Intuition Machine
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Intuition Machine

How the Misuse of Symbols Lead to the Paradoxes of Consciousness and Free Will

Photo by Tomas Martinez on Unsplash

Every living being experiences reality through models that they’ve conjured up for themselves. They are all wrong, but they are useful for navigating this reality. When you state it this way, the hard problem of consciousness becomes entirely obvious. There is no hard problem, the bias is the belief in a universal model of the subjective that is always right.

When we say that all models are wrong, we mean that none are absolutely right. Models are at best, approximately right, but you cannot label these as a lie. The real problem is that our culture makes it difficult not to think in absolutes. To think only in black and white.

It’s absolute symbolic thinking that clouds our judgement about complex subjects. As an example, being infected by covid19 was treated as a black and white assessment. But your chances of severity was dependent on the load of the infection. So all the focus gravitated towards a binary solution. Either wear a mask or not, either vaccinate or not. But to address the complexity required multiple strategies. What was overlooked was the need for ventilation and the need accelerating the development of therapeutics.

When we say that our models predict an event with 97% accuracy we don’t make the dumb argument that there is a chance that it may be wrong. There is always a chance no matter how small it is. But this play of words just muddles our decision making process.

It is a gross mistake to treat an even with 97% likelihood as being equivalent of an event with 3% likelihood. If you bet or decide on the latter, you would lose or be wrong 97% of the time. These percentages (or probabilities) tell you how to bias your decision making.

But for some odd reason, people get confused by the word salad. Models that are approximately correct are not lies. Models of high certainty do not imply high certainty for the opposite outcome. The hard problem like classic paradoxes come from absolutist reading of symbols.

It should not be a surprise that the paradox of determinism and free will is easily resolved once you are aware of Gödel’s incompleteness theory or Turing’s Halting problem.

All models are wrong, some are useful. We use language to create models of reality, a paradox is when we express a self-inconsistent expression within our language. A paradox cannot be resolved with the use of the same language. Kurt Gödel proved that even formal languages can be inconsistent. That is, there are expressions within a formal language that cannot be proven. Gödel’s 2nd incompleteness theorem shows that a language cannot prove its own consistency. This is related to Turing’s theorem, which proves that no algorithm can solve the halting problem.

The determinism paradox is simply stated that if the universe was deterministic then how could free will be possible. But what is the meaning of determinism? It implies absolute predictability in this universe.

Physics and mathematics has revealed via quantum mechanics, relativity, Gödel and Turing the first-person nature of reality and hence its lack of determinism. Computational irreducibility bounds predictability and hence demolishes the notion of a deterministic universe.

The appeal of this paradox is that it is analogous to Zeno’s paradox (unmovable object vs irresistible force). A tug between two absolutes. A desire by human beings that free will must be an absolute truth. But just like determinism, free will exists in a spectrum.

Few take Zeno’s paradox seriously. But it still surprises me that many take the determinism vs free will paradox seriously. The paradox can be reframed as a question of constraints versus agency. This is where it gets really interesting!

On one end of the spectrum, you have constraints and on the other end, you have agency. In the domain of physics, there are laws of physics that determine the behavior of everything. There is no agency, a particle doesn’t have a choice to ignore the laws.

In a universe where particles are weakly coupled to each other, there’s little complexity that’s being generated. This is the proverbial heat-death universe. A universe that is devoid of free energy and hence unable to do anything creative.

The universe in its current state is constructed out of a multitude of layers of constraints. Quantum physics and relativity constrain all matter. The Pauli principle constrains how particles form particles. At each layer, the constraints become more complex.

But what you will notice about the constraints at the higher layer is that they are not absolutely enforced. There is an element of slack where the constraints can occasionally be violated. There is an opening here where freedom begins its evolution.

The richness and diversity we discover in the universe as well as in our own mother ecosystem is a consequence of the establishment of layers of constraints. Said in a manner that appears to be a paradox is, there is no creativity without constraints.

The freedoms that exist in modern living are a consequence of the constraints we collectively conform to. People (unless intoxicated) do not drive on the lanes going in the opposite direction. There exists a multitude of constraints that make our lives convenient as it is today.

Constraints enable freedom, just as modern living enables the pursuit of science and art. Modern civilization has sufficient slack in its constraints that it can afford the pursuit of tasks that do not have immediate gratification.

Just as elementary particles have no choice in their agency, those who live their lives seeking only the most immediate of gratification eventually lose a broader agency in their lives. This is the essence of the marshmallow test.

The most advanced of technologies that humans have invented involves an immense number of constraints. It is our human ability to understand and thus navigate these constraints that make it possible for us to even construct these inventions.

The inventions of civilization are not magically conjured up. In the same way, our biological ecosystem is not magically conjured up. But imagine yourself as a person who is ignorant of how nature works. How do you make sense of your reality and the developments of the world?

You are unable to notice how constraints make possible what exists. In an alternate reality where stuff is magically conjured up, you fail to see the cause of constraints having an effect. Cause and effect are almost absent in your own thinking!

In a reality where constraints make possible our freedoms we discover a more enlighted and progressive understanding of freedom. Generations of our ancestors gifted us the civilization we live in today, we are duty-bound to ensure that we can do the same for future generations.

We are here today to invent the new constraints so that our descendants can prosper with new freedoms. Any activity that leads to the devolution of civilization is an utter disgrace to the sacrifices of our ancestors.

The last activity is in fact a constraint that I hope is a guide on how you make use of the freedoms gifted to you.



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