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.