. It’s necessarily synergistic process. As we come to know others, we discover ourselves. As we discover our own nature, we better understand the actions of others. And if we learn to love ourselves (and I believe that value is a necessary facet of all knowledge), we learn to love others — all others.

When I speak of universal love, I do not mean an abstract, unconditional, and ignorant kind of love, but of love which comes from understanding and seeing our ideas and values in others. And not just a few values which our conscious mind labels as important, but all values — values as such. Not that thin slice which is a shared background, but everything that makes us — us. We may disagree with ideas on the abstract level but still appreciate the broad base we all share. The taste of our favorite foods, and the hugs of those we love, and the reason we go to work every day, and the hero-worship and the starry nights and taste of the water we drink. To see and to value this in all people on a deep intellectual-emotional level is an essential part of self-understanding.

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On the ambiguity of words

Words are a very imperfect means of conveying our thoughts. The original idea is distorted by a vague and stereotyped vocabulary, ambiguous grammar and meaning. And then it is distorted again by the different definitions and mental models of the recipient.

Meaning is in people. Words are very imperfect symbols for communicating an idea.

When we speak, we take an enormous set of abstractions linked with sensorial associations in our mind, distill them down to a short set of symbolic associations which are then re-linked with an entirely different set of associations in someone else. It is a lot to ask of an animal brain evolved to convey data about a hunting and gathering lifestyle to fit all the complexity of modernity into that medium.

Sometimes we can accompany our words with body language and pictorial imagery, but the modern civilized lifestyle demands more and more abstract and hypothetical thinking. It stretches the limits of verbal communication. It is possible for two people to have a conversation about art or theology or politics with both thinking that they had a meaningful interaction without a single idea ever being shared. Two brains expressing, but never really communicating.

It is for this reason that I like science, engineering, and programming. When we repeat experimental results, or implement a blueprint, or collaborate on software, the result is unambiguous. The unity of a shared reality confirms the tie between our minds.

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As I grow older, I wonder if I am becoming more wise or senile. When I was younger, my worldview changed radically every day, but my position at any given time always seemed clear and binary. Now, I rarely discard any idea entirely, but gradually layer my worldview with more layers of complexity and nuance. Looking back, my essays are full of certainty and nonsense. Lately, I’m not sure if I make sense or have real insights at all. I think I am learning to appreciate the complexity of reality, but then I am not really sure. My only benchmark is that I’m happier than I used to be.

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October 2, 2012 · 6:15 pm

Some speculation on the Simulation Argument

If you haven’t read Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument, read it first. I’ll wait. Done?

Now, for some unfounded speculation:

1) How would you trick the scientists?

Nick proposes two ways to fake the environmental details of the simulation: 1) calculate the details on-demand and 2) mess with the agent’s minds to hide glitches.

To me, this sounds problematic. An intelligent agent to inspect individual minds in the simulation seems amateurish to me. If you were interested in the agents’ behavior, such manipulation would bias your results, and if you were not interested, there would be no point in manipulating them. If you did not manipulate any minds, how would you build the simulation to make it glitch-proof? How could you guarantee that if the agent looked at any detail of the simulation, it could generate detail on demand while maintaining narrative consistency?

For example: Let’s say two agents looked at neighboring regions of space — whether through a microscope or a telescope does not matter. The details would be rendered as they went along. But what happens when their patches of detail intersect? They need to appear consistent, as if they were “there all along.” But if the details are generated algorithmically on demand, how could that be ensured? You would either have to structure the mathematical model to make all such merges consistent (which seems impossible), or to make the inconsistency a part of the fabric of reality so as to make it seem “normal.” (Quantum weirdness?)

Another option: if the universe is finite, you could model it entirely. Perhaps your model would be could simulate “chaotic” (non-biological) events at a high level so that only the environment of living beings would need high detail. For example, if a human being never sees a supernova in galaxy NGC 2770, there is no need to “remember” exactly how it went on.

2) What would you want to discover?

Here is another possibility: perhaps there is no intent to deceive or even to harbor intelligence. Perhaps the operator is a physicist modeling potential universes in an attempt to solve the problem of heat death, and intelligence is just an accidental behavior of the system. He couldn’t care less about whether the intelligences realize that they are in a simulation or not.

Here is an interesting empirical question: could we discover anything to indicate the computational nature of the universe? So far, it seems not, as the universe seems analog (continuous rather than quantized). But on the other hand, perhaps quantum mechanics is a very weird science as a consequence of its simulated nature, and we are just not aware of the computational implications yet. Or, perhaps the simulation is analog. Looking for physical laws that imply an underlying computational substrate could be worthwhile.

3) What factors would you alter?

Let’s speculate about the reasons a posthuman operator might have to build the simulation. Presumably, he would not merely repeat the same scenario: he would alter various “seed” elements to see how they affected the outcome. One obvious candidate would be the laws of physics. What might be the goal? Perhaps he wants to model a universe that is most suitable to life, or to a particularly creative form of life. Perhaps he wants to model new intelligences to see whether they are productive or destructive before creating them in vivo.

Suppose that most posthuman operators want to create a simulated universe that is more harmonious (however they define it) than their own universe. We might imagine an iterated chain of such simulated universes, where each attempts to better the ones that create it. Perhaps that becomes the ultimate goal of every new universe: to develop beings who will go on to create a simulation that is better (less entropic, creative, happy, long lasting, etc.) than one that created it. Shortly after the singularity, the entire universe is converted into computational substrate for the next simulation.

4) What’s the ratio of humans to post humans?

The last scenario could offer a mathematical explanation for the Doomsday argument: the majority of intelligences are primitive mortals because shortly after the singularity, the universe tends to be converted into a population of operators who create more primitive simulations.

Let’s suppose that all the living agents of every simulation become a fixed population of immortal operators who create yet more primitives, and so on. What is the ratio of operators to primitives? Whether each immortal operator spends his entire time “managing” one universe or an infinity of new ones, you could have an infinite number of operators and still have even more primitives. And this could be true regardless of whether the operator reproduces as long as his offspring also spend their time building simulations that in turn create their own simulations.

The above scenario sounds pretty far-fetched. But it’s also unlikely to that each young civilization is somehow destroyed before the singularity, and yet we find ourselves as the very unlikely citizens of a young civilization. To me, the idea that every post human civilization would bypass “inefficient” experimentation in reality and create a “more efficient” simulation to discover whatever truths it is after is appealing.

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expression versus communication

It is far easier to express oneself than to communicate. You can express yourself to a rock just as well as to a human being. But to communicate, you must understand how your words will be processed by another mind. You must estimate their level of knowledge, their potential for misunderstanding, their emotional response to your ideas, their capacity for new ideas, and their willingness to listen.

As social animals, we evolved to optimize our communication by relying on non verbal feedback in one on one interactions. When communicating in writing, the challenge is doubled, and doubled again when ongoing feedback is not provided. No wonder then that so few people learn how to be effective writers.

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April 4, 2012 · 9:36 pm


There is no such thing as “chance” or “randomness” in nature. Chance is just what we say when we don’t know why. There is only causality.

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April 1, 2012 · 1:00 am

The double standard of creationism

Let’s consider the double standard posed by Creationists. They insist that we must see something directly for it to exist. Since we did not see the origin of the universe (actually we can still see it today, but never mind that), the formation of the earth, or of life, they insist that we cannot know how these happened. But THEY know, even though they never saw Genesis themselves, the seas parted, the dead come to life, and ghosts rise into to the sky. They don’t need evidence, because they have a book. We have thousands of independent data points which all point to the age of the universe and the earth and the common ancestry of all life, but this evidence does not count because we learned these things indirectly, through systematic observation and induction. But they have a book, and since they operate entirely on the primitive level of concrete-bound perception, deduction from the words in a book trumps any kind of inductive evidence.

The amazing and unique thing about human beings is that by the use of reason we can know all kinds of things that we cannot see with our senses: we know that matter is made of atoms, we know the earth is round, we know the shape of our galaxy, we know what dinosaurs looked like, we know what the continents looked like hundreds of millions of years ago.

There are many things we knew in detail before we ever saw them and then confirmed by observation: for example, we learned about atoms over hundreds of years and only “saw” them for the first time a few years ago. But there were no surprises in seeing atoms because we had indirectly learned all the relevant facts from indirect observation. We knew the earth was round long before we saw it from space. We sent probes to precise destinations at the edge of the solar system across billions of kilometers by deriving the universal laws of gravitation from dropping weights on earth.

Even as they deny our kinship with other animals, creationists demand that we operate on a pre-human animal level: reject everything but the lowest-level perceptual induction, abandon the scientific worldview which makes your civilization possible and uncritically accept the theology you grew up with. This incidentally is the cause of ideological and religious violence: those who abandon reality as the arbiter of truth have nothing but raw coercion to convert the unfaithful to their side.

Here is the one way that Creationists are more consistent than theists who accept evolution: they recognize that if the systematic application of reason in science spreads to ethics, politics or metaphysics, it would invalidate all religious beliefs not based on evidence, and thus they reject reason in science, against all the evidence in the world.

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On infinite causal chains

I wrote a One Minute Case Against the Cosmological Argument in 2007, but looking back, I would put it simply as:

Infinities do not actually exist. Each specific set of entities is discrete. But the causal chain itself is not an existent. It is the set of all entities that have ever existed. That is a theoretical construct (like infinity or a singularity in mathematics) rather than a discrete set of entities that we can point to. If I walk from one side of the room to the other, my body exists in an infinite number of locations along that path during the time it takes me to do so. But it only exists in one location at any specific time.



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March 31, 2012 · 11:49 pm

On stardust & entropy

Stellar nucleosynthesis is entropic because the proton-proton reaction radiates 0.7% of the original mass as 26.73 MeV energy. Additional reactions produce heavier elements until finally supernova nucleosynthesis produces everything up to uranium in the last few seconds of a star’s life.

We can calculate the entropy cost of the elements to create planets and life forms. Many stars had to die to create enough elements for life. Did life therefore evolve as soon as enough heavy elements were created to sustain sufficient organic chemistry for life? Or maybe life evolved earlier on other planets, but could not reach our level because the element mix lacks sufficient “entropic debt.”  Will a more metal-rich universe be suitable for even more complex life, or is there a plateau of the right element mix to construct life?

It’s interesting to think about a brief “habitable era” when there is enough entropy for life, but not so much that there are no more main sequence stars to power life or perhaps other conditions (excess heavy metals, novas, or dwarfs) that inhibit life.

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

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We are informational beings in the eternal now

What are we? What sets us apart from the universe?

We believe that we exist in limited time and space. We believe that we are defined by hereditary and environmental influences, leaving room for only a nebulous core of individuality. There is some truth in this perspective. But there is more.

What is time? The present is the sum of everything that is past, and the future evolves from the present. We only see the past as fixed and future as malleable because our minds process information in one direction. But every existent can only act in accordance with its nature and causality. The future is as firmly defined as the past. Every grain of existence implies by its identity the sum of all it has been and everything it will ever be. Time is not a dimension that we move through. Time is the iteration of the possible states of the configuration space of the Universe. It is a single system slowly revolving through all the configurations both possible and necessary to it. All that exists is the eternal present. Time is one’s perspective of the Long Now.

What makes us – us? We are machines, built out of matter and energy, but more importantly, we are information processing structures, the total of which defines our unique configuration.  The molecules and cells composing our bodies are regularly replaced by our growth and repair mechanisms.  Only the information patterns encoded in genes and consciousness persists.  Many mistakenly place emphasis on either the genes or environment as determining structures. But there is no fundamental difference. Genes are triggered, expressed, or suppressed in response to environmental stimuli. Whether we are healthy or sickly because of good genes or good diet makes no difference to the end result. What matters is not our genotype, but our total phenotype — the sum of genetic and environmental influences. The particular combination is only important to biologists.

As human beings, we contain two complex information-processing systems: the genetic and the mental. Of the two, our mental structure is the far more important. We are each unique configurations of information-processing systems that spend our lives gathering up memes and observations and spitting out conclusions and actions. Our mental structures work in method much like our genetic systems, absorbing, modifying and sharing memetic structures through Darwinian processes. On a rare occasion, we cut, paste, and synthesize ideas to form a new unique yet stable and contagious meme-structure and add it to the shared pool of ideas, sending ripples through our shared meme-space and the physical environment through which we enact our ideas.

Mentally and physiologically, we are unique to a very basic level — it is just as unlikely for two people to have identical chromosomes as to have an identical understanding of an idea. Yet on both the fine details and the broad pattern of large structures, we share almost all of our mental and genetic identity with our species and genetically, with all life. There is no need to seek our identity in a mystical hidden soul. We are the unique yet utterly common sum of everything we inherit from the Universe. Our bodies are made from atoms created in the heart of dying stars and designed by a three billion year old genetic inheritance — each a unique information-processing system.

As individual biological systems, our slice of the Long Now is small. But as information systems, we inherit all that is and contribute to all that will be. As the latest expression of the evolving complexity-generating process of nature, we are seeds of the growing intelligence of the universe.

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