Reality is weirdly normal


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Rob Bensinger

Related to: When Anthropomorphism Became Stupid, Reductionism, How to Convince Me That 2 + 2 = 3

"Reality is normal." That is: Surprise, confusion, and mystery are features of maps, not of territories. If you would think like reality, cultivate outrage at yourself for failing to intuit the data, not resentment at the data for being counter-intuitive.

"Not one unusual thing has ever happened." That is: Ours is a tight-knit and monochrome country. The cosmos is simple, tidy, lawful. "[T]here is no surprise from a causal viewpoint — no disruption of the physical order of the universe."

"It all adds up to normality." That is: Whatever is true of fundamental reality does not exist in a separate universe from our everyday activities. It composes those activities. The perfected description of our universe must in principle allow us to reproduce the appearances we started with.

These maxims are remedies to magical mereology, anthropocentrism, and all manner of philosophical panic. But reading too much (or too little) into them can lead seekers from the Path. For instance, they may be wrongly taken to mean that the world is obliged to validate our initial impressions or our untrained intuitions. As a further corrective, I suggest: Reality is weirdly normal. It's "normal" in odd ways, by strange means, in surprising senses.

At the risk of vivisecting poetry, and maybe of stating the obvious, I'll point out that the maxims mean different things by "normal". In the first two, what's "normal" or "usual" is the universe taken on its own terms — the cosmos as it sees itself, or as an ideally calibrated demon would see it. In the third maxim, what's "normal" is the universe humanity perceives — though this still doesn't identify normality with what's believed or expected. Actually, it will take some philosophical work to articulate just what Egan's "normality" should amount to. I'll start with Copernicanism and reductionism, and then I'll revisit that question.

 


Everything is usual. Very nearly nothing is familiar.

  • Spell 1: Since the beginning, not one unusual thing has ever happened. And intelligence explosion sounds... well, 'unusual' is the mildest word that comes to mind. So it won't happen.
  • Counterspell: Reality is weirdly normal. It's not the kind of normal that sounds normal.

Relative to the universe's laws, everything is par for the course. But relative to human standards of normality — what I'll call the familiar — barely anything that actually exists is par for the course. Nearly all events are senseless, bizarre, inhuman. But that's because our mapping hardware is adapted to a very specific environment; if anything's objectively weird, it's we, not the other denizens of Everythingland. That's much of why absurdity is a poor guide to probability.

Egan's Law reminds us that beneath our human surface weirdness lies a deeper regularity, a deeper unity with the rest of Nature. But to call this alien order 'regular' already assumes a shift in perspective from what a person off the street would initially think of as 'regular', to the hidden patterns of the very large and very small. We should prize the ability to shift between these points of view, while carefully avoiding conflating them.

 

  • Spell 2: Reality is normal. So it shouldn't be difficult for me to think like it.
  • Counterspell: What's normal from a God's-eye view is wont to be weird from a human's. And vice versa.

Thinking like reality requires understanding reality. You can't just will yourself into becoming a high-fidelity map. If nothing else, you'll be too vulnerable to knowledge gapsPretending you think like quantum physics is even worse than rebelling against the physics for being too confusing. At least in the latter case you've noticed the disparity between your map and the territory.

To take pride in one's confusion at the quantum, rather than striving mightily to understand, is an epistemic sin. But to deny one's confusion at the quantum, to push it from one's mind and play-act at wisdom, is a graver sin. The goal isn't to do away with one's confusion; it's to do away with one's best reasons to be confused.


 


What adds up to the familiar needn't be familiar.

  • Spell 3: It all adds up to normality. But relativity sure sounds abnormal! So relativity will be replaced by something normaler.
  • Counterspell: Physics is the weird addenda, not the normal sum.

x + y + z + ... = Normality. But x ≠ Normality. Nor does y. In fact, even the complete quantum-mechanical description of the human world would not look normal, from a human perspective. But it would be a description of exactly the world we live in.

This is another reminder that surprise is a feature of maps, not of territories. Very different maps — a wave function scribbled in silicon, a belief, a gesture, a child's drawing — can represent the same territory. The drawing is normal (familiar), and the wave function isn't. But the referent of the two maps may well be the same. In asserting "quantum mechanics adds up to normality", we're really asserting that our maps of familiar objects, to the extent they're accurate, would co-refer with portions of the maps of an ideal Finished Science. They're two different languages, but faithful translation is possible.

 

  • Spell 4: It all adds up to normality. So I should be able to readily intuit how QM yields the familiar.
  • Counterspell: Reality forms what's normal, but by weird means.

The relationship between the quantum and the familiar can be thoroughly unfamiliar. The way in which the unintuitive fundamental truths yield an intuitive Middle World is not itself intuitive.

We could call this "emergence", if we wished to craft a territory predicate out of mapstuff. Otherwise, I suggest calling this predicate"wow-sometimes-I'm-not-very-good-at-keeping-track-of-lots-of-small-things-ence". Understanding the logical or mathematical implications of simple patterns is not humanity's specialty. Causal and part-whole relations are no exception to this rule.


 


It all adds up to the phenomenon.

  • Spell 5: It all adds up to normality. It's common sense that time 'flows'. So science will ultimately show time is not at all like space.
  • Counterspell: We'd find even the familiar alien, if we but understood it.

Normality isn't common sense. Normality isn't our beliefs, expectations, assumptions, or strongest convictions. Normality, in the sense relevant to a true and binding "It all adds up to normality", is the phenomenon, the human world as it appears. (Not the human world as it is believed to appear. The human world as we actually encounter it.)

What's "the phenomenon"?

I'm going to be willfully cagey about that. What I really mean by "the phenomenon" is "whatever's going on". Or whatever's going on that we're cognitively accessing or representing. It needn't all add up to a world that makes my map true; but it will add up to a world that explains why my map looks the way it does.

Even saying that much risks overly restricting the shape explanations are allowed to take. Egan's Law can be used as a general constraint on successful explanations — they must account for the explanandum — but only if we treat the explanandum loosely enough to permit dissolutions and eliminations alongside run-of-the-mill reductions. It all adds up to an explanation of how our beliefs arose, though not necessarily a validation of them.

 

  • Spell 6: It all adds up to normality. I have an immediate epistemic acquaintance with the irreducible phenomenal character of my experience. So, whatever be the final theory, it will certainly include qualia.
  • Counterspell: Every map is in a territory. But no meta-map is beyond suspicion.

It's obvious that appearances can deceive us about underlying reality. But a variety of perceptual illusions demonstrate that experiences can also consistently mislead us about themselves. It all adds up to normality, but normality lies.

In some cases, we can't accurately describe our surface impressions until we've understood their underlying mechanism. Since so much of science is revisionary, we mustn't interpret Egan's Law in a way that unduly privileges first-pass descriptions. When data and theory conflict, it's sometimes more likely that the data has been misrepresented than that the theory is false.

How far does this openness to map revision extend? As far as the dynamics of one's brain allows. From the sidelines, it may appear to me that in principle a thinker should be able to have certainty about some propositions — for instance, 'an experience is occurring'. But when I actually find myself living through such a thought, I don't in fact experience infinite confidence. It remains physically possible for me to be persuaded otherwise.

This point ought to be a bit controversial, and more defense of it is needed. But I do insist on treating 'phenomenal experience' and 'phenomenon' as prima facie independent concepts. Egan's Law really is the law, whereas claims about some inerrant mode of reasoning or perception will at best qualify as well-supported hypotheses.


 

Egan's Law is not about saving conscious experience, or our theories, or our axioms, or our interpretations or descriptions of the phenomenon. It's about saving the phenomenon itself — the piece of the world in which we are, in fact, submerged. Egan's Law can be restated: The part of reality that (under its familiar description) puzzled or surprised us is identical to (or otherwise lawfully derivable from) the part of reality that (under its more fundamental description) explains it.

The human piece of the universe is of a piece with everything else. And the Everything Else gets explanatory priority. Of all our science's findings to date, that may well be the most startling.