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But I Could Be Wrong isn’t just a podcast – it’s an experiment.
In each episode, I share ideas about how reality works. But I could be wrong – and if you know where my science is weak or incorrect, I want to hear from you!
This Q&A page collects your questions, ideas and objections, and my answers to them, which may be updated over time as I learn more. At the end of every episode I’ll share at least one of the Q&A conversations in the show!
I promise to play fair. If I can’t fully answer, I’ll be honest about it, and add it to my list of future research points. But please remember that I’m asking for help strengthening the science of my ideas – so objections based on emotional reasoning, logical fallacies, et cetera, are less likely to appear than arguments based on critical thinking and cited sources.
If you want to help, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click Get In Touch below.
Questions and Answers
Who am I?
Question: Just who do I think I am?
Phew, is that ever an objectively tricky question.
I debated a lot on making an About Me page. I like people, and I want to interact with anybody interested in these ideas.
But to keep the metaphorical “sterile lab conditions” of the experiment that is BICBW nice and squeaky clean, I decided it’d be better to keep myself as reasonably anonymous as possible. (However long that may last in today’s social technology climate.) Hence the whole Citizen Science thing.
Anyways, I think my reasons are fairly good:
For one, humans have a natural, hardwired instinct to judge ideas based on the messenger, instead of the standalone quality of the idea.
I want to know where the science is weak, not how people think the ideas are wrong because I happen to enjoy puns, my skin is a color they don’t like, or Pixar movies have some deterministic ability to make me cry on command.
Plus, I just plain like the idea of citizen science, lowercase. The people that picked apart the world to see what made it tick didn’t all have lab coats and college degrees. Someone had to bang the first rocks together.
A lot of people that changed the world worked day jobs, went home, and ground microscope lenses, or dissected frogs, or did suuuper dangerous things with electricity. And bit by bit, our collective knowledge improved.
So my feeling is, anyone, anyone at all, can call themselves a scientist. If you’re not afraid to think critically and keep asking, “Okay, but what’s really going on?” – you’re a scientist to me.
(And I had a blast drawing the little guy for the headers. This was going to be the About page:)
So for now, I’m your host, Citizen Science! I’m not a doctor of anything, I don’t even own a lab coat. But I am super, super excited about science.
I’m sure the anonymity won’t last long – I’d really love to attend podcast conventions, for one thing. When it goes, the experiment will change, and adapt, and keep going.
In the meantime, thanks for respecting the process, and enjoy the show! I can’t wait to make something new together!
What is absolute physicalism?
Question: Just what is absolute physicalism, anyways?
Absolute physicalism is an evolving idea about how life works, based on one exploratory principle:
Everything is physical.
There’s nothing new about the idea of physical determinism – that all events are strictly physical, one thing causing another in an unending web of interactions.
However, absolute physicalism (AP for short) is a way of thinking and communicating about determinism, to try to explain how it applies to life as we know it.
AP follows determinism to its logical endpoints, and produces ideas about life based only on critical thinking and empirical observation. No emotional reasoning or anthropocentrism is allowed.
AP does allow that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but I hope to find out.” Some facts about our universe are undiscoverable under current knowledge and technology. AP is a way of discussing the unobservable without inventing stopgap explanations – saying that it’s okay to admit ignorance, with a plan to continue seeking answers as new data and tech become available.
AP is also a way of talking about life and the universe from two levels – trying to explain mind-bogglingly complex ideas in a language not geared for it.
So AP allows for thinkers to talk about concepts on the social level – the surface where we communicate in language, metaphor, and social nuance – with the understanding that there’s a physical level underneath it, where things happen a specific way, regardless of how well we can observe, understand, or describe them.
The two levels naturally come into a kind of communication conflict, where thinkers are forced to say things in ways that sound contradictory – such as discussing the functional illusion of personal identity on the physical level, while referring to yourself as “I” on the social level, so you don’t baffle the listener. AP helps to ease and facilitate useful communication of difficult concepts.
And finally, I’d like to talk to you on that social level –
Overall, AP is an experiment. Like the title says, I could be wrong about all of this, probably for reasons humans can’t even begin to grasp yet. If you’re not open to being proven wrong, you have a belief, not science.
I’m exploring these ideas even as I try to share them with you. I hope humans will take them, and like humans do, run off in a million wrong directions, hammering away to find out where the science is weak. Strong ideas grow through trial by fire.
I hope somebody brighter than me will think of things I haven’t yet – because they have a different outlook, or because they live in the future and have access to data and tech that I don’t.
I hope AP will be foundational for things I can’t imagine – the metaphorical equivalent of me banging rocks together to discover fire, so that someday someone can ignite a star drive.
What is the Ongoing Chemical Reaction (OCR/ochre)?
Question: What is the Ongoing Chemical Reaction (also called OCR or ochre for short)?
It’s what we call life on Earth.
(If you haven’t read the question above about what absolute physicalism is, much of the language and metaphor I use below will seem contradictory. Please remember that we’re discussing complex, objective physical concepts on a social, subjective level, trying to keep it easy to understand. Sometimes English isn’t made for this.)
Under absolute physicalism, there is no real structural distinction between organic and inorganic, just a functional one – everything is made of the same basic elements, just performing different physical functions.
There’s also no separation anywhere. What we call “organic life forms” are like little hurricanes of molecular interchange, inseparable from the physical makeup of the environment and the overall universe.
We’re all formed out of elements drawn together by parent organisms; sucking in elements from the environment that we need to survive (oxygen, water, matter from other organic life forms); shooting out matter through waste excretion, shedding, et cetera; and eventually breaking down entirely for complete recycling by the environment (the functional illusion of “death”).
And these elements don’t magically appear at our birth, or disappear at our death. Everything here has been around since the Big Bang (as far as we know), moving around, combining into new forms, breaking apart, combining again.
The universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old, and Earth itself has only been around about 4.5 billion. Before gravity and physical forces drew our planet together, everything that now makes up organic life was out there, spinning around in space.
Down here in the gravity well of Earth, those chemical elements combined and complexified in new ways. Organic matter evolved a similar function as stars in a localized way – capturing energy to sustain its chemical lifespan – with the potentially unique function of surviving the end of that lifespan by reproducing into fresh, stable forms that continue to capture energy.
All organic matter does this in various ways – capturing energy, and surviving long enough to reproduce.
And every part of human life is a relatively complex aspect of these two chemical functions.
What this process means – all organic matter locked in this pattern of capture, consume, reproduce – is that the thin scree of life surrounding the planet is one big chemical reaction that hasn’t run out of fuel yet.
Organisms crash into and swallow each other and the environment, spit off new, stable forms, and do it all over again, nonstop, all the time. It’s like a fire that complexified enough to get more efficient at gathering and burning wood – and also learned how to eat other fire.
However, fuel is exhaustible, and life as a chemical process can be interrupted. The sun is a star like any other, and will go out in about five billion years. Life as we know it on Earth won’t survive past another billion years due to the changes the sun will go through in its chemical lifespan. Planet-altering meteors could strike at any time, and we currently have no Bruce Willis to save us. And humanity has become the first known organism with the technological capability to end the functioning of all organic matter on Earth.
This is why the OCR is called “ongoing” – because the functioning of organic matter has a potential end. It’s possible we might find a way to escape this someday, but there is no guarantee – and under current knowledge and technology, we are absolutely on a deadline.
This “end” doesn’t mean our components will go away – they’ll just change function again. All that carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so on will continue to move and change, just like it did before organic matter temporarily borrowed it.
Even using the phrase “life on Earth” back at the beginning was misleading, a necessary metaphor to stair step down to the physical level of explanation.
Because there’s no separation anywhere, every part of the physical universe affects every other part. This idea could be called the Ongoing Physical Reaction – encompassing all kinds of physics and chemistry that embody the entire known physical universe.
But I feel like “OCR” keeps it local to Earth, and more immediately relatable.
I find it helps to visualize this if you picture everything – grass, bacteria, animals – as being made of something uniform and familiar, like fire, or water. All apparently separate life forms are actually one mass of chemical reactions and motions. All organic life is one big chemical reaction, whipping over the surface of the planet like fire.
What do you mean about talking on two levels, the social level and the physical level?
Question: What do you mean when you say you have to explain absolute physicalism on two levels, the social level and the physical level?
To expand on what I said in the “What is absolute physicalism?” question above –
When you try to explain the real physical universe, you immediately hit a problem.
My first language, English, isn’t really geared to talk about ideas like these.
English, like every other language, evolved right along with us as a tool to aid our survival. From reflexive grunts and screams to warn pack mates that danger was nearby, or that something was hurting you and to stay away, or come to your aid – to mimetic playacting that allowed early hominins to teach their young how to hunt without putting those young in danger – to communicating complex concepts through spoken words, or writing them down to create external records of our knowledge, aiding the next generation.
Like I discuss in the question below on quantum physics – for the majority of our existence, we also largely observed the world around us on the macroscopic scale. That’s the scale on which we can observe things with the naked eye. We couldn’t readily observe the microscopic, atomic, quantum levels.
Which means – for nearly all our existence, language never really evolved to discuss concepts not immediately related to survival on the macroscopic scale.
So when I talk to you – we’re communicating on what I call the social level. I can use simple, socially constructed ideas like personal identity – I and you – or use metaphors and similes to make ideas more relatable – and talk on a level you’ve been comfortable and familiar with your whole life, because it’s all you’ve ever known.
But what we’re trying to talk about is down on the physical level. This is the actual, objective physical reality that will continue deterministically onward whether or not we can understand or describe it. It doesn’t need metaphors – it simply exists, and functions.
And no matter how hard we try to talk about the physical level – language only ever approximates. It can’t perfectly embody the thing described.
To illustrate how this conflict in communication happens – let’s try to describe a simple action.
Social Level: I say hello to you.
Physical Level: An object made of various chemical elements uses electrochemical signals to activate a tube that can vibrate nearby gaseous matter in informational patterns that will be received by a vibration detector and converted into electrochemical signals for symbolic interpretation by another object made of various chemical elements.
I just described a brain making a mouth vibrate air for an ear to receive for another brain. I didn’t even begin to approach the real complexity of what’s going on there.
I didn’t get down to the molecular or atomic level to describe the process structurally. I didn’t provide a blow-by-blow of the physical and chemical interactions. I certainly didn’t go all the way back in the deterministic causal web to explain how these elements came to be in this configuration, at this time, with chemical reactions motivating physical behaviors.
All of it matters, if you want a 100% accurate explanation of the kinds of concepts we’re talking about here – but who would ever wait around to listen to all that? Every episode of my podcast would be longer than the actual current age of the universe, because I can’t describe things quickly enough. And even then, I could never fully describe, only approximate.
Let’s have another example.
This is based on a common argument I’ve seen against determinism. Under absolute physicalism’s ideas, personal identity is a functional illusion – a misunderstanding of your own physical nature, how you’re actually an ever-changing vortex of matter whose sole purpose is to seek fuel and help sustain the Ongoing Chemical Reaction.
But if you try to explain that to other people – one of the first arguments you hear is, “This foolish fake scientist! He just referred to himself as ‘I’! Doesn’t he see how that instantly refutes his own argument that he doesn’t have a personal identity?”
Because they don’t understand that if you want to describe the physical level without your audience fleeing screaming into the night from boredom and confusion, you have to talk on the social level, which didn’t evolve to describe the physical level.
It’s like trying to describe an idea in German, only to have the listener complain the idea is wrong because they only speak English.
This is why thinkers and explorers have to invent so many new words and acronyms. The vocabulary and grammar haven’t caught up yet.
If time travel ever becomes possible (which no, I don’t believe it will, to be discussed in a future episode), imagine how insane the past/present/future tenses of words will become.
Someday, maybe we’ll have a single English word to describe “a causal web totality of events leading all the way back to the beginning moment of the universe that caused this specific action to happen in this specific time and place”.
In fact, I’ll invent one right now. A “determinexus”.
(I just had to Google words for ten minutes before I found one no one else had defined already. There is exactly one Google result containing determinexus, as a misspelled mashup in a Cisco manual. Hopefully they won’t mind, because it just became canon.)
The point is, absolute physicalism isn’t just a set of ideas – it’s a way of talking about things on two levels simultaneously. It’s entering into discussing ideas with the awareness that you’re forced to communicate on the social level about physical reality – and that you will have to look past the resulting language-based limitations and conflicts to understand the meaning beneath.
Does quantum physics make absolute physicalism impossible?
Objection: At the quantum level, things become unpredictable. If we can’t predict the future state of the physical universe, it can’t be deterministic.
I’ll admit, this is one I’m not solid on, because I’m not sure I understand quantum physics well enough to answer accurately.
I’ll keep researching, but here are my strongest ideas so far, in two complicated parts:
1. We may not be able to predict behavior down at quantum levels – but I think that falls outside what I call “the scale of necessary measurement” when we’re talking about determinism in a physical universe.
And I think this leads to a confusion of terms and functions between scale levels of the physical universe, causing inaccurate conclusions about how quantum physics would prevent a deterministic system.
This would be a good point to drop a few definitions:
Macroscopic scale: the length scale on which objects or phenomena are large enough to be visible almost practically with the naked eye, without magnifying optical instruments.
Microscopic scale: the scale of objects and events smaller than those that can easily be seen by the naked eye, requiring a lens or microscope to see them clearly.
Quantum scale: the scale where quantum mechanical effects become important when studied as an isolated system.
To explain where I think the confusion comes from – when we talk about what we think of as “life”, our physical universe, and what we want to predict – we’re mainly describing the macroscopic scale of existence.
Our concepts of life and the universe evolved at the macroscopic scale for the majority of our existence. Philosophers discussed the idea of atoms all the way back to the BC’s, but we didn’t pay them real, collective scientific attention until the last several centuries or so. We didn’t even officially discover bacteria until the 17th century. Most of what we knew about existence was the surface level, available to our limited physical senses.
Which means, if you accept that humans as we define them have been around 200,000 years, we’ve only begun to understand the microscopic level of our existence for about 0.2% to 1% of our entire history. And the quantum level in the last 0.1%.
Put in terms of the average human lifespan – that’s like you living to 79 years old, and about nine months ago you learned atoms existed, two months ago you found out about bacteria, and last month you learned about quantum physics.
That’s a lot of evolved, hardwired instinct to overcome in understanding our physical nature and that of the physical universe.
To focus on a relatable example – thanks to our macroscopic eyes, our concept of a “human” appears to be a singular entity, an individual.
But if we’d evolved differently – if it was naturally advantageous and necessary to see microscopically – our idea of “human” would’ve been entirely different.
We’d have understood much earlier that on one level, apparent “individuals” are actually colonies of cells and bacteria living in symbiosis – and on another level, a collection of molecules, atoms, protons. And a lot of empty space.
Similarly, our understanding of the larger physical universe has only comparatively recently gained momentum. We’ve barely begun to understand the microscopic, atomic levels of our existence, and how things interact in physical reality.
So when we talk about “life” and a physically predictable universe, we mostly mean the largely macroscopic, recently microscopic definitions and terms that we’ve developed over the course of human existence.
Naturally, when quantum physics came on the scene, I think this led to confusion about how exactly the quantum scale affects the macroscopic scale – because up until then, we only had terms to describe things macroscopically. We’re trying to apply higher scale physics to a lower scale that doesn’t operate on the same rules.
So here’s what I think is going on:
Down at the quantum level, things behave unpredictably. Probability comes into play, and observation can alter the behavior of the things observed. Reality appears to be random and uncertain.
I think that’s the simplest way I can put the specific objections I’ve read on quantum physics versus determinism – if things are truly random at the quantum level, they can’t be deterministic on the macroscopic level.
However, as I said above, to me this appears to fall outside the scale of necessary measurement for a physically deterministic system.
Whatever probabilities exist down at the quantum scale – up at the microscopic and macroscopic scale, everything that we use to measure and quantify “life” obeys predictable physical laws. The motion of atoms through space, the reactions when two elements are combined, et cetera.
It’s a relatively complex (to us) process of interactions, and it’s beyond our current ability to track and predict the entire physical system of those interactions. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still happening in obedience to set, measurable laws of physics – and will continue to do so even if all observers are removed.
So while things behave unpredictably at quantum levels, their end result on the scale of necessary measurement for the physical behavior and chemical interaction of “life” and the physical universe is still a predictable, measurable system.
I’ve been trying to come up with a good visualization for this.
For instance – it’s like confusing terms by saying that a carbon atom in your arm determines whether your arm will be raised or not. The statement is meaningless. It doesn’t apply between the scales.
It only makes sense if you measure on a higher scale – one where the carbon atom is part of a greater latticework of atoms, molecules, chemicals, that are capable of raising the arm after being sent an electrochemical signal from the brain, in accordance with local laws of physics, in reaction to internal and external stimuli, et cetera.
So trying to say that unpredictability on the quantum scale makes the macroscopic scale unpredictable – that’s a confusion of terms and functions. You can’t currently apply the same measures of macroscopic effects at the quantum level.
I say currently because this might not always hold true – we may eventually develop the data and technology to accurately measure and understand quantum effects. But that’s just speculation.
One side thought about quantum physics and determinism – if on the quantum scale, things change when observed, collapsing multiple potential probability states into one state – and a human observer is just a sack of chemical reactions following chemical drives for action and behavior, in accordance with local laws of physics – then the human’s act of observation is still a physically deterministic one.
Whatever causal web of events led that human to observe the quantum scale at that moment, the act of observation is determined – and therefore, the collapse of probabilities into a single outcome is as well. And so are all events on the microscopic/macroscopic levels that follow as a result of observing changes on the quantum level.
Question to the Audience: Am I making a false separation here between levels? Do I not understand how probability at the quantum level affects physical events at the macroscopic level? I’d like to hear from people who understand quantum physics better than I do.
2. As stated above, one regular argument I see – because humans can’t predict things at the quantum level, we can’t predict future physical states of the universe, therefore the universe can’t be deterministic.
(The following point won’t make sense without reading #1 above. And honestly – I might be reaching with the explanation below, because I have to speculate again on a subject I’m not an expert on.)
Inability to predict is immaterial – because “prediction” is defined by the limits of human physical ability, or the technology we build to assist us.
But strip away all observers – human or machine – and on the macroscopic level, when something happens, it has a defined physical motion, reaction, interaction. This happens regardless of whether the event is observed or not, and can be predicted or not.
What happens on the macroscopic level, happens specifically according to physical laws, and stays happened. Therefore, future states of the macroscopic physical universe can be predicted – if absolutely all physical influences are known.
As in #1, I’m proposing that unpredictable behavior on the quantum level still results in a predictable, measurable system at the macroscopic level.
That macroscopic system had a beginning state, and may have an end state. But otherwise every point in between has an exact physical state, moment to moment.
Which means, regardless of our ability or inability to predict those states – the system will still move, beginning to end. Remove all observers or predictors and this still holds true.
Further speculation – we shouldn’t limit ourselves to ideas of what we’re only capable of now. Someday we might develop the means to observe and predict the entire known physical universe. It’s not impossible – just not possible right now.
If everything is objectively meaningless, then why shouldn’t I just (criminal or unspeakable act of choice)?
Question: If everything is objectively meaningless, then why shouldn’t I just (criminal or unspeakable act of choice)?
01/01/2019 – ANSWER STILL UNDER EDITING, WILL BE REVISED
The subjectively hard but objectively true answer: There’s no reason not to.
However, subjectively – you still might suffer the physical consequences of those actions.
For instance – depending on how you deterministically developed over time, you might subjectively feel bad about the things you did. Chemical punishers in your system will release, causing physical suffering, discouraging future repetition of those behaviors.
Also – if you do something subjectively harmful enough to impede the survival of your society as a whole – what we call “crime” – the surrounding system may turn on you.
All the objective knowledge in the world won’t stop other organisms from ganging up with sharp pieces of the environment, restricting your physical influence on their territory, or recycling you for parts that might behave better next time. In layman’s terms – do the crime, risk being imprisoned or killed.
Conversely – if everything is objectively meaningless – there’s also no reason not to behave with absolute morality and be a good and happy person by common definition.
And since under absolute physicalism, there is no free will or choice except as descriptive labels of misunderstood physical processes – you will end up going either towards the subjectively good or bad depending entirely on the web of events that shaped your entire existence.
Understand – on an objective level, this means absolutely nothing is anyone’s “fault”. But on a subjective level, the OCR will still blindly try to hold you accountable towards supporting its overall “goal” – which is sustaining the chemical reaction as long as possible. And every time you impede or harm even a tiny part of the reaction, you become a faulty part of the system, make it harder to sustain the chemical reaction, and will likely be restricted or recycled.
Supporting the OCR used to only mean things consuming other things to survive long enough to reproduce. But now there’s a strong trend towards survival by mutual cooperation – still in primitive stages – but definitely advantageous and growing in complexity and strength every day.
If you subjectively care about not suffering physically (and under AP, “emotional” and “mental” are the same as physical), then you will trend back towards not harming the system – whether out of fear of punishment or desire for reward.
So when you ask, “If nothing means anything, then why shouldn’t I do something horrible?”, the real subjective question is – were you already prone towards negative and harmful actions, and by asking, were you looking for a subjective excuse to become worse?
On the other side – if you’re looking for subjective happy endings and reasons to be positive, read the Question below about what benefit there is to understanding absolute physicalism.