Tuesday 27 December 2022

Book review: Why Materialism is Baloney

1672156002464-1a85d190-09db-40a9-9120-70bdac2d51a1_ By Bernardo Kastrup. TL;DR: woo.

Summary: the world is Mind, which resolves the "hard problem of conciousness" by making conciousness fundamental. But, mysteriously, none of the science we know needs to change in the slightest.

BK comes from a long line of people who don't like materialism. By Materialism he really means the philosophical view that the world physically is material, not in any sense spiritual; but he segues briefly (p 8) into "people to spend their hard-earned income on unnecessary goods and premature upgrades" in order to let us know that he's mixing up the lifestyle stuff too (and also that he hasn't read any modern economics, since "unnecessary goods" is really only snobbishness; people want what they want; unless you're claiming to have Ultimate Moral Authority you're not in a position to judge them).

Let's begin by defining Materialism; I'll give my defn, because I'm more interested in me than in him; but we don't disagree over this in any fundamental way. I hold the ordinary, common-or-garden, scientific naive realistic-materialistic worldview (OCOGSNRMW)2: the world exists, is entirely physical, we experience it mediated by interactions via our senses, and can thereby obtain reliable knowledge of it. One needs to be slightly cautious in phrasing this, because being even more naive and saying "we see the world as it really is", is somewhat facile; but our information is reliable: if there's a wall in front of you it will still be there if you shut your eyes; if you punch it you will get hurt; and the rest mass of an electron (or the numerical result of a certain sequences of operations performed with a specified set of equipement) is fixed and common to all electrons.

In his intro (p 9) BK is terribly sad about the Intellectual Elite (in which scientists are, it seems, over-prominent) in teaching the world that Materialism is the correct worldview. This is nonsense: firstly, scientists do not alas have that place; and second the world's worldview has been materialist since forever1. Fortunately, it is irrelevant to his main thesis. Which is:

Materialism is Baloney?

Why would you believe such an odd thing? First: because of the "hard problem of consciousness". This being philosophy, some people - as you'll see from the wiki article - chose to "solve" the problem by arguing that it doesn't really exist. I see no need to do that, and am perfectly happy to accept that the problem exists; complex systems genuinely are hard to understand. In my OCOGSNRMW what-we-call-mind-or-consciousness simply arises as an emergent property of a sufficiently complex arrangement of suitable cells3. To conquer the "but it is a hard problem, the clue is in the name" he objects that we've been studying it for decades without finding a solution; that seems to me to be childishly impatient. We haven't unified QM and GR, over similar timescales, either.

Second, because the current best-guess view of how we perceive the world is through a "hallucination" we construct. He allows the perjoritive "hallucination" to sway him, when a better expression is "ourselves" do not perceive the external world directly, instead we effectively sip from the top of a continually-updated model of the world, as I put it reviewing Anil Seth. He objects very strongly to this unexceptionable little idea (it "denies the reality of immeadiate experience"), I think because he is somewhat confused by it (he says "the stars you see are all inside your head"; this isn't true, neither are they a "copy" of the stars; they are merely the representation you perceive).

As far as I can tell that really and genuinely is his full set of objections. It seems dreadfully thin to me.

I have a theory

To replace the obviously absurd idea of materialism, he has a theory: everything is Mind. This brilliantly inverts the perceived wisdom, and instantly explains consciousness. Except of course it doesn't: it defines consciousness into existence, makes it fundamental, without in any way enlightening us as to what properties it might have4. Why then do we perceive separated, discrete, minds? Because our individual minds are metaphorically whirlpools in the Mind-field, each a sort of excitation of the Mind-field, very much (although he doesn't say this) like quantum particles might be excitations of fields5. Somewhat later these "whirlpools" become "excitations of membranes" (he has discovered String Theory, you see) but they are only metaphors - except that last might not be, I'm not sure - so fine.

So his theory makes Mind fundamental; for reasons that he attempts to hand-wave around but not in my view very successfully, the things that we identify as minds are invariably associated with clumps of complicated cells. There are other problems too: most obviously, Mind is mercurial and ever-changing, so why isn't reality? Some aspects of it do change of course: seas rage, cliffs tumble; but some don't: electron mass remains stubbornly constant. His answer to this is that the-reality-we-perceive (which is all Mind, remember) is generated by all Mind - err, by itself, I suppose - not just by your mind; you can't change the world just by thinking, because of the "inertia" (my analogy, not his) of all the rest. But I find that unsatisfactory: why on that theory is the electron mass the same in Australia as in Europe? And does everyone's Mind count when determining electron mass? Does the Mind-mass of the Earth count? Presumably. It also isn't clear why QM or GR exist: no-one wanted them in advance, they turned up despite everyone's best efforts to find alternatives, only because we were forced to by observations.

The two worldviews, impartially consider'd

BK's Mind-centric view doesn't give you any special reason to think that our current physical laws would arise. You could argue that neither does OCOGSNRMW: after all, explaining not just what particles fundamentally exist but also why those, and not others, is an aspect of fundamentals of physics. But if you start with, errm, say The Standard Model and General Relativity, you can kinda make a plausible model of the universe and lots of observations. If you start with his theory of Mind, you can explain minds existing... and that's it. Why are the laws of physics constant? No idea at all... Also, there's no explanation for why his theory somehow makes identical predictions of all physical phenomena to the OCOGSNRMW (see knowing in advance what observations you need to excuse; via Paul).

But wait, there's woo

His worldview allows him to wave his hands and maybe believe in ghosts, telepathy, and - the biggie - some kind of survival after death. But all this stuff is for children afraid of the real world. Notice that this kind of stuff is the only way his worldview differs in practice from OCOGSNRMW: not in any physically measureable way, but only in hard-to-define states of mind.

At some point - and I cannot now find the strength to find it - he relies on an interpretation of Bell's Theorem. I don't understand BT, but neither does he6. I do know however that for deducing exciting things about quantum woo, BT is a reliable crank magnet.

Who would believe this nonsense anyway?

Having got to here, the puzzle is why anyone would believe this kind of nonsense. But Idealism has a long history. Mostly, I think it is the religious folk who are to blame. If you are a Naive Religious, then you believe in the material world, and God(s), and Souls, and all that is fine because you don't inquire closely into the details. But if you do so inquire, most obviously into the interaction of Souls and Bodies, then you have a problem. And if what is all important to you is your religion, and the problems of mind, then it isn't too big a step into all-out nutjob stuff like "all the world is mind".


1. You might well object that the world used to have a mixed materialist-spiritual worldview: people believed in Gods and Dryads and divine intervention. But even granting that, the worldview was materialist in his terms: people still believed that the world was physical. He doesn't.

2. Don't tell me that some scientists believe in gods. I already know that.

3. Since he doesn't raise it, I don't need to either, but: I have no particular objection to extending "of cells" to include "or transistors".

4. After a bit he notices that he needs Free Will too, so he defines that into existence too, as some kind of "energy" or motivator of the Mind-field.

5. If I understood quantum field theory (it is on my list...) I might make more of this.

6. If you look closely you can tell from his references how shallow is his reading.


* Book review: Homo Deus

Family film night: the Matrix

The Riddle of the Sphinx

* ACX: Janus' Simulators (section IV): I propose a friendly amendment: they’re noticing that most of what they are - the vast majority of their brain - is a giant predictive model of the universe. This model is big enough that they have lived inside it their entire life, with only slight edits from lossy sensory information that help fit it to the real universe. I’ve written about this before in the context of lucid dreaming - a dreamer safe in bed can apparently wander their neighborhood, seeing each tree and car and dog in detail approximately equivalent to waking experience. No astral projection is involved - they’re wandering around their internal world-model, which contains 99% of the relevant information, with real sensory information filling in the missing 1%. Once you stop obsessing over the character you’re playing, you notice the GIANT SUPER-ACCURATE WORLD MODEL TAKING UP 99.99% OF YOUR BRAIN and you think “Huh, I guess I’m the Universe. Weird.”

The stoat in the room.

Boxing Day at Horseshoe Quarry

Horseshoe Quarry is up in the peaks near Stoney Middleton; this was our first visit, inspired by Myra on fb. Boxing Day was looking sunny - it was, all day - and we had nothing else that needed doing then, so we gratuitously polluted our way up for two-and-a-half-hours in the car; climbed; and returned, via coffee at the Moon Inn. What I hadn't taken the trouble to realise was that it is the centre of mid and lower grade sport climbing in the Peak with many good routes between 6a and 7a, and a few below. And really there aren't all that much below. Though since we were one of only two parties there, we had our pick of what we wanted.

You'll find it easily enough, not far out of Stoney; there's a little parking lane; here FWIW is a pic showing the lane turning into a track towards the quarry. Here's a general view looking Southish; it is a beautiful area. The Main Wall is off to the left; you see its beginning.


Below: part of the Top Quarry (I take my names and grades from the RockFax guide). You get to this up the little track from the main area floor you can see in the pic above.


We did Luke Skywalker, 4a, roughly in the middle of this picture; about 7m high (pic: D on the route, belayed by M). This area has been recently re-bolted and the top anchor points are of the cutesy put-your-rope-through-without-deroping type, which is nice. However, it was very cold, in the shade: the day was about 4 oC, and this rock hadn't been in the sun at all, E's fingers were quite unable to grip (not entirely helped by her technique of hanging around wondering what to do with running commentary; as D said "less talk more climb") so we swiftly decided we needed to be in sunshine to survive.

The rock is limestone; I think it would have benefited from being bone-dry instead of mostly-dry as it felt a little greasy.

So over to the sunny side but still at the top; we decided that the line of Greedor (#26; 6b+) looked entirely plausible, but substituting the "obvious" crack up the center of the face for the arete, because we were none of us ready for 6b.


The only slight fly in this ointment was that there seemed no good reason why, if our theory was correct, the climb wasn't graded and in the route book; nonetheless it looked lovely, as you see, so we pressed on - or rather I did, as it was my turn to lead. All went fine until just before the final crack, with pro from a mixture of Greedor's bolts and friends / wires; but the last crack was a little bolder than I'd really wanted, and perhaps more importantly was a little bit loose. Which made topping out exciting; the rocks either side appeared stable but the one in the middle was distinctly loose, but you need not fear it any more, for D toppled it in passing. There's also no good belay over the top.

Below: pano taken from the Top lateish in the day of the Main Wall area. half-left you see the triangular grass ramp which is the right border of Chocolate Blancmange wall.


Next : we wanted to be down in the main area, and also wanted to stay in the sun. So we headed down, intending perhaps to top-rope something beyond our abilities to lead. But then we found Chocolate Blancmange Wall which is about the right grade, and in the sun:


And somewhat later, the sun setting, E climbing and D belaying:


The path up there is soil and steep; there's a fixed rope which is rather helpful. We're on The Cake Walk 4b 25m, although that 4b seems to be an average of 4a and 4c from the BMC page. From that pic it looks quite featureless but isn't: there are no big holds or ledges but lots of little ones; none very positive or friendly but the angle is fairly friendly. Given a height of 25 m but actually a few meters less, so fine for a 50 m rope. Speaking of which, we were on a single 50 m half-rope, which E - who has recently done a sports climbing course - assured us was fine. I'm a little dubious about that, but maybe.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Meetings with remarkable stoats

1670356803786-f1372d02-98f3-4274-84c7-42a4941b482cMeetings with Remarkable Men by G. I. Gurdjieff is, as wiki delicately puts it, "autobiographical in nature"1; the overview section there is good (arch), so I won't repeat it.

When I first read this I was about 25 and I found it impressive; now with the weight of years upon me I find on re-reading it that it is much less so. At best, it is an interesting tale, quite likely largely informed by truth, of life around 1900 in central Asia, Egypt, and various places around then on the fringes of empires. At worst, it presents vague semi-mystical ideas as reality.

I think that when G's ideas first appeared, around the 1920's, they made an impression; but like my own re-reading those impressions haven't aged well.

To impose my own interpretation: G grew up a bright young man in a dying empire and frequently found himself, as something of a young chancer, able to make his way on his wits. Vignette: he opens a repair shop and the local Turkish army sends in its typewriters, which have mysteriously stopped working. Of course, the spool ribbons have come to their end and simply need re-winding, which the dull-witted army is unable to think of. G instantly sees this, but nonetheless keeps the machines for days, in order to justify a high fee. Faced with situations like this he inevitably sees himself as above the common run of humanity, and ends up largely inventing / recycling an esotetic philosophy to skim over this; but really, he's just sharp-witted and the philosophy is vacuous.

The only piece of it worth keeping is more an observation of human nature than philosophy: that most people spend much of their lives effectively asleep.

He keeps on journeying to mysterious isolated monasteries in search of the Truth. Here's an example of the kind of thing he was journeying in search of: the young pupils stand for hours before the apparatuses, regulated in this way, and learn to sense and remember this posture. Many years pass before these young future priestesses are allowed to dance in the temple, where only elderly and experienced priestesses may dance. Everyone in the monastery knows the alphabet of these postures and when, in the evening in the main hall of the temple, the priestesses perform the dances indicated for the ritual of that day, the brethren may read in these dances one or another truth which men have placed there thousands of years before. These dances correspond precisely to our books. Just as is now done on paper, so, once, certain information about long past events was recorded in dances and transmitted from century to century to people of subsequent generations. And these dances are called sacred. He is unimpressed with modern science; he is convinced that the antient peoples knew secrets that they recorded in pre-sand maps of Egypt, songs, or here encoded in the movements of dance for those-who-know to read. However all we get is his vague searching for these secrets; never the actual secrets themselves; because of course there are none. He is the sort of person who will think that a concept is more interesting if written in Sanskrit than in English.

On modern science, a thought: when I say "contemptuous of modern science" it would probably be better put as contemptuous of the people doing modern science, though I'm not sure he ever realises the distinction. They are dull, plodding folk - of course he never met any real scientists - who do not have his forceful personality; and he never realises that he knows nothing of science.


1. Or, to be more blunt: whilst written as an autobiography it contains, as well as truth, so much interpolation, invention, hazy memory and wishful thinking that it would be impossible to extract the bits that are actually true.