AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky is something of an expert at human rationality, and at teaching it to others. His hundreds of posts at Less Wrong are a treasure trove for those who want to improve their own rationality. As such, I’m reading all of them, chronologically.
I suspect some of my readers want to “level up” their rationality, too. So I’m keeping a diary of my Yudkowsky reading. Feel free to follow along.
His 462nd post argues that Harder Choices Matter Less (or at least they should, logically). Qualitative Strategies of Friendliness engages some of Eliezer’s work on Friendly AI, continued with Dreams of Friendliness.
So often when one level of delusion goes away, another one more subtle comes in its place.
– Rational Buddhist
We take almost all of the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.”
In Excluding the Supernatural, Eliezer says:
By far the best definition I’ve ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier’s: A “supernatural” explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.
This is the difference, for example, between saying that water rolls downhill because it wants to be lower, and setting forth differential equations that claim to describe only motions, not desires. It’s the difference between saying that a tree puts forth leaves because of a tree spirit, versus examining plant biochemistry. Cognitive science takes the fight against supernaturalism into the realm of the mind.
Why is this an excellent definition of the supernatural? I refer you to Richard Carrier for the full argument. But consider: Suppose that you discover what seems to be a spirit, inhabiting a tree: a dryad who can materialize outside or inside the tree, who speaks in English about the need to protect her tree, et cetera. And then suppose that we turn a microscope on this tree spirit, and she turns out to be made of parts – not inherently spiritual and ineffable parts, like fabric of desireness and cloth of belief; but rather the same sort of parts as quarks and electrons, parts whose behavior is defined in motions rather than minds. Wouldn’t the dryad immediately bedemoted to the dull catalogue of common things?
Now, Eliezer considers a question I’ve pondered myself:
But if we accept Richard Carrier’s definition of the supernatural, then a dilemma arises: we want to give religious claims a fair shake, but it seems that we have very good grounds for excluding supernatural explanations a priori.
I mean, what would the universe look like if reductionism were false?
I previously defined the reductionist thesis as follows: human minds create multi-level models of reality in which high-level patterns and low-level patterns are separately and explicitly represented. A physicist knows Newton’s equation for gravity, Einstein’s equation for gravity, and the derivation of the former as a low-speed approximation of the latter. But these three separate mental representations, are only a convenience of human cognition. It is not that reality itself has an Einstein equation that governs at high speeds, a Newton equation that governs at low speeds, and a “bridging law” that smooths the interface. Reality itself has only a single level, Einsteinian gravity. It is only the Mind Projection Fallacy that makes some people talk as if the higher levels could have a separate existence – different levels of organization can have separate representations in human maps, but the territory itself is a single unified low-level mathematical object.
Suppose this were wrong.
Suppose that the Mind Projection Fallacy was not a fallacy, but simply true.
Suppose that a 747 had a fundamental physical existence apart from the quarks making up the 747.
What experimental observations would you expect to make, if you found yourself in such a universe?
The dilemma hits:
If you can’t come up with a good answer to that, it’s not observation that’s ruling out “non-reductionist” beliefs, buta priori logical incoherence. If you can’t say what predictions the “non-reductionist” model makes, how can you say that experimental evidence rules it out?
My thesis is that non-reductionism is a confusion; and once you realize that an idea is a confusion, it becomes a tad difficult to envision what the universe would look like if the confusion were true. Maybe I’ve got some multi-level model of the world, and the multi-level model has a one-to-one direct correspondence with the causal elements of the physics? But once all the rules are specified, why wouldn’t the model just flatten out into yet another list of fundamental things and their interactions? Does everything I can see in the model, like a 747 or a human mind, have to become a separate real thing? But what if I see a pattern in that new supersystem?
Supernaturalism is a special case of non-reductionism, where it is not 747s that are irreducible, but just (some) mental things. Religion is a special case of supernaturalism, where the irreducible mental things are God(s) and souls; and perhaps also sins, angels, karma, etc.
But the conclusion is:
Ultimately, reductionism is just disbelief in fundamentally complicated things. If “fundamentally complicated” sounds like an oxymoron… well, that’s why I think that the doctrine of non-reductionism is a confusion, rather than a way that things could be, but aren’t. You would be wise to be wary, if you find yourself supposing such things.
But the ultimate rule of science is to look and see. If ever a God appeared to thunder upon the mountains, it would be something that people looked at and saw.