The Weirdness of the World

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An impulse grab off the "New Books" shelf of the Portsmouth (NH) Public Library. Author Eric Schwitzgebel's overall thesis is expressed in the title: the world is weird. Since he is a philosopher, he rigorously defines his terms:

contrary to the conventional, ordinary, and well-understood.
contrary to common sense—i.e., something that people without specialized training confidently but perhaps implicitly believe to be false
doubtful in the sense that we are not epistemically compelled to believe it
both bizarre and dubious
Theoretical wilderness:
a topic on which every viable theory is wild

You get the idea: Professor Schwitzgebel is kind of out there, but in a way that's entirely plausible. And a lot of fun. One of his chapters argues, from materialistic precepts, that the United States of America is a conscious entity; this manages to be both hilarious and profound.

Do we live in a simulation, run on a supercomputer by an alien nerd, just for fun? (Illustrated with a figure captioned: "God stumbles over the power cord". Oops!)

One chapter is "The Loose Friendship of Visual Experience and Reality". Which has the launching point expressed in federal regulation:

Each convex mirror shall have permanently and indelibly marked at the lower edge of the mirror's reflective surface, in letters not less than 4.8 mm nor more than 6.4 mm high the words “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.”

Don't think about this too hard while driving; could be fatally distracting. Schwitzgebel argues that the required wording is wrong. At length.

He writes on his experience with ChatGPT, and observes: "The darn thing has a better sense of humor than most humans."

And in a very thought-provoking chapter, he considers what our moral obligations should be toward AIs that develop consciousness. Snippet:

Or suppose we could create an AI system so cognitively superior to us that it is capable of valuable achievements and social relationships that the limited human mind cannot even conceive of—achievements and relationships qualitatively different from anything we can understand, sufficiently unknowable that we cannot even feel their absence from our lives, as unknowable to us as cryptocurrency is to a sea turtle.

Maybe that won't keep you awake at night, but it's something to think about in the dark when you can't sleep.

I'm kind of used to the world's "weirdness", since I studied me some quantum mechanics back in the day. Here's the relevant Feynman quote, from one of his lectures (to a general audience) on quantum electrodynamics:

What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school—and you think I'm going to explain it to you so you can understand it? No, you're not going to be able to understand it. Why, then, and I going to bother you with all this? Why are you going to sit here all this time, when you won't be able to understand what I'm going to say? It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see, my physics students don't understand it either. That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does.
Similarly, I didn't find Schwitzgebel's argument about the "consciousness" of the USA to be all that wacky. It didn't seem that different from: Adam Smith's invocation of the Invisible hand; Hayek's Knowledge Problem; or Leonard E. Read's essay "I, Pencil", in which the titular character claims, perceptively, "not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me."

Ah, but "the market" knows how. And does so, cheaply and in abundance.

So: A wonderful book. I found it tough going in spots, but in most parts wonderfully accessible and insightful.