posttitle = Boggling at being a computational creature made of stuff titleClass =title-long len =56

Boggling at being a computational creature made of stuff

We interrupt your regularly scheduled metaprogramming to bring you a stream-of-consciousness musing on the nature of being, and related topics. This is more me playing with ideas than trying to make any case in particular.

Being made of stuff

Sometimes I forget that I exist in the physical realm. That I’m made of stuff. Less so, perhaps, than many of my mathier friends, but still fairly often.

In one sense, this is true: what “I” am is an identity, a sense of self, a pattern. The pattern happens to currently be expressed in a very physical sense: my computations may be virtual in a sense, but they’re tightly coupled to input from the physical world, including parts of the physical world that are also considered to be “me”. The parts of my body.

But of course they’re “me” for convenience, because they’re an extension of my cognition. Immediately after my finger is cut off, it’s very immediately no longer “me”. I wonder if people who are paraplegic don’t feel like their legs are “them”. Does someone with phantom limb syndrome include their phantom limb in their notion of “me”, even if it doesn’t exist in the normal sense?

Relatedly, we often feel like the rogue agents in our brains aren’t us. Hell, sometimes I’ve even said/heard “my brain just generated a thought, which was…” So I guess a large fraction of my cognition also isn’t exactly “me”. Dis-identification from my thoughts, for better or for worse.


Seriously though, we’re made out of stuff. I just had a sip of water. Some of that water is going to become me. Pop quiz: what percentage of human body mass is water?

The answer is of course 70%.

You probably knew that. I’ve known it since back when I was so small that my entire body weighed less than the amount of my body that is currently made of water.

But I was staring at that fact today and boggling.

Imagine trying to build a robot that’s competitive at soccer, or chess, or basically anything, and 70% of the functioning mass of the robot has to be made of water. Where would you even start?

I looked it up. Turns out 70% of that 70% (ie half of human mass) is within our cells, and isn’t exactly pure water. It’s something called cytosol, which is water with a bunch of other stuff suspended in it. Okay, that makes sense: humans are made mostly of water and almost entirely of cells, so naturally cells are mostly made of water.

But I look at my skin, ~at my muscles (other cells, like fat and bone, have much less water) and they don’t look like they’re made of 70% water. They seem pretty dry. My brain, on the other hand…

Brain in a vat

Apparently the human brain is 85% water. It’s basically already a brain in a vat, except the vat is conveniently attached to a body etc. Which really has nothing to do with the point of the term “brain in a vat”. Except that I think at least a little of what we find weird about that is the idea of the brain suspended in a liquid. Which—spoiler!—it already is.

And all of your cognition happens in the form of chemical and electrical signals which often aren’t electrons, they’re sodium, potassium, and calcium ions.

Someone (Steven Pinker!) wrote a book called “The Stuff of Thought”. It’s about language. But it could have been about ions and water.

Brain in a wat

I’ve become more existentialist in the last while. It’s not altogether pleasant, to be honest.

I’ve been reading things like Beyond the Reach of God, and realizing that there aren’t really any guarantees of anything in particular. That this universe doesn’t have inherent meaning, or purpose. Or at least, it seems from our perspective to be pretty consistent with one that doesn’t.

I’ve been reading things like Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the the Bicameral Mind, and getting a better sense of why humans so deeply crave certainty. By that model, back when the gods (≈ right hemispheres) spoke to everyone and directed their actions, there wasn’t an enduring feeling of subjective uncertainty of what to do. In each moment, people acted out of habit or in accordance to their “god’s” instructions.

Fate and determinism

What’s the difference between fate and determinism? One way to think about it is that fate is a psychological concept, while determinism is a mathematical concept.

Again following Jaynes’ model: after the breakdown of the bicameral mind, people could no longer access their intuitions so easily, so when they had to make tough decisions they did things like divining with dice. These people, in the first millenia BCE and CE didn’t have the concepts of “chance” or “randomness”, so they interpreted the dice (or pig entrails) as being meaningful in human terms.

A shape like a mountain? Must mean something about an actual mountain. In many cases, probably, what they saw was determined by something that their intuition understood and wanted to make known, and so this process of making decisions was better than say chance. But fate is the notion that these decisions came from the outside, rather than from an internal sense of authority.

The divining system would act as the guide for on what to do, in a way that let the person trust in that. Of course, ultimately, the decision took place somewhere in their brain-made-of-85%-water, just maybe not the part of them that carries around the sense of self.

Determinism is the idea that if you had the right information, you could compute the future state of the universe. This being true doesn’t imply that that future state is meaningfully derived in human terms though.

What are we computing?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and I found myself musing…

What are we computing right now? Like, if all of my neurons are collectively computing “Malcolm’s thoughts”, and there’s a structural similarity between thinking and the thing we’re doing (conversation), then our conversation we’re having can be considered to be computing something. Humanity’s collective conversation as well.

He replied:

Yeah, people have debated whether or not humanity is computing anything meaningful…

I said:

Well of course it’s not meaningful to us. The computation of neurons, viewed at our level of abstraction, are human thoughts, which are meaningful to humans but not to the neurons themselves. To be meaningful to a human is to be meaningful in human terms.

Although the computations themselves are of course made of human meaning. In the same sense that a serotonin molecule or an increase voltage differential is a meaningful signal to a neuron.

Now, strictly speaking, the claim I make in the first paragraph here isn’t quite true. Meaning is closely related to metaphor, in the sense that it’s found in the structural similarities between concepts. So probably someone could explain whatever humanity is computing in a way that is meaningful to humans…

…provided that there’s some sort of overarching structure to what humanity is computing, that we could analogize to human terms. Which was perhaps my friend’s point.

The idea that humanity is computing something large, but something that is meaningful in human terms seems pretty similar to my definition of fate, above. A master narrative.


If you liked this post, you might like The patterns that we’re made of. It’s similar, somewhat less existential, and perhaps more uplifting.

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


クリス » 20 Jun 2016 » Reply

> That this universe doesn’t have inherent meaning, or purpose.

I’m not sure if I remember correctly that this comes from one of your older posts, and I don’t remember that was the original name of the token, but some questions can only by answered by DOES-NOT-PARSE.

Saying that universe doesn’t have meaning seems about just as mistaken as saying it has.

So, does the universe have meaning? DOES-NOT-PARSE

Is humanity computing anything meaningful? DOES-NOT-PARSE


Vaguely related to the “vat” experience.

I sometimes feel like the design of my brain versus my consciousness makes me like a 5-year-old who was kidnapped and is being kept in a room with very fun and interesting toys.

The kind of toys designed to grab my attention, and make it very hard to think about what the actual situation is.

The kidnapper doesn’t even have to know what 5-year-old-children like – he just went and bought some of the best stuff that was collectively discovered by humanity to be extremely fun to play with, by a long and distributed optimization process.

The goal of that optimization process was largely driven by “give the children something to keep them quiet and well behaved”.

OK, this wasn’t really related.


Romeo Stevens » 20 Jun 2016 » Reply

I think you can refer to it as a type error. Like asking what the goal of the electron is. In one sense, you can say that it has a goal of returning to the ground state. Intuitively we understand that this is an error in language use. That the same error creeps in in more subtle situations and is hard to spot is not surprising.

    Malcolm » 21 Jun 2016 » Reply

    Ahh, yeah. That’s a good way to think about it. I’m now imagining a program throwing a MuException

Have your say!

Have your say!


Name *

Email *