Materialism


This is an extra post and is followed by my regular ‘every 3 days’ posting. It is a copy of part of a post to the LessWrong site. The full post is here. The post is an attempt to allow people to be comfortable with materialism. It is very different to my approach by some may find it more to their taste.

How and why to be a materialist

  1. Accepting materialism is saying “the rest of the world is made of whatever I am”, not just “I am made of whatever the rest of the world is”.  And why not?  In the eyes of science, these are both the same, true statement.  Semantically, the first one tells you something qualitative about matter, and the second one tells you something extremely quantitative about your mind!  It means modern neuroscience and biology can be used to help you understand yourself.  Awesome!
  2. Accepting physics is accepting that your “spirit” might consist of parts which, sufficiently divided and removed from context, might behave in a regular fashion. Then you might as well call the parts “particles” and call your spirit “brain”, and look at all the amazing data we have about them that help describe how you work.
  3. Beware of the works-how-it-feels bias, the fallacious additional assumption that the world works the way you feel about it.  (See How an algorithm feels from the inside.) These pieces of your mind/spirit called particles are extremely tiny; in order of magnitude, they are more than twice as small as your deepest introspection, so you can’t judge them very well based on instinct (a neuron is about a 1011th of your mind, and an atom is about a 1014th of a neuron).  And because they’re so tiny and numerous, they can be put together to form things vastly different from yourself in form and function, like plants and stars.
  4. Your instinct that the laws of physics don’t fully describe you is correct! You are the way you are because of two things:

    • the laws that describe your soul-pieces or particles, whatever those laws may be, and

    • the way they’re put together,

    and the latter is almost unimaginably more significant!  One way to see this is to look around at all the things that are not you.  Saying how the tiny bits of your soul behave independently does not describe how to put them together, just like describing an octant of a sphere explain say how to turn eight of them into a whole sphere.  Plus, even after your initial construction as a baby, a whole lot of growth and experience has configured what you are today.

    Only to put this into perspective, consider that the all the most fundamental laws of physics know can certainly be written down, without evidence or much explanation, in a text file of less than 1 megabyte.  The information content of the human genome, which so far seems necessary to construct a sustainable brain, is about 640 MB (efficiently encoded, that’s 1.7 bits per nucleotide pair).  Don’t be fooled at how “small” 640 is: it means the number of possible states of that data is at least 8640 times larger than the number of the states of our text file describing all of physics!  Next, the brain itself stores information as you develop, with a capacity of at least 1 terrabyte by the most conservative estimates, which means it has at least around 81500 times the number of possible states of the DNA sequence that first built it.

    So being a desk is different from being a human, not because it’s made of different stuff, but because the stuff is put together extremely differently, more differently than we can fully imagine.  When people say form determines function, they should say FORM in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS.  No wonder you thought particle physics “just doesn’t seem to capture it”!

  5. Your perceived distance between the concepts of “mind” and “particles” is also correct! As JanetK says, “There is no shortcut from electrons to thoughts”. Continuing the connection/theorem analogy, a theorem with superficially unrelated hypotheses and conclusions is not only liable to be very useful, but to have a difficult proof as well.  The analogue of the difficult proof is that, distinct from the discovery of particles themselves, massive amounts of technological progress and research have been required to establish the connection between:

    • how particles work and how you look from the outside (neurochemistry/neurobiology), and

    • how you look from the outside and how you look from the inside (neuropsychology).

    Indeed, the perceptual distance between the second pair is why people use the concepts “brain” and “mind” separately: “brain” is a model for the outside view, and “mind” is a model for the inside view.  The analogue of the theorem’s usefulness is how much neurology can say and do about our minds:

    • treat mental illness,

    • restore lost memories,

    • design brain surgery,

    • explain cognitive biases,

    • physically relate our emotions to each other…

  6. Adjusting emotionally is extremely important as you bring materialism under consideration, not only to accomodate changing your beliefs, but to cope with them when they do change.  You may need to redescribe morality, what makes you happy, and why you want to be alive, but none of these things needs to be revoked, and LessWrong is by far the best community I’ve ever seen to help with this transition.  For example, Eliezer has written a chronological account of his Coming of Age as a rationalist, and he has certainly maintained a sense of morality and life-worth.  I recommend building an appropriate emotional safety net while you consider materialism, not just to combat the bias of fear, but so you’re ready when one day you realize oh my gosh I’m a materialist!

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