Or: LessWrong cartography, the illusion of separation, and blowing one's mind

TLDR: At LessWrong, we make maps. To make maps, we carve the universe out into shards: this is your daily reminder that you can (mostly) carve the shards out in whatever way you want.  

Disclaimer: I came up with these ideas for fun. I knew there was something useful within them, but I had to go through several drafts of this post to understand what my point was. I hope the final result isn't too bad, just keep in mind this is a kind-of messy soup of ideas.

1: LessWrong is about making reasonably accurate maps of reality for individuals to use. In order to make them, you have to divide the universe into shards and then assemble them together into a lattice that will faithfully guide you through reality. 

2: Blowing your mind is a useful kind of fun. It means finding something so much bigger than you that discovering it and then understanding it for a short while fills you with unutterable awe. 

3: The best shortcut to blowing your mind is breaking down separations: realizing that separations don't fundamentally exist, and then basking in the strange kind of chaotic freedom this gives you. This Feynman quote puts it well:

If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it!

4: Our brains have evolved and are trained to split the white noise of the universe into shards. There may be a million "pixels" in your field of vision right now but your brain probably picks up only a dozen or so "objects".[1] Your brain is map-making: so is separation just an illusion created by the mind, a quale that is useful in cartography only? In other words, does the sensation of separation exist only in cartography? 

5: This is when consciousness steps in. Consciousness is weird: if it is fundamentally composed of math,[2] nothing more than the reflection of swirling mathematical eddies chaotically rampaging around the cosmos, then there are no fundamental separations between it and the rest of the universe.[3] And yet that idea feels wrong. Even if you may not be able to tell where the universe ends and you begin you feel like that frontier exists somewhere. If there is a you to speak of, is that not proof of separation? 

Conclusion: When I alchemize all these ideas together, I come up with this: 

There is something inherent to the perception of consciousness which makes us different from the rest of the universe, and separated from it in some fundamental way. The separations that we impose on the universe, however, are arbitrary. Map-making is useful: but there are no fundamental rules that guide how you should carve out your universe-shards, especially the farther up you are from axioms. Don't let separation block you; there are a ton of useful things you can extract from breaking fences down

To make this concrete: 1) don't be afraid to question certain universe shards you find on LessWrong;[4] 2) keep in mind that your brain loves splitting things into distinct shards, and that you have some control over how that happens, which is pretty cool; 3) if you want to understand things on a deeper level and blow your mind, try breaking down some separations, like the one in between quantum physics and chemistry, consciousness and mathematics, or qualia and neurons. Breaking separations is a cheap way of radically changing your perspective, which can lead to new ideas.

Now go think about this, or something else, for a few minutes and come back with a more accurate map of reality. 


  1. ^

    This isn't even counting the fact that your brain is turning black squiggles into shards (letters) and then turning those shards into shards (words), etc... Like always with the human brain, things get excessively messy. 

    Also if you actually count you're going to find way more than a dozen objects in the room. Reality is strangely dense.

  2. ^

    If you believe that we will one day be capable of uploading our minds onto a computer, then you believe consciousness to be fundamentally composed of math. 

  3. ^

    which we already describe as being a swirling pool of mathematical eddies. It's unreasonable how well this map of the universe has worked out for us. 

  4. ^

    The closer you get to the axioms the more you're going to have to think about this. There are some axioms of rationality on LessWrong that are hard to argue against: but they are shards carved from the universe by an imperfect monkey like you, and are not or should not be sacred. All that matters is the most useful map. 

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:36 AM

Huuuuh. Interesting

Oops. Reasons this post failed: 

  1. Unclear thesis, some vague injunction to think of the way we divvy up the world to process it; I even seem unsure of myself, which means I shouldn't have published anything in the first place, in this form
  2. The "concrete" part was rushed and uncertain, a last-ditch attempt to make this writing useful. There are no real lessons in that part, nothing to be gleaned, really. 
  3. The ideas discussed are of gigantic scope, and yet are spoken of with certainty and with little speculation. You can't devote just one paragraph to "consciousness" like that! The whole thing looks like some awkward amalgamation of ideas that lightly touch on huge concepts.
  4. This was the third draft. Had I written a fourth draft, I think I would have gotten rid of the numbers and attempted to find a clearer thesis, or not published anything at all. More drafts are necessary. Speed lets you get rapid feedback but comes with costs on quality. 
  5. Costs on quality come at the expense of LessWrong, not me: posting this was a selfish bid for feedback.
  6. Generalizing "what LessWrong does" is a bad idea unless one has spent a while here. There are so many smart people on here that one must tread carefully: most ideas already put in place are there for very good reasons!

As far as I can tell those are the main reasons why this post has negative karma. 

I really enjoyed the parts of the post that weren't related to consciousness, and it helped me think more about the assumptions I have about how the universe works. The Feynman quote was new for me, so thank you for sharing that!

However, when you brought consciousness into the post, it brought along additional assumptions that the rest of the post wasn't relying on, weakening the post as a whole. Additionally, LessWrong has a long history of debating whether consciousness is "emergent" or not. Most readers here already hold fixed positions on the debate and would need substantial evidence to be convinced to change their position. Simply stating that "that idea feels wrong" doesn't suffice, especially when many people often feel otherwise (notably, people who have spent time meditating and feel that they have become "one with the universe").

That makes sense, thanks a lot for the feedback! I will be much more careful next time and try to keep sweeping assumptions out. Some ideas in here could definitely have worked without bringing in one of the most fundamental and notoriously hardest questions to answer.

Good day!