The Universe Doesn't Have to Play Nice

by Chris_Leong1 min read6th Jan 20208 comments

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Epistemology
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It's often helpful to think about the root cause of your disagreements with other people and it seems to me that one such cause is that I believe the universe doesn't have to play nice in terms of our ability to know anything, while other people do.

Here are some examples of where this assumption can be used:

  • The problem of skepticism - How do we know that any of the objects that we seem to perceive are real? Countless philosophers have tried to answer this question, but I'm happy to bite the bullet as I don't see any reason for believing that the universe has to give us this ability
  • Godel's theorem/incomputability: It may seem obvious that every mathematical truth has a proof or that we can write a program to compute everything, but we now know this is false
  • Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: We might imagine that if we were clever enough we could find a scheme for gaining perfect information about a particle, but this isn't the case
  • Problem of induction - Induction may have worked in the past, but we can't conclude that it'll work in the future without using induction itself which would be a circular argument
  • Boltzmann Brains - Universes where the majority of consciousness is Boltzman Brains may seem absurd, but we could construct a simulation where the majority of agents would be Boltzmann brains so it is theoretically coherent. I haven't checked the maths, but maybe we just can't know if we are a Boltzmann Brain or not.
  • Bayesianism - How do we form a prior given that the prior is before any observation that could help us determine a reasonable prior? Some people see this as an argument against Bayesianism, but I see it as just another way the universe isn't nice
  • Theories that can explain anything - Evolutionary psychology has often been criticised as being able to provide just-so stories for whatever we observe. I don't believe that the universe is always kind enough to provide us with a nice clean empirical test to determine if a theory is true or not as opposed to subtly impacting our expectations over a wide range of results. This becomes worse once you take into account varying positions within a theory, as there could be dozens of incompatible schemes for constraining expectations based on a theory with almost nothing in common
  • Non-empirically testable facts - Some people believe if there isn't a clean empirical test to falsify a theory then it is irrelevant pseudo-science rubbish. But reality doesn't have to give us such clear cut boundaries. There are lots of things that are reasonable to posit or lean towards, but where we can't expect to ever know for certain.
  • Qualia - Many people believe qualia don't exist because we wouldn't be able learn about them empirically. But it seems spurious to assume nothing exists outside of our lightcone just because we can't observe it

Sometimes the universe will play nice, but we can't assume it.

See also:

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It’s often helpful to think about the root cause of your disagreements with other people

Can you please link to the specific disagreements you have in mind, so I can judge whether your proposed root cause actually explains those disagreements?

Sometimes the universe will play nice, but we can’t assume it.

Sure, but we also need to be wary about prematurely concluding that the universe doesn't play nice in any specific area. If my IQ was 30 points lower or I was born a few centuries earlier, I wouldn't be able to know or understand a lot of things that I actually do. A lot of places where it seems like the universe isn't playing nice might just be a reflection of us not being smart enough or not having thought long enough.

I'm sure I'll link back to this post soon. But this post is motivated by a few things such as:

a) Disagreements over consciousness - if non-materialist qualia existed, then we wouldn't be able to know about them empirically, but the universe doesn't have to play nice and make all phenomenon accessible to our scientific instruments, so we should have more uncertainty about this than people generally possess

b) The theories that can explain everything post - as nice as it'd be to just be able to evaluate theories empirically, there's no reason why we can't have a theory that is important for determining expectations, which isn't cleanly falsifiable

Many people believe qualia don’t exist because we wouldn’t be able learn about them empirically. But it seems spurious to assume nothing exists outside of our lightcone just because we can’t observe it.

"Qualia" is not a synonym for "non physical thingy".

We have subjective evidence for qualia, otherwise the question would never have arisen.

Disagreements over consciousness—if non-materialist qualia existed, then we wouldn’t be able to know about them empirically

We wouldn't be able to know about them using objective, third person empiricism. Whether third person empiricism is the only kind is part of the wider problem.

A lot of places where it seems like the universe isn't playing nice might just be a reflection of us not being smart enough or not having thought long enough.

I guess there can be some disagreement on what constitutes "a lot", but it seems to me that some of these are not subject to this because they are proofs of limitations that can only be gotten around by either pragmatic means (assuming away the problem by limiting yourself the cases where it doesn't arise) or by relaxing the strength of what the mechanism claims. Of the examples listed, the problem of perception (Chris calls it the problem of skepticism), Gödel's theorem, the problem of induction, the problem of the prior (Bayesianism), and qualia (the problem of perception again) all seem fundamental in the sense that they are problems that arise from within the abstraction/system, so they can only be gotten around by pragmatism or transcendence/relaxation, and cannot possibly become more tractable by thinking about them more, even if we come up with better ways to deal with them pragmatically or to better transcend them by using different abstractions. In this sense the universe will continue to look like it doesn't play nice from within those abstractions forever and always because it is a feature of the way those abstractions relate to reality.

I think your point about Boltzmann Brains understates the case. Forget simulations; many mainstream cosmological/physics theories entail that most observers who observe what we observe are in fact boltzmann brains. (IIRC. Sean Carroll has good work on this. He argues that this is reason to reject those theories in favor of others that don't have that implication.)

The point about simulations was merely to show that the idea of a universe with the majority of consciousness being Boltzmann Brains isn't absurd

I believe the universe doesn't have to play nice in terms of our ability to know anything

It's not just a belief. The universe does not have to play nice. We are "embedded agents", which means that the universe is predictable enough for the agents to survive, which means that some small parts of the universe we call maps are coarse-grained isomorphic to much larger parts we call the territory. But there is no requirement that maps with infinite fidelity could be constructed, especially within a given embedded agent. And there is definitely no requirement that unlimited fidelity has to come with unlimited applicability. If anything, among the set of all possible extensions of our universe these two requirements probably apply to a set of measure zero. It may well be that at some point we as human-shaped embedded agents mostly good for self-replication and only incidentally suitable for abstract thought, will hit or maybe already have hit in some areas the limits of such maps.

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: We might imagine that if we were clever enough we could find a scheme for gaining perfect information about a particle, but this isn't the case

Quantum mechanics doesn't work like that, the information you want is not hidden from you, it doesn't exist. Galilean relativity of motion means that absolute rest doesn't exist, not that absolute rest does exist but can't be known.