Altered Carbon

Several years ago, I read Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels about a future where people’s minds are recorded in a device (called a “stack”) implanted just below the brain stem, essentially providing a form of mind uploading, and allowing people to survive the death of their body.  Kovacs, the protagonist of the series, is an ex-soldier, mercenary, criminal, and all around bitter human being, who is used to inhabiting many different bodies.  The novels follow his grim adventures, first on Earth, and then on other planets.

This weekend, I binge watched Netflix’s adaptation of the first novel, Altered Carbon.

It’s been several years since I read the books, but from what I can remember, the series broadly follows the first book, although it adds new content and new characters to fill out the 10 episode arc, and borrows content from the other two books, which in the process makes the story more interesting.  But it does preserve the issues Morgan explores in the novel, about what having a society of people who can transfer to new bodies might look like, particularly one that retains sharp divisions between rich and poor.

The show does seem to moderate Morgan’s intense anti-religious sentiment.  I recall Kovacs being a staunch atheist in the books, and with the story told from his point of view, that outlook permeates.  But the show seems to take a more even handed approach, showing the issues devout Catholics in this future have with the idea of being technologically resurrected while still showing them as sympathetic characters.

As in the book, the reluctance of Catholics to be resurrected makes them uniquely vulnerable targets.  A non-Catholic citizen who is murdered can potentially be revived to testify against their murderer.  But with the Catholic stipulation that they are not to be revived, it means that when they are murdered, they are dead.  There is a debate that takes place in the background of the story on whether a law should be passed to allow law enforcement to revive anyone who is a victim of a crime, regardless of their religious preferences.

What the show doesn’t moderate however, is the book’s grim noir character.  Kovacs seems more sympathetic than I recall him being in the books, more human and approachable, but the overall story’s very dark take on humanity remains.  This vision is dystopian, in a way that any Blader Runner fan should love.

Morgan’s version of mind uploading, where minds are recorded on the stack implanted in the body, preserves the jeopardy of the characters in the story.  Characters can be killed if their stack is destroyed (called “real death” in the story), and the stacks are frequently targeted in fight scenes.  Only the very rich are able to have themselves periodically backed up so that destruction of their stack doesn’t result in their real death.  (Although they have other vulnerabilities that get mentioned.)

The story also makes it clear that, although the technology is available, double-sleeving (being in two or more bodies at the same time) is illegal in this society, with the penalty being real death, although the reasons for this restriction are never discussed.  It seems to be one of many aspects of a repressive society.  (In the third book, I recall the suggestion that the Protectorate, the overall interstellar civilization in the books, is essentially holding back humanity by not allowing society to fully evolve with the technology.)

The show doesn’t explicitly address this, nor do I recall the books doing so, but the idea of the stack holding a person’s mind so that when it’s implanted between the brain and the spinal cord it takes control of the body, is actually very dark when you think about it.  It leaves open the disturbing possibility that the body’s original consciousness is still in there somewhere, but totally cut off from its body.

I think there are also some serious scientific issues with whether the technology as described would work.  For a device to really function the way the stacks are described, they would need to intercept all sensory input, much of which isn’t routed though the brain stem.  Vision, for example, at least detailed vision, goes straight to the thalamus and then the occipital lobe.  That said, the details are never discussed, so there’s enough room to imagine that the stacks are part of an overall technology harness that reaches deep into the brain.

Anyway, if you’re interested in watching the ideas of what a human society with mind uploading might look like, and don’t mind a lot of violence, language, and sexual content, then you might want to check it out.

44 thoughts on “Altered Carbon

  1. I just started watching the series and I think the dividing line is between rich and poor most strongly drawn. The scene at the hospital reception where the bleeding, dying injured detectives credit is not good and the main guy then spits on the sensor pad, which analyses his DNA, identifies him (and his large credit account, and all of a sudden the service is obsequious.

    Some things never change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember that scene. The attitude of the hospital staff is pretty callous. Of course, from their point of view, nobody’s actual life is on the line, so it amounts to a property issue for them. Still, they could have at least acted sympathetic.


      1. The wikipedia entry seems to suggest people who can’t afford a new body just permanently die.

        That’s not to say it doesn’t still amount to a property issue.


        1. That entry doesn’t strike as completely accurate. In the story, if you can’t afford a new body, you have the option of living in virtual, or getting whatever body is available in the pool (which may a different sex, age, be drug addicted, etc), or opting for a cheaper android body if you can afford that.

          I think what the Wikipedia is referring to is that the books describe that poor people are generally forced to live in their bodies until they die of old age, and most people can only psychologically stand to do that a couple of times before opting for permanent storage, only to be brought out for major family events. “Real death” only happens if your stack is destroyed and you don’t have a backup (which only the rich can afford).


  2. ‘Conciousness transfer’ strikes me as some of the stupidest thinking ever. I can think of a setting I forgive it in, where in this setting the soul is apparently proven to be real – I don’t mind some mysticism added on top of sci fi, that’s fair. But without it, it’s like watching an old cigarette advert telling us how great smoking is. Like really ignorant and actually dangerous advertising.

    Holding back humanity? Like holding back a moth from a flame. Extinction never looked so good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess it depends on what you think consciousness is. I do agree that talking in terms of “transferring” it, as though it were a singular thing, inherently implies some kind of ghost in the machine. But the “transfer” business is in the trailer more than the show itself. As I mentioned in the post, the society in Altered Carbon has a law that forbids multiple instantiation, which mostly steps around the issues with that, except that a couple of characters do violate that law.


      1. How does that law step around anything rather than just paper over the problem?

        Rather than Meths, it’d be interesting if the immortal rich were called Gouls. It’d raise some questions.


        1. It steps around Morgan having to deal with it throughout the story as Greg Egan does in much of his fiction. But (spoiler alert) one of the law breaking characters in Altered Carbon ends up being the protagonist, which results in a conversation between his two selves about which of them is going to die so that they’re complaint with the law.


          1. Interesting conversation there, though in a way I feel it side steps again. Why doesn’t either of them feel the other is ‘them’ and they’ll be ‘alive’? No one really believes it – they all just roleplay that the stacks make them immortal, so they enter a make believe world, enabled by these devices. But when it comes down to it, when they face a duplicate, they don’t actually believe it?

            Liked by 1 person

          2. The actual conversation had an exchange in it that was something like this:
            “So, we need to decide whose memories we’re going to keep.”
            “You mean, we need to decide who will die.”

            Of course, this same character had already died in a body and then been reinstantiated later after being needlecast (transmitted) to another planet. Is it death if another copy of you takes up exactly where you lost consciousness? Does it make a difference if you remain in the same physical stack (hardware)? Does Captain Kirk die when he goes through the transporter? Am I the same person I was when I was 10 years old?

            It’s all a matter of perspective.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. I don’t know why the star trek transporter quite got to the ‘you die and then a copy of you is 3D printed elsewhere’ stage. I mean, it’s called a transporter – when you go on a transport plane, they don’t kill you then print a copy of you at the other end – if only because that’d make the name miss leading.

            Anyway, yes, it’s death when a copy replaces you – that’s why someone needed a copy, because you’re dead. I’d get if someone wanted to be happy that someone very much like them will continue on and continue their legacy – it’s partly why we have kids, after all. Knock off immortality.

            I don’t know what ‘you remain in the stack’ means. Nothing is being transported into the stack, it’s just taking measurements. I’d get all this more if there was some sort of gruesome process where the brain is sent into an induced coma on death and severed from the body then transported by drone automatically. Really all of these seem to be answered by the question ‘is something being transported or is something being printed?’

            Are you the same person as when you were 10 years old? Is a tree the same tree when it still has the ring from when it was 10 buried inside it?


          4. Interestingly, the original Star Trek conception of the transporter was that the person was broken down, their atoms transmitted to the destination, and then reconstructed. It seemed like a careful stipulation to avoid the existential issues.

            However, in the first season of the show, Captain Kirk got duplicated in the transporter, which largely obviated that description. He got split between a “nice” Kirk and a beasty version, but physically they both appeared to be the same. And in ST:TNG, Riker got fully duplicated with two versions who went on to live their separate lives. So the show inexorably slid into what I think you would interpret as people constantly being killed and created.

            On the stacks being measurement, the thing is that they’re implanted in everyone by their first birthday. So it’s possible that everyone actually is the stack, assuming it completely takes over the brain’s functions. (Another dark possibility which the series never explicitly addresses.)


          5. Well Mike Teavee got transported in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and shrunk) – does that mean there was a child death in that movie after all? 😉

            I really I don’t know why a transporter being able to also 3D print someone means it must be destroying people to move them. Kirk having a nice and nasty version is just the usual sort of ‘jam a human moral problematism into a mechanistic scenario’ thing, were the urge to examine character is more important than what the hard science is supposed to be. Even if one were to take it seriously, him being split materially and replacement materials doesn’t mean he’s been killed. Mutilated, yes. Can the mutilation be perfectly undone? Even if it can’t, mutilated isn’t dead. If nothing could be done, he’s a kind of split brain patient – we don’t say they are dead. And with Riker, one’s a copy – doesn’t mean the original got shredded. No one just assumes photocopiers shred the original in order to make a copy, not sure why it’s the assumption here. Again, it just seems to try to court controversy over Trek – it’d be better to talk about the first televised interacial kiss being on Star Trek.

            I don’t know what you mean by ‘it’s possible that everyone is the stack’. It’s more that it’s possible a world wide body snatch has occurred, doing so to babies as well, and that’s it – the snatchers won. A cortical snatch. Sure, the stack, as a kind of doppelganger parasite, that certainly is itself and although I’d argue a copy of a stack isn’t the original stack, a stack could be in storage for years and still be allowed to return to it’s parasitic life. A parasite not just of the body, but using a copy of the mind itself in order to flourish. Have you seen the Dr Who episode where the weeping angel takes the mind of a human soldier it killed, just to talk to the Doctor? A thing behind the remnant brain of the soldier, prodding it so it will apparently continue to be human.


          6. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘it’s possible that everyone is the stack’…and that’s it – the snatchers won. A cortical snatch.”

            That’s pretty much what I meant. In which case everyone in the story is one of the body-snatchers and the actual human mind has been locked in since 1 year of age. #Dark

            I have seen that Doctor Who episode (and many with similar scenarios). In general, Doctor Who is much more explicit than Star Trek on existential issues. Apparently British audiences are more willing to see it than American ones.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, thanks for this. I saw the show being advertised but was going to give it a miss since I’ve watched one too many bad sci-fi things on Netflix lately. I agree the technology seems implausible, but I’m interested in dystopian visions of future immortality (if a bit sick of them) since I’m trying to publish a “how to” novel on a utopian vision of such a technological future.

    Regarding the implausibility of “the stack”, I listened to a podcast recently (Brain Science with Ginger Campbell MD) that interviewed Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. He was the one who published the paper on “the Jennifer Aniston neuron” and he explained that phenomenon very well (as well as debunked the popular press’ misinterpretations of it). Thinking through his talk has got me wondering again if this whole “uploading” of human consciousness is impossible since so much of what makes us “us” is how our bodies respond to external stimuli. Wouldn’t all the external stimuli need to be captured as well in order to capture who “we” are? That, of course, would be impossible. Or would something like “the Jennifer Aniston nueron” be copyable without knowing that only Jennifer Aniston (and a few of the other Friend’s characters) made it fire? Is all the information embedded into the structure and wiring connections of the brain? How much is elsewhere in our bodies? How perfectly would new sensory organs need to be replicated in order to perfectly fire the neurons in the same way to really resurrect consciousness? It seems technically possible in a materialistic view of the universe, but maybe impossible from an actual engineering point of view. Perhaps once the time an impression is made on a person has passed, the changes in the universe make it impossible to fully duplicate that impression again. Or maybe since memories are reformed every time we think about them, this allows for changes in the body (or new bodies). Any thoughts on that? Do you pin any hopes on uploading?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t understand why any of it passes muster? The setting has people backing themselves up?

      It’s like the setting has a organisation to stop two copies of a person running around at the same time not because its wrong per se, but because it makes it blatantly clear these are just copies – just doppelgangers. The original person is dead and you’ve got a body snatcher running around. And if the ideology in that body snatcher is of a certain persuasion, they even think they are the dead person.


    2. Ed,
      I think the key word in your questions is “perfect”, as in “How perfectly would new sensory organs need to be replicated in order to perfectly fire the neurons in the same way to really resurrect consciousness?”

      I think the answer is that it could never be perfect, but that’s a false standard. In truth, we can’t perfectly fire the same neurons again anyway. But we have lots of evidence that our pattern matching abilities are more robust than that. They can survive major injuries to the eyes or other sense organs, as well as a vast array of other devastating injuries, and still match concepts, albeit often in a compromised manner.

      A copied mind would never be a perfect copy of the original. The question is how close the copy would need to be in order for us to consider it to be the same person? If your answer is it must be perfect, consider that your mind today is not a perfect copy of itself from yesterday, much less last year, or from ten years ago. And that your brain’s processing is often altered by what chemicals you’ve ingested, how much sleep you had last night, and a variety of other factors. The mind, in many ways, seems far more robust than many people assume.

      That said, I do agree that the eyes are a special case. The retina is technically part of the central nervous system. If we’re copying the mind by copying the neural connectome, that connectome would have to include the retinas. (I’m not sure how feasible recreating the connectome would be, but if that’s our strategy, the retinas need to be included.)

      “Do you pin any hopes on uploading?”

      Not for me personally. I doubt it will be possible in our lifetimes. If it is possible, it’s likely centuries away. Although if it is possible for it to be done sooner, it’s not likely to be done by someone who has a priori ruled it impossible. But for me, the idea of mind uploading is like the idea of interstellar travel: a far future possibility that I can’t see us ever being able to participate in.


  4. To me it seems a question you’d want to ask about ‘transfer’ is how do you confirm that? How would you would end up watching your own flesh brain die, rather than being in it, screaming as a machine doppelganger watches? How would you know you’re not a doppelganger watching as the person you’re just a shadow of but you think you really are is the one dying in front of your eyes? Seems relevant questions.

    I think the only real hope of transfer is a nomadic process. Of artifical neurons offered to flesh and blood neurons to link with and become part of the network – then to do deliberate and rigorous mental exercises to attempt to center the thinking processes in the artificial networks, so when the flesh brain starts to die you aren’t just left with silica dementia (granted, dementia that would not continue to decay).

    Even this I wouldn’t count as a transfer, more a transformation. I don’t think you’d be human anymore. But in the terms we treat someone as alive, a sort of echo of the former human would still be there – through the ongoing causal/mechanic process of thinking, having slipped the leash of (a) death to a small extent.

    But such partial wins isn’t as bad ass and gratifying as a cortical stack is in a sci fi depiction.


    1. I personally avoid describing it as a “transfer.” I think it’s more honest to use terms like “copying” or “uploading”, or even more honestly, “porting” as in porting functionality by recoding it for a new platform.

      Of course, any currently conceivable process to get information wholesale out of an organic brain would likely be destructive, so someone could characterize it as a transfer since the original wouldn’t be around afterward. But it could also be characterized as a death followed by creation of a new entity.

      The question is how many people might accept the new entity as the original.


  5. I waited to watch the show before I completed your post just to avoid any spoilers 🙂
    I’ve always found these concepts very interesting. And I’ve never been able to answer this question to myself.
    From one perspective it seems plausible that you could be transferred. This is esp. true with the Star Trek transporter type arrangement where all your atoms are duplicated in a different space-time. We’ve got some evidence for this as well when we see that even in normal life all our atoms are constantly being replaced.

    From the other perspective, it’s the same dilemma of copying. If my atoms were not to be destroyed just copied and reconstructed in a separate space-time then surely I will still be where I stand.

    I really don’t know how to solve this dilemma but it’s interesting to ponder about.

    The path this thinking takes me down is to question what similarity and difference actually is. In very real terms no two atoms, in fact, no two things can be the same. But we do categories things based on similarities. These similarities might be something fundamentally constrained by our perspective.

    The other path it takes me down is one of questioning myself. Am I ultimately an illusion? However, this one doesn’t appeal to me much as then I have no guarantees of anything else either, including the questioning or evidence that led me to this conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully I didn’t spoil anything that happens after the first episode, at least in the post. (Spoilers do come up in the comments.)

      “I really don’t know how to solve this dilemma but it’s interesting to ponder about.”

      I don’t think the dilemma is resolvable, in that there isn’t a fact of the matter about which conclusion is right. We can insist that every copy is an entity onto itself, and every time a particular copy is discarded, even if another identical copy was just made, that someone ceased to exist. Or we can regard the copies as aspects of the same overall person. (This perspective seems easier to adopt if the copies can share memories with each other.)

      I definitely agree though that it’s interesting to ponder about.

      “Am I ultimately an illusion? ”

      I think only if anything that is reducible is an illusion. Is a table, a forest, or a storm an illusion because we can examine their components? I suspect the self as an illusion meme only comes up due to our culture’s historical conception of the self as an irreducible soul. If by “illusion” we mean “not what it seems” rather than “nonexistent” then I guess we could say the self is illusory, but I’m more comfortable just stipulating that the self exists but is reducible.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just wanted to comment on the illusion/self part. Any system (like you) that can be described as functional has two descriptions: the physical implementation and the functional organization. Because the functional organization is multi-realizable it is essentially physics-independent. That means, from the subjective point of view of the functional organization, it could theoretically be implemented by soul-stuff (if there were such a thing) as well as physical stuff. In fact, it could theoretically switch between the two without your knowing. This is not just similar to the hardware/software divide, it is exactly the same divide. We’re software. So it’s not that the self is an illusion. It’s that when thinking about our own self we don’t have access to the physical (or soul) stuff. We only have access to our functional organization and what that provides.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Well said. I actually made a similar point in a post a few years ago after being told that the concept of mind copying is a form of dualism.
          But as I noted in that post, the brain’s lack of a mechanism to load and clear out its data complicates the software analogy. The brain is more like a narrowly designed information appliance than a general purpose computing system. But that doesn’t mean its data and functionality can’t be ported to a more general purpose platform.


      2. If someone ceased to exist was it someone different than the one just created with the same arrangement of atoms?

        What I’m thinking is that in our normal life we are constantly being changed. New atoms are coming and going every moment. So If I was to be duplicated within a millisecond for example then theoretically the moment the duplicate is born my original self would be slightly different in terms of atomic structure (even within a millisecond).

        If we say in a moment of time the ‘original I’ was that particular configuration of atoms then in the millisecond later world that I is exactly who the duplicate is. The ‘millisecond later I’ is actually now the one who is more different.

        Now if being more precise we also add in the ‘space-time parameter’ to all atoms. Then the ‘original I’, the ‘duplicate I’ and the ‘millisecond later I’ are all different in some respect. However the difference between the orginal I and the millisecond later I (new atoms plus a different space-time) is still greater than the difference between the original I and the duplicated I (only a difference in the space-time parameter).

        Yet I naturally feel a consistency to my existence from moment to moment and counter-intuitively in this hypothetical experiment it seems it will be the orignal I and the millisecond later I that are the real me (who have a continued unified experience) and the other is a duplicate who I won’t experience.

        I may be reaching my own conclusion now from this discussion. If I was to consider that what I am is a particular organisation of structure (no matter the complexity) then it seems very reasonable that I can be reconstructed whenever and wherever. This is what I’m refering to as considering myself as an illusion. Because then the ‘I’ is only a by product or epiphenomenon of this particular arrangement. Hence there can be millions of the same ‘I’.

        That seems illogical because ‘I’ denotes my unified experience of myself. I cannot experience a million ‘I’s.

        If each of those million ‘I’ is actually a ‘different’ person with their own unified experience then you would have to concede that ‘I’ wasn’t a epiphenomenon of a certain structural arrangement. Because I wasn’t duplicated, even though the exact structural arrangement was duplicated, instead someone else was created.

        So I’m inclining towards thinking there is something more to ‘I’ than just a structural arrangement or else it could be duplicated.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “So I’m inclining towards thinking there is something more to ‘I’ than just a structural arrangement or else it could be duplicated.”

          As I noted above, I don’t think there’s any objectively right or wrong answer to this question. The only thing I would add here is that I personally try hard not to let the consequences influence my conclusions about reality. In many respects, the world would be a more comfortable place if I could conclude that there is an objective morality, or that all things have an intrinsic purpose, or that there can only ever be one of me. But I don’t think any of them are true.

          One thing that might change our attitude toward copies of ourselves is whether those copies could share memories. If I could remember being the other copies, to the extent that I have to check which copy I currently am when I wake up, then it’s a lot easier for me to see them all as me. (Given the way the brain appears to store memories, it’s not clear this would ever be possible between forked minds, but if it was, it might change our conception of self.)

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          1. “In many respects, the world would be a more comfortable place if I could conclude that there is an objective morality, or that all things have an intrinsic purpose, or that there can only ever be one of me. But I don’t think any of them are true.”

            We may differ here. Does what comforts anyone have anything to do with how reality really is?
            Although I mostly try to be agnostic on this point I’m inclined to say ‘No’. I think you agree. But what I would also reflect on is whether just because it is comfortable does it have to be false? Again, No. Would you be biased towards believing things which seem more comfortable? Probably if you weren’t critical enough and assuming you like to be comfortable. But what about the opposite? would you be biased towards believing things which seem more uncomfortable? I personally think yes to that as well. You can see it sometimes as a reflex rejection of anything which ”sounds too comfortable to be true”, here again due to such a reflexive attitude you may not have been critical enough in your thinking. And it is an assumption without merit or relevance.

            But coming back to consequences leading to conclusions. I see no reason not to do that. When you think those things aren’t true that is also based on some form of conclusions. I find it more honest to let observation and logic lead you to conclusions which you keep open to further observation and logical critque. The other way to reach conclusions is to hold a world view which trumps your personal observations and logic. That is unappealing because there are too many such unsubstantiated views.

            “One thing that might change our attitude toward copies of ourselves is whether those copies could share memories.”
            Yes. But there is no reason or mechanism (so far) to explain this could occur. We have every reason (so far) to believe that this will not occur when a dublicate is created. The dublicate would share my past memories but we wouldn’t share any new memories whilst we both exist.

            Eventually my conclusions gives me the discomfort of knowing our best empricial evidence (so far) suggests we have to believe in unempirical things.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. On comfort and discomfort, I think the thing to be aware of is that it’s human nature to unconsciously bias ourselves towards what we find comfortable. Therefore, when a proposition does seem comfortable, I think it’s rational to be on guard against it. Not so much that we reject it despite positive evidence, but enough that we require substantial evidence before we accept it. We should require as much evidence for comforting propositions as we require for uncomfortable ones.

            “Eventually my conclusions gives me the discomfort of knowing our best empricial evidence (so far) suggests we have to believe in unempirical things.”

            Hmmm. Can you give me an example of an unempirical thing we are forced to believe? (Aside from something like our own existence.)

            Liked by 1 person

          3. “it’s human nature to unconsciously bias ourselves towards what we find comfortable.”

            We kind of agree on this. But what is comfortable could be different for different people. For example it may be more comfortable for neuroscientists to reject psi phenomenon. Whilst it may be more comfortable for parapsychologists to accept it. Your comfort bias will be biased with the history you carry consciously and unconciously.
            And I am very much in favour of being on guard and skeptical in accepting anything including comforting skepticism.

            With regards to the example you asked. I was initially refering to the thought experiment I was doing with regards to dublicating ‘me’ with only a structural dublication. But thinking of other examples how about believing in some form of a multiverse theory? Or believing in abiogenesis? Or belieivng that the laws of nature are constant in all time and space?
            For the first there is no empirical evidence and it seems there probably isn’t any way to get empirical evidence either. For the second there isn’t any empirical evidence, we may get some in the future, but so far we have to believe in it otherwise we can’t truly believe in evolution. For the third one we infact have empirical evidence (somewhat controversial) against it but we have to believe in them otherwise it makes it difficult to make predictions.

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          4. I agree that what one person finds comforting another may find uncomfortable. Some of that also depends on your worldview. The more a proposition violates your worldview, the more unsettling you’ll find it. This is rational if you think about it. We shouldn’t dispense with prior understandings if we have a lot of experience with them being validated. Or more accurately, we should require strong evidence to dispense with understandings from a long history of other evidence. Of course, that’s only true if our worldview is generally evidence based.

            Thanks for taking a shot at the empirical thing. I guess I don’t consider the multiverse as something I’m particularly compelled to accept.

            I do feel compelled to accept abiogenesis, but that’s due to the empirical observations that life exists, that it appears to be composed of the same physics as non-living systems, that it appeared to be progressively simpler as we go back in geological history, and that it had to start somehow. But we’ve never observed it starting, or been able to engineer it. Until that happens, it’s always possible some magical thing happened. (My worldview priors strongly incline me to be skeptical of that last option.)

            On the laws of nature, I think we do have observations that help us with it. We haven’t observed the laws changing since we’ve been measuring them. Time has passed and our location in the universe is constantly changing. Now, it’s possible that the laws are changing at a rate below the precision level of our instruments. If we’re being cautious, we’d say that we can’t detect any changes. That said, not everyone makes the broad assumption. There is a lot of speculative physics that talk about different laws in the earliest instances of the universe, or bubble universes with different laws in each bubble, etc.

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          5. “I guess I don’t consider the multiverse as something I’m particularly compelled to accept.”

            It does seem many eminent physicist do accept some version of a multiverse theory. I’m undecided about it. But given quantum theory has been around for nearly a century and no one has been able to solve the measurement problem I can see why we can be led to believe in un-empirical things like a multiverse. The measurement problem in itself is an example of having to believe in something which literally cannot be observed.

            “My worldview priors strongly incline me to be skeptical of that last option.”
            But even though there is no empirical evidence for abiogenesis we are compelled to accept it without any skepticism?. That is magic in itself bringing life from no life. What you may define as magical again depends on what you already believe is possible.

            With regards to the laws of nature, there is building empirical evidence from various studies over the last 40 years or so that the constant ‘Alpha’ has been varying over time .
            Some evidence has also suggested that another constant ‘mu’ has varied as well .

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          6. Ethan Siegel recently did a post on the measurement problem ( ) which mirrored thoughts I’ve often had about it, that the problem may only exist due to our insistence on applying classical patterns to quantum mechanics, patterns which form the worldview we’re trying to use to make sense of that realm, but patterns that are emergent from that realm. In other words, all the interpretations of quantum mechanics may be category errors.


      1. I see. I was wondering because I see an awful lot of parallels between the current trajectory of Western Civ and the trajectory of the late Roman Republic. I kind of wonder if Dark Age repression and Monarchical empire aren’t the more natural states of human beings and we (like those Roman Republicans) aren’t just living in one of the rare interludes.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I remember that one.

            Actually, I’m working on an idea for how societies in general and democracies in particular die, along with some ideas on how to push those deaths off farther and farther into the future.

            I’d love your thoughts when they come out.

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