Prelude for LW

  • Section 2 contains a bunch of self-references to personal articles, all of which are the kind I also posted on less wrong before but considering the amount of self-referncing this article might come out as a bit douchy. If you hate that kind of thing stop reading here.
  • Using a rather broad definition of metaphysics here and I probably don't spend enough time expanding upon and grounding that definition.
  • Overall this is the kind of "bad" conceptual analysis that sounds nice but makes rather braod-reaching claims.

But I find the general concepts I stumbled upon while writing this interesting and it seems like the kind of thing that might click with some people here so I'm posting it. You never know.




One of the things that keeps me awake at night is the omnipresence of metaphysics in everything. By metaphysics, I specifically mean all-encompassing systems upon which we ground our observation-based theories of reality.

I - Examples

1. Killing humans

Killing humans is something we usually don't do. This has edge cases (e.g. abortion, voluntary euthanasia, wars... etc). But by enlarge, most people go their whole lives without killing a single fellow homo sapien, despite every day providing them tremendous opportunity to do so.

We can observe that people, generally speaking, teach their children not to kill or harm and that most report feeling bad about killing or physically harming others, or even at the thought of doing so.

If a policy encouraging a lot of murder was proposed, most of us would have a gut reaction to oppose it.

The reason we don't kill humans, however, is not at all obvious, but many people venture to provide an explanation.

You can have a religious argument for it, that killing people is pre-ordained as inherently "bad" by some sort of invisible sky-daddy or some sort of prime-mover that dictated the rules of the universe (or anything in between depending on the level of philosophical sophistication you need to not feel silly believing in religion).

You can have a pragmatic-economic argument for it, that the societies where fewer murders are committed are desirable to live in (loads of immigration) than those with a lot of crime. That a low chance of dying stops people from engaging in harmful zero-sum games since it gives them future optionality under almost any circumstances and so on.

You can have an evolutionary biology argument for it, that not killing humans is a useful genetic + memetic combination that has spread and is so intertwined with humans phenotype and societies that most of us simply can't happily exist in a world where it's a common occurrence. That not killing and not witnessing killing is as basic of a need for most of us as sleep or food or warmth or hugs.

But these explanations can all be proven wrong, they all encounter shaky ground one way or another, and one must ask if they are necessary to have the obvious truth that has been propagated for thousands of years.

As a general principle, though, with some cultural-specific provisions for when this rule may be broken, you should not kill people

2. Quantum mechanics

I'm even less of an expert in modern physics than I am in ethics but to my layman understanding physics operates like any other science, it attempts to understand the behavior of the world based on experimental data and validates that understanding with further experiments (i.e. predictions coming true).

As far as I understand the story, physicists found it extremely hard to do this using real probabilities after a while and switched to using models that used complex probabilities internally. With the end-goal of still being able to reach conclusions expressed in real probabilities that can be acted upon.

While my understanding might be wrong, seeing as I'm basing it on just a few physics courses and a Scott Aaronson book. Based on my discussion with people that know physics it seems that I may at least say, with a high confidence level, that quantum mechanics requires a mathematical apparatus that is a bit more complex, less intuitive, and requires extra legwork to be collapsed (pun intended) into a practical insight which can make human-sense-organs validated predictions.

However, I never understood the need to take the next step and speculate on the fundamental nature of reality based on this framework. Nor the certainty people assing to those speculations, which seem far less falsifiable and much more complex than the relatively simple conclusions one can reach using physics (e.g. if we have a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a specific crystalline structure it will be able to resist an evenly applied force of x/m^2 without changing its structure once that force is removed with a probability of 0.y)

Yet most people that proclaim themselves to be "into physics" which I stumble upon, seem much more concerned with metaphysical questions like the multiple world hypothesis or with the exact definition of "observation" that are required for the Copenhagen hypothesis to hold.

I am yet to be aware of any interpretation of quantum mechanics along the lines of:

After careful observation, we have determined that using this mathematical apparatus to interpret certain types of experimental data leads to theories that have less generous error margins and/or hold a higher % of times than those generated using a competing mathematical apparatus.

To me, it seems that the above explanation should suffice, yet for most people, it doesn't. Though I might have just fallen in with the wrong sort of internet crowd, and maybe people with a PhD in physics would find the above statement true. Or maybe my understanding of the practical implications of a certain type of metaphysics to physics is wrong.

3. How the universe began

How the universe began seems to be a problem that people treat from two angles, one is astronomy, the other philosophy.

This to me seems like the fundamental example of a purely metaphysical question. There is no way to know how the universe began.

I don't mean that statement in a grandiose way made to invoke wonder at the majesty of existence, but rather, in the same way, I would say something like:

There is no way to know if it was the oysters or the tuna tartar that caused Steven Prathorn of 25th James Street a tummy ache on the night of November 21st, 1971.

The beginning of the universe is simply an event upon which, based on common sense epistemology, we don't have enough access to it in order to make claims about it.

Whether it was created by a divine man like entity, a flying spaghetti monster, as part of a generative process maintained by some other cosmic entity in a similar universe, or by the rapid and ever-slowing expansion of energy from a singular point in space-time... we will never be able to truly know.

The deed is done.

I by no way mean to claim that the theories interlinked with a certain metaphysical model about universe-creation are not useful. It may be that many wonderful things came about due to the astrophysical framework that grounds the idea of a big bang (for example).

But might we not just say:

Based on this astrophysical model of how space-time expanded and is expanding and how different generations of particles interacted and are interacting we can make useful hypotheses that allow us to make better than random predictions about the possibility of solar flares, livable far-away planets, and so on.

In the same way, we could say:

Due to Steven Prathorn of 25th James Street having a tummy ache on the night of November 21st, 1971, he decided to not eat at Tony's Exotic Seafood Club ever again.


II Why

The purpose of not grounding claims into metaphysics seems manyfold to me. But for fear of writing a whole book I am going to just list some reasons which I previously mentioned on this blog, with links to the associated articles and a quick summary:

  1. Metaphysics is not obviously useful for conducting or trusting science, which has its fundamentals in experiments and statistics. On the same hand, metaphysics is fun to talk about and requires complicated math. Leading to people thinking that the "big bang" is a fundamental of scientific truth, while ignoring things which are truly fundamental such as data gathering and the statistical tests we apply to find correlation and eliminate confounding and sampling issues from said data. (More on that in Science eats it's young)
  2. Metaphysics is fun and easy to argue about, and by its very nature can be argued about endlessly. This is all fine and dandy, except for the fact that people often waste huge swaths of their lives arguing about pointless things with no effect upon the world or their own actions. Take, as an example, Leibniz's theory of monads versus his computing machine. It seems like he spent much more time on the former, yet it is now simply a garble of nonsense, which at best servers to illustrate how different senescence thinking was from ours, while the later servers as one of the bases of the computing revolution which shaped our present world. One has to wonder where we'd be now had Leibniz spent a dozen years perfecting his computing machine rather than perfecting his views about the fundamentals upon which matter is built.
  3. Metaphysics is often enough the basis of causing harm to other people, see religious wars, religion-fueled attempts at limiting the rights of other people, religion-fueled mass murder of civilians, and so on. Arguably the most prolific genocidal maniacs did so with very little metaphysical grounding for their reasoning (see Mao, Hilter, Pol Pot... etc). Though that might just be a function of the rise of atheism and philosophical relativism correlating with a rise in the global population.
  4. Metaphysics might lead us to have higher certainty in various theories without any real evidence, whilst negating various approaches that don't fit with it. Though this kind of overlaps with point (1) about metaphysics obscuring the need to ground science in observation.
  5. Metaphysics might cause an irrational attachment to certain concepts that are no longer useful. Chief among which I would put causality and gods. Or, to put it more broadly, the need to have metaphysics invites the need for certain concepts that would otherwise not be required, thus making it more difficult to introduce new concepts both by limiting mental and memetic bandwidth, as well as requiring those concepts to integrate with those required by our metaphysics.
  6. Metaphysics is widely disagreed upon, or at least it seems to be, more so than most other claims in science and even in politics and religion. Thus leading to inter-group animosity, resulting in more violence and less cooperation.

I could keep going, but the gist of it is that metaphysics certainly doesn't seem like a zero-cost idea to hang onto. It sometimes causes harm, so it ought to be able to earn its keep.


III Metaphysics as memorization mechanism

One good argument for metaphysics is that it is required for memorizing things. Human brains are primarily made to create memories of their recent environments, of important past events, of the context before and after supra-stimuli (good/plentiful food, sex, certain dopamine-modulating chemicals, horrible pain... etc), of language, and so on.

Even if you disagree with the above statement, or think that I'm omitting important things, I think it's hard to claim that human brains are made to memorize mathematical notation or "facts" about distant observation made with the help of aggregate statistics with probabilities and error margins attached to them.

Yet the latter is are much more useful thinking tool than the former. Metaphysics might be a sort of internal mapping abstraction that allows us to allocated brain resources dedicated to the former into remembering and thinking about the latter.

For example, physics seems to be much easier to think about in a cartesian coordinates defined space, using real numbers and real probabilities. Even though, on a mathematical level, introducing the concept of complex probabilities and a flexible number of dimensions doesn't necessarily make calculations much harder.

Basic calculations with complex probabilities or the definitions of Hausdorff space are relatively simple concepts to wrap one's head around, or at least much more simple than solving the vast majority of n-body problems (n>2) that I've seen in beginner level textbooks.

But thinking in terms of the former concepts seems to be a very complex task, one that often forces me to reduce them to more "intuitive" abstractions in order to make sense of things. Assuming that this is the case with other abstractions, it might be that the role of metaphysics is one related to memorization and reasoning.

More broadly, suppose there is a system of thinking A which is simple to think about, people intuitively think about the world by mapping it to system A. Maybe a sign-language trained chimp could start reasoning in system A.

But suppose there is a system B that has certain advantages in terms of prediction-making over system A, covering a broader range of problems, supporting more useful theorems or allowing for easier derivation of said theorems, being computationally cheaper to explore, and so on.

But for some reason brain architecture is well fitted to map things to system A but not system B. Metaphysics might be the hack that allows us to easily map system B into system A or make it as intuitive as system A. In this case, metaphysics needn't add anything of value to system B from the standpoint of the things one can state and prove using system B, it's sufficient that it makes system B more memorable to human brains.

In its final form, this might play out to the metaphysics that make system B "intuitive" being propagated memetically and maybe even genetically to the point where the brains of adult humans end up seeing them as equally simplistic.

A good example of this is the concept of probability and probability-based math. A question as simple as "What's the chance of rolling a 6 on at least 1 dice when rolling 2 six-sided dice" was beyond the grasp of math until the 17th century. This question was formally answered in a math textbook (informal Venetian bookmaker math aside) when people were already solving calculus problems that would probably be beyond the mathematical ability of most readers of this article (myself included).

Yet nowadays people learn about the above problem before they even hear of Newton and the concept of "percentage" is intuitive for kids that have barely learned how to speak.

But between the 17th and the 21st century, there was probably a whole load of metaphysics that eased the transition of probability into human memes, some of which we might have gotten rid of, some of which might be so subtle we are unaware of it.


IV Metaphysics as concession mechanism

One nice thing about metaphysics, assuming that it's pointless, is that there is little harm in changing it. Something that many people care about, but that ultimately doesn't much influence the inner workings of our society, is a wonderful concession mechanism.

For example, suppose two states with two different religions are waring over some farmland or whatever. Group 1) wins and in the process, many members of both groups are killed or injured. Group 1) takes the farmland and thus gets something out of the whole ordeal, but group 2) is left with nothing but resentment for group 1).

This state of things leads to perpetual conflicts and is often observer across history. Ranging from individual and family level "honor" conflicts to animosity between entire nations (e.g. South Korea and Japan) for reasons buried in the annals of history, conflicts that can benefit neither.

Usually, this state of conflict is perpetuated by group 1) not willing to give up or share their plunder and group 2) not willing to forget their defeat at the hands of 1), even generations after the conflict is long gone. Both groups would be better off now had the plunder never existed, but they don't have the gods-eye view that allows them to see it that way.

However, group 1) can make a metaphysical concession to group 2) thus "repaying" for a wrong deed by essentially giving up nothing. Say, for example, group 1) has a metaphysics of "God is in everything and dictates it's flow" and group 2) has one of "Everything is God and the flow of it composes the will of God". On the surface, it costs nothing for group 1) to say that group 2) is correct and alter their rituals, and group 2) gets an evening-out feeling of superiority out of "proving them right".

In a more realistic scenario, metaphysics changes would be part of a much larger bargain.

A good example here would be the Roman empire, with their notorious flexibility in terms of Gods and religion for the people they conquered. Romans essentially took the right of self-governance away from tribes and levied taxes upon their lands. But they gave back to them in the form of social mobility within the Roman class structure (joining the army or trading), technological innovations (aqueducts, roads). But maybe more uniquely, allowing them to keep their religious habits, even to the degree of slightly altering Roman religious habits to help integration.

The Roma bargain involves more than religion, and it's hard to say how much of a role religious integration played, or how much of that was a shift in metaphysics versus changes to other facets of religion.

However, the more I think about this the more I fail to find any clear-cut examples. Where there's a change in metaphysics used as a bargaining chip.

Some candidates that come to mind:

  • The metaphysics concessions various Buddhist traditions are making to Dzogchen and Zen Buddhism, in order to get on the "western propagation" bandwagon. Or the metaphysics concessions the aforementioned two are making to neuroscience, in order to drive said bandwagon.
  • The metaphysics concessions various Asian societies (particularly Japan, South Korea, and China) made to Europe and the US, in the form of adopting a more materialist and individualist metaphysics, in order to gain acceptance in the international economy.
  • The metaphysics concessions that were made between various Christian sects in the US in order to achieve political unity.

But I know very little about those subjects and coming up with ways to gain "evidence" for or against those ideas has proven difficult. Maybe this hypothesis is too simplistic and or incomplete to warrant further thought, I will update on it if I can at least find some clear examples to back it up.


V Too hard to get rid of

There is viral DNA embedded within our own, which stuck there because deactivating the genes was much easier than getting rid of them.

I think it's fair to say this analogy might apply to certain memes. Metaphysics might be one of them. It might be that it was much more "dangerous" to us in its primitive form than it is now, the number of ancient conflicts over "pointless" things does seem to indicate that to some extent.

Maybe it was so difficult to take out of memetic propagation, that the path society evolved towards was one of minimizing its effects, in this process, it may have also lost a lot of the original purpose it had.

It is certainly true that most ancient and especially medieval philosophers seem to focus on metaphysics a lot, but nowadays it seems relegated to a few ignored religious philosophers, old physics professors, and internet quacks. While at the same time a lot of the questions in metaphysics that do seem prone for an answer are getting absorbed into neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy of mind.


VI Conclusion

On the whole, I think there are a lot of facets I'm not touching with my discussion here, metaphysics might be:

  • A solution to avoid psychotic episodes and mental distress caused by observations that might otherwise lead to cognitive dissonance.
  • A driver of ethnogenesis.
  • Inseparable from theory generation (i.e. any formal system of deduction comes with a built-in metaphysics)

I'm sure there are many other roles that it might fit into.

I'm also using a fairly broad definition of metaphysics, the examples I give in section one could be fitted into the "definition" given by the Standard encyclopedia of philosophy, but almost entirely certain meanings of the word.

Thus, since I'm already passing the 3,000 word mark, I think it's best to stop here and hope that this article might serve as some interesting food for thought.

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Metaphysics as a solution to the frame problem or a spandrel of the solution to the frame problem.