Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two or Three Things for Tuesday

Hey look! Two recent points of interest, each one in the form of a pointedly interesting sequence of words. These aren't short articles, but if you've 15 minutes or so to spare then I totally recommend you check them out:

1. Spectacular true story (via Wired) of a genius Canadian thief. (Do those last three words go together often, or rarely?) It's another great story from Winnipeg – how aboot that?

2. Okay, this one may be a bit intimidating, but repeat after me RIGHT ON I AM A HEAVY THINKER, I EAT YOUR PHILOSOPHY FOR BREAKFAST AND THEN I SPIT IT BACK IN YOUR FACE and you'll be cool.* This article is a fascinating metaphysical argument for justifying the existence of reality, via a big simple idea that I've never seen before.

And yeah, I think the existence of reality is definitely a problem – as in, "why does it exist?". I've never before known an answer that didn't fall back to "just because it does, that's why", or "a wizard did it", or else some version of the anthropic principle. But while this article's argument is not without potential flaws, it's still very, very intriguing. And it also provides a really nifty angle on the old "like, what if we're all being simulated inside a giant computer, like the matrix, like – how could we tell? Like, dude, whoa" chestnut.

If you can stand to read the whole article, please tell me what you think!

*Philosophy is all about intellectual confidence, remember. Why do think Socrates drank that poison? CONFIDENCE.

Also! Bonus Point of Interest! (if you haven't seen it already):

'night :)


  1. I'm sure I don't understand what he's saying. Is he saying that it doesn't matter how existence might have come to be, since existence (information) feels real regardless of its cause? If that's correct then my response is, so? I'm missing something aren't I?

    Regardless, the whole idea that a mind/brain could be simulated by a 'normal' computer is a big reach, given that no normal computer functions like the human brain.

  2. I'm not entirely sure that I follow either but I like this:
    'existence is what mathematical possibility feels like from the inside'

    and aside from all the crazy sci-fi imagery running through my head it does seem to me that there is some kind of structure, and that 'possibility' is enough reason as any.

    'meaning' is so arbitrary a lot of the time anyway, but it seems that this is what humanity is about a lot of the time.

  3. The way I read it - why does our universe exist? It seems pretty unlikely that it would, except for the fact that it apparently does; there's no obvious external principle or logic to explain why the speed of light is what it is, to explain why the conditions of the universe are such that intelligent beings like us are able to evolve and survive, etc. If you imagine all the different conceivable kinds of universe that might potentially exist, the vast majority of them would surely be inconsistent and random and bizarre, without any regular physical laws or constants at all. So why do we live in a universe which does appear to have regular physical laws, constants, consistency, stability etc? Why aren't we all randomly exploding into rice pudding every few seconds, or whatever?

    There are a few angles to the argument, but the first part is the central idea that 1. The universe is the way it is (i.e. mathematical, consistent, sensible) because it really is a mathematical universe: it's one that you could, in principle, reduce to an abstract mathematical object (given a suitably broad and clever definition of "mathematical object"). This is a contentious point in itself, but there's a link to another paper which argues the idea in more detail - the basic idea being that you must be either arbitrary randomness OR mathematics, and if you aren't arbitrarily random then you must be essentially maths. I think it also relies on the many-worlds interpretation of QM in order to be neatly deterministic at all levels. Many-worlds lets you avoid the problem of how to simulate "probabilistic" quantum-mechanical mind/brains via a Turing machine (or some kind of higher-dimensional or otherwise more-complex TM analogue).
    Either way, this is definitely the dodgiest part of the argument.

    But anyway, so: if our universe is a mathematical object, then it's not that our universe corresponds to a mathematical object, it's not that the mathematics is a model of our reality - it's that, in a real & existential sense, our universe/reality is the expression of that mathematical object. Our sensation of "existence" and "reality" is what the expression of the mathematics "feels like from the inside" ...

    And this idea therefore "explains" the observed mathematical nature of our universe, as well as the fact that it exists: it exists because it's mathematically conceivable, & hence necessary. That's why reality appears objective and consistent and so on; & that's why there's no essential difference between "reality" and a "simulation" of reality.

    Reality (i.e. our universe) is implicit in the mathematical object (of our universe) regardless of whether or not somebody is around to perform the calculations to "observe" it - the same way that 4 is implicit in 2+2, regardless of whether or not anyone is there to do the sum. 4 exists within 2+2 as a natural consequence of the mathematical nature of the object "2+2", in the same way that (according to this idea) we exist within our mathematical universe-object, regardless of whether or not this mathematical object is being expressed or calculated or "done" (or whatever) by anything external to it.

    Does that make sense?
    My lunch break is about to end, I really have to go :) ...

  4. That's makes more sense. Is this the crux of the argument then:

    "it exists because it's mathematically conceivable, and hence necessary"

    This guy is saying that whatever is mathematically conceivable must necessarily exist, and I suppose that every mathematically conceivable universe must exist? Why? This reminds me a little of the Greatest Possible Being argument. Whatever, I'm going to have him arrested by the karma police, and you too!

    Writing this on an iPhone was ass.

  5. I think it's like: if it's mathematically conceivable then it does exist, we know it exists already, because we can look at it and conceive it - that's the level of existence we're talking about, existence-as-a-conceptual-thing (rather than existence-as-a-physical-thing). And even though that seems like a really fuzzy and non-"solid" sort of existence to us, the argument is that our own reality is actually just a consequence (or "subset") of the mathematical object's conceptual "existence".

    So I think it's not as obviously flawed as "Greatest Possible Being" ontological argument - unlike that, it's self-consistent, in that it's not trying to shovel a self-defining-existence into a reality that doesn't require it. (i.e. even if Greatest Possible Being exists "by definition" - which is dodgy in other ways, anyway - there's no reason for it to exist in OUR universe, as opposed to somewhere else.)