Causal Reality vs Social Reality

Epistemic status: this is a new model for me, certainly rough around the joints, but I think there’s something real here.

This post begins with a confusion. For years, I have been baffled that people, watching their loved ones wither and decay and die, do not clamor in the streets for more and better science. Surely they are aware of the advances in our power over reality in only the last few centuries. They hear of the steady march of technology, Crispr and gene editing and what not. Enough of them must know basic physics and what it allows. How are people so content to suffer and die when the unnecessity of it is so apparent?

It was a failure of my mine that I didn’t take my incomprehension and realize I needed a better model. Luckily, RomeoStevens recently offered me an explanation. He said that most people live in social reality and it is only a minority who live in causal reality. I don’t recall Romeo elaborating much, but I think I saw what he was pointing at. This rest of this post is my attempt to elucidate this distinction.

Causal Reality

Causal reality is the reality of physics. The world is made of particles and fields with lawful relationships governing their interactions. You drop a thing, it falls down. You lose too much blood, you die. You build a solar panel, you can charge your phone. In causal reality, it is the external world which dictates what happens and what is possible.

Causal reality is the reality of mathematics and logic, reason and argument. For these too, it would definitely seem, exist independent of the human minds who grasp them. Believing in the truth preservation of modus ponens is not so different from believing in Newton’s laws.

Necessarily, you must be inhabiting causal reality to do science and engineering.

In causal reality, what makes things good or bad are their effects and how much you like those effects. My coat keeps me warm in the cold winter, so it is a good coat.

All humans inhabit causal reality to some extent or another. We avoid putting our hands in fire not because it is not the done the thing, but because of prediction that it will hurt.

Social Reality

Social reality is the reality of people, i.e. people are the primitive elements rather than particles and fields. The fundamentals of the ontology are beliefs, judgments, roles, relationships, and culture. The most important properties of any object, thing, or idea are how humans relate to it. Do humans think it is good or bad, welcome or weird?

Social reality is the reality of appearances and reputation, acceptance and rejection. The picture is other people and what they think the picture is. It is a collective dream. Everything else is backdrop. What makes things good or bad, normal or strange is only what others think. Your friends, your neighbors, your country, and your culture define your world, what is good, and what is possible.

Your reality shapes how you make your choices

In causal reality, you have an idea of the things that you like dislike. You have an idea of what the external world allows and disallows. In each situation, you can ask what the facts on the ground are and which you most prefer. It is better to build my house from bricks or straw? Well, what are the properties of each, their costs and benefits, etc? Maybe stone, you think. No one has built a stone house in your town, but you wonder if such a house might be worth the trouble.

In social reality, in any situation, you are evaluating and estimating what others will think of each option. What does it say about me if I have a brick house or straw house? What will people think? Which is good? And goodness here simply stands in for the collective judgment of others. If something is not done, e.g. stone houses, then you will probably not even think of the option. If you do, you will treat it with the utmost caution, there is no precedent here—who can say how others will respond?

An Example: Vibrams

Vibrams are a kind of shoe with individual “sections” for each of your toes, kind of like a glove for your feet. They certainly don’t look like most shoes, but apparently, they’re very comfortable and good for you. They’ve been around for a while now, so enough people must be buying them.

How you evaluate Vibrams will depend on whether you approach more from a causal reality angle or a social reality angle. Many of the thoughts in each case will overlap, but I contend that their order intensity will still vary.

In causal reality, properties are evaluated and predictions are made. How comfortable are they? Are they actually good for you? How expensive are they? These are obvious “causal”/​”physical” properties. You might, still within causal reality, evaluate how Vibrams will affect how others see you. You care about comfort, but you also care about what your friends think. You might decide that Vibrams are just so damn comfortable they’re worth a bit of teasing.

In social reality, the first and foremost questions about Vibrams are going to be what do others think? What kinds of people wear Vibrams? What kind of person will wearing Vibrams make me? Do Vibrams fit with my identity and social strategy? All else equal, you’d prefer comfort, but that really is far from the key thing here. It’s the human judgments which are real.

An Example: Arguments, Evidence, and Truth

Causal reality is typically accompanied by a notion of external truth. There is way reality is, and that’s what determines what happens. What’s more, there are ways of accessing this external truth as verified by these methods yielding good predictions. Evidence, arguments, and reasoning can often work quite well.

If you approach reality foremost with a conception of external truth and that broadly reasoning is a way to reach truth, you can be open to raw arguments and evidence changing your mind. These are information about the external world.

In social reality, truth is what other people think and how they behave. There are games to be played with “beliefs” and “arguments”, but the real truth (only truth?) that matters is how these are arguments go down with others. The validity of an argument comes from its acceptance by the crowd because the crowd is truth. I might accept that within the causal reality game you are playing that you have a valid argument, but that’s just a game. The arguments from those games cannot move me and my actions independent from how they are evaluated in the social reality.

“Yes, I can’t fault your argument. It’s a very fine argument. But tell me, who takes this seriously? Are there any experts who will support your view?” Subtext: your argument within causal reality isn’t enough for me, I need social reality to pass judgment on this before I will accept it.

Why people aren’t clamoring in the streets for the end of sickness and death?

Because no one else is. Because the done thing is to be born, go to school, work, retire, get old, get sick, and die. That’s what everyone does. That’s how it is. It’s how my parents did, and their parents, and so on. That is reality. That’s what people do.

Yes, there are some people who talk about life extension, but they’re just playing at some group game the ways goths are. It’s just a club, a rallying point. It’s not about something. It’s just part of the social reality like everything else, and I see no reason to participate in that. I’ve got my own game which doesn’t involve being so weird, a much better strategy.

In his book The AI Does Not Hate You, Tom Chivers recounts himself performing an Internal Double Crux with guidance from Anna Salamon. By my take, he is valiantly trying to reconcile his social and causal reality frames. [emphasis added, very slightly reformatted]

Anna Salamon: What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think the phrase, “Your children won’t die of old age?”
Tom Chivers: “The first thing that pops up, obviously, is I vaguely assume my children will die the way we all do. My grandfather died recently; my parents are in their sixties; I’m almost 37 now. You see the paths of a human’s life each time; all lives follow roughly the same path. They have different toys—iPhones instead of colour TVs instead of whatever—but the fundamental shape of a human’s life is roughly the same. But the other thing that popped is a sense “I don’t know how I can argue with it”, because I do accept that there’s a solid chance that AGI will arrive in the next 100 years. I accept that there’s a very high likelihood that if does happen then it will transform human life in dramatic ways—up to and including an end to people dying of old age, whether it’s because we’re all killed by drones with kinetic weapons, or uploaded into the cloud, or whatever. I also accept that my children will probably live that long, because they’re middle-class, well-off kinds from a Western country. All these these things add up to a very heavily non-zero chance that my children will not die of old age, but, they don’t square with my bucolic image of what humans do. They get older, they have kids, they have grandkids, and they die, and that’s the shape of life. Those are two fundamental things that came up, and they don’t square easily.

Most people primarily inhabit a social reality frame, and in social reality options and actions which aren’t being taken by other people who are like you and whose judgments you’re interested in don’t exist. There’s no extrapolation from physics and technology trends—those things are just background stories in the social game. They’re not real. Probably less real than Jon Snow. I have beliefs and opinions and judgments of Jon Snow and his actions. What is real are the people around me.

Obviously, you need a bit of both

If you read this post as being a little negative toward social reality, you’re not mistaken. But to be very clear, I think that modeling and understanding people is critically important. Heck, that’s exactly what this post is. For our own wellbeing and to do anything real in the world, we need to understand and predict others, their actions, their judgments, etc. You probably want to know what the social reality is (though I wonder if avoiding the distraction of it might facilitate especially great works, but alas, it’s too late for me). Yet if there is a moral to this post, it’s two things:

  • Don’t get sucked in too much by social reality. There is an external world out there which has first claim of what happens and what is possible.

  • If you primarily inhabit causal reality (like most people on LessWrong), you can be a bit less surprised that your line of reasoning fails to move many people. They’re not living in the same reality as you and they choose their beliefs based on a very different process. And heck, more people live in that reality than in yours. You really are the weirdo here.

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