This is a swell article, but I think it the takeaway should be that Neptune sucks as a planetary body and is terrible and we should grind it into a fine powder and give Uranus rings or something worthwhile. It's stupidly far away, it's old, it's slow, and it doesn't even have the cool weird spinny-ness of Uranus. Besides, it's lost it's fancy blue color so now we're stuck with a discount Uranus floating around the edge of our lil star going "HEY I'M STILL COOL DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME" while we all know that Neptune would be forgotten in the grand annals of history if it evaporated from this fine reality one cheery summer morn.

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What a great piece! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is lost when only the countable matters. You illustrate the effect of science very clearly.

Another domain is culture. When we only value the easiest metrics to obtain then the ultimate benchmark, money, becomes the most important factor. It bums me out.

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Great article. But we don’t need to wait even one day to know the answer.

I hate to ruin your poetic ending, but there’s no maybe’s about it. Science definitely won’t be reducing the subjectivity it’s intentionally relegated to the mind to a colourless blob.

Cleaning the room by sweeping the dirt under the carpet has limits. You can’t then use that method to get rid of the dirt under the carpet. If you intentionally place all subjectivity “inside” our heads, you can’t then get rid of it using the same method.

Not in the universe, not in our heads... we’ve run out of places to hide it.

Maybe one day we’ll wake up from our enthralment with scientism and realise it’s not telling us the universe is meaningless.

Science has never known about those colours inside our heads. It never will. As far as scientific knowledge is concerned, those colours don’t exist.

But those colours know all about science.

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Pretty much sums up why I hold to the unpopular view that religion is more interesting than science. Religion deals with meaning, science doesn't. That doesn't mean ignoring science - but the questions religions pose have always struck me as more compelling than the ones science does. Science does a good job of disciplining the way you can go about answering those questions, but "why are we here" isn't a question in search of the mechanics of "how we are here."

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Feb 8·edited Feb 9Liked by Erik Hoel

Man, I love this essay. It's wonderful on its own, but it also happens to pair interestingly with a number of the themes in Karl Ove Knausgaard's novel The Wolves of Eternity that I've grown somewhat obsessed with recently: science taking the form of religion, Russian cosmism, consciousness in nature, the pursuit of immortality and what is effectively scientific resurrection via biotech and whatnot, and so on.

All of that said, there's a particular passage about color early in the novel that I've thought about every day since reading it. See below.

Colours were something I couldn’t grasp either, even when I’d had them explained to me. Because if colours didn’t exist in themselves, but were actually different wavelengths of light that the brain turned into colours, what was it we saw when we saw colours then? Colours were an illusion, they didn’t exist, and yet we saw them, so they did exist, not outside, in the world, but inside us.

But how did they get there?

Colours are all in the head, my teacher had told me when I’d asked about it. Colours are a product of our sensory system.

But where in the head?

‘Now you’re being belligerent, Syvert,’ he said. ‘Light entering through the pupil is detected by the retina and converted into electrical signals that are sent to the visual cortex at the rear of the brain. There are cells in the retina called cones and rods, which react differently to different wavelengths of light, and the electrical signals they send out determine whether we see colours or black and white. But we don’t actually see colour until those signals are processed in the visual cortex.’

‘But I see colour,’ I said. ‘Not signals.’

‘It all happens in the visual cortex,’ he said. ‘Now, no more questions about the eye. Everything’s perfectly well explained in your textbook.’

But it wasn’t.

The world was outside us, it was something we were in. But seeing it, it became a part of us. So wasn’t the world then inside us? If it was only on the outside and nothing of it got in, everything would just be dark. The same surely applied to hearing and smell and touch. Our senses took what was external and turned it into something internal. If the world couldn’t get inside us, it wouldn’t exist.

That would be like the way a stone existed in the world. Nothing in the world got in, the stone couldn’t hear, see, smell, taste or feel anything, so the world as far as it was concerned didn’t exist. A stone didn’t even know it existed itself. Was that what life was?

Was that what set it apart from what was not living? What was living was living because it internalised the world? And both the world and what was living were thereby felt to exist?

That had to be it.

But how did the visible world get inside us?

That was the bit about light entering through the pupils.

It was from there on it got hard to grasp.

The world came in as two narrow beams of light, and that light contained so much information that the brain could construct for us an identical image of the world on that basis alone.

Where was that image?

It seemed like it was outside us.

The river was down there, not inside me.

And then there was the fact that colours were something added on. Like some kind of emotion.

Was everything in the world colourless?

It had to be.

Could there be other things that were added on too? Things that didn’t exist, which we constructed and believed to exist?


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Feb 7Liked by Erik Hoel

The real universal acid isn't the scientific method, it's the idea that you should have true beliefs and not false ones. Very few systems of belief can endure the demand for truth unharmed.

The reductionism of science, the way it breaks large concepts down into small facts, is just a symptom of our desire for the truth.

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Feb 7·edited Feb 7Liked by Erik Hoel

I've often wondered at colorization in space. Great read. The bit on Ahab and the white whale is just gravy. Good writing today on The Intrinsic Perspective.

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What a beautiful piece of writing. I used to be a hard philosophical materialist - everything was just matter and math. But, after cultivating a meditation practice, I'm now agnostic on this question, precisely because conscious experience is so completely inexplicable. Consciousness is (to quote Sam Harris) the only thing that cannot be an illusion, and yet it is a truly hard problem. How do we get this first-person experience of color and complexity from dead matter? That's a complete mystery.

So I retain hope that everything isn't as white as Neptune, and that our first-person conscious experiences hold secrets to the genuine mysteries of reality.

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“Nothing ruins my childhood more than finding out Neptune isn’t dark blue”???!?! WAIT TIL YOU LEARN ABOUT PLUTO NOT BEING A PLANET!!! 😹

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Feb 7Liked by Erik Hoel

Nice to be reminded of Melville's philosophizing to which you do justice and more, thanks! That colors can't be found in the world itself is indeed a shock to naive realists and raises the hard problem of consciousness: why do just certain neural goings-on entail phenomenal colors (and other sensations) available only to the conscious system? Is your red anything like mine? A fair question that I don't think we'll ever be in a position to answer.

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The only thing whiter than Neptune is Erik Hoel. The only thing whiter than Erik Hoel is Erik Hoel's writings on emergence. Keep up the wonderful work. I'll always read your thoughts, even if you don't read mine! (which could have come from your head, ironically)

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Feb 7Liked by Erik Hoel

I remember reading in a Richard Dawkins book he criticizes the Keats poem:

>Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wing

>Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

>Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—

>Unweave a rainbow

By pointing out that unlike gnomes and angels, rainbows still exist once you understand them.

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my god, you are a phenomenal writer. truly. i take off my hat to you. the ending and your repetition and your re-inclusion of melville's words gave me chills. truly beautiful work. thank you for writing.

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Super interesting article that reflects the underbelly of scientific progress.. the relegation of the experiencing self in favor of measurable truth. I’m intrigued and wonder if the field will be able to accommodate experience without sacrificing truth.

Maybe it will become more of a personal challenge to find beauty in our own conscious experience while knowing that almost all of it is illusion.

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Neat, I had thought of all this before. And there's even a book about this and much more called The Reign of Quantity and Signs of the Times. It's a little schizo, but boy, Guenon has such an interesting angle on reality. Your vision at the end reminds me of Guenon's statement that next to the Infinite, the world of the senses is strictly nil, for what else is one positing when one says nature is devoid of quality? And Advaita Vedanta, the tradition Guenon considered the purest, asserts that the Infinite and consciousness are one.

Really, the hard problem of consciousness is the reason I got into spirituality to begin with, so it's neat that there are traditions where consciousness is central.

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Feb 8Liked by Erik Hoel

Fantastic article.

Science gets us to the base truth, but I don’t think we’re designed to live in base truth. We need stories, meanings, purpose, etc… to mediate between us and harsh reality

Always a pleasure to read your work, Erik

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