One last look at sight

One last look at sight August 6, 2010

This post is part of a series on morality and mathematics.  If you’re not into timeless conceptions of physics, you should probably check out the other posts first.

I’m swear at some point I’m going to finish up with the sight metaphor and get back to some of the posts I had planned, but in the comments of one of yesterday’s posts, Hendy brought up one idea I really want to address.

Hendy said:

Essentially, we seem to have honed in on what humans value and made systems that support those aims. If we took away the humans, would objective moral values still exist?

Part of my objection stems from the fact that morality is such a “cloudy” field and that of the senses is not (e.g. your analogy using sight). My objection to this moral “sense” is the same as my objection to those who claim (like WL Craig) that god can “immediately and powerfully be known.”

If we’re worried about what happens to morality if humans don’t exist, I think it’s fair to be equally worried about sight and visual existence. It’s easy to think of the visual nature of objects as an absolute, intrinsic property that we just happen to observe, but I disagree. Our conception of seen objects is incredibly tailored to humans. We can’t see ultraviolet patterning on flowers or any other wave outside of the narrow spectrum of visible light.

Of course, that trouble pales in comparison to the fact that we can’t see objects as they really are at all. At the scale at which we see and live, all objects appear to be solid, rather than largely empty structures of atoms, or, if you drill down deep enough, quarks. Our level of existence is a valid interpretation of the physical nature of matter at the scale where humans live and see. If no perceiving creature existed at our scale, the question of whether objects existed as we see them would quickly become a philosophical riddle.

The way I choose to think of it goes back to topology. My visual perceptions aren’t of the object itself but are more like taking a slice of an >n-dimensional object and embedding it in n-dimensional space. There’s nothing wrong with my perception, but it’s incompleteness can lead me astray and make me uncomfortable if I get a look at a different slice.

I think I’ll close with a quotation from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s excellent fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. In the selection below, Harry (who has been raised by a scientist, instead of the Dursleys, is trying to break the law of Transfiguration that claims you can only alter something as a complete unit.

All right, screw this nineteenth-century garbage.

Reality wasn’t atoms, it wasn’t a set of tiny billiard balls bopping around. That was just another lie. The notion of atoms as little dots was just another convenient hallucination that people clung to because they didn’t want to confront the inhumanly alien shape of the underlying reality. No wonder, then, that his attempts to Transfigure based on that hadn’t worked. If he wanted power, he had to abandon his humanity, and force his thoughts to conform to the true math of quantum mechanics.

There were no particles, there were just clouds of amplitude in a multiparticle configuration space and what his brain fondly imagined to be an eraser was nothing except a gigantic factor in a wavefunction that happened to factorize, it didn’t have a separate existence any more than there was a particular solid factor of 3 hidden inside the number 6, if his wand was capable of altering factors in an approximately factorizable wavefunction then it should damn well be able to alter the slightly smaller factor that Harry’s brain visualized as a patch of material on the eraser –

If you want to know if Harry’s Transfiguration works, you should check out the fic in your free time this weekend.

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