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A Little Abstraction Is Nice But Too Much Will Paralyze You

I explore the idea that we are mammals with an innate sense of compassion, yet have the ability to override this with cruelty. I believe the golden rule is a good code of conduct that helps us to survive, and that we were created as a solution to the creator's boredom. I discuss the limitations of our senses and the need to accept complex processes and abstractions, and how quantum effects may appear in our everyday lives.

Living in Harmony: How Compassion and the Golden Rule Help Us Survive in a Chaotic World

By Michael Levin

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Our own awareness is all we really know, so makes for a fine starting point for the big questions. Given the evidence of our senses, we can infer that we are in some sort of objective space shared by others like us, and sometimes not so much like us.

Because the “type” of beings we are is mammals whose young are born helpless, we’ve evolved compassion for our own kind to get them along until they can survive without the direct support of their parents. As such, “compassion” is an integral part of our being, though it’s possessed and applied unevenly through both species and individuals of those species. Even insects and alligators will care for their young, but maybe not so much for the young of others. Cats and dogs are mammalian, yet predators, so they live on the vibrating edge of mammalian compassion. The tiny genetic details of how we got here, the “life template” we’re using, has tremendous impact on our worldview and behavior.

With such mammalian compassion in us, we can readily layer the golden rule for a code of personal conduct that still allows us to have interesting, fruitful and defensible life strategies. Interesting, because if not to fight off boredom, what’s the point of the material world? Fruitful, because it feels good to make forward progress beyond mere survival. And defensible because we live with others of our kind and are engaged in a delicate social balance. We must be able to tell good stories and feel good about them to help code-up the next generation.

But what about all the pain and suffering of our world? The genocide and carbon emissions. The rewriting of history by the winners and all the survivor-guilt of the descendants of the winners. How about all those lacking mammalian compassion whose feedback loops are atrocious horrific posing as progress such as The Third Reich and The Crusades? Humans have the ability to override mammalian compassion with reptilians hunter predator cruelty—so much so it sometimes feels like the rule and not the exception. Wouldn’t we all be better off just to be disembodied in a world without time and never knowing loss, pain and suffering?

Nope. So far all the evidence provided by our continued existence seems to indicate that the optimists are correct. No asteroids or supernovas have fully extinguished life. Homo Sapiens having unleashed the power of the atom as first a weapon then an energy-source are still here. It hasn’t been long, but this is reason for cautious optimism. If the pessimists were correct, the Cuban Missile Crises or any one of probably dozens of incidents like it that we don’t know about would have wiped us out. We’re always facing the next existential crisis. Yet, here we still are. No matter what invalidating argument the nattering nabobs of negativism consistently scrape up at this point, none is as strong as “We’re still here”.

Why are we still here? Those whose fingers have been on the button have not pushed it. The type of creature we are understands self-preservation and all that game-theory equilibrium stuff. No matter how corrupt and out of wack it may be, even the powers that be maintain a moral code—some version of the golden rule. “Do NOT do unto others and you would NOT have them do until you” seems to filter out the Hitlers and religious crusaders over time. The problem is that tricks of the mind such as dehumanization allows you to apply the golden rule unevenly across populations. For that matter, why should we not show equal passion for chips, insects or anything with even a glimmer of being life like us?

I speculate that material existence such as ours is better than not. I speculate that if this were not the case, natural selection would have pruned our ancestors long ago. Things that work expand. Things that don’t work recede. Over time, you get more things that work and less that don’t. So far, we’re in the category of things that work. We are one of the types of things that the universe is rigged to produce. Even if totally random, totally random processes can in fact result in us—that’s a fact. It’s hard to imagine from the perspective of being such a self-aware fact that struggling with these questions looking for such answers is not a big part of the point.

Once we’re done tending to the mere details of survival like food, clothing and shelter, we get bored. Our minds drift eventually to the supernatural and inevitably to the thought of an all-powerful creator. Wouldn’t such a creator in a timeless eternal experience boredom? It’s hard to imagine not. From the first spark of a creator’s thoughts, I imagine boredom and restlessness setting in. I speculate we’re a decent solution to the problem of eternal boredom. It’s easy to infer such from Genesis, Tolkien’s Silmarillion and so many creation myths. Something “outside our world” was bored and so created the world. Direct interaction with it can happen, is probably just different (superset) manifestations of our own being, but generally isn’t done due to some technicality or preference.

Okay, so boredom of the eternal, something something, is. But given the atrocities and horrors possible in our material world, indeed built into the very survival of the fittest, wouldn’t we be better off remaining angels or never having been born (depending on your beliefs)? This is one of the fighting-off-boredom questions that I image the creator, the eternal, God (or whatever) is trying to answer with our type of existence. Once achieving a sort of mind that resembles, even a wee-but, the creator that can contemplate it’s own being, wouldn’t a continued existence in such a cruel material world such as ours be insufferable? Buddhists sure think so. Existence is suffering and our material world is actually Hell (I don’t believe that).

We are highly self-aware in an “I think therefore I am” sort of way, but at the same time almost entirely non-self-aware in knowing how it all works—especially when it comes to how the material world gives rise to our minds and what appears to be human free-will. If we could see the blood coursing through our veins and the interrelationships of all things “really there” I imagine we’d go insane. Too much information! Superman should have this problem with his super senses. We’re protected from this insanity through our very limited senses and information only coming into us through the questionably trustworthy “induction” of our senses.

That’s where we are today. From monkeys tracing circles with compass-sticks proto-contemplating Pi to the Greeks to Copernicus, Newton, Einstein and the post-WWII “quantum gang” led by Niels Bohr, we’re living a half-scientific, half philosophical existence. “The Method” of the scientific method relies on objectivity and reproducibility of results. On and off over a few thousand years, scientific method has created an rapid approach to progress unmatched by religion, but we’ve now zoomed in so far that we can define experiments with absolutely unpredictable results. The scientific method works on larger scales but not on the scale of individual atomic-scale experiments. We RELY on statistics at larger scales to bring back determinism so we can make predictions and have our science. But the current state of understanding of our world is a bunch of hand-waving and faith (I.e. no different than magic).

Apparent non-determinism and true random that breaks 1-to-1 reproducibility of experimental results is the punch-line of our current quantum era. Zoom into a small enough scale and traditional scientific method breaks down. Honest to God, things get blurry and stop having finely defined boundaries. Particles come in and out of what we would call “existence” but all that means is we can’t see everything. We can only see the crests rippling waves as if on the surface of an ocean, but we see those waves that go over a certain threshold (having enough energy) as dots we call particles of physical matter. What is that threshold? It’s not predictable on an individual particle basis. It’s only predictable enmasse via statistics.

A statistical approach seeded by “true random” at the individual particle level but then erases it as it scales-out and uses probability to make calculations must be employed to make accurate predictions. We’ve got both the Schrodinger wave equation and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that state this baked-in random quality it in different ways, but either way it’s necessary for the accuracy of our predictions that enable our modern technological world. No 1-to-1 predictions can be made about experimental results at the atomic scale. It could turn out different every time with no rhyme or reason except for the fact we have to bake that fact into our new quantum science and still call it science.

There’s a lesson here about abstraction layers, so much invoked in technology fields to simplify processes. It is not uncommon for a process to be so remarkably complex as to simply not be understood. Every time we use a computer programming language, we are accepting this fact. Few people anymore today program computers for that particular hardware. You would need to know the function and interaction of trillions of parts. Instead we print(“Hello World”) and do a lot of hand-waving pretending we know what’s going on. That’s the same as the state of science today. The lesson is that to get results and to get on with living using the benefits of those results, one must suspend their disbelief in superimposed systems as someone “not real”.

The highest abstracted and statistically distilled or thunked-down reality IS the reality. One must accept that in a normally-lived non-transcendental life. It makes no sense to look at the building blocks of the building blocks for answers to human-scale questions if they don’t make sense. Bohr philosophically embraced this fact and deferred working out the inner realities of Quantum Mechanics for later generations with the “shut up and calculate” Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Theory. Einstein couldn’t. He obsessed over the nature of these smaller building blocks to no avail. There are answers down there. It’s just that today isn’t the day we answer them, and so we must make do with the best we’ve got.

So despite the best science has to offer, we must embrace faith. To the best we can tell far, there are no particles, only rippling quantum fields whose waves “poke through” from origins unknown for a visit. And so we are not compilations of particles, but rather vast amalgamations of points on fields—as if a standing waveform. Someday this will mean something profound for us such as immortality, faster than light travel, transcendence and whatnot. But for today, we are much more like mortal beings having a brief turn at a game whose precise nature is unknown. If you look closely enough, you get the appearance of true-random, which is a real kick.

While this will drive many people deeper into reductionism, tearing away layers and finding true nature, it also sounds like a resounding message to people like me who have not obsessed over minutiae to scale back out and look for “good enough” meaning in “good enough” abstractions—in the same way computer languages are a necessary evil abstraction for operating computers. Just because atoms are an abstraction for particular recurring rippling quantum field arrangements and not really fundamental, doesn’t invalidate atoms. Quite to the contrary, because they’re what we interact with the most, it is most necessary to appreciate the abstraction we call atoms.

Belief in the quantum is enough to paralyze, but, fictional as he may be, just as Superman somehow manages to not go crazy hearing his own blood rush and the cries of victims in his sleep, we too must form a callousness to partial and incomplete deeper knowledge. What does our deeper knowledge mean for our use of the abstractions we’re forced to deal with? Maybe the outliers and occasional unexpected results can be explained as within the realm of possibility. We must not rely on them unless we’re so ambitious as the be the architects of wholly new abstractions. Processor manufacturers are dealing with this as quantum tunneling happens more frequently are smaller manufacturing scales.

When you’re living your everyday life, knowledge that an electron could spontaneously hop from one trace to another could give you unrealistic expectations about what’s possible at the human scale. This too is a heated topic of debate with some heavyweights like Nobel Laureate physicist Roger Penrose saying your very ability to think those thoughts is a product of quantum mechanics, with others like physicist Max Tegmark saying the “wet” nature of our brains would collapse all quantum effects into decoherence. Yet decidedly wet leaves create energy thorough photosynthesis which is believed to be a quantum-entangled effect, so who knows?

Perhaps quantum effects bully their way back to the human-scale from time to time. In the case of plants creating energy through photosynthesis. But you can’t base your non-chlorophyll filled life on it. Quantum tunneling may occur and quantum mechanical processes may in fact be key-enablers of life processes and consciousness. But most quantum effects are “wiped away” and fall victim to decoherence. But in guiding your day-to-day actions, this is misleading. Don’t wait for the quantum tunneling miracle to get through that door you have to open. Understand that while the need to go through the door many have been revealed to you through quantum mechanical processes, you still need to reach your hand out, turn the doorknob, push the door open and walk through. You’re not going to just POP there.