Category Archives: Philosophy

Moldbug and Mead: A Sixth Caste?

Mencius Moldbug has proposed that the United States can be understood as being divided into five ‘castes’, or social groups with shared notions of prestige; and that the red/blue, left/right, Democrat/Republican divide – and much of the domestic history of the Twentieth Century – can be understood in terms of a conflict between what he terms “Optimates” and “Brahmins” and their respective allies, the “Vaisya” and the “Dalits”. He further proposes that the Brahmins have essentially won this conflict, and that the remaining state organs still under Optimate/Vaisya control (essentially the armed forces and the industries that support them) are no longer capable of much influencing foreign policy, although still able to funnel large parts of the state budget to their controllers.

Of Moldbug’s four castes, two can be considered ruling elites. The Brahmins are descended from the Protestant settlers of New England; indeed they are named for the “Boston Brahmins”, although even their elite extends far beyond this epicenter. They have generally thought of themselves as “Progressive”, or “Radical” out on their fringes. Prestige among the Brahmins is gained by education and erudition (for its own sake, not for money) and by public service, ie government work. A professor of English at a small New England college is an archetypical example; but Brahmins are also found through the civil service, the State Department, and as interns in lobbying firms and non-profits all over Washington. A hipster is very likely a Brahmin; so is a student majoring in journalism or political science.

The Optimates, on the other hand, are the old Anglo-Saxon elite of Virginia and the South. Moldbug gives them their name because status among the Optimates is gained by birth to established families in addition to personal character, with “wealth a prerequisite”. The archetypical Optimate is to some extent a figure out of history: George Washington was an Optimate, as were all the Virginia elites who dominated US politics before the Civil War. However, while they do not retain their old power to decide the course of US politics – Optimates are now definitely the opposition, not the government – they are not gone. A professor at a Christian college in the South, an Army officer from Virginia descended from a long line of officers, or that faction fo the Republican party who are called “country club Republicans” are all likely Optimates.

The Dalits, in Moldbug’s estimation, are basically inner-city lower classes, and don’t really come into politics except when – a cynical man is Moldbug – the Brahmins find it convenient to have a riot; I won’t consider them here. The Vaisya, however, are a bit of a midway case, neither elite nor underclass; in effect they are the Midwestern middle-class types, suburban and rural, who form most of the white majority in the US. The non-country-club part of the Republicans is Vaisya; the armed forces have also become a Vaisya career, both as enlisted and officers. (Optimates are officers but rarely enlisted; Dalits may be enlisted but rarely officers; Vaisya serve as both.) Manufacturing and farming are also now, by and large, Vaisya occupations. Andrew Jackson was perhaps the first Vaisya to make himself noted on the national level; Sarah Palin is another example. (McCain, however, is an Optimate.)

Many political phenomena can be classified in this way. For example, both presidents Bush were Optimates; Obama is definitely a Brahmin. Reagan was a Vaisya. Major Rahm of Detroit is a Dalit, as is much of the political class of that city; I cannot offhand think of any Dalit politicians at the national level, however. The Civil War was, on the moral plane, a conflict between Brahmins (North) and Optimates (South); slaveholding is very definitely an Optimate occupation. The Spanish-American war was a Brahmin sort of conflict; Korea and Vietnam were Optimate. We can identify these castes as far back as the English Civil War, in which the Royalists were definitely Optimates and Parliament was, more inchoately, Brahmin. Notice that this fault line in Anglo-American culture tends to produce immense violence!

Now let us turn for a moment from Mencius Moldbug to another political thinker, William Russell Mead, who has identified four main strains in American foreign politics, named for the presidents that exemplified them: Jefferson, Hamilton, Jackson, and Wilson. Briefly, Jeffersonian policy is isolationist, defensive, and goes to war only as a last resort, distrusting America’s ability to impose solutions on other countries by force. Perhaps only the Revolution, among America’s wars, can be classified as Jeffersonian. Hamiltonian sees free trade and open seas as America’s main foreign-policy interests, and will enter small colonial wars and set up puppet states to achieve them, but avoids conflicts with Great Powers; the small interventions in South and Central America that have been a frequent feature of American policy since 1898 can all be considered Hamiltonian, as can the support for the United Fruit Company that gave rise to the expression “banana republic”. Jacksonian policy is like Jeffersonian in being isolationist where possible, but will fight to uphold an ideal of honour as well as for existential threats; further, in Jacksonian theory, war is always total, or as near total as can be achieved. WWII is the archetypical Jacksonian war, but the War of 1812 also qualifies in being fought over insults to American honour. Finally, Wilsonian foreign policy is willing to use the US military to achieve moral goals; the League of Nations was classic Wilsonian policy, as was the intervention in the Serbian conflict and recently in Libya.

Now, it seems to me that three of these foreign-policy classifications map fairly neatly onto Moldbug’s castes: Brahmins are Wilsonian, Optimates are Hamiltonian, and Vaisya are Jacksonian. Who, then, is Jeffersonian? It’s not the Dalits, who have essentially no influence on foreign policy. The Rationalist Conspiracy suggests, however, that a new elite caste is emerging, in opposition to the rule of the Brahmins: Namely, the Silicon Valley elite are starting to engage in politics, and are forming their own prestige ladders and policy views. (The writer at RC mentions “not one upper class, but two”, thus ignoring Mencius’s Optimates; this presumably reflects how faded they are from their old power, but needn’t affect the argument here.) The new elite gains status from forming successful tech companies, attracting venture funding, and cashing out stock options in a successful IPO; Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps the archetypal example, and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were early members of the caste – though in their day, it had not yet formed into a recognisable social group. Early Redditors, Wikipedia editors, and coders at California companies are all likely to be of this caste. RC does not give it a name, but I propose to call them “Populares”, in opposition to “Optimates” and also because they are in some sense “new money” and “not of the Senatorial class”.

The Populares fill in the last of Mead’s four policies: By and large, they are Jeffersonian, opposing foreign wars whether for business interests, honour, or high moral causes. However, at this time they are making their mark more within domestic politics, where again they match the Jeffersonian – libertarian, watchman-state – ideal.

This “sixth caste” allows us to neatly slot the struggle over SOPA into Moldbug’s caste model: In this view, SOPA was the attempt of the Brahmin propaganda arm – Hollywood and Big Music – to solidify their perceived economic interest, and the Populares opposed it as being completely contrary to their libertarian ethos. This is perhaps the first time the Populares have really intervened in a national political matter, and surely the first time they’ve made their view stick; consider the counterexample of the Communications Decency Act, likewise opposed by the – at the time, not fully coalesced – Silicon Valley elite, and pushed by some combination of Vaisya moralism and Optimate worries about military applications of cryptography. With SOPA, however, only a small part of the Brahmin machinery had its interests directly involved, and those interests were economic, not moral; on the opposing side, the Populares were able to mobilise their full strength because they were making a moral point, and one smack in the middle of their worldview at that.

We can go on classifying American movements and conflicts like this: Occupy Wall Street was a Brahmin attempt at mobilising the rank and file (and, Moldbug would say, failed for lack of the violence that only the Dalits can supply; the Brahmins by themselves are rather lacking in shock troops.) The Tea Party is a Vaisya organisation, as is the NRA. The ACLU and Sierra Club are Brahmin. The genocidal Indian wars were Jacksonian and Vaisya; so was WWII. Vietnam was insufficiently Jacksonian to please the Vaisya who largely fought it, and insufficiently Wilsonian to get the support of the Brahmins. Populares organisations are mainly online: Hacker News, Stack Overflow, Y Combinator. Perhaps the Libertarian Party, such as it is, also qualifies. BitCoin is a Populares invention, and the growing governmental concern with it may reflect a Brahmin concern over being in some sense outflanked; bank regulation is a core Brahmin strategy. Snowden, Scwartz, Manning, and Assange were all acting under a Populares ethos.

The test of a model is in the cases it can’t explain, and the recent NSA revelations are a difficulty. Opposition to the NSA surveillance techniques is clearly Populares, although more grassroot Populares than elite: The CEOs and boards of the large tech companies have apparently had their arms sufficiently twisted, or other pressure applied, that they are not stepping up to lead the opposition as they did with SOPA. Which is, actually, odd in itself, since Internet surveillance ought to be a core Populares concern. However, it is not clear which faction, if any, is in favour of NSA surveillance. It seems as though it might fit into a Brahmin drive to have the government involved in daily life; a Jacksonian (hence Vaisya) intention of fighting wars (in this case, on terror) with all available means, consequences be damned; or an Optimate desire to extend the reach of their remaining power base in the security services. But none of these seem like a really perfect, singing-on match as Populares opposition is, or ought to be. Still, perhaps three slightly off-center motivations for three castes can overcome one vital-interest opposition? The Populares, too, do not yet have the immense numbers of the Vaisya, nor the very wide-ranging network of influence that the Brahmins have in Washington and the Optimates in the Pentagon. Perhaps they will lose this round.

Some closing questions:

How will the rise of a Populares caste, generally opposed to the War on Terror, affect American foreign policy? It seems that a Vaisya/Optimate alliance has pushed this through against Brahmin opposition; perhaps a new power center will change that balance.

What will be the effect of Populares power on California politics? Lower taxes (or less regulation) may be just what the state needs, but then there are all those failing pension funds – a problem largely created by Vaisya politicians. Cleaning up the mistakes of previous generations, with few good options and lots of bulls gored, is just the sort of thing that fractures and delays political movements.

Will Populares serve in the military? Perhaps they are already represented among the techs, drone operators, and other non-grunting occupations. In general it is an ill thing for the elite of a republic to be disconnected from its security forces; the more incoherent rantings of the Brahmin fringe are an excellent example, as are the ill effects of the Libyan intervention. Having a fresh and vigorous elite willing to serve might be quite a good thing both for the US Army and the US generally.


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The Shoulders of Giants

I have recently had two thoughts about this famous old saying of Newton, who is not forgotten. First, when standing on the shoulders of giants, we do not build a tower; we build a pyramid, like those circus acrobats you sometimes see. The base is much larger than the tip, which makes for stability; and there is mutual support. Any particular result depends on a lot of other results, and if you adjust one you may have to adjust others, as when Millikan got the wrong value for the charge of the electron because he had the wrong value for the viscosity of air. But this also means that you cannot knock out one paper and make a whole structure come tumbling down, as cretinists and global-warming deniers sometimes try.

The second is this. Newton was not being modest when he said that; he was being snarky towards Hooke (who is not forgotten), who had accused him of stealing results and who was very short – no giant, in Newton’s phrase. But never mind that; we have remembered the image and forgotten the snark, and rightly so. But we have also forgotten why it is such an arresting image, and I sum this up in an aphorism: The purpose of standing on the shoulders of giants is not to praise the giants, but to see further.

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Further argument with John Wright

I have, alas, been rather busy of late, teaching a summer class, so I’ve fallen a bit behind. I will try to respond here to the ideas contained in both this post, the previous one, and your last response to me in the “Reprogramming Metaphysics” post. Even at some length, I will probably not get to everything; apologies.

In the face of this state of affairs we cannot help withholding judgment on the essential statements of monism and materialism. We may or may not believe that the natural sciences will succeed one day in explaining the production of definite ideas, judgments of value, and actions in the same way in which they explain the production of a chemical compound as the necessary and unavoidable outcome of a certain combination of elements. In the meantime we are bound to acquiesce in a methodological dualism.

Since human action cannot be traced back to its causes, it must be considered as an ultimate given and must be studied as such.

I am bound to admit that, as a methodological statement, I cannot argue with this; our technology does not yet permit us to reduce thought to its components. Just as chemistry is reducible to physics in principle, but has to be treated as its own subject in practice, I am by no means arguing that the lawyer, the psychologist, or the neurosurgeon ought to learn quantum mechanics before studying their respective fields. (Although, with that said, it does seem to me that both law and psychology could improve a lot by learning some neurochemistry.) Nonetheless, I think it is a rare chemist who would argue that the reduction is impossible in principle; and so I make that my analogy, and apply it to the mind as well.

1. A statement that there is no truth, if true, is false.


The conclusion to be drawn here, however, is that certain concepts cannot be denied, since the act of denying confirms them: they are rightly called self-evident. They need no further warrant for their truth aside from the mere statement of them.

Nor can I disagree with this; but I can disagree with the further conclusion you draw, that these things do not arise from empirie. A machine which states that there is no truth is giving you bad data. But it does not follow that good data have an existence in themselves. When all is done, the materialist model still contains such concepts as truth; but the understanding of what that concept is, has changed. I have perhaps been rather unclear in explaining this fundamental point.

You cannot deduce the mass of the bullet from its admissibility as evidence; You cannot deduce its admissibility as evidence from its mass. Yet clearly both properties depend on the bullet.

I completely and utterly disagree with that second sentence. The admissibility is not a property of the bullet; it is a property of other pieces of matter – in particular, of the brains and histories of police officers or others who handled the bullet. You cannot deduce the admissibility from the bullet, but it does not follow that it cannot be deduced from empirie! Here you make the mistake of focusing too narrowly; you expect a particular property associated with the bullet to be a function only of the bullet, and then when you cannot find how to reason empirically from the bullet alone, you give up on empirical reasoning completely. This is a mistake; you should instead have broadened your empirical search.

From a legal point of view, that is to say, from the point of view consistent with human justice, the presence or absence of the voltages in question in the cell location or circuit location in question is utterly indifferent to the case; it is irrelevant; it is meaningless.In case where the cellular or circuitry information is not available, or is misleading, it is disregarded.

I must say I am rather less enamoured than you of arguments from fallible human law. But let me ask you this question: Suppose we did in fact find, by some future scientific procedure, that all first-degree murderers have a particular neuron switched on; and all second-degree murderers had a different one switched on. Surely you cannot argue that, in this case, facts about neurons would be of no interest to a court of law?

It is not even very hard to outline the procedure we might follow: Take a brain scan of all those convicted of first-degree murder, and likewise for second-degree, and try to find differences. Allow, of course, for some error; certainly some of the first kind will be convicted, through clever lawyering or the state of the evidence, of the second degree; some in both categories will be innocent; and so forth. But allowing for such error, if we did find that 90% of the first-degree murderers had activation levels thus-and-so, while only 10% of the second-degree murderers did, and only 0.001% of the general population – I defy you to tell me that any jury would then be uninterested in mere empirical facts about neurons!

What empirical test would you or could you possibly perform that would tell you that this new not wholly materialistic universe was not a wholly materialistic universe like your old one was?

Your limitation of having only present-day technology makes this more difficult. My first step, nonetheless, would be to subject random victims, er, test participants, to powerful magnetic fields. In this universe it is known that the right combination of fields can produce a powerful sensation of a numinous Presence of great significance: Catholics insist that the Virgin Mary is hovering over their shoulder, Protestants feel the presence of Jesus, Moslems of Allah; Hinduists feel they are in touch with one of their pantheon; and so on. If this did not work in the new universe, that would be evidence that the mind was indeed a separate thing from the brain.

Thinking about it, there’s a rather simpler idea; I would inject ethanol into bloodstreams. If the victims do not act drunk, their minds are not being influenced by material things. Now, I do understand that “Minds are wholly separate from bodies” is not your claim; but it is the first thing I would test. Science is not for the impatient.

Next, I would try to replicate the visual-neuron-scanning experiment I’ve linked to a couple of times. If I cannot tell, by looking at neurons, what a subject is reading, that is strong evidence that his mind is not working the same way that the ones around here do. I would also try to go that experiment one better, and tell the subject to close his eyes and visualise something, rather than seeing it with his eyes. If I could nonetheless find what he was visualising by scanning his brain, that looks to me like evidence for materialism – so, in the non-materialist universe, I would expect that experiment to fail.

None of these tests, certainly, are conclusive; my next step would be to start a Manhattan-Project-type effort into brain-scanning research and neurophysiology. But they would give me enough to form a balance-of-the-evidence opinion like the one I currently possess.

One can remember the smell of flowers, the taste of food, or the sound of music, but one cannot will his eyes, or even the optical receptors of the brain, to show him a scene.

One most certainly can! Or, to be more accurate, some humans can. I refer you to this discussion of the typical-mind fallacy, which uses mental visualisation as its first example. And, by the by, this is another experiment one could do: Find some eidetic visualisers and some non-visualisers, and look for brain-structure differences. Or, conversely, if the non-materialist universe doesn’t have this variation in human ability, that’s evidence against the materialist hypothesis, since it argues that its minds are more uniform than those which arise from mere physics.

Also this seventh (and sixth) sense thing is a load of bull. It blurs a 2500+ year distinction between the actual senses and the mind. The same objections as to why feeling are not perception apply just as well here.

And when Newton, who is not forgotten, explained how the apple falls, he blurred a 2000-year-old philosophical distinction between the horizontal and vertical directions. In other words, tough.

THE “test-for-justice” algorithm? Surely this test is not the same for every human. Rawl’s algorithm would be wildly different than Jefferson’s and different in a hundred different ways from a hundred different people.

Indeed, I spoke inexactly. I refer you to my thousand-year-judge from many posts back for how to nonetheless extract an objective account of justice.

I advocate that the mind controls the body through acts of free will.

I note again that this requires one of the laws of thermodynamics to be false. This is not an objection to your theory, since we have not checked thermodynamics in every corner of the universe; but it is a point of interest. It also gives rise to still another experiment one can do in the non-materialist universe: Test whether human brains violate thermodynamics. If they do, bing, something non-materialist is going on. This one is instantly conclusive if positive.

Indeed is there ANYTHING ANYWHERE that ANYONE uses empiricism for other than ARGUMENTS ABOUT EMPIRICAL FACTS? Is there anyone anywhere who can even imagine, even as a joke, what proving a non-empirical fact about law, or ethics, or mathematics, or economics, or theology, or any other nonempirical discipline would even mean?

I answered this to the best of my ability, but apparently failed to connect. My answer is that, when a man says “This was a just act”, he is referring to an empirical fact, about his brain. I do not think I can make it any clearer than that. So, really, we are again at the bedrock of our disagreement: We cannot agree on what is happening when an act appeals to someone’s sense of justice. This is why I am keen to discuss the clockwork monkey, because that is a point where we are able to agree on at least a few things, which makes argument more productive. When faced with complete disagreements such as the one above, we can make no progress because neither part can make any argument except a full restatement of his position.

If experience disagreed with math and logic, you would assume logic is wrong, rather than assume, and look for, some overlooked hidden cause of the discrepancy? On what basis?

When an electron is projected at a screen with two slits, what do “logic and math” make you expect, if you are living in the 1930s and have never heard of quantum mechanics? Simple: You expect, and you will certainly call your expectation “logic”, that the electron will pass through exactly one of the slits. A particle can only be in one place at a time; that’s a fundamental property of particles, and of logic; indeed to say otherwise is to say A!=A. Or so you will argue… until experience contradicts you.

The thing that keeps sliding back and forth, friend, is you. You use the empirical data of brain activity as something interchangeably identical to the cognitive process of thought. I have been careful to keep them separate, since it is on that distinction that my argument rests.

Indeed, that is the fundamental point of our disagreement again.

The argument about the wallet was that nobody concludes that two plus two equals three when a dollar is missing from his wallet, because no one actually uses empirical reasoning in isolation from metaphysical and ontological reasoning.

I believe you are mistaken; children learn, at an extremely young age, to count to four in blocks of two; and then they forget that there was a time when they did not know this – and so they think they arrive at the conclusion by reasoning, and that it must be eternally true. No. Even if 2+2=4 is an eternally true statement, you did not come to believe it by reasoning about the properties of ‘2’; you learned it by counting on your fingers. (I remind you of the experiment of New Math in the sixties, when the fashionable educational theory was that children should, indeed, learn 2+2=4 by contemplating the properties of sets. It did not go well.)

You and I agreed that a mad scientist could make a metal copy of a brain, and I admit if the copy were exact, the brain would function, and the person whose brain it was would have, I assume, subject experiences, a point of view.

Very well, we shall have to consider further what we mean by ‘exact copy’. What I meant was that all the neuron-analogues should have the same connections as the neurons, and excite other neuron-analogues in the same circumstances. This is certainly possible with gears and cogs. You, apparently, meant something different. Can you articulate what your exact metal copy does, physically, which is not found in a gears-and-cogs copy? What physical property is the diabolical machinist copying, which the clockwork artificer is not capturing?

One final point. Consider the sense of smell; the chain of causality for the experience of smelling something is thus:

* Roses emit low concentrations of chemicals into the air
* The chemicals arrive at receptors in the nose
* The receptors send electrical impulses to the brain
* The electrochemical state of the brain changes
* The mind (physical or not) changes in response, and is now experiencing the smell of roses.

We see then that the sense of smell, while ultimately caused by the roses, is immediately caused by changes in brain-state; and we presumably agree that one could cause the sensation without the flowers by the right combination of electrical currents in the brain. Now, why should not the sense of justice be similar in its final step? Some atoms move, and the mind experiences the sense of justice, just as it experienced the sense of smell. There is no cause external to the body, but we need not for that reason say that the mechanisms are completely unlike. Yet when I suggested that the final steps were the same, I was howled down as contradicting two thousand years of philosophy. Very well, I bite the bullet: I know more of the world than either Aristotle or Plato did, and when we disagree, I stand my ground. The purpose of standing on the shoulders of giants is not to praise the giants, but to see further. If a layman of the twenty-first century disagrees with Aristotle, the finest philosopher of his day, then so much the worse for Aristotle. Those who would stand on his shoulders must expect to see further.


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Metaphysics discussion with John Wright

For some time now, I’ve been discussing materialism on John Wright’s blog; the discussion is spread over several posts, of which I link only the most recent:

Tin Woodman
Hammer and Letters

Now Mr Wright has written a good summary of the respective positions; it seems I won’t have to write my own summary post, which is just as well given everything else I need to do this week. I will make my first response here, and see where the discussion develops. In particular, I take issue with this:

Somewhere [if materialism is true] there is a set of atoms in a certain configuration that makes it the case that materialism is true. Could in theory a workingman [referred to later as the Demiurge] move one group of atoms from the positive to the negative so that it was no longer the case that materialism was true?

I do not think this is a valid phrasing of the materialist position. It appears to confuse the representation of the statement in human brains, with the actual state of the universe, or some similar category error. “Materialism is true” has as its referent the entire universe; it is the statement that once you have written down the global wave function, there is no other information, and no additional fact which needs explaining. (Which does mean that the materialist position has the difficulty of proving a negative. The non-materialist only needs to be lucky once: a single finding which the materialist cannot explain in terms of the quantum wave function would invalidate the materialist position. Before anyone points out that it’s impossible to prove a negative, yes, I know; it is however quite common to have evidence such that the negative is the most likely possibility.) There exist atoms which encode this information in human brains, and indeed there exist atoms which encode its negation (although those brains are mistaken), but there does not exist a subset of atoms which makes the statement true; rather the statement is true because nothing but atoms exists.

To answer the question about the demiurge, then: If he is to be taken as existing within the universe, then he cannot change materialism’s truth value; whatever he does to other atoms is either explainable, or not, in terms of the Dirac equation. If, on the other hand, he is not part of the quantum wave function, then his very existence is the additional fact which destroys materialism.

However, I find an additional question occurring to me. Suppose we find such a Demiurge, a being or force not explainable in terms of quantum mechanics. It may still be the case that this being acts according to laws which we can discover; and in such a case, could we not simply extend our defition of ‘materialism’ to say instead “The statement that everything can be explained in terms of either the global wave-function, or the laws which govern the Demiurge”? I feel that this is cheating and that the materialist ought instead, in such a case, to throw up his hands and admit error. But it is not immediately obvious to me what the cheating consists of.

Let me therefore try to rephrase the materialist position so that it cannot be cheated on in the manner above: Materialism is the position that there is only one level of explanation; that concepts such as ‘mind’ are not ontologically fundamental. Materialism holds that all apparently complex processes can be reduced to simple ones, even if the reduction is computationally nontrivial. Thus, if I found a Demiurge, and I found that its mind exhibited, say, an analogue of human anger, and I could not reduce this top-level concept to smaller pieces, then materialism would be invalidated even if there were a high-level law regulating when the anger-analogue appeared. If, on the other hand, I found that the Demiurge’s anger was reducible to, let’s say, the density of angrons, whose behaviour followed the Andreassen Equation, and I managed to produce angrons (and their antiparticles, happons) in a particle accelerator, and I could spray them at my enemies or display them at birthday parties – then I would merely have found a previously unknown bit of materialism. Given this restatement, then, perhaps reductionism is a better word than materialism.

This does raise the question of what is a high-level concept and what isn’t; just how complex does an irreducible phenomenon have to be, before I’ll call it non-materialistic? I don’t have an immediate answer, although clearly the Dirac equation is a lower bound; and if I found that human emotions were irreducible, I would call that non-materialistic. But for complexities in between, I’m not sure where I would draw the line.

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