Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Failures of Ancient Science

The following is a chapter in a story I'm writing to promote the Pro-Truth Pledge, Earthlings: People of the Dawn. There aren't any major spoilers in it so it kind of works as a standalone short story as well. It explains some of the major flaws of contemporary science.


Ji-Yu strode into the classroom where her students were already waiting for her.

“Hello everyone.”

“Hello Sensei,” said the class, sullenly. All of them were ancients who had once been amateur scientists.

“Welcome to the tutorial on basic contemporary science. For many of you, the reason you are here is because, despite what you were told on Ancient Earth, your skills are woefully inadequate for success in your discipline.”

“That's not true! We were all experts in our fields!” shouted one of the students without raising his hand.

“Relative to most everyone else who lived back then, yes, you were experts,” said Ji-Yu, cooly. “But reality does not grade on a curve, and neither do I. It doesn’t matter who does better or worse. What matters are results. The results of Ancient Science are impressive, given its shortcomings. But in the end, Ancient Science wasn’t fast or strict enough to ensure the survival of the human species.”

“Then how are any of us still alive?” another one of the students demanded. “Divine Intervention? Aliens? Is there some crazy pseudo-scientific explanation you have in mind?”

“Hardly,” said Ji-Yu. “Listen well, all of you. The answer to your question requires some background knowledge.”

“A long time ago, long before even we ancients who are still alive today, there was a man named Aristotle (I'm sure you've heard of him before), who believed that it was possible to uncover the secrets of the Universe only by thinking. He believed that to judge things merely by their appearance was a poor way to arrive at truth and would only fool you in the end -- that you couldn't trust how something looked, you needed to rely only on thought. Obvious nonsense, yes?

“Then one day, some people thought of the opposite idea: that it was possible to uncover the secrets of the Universe only by their appearance. They believed that to actually think about things was an empty pursuit and would only fool you in the end -- that you couldn't trust your thoughts, you needed to rely only on what you could see and touch.”

Ji-Yu gazed at them all sternly. “Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. The dumbest person in the Universe can say ‘The Sun is Shining’ but that doesn't mean it's dark out. It should be extremely obvious common sense that uncovering the secrets of the Universe requires you to not only look, but to actually use your brain as well. But most of Ancient Humanity lacked that common sense because they were not trained to use it. Ancient Science was built around the assumption that scientists are too stupid and self-deceiving to be able to trust their own brains to process evidence. It didn’t even occur to ancient scientists that they could develop training programs which could teach them how to overcome biases and avoid cognitive errors.

“Furthermore, Ancient Science allowed its practitioners to avoid updating their own theories with evidence for as long as they liked, so long as they updated eventually. There was an old saying that I’m sure you’ve heard before that Science advances one funeral at a time. Not one definitive experiment at a time. One funeral at a time. Ancient Science didn’t advance because its more experienced practitioners updated or replaced their old falsified theories, but rather because its most experienced practitioners died, and their outdated theories with them.

“Scientific consensus was still the most reliable indicator of whether something was true or not, but that wasn’t much of an accomplishment -- since it would only form after scientists gathered enough overwhelming evidence to beat themselves over the head with. Ancient Science was much more accurate and reliable than other sources which existed at the time, but it was still unimaginably slow on the uptake. It took them decades to solve mysteries that today’s scientists could solve in months or even days!

“That is beyond pathetic, and it's practically a miracle that such an inadequate institution was able to support the development of a technological civilization in the first place.”

The students stared at their instructor in astonishment as she continued her lecture.

“Imagine that there was a cliff, and you hypothesized that if you walked off that cliff, you wouldn't fall to your death. A scientist of Ancient Earth, perfectly obeying the laws of science as they understood it back then, would have been permitted to assign a non-negligible subjective probability to your not falling to your death if you step off the cliff, prior to conducting the experiment by watching what happens when you step off. Yes, falling to one’s death is what happened when others tried it, but how would they know that it would happen to you too when you tried it? Technically, this particular hypothesis has never been tested. That scientist won't know for absolute certain if you will fall to your death until you actually hit the ground, since until then they don't have data from a definitive experiment saying that you would.

“If you still doubt that you would have survived walking off a cliff on Ancient Earth without a parachute or anything similar, Ancient Science does not provide sufficient technical justification for your doubts to hold weight, because you haven't done the experiment yet.

“But Bayesian Probability theory does provide sufficient technical justification. In Bayesian Probability, every change in the probability assigned to a hypothesis requires some amount of evidence. The bigger the change, the more evidence required. To justifiably have 100% certainty in a hypothesis, you need infinite evidence. This is the case even for hypotheses with as extremely high a probability such as ‘If I walk off that cliff I'll fall to my death’

“ But the amount of evidence needed to be 99.99999% certain of a hypothesis is much smaller than infinite evidence. And because our brains don't intuitively grasp differences of probabilities that small, they are rounded off. It's significantly less likely that two plus two equals three than that Santa Claus exists, but the amount of evidence against both hypotheses is so great that our brains cannot intuitively tell the difference. Any amount of subjective probability our brains are capable of assigning to hypotheses as unlikely as that would be too large, so we simply don’t assign any subjective probability to them.

“You don't need to be infinitely certain that you will fall to your death if you step off the cliff to avoid stepping off of it. You just need to be certain enough. You don't need a definitive experiment for that. If you already know that other humans have about the same amount of resilience to impacts of that strength, that the cliff probably isn't significantly changing its height any time soon, that the ground below the cliff probably isn't significantly changing its hardness any time soon, and that the law of gravity still applies, then just check to see if other people who’ve fallen from similar heights onto a similar surface without a parachute or other such device survived their falls and you’re done. You have enough evidence to be extremely certain, though not infinitely so. It’s sufficient to make a decision.”

Another one of the students raised her hand.

“And before you ask,” said Ji-Yu. “By ‘subjective probability’, I mean how much you expect a hypothesis to be true or false given the evidence available. You can feel how much subjective probability you’ve assigned to a hypothesis by imagining hypothetical future evidence which confirms or falsifies that hypothesis and asking yourself how surprised or unsurprised you would be by that evidence.”

The student put her hand down.

“The reason we survived was not because the ancient institution of Science finally got its act together and began to reach its full potential,” said Ji-Yu. “The reason we survived was because some people who studied Bayesian Probability outside of conventional academic spaces recognized the scientific method as it was understood at the time for what it really was: an approximation of Bayesian probabilistic reasoning. They used findings in the cognitive sciences to improve their thinking skills, and applied their understanding of Bayesian Probability theory to help solve important and neglected scientific and technical problems. To this day they are remembered as some of the greatest heroes of Ancient Earth. That is why we are still alive.”

The ancients just sat there, speechless.

“Your final exam in this class, which you will likely take at some point later this year, is to rediscover the correct theory of quantum gravity given germinal background knowledge. You’ll be graded on speed as well as accuracy. Additionally, you’ll be keeping a research log throughout the exam, where you’ll write down your entire procedure to rediscover the theory.

Over the coming months I will teach you the skills you will need to successfully pass that exam. I look forward to working with you.”

Ji-Yu bowed. “Class dismissed.”

The ancients fled the classroom as if their lives depended on it. They felt as if their final exam was a great beast which would, sometime within the coming year, swallow them whole.

The first-week panic had begun.

Also this scene was largely inspired by the following blog posts:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Why Science Books Must Use Jargon instead of Talking in Plain English

Sometimes I wish Science would use clearer notation instead of cloaking itself in fancy jargon. There's a problem with that though...

Publisher: What did you say your book was called again?

Daniel Kahneman: Thinking and Feeling.

: And what is your book about?

Daniel Kahneman
: It's a science book explaining the two systems of perception and decision-making in the brain --the mind and the heart/soul/gut.

: *sighs* I can't publish this.

Daniel Kahneman
: Why the Hell not? None of this is new information. I'm just distilling what brain researchers already know into a format that's easier for those outside the field to read.

: That's exactly why I can't publish it.

Daniel Kahneman
: Explain.

: *looks at Daniel Kahneman like he's stupid* If I publish your book, Mr. Kahneman, about half of your readers will triumphantly proclaim that Science has discovered the existence of the Soul, therefore there is an afterlife, their God is real and their religion is true.

The other half of your readers will proclaim that this is forbidden knowledge gained by experimenting on souls, and then they'll pressure the government to shut down the blasphemous practice of neuroscience.

Daniel Kahneman
: What? That's ridiculous! The heart/soul/gut is just the intuitive or emotional part of the brain's functioning. Not to say it isn't a very complex and important part of what makes a person what they are, but that doesn't justify belief in supernatural mumbo jumbo like magic and ghosts!

Also, not all experiments on the heart/soul/gut are unethical! You don't need to damage or physically deconstruct a heart/soul/gut to study it, nor do you need to open up the part of the body it's stored in!
You just need to take pictures of it using a device that can detect a certain kind of low-energy invisible light and filter out higher-energy forms of light like the kind that's typically visible to humans. This is because the mind and heart/soul/gut are functions of the brain, all brain functioning is substantiated as electrically charged chemical signals, and when electrical energy moves its called electromagnetic energy and that's what light itself is, electromagnetic energy.

The "cameras" used to detect the low-energy invisible light that the heart/soul/gut is made of aren't invasive, and they are too low resolution to detect much if any personal or identifying information about a particular mind and heart/soul/gut. And even if they were higher resolution, medical research has privacy laws for a reason. Furthermore, all subjects must be willing volunteers. Even in the case where the subject is dead and their mind and 
heart/soul/gut are permanently broken.

Also, why the fuck would trying to understand ourselves and our natures be blasphemous? The quest for Humanity to understand itself and its place in the Universe is as sacred as it gets!

: Your readers won't see it that way.

Daniel Kahneman
: Fine. How's this then? Instead of targeting my book towards a lay audience, I'll target it towards a smart, scientifically and technically inclined audience outside of the field of brain research.
I'll also obscure what I'm saying in fancy jargon so that even if my readers understand it on an intellectual level, they won't understand it on an intuitive, emotional level. Since their religious attitudes are primarily stored in the intuitive, emotional part of their brains, understanding my book on a mere intellectual level will not trigger an association with their religious attitudes.
Thus, my book will inspire no moral outrage.

: Very good. What will your book be called?

Daniel Kahneman
: Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Phobia

I used to be constantly paranoid about being accused of wrongdoings that I did not do.
For much of my life, one of my greatest fears was going to jail for a crime I didn't commit, simply for saying the wrong thing or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Whenever something bad happened I would fear being blamed for it even when it clearly had nothing to do with me. I was hypersensitive to others misjudging me as having harmful intent, and was triggered by those judgments, especially when there was no clear or justifiable reason for those judgments.
This phobia still has not completely gone away, and it still resurfaces sometimes. If you've gotten into a major heated argument with me about anything which got way out of hand, chances are this is why.
Not saying that as an excuse, still totally my fault for acting like that.
No really it's not an excuse, please don't take it as an excuse!
I'm not trying to tell you what to think. If you want to take it as an excuse that's your choice and that's okay.

I mean it, I'm not being sarcastic!

Yes, I get that it comes across that way, but that isn't what I meant.
Okay, so it doesn't matter what I meant, only what I said, and what I said above is an excuse for my bad behavior. I'm sorry, I didn't mean it as an excuse.
Okay, I get that what I said is an excuse, but I STILL didn't mean it that way! I get that what I meant doesn't matter, but will you at least acknowledge that I didn't mean it that way?
Right, I'm sorry, I can't tell you what to think or what to say.

Some of the individual lines above feel like a necessary disclaimer for clear communication with anyone about this in general, and they actually seem kinda reasonable until I look at them altogether in one place. I feel like that should scare me deep down to my bones--
My intellect says most people will believe me about my phobia and empathize with me about it without taking it as an excuse. A large part of my intuition says they won't believe me and that they will take it as an excuse.
But I have enough things that scare me deep down to my bones even worse that this thing pales in comparison.
So I've found an inconsistency between my best probabilistic guess about how people would react and how a part of me feels like they would react. Time to update, right!? To the best of my knowledge,that part of me is wrong and needs to change its mind.
But I've already been kinda aware of this for a while, and so far the solution I've used is to just ignore that part of me where the phobia is still taken seriously and not reinforce it. I think that's helped a bit, but it hasn't actually eliminated the problem outright.
What would it take to eliminate it outright? It feels like I'd probably need to find people that I feel completely safe around in the mental/emotional sense. What would it take to feel completely safe around someone? I'd need to be able to freely talk to them about anything without fearing rejection or that the other person would take what I'm saying as an attack.
Problem though, that's an unreasonably high standard of evidence for falsifying the hypothesis that people would not believe me about my phobia or that they would believe I'm using it as an excuse for bad behavior if I bring it up at all. Some might believe me about my phobia, empathize, and not take it as an excuse, while still rejecting me or feeling attacked if I say something in particular they strongly disagree with.
Who am I even talking to? Maybe I ate something I shouldn't have, I didn't feel this crappy a few hours ago.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

On Contemporary Slavery and "Basic Jobs"

So let's be really honest here: slavery still exists and is still widespread.

The difference between most contemporary slavery and what we typically still refer to as slavery historically, is that nowadays masters pay their slaves in paper instead of food, clothing and shelter etc. By outsourcing the food, clothing and shelter etc. to somebody else, masters can avoid being held accountable for not giving their slaves enough paper to subsist on. Because, you see, no one actually tells the masters how much their slaves need to survive. And if a slave tells them, they probably won't be believed.

The fact that much of our civilization's functioning currently depends on such slavery is no excuse for us to close our eyes to it. As technology improves, slavery becomes increasingly obsolete.
But most people don't understand all of this because of all the lies being told about the nature of poverty. So when technology displaces slaves from their labor, those slaves are discarded instead of being integrated into free society. Since integrating ex-slaves into free society takes more effort than simply saying "you're free, now go do free-person stuff".

And when someone recommends helping ex-slaves displaced by technology integrate into free society by giving them resources they can use for that without any strings attached, they are told that this is bad because if they do not work than they do not deserve any money (or in other words, if they serve no master than they do not deserve to live).

So instead they propose a plan to put the ex-slaves back into slavery, but this time doing useless, pointless tasks that no one needs nor wants them to do. Since that's better than having them get anything for free, right!?

I think this explains the whole pathetic fiasco that is "basic jobs". (my favorite blog) goes into more detail on what "basic jobs" is and why it would be such a godawful policy which should never be implemented.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Starting From Cerulean

This is a pokemon fanfic I wrote for class. Hope you like it!


It is your tenth birthday, and that means today's the day you receive your first Pokemon! Or it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, you live in Cerulean city, and you got caught in the morning traffic.

When you finally arrive at the Cerulean city gym, you find the gym leader there, who tells you the last starter Pokemon has already been taken.

Having already had to bike for an hour through the morning traffic, you decided if you're not going to get a starter Pokemon, at least you can ask the gym leader for advice to help you better prepare for your Pokemon journey next year.

At some point in the conversation you ask Misty if an all Water Pokemon team would be viable in the Pokemon league.

"Water is the most diverse Pokemon type there is," says Misty. "If you want to challenge the Pokemon league with an all water team, I say go for it."

"What sort of water Pokemon should I pick?" You ask.

"Well, what's your team strategy?" Misty asks back. "If you're going for an all water team, I would recommend choosing Pokemon that perform well in the rain."

"A rain team..." you murmur to yourself. "So I should pick a Pokemon that can learn rain dance for my starter?"

"Not necessarily," says Misty. "There are some Pokemon, like politoed or pelliper, with the ability drizzle. Drizzle summons rain upon entering battle without needing to use rain dance."

You think for a moment.

"What if my opponents use their own weather teams?" You ask. "If an opposing pokemon uses Sunny day that could be hard to deal with."

"Golduck has the ability cloud nine, which eliminates weather effects," says Misty.

"How does it do that?" you ask.

Misty is starting to look annoyed by all your questions.

"Well, why don't I show you. I choose you, Golduck!" she tosses a pokeball and a big blue vaguely psychic-looking duck materializes."

Clouds form over head to block out the sunlight but which are not heavy enough to rain.

"Goooollllduck!" the golduck cries.

"Why is it blue? Is that its shiny form?"

"Actually, maybe you should go on a Pokemon journey and find out for yourself. Now take your starter Pokemon already."

"But I thought you said there were no starter Pokemon left!"

"Oh I'm sorry, did I say that?" Misty laughs. "I lied. There is one more." She hands you a pokeball.

"What is it?" you ask.

"Psyduck. It evolves into Golduck. Enjoy your Pokemon journey!"

You thank her and then you're on your way.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Free Will?

Free Will advocate: Free Will must exist. How could we have meaningful choices if we are not the sole source of all our acts? If we are not responsible for the choices we make, then we cannot be held responsible for anything! Also, I believe in the social contract/reciprocal theory of morality, which is useful for keeping societies functioning and intact, but not useful for understanding psychology. My goal in this conversation is to advocate getting people to be more personally responsible and to discourage them from doing stupid, unethical illegal things, and also to get them to not make excuses for people who do stupid, unethical, illegal things. Also monotheism-apologetic stuff, but that might be secondary.

Free Will skeptic: Free Will cannot exist. It is like saying "Magic!" or "Phlogiston!" or "Emegence!": a "model" with no internal causal detail which makes no advance predictions. Also, I believe in the maximize flourishing and minimize suffering theory of morality, which is useful for saving more lives and breaking harmful status quos, but not as useful for maintaining friendships or interacting with individuals or smaller groups in a cooperative manner. My goal in this conversation is to advocate for more humane treatment of criminals, and for overhauling the criminal justice system so that it actually cares about rehabilitation rather than focusing so much on punishment.

Me: Past experiences/environment/genetics/whatever other factors => Perception, Thinking and Decision-making process => Future Actions

Where am I in the process described above? Simple. That process IS me. Where different definitions of me exist on a continuum in chronological order. Each definition is a different arbitrary time interval of the process, and only one definition is true at any given point in time. Maybe that doesn't quite cover it, but I'm not a neuroscientist so it's good enough for me for some purposes.

Also, the fact that we live in a deterministic universe where everything could in theory be predicted in advance if you had enough computing power and enough data, doesn't mean that you have no choices. It just means that you don't understand what human decision-making *is* at the level of quantum physics. And you're never going to because no human has enough space in their heads for that. Suffice to say that having the outcome already be predetermined shouldn't bias you towards inaction, since you could just as easily be predetermined to choose to live an active lifestyle and actually try to do interesting and worthwhile stuff with your life as you could be predetermined to lie around in your room all day moping about not having free will.

People ARE responsible for their choices, the universe IS deterministic, and the reasons that you two are having trouble reconciling these two facts is because:

1. You don't sufficiently understand how your own cognition works
2. You don't suffiicently understand how determinism works.
3. You don't have any idea what conscious human decision making might look like in full physical detail at the cellular level in the brain.
4. Free will advocate is motivated by a desire to hold people accountable for their misdeeds. Free will skeptic is motivated by the desire to prevent those misdeeds from happening again or from happening in the first place.

These two desires are not incompatible. But when you two argue about free will, you're talking past each other because you're misapplying ideas from physics and cognitive science to social contracts and criminal law, or you're misapplying ideas regarding social contracts and criminal law to physics and cognitive science.

So basically, it kinda boils down to both of you refusing to admit that you just don't know that precisely, refusing to be content with relying on useful conceptual approximations which appear to be contradictory on the surface for the time being, and refusing to respect the subject-area category boundaries that humans invent in part for preventing exactly this sort of dilemma.

Have I mentioned before that almost everybody in the world is crazy?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Value, Meaning, Narrative and Altruism in a Reductionist Mathematical Universe

I originally posted the following on WordPress for an ungraded blog post assignment in a rhetoric and community service class. Since the assignment was ungraded, I figured it would be okay to post it here as well. I also edited it a bit too. Hope you like it!

brain+celll.jpg ^Brain cell and Universe. Image source unknown.

The following essay discusses a decent amount of semi-general background information about a variety of subjects. Much of it is commonly known or discussed by people interested in particular fields of knowledge, to the point where I don't know precisely who to credit with it all, even though an average person who isn't familiar with those subjects or hasn't taken any classes in them would not be familiar with them much if at all. This is just my own perspective which I have acquired from many years of reading and learning about a variety of subjects. If anything I say in this essay is factually incorrect, or if there's some information below which comes from a particular source that I have forgotten about and you know what that particular source is, please let me know so I can make corrections and citations. I have taken the Pro-Truth Pledge, so please hold me accountable.

Reductionism. A philosophy that many love to argue against, and which almost no one understands. I bet you're already shaking your head sadly at my naivete. I bet you're thinking, "The world is too complex to reduce to simple math. What of civilization, history, culture, art, friendship, love, or the human spirit? There's more to life than numbers and equations."

Yes, there's more to life than sitting in front of a computer crunching numbers all day. On this we agree. But if everything is made out of math, then that means that the computer is made out of math, and your desk is made out of math, and your chair is made out of math, and you are made out of math. And it also means that everyone who ever lived was made out of math, that culture, art, history, and civilization itself are made out of math. That love and friendship, every human and animal emotion and experience and memory is made out of math. That your mind and soul are made out of math, and so too for every human being who has ever lived.

But if everything is made out of math, what does that mean? For most people, mathematics is a particular subject, one of many categories taught about in school, and there are other subjects that are just as important if not more so.

What are these "categories"? Does the Universe actually care about the distinctions and boundaries that we invent? Humans like to put things into categories, organizing our beliefs into different levels of scope. We have different beliefs about how societies work, how people work, how organs work, how cells work, how molecules work, how atoms work, and how quarks work.

But those different "levels" of organization only exist in the mind. Societies are made of people. People are made of organs. Organs are made of cells. Cells are made of molecules. Molecules are made of atoms. Atoms are made of subatomic particles, which are made of leptons and quarks. And being "made of" a thing(s) is the quality of being that thing(s). An atom is the subatomic particles it is made of. A molecule is the atoms it is made of. A cell is the molecules it's made of. Etc.

Societies are made of people. Okay, seems obvious enough. People are made of organs. Okay, not so obvious. What about the human spirit/heart/soul? That's not an organ, is It?

The dominant paradigm throughout much of human society is that the soul is incorporeal, that it is an essence or "spark", and not a function of the body.

But Science offers a different perspective. The human mind and heart/soul are actually two systems of the brain, the Intentional System (otherwise known as system 2, or the Mind) and the Automatic System (system 1, otherwise known as the Heart or Soul). The Intentional System is the slow, deliberative, logical part of the brain, while the Automatic System is the fast, perceptual, emotional side of the brain.

Neuroscientists avoid using the word "heart" to describe the Automatic System because there's already another organ in the body with that name, and they avoid using the word "soul" to describe the Automatic System because it's loaded with supernatural connotations. (The word "spirit" faces similar pitfalls.)

But if you subtract all the supernatural connotations (such as continuing to exist in an afterlife or being a divine "spark" or "essence") then what's left of the word "soul" as it is colloquially used directly corresponds to the Automatic System of the human brain, with maybe a few other Intentional System functions or functions that combine both systems added in.

People talk about the soul as if it is something that feels emotions such as love, friendship and compassion, has moral character and/or personality (like, so and so was such an honest soul), remembers the past, dreams of the future, etc. etc.

What all of these things attributed to souls have in common is that they are all patterns of thinking, feeling, or behavior. In other words they are functions of the brain.

People sometimes say that the eyes are the window to the soul. And of course, what organ lies behind the eyes? The thing that happens to be the most complex object in the known universe?

You guessed it, the human brain. 

But wait a moment. The human brain isn't a divine "spark" or "essence". It's a system with a bunch of different parts in it working together. And none of those individual parts seems all that human. Is the amygdala human? Is the neocortex human? Is the hypothalamus human? Where is the human here? Why don't I recognize myself in this machine?

Because that "machine" often can't directly observe it's own internal functioning. The human mind and soul can sometimes have a lot of trouble understanding itself, and ends up making educated guesses about its own functioning based on its interaction with the world around it, or by imagining different ideas and hypothetical experiences and noticing their emotional response.

How do those emotions actually work? You might recognize joy and sorrow, but that doesn't mean you understand it. What is it, where does it come from? How does it connect with the muscle and bones in your arms to make them move when you give someone a hug? What chain of events leads from your emotion of sadness to the biochemical phenomenon of water and other bodily substances being released from your visual sensory-organs?

As stated earlier, the human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It is made of trillions of neurons. The neurons are like pixels on a computer, they can be on or off, and concepts are represented by vast networks of neurons, all of which at any particular moment are on or off. The process of a neuron turning on and off is known as an "action potential".

Some of these neurons turn on and off more frequently than others. If you remember some experiences more easily and in more detail than other experiences, it is because the networks of neurons which the better-remembered experiences are represented in are turned on and off more frequently.

Neurons are cells. A cell is generally considered the smallest thing that could still be considered alive, depending on your definition of what counts as life. A single cell, like a neuron, isn't complicated enough to store an entire human being, with all of their thoughts and emotions and memories and desires etc. Just like a single stroke of a paintbrush doesn't paint a picture, since that single stroke by itself is just ink on a canvas. When you fill in all the other brush strokes to paint a picture...what you get is still just ink on a canvas.

However, the color of ink used in each brush stroke and the location of each and every one of those brush strokes mimic the colors and locations of rods and cones in the human eye when that eye sees the same scene in reality which is depicted in the painting. The "pixels" on the canvas correspond to the "pixels" in our eyes, which in turn correspond to the "pixels" in our brain. This is the case even for paintings of hypothetical scenes that we have never personally observed.

What matters isn't whether we've actually seen a particular configuration of colored "pixels", nor whether that configuration itself corresponds to a real phenomenon which can be seen directly. What matters is just that the configuration of differently colored "pixels" on the canvas can be translated into "pixels" in our brains. It means that we can imagine what something would look like if it actually existed and if we saw it directly, even if it doesn't exist and we never see it in real life. And sometimes we have imagined images in our heads which we expect to see in the real world, and we see a different image, a different configuration of colored "pixels", instead.

But the human brain, despite its complexity, has limited image resolution. There is a limit to the amount of detail it can imagine at once, which is why we organize things into categories and different levels of scope, dividing large amounts of detail into fewer chunks for easier storage.

The "pixels" in our brains, neurons, are not the smallest "pixels". Even the neuron is a system with different parts in it working together, including such organelles as the axon, the dendrites, the nucleus, and the cell membrane. And those organelles are made of a variety of substances moving in particular patterns of direction and interaction with each other. Proteins, DNA, ATP, neurotransmitters and hormones are all molecules. And molecules are made of atoms. And atoms are made of subatomic particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons. And those subatomic particles are made of fundamental particles such as leptons and quarks.

So in theory, you could predict literally any phenomenon, no matter how complex, by investigating the locations and motions of all of the fundamental particles involved in that phenomenon. Because that phenomenon, like every other known phenomenon, is made of the locations and motions of many fundamental particles.

For instance, you could in theory predict changes in the stock market just by looking at the locations and motions of fundamental particles. It would just take an enormous, unfathomable amount of time, energy and "pixels", and by the time you actually finish recording all this data and collecting your results, the stock market will have long since changed again, making your prediction useless.

Or perhaps you wouldn't be able to calculate your prediction until the stars have grown cold and humanity has long since died out. Perhaps the whole universe is finite and doesn't contain enough time or energy to complete your calculation.

But even if that is the case, the prediction can still be true or false, and every single individual bit of data could still collected, even if our brains aren't large enough to contain all that information. Even if its not physically possible for any conceivable brain, whether natural or artificial, to contain all that information. The pixels are all out there, to be translated into brush strokes, even if the canvas is too small to contain that many brush strokes.

When people tell stories, they are translating a series of images, of neural networks in their brains into a code of vibrations in the air, which the listener's brain decodes and translates back into a series of images. (For the purposes of keeping things simple just assume that includes other sensory information besides just the visual kind, even if I keep discussing things in terms of vision).

But as I discussed earlier, the images stored in human brains don't always correspond to real phenomena. Sometimes we can be mistaken about what is true and what is real. Sometimes the images in our minds only partially correspond to real phenomena.

I recently heard an argument along the lines that different minority communities have different narratives about or different versions of history which often get overlooked by the majority, whose own narratives and versions of history dominate public discourse. In the context it was made, this argument was being used in part to implicitly justify a relativistic view of truth, because of the belief that claims of "objective truth" are just a way to force the dominant culture's beliefs onto oppressed minorities.

Truth relativism is the idea that the truth is subjective - that there is my truth, and your truth, but that there is not the truth. This is an example of a map-territory confusion - a failure to disintguish between the image of a phemoneon stored in human brains and the phenomenon itself.

Even if different groups of people believe different versions of history, that doesn't make all versions of history equally accurate, nor does it make any particular group's version of history perfectly accurate and complete.

For instance, a diverse culture with roots in many parts of the world which values the study of world history might be more likely to have a more accurate and complete understanding of their place in world history than an ethnocentric culture which places a much higher value on remembering events which have taken place within its own current borders.

You should notice that I am distinguishing between two different definitions of "history": history as the actual events of the past as they actually happened, and history as the stories people tell or believe about the events of the past.

The truth is, regardless of whether you can temporarily convince a part of your brain to think as if it believes a particular group's narrative vision of history, that doesn't necessarily have any bearing on your willingness to learn from that group, understand them, have compassion and respect for them as fellow human beings and do what you can to help them. You don't have to believe the stories groups of people tell about themselves and their place in society to help them. You just need to be willing to listen to them, and consider why they believe those stories, and understand.

And if you find that a view that is commonly held by a group of people seems to describe reality more accurately than a view of your own which it conflicts with, you can just change your mind.

What you believe about yourself isn't the complete picture. What your friends and family believe about you isn't the complete picture. To understand yourself more fully, you must be willing to consider feedback from yourself and those close to you and also from those you dont get along with, and those outside of your immediate circle of concern. This logic likely applies to groups of people too, not just individuals.


Beliefs about ourselves, like all beliefs, are just maps, just predictions we make about the territory - the reality we live in of which we too are a part of. (This doesn't include "beliefs" that someone thinks that they believe but don't actually believe.)

Beliefs are ideas. And in a sense, ideas don't truly belong to any one person or group of people. Your beliefs are not your personal property. They are, in an ethical and practical sense if not a legal sense, public domain as soon as they are shared with others. Anything that you believe, someone else could in theory believe as well. Having a belief that someone else thought of first is not infringing on intellectual property. A specific belief or set of beliefs are not something unique to you. They are not part of who you are, nor how anyone is as a person.

A human being is made of far more than their opinions about things. If you changed your mind about something, even if it was something significant, you would still be you.

John Keats, a famous English romantic-era poet once said,

"...Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things."

If you didn't see the flaw in the above assertion before, I hope you can see it now.

John Keats was wrong. You don't need to fudge the numbers here. You don't need to look away. Life and the Universe won't suddenly cease to be valuable and beautiful just because you look at them closely enough to see their inner workings.

If everything that exists is made of simple, fundamental particles, a multitude of coordinate points in particular locations in the vast multi-dimensional graphing space of the Universe, that doesn't "reduce" the value and beauty of more complex systems of such points. After all, beauty and value are also real phenomena, and they too must be made of the locations and motions of many fundamental particles.

Just because you don't know how the exact positions and directions etc. of every single one of those particles is altogether the same thing as the phenomena you approximate as "value" and "beauty" doesn't mean that the phenomena you approximate as "value" and "beauty" don't exist.

"Ought" is just another "Is". The world we want to live in, the lives we want to have - describing these is just making an assertion about what state of affairs would correspond to better psychological and other kinds of bodily health for human beings and other sentient life. And all of that could be described in terms of the motions and locations of fundamental particles, in theory.

Of course, it's possible that "particles" are just another approximation, another category humans invented, and that the real Universe is mathematically continuous rather than discrete. But if I start talking about that we will probably be here all day.

Addendum: this post doesn't quite accomplish what I meant for it to accomplish because it doesn't really lay out all the necessary arguments to support reductionism itself, but instead merely counters most of the common arguments against it. Eliezer Yudkowsky does a much better job of explaining reductionism here: