Feb 3, 2023Liked by Blithering Genius

> “The universe is a computer (program)” is another example of the inverse homunculus fallacy. It applies the metaphor of a computer to the universe as a whole. But of course a computer is something that exists within the universe. It is a mechanism that operates according to physical laws. So, nothing is explained by positing that the universe is a computer or a computer program.

Of course, "world is a simulation" doesn't explain much. That it is not explanatory doesn't mean it's not true (doesn't mean it is, either). It's somewhat unfair to compare it to God or turtles, since people who bring it up usually are not claiming it does.

Inside our very real computers, we do a ton of virtualization nowadays. Computers inside computers inside computers. Also, we run stuff on them, including virtual realities, because there are reasons to do so.

Ofc occam's razor cuts computer out of the equation, so it makes no sense to believe it's a simulation without evidence. It's not pointless to think about the possibility, tho, for various reasons. One of them is that physics doesn't stop us from, at the very least, hooking the brain's I/O to a computer. We can make "my world is a simulation" true for some person. Well, with some more tech progress.

We can't really simulate our universe inside our universe... probably. But then, in case we are in that person's (from previous paragraph) shoes -- the outer universe is a complete mystery. It doesn't need to be in any way similar to ours.


Selfish gene is just an anthropomorphizing analogy. Mechanics of evolution just map well to the concept. Obviously genes are just dumb molecules at the end of the day, with no conscious desires.

Anthropomorphizing stuff sometimes leads to errors (e.g. when thinking about AI it's easy to anthropomorphize a little (or a lot) too far), but it's not inherently wrong.

I didn't read your book tho, so I'm not saying it's pointless to attack the framework. Maybe sth else makes for a better model/framework than using concept of selfishness.

I didn't really finish these arguments, but I need to go to sleep now.

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The "selfish gene" metaphor is an anthropomorphizing analogy, and a misleading one. The mechanics of evolution produce selfish reproducing machines. Genes are not reproducing machines. They are components of reproducing machines. A tree doesn't have a mind, but a tree is selfish in a meaningful sense. So is a bacterium. A gene is not. So, the error involved is analogous to the "little car inside a big car" example. Genes are not little reproducing machines inside bigger reproducing machines. There are other errors involved in the selfish gene concept. If you're interested, I recommend the book, of course :)


As for computer simulations, there's nothing wrong with the philosophical "brain in a vat" thought experiment. The point of that thought experiment is that we don't have absolute certainty about anything: that there are limits to our knowledge. Claiming or speculating that we are in "the matrix" is doing the opposite. It is making non-empirical claims or speculations about reality, and that is analogous to the world-turtle. There are people trying to estimate the probability that we live in a simulation:


Thanks for your comment!

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I didn't know this concept had a name. It's something that bothers me sometimes and I can't always point exactly to it because I've never thought about giving it a name or elucidating it.

One example that always bothers me is pop-science youtube videos that purport to explain the theory of general relativity by putting heavy objects on a rubber sheet and noting how things move when placed on it. Obviously the sheets bends due to gravity, and the objects move downwards due to gravity, so they are explaining general relativity in terms of gravity. This is an example of such an explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTY1Kje0yLg

Richard Fyenman handles "what's a magnet?" question by explaining the concept (without giving it a name) when he talks about how it would be foolish to describe magnetic and electric forces in terms of rubber bands, because ultimately the behavior of the rubber bands is explained in terms of these forces. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1lL-hXO27Q

Now, I disagree with some of the examples you give.

> “All is mind” is a more modern, sophisticated version of the world-turtle. Supposedly, the human mind is explained by claiming that everything is mind.

I'm not sure to what specific theory you are referring, but I might take a guess. There's some theory I've seen floated by some philosophers that everything has some level of consciousness.

Now, I'm sympathetic to this theory. It's not "homunculus" in the same sense that Newton's gravity is not. Gravity presupposes motion. It doesn't explain the existence of motion, it explains the specifics of motion: why do things move this way and not that way.

In the same vein, to have any viable explanation for subjective experience, we must assume that elements of it exist all the time everywhere, so that the question becomes: how does the brain weild this property (that just exists in nature) to form specific subjective experiences out of the signals in the nervous system. Without this assumption, there's no reason at all, given all the physics we know of, to predict that any information processing system would ever produce a subjective experience.

> It is very common to think of human motivation and action as pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. In this view, we want pleasure and we don’t want pain, so we act to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. This view is very intuitive. However, it is based on a homunculus metaphor, and it contains a homunculus fallacy.

Well, it depends on what level of explanation you are talking about.

Someone might be bewildered by their own behavior, not understanding why they do certain things even though they "rationally" would rather avoid them. Here the explanation states that how you behave has less to do with what you rationally decide than what your subconcious mind views as pleasurable or painful. This explanation works because it resolves a problem and helps the person find other ways to change their behavior. Now, I'm not saying this explanation is correct, I actually think it's incorrect (or let's say, misleading, incomplete) and am working on writing an article to elaborate my take on the problem.

Even when you go to a lower level, you have to take "action" for granted: the brain has a mechanism to decide what actions to take. The question then becomes how does it decide what action to take given the unlimited possibilities of things one can do.

Ultimately you have to go to a lower level where "electrical" signals travel through nerves from the brain to the muscles, but this level is not going to be very helpful to understand what motivates human behavior.

> Motivation cannot be explained in terms of motivation. Consciousness cannot be explained in terms of consciousness.

I think a lot of things actually can be explained in terms of a more basic version of themselves. Computers sort of have "little computers" inside themselves: the CPU has cores, each core has "units" that do some "computations" such as addition or multiplication. The job of the CPU is (roughly) to assign work to each unit then take the output from each unit and place it in the right location, and these tasks themselves are performed by other units within the CPU.

Now, the way these units themselves perform the computation is ultimately explained in terms of electrical signals passing through wires and transistors, and transistors are explained in terms of semiconductors. So you do ultimately get an explanation that does not refer to computers, but you have to dig to several layers of abstraction beneath until you hit this ultimate reality that appears to have nothing to do with the higher level.

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I've been ruminating on an idea that is closely related to what you covered in this article. Although I believe the general argument of the article is true, I don't think it ultimately solves the problem of infinite regress. First, I'm going to explain my perspective on this question.

All of human thinking and organization which has produced any results worth considering have been systematic in nature (science, logic, mathematics, language, law, arguably our very biology, etc.). I define a system as a (potentially arbitrary) section of reality. This section of reality is necessarily founded upon fundamental properties which cannot be accounted for or explained by the system itself; the incompleteness theorems of Gödel are great examples of how this general principle can be proven. From this base, operation between the properties can produce forms which may continue to operate with each other until an incredibly complex state is eventually achieved. Since this system is a section of reality, the fundamental properties must be explained in relation to other systems in reality which have properties not entirely shared by the system they yield, otherwise there would be no distinction between these systems and they would simply dissipate into an absolute reality that we could not even begin to quantify or understand. This observation is often referred to as "emergence," but I tend to avoid using that term since too many people assume it seeks to explain a mechanism instead of describing initial and final states. Therefore, trying to use the lens of chemistry to explain its fundamental properties, such as protons, without making reference to other systems such as quantum physics (where the answer lies in quarks) would be absurd.

The problem arises when we try to figure out if this use of systems to model reality can ever arrive at a final and unassailable answer. Specifically, if all systems must ultimately be justified in terms of other systems, how can we ever have a total explanation of everything? If we treat all of reality as a system, which I believe is unavoidable, then we would need to justify it in terms of something outside of everything. The contradiction here is quite obvious and heralds back to the classic "what came before God?" argument since we will constantly need to explain a foundation of belief in terms of something else which has a foundation that need to be explained and so on and so forth.

Human civilization has continued for thousands of years after Agrippa's death, but still hasn't managed to solve his Trilemma. A potential argument given this outline is that notions of systems and properties themselves are just arbitrary human classifications. However, this simply dismisses the Trilemma instead of solving it. Additionally, the use of logic, language, and even thought itself to dismiss the Trilemma is bound to fail since these human tools are themselves subject to the same systematic nature that I explained before which will always arrive to this seemingly unsolvable conundrum: a conundrum that is at the very base of the systems you try to use to deny it.

These concerns may be unnecessary for the current time. There is still so much work to be done in exploring the systems we have now while also establishing a greater link between them. Not only do we need to gain a better understanding of disciplines such as genetics and quantum physics, but we must establish a chain of causality so tight and well-modeled that the heritability estimates produced by models using genes as axioms can instead be replaced by quarks as the axioms. Obviously we are far from this, but improvement in the world of molecular biology is one step in the right direction. All of living and thinking seems to be an act of faith to some extent, but it's worked to our advantage so far so we may as well continue to work with this lack of complete certainty until we arrive at a superior manner of approaching truth which we may not even be able to conceive of yet.

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The solution is to accept that we are subjects, and as subjects we have no objective foundation for truth and value. We have a brain/nature, which generates truth and value judgments in regular ways. We can justify claims to each other by appealing to the forms of those mental processes. However, as subjects, we are free to question those mental processes, and there is no objective guarantee of them. We are free to doubt ourselves. However, we can't escape from ourselves, or from our natures. So, we have a kind of foundation, but it is not beyond doubt.

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