23 May, 2016

Quotes #1

A collection of interesting passages I've come across in the interim.


From Greg Egan's Diaspora:
Inoshiro said, "I feel great compassion for all conscious beings. But there's nothing to be done. There will always be suffering. There will always be death."

"Oh, will you listen to yourself? Always! Always! You sound like that phosphoric acid replicator you fried outside Atlanta!" Yatima turned away, trying to calm down. Ve knew that Inoshiro had felt the death of the fleshers more deeply than ve had. Maybe ve should have waited before raising the subject; maybe it seemed disrespectful to the dead to talk so soon about leaving the Earth behind.

It was too late now, though. Ve had to finish saying what ve'd come here to say.

"I'm migrating to Carter-Zimmerman. What they're doing makes sense, and I want to be part of it."

Inoshiro nodded blithely. "Then I wish you well."

"That's it? Good luck and bon voyage?" Yatima tried to read vis face, but Inoshiro just gazed back with a psychoblast's innocence. "What's happened to you? What have you done to yourself?"
Inoshiro smiled beatifically and held out vis hands. A white lotus flower blossomed from the center of each palm, both emitting identical reference tags. Yatima hesitated, then followed their scent.

It was an old outlook, buried in the Ashton-Laval library, copied nine centuries before from one of the ancient memetic replicators that had infested the fleshers. It imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving ... including explicit renunciations of every mode of reasoning able to illuminate the core beliefs' failings.

Analysis with a standard tool confirmed that the outlook was universally self-affirming. Once you ran it you could not change your mind. Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it.

Yatima said numbly, "You were smarter than that. Stronger than that." But when Inoshiro was wounded by Lacerta, what hadn't ve done that might have made a difference? That might have spared ver the need for the kind of anesthetic that dissolved everything ve'd once been?

Inoshiro laughed. "So what am I now? Wise enough to be weak? Or strong enough to be

"What you are now-" Ve couldn't say it.

What you are now is not Inoshiro.

Yatima stood motionless beside ver, sick with grief, angry and helpless. Ve was not in the fleshers' world anymore; there was no nanoware bullet ve could fire into this imaginary body. Inoshiro had made vis choice, destroying vis old self and creating a new one to follow the ancient meme's dictates, and no one else had the right to question this, let alone the power to reverse it.

Yatima reached out to the scape and crumpled the satellite into a twisted ball of metal floating between them, leaving nothing but the Earth and the stars. Then ve reached out again and grabbed the sky, inverting it and compressing it into a luminous sphere sitting in vis hand.

"You can still leave Konishi." Yatima made the sphere emit the address of the portal to Carter-Zimmerman, and held it out to Inoshiro. "Whatever you've done, you still have that choice."

Inoshiro said gently, "It's not for me, Orphan. I wish you well, but I've seen enough."

Ve vanished.

Yatima floated in the darkness for a long time, mourning Lacerta's last victim. 

20 May, 2016

Moral Efficacy, Cosmic Cheesecake, and the Epistemic Vacuum

Epistemic Status: exploratory, uncertain
Tagged in: philosophy, meaningness,


Somewhere in the environs of the blogosphere (if I recall correctly, it was in a Luke Muehlhauser piece), I have encountered the notion that if the universe is indeed infinite, then there is corollary that our actions cannot have a significant impact on the moral status of the universe. It would be the equivalent of emptying the ocean with thimbles. The author's claim was that in this case, we should just adjust our utility calculus so as the give more weight to people closer to us and less to people (say) light years from us.

I didn't like this conclusion. It was not parsimonious. It was inelegant. My objection, however, was filed away into the depths of my mental attic. Long enough to collect dust, long enough, as I mentioned, I actually don't know where I encountered the notion.

I'm going to tackle it anyway.

17 May, 2016

Motions of Meaningness

This is a riff on David Chapman's forever incomplete Meaningness html book. Knowing what the hell that is not required, or beneficial really. I just steal borrow his terminology to point at a neat pattern that would probably better suit a series of twitter postings.

Epistemic Status: I writing this late at night; expect moderate incoherence.


When you ask people 'what's the meaning of life', there are two common answers, and a few uncommon ones I think I saw mention in Chapman's site but forgot too much about to even find the reference again. Nihilism is the total denial of true meaning. Eternalism is Chapman's coinword for what's basically anti-nihilism. They are mirror images in two ways, the one illustrated in his site, which is they they are (mostly) motivated by fear of each other, acting like something of a distributed sorting algorithm for people's emotional proclivities.

The other way is simply in terms of connections. Meaning in logical systems is about isomorphism. This meshes quite well with the intuitive impression of meaning in most cases, where something can be thought of as meaningful if it maps onto something more familiar, in some kind of structure preserving map. These words are meaningful because they map onto concepts in your heed, for instance.

Switching tracks, let me tell you about this idea stewing about in my head for the longest: deep symbolism. Sometimes I wonder about what types of things are intrinsic the humanity and the environs we inhabit, and produce images that are invariant over time and space. Concepts, narratives, images, that all emerge naturally from our neural makeup. Attractors in mindspace. Call these things, if they exist at all, 'deep symbols'.

Occaisionally when checking a musical album, for example, I'll wonder about what deep symbol I'm brushing up against. I think about whatever thoughts/ideas are expressed in the music, and wonder about what paradigm I can fit them into, that would have this particular piece of culture fall out as a specific instance.

At least one time, which prompted this post, I'll have the self-awareness to realize what I'm doing. I'm reaching for meaning; this is what meaning-search feels like from inside. And this gives me a nice, neat analogy for the eternalism/nihilism split: eternalism is the insistence that there is very simple, elegant conceit which you have a structure preserving mapping of everything in existence onto this very simple thingy and isn't it nice?

(fans of Unsong, this is basically what adam kadmon (pls let me have spelled that right) is)

Nihilism is the exact opposite. It sees the world through the lens of a metaphorical sensory processing disorder where everything is noise. No patterns, no regularity, etc. This may or may not be how SPDs actually work, but it's a conceit that's gotten into my head and stuck around.

Even simpler: nihilism is a graph with no connections, and eternalism is a completely-connected graph.

None of this is how reality looks like, when you get down to it. It's a delicate interplay of order and randomness, a transcendental number rather than a integer or a undefinable and real number.

I hope at least I can help other feel and notice this same reaching for insight, for small-m meaning that happens to me from time to time.

10 May, 2016

Hierarchy of Conventions

Epistemic Status: Useful & Likely

This concept frequently comes up when I explain this idea to my friends, so I'm primarily writing this so I have a convenient place to link them the next time I have to explain it.

first rung: 'useful'

The levels of my hierarchy are essentially systemic safety nets; anything that falls through the first level is tested against the second level and so on. The requirements get progressive more lax to cast the net wider and wider.

At the first level, we must ask ourselves 'is this convention useful'. This is the highest, strictest and most salient level, dealing with all 'important' conventions. Here, we have Newtonian Mechanics, folk theories of mind, most (vertically transmitted) religions, etc.

The property of interest here is that while these cultural inventions really (in the Chapman sense of 'really' denoting 'in some sense') reflect structures in the real world. The gotcha here is that things first go the a homomorphism-distorting utility calculus.

I'll unpack that last bullet of jargon. A homomorphism is an algebraic equivalence which essentially means a isomorphism that preserves structure. A function like x^2 or 7x map most xs onto different numbers than themself (that is, 3 becomes 9 or 21, 7 becomes 49, etc.), it preserves several useful relations, such as the total ordering '>'.

It has been neatly demonstrated (Quanta article, paper) that, generally speaking, homomorphism-preserving internal representations of the external world, i..e. beliefs structures that accurately map reality, are not evolutionary viable, particularly when computations are expensive (i.e. always).

And this captures the 'utility calculus' part of it as well; the distortions is caused simply by the fact that usefully non-homomorphic representations are generally 'better' than their undistorted alternatives.

But I digress. It's be instructive to point to things that are patently not in this category. These are Quantum Mechanics/General Relativity, the consensus neurology/psychology/sociology, etc.

second rung: 'accurate'

The next level catches anything which isn't useful per se, but accurately respects reality. Everything I mentioned at the end of the last sections falls here. 

You might have noticed that the first rung is relative; generalizations like 'bigger brains mean higher intelligence' are useful when describing populations and averages, but hopelessly imprecise for describing individual people. In fact, accuracy becomes usefulness whenever the domain of interest is scientific.

The second rung is equally nebulous in a distict way; where what is 'useful' mutates whenever the domain of interest changes, what is 'accurate' varies as time. As the canonical example of this: Newton's Mechanics was accurate centuries ago, but not now.

third rung: 'convenient'

This is an even more nebulous rung. 'Convenient' is anything where you can do it anyway you want, but some ways are just plainly easier. In linear algebra, you can describe vectors by translating your vector space by any constant amount you like, and the calculations are equivalent. But still, A translation by +2,-8 or 0,+5 are much more convenient than (say) +(pi),-sqrt(3) or -e,+8/9.

I'd guess the main thing making this a distinct category from usefulness is that for usefulness, you can do it a different way, and you get a different answer. GR gives slightly different answers than NM, (and by the accuracy criterion is slightly different in the right way), but there is a reason we use NM for things like mundane trajectory calculations, and we'll define that reason by that and denote it 'usefulness'.

Likewise, there is a reason we do our calculations in base ten rather than base three or base phi, and we'll define the reason by that and denote it 'convenience'.

fourth rung: 'convention'

This is finally where everything has fallen through and any framework is neither especially useful, especially accurate, nor especially convenient. This is the domain of ISO standards, certain cultural artifacts, whether we spell it 'color' or 'colour'.

fifth rung: may god have mercy on your souls