Think Like Reality

When­ever I hear some­one de­scribe quan­tum physics as “weird”—when­ever I hear some­one be­wailing the mys­te­ri­ous effects of ob­ser­va­tion on the ob­served, or the bizarre ex­is­tence of non­lo­cal cor­re­la­tions, or the in­cred­ible im­pos­si­bil­ity of know­ing po­si­tion and mo­men­tum at the same time—then I think to my­self: This per­son will never un­der­stand physics no mat­ter how many books they read.

Real­ity has been around since long be­fore you showed up. Don’t go call­ing it nasty names like “bizarre” or “in­cred­ible”. The uni­verse was prop­a­gat­ing com­plex am­pli­tudes through con­figu­ra­tion space for ten billion years be­fore life ever emerged on Earth. Quan­tum physics is not “weird”. You are weird. You have the ab­solutely bizarre idea that re­al­ity ought to con­sist of lit­tle billiard balls bop­ping around, when in fact re­al­ity is a perfectly nor­mal cloud of com­plex am­pli­tude in con­figu­ra­tion space. This is your prob­lem, not re­al­ity’s, and you are the one who needs to change.

Hu­man in­tu­itions were pro­duced by evolu­tion and evolu­tion is a hack. The same op­ti­miza­tion pro­cess that built your retina back­ward and then routed the op­tic ca­ble through your field of vi­sion, also de­signed your vi­sual sys­tem to pro­cess per­sis­tent ob­jects bounc­ing around in 3 spa­tial di­men­sions be­cause that’s what it took to chase down tigers. But “tigers” are leaky sur­face gen­er­al­iza­tions—tigers came into ex­is­tence grad­u­ally over evolu­tion­ary time, and they are not all ab­solutely similar to each other. When you go down to the fun­da­men­tal level, the level on which the laws are sta­ble, global, and ex­cep­tion-free, there aren’t any tigers. In fact there aren’t any per­sis­tent ob­jects bounc­ing around in 3 spa­tial di­men­sions. Deal with it.

Cal­ling re­al­ity “weird” keeps you in­side a view­point already proven er­ro­neous. Prob­a­bil­ity the­ory tells us that sur­prise is the mea­sure of a poor hy­poth­e­sis; if a model is con­sis­tently stupid - con­sis­tently hits on events the model as­signs tiny prob­a­bil­ities—then it’s time to dis­card that model. A good model makes re­al­ity look nor­mal, not weird; a good model as­signs high prob­a­bil­ity to that which is ac­tu­ally the case. In­tu­ition is only a model by an­other name: poor in­tu­itions are shocked by re­al­ity, good in­tu­itions make re­al­ity feel nat­u­ral. You want to re­shape your in­tu­itions so that the uni­verse looks nor­mal. You want to think like re­al­ity.

This end state can­not be forced. It is pointless to pre­tend that quan­tum physics feels nat­u­ral to you when in fact it feels strange. This is merely deny­ing your con­fu­sion, not be­com­ing less con­fused. But it will also hin­der you to keep think­ing How bizarre! Spend­ing emo­tional en­ergy on in­cre­dulity wastes time you could be us­ing to up­date. It re­peat­edly throws you back into the frame of the old, wrong view­point. It feeds your sense of righ­teous in­dig­na­tion at re­al­ity dar­ing to con­tra­dict you.

The prin­ci­ple ex­tends be­yond physics. Have you ever caught your­self say­ing some­thing like, “I just don’t un­der­stand how a PhD physi­cist can be­lieve in as­trol­ogy?” Well, if you liter­ally don’t un­der­stand, this in­di­cates a prob­lem with your model of hu­man psy­chol­ogy. Per­haps you are in­dig­nant—you wish to ex­press strong moral dis­ap­proval. But if you liter­ally don’t un­der­stand, then your in­dig­na­tion is stop­ping you from com­ing to terms with re­al­ity. It shouldn’t be hard to imag­ine how a PhD physi­cist ends up be­liev­ing in as­trol­ogy. Peo­ple com­part­men­tal­ize, enough said.

I now try to avoid us­ing the English idiom “I just don’t un­der­stand how...” to ex­press in­dig­na­tion. If I gen­uinely don’t un­der­stand how, then my model is be­ing sur­prised by the facts, and I should dis­card it and find a bet­ter model.

Sur­prise ex­ists in the map, not in the ter­ri­tory. There are no sur­pris­ing facts, only mod­els that are sur­prised by facts. Like­wise for facts called such nasty names as “bizarre”, “in­cred­ible”, “un­be­liev­able”, “un­ex­pected”, “strange”, “anoma­lous”, or “weird”. When you find your­self tempted by such la­bels, it may be wise to check if the alleged fact is re­ally fac­tual. But if the fact checks out, then the prob­lem isn’t the fact, it’s you.