The OSI model of reality

Published on 2024-03-19

If you aren't familiar, the OSI model is the way we usually conceptualize the Internet under the hood. It's a series of layers, or maybe, a stack of plates, each supporting the one above it. The layers are, generally, from most fundamental to most abstract: physical (electrical pulses on a wire, radio waves, etc.), link (concerned with the physical connections between devices), network (moving information through the network), transport (moving information between applications on different devices) and finally application.

The nice thing about working in the application layer is that you don't need to think about any of the layers beneath it. For all you care, there is literally a portal in space inside your progressive web app that you're using to pass chunks of data to the other side of the country. For all you care, every time you issue an HTTP request, I personally receive the complete message in English, in the mail, and I bike it 6000 km on the shoulder of the Trans-Canada highway to wherever it needs to go. In other words, at a given layer, the layers beneath may be treated as a black box that provide certain guarantees, if any.

The black box

Let's talk about theories of the mind.

I am susceptible to Cartesian thinking. I believe in the existence of the soul, not necessarily literally but I do find it convenient to believe there literally are souls that exist in a meaningful sense and that I have one.

Cartesian dualism is the idea that there is the mind and there is the physical world. Mental stuff is different from physical stuff. It's compatible with what many religions have to say about this immaterial soul, but if you're a scientist, you might start asking questions like, "if the mind is immaterial, how does it interact with the physical world?" Thus, the ghost in the machine, inside but never really touching anything.

Personally I don't really feel like I need a good reason to believe in the existence of the soul. I feel like I'd need it to be proven in the negative, and since science can't meaningfully say anything about anything more than one person can't observe, I'm not sure if that's possible.

I might, however, be open to epiphenomenalism, which is the idea that while the mind, or the spirit, or whatever, does indeed exist, it is completely dependent on the physical processes of the body. I don't want to believe it, but I feel like I could.

Similarly, I've been thinking a lot lately about how experience might be a bit like the OSI model.

I can imagine a few different layers, for example:

  • Mathematical laws
  • Physical laws
  • Material reality
  • Social institutions and relationships
  • Conceptual reality
  • Pure, in-the-moment experience.

Each layer supports the one above it. The question, then, is how they're ordered. Often, and if you've read a lot of my writing you've probably seen this a lot, I have a very solipsistic ordering. Something like this:

  1. Direct experience
  2. Social relationships
  3. Conceptual reality
  4. Physical reality

That is, physical reality is produced through the act of conception, interpreted through social relationships, and then experienced directly by the spirit. I imagine most people probably put it in the opposite order, and if I'm being honest I do too. At least when it matters. But realistically, no matter which way you order it, the result is the same. We have science to confirm that much.

Importantly, though, while the OSI model does imply the layer above is "encapsulated" in the layer below, that's not necessarily to say that the layer above is spoken in the language of the one below. Gemini has basically nothing to do with Ethernet, and that's by design. Maybe thinking of the spirit in isolation isn't all that helpful; maybe direct experience is an emergent property of the whole stack. While Gemini may know nothing of USB, or Bluetooth, or WiFi, or whatever, it could not exist without it.

I do often think of physical reality being the transport layer for the mind--the media through which thoughts are expressed. In isolation, that's pretty self-evident, but it has some really interesting consequences that probably deserve to be elaborated on another time.

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