There exist many facts about the nature of reality which stand at odds with our commonly held intuitions and experiences of the world. Ultimately, there is a relativity of the simultaneity of events and there is no universal “now.” Are these facts baked into our experience of the world? Or are our experiences and intuitions at odds with these facts? When we consider this, the origins of our mental models, and what modern physics and cosmology tell us about the nature of reality, we are beckoned to identify our commonly held experiences and intuitions, to analyze them in the light of modern science and philosophy, and to come to new implicit, explicit, and experiential understandings of reality. In his book Cosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality, FLI co-founder Anthony Aguirre explores the nature of space, time, motion, quantum physics, cosmology, the observer, identity, and existence itself through Zen koans fueled by science and designed to elicit questions, experiences, and conceptual shifts in the reader. The universe can be deeply counter-intuitive at many levels and this conversation, rooted in Anthony’s book, is an attempt at exploring this problem and articulating the contemporary frontiers of science and philosophy.
Topics discussed include:
- What is skillful of a synergy of Zen and scientific reasoning
- The history and philosophy of science
- The role of the observer in science and knowledge
- The nature of information
- What counts as real
- The world in and of itself and the world we experience as populated by our concepts and models of it
- Identity in human beings and future AI systems
- Questions of how identity should evolve
- Responsibilities and open questions associated with architecting life 3.0
Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today, we’re speaking with Anthony Aguirre. He is a cosmologist, a co-founder of the Future of Life Institute, and a co-founder of the Foundational Questions Institute. He also has a cool prediction market called Metaculus that I suggest you check out. We’re discussing his book, Cosmological Koans: A Journey Into the Heart of Physical Reality. This is a book about physics from a deeply philosophical perspective in the format of Zen koans. This discussion is different from the usual topics of the podcast, thought there are certainly many parts that directly apply. I feel this will be of interest to people who like big questions about the nature of reality. Some questions that we explore are, what is skillful of a synergy of Zen and scientific reasoning, the history and philosophy of science, the nature of information, we ask what is real, and explore that question. We discuss the world in and of itself and the world we experience as populated by our concepts and stories about the universe. We discuss identity in people and future AI systems. We wonder about how identity should evolve in persons and AI systems. And we also get into the problem we face of architecting new forms of intelligence with their own lived experiences, and identities, and understandings of the world.
As a bit of side news, Ariel is transitioning out of her role at FLI. So, i’ll be taking over the main FLI podcast from here on out. This podcast will continue to deal with broad issues in the space of existential risk and areas that pertain broadly to the Future of Life Institute. Like, AI risk and AI alignment, as well as bio-risk and climate change, and the stewardship of technology with wisdom and benevolence in mind. And the AI Alignment Podcast will continue to explore the technical, social, political, ethical, psychological, and broadly interdisciplinary facets of the AI alignment problem. So, I deeply appreciated this conversation with Anthony and I feel that conversations like these help me to live what I feel is an examined life. And if these topics and questions that I’ve mentioned are of interest to you or resonate with you then I think you’ll find this conversation valuable as well.
So let’s get in to our conversation with Anthony Aguirre.
We’re here today to discuss your work, Cosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality. As a little bit of background, tell me a little bit about your experience as a cosmologist and someone interested in Zen whose pursuits have culminated into his book.
Anthony Aguirre: I’ve been a cosmologist professionally for 20 years or so since grad school I suppose, but I’ve also for my whole life had just the drive to understand what reality is, what’s reality all about. One approach to that certainly to understanding physical reality is physics and cosmology and fundamental physics and so on. I would say that the understanding of mental reality, what is going on in the interior sense is also reality and is also crucially important. That’s what we actually experience. I’ve long had an interest in both sides of that question. What is this interior reality? Why do we have experience the way we do? How is our mind working? As well as what is the exterior reality of physics and the fundamental physical laws and the large scale picture of the universe and so on?
While professionally I’ve been very focused on the external side and the cosmological side in particular, I’ve nourished that interest in the inner side as well and how that interior side and the exterior side connect in various ways. I think that longstanding interest has built the foundation of what then turned into this book that I’ve put together over a number of years that I don’t care to admit.
Lucas Perry: There’s this aspect of when we’re looking outward, we’re getting a story of the universe and then that story of the universe eventually leads up into us. For example as Carl Sagan classically pointed out, the atoms which make up your body had to be fused in supernovas, at least the things which aren’t hydrogen and helium. So we’re all basically complex aggregates of collapsed interstellar gas clouds. And this shows that looking outward into the cosmos is also a process of uncovering the story of the person and of the self as well.
Anthony Aguirre: Very much in that I think to understand how our mind works and how our body works, we have to situate that within a chain of wider and wider context. We have to think of ourselves as biological creatures, and that puts us in the biological context and evolution and evolution over the history of the earth, but that in turn is in the context of where the earth sits in cosmic evolution in the universe as a whole, and also where biology and its functioning sits within the context of physics and other sciences, information theory, computational science. I think to understand ourselves, we certainly have to understand those other layers of reality.
I think what’s often assumed though is that to understand those other layers of reality, we don’t have to understand how our mind works. I think that’s tricky because on the one hand, we’re asking for descriptions of objective reality, and we asking for laws of physics. We don’t want to ask for our opinion that we’re going to disagree about. We want something that transcends our own minds and our ability to understand or describe those things. We’re looking for something objective in that sense.
I think it’s also true that many of the things that we talk about is fairly objective contain unavoidably a fairly subjective component to them. Once we have the idea of an objective reality out there that is independent of who’s observing it, we ascribe a lot of objectivity to things that are in fact much more of a mix that have a lot more ingredients that we have brought to them than we like to admit and are not wholly out there to be observed by us as impartial observers but are very much a tangled interaction between the observer and the observed.
Lucas Perry: There are many different facets and perspectives here about why taking the cosmological perspective of understanding the history of the universe, as well as the person, is deeply informative. In terms of the perspective of the Future of Life Institute, understanding cosmology tells us what is ultimately possible for life in terms of how long the universe will last, and how far you can spread, and fundamental facts about information and entropy, which are interesting, and also ultimately determine how the fate of intelligence and consciousness in the world. There’s also this anthropic aspect that you’re touching on about how observers only observe the kinds of things that observers are able to observe. We can also consider the limits of the concepts that are born of being a primate conditioned by evolution and culture, and the extent to which our concepts are lived experiences within our world model. And then there’s this distinction between the map and the territory, or our world model and the world itself. And so perhaps part of fusing Zen with cosmology is experientially being mindful of not confusing the map for the territory in our moment to moment experience of things.
There’s also this scientific method for understanding what is ultimately true about the nature of reality, and then what Zen offers is an introspective technique for trying to understand the nature of the mind, the nature of consciousness, the causes and conditions which lead to suffering, and the concepts which inhabit and make up conscious experience. I think all of this thinking culminates into an authentically lived life as a scientist and as a person who wants to know the nature of things, to understand the heart of reality, to attempt to not be confused, and to live an examined life – both of the external world and the experiential world as a sentient being.
Anthony Aguirre: Something like that, except I nurture no hope to ever not be confused. I think confusion is a perfectly admirable state in the sense that reality is confusing. You can try to think clearly, but I think there are always going to be questions of interests that you simply don’t understand. If you go into anything deeply enough, you will fairly quickly run into, wow, I don’t really get that. There are very few things that if you push into them carefully and skeptically and open-mindedly enough, you won’t come to that point. I think it would actually be I think let down if I ever got to the point where I wasn’t confused about something. All the fun would be gone, but otherwise, I think I agree with you. Where shall we start?
Lucas Perry: This helps to contextualize some of the motivations here. We can start by explaining why cosmology and Zen in particular? What are the skillful means born of a fusion of these two things? Why fuse these two things? I think some number of our audience will be intrinsically skeptical of all religion or spiritual pursuits. So why do this?
Anthony Aguirre: There are two aspects to it. I think one is a methodological one, which is Cosmological Koans is made up of these koans, and they’re not quite the same koans that you would get from a Zen teacher, but they’re sort of riddles or confrontations that are meant to take the recipient and cause them to be a little bit baffled, a little bit surprised, a little bit maybe shocked at some aspect of reality. The idea here is to both confront someone with something that is weird or unusual or contradicts what they might have believed beforehand in a comfortable, familiar way and make it uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Also to make the thing that is being discussed about the person rather than abstracts intellectual pursuit. Something that I like about Zen is that it’s about immediate experience. It’s about here you are here and now having this experience.
Part of the hope I think methodologically of Cosmological Koans is to try to put the reader personally in the experience rather than have it be stuff out there that physicists over there are thinking about and researching or we can speculate with a purely third person point of view to emphasize that if we’re talking about the universe and the laws of physics and reality, we’re part of the universe. We’re obeying those laws of physics. We’re part of reality. We’re all mixed up in that there can be cases where it’s useful to get a distance from that, but then there are also cases where it’s really important to understand what that all has to do with you. What does this say about me and my life, my experience, my individual subjective, first person view of the world? What does that have to do with these very third person objective things that physics studies?
Part of the point is an interesting and fun way to jolt someone into seeing the world in a new way. The other part is to make it about the reader in this case or about the person asking the questions and not just the universe out there. That’s one part of why I chose this particular format.
I think the other is a little bit more on the content side to say I think it’s dangerous to take things that were written 2,500 years ago and say, oh look, they anticipated what modern physics is finding now. They didn’t quite. Obviously, they didn’t know calculus, let alone anything else that modern physics knows. On the other hand, I think the history of thinking about reality from the inside out, from the interior perspective using a set of introspective tools that were incredibly sophisticated through thousands of years does have a lot to say about reality when the reality is both the internal reality and the external one.
In particular, when you’re talking about a person experiencing the physical world perceiving something in the exterior physical world in some way, what goes on in that process that has both the physical side to it and an internal subjective mental side to it, observing how much of the interior gets brought to the perception. In that sense, I think the Eastern traditions are way ahead of where the West was. The West has had this idea that there’s the external world out there that sends information in and we receive it and we have a pretty much accurate view of what the world is. The idea that instead what we are actually experiencing is very much a joint effort of the experiencer and that external world building up this thing in the middle that brings that individual along with a whole backdrop of social and biological and physical history to every perception. I think that is something that is (a) true, and (b) there’s been a lot more investigation of that on the Eastern and on the philosophical side, some in Western philosophy too of course, but on the philosophical side rather than just the physical side.
I think the book is also about exploring that connection. What are the connections between our personal first person, self-centered view and the external physical world? In doing that investigation, I’m happy to jump to whatever historical intellectual foundations there are, whether it’s Zen or Western philosophy or Indian philosophy or modern physics or whatever. My effort is to touch on all of those at some level in investigating that set of questions.
Lucas Perry: Human beings are the only general epistemic agents in the universe that we’re currently aware of. From the point of view of the person, all the progress we’ve done in philosophy and science, all that there has ever been historically, from a first person perspective, is consciousness and its contents, and our ability to engage with those contents. It is by virtue of engaging with the contents of consciousness that we believe that we gain access to the outside world. You point out here that in Western traditions, it’s been felt that we just have all of this data come in and we’re basically just seeing and interacting with the world as it really is. But as we’ve moreso uncovered, and in reality, the process of science and interrogating the external world is more like you have this internal virtual world model simulation that you’re constructing, that is a representation of the world that you use to engage and navigate with it.
From this first person experiential bedrock, Western philosophers like Descartes have tried to assume certain things about the nature of being, like “I think, therefore I am.” And from assumptions about being, the project and methodologies of science are born of that reasoning and follow from it. It seems like it took Western science a long time, perhaps up until quantum physics, to really come back to the observer, right?
Anthony Aguirre: Yeah. I would say that a significant part of the methodology of physics was at some level to explicitly get the observer out and to talk about only objectively mathematically definable things. The mathematical part is still with physics. The objective is still there, except that I think there’s a realization that one always has to, if one is being careful, talk about what actually gets observed. You could do all of classical physics at some level, physics up to the beginning of the 20th century without ever talking about the observer. You could say there is this object. It is doing this. These are the forces acting on it and so on. You don’t have to be very careful about who is measuring those properties or talking about them or in what terms.
Lucas Perry: Unless they would start to go fast and get big.
Anthony Aguirre: Before the 20th century, you didn’t care if things were going fast. In the beginning of the 20th century though, there was relativity, and there was quantum mechanics, and both of those suddenly had the agent doing the observations at their centers. In relativity, you suddenly have to worry about what reference frame you’re measuring things in, and things that you thought were objective facts like how long is the time interval between two things that happen suddenly were revealed to be not objective facts, but dependent on who the observer is in particular, what reference frame their state of motion and so on.
Everything else as it turned out is really more like a property of the world that the world can either have or not when someone checks. The structure of quantum mechanics is at some level things have a state, which encodes something about the objects, and the something that it encodes is there’s this set of questions that I could ask the object and I can get answers to those questions. There’s a particular set of questions that I might ask and I’d get definite answers. If I ask other questions that aren’t in that list, then I get answers still, but they’re indefinite, and so I have to use probabilities to describe them.
This is a very different structure to say the object is a list of potential answers to questions that I might pose. It’s very different from saying there’s a chunk of stuff that has a position and a momentum and a force is acting on it and so on. It feels very different. While mathematically you can make the connections between those, it is a very different way of thinking about reality. That is a big change obviously and one that I think still isn’t complete in the sense that as soon as you start to talk that way and say an electron or a glass of water or whatever is a set of potential answers to questions, that’s a little bit hard to swallow, but you immediately have to ask, well, who’s asking the questions and who’s getting the answers? That’s the observer.
The structure of quantum mechanics from the beginning has been mute about that. It said make an observation and you’ll get these probabilities. That’s just pushing the observer into the thing that by definition makes observations, but without a specification of what does that mean to make an observation, what’s allowed to do it and what isn’t? Can an electron observe another electron or does it have to be a big group of electrons? What is it exactly that counts as making an observation and so on? There are all these questions about what this actually means that have just been sitting around since quantum mechanics was created and really haven’t been answered at any agreed upon or really I would say satisfactory way.
Lucas Perry: Theres a ton there. In terms of your book, there’s this fusion between what is skillful and true about Zen and what is skillful and true about science. You discussed here historically this transition to an emphasis on the observer and information and how those change both epistemology and ontology. The project of Buddhism or the project of Zen is ultimately also different from the project and intentions of Western science historically in terms of the normative, and the ethics driving it, and whether it’s even trying to make claims about those kinds of things. Maybe you could also explain a little bit there about where the projects diverge, what they’re ultimately trying to say either about the nature of reality or the observer.
Anthony Aguirre: Certainly in physics and much of philosophy of physics I suppose, it’s purely about superior understanding of what physical reality is and how it functions and how to explain the world around us using mathematical theories but with little or no translation of that into anything normative or ethical or prescriptive in some way. It’s purely about what is, and not only is there no ought connected with it as maybe there shouldn’t be, but there’s no necessary connection between any statement of what ought to be and what is. No translation of because reality is like this, if we want this, we should do this.
Physics has got to be part of that. What we need to do in order to achieve our goals has to do with how the world works, and physics describes that so it has to be part of it and yet, it’s been somewhat disconnected from that in a way that it certainly isn’t in spiritual traditions like Buddhism where our goal in Buddhism is to reduce or eliminate suffering. This is how the mind works and therefore, this is what we need to do given the way the mind and reality works to reduce or eliminate suffering. That’s the fundamental goal, which is quite distinct from the fundamental goal of just I want to understand how reality works.
do think there’s more to do, and obviously there are sciences that fill that role like psychology and social science and so on that are more about let’s understand how the mind works. Let’s understand how society works so that given some set of goals like greater harmony in society or greater individual happiness, we have some sense of what we should do in order to achieve those. I would say there’s a pretty big gap nowadays between those fields on the one hand and fundamental physics on the other hand. You can spend a lot of time doing social science or psychology without knowing any physics and vice versa, but at the same time, it’s not clear that they really should be so separate. Physics is talking about the basic nature of reality. Psychology is also talking about the basic nature of reality but two different sides of it, the interior side and the exterior side.
Those two are very much connected, and so it should not be entirely possible to fully understand one without at least some of the other. That I think is also part of the motivation that I have because I don’t think that you can have a comprehensive worldview of the type that you want to have in order to understand what we should do, without having some of both aspects in it.
Lucas Perry: The observer has been part of the equation the whole time. It’s just that classical mechanics is a problem such that it never really mattered that much, but now it matters more given astronomy and communications technologies. When determining what is, the fact that an observer is trying to determine what is and that the observer has a particular nature impacts the process of trying to discover what is, but not only are there supposed “is statements” that we’re trying to discover or understand, but we’re also from one perspective conscious beings with experiences and we have suffering and joy, and are trying to determine what we ought to do. I think what you’re pointing towards is basically an alternate unification of the problem of determining what is, and also of the often overlooked fact that we are contextualized as a creature in the world we’re attempting to understand, and make decisions about what to do next.
Anthony Aguirre: I think you can think of that in very big terms like that in this cosmic context, what is subjectivity? What is consciousness? What does it mean to have feelings of moral value and so on? Let’s talk about that. I think it’s also worth being more concrete in the sense that if you think about my experience as an agent in the world insofar as I think the world is out there objectively and I’m just perceiving it more or less directly. I tend to make very real in my mind a lot of things that aren’t necessarily real. Things that are very much half created by me, I tend to then turn into objective things out there and then react to them. This is something that we just all do on a personal basis all the time in our daily lives. We make up stories and then we think that those stories are real. This is just a very concrete thing that we do every day.
Sometimes that works out well and sometimes it doesn’t because if the story that we have is different from the story that someone else has or the story that society has, or if some in some ways somewhat more objective story then we have a mismatch and we can cause a lot of poor choices and poor outcomes by doing that. Simply the very clear psychological fact that we can discover with a little bit of self analysis that the stories that we make up aren’t as true as we usually think they are, that’s just one end of the spectrum of this process by which we as sentient beings are very much co-creating the reality that we’re inhabiting.
I think this co-creation process we’re comfortable with the fact that it awkwardly happens when we make up stories about what happened yesterday when I was talking to so and so. We don’t think of it so much when we’re talking about a table. We think the table is there. It’s real. If anything, it is. When we go deeper, we can realize that all of the things like color and solidity and endurance over time aren’t in the way function of the atoms and the laws of physics evolving them. Those things are properties that we’ve brought as useful ways to describe the world that have developed over millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of social evolution and so on. Those properties, none of those things are built into the laws of nature. Those are all things that we’ve brought. That’s not to say that the table is made up. Obviously, it’s not. The table is very objective in a sense, but there’s no table built into the structure of the universe.
I think we tend to brush under the rug how much we bring to our description of reality. We say that it’s out there. We can realize that on small levels, but I think to realize the depth of how much we bring to our perceptions and where that stuff comes from, which is a long historical, complicated information generating process that takes a lot more diving in and thinking about.
Lucas Perry: Right. If one were god or if one were omniscient, then to know the universe at the ultimate level would be to know the cosmic wave function, and within the cosmic wave function, things like marriage and identity and the fact that I have a title and conceptual history about my life are not bedrock ontological things. Rather they’re concepts and stories that sentient beings make up due to, as you said, evolution and social conditioning and culture.
Anthony Aguirre: Right, but when you’re saying that, I think there’s a suggestion that the cosmic wave functions description would be better in some way. I’d take issue with that because I think if you were some super duper mega intelligence that just knew the position of every atom or exactly the cosmic wave function, that doesn’t mean that you would know that the table in front of me is brown. That description of reality has all the particles in it and their positions and at some level, all the information that you could have of the fundamental physics, but it’s completely missing a whole bunch of other stuff, which are the ways that we categorize that information into meaningful things like solidity and color and tableness.
Lucas Perry: It seems to me that that must be contained within that ultimate description of reality because in the end, we’re just arrangements of particles and if god or the omniscient thing could take the perspective of us then they would see the table or the chair and have that same story. Our stories about the world are information built into us. Right?
Anthony Aguirre: How would it do that? What I’m saying is there’s information. Say the wave function of the universe. That’s some big chunk of information describing all kinds of different observations you could make of locations of atoms and things, but nowhere in that description is it going to tell you the things that you would need to know in order to talk about whether there’s a glass on the table in front of me because glass and table and things are not part of that wave function. Those are concepts that have to be added to it. It’s more specification that has been added that exists because of our view of the world. It only exists from the interior perspective of where we are as creatures that have evolved and are looking out.
Lucas Perry: My perspective here is that given the full capacity of the universal wave function for the creation of all possible things, there is the total set of arbitrary concepts and stories and narratives and experiences that sentient beings might dream up that arrive within the context of that particular cosmic wave function. There could be tables and chairs, or sniffelwoops and worbblogs but if we were god and we had the wave function, we could run it such that we created the kinds of creatures who dreamt a life of sniffelwoops and worbblogs or whatever else. To me, it seems like it’s more contained within the original thing.
Anthony Aguirre: This is where I think it’s useful to talk about information because I think that I just disagree with that idea in the sense that if you think of an eight-bit string, so there’s 256 possibilities of where the ones and zeros can be on and off, if you think of all 256 of those things, then there’s no information there. Whereas when I say actually only 128 of these are allowed because the first one is a one, you cut down the list of possibilities, but by cutting it down, now there’s information. This is exactly the way that information physically or mathematically is defined. It’s by saying if all the possibilities are on equal footing, you might say equally probable, then there’s no information there. Whereas, if some of them are more probable or even known, like this is definitely a zero or one, then that whole thing has information in it.
I think very much the same way with reality. If you think of all the possibilities and they’re all on the table with equal validity, then there’s nothing there. There’s nothing interesting. There’s no information there. It’s when you cut down the possibilities that the information appears. You can look at this in many different contexts. If you think about it in quantum mechanics, if you start some system out, it evolves into many possibilities. When you make an observation of it, you’re saying, oh, this possibility was actually realized and in that sense, you’ve created information there.
Now suppose you subscribe to the many worlds view of quantum mechanics. You would say that the world evolves into two copies, one in which thing A happened and one in which thing B happened. In that combination, A and B, there’s less information than in either A or B. If you’re observer A or if you’re observer B, you have more information than if you’re observer C looking at the combination of things. In that sense, I think we as residents, not with omniscient view, but as limited agents that have a particular point of view actually have more information about the world in a particular sense than someone who has the full view. The person with the full view can say, well, if I were this person, I would see this, or if I were this person, I would see that. They have in some sense a greater analytical power, but there’s a missing aspect of that, which is to make a choice as to which one you’re actually looking at, which one you’re actually residing in.
Lucas Perry: It’s like the world model which you’re identified with or the world model which you’re ultimately running is the point. The eight-bit string that you mentioned: that contains all possible information that can be contained within that string. Your point is that when we begin to limit it is when we begin to encode more information.
Anthony Aguirre: That’s right. There’s a famous story called the Library of Babel by Borges. It’s a library with every possible sequence of characters just book, after book, after book. You have to ask yourself how much information is there in that library. On the one hand, it seems like a ton because each volume you pick out has a big string of characters in it, but on the other hand, there’s nothing there. You would search forever practically far longer than the age of the universe before you found even a sentence that made any sense.
Lucas Perry: The books also contain the entire multi-verse, right?
Anthony Aguirre: If they go on infinitely long, if they’re not finite length books. This is a very paradoxical thing about information, I think, which is that if you combine many things with information in them, you get something without information in it. That’s very, very strange. That’s what the Library of Babel is. I think it’s many things with lots of information, but combined, they give you nothing. I think that’s in some level how the universe is that it might be a very low information thing in and of itself, but incredibly high information from the standpoint of the beings that are in it like us.
Anthony Aguirre: When you think of it that way, we become vastly, vastly more important than you might think because all of that information that the universe then contains is defined in terms of us, in terms of the point of view that we’re looking out from, without which there’s sort of nothing there. That’s a very provocative and strange view of the world, but that’s more and more the way I think maybe it is.
Lucas Perry: I’m honestly confused. Can you expand upon your example?
Anthony Aguirre: Suppose you’ve got the library of Babel. It’s there, it’s all written out. But suppose that once there’s a sentence like, “I am here observing the world,” that you can attribute to that sentence a point of view. So once you have that sequence of words like, “I am here observing the world,” it has a subjective experience. So then almost no book has that in this whole library, but a very, very, very select few do. And then you focus on those books. That sub-selection of books you would say there’s a lot of information associated with that subsection, because making something more special means that it has more information. So once you specify something, there’s a bunch of information associated with it.
Anthony Aguirre: By picking out those particular books, now you’ve created information. What I’m saying is there’s a very particular subset of the universe or subset of the ways the universe could be, that adds a perspective that has a subjective sense of looking out at the world. And if you specify, once you focus in from all the different states of the universe to those associated … having that perspective, that creates a whole bunch of information. That’s the way that I look at our role as subjective observers in the universe, that by being in a first person perspective, you’re sub-selecting a very, very, very special set of matter and thus creating a whole ton of information relative to all possible ways that the matter could be arranged.
Lucas Perry: So for example, say the kitchen is dirty, and if you leave the kitchen alone, entropy will just continue to make the kitchen more dirty because there are more possible states in which the kitchen is dirty than it is clean, and there are more possible states in the universe in which sentient human beings do not arise. But here we are, encoded on a planet with the rest of organic life … and in total, evolution and the history of life on this planet requires requires a large and unequal amount of information and specification.
Anthony Aguirre: Yes, I would say … We haven’t talked about entropy, and I don’t know if we should. Genericness is the opposite of information. So when something’s very specific, there’s information content, and when it’s very generic, there’s less information content. This is at some level saying, “Our first person perspective as conscious beings is very, very specific.” I think there is something very special and mysterious at least, about the fact that there’s this very particular set of stuff in the universe that seems to have a first person perspective associated with it. That’s where we are, sort of almost by definition.
That’s where I think the question of agency and observation and consciousness has something to do with how the universe is constituted, not in that it changes the universe in some way, but that connected with this particular perspective is all this information, and if the physical world is at some level made of information, that’s a very radical thing because that’s saying that through our conscious existence and our particular point of view, we’re creating information, and information is reality, and therefore we’re creating reality.
There are all these ways that we apply physics to reality. They’re very information theoretic. There’s this sort of claim that a more useful way to think about the constituents of reality are as informational entities. And then the second claim is that by specifying, we create information. And then the third is that by being conscious observers who come into being in the universe and then have our perspective that we look out toward the universe from, that we are making a selection, we’re specifying, “This is what I see.” So we’re then creating a bunch of information and thus creating a reality.
In that sense, I’m claiming that we create a reality, not from some, “I think in my mind and therefore reality appears like magical powers,” but that if we really talk about what’s real, it isn’t just little bits of stuff I think, but it’s everything else that makes up reality and that information that makes up reality is something that we very much are part of the creation of.
There are different definitions of information, but the way that the word is most commonly used is for Shannon information. And what that is, is an amount that is associated with a set of probabilities. So if I say I’m going to roll some dice, what am I going to roll? So you’d say, “I don’t know.” And I’d say, “Okay, so what probabilities would you ascribe to what I’m going to roll?” And you’d say, “Well probably a sixth for each side of the die.” And I would say that there’s zero information in that description. And I say that because that’s the most uncertain you could be about the rolls of the dice. There’s no information there in your description of the die.
Now I roll it, and we see that it’s a three. So now the probability of three is 100% or at least very close to it. And the probability of all the other ones is zero. And now there is information in our description. Something specific has happened, and we’ve created information. That’s not a magical thing; it’s just the information is associated with probabilities over things, and when we change the probabilities, we change how much information there is.
Usually when we observe things, we narrow the probabilities. That’s kind of the point of making observations, to find out more about something. In that sense, we can say that we’re creating information or we’re gathering information, so we’ve created information or gathered it in that sense by doing the measurement. In that sense, any time we look at anything, we’re creating information, right?
If I just think what is behind me, well there’s probably a pillar. It might be over there, it might be over there. Now let me turn around and look. Now I’ve gathered information or created information in my description of pillar location. Now when we’re talking about a wave function and somebody measuring the wave function, and we want to keep track of all of the information and so on, it gets rather tricky because there are questions about whose probabilities are we talking about, and whose observations and what are they observing. So we have to get really careful and technical about what sort of probabilities are being defined and whose they are, and how are they evolving.
When you read something like, “Information is preserved in the universe,” what that actually means is that if I take some description of the universe now and then I close my eyes and I evolve that description using the laws of physics, the information that my description had will be preserved. So the laws of physics themselves will not change the amount of information in that description.
But as soon as I open my eyes and look, it changes, because I just will observe something and I’ll see that I closed my eyes, the universe could have evolved into two different things. Now I open them and see which one it actually evolved into. Now I increased the information. I reduced the uncertainty. So it’s very, very subtle, the way in which the universe preserves information. The dynamics of the universe, the laws of physics, preserve the information that is associated with a description that you have of the world. There’s an incredible amount of richness there because that’s what’s actually happening. If you want to think about what reality is, that’s what reality is, and it’s the observers who are creating that description and observing that world and changing the description to match what they saw. Reality is a combination of those two things: the evolution of the world by the laws of physics, and the interaction of that with the person who or the whatever it is that is asking the questions and making the observations.
What’s very tricky is that unlike matter, information is not something that you can say, “I’ve got four bits of information here and five bits of information here, so I’m going to combine them and get nine bits of information.” Sometimes that’s true, but other times it’s very much not true. That’s what’s very, very, very tricky I think. So if I say I’ve got a die and I rolled a one with a 100% chance, that’s information. If I say I have a die and I rolled a two, or if I say I had a die and then rolled a three, all of those have information associated with them. But if I combine those in the sense that I say I have a die and I rolled a one and a two and a three and a four and a five and a six, then there’s no information associated with that.
All of the things happened, and so that’s what’s so tricky about it. It’s the same with the library of Babel. If I take every possibility on an equal footing, then none of them is special and there’s no information associated with that. If I take a whole bunch of special things and put them in a big pot, I just have a big mess and then there’s nothing special any more.
When I say something like, “The world is made out of information,” that means that it has different sort of properties than if it was made out of stuff. Because stuff … Like you take away some stuff and there’s less stuff. Or you divide the stuff in two and each half has half as much stuff. And information is not necessarily that way. And so if you have a bunch of information or a description of something and you take a subset of it, you’ve actually made more information even though there’s less that you’re talking about.
It’s different than the way we think about the makeup of reality when you think about it as made up of stuff, and has just very different properties that are somewhat counter-intuitive when we’re used to thinking about the world as being made up of stuff.
Lucas Perry: I’m happy that we have spent this much time on just discussing information, because I think that it offers an important conceptual shift for seeing the world, and a good challenging of some commonly held intuitions – at least, that I have. The question for me now is, what are the relevant and interesting implications here for agents? The one thing that had been coming to my mind is… and to inject more Zen here… there is a koan that goes something like: “first there were mountains and then there were no mountains, and then there were mountains.” This seems to have parallels to the view that you’re articulating, because first you’re just stupefied and bought into the reality of your conceptualizations and stories where you say “I’m actually ultimately a human being, and I have a story about my life where I got married, and I had a thing called a job, and there were tables, which were solid and brown and had other properties…” But as you were saying, there’s no tableness or table in the wave function; these are all stories and abstractions which we use because they are functional or useful for us. And then when we see that we go, “Okay, so there aren’t really mountains in the way that I thought, mountains are just stories we tell ourselves about the wave function.”
But then I think it seems like you’re pointing out here again, there’s sort of this ethical or normative imperative where it’s like, “okay, so mountains are mountains again, because I need my concept and lived experience of a mountain to exist in the world, and to exist amongst human institutions and concepts and language, and even though I may return to this, this all may be viewed in a new light. Is this pointing in the right direction in your opinion?
Anthony Aguirre: I think in a sense, in that we think we’re so important, and the things around us are real, and then we realize as we study physics that actually, we’re tiny little blips in this potentially infinite or at least extremely large, somewhat uncaring-seeming universe, that the things that we thought are real are kind of fictitious, and partly made up by our own history and perceptions and things, that the table isn’t really real but it’s made up of atoms or wave function or what have you.
But then I would say, why do you attribute more realness to the wave function than the table? The wave function is a sort of very impoverished description of the world that doesn’t contain tables and things. So I think there’s this pathology of saying because something is described by fundamental physical mathematical laws, it’s more real than something like a table that is described by people talking about tables to other people.
There’s something very different about those things, but is one of them more real and what does that even mean? If the table is not contained in the wave function and the wave function isn’t really contained in the table, they’re just different things. They’re both, in my view, made out of information, but rather different types and accessible to rather different things.
To me, the, “Then I realized it was a mountain again,” is that yes, the table is kind of an illusion in a sense. It’s made out of atoms and we bring all this stuff to it and we make up solidity and brownness and stuff. So it’s not a fundamental part of the universe. It’s not objectively real, but then I think at some level nothing is so purely objectively real. It’s a sliding scale, and then it’s got a place for things like the wave function of the universe and the fundamental laws of physics at the more objective end of things, and brownness and solidity at the more subjective end of things, and my feelings about tables and my thirst for water at the very subjective end of things. But I see it as a sort of continuous spectrum, and that all of those things are real, just in somewhat different ways. In that sense, I think I’ve come back to those illusory things being real again in a sense, but just from a rather different perspective, if we’re going to be Zen about it.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, it seems to be an open question in physics and cosmology. There is still arguing now currently going on about what it means for something to be real. I guess I would argue that something is real if it maybe has causality or that causality would supervene upon that thing… I’m not even sure, I don’t think I’m even going to start here, I think I would probably be wrong. So…
Anthony Aguirre: Well, I think the problem is in trying to make a binary distinction between whether things are real or not or objective or not. I just think that’s the wrong way to think about it. I think there are things that are much more objective than other things, and things that are much less objective than other things, and to the extent that you want to connect real with being objective, there are then things that are more and less real.
In one of the koans in the book, I make this argument that we think of a mathematical statement like the Pythagorean theorem, say, or some other beautiful thing like Euler’s theorem relating exponentials to cosines and sines, that these are objective special things built into the universe, because we feel like once we understand these things, we see that they must have been true and existed before any people were around. Like it couldn’t be that the Pythagorean theorem just came into being when Pythagoras or someone else discovered it, or Euler’s theorem. They were true all the way back until before the first stars and whatnot.
And that’s clearly the case. There is no time at which those things became true. At the same time, suppose I just take some axioms of mathematics that we employ now, and some sort of rules for generating new true statements from them. And then I just take a computer and start churning out statements. So I churn out all possible consequences of those axioms. Now, if I let that computer churn long enough, somewhere in that string of true statements will be something that can be translated into the Pythagorean theorem or Euler’s theorem. It’s in there somewhere. But am I doing mathematics? I would say I’m not, in the sense that all I’m doing is generating an infinite number of true statements if I let this thing go on forever.
But almost all of them are super uninteresting. They’re just strings of gobbledygook that are true given the axioms and the rules for generating new true statements, but they don’t mean anything. Whereas Euler’s theorem is a very, very special statement that means something. So what we’re doing when we’re doing mathematics, we feel like what we’re doing is proving stuff to be true. And we are at some level, but I think what we’re really doing from this perspective is out of this catalog that is information-free of true statements, we’re picking out a very, very special subset that are interesting. And in making that selection, we’re once again creating information. And the information that we’re creating is really what we’re doing, I think, when we’re doing mathematics.
The information contained in the statement that the Pythagorean theorem is an interesting theorem that applies to stuff in the real world and that we should teach our kids in school, that only came into being when humans did. So although the statement has always been true, the information I think was created along with humans. So I think you kind of get to have it both ways. It is built into the universe, but at the same time, it’s created, so you discover it and you create it.
I think there’s a lot of things that are that way. And although the Pythagorean theorem feels super objective, you can’t disagree with the Pythagorean theorem in a sense, we all agree on it once we understand what it is, at the same time, it’s got this subjective aspect to it that out of all the theorems we selected, this particular one of interest … We also selected the axioms by the way, out of all different sets of axioms we could have chosen. So there’s this combination of objectivity and the subjectivity that we as humans that like to do geometry and think about the world and prove theorems and stuff have brought to it. And that combination is what’s created the information that is associated with the Pythagorean theorem.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. You threw the word “subjectivity” there, but this process is bringing us to the truth, right? I mean, the question is again, what is true or real?
Anthony Aguirre: There are different senses of subjectivity. So there’s one sense of having an interior world view, having consciousness or awareness or something like that, being a subject. And there’s another of saying that its perspectival, that it’s relative or something, that different agents might not agree on it or might see it a little bit differently. So I’d want to distinguish between those two.
Lucas Perry: In which sense did you mean?
Anthony Aguirre: What I mean is that the Pythagorean theorem is quite objective in the sense that once lots of agents agree on the premises and the ground rules, we’re all going to agree on Pythagorean theorem. Whereas we might not agree on whether ice cream is good, but it’s still a little bit not objective.
Lucas Perry: It’s like a small part of all possible mathematically true statements which arise out of those axioms.
Anthony Aguirre: Yes. And that some community of agents in a historical process had to select that out. It can’t be divorced from the process and the agents that brought it into being, and so it’s not entirely objective in that sense.
Lucas Perry: Okay. Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. I see. So this is a question I was intending on asking you an hour ago before we went down this wormhole, first I’m interested in just the structure of your book. How do you structure your book in terms of the ideas and what leads to what?
Anthony Aguirre: Just a brief outline of the book: there are a few different layers of structure. One is the koans themselves, which are sort of parables or little tales that encode some idea. There’s maybe a metaphor or just the idea itself, and the koans take place as part of a narrative that takes place starting in 1610 or 1630 or so, in a trip from Italy to in the end, Kyoto. So this across the world journey that takes place through these koans. And they don’t come in chronological order, so you kind of have to piece together the storyline as the book goes on. But it kind of comes together in the end, so there’s a sequence of things that are happening through the koans, and there’s a storyline that you get to see assemble itself and it involves a genie and it involves a sword fight and it involves all kinds of fun stuff.
That’s one layer of the structure, is the koans forming the narrative. Then after each koan is a commentary that’s kind of delving into the ideas, providing some background, filling in some physics, talking about what that koan was getting at. And in some cases, it’s kind of a resolution to it, like here’s the paradox and here’s the resolution to that paradox. But more often, it’s here’s the question, here’s how to understand what that question is really asking. Here’s a deeper question that we don’t know the answer to, and maybe we’ll come back to later in the book or maybe we won’t. So there’s kind of this development of a whole bunch of physics ideas that are going on in those commentaries.
In terms of the physics ideas, there’s a sequence. There’s first classical physics including relativity. The second part is quantum mechanics, essentially. The third part is statistical mechanics and information theory. The fourth part is cosmology. The fifth part is the connections to the interior sense, like subjectivity and the subject and experiments and thinking about interior sense and consciousness and the eye. And then the last part is a sort of more philosophical section, bringing things together in the way that we’ve been discussing, like how much of reality is out there, how much of it is constructed by us, or us as us writ large as a society and thinking beings and biological evolution and so on. So that’s kind of the structure of the book.
Lucas Perry: Can you read for us two of your favorite koans in the book?
Anthony Aguirre: This one alludes to a classic philosophical thought experiment of the ship of Theseus. This one’s called What Is It You Sail In? It takes place in Shanghai, China in 1620. “After such vast overland distances, you’re relieved that the next piece of your journey will be at sea, where you’ve always felt comfortable. Then you see the ship. You’ve never beheld a sorrier pile of junk. The hull seems to be made mostly of patches, and the patches appear to be made of other patches. The nails look nailed together. The sails are clearly mostly a quilt of canvas sacks and old clothing. ‘Does it float?’ you ask the first mate, packing in as much skepticism as you can fit. ‘Yes. Many repairs, true. But she is still my good companion, , still the same ship she ever was.’
Is she?, you wonder. Then you look down at your fingernails, your skin, the fading scar on your arm and wonder, am I? Then you look at the river, the sea, the port and all around. Is anything?”
So what this one’s getting at is this classic tale where if you replace one board of a ship, you’d still say it’s the same ship; you’ve just replaced one little piece of it. But as you replace more and more pieces of it, at some point, every piece of the ship might be a piece that wasn’t there before. So is it the same ship or it’s not? Every single piece has been replaced. And our body is pretty much like this; on a multi-year timescale, we replace pretty much everything.
The idea of this is to get at the fact that when we think of a thing like an identity that something has, it’s much more about the form and I would say the information content in a sense, than about the matter that it’s made up of. The matter’s very interchangeable. That’s sort of the way of kicking off a discussion of what does it mean for something to exist? What is it made of? What does it mean for something to be different than another thing? What are the different forms of existence? What is the form versus the matter?
And with the conclusion that at some level, the very idea of matter is a bit of an illusion. There’s kind of form in the sense that when you think of little bits of stuff, and you break those little bits of stuff down farther, you see that there are protons and electrons and neutrons and whatnot, but what those things are, they’re not little bits of stuff. They’re sort of amounts or properties of something. Like we think of energy or mass as a thing, but it’s better to think of it as a property that something might have if you look.
The fact that you have an electron really means that you’ve got something with a little bit of the energy property or a little bit of the mass property, a little bit of the spin property, a little bit of the electron lepton number property, and that’s it. And maybe you talk about its position or its speed or something. So it’s more like a little bundle of properties than a little bundle of stuff. And then when you think of agglomerations of atoms, it’s the same way. Like the way that they’re arranged is a sort of informational thing, and questions you can ask and get answers to.
Going back to our earlier conversation, this is just a slightly more concrete version of the claim that when we say what something’s made of, there are lots of different answers to that question that are useful in different ways. But the answer that it’s made of stuff is maybe not so useful as we usually think it is.
Lucas Perry: So just to clarify for listeners, koans in Zen traditionally are supposed to be not explicitly philosophically analytical, but experiential things which are supposed to subvert commonly held intuitions which may take you from seeing mountains as mountains, to no mountains, to mountains again. So here there’s this perspective that there’s both supposedly the atoms which make up me and you, and then the way in which the atoms are arranged, and then this koan that you say elicits the thought that you can remove any bit of information from me, and you can continue to move one bit of information from me at a time, and there’s no one bit of information that I would say is essential to what I call Lucas, or what I take to be myself. Nor atoms. So then what am I? How many atoms or bits of information do you have to take away from me until I stop being Lucas? And so one may arrive at the place where you’re deeply questioning the category of Lucas altogether.
Anthony Aguirre: Yeah. The things in this book are not Zen koans in the sense that a lot of them are pretty philosophical and intellectual and analytical, which Zen koans are sort of not. But at the same time, when you delve into them and try to experience them, when you think not of the abstract idea of the ship in this koan and lepton numbers and energy and things like that, but when you apply it to yourself and think, okay, what am I if I’m not this body?, then it becomes a bit more like a genuine Zen koan. You’re sort of like, ah, I don’t know what I am. And that’s a weird place to be. I don’t know what I am.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. Sure. And the wisdom to be found is the subversion of a ton of different commonly held intuitions, which are evolutionarily conditioned, which are culturally conditioned and socially conditioned. So yeah, this has to do with the sense of permanent things and objects, and then what identity ultimately is, or what our preferences are about identity, or if there are normative or ethical imparitives about the sense of identity that we out to take. Are there any other ideas here for some other major intuitions that you’re attempting to subvert in your book?
Anthony Aguirre: Well yeah, there’s … I guess it depends which ones you have, but I’ve subverted as many as I can. I mean, a big one I think is the idea of a sort of singular individual self, and that’s one that is really interesting to experiment with. The way we go through our lives pretty much all the time is that there’s this one-to-one correspondence between our feeling that we’re an individual self looking out at the world, there’s an “I”. We feel like there’s this little nugget of me-ness that’s experiencing the world and owns mental faculties, and then owns and steers around this body that’s made out of physical stuff.
That’s the intuition that we go through life with, but then there are all kinds of thought experiments you can do that put tension on that. And one of them that I go through a lot in the book is what happens when the body gets split or duplicated, or there are multiple copies of it and things like that. And some of those things are physically impossible or so extraordinarily difficult that they’re not worth thinking about, but some of them are very much things that might automatically happen as part of physics, if we really could instantaneously copy a person and create a duplicate of them across the room or something like that.
What does that mean? How do we think about that? When we’ve broken that one-to-one correspondence between the thing that we like to think of as ourself and our little nugget of I-ness, and the physical body, which we know is very, very closely related to that thing. When one of them bifurcates into two, it kind of throws that whole thing up in the air, like now what do we think? And it gets very unsettling to be confronted with that. There are several koans investigating that at various different levels that don’t really draw any conclusions, I would say. They’re more experiments that I’m sort of inviting other people to subject themselves to, just as I have thinking about them.
It’s very confusing how to think about them. Like, should I care if I get copied to another copy across the room and then get instantaneously destroyed? Should that bother me? Should I fear that process? What if it’s not across the room, but across the universe? And what if it’s not instantaneously that I appear across the room, but I get destroyed now, and I exist on the other side of the universe a billion years from now, the same configuration of atoms? Do I care that that happens? There are no easy answers to this, I think, and they’re not questions that you can easily dismiss.
Lucas Perry: I think that this has extremely huge ethical implications, and represents, if transcended, an important point in human evolution. There is this koan, which is something like, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Which means if you think you’ve reached something like enlightenment, it’s not that, because enlightenment is another one of these stories. But insofar as human beings are capable of transcending illusions and reaching anything called enlightenment… I think that an introspective journey into trying to understand the self and the world is one of the most interesting pursuits a human being can do. And just to contextualize this and, I think, paint the picture better, it’s evolution that has evolved these information processing systems, with this virtual sense of self that exists in the world model we have, and the model we have about ourselves and our body, and this is because this is good for self preservation.
So you can say, “Where do you feel you’re located?” Well I sort of feel I’m behind my face and I feel I have a body and I have this large narrative of self concept and identity, which is like, “OI’m Lucas. I’m from here. I have this concept of self which I’ve created, which is basically this extremely elaborative connotative web of all the things which I think make up my identity. And under scrutiny, this is basically just all conditioned, it’s all outside of myself, all prior to myself, I’m not self-made at all, yet I think that I’m some sort of self separate entity. And then comes along Abrahamic religions at some point in the story of humanity, which are going to have tremendous cultural and social implications on the way that evolution has already bred ego-primates like ourselves. We’re primates with egos and now we have Abrahamic religions, which are contributing to this problem by conditioning the language and philosophy and thought of the West, which say that ultimately you’re a soul, you’re not just a physical thing.
You’re actually a soul who has a body and you’re basically just visiting here for a while, and then the thing that is essentially you will go to the next level of existence. This leads to, I think, reifying this rational conceptualization of self and this experience itself. Where you feel like you have a body, you feel that your heart beats itself, you feel that think your thoughts and you say things like, “I have a brain.” Who is it that stands in relation to the brain? Or we might say something like, “I have a body.” Who is it that has a body? So it seems like our language is clearly conditioned and structured around our sense and understanding of self. And there’s also this sense in which you’ve been trying to subvert some sorts of ideas here, like sameness or otherness, what counts as the same ship or not. And from an ultimate physics perspective, the thing that is fusing the stars is the same thing that is thinking my thoughts. The fundamental ontology of the world is running everything, and I’m not separate from that, yet if feels like I am, and this seems to have tremendous ethical implications.
For example, people believe that people are deserving of retribution for crimes or acting immorally, as if they had chosen in some ultimate and concrete sense what to do. The ultimate spiritual experience, or at least the ultimate insight, is to see this whole thing for what it is, to realize that basically everyone is spell bound by these narratives of self, and these different intuitions we have about the world, and that we’re basically bought into this story that I think Abrahamic religions have led to a deeper conditioning in us. It seems to me that atheists also experience themselves this way. We think when we die there’ll be nothing, there will just be an annihilation of the self, but part of this realization process is that there’s no self to be annihilated to begin with. There’s just consciousness and its contents, and ultimately by this process you may come to see that consciousness is something empty of self and empty of identity. It’s just another thing that is happening.
Anthony Aguirre: I think there are a lot of these cases where the mountain becomes less then more of a mountain and then more and less of a mountain. You touched upon consciousness and free will and many other things that are also in this, and there’s a lot of discussion of free will in the book and we can get into that too. I think with consciousness or the self, I find myself in this strange sort of war in the sense that, on the one hand I feel like there’s a sense in which this self that we construct, is kind of an illusionary thing and that the ego and things that we attach to, is kind of an illusionary thing. But at the same time, A, it sure feels real and the feeling of being Anthony, I think is a kind of unique thing.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s this little nugget of soul stuff that exists at the core of a person. It’s easy to sort of make fun of this, but at the same time I think the idea that there’s something intrinsically equally valuable to each person is really, really important. I mean it underlies a lot of our way of thinking about society and morality, in ways that I find very valuable. And so while I kind of doubt the sort of metaphysics of the individual’s soul in that sense, I worry what happens to the way we’ve constructed our scheme of values. If we grade people on a sliding scale, you’re more valuable than this other person. I think that sense of equal intrinsic human worth is incredibly crucial and has led to a lot of moral progress. So I have this really ambivalent feeling, in that I doubt that there’s some metaphysical basis for that, but at the same time I really, really value that way of looking at the self, in terms of society and morality and so on, that we’ve constructed on top of that.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, so there’s the concept in zen Buddhism of skillful means. So one could say that the concept of each human being having some kind of equal and intrinsic worth, which is related to their uniqueness and fundamental being as being a human being, that that is skillful.
Anthony Aguirre: It’s not something that in some sense makes any rational sense. Whatever you name, some people have more of it than others. Money, capability, intelligence, sensitivity.
Lucas Perry: Even consciousness.
Anthony Aguirre: Consciousness maybe. Maybe some people are just a lot more conscious than others. If we can measure it, maybe some people would be like a 10 on the dial and others would be 2. Who knows?
Lucas Perry: I think that’s absolutely probably true, because some people are brain dead. Medically there’s a sliding scale of brain activity, so yeah, I think today it seems clear that some people are more conscious than others.
Anthony Aguirre: Yes, that’s certainly true. I mean when we go to sleep, we’re less conscious. But nonetheless, although anything that you can measure about people and their experience of the world varies and if you could quantify it on a scale, some people would have more and less. Nonetheless, we find it useful to maintain this idea that there is some intrinsic equality among people and I worry what would happen if we let go of that. What kind of world would we build without that assumption? So I find it valuable to keep that assumption, but I’m conflicted about that honestly, because on what basis do we make that assumption? I really feel good about it, but I’m not sure I can point to why. Maybe that’s just what we do. We say this is an axiom that we choose to believe that there’s an intrinsic moral value to people and I respect that, because I think you have to have axioms. But it’s an interesting place that we’ve come to, I think in terms of the relation between our beliefs about reality and our beliefs about morality.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I mean there’s the question, as we approach AI and super intelligence, of what authentic experiential and ethical enlightenment and idealization means. From my perspective the development of this idea, which is correlated with the enlightenment and humanism, right? Is a very recent thing, the 17 and the 1800’s, right? So it seems clear from a cosmological context that this norm or ethical view is obviously based on a bunch of things that are just not true, but at the same time it’s been ethnically very skillful and meaningful for fixing many of the immoral things that humans do, that are unethical. But obviously it seems like it will give way to something else, and the question is, is what else does it give way to?
So if we create Life 3.0 and we create AI’s that do not care about getting turned off for two minutes and then waking up again, because they don’t feel the delusion of a self. That to me seems to be a step in moral evolution, and why I think that ultimately it would be super useful for AI design, if the AI designers would consider the role that identity plays in forming strong AI systems that are there to help us. We have the opportunity here to have selfless AI systems, they’re not going to be confused like we are. They’re not going to think they have souls, or feel like they have souls, or have strong senses of self. So it seems like there’s opportunities here, and questions around what it means to transcend many of the aspects of human experience, and how best it would be to instantiate that in advanced AI systems.
Anthony Aguirre: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of valuable stuff to talk about there. In humans, there are a whole bunch of things that go together that don’t necessarily have to be packaged together. Intelligence and consciousness are packaged together, it’s not clear to what degree those have to be. It’s not clear how much consciousness and selfness have to be packaged together. It’s not clear how much consciousness or selfness and a valence to consciousness, a positive or negative experience have to be packaged together. Could we conceive of something that is intelligent, but not conscious? I think we certainly could, depending on how intelligent it has to be. I think we have those things and depending on what we mean by consciousness, I guess. Can we imagine something that is conscious and intelligent, but without a self, maybe? Or conscious, but it doesn’t matter to it how something goes. So it’s something that’s conscious, but can’t really have a moral weight in the sense that it doesn’t either suffer or experience positive feelings, but it does experience.
I think there’s often a notion that if something is said to have consciousness, then we have to care about it. It’s not totally clear that that’s the case and at what level do we have to care about somethings preferences? The rain prefers to fall down, but I don’t really care and if I frustrate the rain by putting up an umbrella, I don’t feel bad about that. So at what level do preferences matter and how do we define those? So there are all these really, really interesting questions and what’s both sort of exciting and terrifying, is that we have a situation in which those questions are going to play out. In that we’re going to be creating things that are intelligent and we’re doing that now depending on how intelligent they have to be again. That may or may not be conscious, that may or may not have preferences, may or may not matter. They may or may not experience something positive or negative when those preferences are satisfied or not.
And I think we have the possibility of both moral catastrophe if we do things wrong at some level, but an enormous opportunity as well, in the sense that you’ve pointed out that we may be able to create agents that are purely selfless and insofar as other beings have a moral value. These beings can be absolute altruists, like Stewart has been pointing out in his book. Absolute altruism is a pretty tough one for humans to attain, but might be really easy for beings that we construct that aren’t tied to an evolutionary history and all those sorts of things that we came out of.
It may still be that the sort of moral value of the universe centers around the beings that do have meaningful preferences, like humans. Where meaning sort of ultimately sits, what is important and what’s not and what’s valuable and what’s not. If that isn’t grounded in the preferences of experiencing conscious beings, then I don’t know where it’s grounded, so there’s a lot of questions that come up with that. Does it just disappear if those beings disappear and so on? All incredibly important questions I think, because we’re now at the point in the next however many years, 50, 100, maybe less, maybe more. Where our decisions are going to affect what sorts of beings the universe gets inhabited by in the far future and we really need to avoid catastrophic blunders in how that plays out.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. There this whole aspect of AI alignment that you’re touching on, that is not just AI alignment, but AI generation and creation. The problem has been focused on how we can get AI systems, in so far as we create them, to serve the needs of human beings, to understand our preference hierarchies, to understand our metapreferences. But in the creation of Life 3.0, there’s this perspective that you’re creating something who, by virtue of how it is created, it is potentially more morally relevant than you, it may be capable of much more experience, much more profound levels of experience, which also means that there’s this aspect of AI alignment which is about qualia architecting or experience architecting or reflecting on the fact that we’re building Life 3.0. These aren’t just systems that can process information for us, there are important questions about what it is like to be that system in terms of experience and ethics and moral relevance. If you create something with the kind of experience that you have, and it has the escape velocity to become super intelligent and populate the cosmic endowment with whatever it determines to be the good, or what we determine to be the good, what is the result of that?
One last thing that I’m nervous about is that the way that the illusion of self will contribute to a fair and valuable AI alignment. This consideration is in relation to us not being able to see what is ultimately good. We could ultimately be tied up in the preservation of our own arbitrary identities, like the Lucas identity or the Anthony identity. You could be creating something like blissful, purely altruistic, benevolent Boddhisattva gods, but we never did because we had this fear and this illusion of self-annihilation. And that’s not to deny that our information can be destroyed, and maybe we care a lot about the way that the Lucas identity information is arranged, but when we question these types of intuitions that we have, it makes me question and wonder if my conditioned identity is actually as important as I think it is, or as I experience it to be.
Anthony Aguirre: Yeah, I think this is a very horrifyingly thorny question that we have to face and my hope is that we have a long time to face it. I’m very much an advocate of creating intelligent systems that can be incredibly helpful and economically beneficial and then reaping those benefits for a good long time while we sort ourselves out. But with a fairly strict upper limit on how intelligent and powerful we make those things. Because I think if huge gains in the capability of machine systems happens in a period of years or even decades, the chance of us getting these big questions right, seems to me like almost zero. There’s a lot of argumentation about how difficult is it to build a machine system that has the same sort of general intelligence that we do. And I think part of what makes that question hard, is thinking about the huge amount of effort that went in evolutionarily and otherwise to creating the sort of robust intelligence that humans have.
I mean we’ve built up over millions of years in this incredibly difficult adversarial environment, where robustness is incredibly important. Cleverness is pretty important, but being able to cope with a wide variety of circumstances is kind of what life and mind has done. And I think the degree to which AGI will be difficult, is at some level the degree to which it has to attain a similar level of generality and robustness, that we’ve spent just an ungodly amount of computation over the evolution of life on earth to attain. If we have to do anything like that level of computation, it’s going to take just an extraordinarily long time. But I think we don’t know to what degree all of that is necessary and to what degree we can really skip over a lot of it, in the same way that we skip over a lot of evolution of flying when we build an airplane.
But I think there’s another question, which is that of experience and feeling that were even more clueless as to where we would possibly start. If we wanted to create an appreciation for music, you have no clue where to even begin with that question, right? What does it even mean to appreciate or listen to, in some sense have preferences. You can maybe make a machine that will sort different kinds of music into different categories, but do you really feel like there’s going to be any music appreciation in there or in any other human feeling? These are things that have a very, very long, complicated evolutionary history and it’s really unclear to me that we’re going to get them in machine form without something like that. But at least as our moral system is currently construed, those are the things that actually matter.
Whether conscious beings are having a good time, is pretty much the foundation of what we consider to be important, morally speaking at least. Unless we have ideas like we have to do it with a way to please some deity or something like that. So I just don’t know, when you’re talking about future AI beings that have a much richer and deeper interior sense, that’s like the AGI problem squared. We can at least imagine what it’s like to make a general intelligence, an idea of what it would take to do that. But when you talk about creating a feeling being, with deeper, more profound feelings that we have, just no clue what that means in terms of actually engineering or something.
Lucas Perry: So putting on the table all of the moral anti-realism considerations and thought that many people in the AI alignment community may have… Their view is that there’s the set of the historically conditioned preferences that we have and that’s it. We can imagine if horshoecrabs had been able to create a being more intelligent than them, a being that was aligned to horshoecrabs preferences and preference hierarchy. And we can imagine that the horseshoecrabs were very interested and committed to just being horseshoecrabs, because that’s what horseshoecrab wants to do. So now you have this being that was able to maintain it’s own existential condition of the horseshoecrab for a very long time. That just seems like an obvious moral catastrophe. It seems like a waste of what could have been.
Anthony Aguirre: That’s true. But if you imagine that the horseshoe crabs, instead creating elaborate structures out of sand, that they decided we’re their betters and we’re like, this is their legacy was to create these intricate sand structures, because the universe deserves to be inhabited by these much greater beings than them. Then that’s also a moral catastrophe, right? Because the sand structures have no value whatsoever.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I don’t want humans to do any of these things. I don’t want human beings to go around building monuments, and I don’t want us to lock in to the human condition either. Both of these cases obviously seem like horrible waste, and now you’re helping to articulate the issue that human beings are at a certain place in evolution.
And so if we’re to create Life 3.0, then it’s also unclear epistemically how we are to evaluate what kinds of exotic qualia states are the kinds that are morally good, and I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.
So we may be unaware of experiences that literally astronomically better than the kinds of experiences that we have access to, and it’s unclear to me how you would navigate effectively towards that, other than amplifying what we already have.
Anthony Aguirre: Yeah. I guess my instinct on that is to look more on the biology side then the machine side and to say as biological systems, we’re going to continue to evolve in various ways. Some of those might be natural, some of them might be engineered and so on. Maybe some of them are symbiotic, but I think it’s hard for me to imagine how we’re going to have confidence that the things that are being created have an experience that we would recognize or find valuable, if they don’t have some level of continuity with what we are, that we can directly experience. The reason I feel confidence that my dog is actually feeling some level of joy or frustration or whatever, is really by analogy, right? There’s no way that I can get inside the dog’s mind, maybe someday there will be, but there’s no way at the moment. I assume that because we have this common evolutionary heritage, that the outward manifestations of those feelings correspond to some inward feelings in much the same way that they do in humans and much the same the way that they do in me. And I feel quite confident about that really, although for a long period of history, people have believed otherwise at times.
So I think realistically all we’re going to be able to do, is reason by analogy and that’s not going to work very well I think with machine systems, because it’s quite clear that we’ll be able to create machine systems that can wag their tails and smile and things, even though there’s manifestly nothing behind that. So at what point we would start to believe the sort of behavioral cues and say that there’s some interior sense behind that, is very, very unclear when we’re talking about a machine system. And I think we’re very likely to make all kinds of moral errors in either ascribing too much or too little interior experience to machines, because we have no real way of knowing to make any meaningful connection between those things. I suspect that we’ll tend to make the error in both directions. We’ll create things that seem kind of lifelike and attribute all kinds of interior life to them that we shouldn’t and if we go on long enough, we may well create things that have some interior sense that we don’t attribute to them and make all kinds of errors that way too.
So I think it’s quite fraught actually in that sense and I don’t know what we’re going to do about that. I mean we can always hope that the intractably hard problems that we can’t solve now, will just be solved by something much smarter than us. But I do worry a little bit about attributing sort of godlike powers to something by saying, “Oh, it’s super intelligent, so it will be able to do that.” I’m not terribly optimistic. It may well be that the time at which something is so intelligent that it can solve the problem of consciousness and qualia and all these things, it’d be so far beyond the time at which it was smart enough to completely change reality in the world and all kinds of other things. That it’s almost past the horizon of what we can think about now, it’s sort of past the singularity in that sense. We can speculate, hopefully or not hopefully, but it’s not clear on what basis we would be speculating.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. At least the questions that it will need to face, and then we can leave it open as to whether or not and how long it will need to address those questions. So we discussed who I am, I don’t know. You touched on identity and free will. I think that free will in the libertarian sense, as in I could have done otherwise, is basically one of these common sense intuitions that is functionally useful, but ultimately illusory.
Anthony Aguirre: Yeah, I disagree. I will just say briefly, I prefer to think of free will as a set of claims that may or may not be true. And I think in general it’s useful to decompose the question of free will into a set of claims that may or may not be true. And I think when you do that, you find that most of the claims are true, but there may be some big fuzzy metaphysically thing that you’re equating to that set of claims and then claiming it’s not true. So that’s my feeling, that when you actually try to operationalize what you mean by free will, you’ll find that a lot of the things that you mean actually are properties of reality. But if you sort of invent a thing that you call free will, that’s by its nature can’t be part of a physical world, then yes, that doesn’t exist. In a nutshell that’s my point of view, but we could go into a lot more depth some other time.
Lucas Perry: I think I understand that from that short summary. So for this last part then, can you just touch on, because I think this is an interesting point, as we come to the end of the conversation. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. What does that mean?
Anthony Aguirre: So form is emptiness, is coming back to the discussion of earlier. That when we talk about something like a table, that thing that we call real and existing and objective in some sense, is actually composed of all kinds of ingredients that are not that thing. Our evolutionary history and our concept of solidity and shape, all of these things come together from many different sources and as the Buddhist would say, “There’s no intrinsic self existence of a table.” It very much exists relative to a whole bunch of other things, that we and many other people and processes and so on, bring into being. So that’s the form is emptiness. The emptiness is the emptiness of an intrinsic self existence, so that’s the way that I view the form is emptiness.
But turning that around, that emptiness is form, is yes, even though the table is empty of inherit existence, you can still knock on it. It’s still there, it’s still real and it’s in many ways as real as anything else. If you look for something that is more intrinsically existing than a table, you’re not really going to find it and so we might as well call all of those things real, in which case the emptiness is form again, it’s something. That’s the way I sort of view it and that’s the way that I’ve explored it in that section of the book.
So to talk about like the ship, that there’s this form of the ship that is kind of what we call the ship. That’s the arrangement of atoms and so on, it’s kind of made out of information and whatnot. That that form is empty in the sense that there are all these ingredients, that come from all these different places that come together to make that thing, but then that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent or meaningless or something like that. That there very much is meaning in the fact that something is a ship rather than something else, that is reality. So that’s kind of the case that I’m putting together in that last section of the book. It’s not so simply either, our straight forward sense of a table as a real existing thing, nor is it, everything is an illusion. It’s like a dream, it’s like a phantasm, nothing is real. Neither of those is the right way to look at it.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I think that your articulation here brings me again back, for better or for worse, to mountains, no mountains, and mountains again. I came into this conversation with my conventional view of things, and then there’s “form is emptiness.” Oh so okay, so no mountains. But then “emptiness is form.” Okay, mountains again. And given this conceptual back and forth, you can decide what to do from there.
Anthony Aguirre: So have we come back to the mountain in this conversation, at this point?
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I think we’re back to mountains. So I tremendously valued this conversation and feel that it’s given me a lot to consider. And I will re-enter the realm of feeling like a self and inhabiting a world of chairs, tables, objects and people. And will have to engage with some more thinking about information theory. And with that, thank you so much.