Do Explain #10 - The Primacy of Ideas, with David Deutsch
All right, everybody. This is Chris. So today I'm speaking with David Deutsch.
David is a visiting professor of physics at the Center for Quantum Computation at Oxford University
and also an honorary fellow of Wolfson College. He works on fundamental issues in physics,
particularly the quantum theory of computation and information as well as constructor theory.
He has also written two fantastic books aimed at the general reader, the fabric of reality
and the beginning of infinity. You can find out more about David at his personal website
DavidDeutsch.org.uk or you can go and find him on Twitter at DavidDeutsch.ox. That's O-X-F.
Now, as you'll see by the end of the podcast, David talks about how it was to meet his own
intellectual hero called Popper. And as many of you already know, my intellectual hero,
whose work is the basis and the inspiration for this podcast is David himself. So it was a great
honor and a great joy for me to speak with him and I proudly present our conversation.
So hold on to your hat and we were to pay and let's go.
All right, so I'm here with David Deutsch. David, welcome to DuXplain. Hi there.
When I visited you in Oxford a few months back, I brought you some Swedish chocolate bars,
some dame bars, and I was wondering if you've noticed any increases in creativity by eating them
perhaps. I can't remember which ones they were because there were also some Dutch ones.
Oh yes, now I remember. The Swedish ones were delicious. The Dutch ones were different in kind.
They were, they were supposed to be put on something like on pancakes and there they were delicious too.
Right, right. Well, many people don't know this, but similar to how Coca-Cola supposedly had
cocaine in their early product. The dame bars are completely laced with LSD. So I was hoping that
that could spark some interesting conjectures for you there when you're writing. Why should that produce
any different state from my normal state? Yeah. Exactly. I would actually be interested to have you
do a study with that. I've always wondered how your mind works. Yeah, I'd rather not risk it.
Yeah, I'll leave that to others. I think that might be wise. So yeah, I thought we could start
by revisiting our prehistoric and pre-scientific pasts, which are times that people seem to look
back on with very different sentiments. Many, many paint a somewhat romantic view where people were
exempt from modern stressors such as Long Days at the office and the increasing horrors of
social media. And we're instead free to forage and hunt, spend a large chunk of their days
enjoying themselves in tribal societies, resting, playing, singing together and so on.
It was a much simpler time or so they say. So I take you to be in the opposite camp here,
advocating a much more grim description of the history of humanity. So I like you to just
explain why you think it's a mistake to look back on history with envy.
Well, for prehistory, we don't have obviously any records and we hardly have any
paleontological evidence either. But just the gross facts that we know make this picture of an
idyllic prehistoric past really untenable. So one gross fact is that our species
has existed in its current form for at least 100,000 years, maybe two or three times that,
according to some people. So in that 100,000 years, in this idyllic life,
the human population didn't ever grow very much. Whereas today, it does and we have a population
of billions. Now, what kept the population down and what kept the population constant
in those days for for most of our history? That's one thing. And I think the answer is nothing good.
And I think that whatever that was, whether it was famine, disease, war, getting a bite from
an insect which you then had a horrible death from, whatever that was, people would have been
frightened of it. They would have not wanted this to happen and yet it did.
Right. So that's one thing. Another thing we know, just from the little paleontological
evidence that we have, is that nothing changed much. So when paleontologists dig up some fossils
and they dig up the stone tools or remains of campfires and whatever that they find,
they can't date them typically to an accuracy of better than like a thousand years or even more.
So that means that technology, which is these people's way of avoiding famine and predator attacks
and what have you, those means of escaping from their fears a little didn't improve for thousands
of years at a time. And again, today we're used to our lifestyle being revolutionized within
a lifetime. And I think these things are all connected and the reason that no progress was
made is connected, of course, with the reason why life was horrible. And these bits of evidence,
I think, can't be explained on the basis that they were living the lives they wanted to.
They were living lives of desperation and fear. By the way, the very capacity for fear and pain
and so on must have evolved and did not unevolve during this hundred thousand years when we were
allegedly living an idyllic life. It had a use. The people that did not have those feelings
preferentially died compared with people that had those feelings a bit more. And the level that we
have them at is genetically determined or at least the genetically determined level that we have
them at is genetically determined and is roughly speaking optimum for replication.
So anything horrible that we experience in our bodies was put there by evolution,
and therefore we can conclude that our ancestors felt those things a lot right.
Yeah, that's a very interesting take on it. I never thought of it in those terms, but I'm curious
if you have, if you're aware of the book tribe by Sebastian Younger. No, I'm not. No, okay, so he
argues in that book that humans have evolved to live in smaller close knit tribal communities
where survival depended on working together and hence putting the group first because without the
group you couldn't survive. And this brought with it or at least so he argues a strong sense of
community, a strong sense of belonging where the individual felt needed and his life was imbued
with a powerful meaning as a result. And so this tight bond between people, which I hear can be
replicated in modern times through, for instance, military operations where the individual once
again has to rely on the group to fight for a common goal of survival. But he says that this is
lacking in Western society today where there's no direct common threat to our lives in the same way.
And this is how he wants to explain much of our modern suffering like high levels of depression,
suicide, six sided disorders. And I'm not sure I agree with the idea that we need this hardship
to feel a tight bond with other people. However, I do think he has a point when it comes to
lack of social cohesion and maybe a sense of meaning in many people's lives today. So
is there something to be said for, I mean, in regard to what you just said there, do you think
there can be something to be said for people being as happy or even happier in earlier times
because they had this much stronger sense of togetherness of being needed than we have today?
Yes, it's interesting that when people try to sort of put down humans and denigrate our alleged
desire to think of ourselves as good and great. And despite the fact that
this denigration is extremely popular and seems to be taken up in all versions. So there's
the idea that we are inherently tribal, which is used to explain racism and violence and the
lack of it is used to explain, as you just said, is used to explain anxiety and social dislocation
and so on. And I don't believe any of that. I think this is just sheer argument by analogy
with a fixed conclusion that people are bad, people are mechanical, people are explained by
prehistory. I don't think so. Although it may well be true, and I just said earlier that
some are at least of our range of feelings and states of mind are evolved. But what external
conditions we attach those feelings to is very much determined by culture and by individual
choice and individual creativity. Some people say that we're bad because we're tribal,
other people say we're bad because we're selfish. Can you have that both ways? And now you're
telling me of people who are saying we're good because we're tribal. And I know that there are
groups of philosophers who say that we're good because we're selfish. So there you have all
four possibilities and all of them ignore the most important thing about humans, which is
creative thought, which can and does allow us to transcend our genetic programming.
So you do have people who are tribal and you do have cultures that are tribal, but you do have
also people who are individualistic and cultures that are individualistic and so on. It takes
all sorts to make the human world where it does not take all sorts to make, let's say, the lion
world, lions in that respect are explainable by their genes, whereas humans are explainable by their
ideas. Yeah, this seems to be a hand in hand with the idea of human nature. And I just like you
say there, I hear this concept being invoked often to excuse certain behaviors and observe tendencies
among humans, historically, and to argue that something's just can't be changed. Selfishness
and violence comes to mind for me as well. I hear them quite frequently in arguments. But
okay, so this idea that parts of our psychology are just inescapable, that is trumped by creative
thought. Yes. And even not just inescapable, some ideologies say, okay, we can escape it, but we
have to try really hard. We have to discipline ourselves or discipline each other or discipline
children to override this almost insuperable, bad tendency, whatever, you know, people think it
happens to be. And as I keep saying, the fact that people bring up opposite alleged tendencies
and make a similar argument from them is in itself a sign that this is a bad explanation through
and through. But so if we go back to younger's claim there about the strong need to feel needed
or to you hear people say we're a social animal, we're inescapably social animal. I suppose you
would argue the same way there, but you think we suffer from the so-called lack of meaning today
and that they could have had better social relationships that would contribute to happiness
for a person. Well, I think we, our aspirations have definitely improved. I spoke about all the
things that our ancestors feared and the fear of those in some sense is still there, but much,
much less and doesn't dominate our lives. So I think the things like alienation, I think
Marx invented the term in this context. And the theories that you'll mention, you mentioned,
they are just theories and people can adopt a theory and then condition their feelings
consciously or unconsciously by that theory. So for example, if you have a theory that you belong
to a group that's persecuted, then you may find yourself falling into a victim mentality,
which means that you are interpreting yourself according to the theory, which is the opposite,
is the very opposite of being driven by your genes. This is though what we really do. We interpret
ourselves according to theories and attitudes and they come from, maybe some of them come from
our genes, but that doesn't make them immutable, but certainly many of them come from culture
because we know that some attitudes are recent and did not exist even a few centuries ago.
And some come from our own creativity so that a person, like, I don't know, what was that ancient
Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel? Was it Diogenes or something?
I have to admit ignorance. Yeah, me too. There was some guy who lived in a barrel and he had
come up with the idea that this was the good life. And maybe he was depriving himself of things
in a rather masochistic way, like people sometimes do now as well. They, you know,
no pain, no gain and various ways of life that are based on self deprivation. Or maybe he was
trying creatively to, for example, rid himself of interference from other people or rid himself
of the obligations that interactions with other people would bring. Or maybe he enjoyed
being this eccentric guy that people would come and kneel before his barrel and ask for his
wise advice. And maybe that wouldn't have happened if he'd lived in a house. Who knows? But none
of those things were in his genes. And if you try to say that yes, they were in his genes,
that's just his way of being social. Well, if your way of being social is never to interact
with other people, or you know, if your way of being social can mean any actual behavior,
then again, that is not a good explanation. It's a very bad explanation.
Okay. So when people reference studies done in certain animals, I think rats is common,
or monkeys, they've done studies where they deprived the monkey children of their mother,
or of social contact, the same for the rats, and the rats that don't get that social contact,
they die very quickly. But this is not analogous for the reasons you've already stated to humans.
You can't draw that analogy to humans. It's not analogous to humans who are creating ways of life
for themselves, they're creating new ideas. So we don't know yet when creativity in that sense
sets in in babies. It could be that babies are analogous to newborn babies,
are analogous to newborn monkeys, and that they perhaps wouldn't thrive without human contact.
In fact, another possibility, which I've sometimes conjectured, is that creativity
is, in fact, partly cultural, and that a newborn baby is kind of, it only has part of the
creativity program in the genes, and the rest is provided by memes from culture. Now, you know,
I have no evidence for that, but it's one of the many possibilities that could be true.
But explaining human choices by analogy with rats or monkeys is just ludicrous.
It is, as I said, it is defining away the defining feature of humans.
So if anything, our human nature would be that capacity itself, if we have to save that concept.
Yes, yes. Yeah, I don't know why we want to save that concept, but yes, there is a sense
in which not having a fixed nature is the fixed nature of humans.
Yeah, exactly, because it wouldn't strictly be human nature since the way you define a person
is that it can be instantiated on a computer. It just happens to be in a biological vehicle at
this point, which are called humans. But that's an interesting conjecture about the baby
not having the creator program or the creative capacity fully to begin with, but I would
suppose it would have to learn those memes fairly early to be able to acquire language.
Oh, yes. So by the time babies are learning language, they're definitely creative,
because that's a task that, I mean, we can't even program a computer to this day to match
a baby's ability to learn language. So that's definitely a hugely creative task.
Yeah. But I'm still hearing you say, as you said in the beginning there, we still have the
capacity for strong emotions, like negative emotions, like fear and pain and anxiety, which
served in evolutionary purpose. But then I'm thinking a very current debate is about the idea of
gender differences. And we have, on the one hand, people like Jordan Peterson or Stephen Pinker
who argue fairly strongly that biological differences between the sexes best explains the
differences in personality and behavior that we tend to observe in men and women. And on the
other hand, we have the social constructionists who claim that biology is completely irrelevant
and a social contract, social construct as well. And that reality is entirely created by the
social norms we have. And so culture is the only relevant factor. I think you reject both of
these conclusions based on what you said, but you lean more towards the latter that ideas are
the best explanation there. But I'm curious then, what role does the difference in biology
play here? Because surely it has to have some, if only in creating different sensations,
I find it strange that most cultures have adopted the same type of stereotypical gender roles.
Yeah. Well, how do you think about that? I think that both of those theories are not only
false. They have completely the wrong end of the stick because
how much of human behavior is explained by something or other? Is itself entirely determined
by human choices? Or I should say, how much of human choices are explained by genetics or culture
or inborn creativity? All of those, how much of human choices are explained by those,
is itself determined by human creativity? How do you mean? Can you explicate that all? Well,
yes. So genes are just a thing in our environment, like snow for inuit and like a particular
language for people living in a particular country. Now, you might do a study to say how much
is mathematical ability affected by latitude? And you could make graphs and correlations between
the latitude at which a person was born. And then you'd find a correlation and you would say,
aha, mathematical ability is explained by latitude. But that's not how I would use the word
explain. That just means correlated. The real explanation comes elsewhere. Now, you could also say
in regard to mathematical ability that it was determined by the number of the century in which
you were born. So in century 20, a certain proportion of people become mathematicians in
century zero. It was century one. Actually, there is no century zero.
In century one, it was far fewer. In century minus a thousand, it was essentially nil.
And again, why were there no mathematicians? Well, because of the harsh life people led,
and because of the culture that made them not interested, but perhaps there was a mathematician
somewhere. How do we know? Perhaps there was one in the minus 10,000, 10,000 BC. We don't have
any record of that because they had no writing in that time. If there was one, and I don't see
why there wouldn't have been one, it was because they managed to violate the norms of their culture
and transcend the values and preoccupations of their culture and develop an interest that we
would now identify as mathematics. Some people might say, well, that's very unlikely for a primitive
person to have done that. But today, when we are allegedly all the victims of the same genes,
plenty of people violate the norms of their culture and the preoccupations of their culture and
so on. And by the way, plenty of people violate their own so-called survival instinct, not just
for the benefit of the culture, but for all sorts of reasons, including very silly ones.
Yeah. But so how I'm not sure I see the connection to the fact that we see the same
generals throughout all cultures or the majority of cultures in previous times. And even now,
because it seems to me if it was purely a matter of ideas and the genes didn't influence at
all, why would we see that pattern? When I mentioned correlations, I was trying to say that
those are cases where most people's attitude to mathematics was indeed explained by their
environment, by their genes, by their culture and so on. Because very few people were using their
creativity. And we don't have that many creativity-based cultures to go on. Basically, the West
is it. I mean, you know, we have maybe ancient Athens or whatever. And the fact is that
there are enormous differences between the roles of women in, say, ancient Athens and present day
Sweden. And there are even differences between present day Sweden and present day USA.
And there are differences between present day Sweden and 50 years ago, Sweden. So come on.
The mechanical explanations of gender roles just for flat on their faces.
Right. And I mean, you could also perhaps argue that since if we go back to prehistoric times
again in the tribal societies, it was just a fact of physiology that if you were going to hunt
for food and you couldn't just go to the grocery store, the people with the most muscle mass
who were faster and stronger could just naturally, you know, it's not that it's in their genes.
It's just, it's the natural interpretation or the natural idea to create.
Yes. Yes. Absolutely. That is actually, I wouldn't call those gender roles because
that is just a practical consideration, just like the person with a broken leg also wouldn't have
gone on a hunt. Exactly. And on the country, a woman who was, was unusually strong or was unusually
good at throwing spears would have gone on a hunt. What we call gender roles is enforced gender
roles, either culturally or legally or by ridicule or whatever. And they are, they are irrational.
But differences in behavior that have a practical purpose that the person
benefits from or identifies with are only a different category from gender roles in the other
sense. Yeah, no, definitely. So I had a plan on asking you about this, but it seems to be
related and it's so interesting. So just to try to push back a little bit when it comes to
things like twin studies then, not specifically about gender roles, but about genes causing
behavior. Now I haven't looked into the twin studies myself carefully, but the claims seem to be
that they've done studies where and supposedly a lot of them where people is a call identical twins.
Yes. Yes. Yeah. I don't know the different types, but the most identical one where they separate
them at birth and they get completely different environments to grow up in and then when they're
adults, they seem to share things that seem unlikely to just be coincidence, things like
sexual preferences or political leanings or musical taste. So how would one explain that then?
Because it seems too haphazard to just say that they just happen to develop the same interest in
music, for for instance. So I take it that none of these twin studies are double blind studies,
that is none of them have these twins wrapped up in an opaque container,
unable to communicate other than by typing in and out, so that in fact, these identical twins
who are placed in allegedly different environments, they are seen and their behaviors are noted by
people, by people who are genetically, culturally, sub-culturally and so on, inclined to interpret
behaviors in a particular way. So if someone's very good looking, they might have a different
experience of high school from someone who is less good looking. And those different experiences
in high school might affect their interests, their sexual preferences, you name it, it might influence
it. And even if they then go to different schools, the fact that they are equally good looking
will have the same bias, biased effect on them, which people in the study will later pick up and
say, oh, this is coded for by genes, but it's not coded for by genes any more than the country
you live in is coded for by genes, even though that too has a strong genetic correlation. Right,
I think, okay, so it's similar, I think you write a similar example in the beginning of infinity,
your book, your second book, where yeah, being attractive, you're talking in the context of
happiness research, which does a similar thing here, 50% of happiness is encoded in genes and
is immutable. And so maybe people just treat attractive people better. And so that is what causes
you to be more happy. And you share those genes, but it's not the genes. Yes, I doubt it's as simple
as that because treatment of somebody, which is intended to cause a certain effect, rarely does,
but it might cause a coherent effect, even if a different one from the intended one. So yeah,
it would be very surprising if identical twins reared separately did not have a lot of traits
in common, even if there was no genetic coding of those. And as I said before, the whole concept
of genetic coding is a mistake because how much of the genetic coding gets translated into actual
behavior and personality is itself determined by creativity. The person can decide not to behave as
their genes are telling them, like the people who take up aesthetic lifestyles and deprive themselves
of this or that food, which they really enjoy, because they have adopted an idea, either they
invented it or they adopted it from someone else, that this is better than what the genes are telling
them. Right. So okay. So we, I mean, we have genes, we have starting ideas as it were. And then
we quickly start using our creativity to improve upon that. So we're, yeah, it is a starting point.
And then, but that's all it is. Yeah. So this is Stephen Pinker has this idea that his opponents
believe in a blank slate at both. Yeah. And that's, that's, I think that metaphor comes more or less
from, from Locke. So I would say we have a slate, we're born with a slate that's the Scott
tons of stuff on it, some useful, some not useful, some nonsense and so on. But it's a slate,
it has chalk on it. It can be wiped off easily. And it is very common for people to act in ways
where, where for any animal, that would be the one of the deepest things in their genetic makeup,
like like eating, having sex, avoiding pain, all these things are commonly overridden by humans
for the most trivial of reasons. Yeah, exactly. I choose to fast intermittent fast every day
because it's in fashion to do so. And I get more likes on Instagram. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But
um, no, I think I think the word people would have trouble with there is easily that we can
easily change the slate. But I would agree with you on that. Well, so let me, let me say commonly
and that is already enough to refute the, the theory. I mean, it is common for teenage girls to
become anorexic. You know, it's, it's, it's common for people to go on diets or to, to binge eat
or both and, and all those things are supposedly explained by genes. Well, you know, bad explanation
again. All right, folks, time for the fun stuff. So if you really enjoy what I'm doing here,
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All right, man. So I want to switch gears a little bit and go over to the philosophy of mind.
And you, you argue that the brain must be a computer and you make use of the functionalist
distinction between brain and mind hardware and software, respectively. And a lot of people would
take issue with that. For instance, I remember there was an A on article called the empty brain,
circulating a while back. The summary of the article was your brain does not process information,
retrieve knowledge or store memories in short. Your brain is not a computer. Now I'm convinced
after reading that, but it went on to say that speaking of the brain as a computer is no more
true than how we've historically described it as consisting of hydraulic pumps, wheel works
powered by springs and gears being a telegraph. It's just a convenient metaphor that continually
changes with our current technology, and that the computer metaphor will meet the same fate as
the others soon enough. But I mean, clearly a laptop and a brain are different at one level.
Our brain doesn't have the Von Neumann architecture. And it's made up of neurons and blood vessels
rather than metal and silicone. And it's constantly rewiring itself, the neuroplasticity. But
I take your claim to be much more fundamental than that. So how do we know, first of all, that
the brain is a computer, and then also why is it crucial to make this hardware software distinction
between the brain and the mind and not just talk in terms of the brain?
Okay. Well, you ran through a lot of ideas there. I'm not sure I can remember them all.
But the basic thing is that, first of all, the basic thing is that the brain is a physical object
and a base the laws of physics. Now, some people would deny that. Some people would say that
the brain is in part a supernatural object controlled by a supernatural entity, the soul,
which doesn't obey laws of physics. Okay. That is a different argument from everything else you
said. And if you want me to go into why I think that's a bad idea, I guess I could. But I think
it's more important to address the points that take for granted that the brain is a physical
object. And the question is, what kind of a physical object? Is it like a steam engine? Is it
like a computer? Is it like a blank slate? You know, whatever. And it's rather sad that it's getting
on for a century now that Alan Turing solved this entire problem. Or if you'd like, it might have
been solved even earlier in the, in the 1820s by, by Babbage and Lovelace or perhaps Lovelace and Babage.
Not sure. I think it may have may have been Lovelace who had the, the idea of computational
universality as I now understand it rather than Babage. But anyway, Turing certainly did have it.
And he understood that if the brain obeys laws of physics, then no matter what kind of soul
or whatever or what kind of juices may be powering it, its functionality is information processing.
That is nerve impulses or chemical impulses in and nerve impulses and chemical impulses out,
which, which then cause our actions and our speech. And they also cause our memory and therefore
our introspection and our explanations of why we do what we do and of what we are.
This is all the processing of information. Now, nowadays we take like, since Turing really,
we, we have taken information processing to be the same thing as computation.
But that's only the case if computation is indeed universal as, as during a conjecture.
And why is that you mean? Because then if, if computation is universal, that means that there is
only one kind of information, the kind that can be processed by a Turing machine.
That there isn't another kind that could be processed by a different kind of machine, which the
brain might be. There cannot be such a thing if universality is true.
Right. Okay. Yeah. And Turing conjectured that, he also argued for it quite powerfully.
But if quantum theory is true, then we can do better than that because I actually proved
that physical systems that obey quantum theory support universal computation. So the universal
computer, not quite Turing's but what we call quantum computer nowadays, is a universal
computer and can perform any computation that any other physical object can perform,
including a brain. So when we say that a brain is a computer, we are saying an amalgam of two things,
we're saying that a brain is an information processor, all the functions of the brain,
information processing functions, just because it is a physical object. That's one thing.
And then we're saying it's a computer because actually there is only one kind of general
information processing device. And it has the same, they all have the same repertoire.
And that's why we say the brain is a computer. This isn't an analogy. This is just a way of
saying some substantive things that we know basically from physics. Right. So could you say
that the information processing, that process of input, processing, and output is analogous to
initial states, loss of motion and what final state, final state, yeah.
Yeah. Yeah. Kind of, although it's, it's rather awkwardly phrased in that sense because
human thought doesn't necessarily have an output in the sense of
limb movements and statements made by the mouth. Some of the output just stays in the brain.
And, but it's subject to the same laws. We can think things that we never tell anybody,
like, you know, I might be thinking something of you now. And I'll never tell anybody what it is.
But nevertheless, by the same argument that I made earlier, that thinking was a computation.
And in that it processed information, it had an input, it had an output, even though the output will,
you know, will never pass my lips. Therefore, the input output model of computation is a bit
awkward when applied to the brain. But from the point of view of whether a brain is a computer,
that doesn't matter. Yeah, because if there wasn't such a thing as universal computation,
then different system might process information in different ways. And then we couldn't talk about
everything using computation, everything being a computer.
That's right. And so if physics were different, if the universe were different that way,
then animals and people could have been built differently. There could have been two kinds of
information that are not interoperable and two kinds of computation, or maybe 10 kinds. But that's
not how our world is made. Wow. Okay. Now I get it. That's fascinating. So, but, um, okay,
if we go back to the distinction then between brain and mind, why is that necessary?
Yes. Ah, well, that's necessary to understand certain things, not others. But the point about
the information, the reason why it even made sense to guess that that there might be universal
computation is that the properties of information are independent of the substrate that it is
instantiated in. So, lots of different kinds of physical object can store the same information,
a DNA strand, can store a Mozart symphony, and people have done things like this. And,
and of course, computer memories store our words and our ideas in a completely different form
from the way that our brain stores them. And we take for granted that you can make hardware,
like microphones and loudspeakers and so on, which translate from one way of storing to another.
So, the information in the brain, that is the mind and other information in the brain,
is the substrate independent part. And in fact, when we use it, even without technology,
we are constantly changing information from one form into another. Even in ourselves,
information in DNA gets transcribed to RNA, and then it gets transcribed to proteins. And we can
see that even though these are different types of physical object, the information is the same.
And the functionality of, let's say, protein synthesis depends on how good the system is at
preserving the information, as it is transferred from one form into another, and also at interpreting
it, seeing what is the meaning of the information in a given context. So, when it comes to
the brain, the brain has contains information in memory and in neuron firings, and quite likely
also in states of various chemical concentrations and so on. And those are independent of the
substrate. You can be given an injection of something that makes it related, and then you can say,
hey, I'm elated. And you suddenly translated that information from chemical form into the form of
sound waves. Whereas the hardware, the only thing that's important about the hardware is that
it's capable of universal computation. So, the hardware is constant in a particular brain, although
in the future, we will be able to make information processing devices that are functionally the
same as the brain, but are built with different things. Just like billions of years ago,
evolution had the idea of using DNA as its information storage device instead of RNA.
All right. Just in case I'm misunderstood here, I don't mean anything anthropomorphic by this.
So, the important part here is the mind is the universal information processor, so to speak,
that runs on the brain, the program. Yes, it's a program, that's right. It's a, well,
no, I would say the mind is, yeah, the brain is the universal processor, and the mind is a program
money on it, which is universal in a different sense. It is capable of supporting any kind of
explanation. Right. And that's interesting, because I ended up in an argument with one of my
teachers the other day. My classmate and I had held a presentation on how do we know it was an
explanation of knowledge and why people should care about it? And afterwards, we were discussing
this and I brought up the universality of human minds and even if you agree that computation
is universal, how do we know that minds that our minds are universal?
That is indeed a different argument, yeah, because he wouldn't buy that.
Yeah, well, explanatory universality is, well, I do cover this in the beginning of infinity
as well, but I cover it separately from the issue of computation and computational
universality. In short, the reason why I think it doesn't make sense to deny that we are capable
of explanatory universality is that the theory that we aren't capable of it is, how can I put
it? It's functionally the same as a belief in the supernatural, because it is a belief that
there is some aspect of the world whose explanation is not even in principle accessible
to human minds. For example, it might be accessible to superhuman minds, gods or aliens or dolphins
or something and that they might understand, or perhaps no one can understand it, perhaps it's
just inexplicable. Well, if we have an inexplicable world or a world that we can't understand,
that is affecting us, logically you can't disprove that, it's also not disproved by the universality
of computation or anything like that, but it is the very archetype of a bad explanation,
because by the same token that the world might be inexplicable, the explanation might be anything,
so there might be inexplicable gods out there, there might be inexplicable laws of nature
which are just toying with us, or perhaps the laws of nature will come to an end next year,
and different laws of nature will come and torture us or else put us into Nirvana,
and all these different possibilities are just small subsets of the overarching idea
that we are in a bubble of explicability, but that the universe as a whole is not explicable.
All those things I've just mentioned fit into that.
Yeah, yeah, and it's also non-parcemonias, you're adding an extra assumption there that is
unexplained. Yeah, that is true, yes. Okay, so it's there because there's a lot of emphasis today
on or at least it has been, I still think it is, but an emphasis on neuroscience and the
how essential it is to understanding the mind and AI and all these things,
but is there anything important to be learned about our minds by studying the architecture of
the brain directly? For instance, what a function seems to be specific for certain hemispheres,
or the default mode network is central for self reference and daydreaming and so on,
or are we going about that all wrong? Of course neuroscience is very important,
if something goes wrong with your brain, you want medical science to know as much as possible about
it, but you asked whether it was relevant basically to our idea or minds.
Yeah, okay. Yeah, understand our minds, yeah. I think only in a very marginal way,
so I said that we are we are born, not as blank slates, but as slates covered with
information. Yeah, I can envisage circumstances under which it might be useful to know what that is,
so that for example, if there is a piece of inborn propensity,
which humans typically abandon, let's say, during the first 10 years of their life,
they typically abandon it, or perhaps they always abandon, that's an easier case.
Yeah, it was that they always abandon it. Then, if you tell somebody when they're 9 years old,
you show them some neuroscience that says that all this struggle that they're having
is just to erase the part of their genetic inheritance, and it doesn't actually make sense,
then they might say, oh, I always thought it didn't make sense, but it's, you know,
it I'm just working my way through that, and it might be helpful to such a person,
maybe it wouldn't be helpful, maybe maybe, you know, it's something that you have to work out for
yourself. I don't know. I'm trying to explain why I think such knowledge is bound to be marginal
at best. That is knowledge of our inborn theories, our inborn wants and values and criteria
and expectations and so on. Yeah, so basically, if I've understood you correctly here, you're saying
that since the brain is a universal computer, but since it instantiates a universal program,
I can create explanatory knowledge, which in term obeys its own, it's independent of its
physical instantiation once you have that program. So then the brain, as you said right now,
gives us a starting point of the chalkboard with some scribbles on it, but we can always erase
all of that. So it's not primary to our understanding in any sense. Yes. And I guess
not important, either not very important or not at all important. You're going to get a lot of
slack for that, David. Well, the people who give me a hard time for this, I can't blame them,
right? It's written in their genes. Yeah, that's great. That's true. So yeah, so okay, so that was
the distinction between the mind and the brain, but there's another distinction here then,
between the unconscious and the conscious mind. And are you aware of the social psychologist,
Jonathan Hight? No, right now. Okay, he, he has a analogy, a rider on the elephant analogy,
where he says the rational side is like the rider on the elephant and the emotional side is
the elephant. The elephant, or sorry, the rider looks in charge, but when there's a disagreement
between these two sides, the elephant usually wins. And so this is a similar version to
Daniel Kahneman's system one and two, system one being fast, emotional, system two slower,
more logical. How do you currently think about the connection between the unconscious and the
conscious mind? I guess this I had a question here, are we essentially ruled by or unconscious,
so to speak? I suppose we've touched on some of this already, but yes, I don't think that the
distinction between the conscious and unconscious mind is a matter of hardware, first of all.
I don't think there's a unconscious thought module and a conscious thought module and
and sort of lots of neurons connecting them and sometimes those connections crackle and get hot
and then one side wins. I don't think it's like that. I think conscious and unconscious is just
a rough way of describing the fact that the content of different ideas is sometimes structurally
different, is often structurally different. It's like, I don't know if I can think of a good
analogy, but if you go on a motorway and you see police cars and normal cars, you may form a theory
that police cars obey one law of motion and ordinary cars obey another law of motion and
and you'd be wrong to think that police cars and ordinary cars are made in different factories
or operate by different principles or are fundamentally different in any way. What makes
and different is just software. The difference between a policeman and a non-placement is just
software and it's the same with the police car and the non-police car. So it's not that there
are strictly speaking unconscious ideas and conscious ideas and they have to interact with each
other. That's just a way of summarizing the fact that some processes are aware of other processes
but not aware of a third kind of process and so on. It's a matter of what's aware of where of what
and I certainly don't think that there is any kind of rule enforced by the brain or whatever
that one kind of idea always wins over another kind. Surely it's a matter of everyday experience
that people often do things that they have a strong desire not to do and on the contrary that people
also often do things that they have a strong desire to do but consciously think is wrong
and in that sense don't want to do it. Another thing that's slightly wrong with that whole picture
is that it assumes that the conscious mind by itself is consistent and therefore can be said to
have a desire and a preference like the rider on an elephant. But what if the rider on the elephant
is in two minds or in a hundred minds? That's more like it. The mind is full of ideas which are
full of various kinds of conflict with each other. So you couldn't therefore have a rule that says
one kind of idea always wins over the other. By the way if there was such a rule then if
preparing epistemology is true this thing wouldn't be universal. It would be unable to
understand certain things specifically the things which the part of the mind that is supposedly
dominant is wrong about. But again everyday life it's full of examples of people not doing
what their emotions say or not doing what their reason says and having conflicting emotions
and having conflicting ideas it all happens all the time. Right I mean if there was a rule there
instantiated as say it would basically be justificationism or foundationalism you would have
yeah it wouldn't all be conjectural which it seems to be. But so on this view then because
often here studies reference like oh the smell of garbage makes people express more socially
conservative views or if you get a person to hold something warm or cold if it will influence how
they judge a person they're talking to as warm or cold. But that's not a matter of unconscious
ideas overriding or the emotional the elephant overriding the right or it's just
creating sensations that you then conjecture ideas around and they just happen to be
yes and they might be like you said about the archaic people the men more likely to go hunting or
whatever. In a particular culture it might be the case that smelling garbage makes you more likely
to dwell on one kind of idea and not another. These studies even if they were done in every culture
there are false ideas in every culture and there are ideas which like you know slavery which was
once considered normal in every culture and now is considered abnormal in every culture in almost
every culture. So it's not surprising that there are correlations between unrelated things
it would be very surprising if there weren't it would mean that our ideas are in some high level
sense randomized in every way except ways that we know of. So it's not surprising but I don't
think this explains anything useful about how minds work or how people make decisions and by the
way these ideas always I think always but perhaps it's only almost always the conclusion is always
the same humans aren't what they they're cracked up to be humans aren't what they pretend to be
they aren't what they want to be instead they're just mechanical their machines they need to be
controlled put down you know and so on. It's funny that the conclusion is always the same
and yeah I don't know why why we're so self-deprecating in that regard and as humans it's
weird to want to look at humans that way yeah I mean we're very upset if you just choose
one group of people and claim they are bad yeah that's a no no but if you include all of
humanity which is I guess as racist as you can become yeah I don't know why that's all right yeah
but so okay this is yeah this is an interesting point here so I want to hone in on that a little
bit because yeah speaking about humans as rational or at least having we're not as rational as
we like to believe as you said one way well known way of framing such irrational tendencies
quote unquote in humans is in terms of cognitive biases which I believe was popularized by
Kahneman and Torski and basically it's presented as systematic errors in thinking ways we tend to
fail in our reasoning in particular situations and one explanation that one often here is that
these biases are side effects of evolved mental shortcuts heuristics that has been very useful
and effective in the past for making decisions because we don't want to waste we don't have time
to waste too many mental resources but these shortcuts can end up misfiring as it were
and as a result our capacity for rational thinking is limited by these biases yes and perhaps in a
fundamental way from this perspective so I don't think that biases in that sense exist that what
exists are errors and people people make errors and sometimes people make the same error again and
again and that's because there's an error there's an error somewhere in the either in their thinking
or in their ideas or in their fixed ideas sometimes different people make the same error
and that might be due to culture or it might be due to just the logic of the situation that
the certain errors are easy to make and the truth is hard to come by and so on so that's that's
biases in general that's why I don't think anything is explained by biases that isn't just
a natural consequence of the fact that humans are absolutely jam packed with errors of every kind
so when you say errors you mean we just have the wrong ideas about something
yes yes full theories it could be our slate that we start with and then we just never
conjecture a better idea or yeah my guess is that the slate gets completely overwritten quite
fast but but you know it might be it could be that there are bits of the slate that in a certain
culture or in maybe in all existing cultures tend to survive and then form an error that almost
everybody makes but as when that was pointed out it would if that was pointed out by somebody
then it would no longer be the error that everybody makes but there's a worse thing once you
go beyond the idea of just biases which I say they're just errors so as long as you know that
they can be erased and argued against then it's it's not so bad to to think of them
as somehow different from other errors though they aren't but if you think that they are in
born and have to be overcome then you're in there's a much more dangerous territory there because
in born biases can only possibly be finite in number and therefore there is an implicit project here
to overcome let's say they're 23 of them yeah the project is to identify these one by one
very clever people have to identify them by by somehow getting round them and then seeing them
for what they are and analyzing them with Bayesian statistics and and then telling everybody else
and everybody else has to introspect and find those errors and get into the habit and practice
of not having those errors and once you have once you have found five or six of these
error of these 23 errors you are a better person and that means that there are two kinds of people
in the world the ones who have overcome their biases and ones who have not yet overcome their
biases and those are the the best and the rest and that that kind of way of thinking about people
is terrible it's a first of all it's false for the reasons that I've given but it's also dangerous
it's authoritarian it contradicts all the not all it contradicts some of the best traditions of
western rational society it sort of tends towards justifying government by these best people
or that government should consult these best people or that government should test to see how
many biases you have to and you only get the vote if you have fewer than a certain number of biases
and heaven forbid that somebody decides that they have eliminated all 23 they will then become a
psychopath yeah well yeah I mean that's interesting I never thought of it in moral terms that's an
interesting argument yeah so I remember listening to Daniel Kahneman on Sam Harris's podcast and
he asked Kahneman and by the end okay so you've worked in this field almost the entirety of your
life and with these biases and so have that helped you at all in your thinking and he laughed
and just said that no I'm just as biased as anyone else like there's no way to get around it
pretty much what's the implication there okay so he is he has resisted that conclusion
yeah exactly did he give a reason for resisting it I mean he seems to think that some of them
because this is an argument they'll often make that even if you're aware of certain biases it
doesn't seem like people still seem to do the same mistake they tell you about the bias and then
they test you and you do the same thing in a week or two but I've always thought if you follow
your argument here it's just errors it might just mean that we haven't actually found what the
error is and so we haven't guessed it is we're going about it the wrong way right exactly yeah
that's what it must be yeah yeah no that's that's fascinating so David I appreciate your time
I thought I might just ask you quickly as a last questionnaire I've heard rumors that you got to
meet Karl Popper once in your life I just want to know how that was like for you yes it was amazing
I went there with Bryce Dewitt oh and and seeing those two people you know just being a
fly on the wall when those people were having conversation was was an exceptional honour
I can imagine it was a very fun conversation he was very popular and as I tweeted recently I
kept feeling it kept you know it kept sort of mentally slapping myself down because I kept thinking
wait a minute how come this old guy knows so much for period philosophy how come he's so
how come he expresses it so clearly and yeah it is it you know somehow cognitive dissonance or
something you know it's not often that one meets people with those attributes and especially an
old philosopher you know I would expect an old philosopher to have the opposite of those
attributes yeah I'm not being too rude here but so it was amazing and Bryce Dewitt also
was amazing during that time and he always was amazing as well but as we were leaving
Dewitt asked Papa what do you think is the most important problem in physics and Papa said
the problem of why all electrons have the same mass and Dewitt said and this is a really brilliant
answer that's interesting that that perhaps shows the difference between a physicist and a philosopher
because for me it's like this if some electrons had different masses from others I would assume
that there must be some kind of field that accounts for the different mass and I would expect
there to be that that I would expect that field to have equations of motion and to obey quantum
theory and I would want to find out what that was and so them all having the same mass is a
known problem for me so I thought it was a very nice answer yeah that is and not to I mean it's not
a perfect analogy because obviously you're still a very young man David but I I mean I have the
same feeling speaking to you how can you know everything about poetry philosophy it doesn't make
any sense but I very much appreciate your time David and this has been a lot of fun for me
and well yeah fun for me too oh I'm glad to hear that have a great night until next time okay
thank you bye bye