Field Notes From Empathizing With a Worm
A High Resolution Empathy Experiment
May morning sun warms my skin. Dewey grass complements bushes of flowers, somewhere between pink and violet. The air is delightfully cool. As I walk home from my daughter's bus stop, there is some squirming along the blacktop. Worms.
After a rain, the place is littered with them. I told my daughter Allie of the saying: “If you save one life, you save the whole universe.” After a rain, she and I would use small sticks to pick up a few worms and deliver them to safety.
I grab a pencil-sized stick, and attempt to coax a worm onto it. The worm pulls back, resisted, writhing. I find a twig and tried to pick up the worm like chopsticks.
It pulls back, violently. The worn moves the way I remember a centipede from my childhood. My brother and I dropped it into the bleach my mother was using to clean out the vegetable drawer from the fridge. The centipede’s motion was so frantic, so spastic, my brother and I vomited ourselves into fits of laughter.
My stomach still aches from that memory.
Eventually I give up with the sticks and just use my fingers. I pick the worm up and tossed it to the grass. As I do this, I imagine what it must feel like to be that worm:
“Things were going fine until somehow I ended up in this strange place. The world used to yield to me, open itself up to me, gently, and now it has become hard and foreign. Life used to flow smoothly and now it hurts. I ache all over. My head pounds, I need water. Yet somehow in this strange place, there is none to be found. I burn. I am dying. I must use every bit of strength I have to try to find my way, desperately, water, water.
And then - dread. A predator? I have no energy, exhaustion gives way to fear, adrenaline. This is the end. I am going to die any second now... what?
I am back where I began. Warm, moist soil beneath me. It is wet here.
This is exactly what I longed for.
From the worm’s perspective (assuming it would think in words, of course) my attempts to pick it up with a stick were likely to be its last moments alive. My clumsy attempts to help it were likely interpreted as the beak of a bird trying to snap it up.
Why do you care what a worm thinks?
We still don’t have an understanding of what consciousness is. We don’t agree on what Qualia are. These seem like important questions to me.
When I need an answer and don’t have a one, I’m used to running with a good-enough-seeming guess and seeing where it takes me. Years ago, I figured that consciousness must be a biproduct of computation. This hunch enabled me to start empathizing with all kinds of things, including, most importantly, other people. I realized I could debug my interactions with other human beings by simulating their internal state, the same way I’d imagine how a database feels its way through records when I send it a query.
Understanding how algorithms feel is more broadly applicable than you might think. After all, living things are encoded algorithms for surviving and reproducing. Our bodies are recursive bits of computer code, written for a hardware architecture of DNA instead of x86 or ARM. This fact suggests to me that, because they are algorithms for surviving and thriving, all living things, even tiny worms on the sidewalk, have some level of experience. However low resolution it may be, there is something it feels like to be a worm.
As long as you’re sufficiently imaginative, all life can be empathized with.
When I empathized a worm that morning, I tried to simulate the computation its body was doing. I felt that perhaps I might learn something from its experience.
If some being far beyond my comprehension were attempting to help me, would I be able to perceive it as such? Would I comprehend the cosmic chopsticks, come to lift me into soft wet earth, as being help from something much larger?
I often find myself stumbling, struggling with problems. Angry. Frustrated. Tired. Lost. Overwhelmed. I am guessing I’m not alone.
Increasingly often as of late, there are moments when I manage to right myself in my mind. Moments when I can see these problems as being opportunities to grow. Is it me doing this, or something else? How would I know if some actor beyond my comprehension were interfering?
It would be dangerous for a worm to just assume that someone would come along and pick them up, to transport them back to a safe environment. That might cause the worm to take unnecessary risks, or to stop trying to find a way home. But it would also be dangerous for a worm to just give up, to stop seeking better ground - especially if the dirt weren’t deadly, just widely suboptimal.
It would be subtly dangerous for a worm to imagine that no such better ground exists. It would constrain the worm’s chances of survival if it concludes that better ground may exist, but is likely unreachable.
If you are insufficiently afraid for long enough, reality will kindly punch you in the face to inform you as such.
But if you have been too fearful, if you have erred in underestimating the likelihood that things could be better if you took more risks, how would you know? How would life clue you in that you are more constrained by fear than is optimal? What would the signals be?
The inescapability of values
Ultimately, all beliefs compel some kind of action, or else they are meaningless.
All philosophies encode some value, some preference for one thing over other, or else there are merely noise. Unlike that worm, I have knowledge of many generations of my ancestors, and the stories they used to keep going.
I understand that I am a biological robot, hardware and software evolved in an ecosystem far different from the environment I am in now. As far as I can tell, the most important thing for me is to keep going. To keep seeking that warmer earth, and in the meantime to appreciate moisture wherever it is around me.
Stopping too long means death. Neglecting the moisture I could use, because the PH and salinity isn’t quite right, that means death, too. Hoping for a savior that never arrives likely means death as well. I must appreciate what I have, while striving to move forwards and grow. I must extract the most I can from where I am, savor it fully, without ever giving up the search for something better. There is no paradox here, merely a healthy interplay between dopamine and serotonin networks.
My ancestors, back far enough along the family line, were also worms. At times I am not so different from them. Alone. Baking in the sun. Struggling to find water. I need to use beliefs to keep going. I want my beliefs to adhere to reality as much as possible, to be true as much as possible, but above all else, I need those beliefs to motivate me to move forward.
If it were possible to sustain a series of paradoxes and nonsensical ideas that propelled me to act better in the world, then of course I would do that. But the reality is that this isn’t possible because contradictory beliefs can’t reside stably in the same mind. I try to practice the art of rationalism because I believe it is necessary for me to act better in the world. Accurate beliefs are merely instrumental to living a good life. Anyone who says otherwise, is, I think, fooling themselves.
I do not know if there are beings from beyond, using improvised chopsticks trying to lift me up and set me right. I doubt this. I do not know if all my struggles really are lessons placed before me by some being far larger and wiser than I am. But, experientially, I have found large amounts of evidence of the utility of pretending to believe that this is the case.
I adopted a hypothesis years ago: I am embedded in a massive computational system which communicates indirectly to me whichever lessons will best enable me to grow and develop as a human being. It communicates these lessons to me by means of the experiences I have, moment after moment.
This hypothesis generates a prediction: in any moments of difficulty, in any struggle, in any situation that feels beyond me, there is a lesson for me to learn, if only I seek it out and submit to its greater wisdom. There is wet earth ahead of me, in some direction. I must only believe it is there, and then keep going.
This hypothesis has endured many attempts to falsify it. It might very will be false. But when I am baking in then sun, water low, head pounding, if I do not at least attempt to keep going, I shall die.
In moments of intense suffering, a belief which enables me to keep going is either a delusion which just so happens to work, or software compensation for hardware failures.
Either way, I have lots of evidence that it works.
> I adopted a hypothesis years ago: I am embedded in a massive computational system which communicates indirectly to me whichever lessons will best enable me to grow and develop as a human being. It communicates these lessons to me by means of the experiences I have, moment after moment.
This sounds similar to a concisely argued book by Bernardo Kastrup called Rational Spirituality. His take is based on quantum mechanics and universal consciousness, but it could be worth your time given the parallels!