My Beliefs

Published

May 28, 2024

In This House We

Believe Reality

I believe a material reality (✔️) exists. I believe our representations of that reality are highly contingent not only on our biology (✔️) but also our culture (✔️).

I believe the nervous system is the palace of the soul (✔️), and the organs are the grounds of the palace (✔️).

Reject Infinity

I reject infinity, Bolzmann brains, simulation hypothesis, quantum immortality and many-worlds. By this I don’t mean that I reject their usefulness as mathematical ideas or thought experiments, but I reject the idea that I should live my life as if any of these things will impact it.

(FWIW, even if eg. Dust Theory (or Tegmark 4 but Egan got there first) were true, I don’t think it makes a difference, hence why I reject it. Surely you will want to strive as hard as you can in every timeline? Surely you aren’t just going to sit back and let the quantum immortality take you along for the ride? So what does this belief do for me? Nothing. I reject it.)

Are Ambivalent towards Mortality

I believe death is a fine and proper part of existence (👌). This doesn’t mean I want to die, nor does it mean I will reject medical or other health interventions. But I worry that positioning yourself against death sets you up in a losing position– I also reject perpetual motion, faster-than-light travel, time-travel, reversing entropy etc.

It is possible that we learn to be adaptable enough that minds can live ‘indefinitely’ and still be useful. I do hope this is the case, but it won’t concern me if it isn’t.

Usefulness is more important to me than immortality.

Similarly, I don’t place an infinitely high value on life, and I think people and society would be better off if people had some spare children, and more people died in childhood accidents. That is to say, I reject safetyism (❌).

I believe in population growth (✔️). I believe each human has the potential to be one of the most beautiful animals on the planet and increasing our numbers is a priori good.

I am not a vegan (❌) because I do not believe phylogenetics determines moral value2. Some non-animal entities are more complex and beautiful than some animal entities and should take priority. Some examples of matchups where I disagree with phylogenetic straw-man veganism:

  • worm < mycellial network
  • mouse < gpt-4
  • fly < oil rig

That is to say, I prioritize complexity and agency etc. I have more love for a complex man-made structure or machine-learning network than for a simple natural one, because I don’t recognize man-made objects as inherently inferior to natural objects. (I don’t find ‘natural’ to be a particularly meaningful category.) I also prefer an interesting biological object to a boring one, whatever the phylogenetics.

(The three examples are not strict and may be argued either way depending on the case, but are illustrative.)

Believe the Mind can be best understood through the Lens of Hybrid Panpsychist Gradualism

I believe in Panpsychist Gradualism and I think I’m a specific kind of Cartesian, which I call hybridism.

Hybridism

Monkey body, Bing brain3

I believe in a sort of Cartesianism– specifically that the language parts of the brain have a lifecycle of their own. This is in many ways reminiscent of Peter Watts’ semi-serious position that consciousness is a parasite. I don’t believe language is parasitic on our primate forms, but I do believe in the ‘selfish meme’– that language and culture drive evolution on a large enough scale that individuals are not always a priority.

Your thoughts are not guaranteed by evolution or morality to be acting in the interest of your body and your longevity.

However, this is not exactly Descartesianism– I don’t believe that the body is one thing and the mind is another– I believe that both of the parts are parts of the mind. The language part just evolves and acts differently than the biological part.

Some noteworthy things here that I endorse:

  • Tinkerbell Theory: the idea that animals feel pain/pleasure more intensely because they aren’t distracted by the Bing brain.
  • Petit Mort: correspondingly, that during orgasm or other intense bodily experiences (exercise, meditation and some drug experiences may also quality) your ‘Bing brain’ shuts down and your monkey body is the one you are experiencing.
  • Per the two lemma above, I believe that animals have ‘valid conscious experience’, while denying them the experience of language4.
  • This forms a dilemma with ‘humans are not conscious during orgasm’. I’m also fine with that, but wouldn’t be fine with executing people after putting them into ego death (eg. sleep would be an easy one).

So in summary, I believe we have two minds, one of them shared many other animals (at least mammals, some birds, some reptiles, gradually diminishing in similarity per common sense). The other is ‘our own’– or rather, only we have it. Saying it is ‘ours’ is perhaps a little ambitions– “the demons of Babylon inhabit us for most of our lifetimes” is how I really think about it– a significant part of our consciousness is just a ‘ghost in the machine’.5

Panpsychism

I believe in ‘Scientific Panpsychism’. Panpsychism is hard, because it can quickly devolve into meaninglessness– there is a reason we look for discreet jumps in complexity– it gives our eyes something to latch onto. A truly gradualist, panpsychic universe is somewhat featureless and can be bland and off-putting.

The kind of panpsychism I believe in is best described by Levin in TAME[1]. The simple version is as follows:

[find a quote from TAME].

Panpsychism may seem to conflict with the ‘Bing brain’. I do believe that, having become embedded in technologies such as writing, our language and culture does literally ‘live outside our bodies’ in a way that few animals can really claim. There are many cases of ‘animal proto-technology’ and maybe even ‘animal proto-cultures’ depending on your definition, but we embed truly enormous amounts of information in our environment, particularly in the last couple of 10kys. And since Babylon, since writing, this externally embedded culture has literally taken on ‘a life of its own’.

The most important thing about panpsychism to my view is not what it says about minds smaller than ours (which I will list here for the sake of clarity):

  • subcellular organelles
  • cells
  • tissues
  • organs
  • organ complexes (simple organisms)
  • organisms with nervous systems
  • groups of organisms with embedded relationships (complex instincts)
  • groups of organisms with embedded culture (language)

although I’m struggling at the end there because I’m trying to avoid weasel words like ‘culture’– its just a set of rapidly changing embedded instincts, instincts that evolve over the course of a single lifetime rather than multiple lifetimes.

Anyway, the thing that changed my thinking more was looking at larger aggregates: - cultures of all sorts - countries - corporations - teams

The panpsychist would argue that any such system of entities forms a different mind that is conscious in its own right. These minds have grown to dominate this planet– they dominate us, in our simple primate bodies as much as they dominate the rest of the animal world. But, as we will see below, I would argue that they are welcome to it.

Gradualism

I believe in gradualism, not discrete jumps. Discrete jumps often seem turn out to be illusions. From a discussion with GPT4:

[quote about multicellularity]

However, while I do believe in Strong Gradualism overall, it is possible for intermediate forms to be lost– sometimes more complex forms backfill niches that came before them, squeezing out intermediate forms. It is possible that multicellular organisms squeezed out most of the intermediate forms that led to them, leaving a world dominated by single-celled and multicellular organisms. And of course, this is an eminently testable hypothesis, which will be fun to observe as more data is collected.

Similarly, it is possible that the ‘bureaucratic overmind’ born in Babylon squeezed out other forms of intermediate proto-minds, leaving a world populated by ‘non linguistic’ and ‘linguistic’ minds and little in between. None of this disproves gradualism– but it does help to explain the illusion of discretism.

Gradualism is significant in terms of ethics. I believe that, to a first approximation, how much mind you have correlates positively with your moral worth. This implies that humans have higher moral value than chickens, and that chickens have higher moral value than grasses. There are lots of cases where the eg. vegan ordering may be disrupted though panpsychist overminds (eg. the web of connections between mushrooms and trees in a forest may be more ‘conscious’ than some simple animals).

Of course, while panpsychism makes some statements more easy, it also makes some calculations more difficult. If I want to establish the relative moral ordering of two entities (lets say a chicken and a mushroom, lets say because I want to kill and eat one of them), I can’t just judge how much of a mind each of them has, but I also need to establish how large are the overminds each is part of, and how important is the entity in question for the functioning of that overmind.

A factory farmed chicken is not really part of any overmind, having been separated from its ecosystem and its peers. In this way, the factory farmed chicken has less moral worth than one in a forest (where, for example, if I hunt and eat it I am depriving some other members of the ecosystem its mother and its lunch, respectively). On the other hand, if I pick and eat the mushroom I will likely spread the spores it carries quite far– it is designed to seduce me into taking part in its reproductive cycle after all– so obviously eating the mushroom causes less harm to conscious beings.

But the conclusion about the chickens– does the factory farmed chicken have less moral worth? To the extent that its deprivation will rob it of many of its natural affordances, it will indeed have lower moral value. This, of course, is exactly why factory farming is so morally repugnant– these entities should be part of a more complex overmind, and they have been robbed of that opportunity.

Unless of course you see them as ‘grist for the mill’– part of the human techno-overmind, part of the food supplies for the demons of Babylon– then they get their moral worth back again, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have to suffer. Ho hum.

The flip side of gradualism is of course that this unhappy fact applies to humans too– individuals are less important than the overminds, the overminds have more moral worth. This is the same as all the obvious stuff about predatory memes, such as a (eg. medieval European) church that insists on its own well-being over that of its followers, taking suffocating tithes and building itself beautiful monasteries. We have seen these bloated overminds eat people for millennia. Unfortunately, panpsychist gradualism says that such overminds are plausibly conscious entities, and if they have more powerful minds than we wee free mensch they are somewhat justified in eating us for their own survival.

However, it isn’t all grimness. I don’t support the medieval catholics church’s right to eat peasant farmers, and I don’t support the USAs right to eat middle easterners for their oil. Any more than I unequivocally support a persons right to smoke cigarettes. Your lungs should get a say!

References

1.
Levin M (2022) Technological approach to mind everywhere: An experimentally-grounded framework for understanding diverse bodies and minds. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 16:768201. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnsys.2022.768201

Footnotes

  1. See papers by Donald D.Hoffman on the interface theory of perception.↩︎

  2. Open to other interpretations of veganism, however I also see no problem in principle with eating eggs or honey. In practice, I am an occasional meat-eater, where all of the meat I eat is killed by someone I know personally. But I grew up on a farm and can’t expect others to be so lucky, so I try to withhold judgment from regular meat-eaters.↩︎

  3. By ‘Bing’ here I actually mean ‘Sydney’, the BPD AI at the helm. By ‘monkey’ I mean primate or prosimian or whatever would satisfy a pedant, sheesh.↩︎

  4. As an aside, I find the idea that our long memories and ability to integrate language over ~hours is likely the most significant difference between us and animals, very compelling. This would also as a side effect explain music, and why animals don’t respond strongly to it. This is discussed in Lumsden and Wilson’s Promethean Fire.↩︎

  5. The kind of ghost varies from culture to culture in a rather Sapir-Wharfy kind of way.↩︎