Geeks Dig Metaphors: Paradigm A Dozen

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, all work…

This series of posts has become rather longer than the very short thing I was originally going to write, but we’re heading into the home stretch now. (Parts one, two and three for latecomers.)

This post is the part that inspired the overall title for this mini-series, and is probably going to be the least convincing. But I find it the most convincing.

You see, in large part I agree with the Singulatarians, and that’s precisely why I disagree with them.

Let me explain.

Belief in the Singularity is part of what we might call a ‘paradigm’ or ‘meme-plex’ (depending on precisely what species of wanker we are), or a world-view. It’s one that, in its broadest outlines, I share, and it is that the universe can be regarded as pure information.

People arrive at this position – a sort of scientific neo-Platonism – from a variety of scientific sources, but you can get to it from proper computer science (see Scott Aaronson’s wonderful series of lectures on Quantum Computing Since Democritus), information theory, cybernetics, quantum theory via either the Copenhagen or Many-Worlds interpretations, Bayes’ theorem, Solomonoff induction or probably a dozen other ways. Almost all these fields, incidentally, come originally from work by John von Neumann…

In brief, this world-view could be summarised as:

  • Most of modern science is more-or-less correct. In particular, relativity, evolution and quantum physics are largely correct
  • It makes no sense to talk about things that are outside of the physical world, such as souls or gods, unless those things can be proved to exist by some effect they have on the physical world
  • Any physical system can be modelled by a Turing machine, given enough time and memory
  • Any two things which are isomorphic are the same (the identity of indiscernibles)
  • The scientific method – form a hypothesis, make a prediction from that hypothesis, test the prediction, revise the hypothesis in light of the results – is the only way of obtaining accurate information about the universe
  • The mind is a purely physical process
  • If you want a book explaining this viewpoint in great detail, I recommend David Deutsch’s The Fabric Of Reality (which I reviewed here )

    Now, most of this is stuff which is fairly sensible, and with which I (and I suspect most people) could agree. And it leads to the belief that both the universe and the human mind can be thought of in some sense as computer programs, or as mathematical formalisms.

    (Those of you who know a little of the history of philosophy will now get why I referred to the attitude of Singulatarians as Panglossian in the last post – Doctor Pangloss in Candide being of course a satire of Leibniz, whose ideas are very much a 17th century precursor to this worldview).

    At one extreme, this belief that the universe can be modelled as a computer program simply leads to things like Steve Yegge’s argument that we should treat questions like ‘what’s outside the universe?’ the same way we should treat an undef in programming. At the other, it leads to the ideas of mathematical physicist Max Tegmark, who argues that all mathematical formal systems have an objective reality in exactly the same way our universe does.

    This worldview does impact on the Singulatarians, in a variety of ways, from shaping their view of the end result of the Singularity, to their thoughts on how it should be created (a lot of the discussions around the Singularity Institute involve people trying to come up with a rigorous decision theory, based on Bayesian probabilities, that would work in a quantum multiverse, because they believe this to be necessary for the creation of an artificial intelligence that won’t harm humanity).

    But while this worldview is probably the closest we’ve got to a ‘correct understanding of the universe’ so far, it is only a model. And I think going from that model to statements that the mind ‘is’ a computer program, or that the universe ‘is’, is a step too far – confusing the map with the territory. Our models – our worldviews – are metaphors. They’re ways of understanding the universe. They’re not the actual universe itself, any more than Burns’ love really was a red red rose.

    Every other model we’ve had of the universe so far – the Aristotelean worldview, the clockwork universe of Newton and so on – has proved incorrect. Those models all worked for a restricted domain – those cases that could be understood and measured at the time, and that people had bothered to check. But it was the edge cases – those areas in which those worldviews were stretched to their limits – that caused those models to fall down.

    And every time, while the predictions made for things that were already known stayed the same (Aristotle, Newton and Einstein all predict that things will fall to the ground), the underlying view of the universe changed immeasurably, along with the predictions for the unknown.

    Our knowledge of science is immeasurably better now than, say, a hundred years ago, but it’s not yet complete. It may never be, but no matter what, things like a quantum theory of gravity, if we ever find one, *will* bring with them new ways of looking at the world, and I have no doubt that saying the universe is a computer program, or that the human mind is one, will look as ridiculous as saying that things move towards their natural place based on how much earth, air, fire or water they contain.

    The Singularity is, pretty much by definition, the place where our current thinking breaks down, even if you accept all the arguments for it. Now, either we’ve managed to get everything exactly right for the first time in history, and what’s more that getting everything exactly right will lead to immortality just before Ray Kurzweil would otherwise die, followed by the creation of heaven on Earth, or there’s a mistake in our current scientific thinking.

    I’d like to believe the former, but I’m not putting money on it…

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    12 Responses to Geeks Dig Metaphors: Paradigm A Dozen

    1. Pingback: Constitution Class « A Trout In The Milk

    2. pillock says:

      So pleased at two things in this, Andrew — two important things you take care to make mention of. One, that essential difference between “like” and “is” — the difference between simile and metaphor, and not confusing metaphor for reality. This is what it means to be a responsible scientist in the twenty-first century: to know what the crucible is made of.

      But also I think to be a responsible scientist in the 21st century means realizing that Aristotle was a perfectly rational guy for his time and context…or at least we must credit him with rationality because like him we are always under the pressure of a) assumptions and b) the need to explain that flows from those assumptions. And he did make discoveries that continue to count today.

      More comment later, on this excellent three-part post. But Andrew…what, couldn’t whip up another two posts in this series? Because I am not done reading you on this yet, hate to confess.

    3. Wesley says:

      Speaking of metaphors… I usually hear the Singularity defined as the point when the pace of technological change accelerates to the point that the future is impossible to predict and life becomes qualitatively different in ways we can’t imagine.

      If the experiences of previous generations are any guide, most of us will at some time in our lives reach a point where we can’t keep up with all the new smartphones and iPads and interwebs and what have you, and will need our grandkids’ help to make our new and improved ultra-tech VCR equivalent stop flashing 12:00. (I may already be there. To this day, I’ve never had a cell phone.)

      In this sense, we will all someday experience what it’s like to live in the Singularity. Sometimes I wonder if unconscious anxiety over this possibility is behind some people’s interest in the concept.

    4. pillock says:

      What will come, and is coming, is not a Singularity: it’s a Fragmentation. The Singularity is a wonderful literary device for showing the Fragmentation. Our instruments of observation are getting so good, that they’ll outstrip our theories. All new Einsteins will have to be Fast Runners.

    5. Holly says:

      I’d have called this one “It’s only a model — sh!”

      Okay, I know I’m not helping.

    6. Colin Smith says:

      Andrew, I’m sorry, but would you delete my abovecomment; I missed two silly typos. Thank you:

      One of the things I find most interesting about this whole topic, of which I know little, and concerning which I know less, is how much of the discussion is founded upon debating something which has never happened before and hasn’t happened yet. I’m really grateful for this excellent work, Andrew, and for the illuminating comments which have been left. I’ve come back several times to re-read it.

      But I wonder what the likes of Popper would’ve said about this? I’m not claiming his view on science and knowledge in general is the correct one. But I would have loved to see his stance on all this chat about an unfalsifiable hypothesis, in its own way as independent of the burden of scientific proof as the inevitable Communist revolution or, indeed, the Rapture.

      It’s not that I don’t get the need to think about the future and to use metaphors to do so. I’m just saying that Popper’s response would’ve been worth a great deal to observe.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Have deleted, but didn’t even notice the typos.
        I tend to agree with Popper (pillock is more of a Kuhn man, as you’ll see if I ever get this issue of PEP! out) and think he would have regarded it as absolute lunacy. But it’s actually worse than unfalsifiable in some ways – Kurzweill, at least, has made several predictions which have turned out to be absolutely false (e.g. predicting five years ago that in 2010 we would all have wearable computers for clothes, and computers as separate objects would cease to exist), yet he’s still taken seriously.
        (Tipler has actually presented his argument for the Omega Point in the form of a falsifiable scientific theory – it’s based on some assumptions, like string theory being incorrect and the Higgs boson having a particular mass, which can be tested, and if they’re proved false then so is his theory. However, from Tipler’s later writings, I suspect he’d refuse to accept such proof…)

      • pillock says:

        I heard Vancouver’s own “Dr. Tomorrow” argue in the mid-Eighties that human beings would no longer be reproducing by means of SEX by the year 2000.

        One thing you gotta love about sex, it’s like gravity-fed water — the power never goes out on it.

        Can you imagine saying something that stupid? Even for me it’s a stretch.

        And for the record I’m a big fan of Popper!

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Actually, I *can* imagine people saying things that are just that stupid.
          Pretty much all this strand of thought comes from the old St Paul school of being so disgusted with one’s own body that one wants to cast it aside. This is one reason why so many Aspergers types are attracted to this kind of thinking – the sensory and motor issues make a body more of a burden than a blessing.
          I can sympathise with that to an extent – I’m uncomfortable with my own body to a great extent – but I’m not *disgusted* with my own body, or that of other people. I certainly don’t see getting rid of sex as being a selling point for any philosophy… but I can understand those who do, while just hoping with all my heart that none of them ever get anywhere near a position of actual power…

    7. Gavin Burrows says:

      “This is one reason why so many Aspergers types are attracted to this kind of thinking – the sensory and motor issues make a body more of a burden than a blessing.”

      True, but it’s also much more mainstream than that. It’s in virtually all major religions and many philosophies. What else was Plato going on about?

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