Big ideas that I suspect to be true

In the last year or so, I have been reading on various topics indiscriminately. As I’m discovering connections while reading and thinking, my conviction towards some ideas has grown stronger. I wanted to mention some of such ideas that I suspect are true. I’ll also mention why I feel that way, but you derive your own conclusions.

1/ All matter and collections of matter have subjective experiences

I’m starting to believe that everything has an internal world to it. My belief in (a flavor of) Panpsychism grew stronger because we have evidence of one collection of atoms that has subjective experiences: our brain. Just like we take the evidence of gravity on Earth and project that it holds true everywhere else in the universe, why can’t we take the evidence of our own subjective experience and project it to be true for other collections of matter as well? We, by definition, cannot peek inside an atom to feel what it feels. So proving it or disproving it is hard. In such a case, I feel that the responsibility of providing evidence that an atom doesn’t have feelings (while we know that brain obviously has feelings) falls on strict materialists.

Edit: a reader pointed out that my point about gravity is not entirely correct (I agree. I know we have independent evidence that gravity behaves the same way in distant universe. I could have used a better argument). The reader also pointed me to Russel’s teapot where the onus of proving an unfalsifiable claim such as there being a sun-orbiting teapot falls on the one making the claim. I was aware of it and in fact am using it towards asking materialists to prove that matter doesn’t have experiences. We have definitive evidence of the claim I’m making via ourselves and through observations of other animals like cats and dogs. So we know for sure that some matter has subjective experiences. The leap from that to saying all matter has experiences is much shorter than the leap from that to saying only specific matter types have experiences but not being able to explain why.

2/ Our universe is probably infinitely large

Our visible universe is 93 billion light years wide but we do not know how large our actual universe is. It seems odd that our universe – which is everything that exists – can be contained within a specific number (of width or volume). Some theories – notably, inflationary theories – that successful explain many empirical observations about our early universe does seem to suggest that our universe is infinite. In absence of evidence that our entire universe if finite and a convincing reason why is that so, I’ll place my bet on our universe being infinitely large.

3/ Life is a predictive model that avoids dissipation

Life bootstraps when a collection of matter is able to successfully avoid dissipation by anticipating what could cause dissipation and hence acting to preemptively avoid such dissipation. While a Tornado sits passively, ready to be dissipated by physical forces, a bird anticipates such physical forces and acts in order to continue living. Such anticipation isn’t necessarily cognitive (like in the case of humans). It’s more like instincts. The full exploration of this idea is done by the free-energy principle, an idea I find exceedingly beautiful.

4/ Intelligence is a result of an organism exploiting regularities in the environment for its survival

The reason I find current approaches to AI misguided is because such programs are expected to perform at tasks that pertain to environment humans live in with a human-level intelligence while the environment they’re given is composed of bits. The reason techniques like deep learning require massive amounts of data just to match our image recognition capabilities is because we’re trying to shortcut billions of years of evolution that crafted our vision.

5/ Our entire body and the environment we live in – and not just brain – is intelligent

There’s no clear boundary where intelligence happens. Our hands flinch automatically from hot surfaces. Our eyes get drawn to flashy substances automatically. Over a period of time, as organisms (like us) craft our environment to suit our survival. We will die without all such non-cognitive processes that aid in our survival. So, we can’t say for sure where is our intelligence located.

6/ Disagreements between people happen because we think linearly while reality is composed of many interacting entities

Systems thinking is an oxymoron. No matter how hard we try, our thinking is always of the nature of X causes Y which causes Z. In reality, there are many more entities beyond X, Y and Z and even the entities we identify interact in ways we cannot fully comprehend. So, to simply situations, our brains naturally simplify reality and difference in these simplifications is where all disagreements happen. That simplification is what causes all trouble. (Also, philosophical debates is all about differences in assumptions about reality)

7/ Truth and rationality aren’t universal ideals. They’re simply what humans find useful

Truth isn’t some metaphysical entity waiting to be grabbed by the human mind. In fact, truth is simply whatever we’re willing to place bets on. The reason the statement “sun will rise tomorrow” is true is not because it has some divine sanctity. It is true because most people will not bet against it. Similarly, rationality isn’t an abstract set of rules. It is simply what people have found useful. Survival is the ultimate proof of rationality. If a set of people prefer believing in a anthropomorphic God and they’ve done so since millennia, who is to say it is irrational?

8/ Most of the reality will forever be hidden from us

We have evolved to comprehend the world through a very specific lens. That lens is the way it is because it helped us in survival. The reason we don’t see atoms directly but see solid objects is because there’s no survival utility in seeing atoms directly. Our more abstract ideas – including things like the big bang “explosion” or the “meaning” of life – are built upon such primitive intuition of seeing and manipulating objects in our world for survival and hence they do not represent reality as it is, but rather represent reality through our human lens.

This is why ideas like “universe may have 11 dimensions” is so confusing and such a let down. We just don’t know what to make of such statements about reality because we have no imaginative capacity to feel what is it like to be living in a 11 dimensional universe. This implies that most of the actual reality that exists is forever beyond our comprehension because it has served no direct implication in our survival. Even if the world has 11 dimensions, human body survives just fine utilizing 3 and will never comprehend what 11 dimensions feels like. (See related essay: thinking in analogies is dangerous)

9/ God is a name we give to reality that is hidden from us

We don’t and cannot comprehend all of reality. We don’t know why anything exists at all. We don’t even know if that previous question is well-formed or just a human-level concept imposed in a context where it is senseless. With such limitations of our comprehension, it’s arrogant to assume that human mind can understand everything that is there to understand. Acknowledging our limitations is acknowledging that there are things we will never understand. It may be useful to use a catchall phrase for such unknowable. Hindus called it God and I think they got it right.

10/ Collection of entities is an entity. And all entities matter

It’s useful to imagine that things like governments, corporations, roads, Internet and the Mona Lisa are an entity in themselves. Just like humans, these entities also impact and influence other entities. A human makes a painting but a painting changes the course of a human’s life. A corporation makes a road, but a road influences where corporations exist.

Our human-centric worldview limits us to see the world through a very narrow lens. We like to believe that we’re in control but things have their own way of influencing other things. It is wise to acknowledge that.

Have an opinion on this essay? You can it to me (tagging my handle @paraschopra) or you can send your feedback on email. Thank you!