Archive for July, 2011
This is a follow on to my last post.
I’m going to assume you’ve either watched or heard of The Matrix — yes? The movie’s point (spoiler alert!) is that our entire reality could be a lie, and we would never know it. Descartes, who also worried about this, once said “I think, therefore I am”, arguing that at the very least, we know that we exist. Even that, though, has been called into question; sources as disparate as scientists, spiritualists, and postmodern philosophers all argue that even our sense of self is an illusion: just a story that our minds tell ourselves to try to fit life into some kind of coherent narrative.
I’m not going to rehash the whole debate, but basically I think that that’s right. All we really get from the universe is a flow of raw experience, billions of discrete sensory impressions. Our minds form stories out of those experiences to serve as organizing principles and filters. We have ourselves as the protagonists, and things around us become obstacles and opportunities, major and minor plot points. This storytelling is necessary, because without stories to filter our reality, we would have no way of prioritizing the infinitude of things we could observe at any given moment. We wouldn’t be able to tie our shoes or brush our teeth because we’d be too busy tracing the seams in the wood of our kitchen table. We would all starve.
So this is good, and our minds have evolved for millions of years to become adept at filtering out essential from inessential. However, on the flip side, every time we form a story about the world, we limit our ability to perceive things that don’t fit into it. Abstract concepts like “you” and “me”, “good” and “bad”, “science”, “society”, and all the rest explain a lot of what we see around us, but only in approximation. The real world is messy, and when our minds clean up the mess to keep things simple, we throw out a lot of baby with the bathwater.
At the end of the day it’s raw experience, not ideas, that make being alive a joy. It is the pattern of the grains in the table, or the shape of a smile on a friend’s face, or that queasy feeling where you can’t tell if you’re happy or afraid that makes the whole thing worth it. You can’t nourish yourself on concepts. I’m guessing a smaller but still large percentage of you have watched American Beauty. That’s that movies’ point. We get so lost in our stories that we can’t find the real world that’s right in front of our face.
If I were to sum up psychological maturity in one sentence, it would be the ability to choose from either perspective at will and need: both the raw experiential and the abstract conceptual. Most people I know can’t do this, not reliably. There is a desperately strong tendency to get attached to our concepts. We form our entire identities around a story of ourselves: the outsider, the loner, the smart one, the Christian, the Jew, the put-upon daughter, old reliable, the yuppie, successful, a little dorky, going to accomplish great things some day, deserving, a little wild but basically a good person. We live in a world of Republicans and Democrats, big government vs big business, middle class values and order vs chaos. Threats to those stories threaten our entire reality: they undermine our sense of control, the very structure of our lives. I’ve been through the trauma of losing faith in concepts I believed in, and it is completely destructuring. And I know that ahead of me is only more disruption, things I’m attached to that I don’t even see yet that someday will break for me if I don’t choose to keep my head in the sand. Perfect freedom from one’s concepts is only an ideal; in practice, there are only varying degrees of attachment.
The fact is, concepts — human thoughts — are not high-bandwidth enough to capture reality. They are approximations and generally poor approximations at that; the real world is infinitely more complex than our minds can fathom. So a healthy mind is constantly forming and releasing concepts, evolving them as new experiences break them down and build them up again. Like an artist sketching and re-sketching his drawing, we’ll never achieve perfect fidelity, but after years of practice we might come up with something more or less recognizable. And in the process, there’s spaces for psychological freedom and joy.
I want to emphasize that both the creation and the destruction are important. Traditional counterculture, presumably reacting to the seriousness with which most people take their perceived reality, tends to emphasize breaking down concepts. This is a theme running from the “turn on tune in drop out” hippies to the death-of-the-author postmodernists to the meditation and yoga crowd. Although it may be true that a state of pure awareness, just experiencing life without feeling the need to construct a story at all, may be the most joyful, “present” state of being available, the fact is that we are also biological beings that need to take action in order to survive and reproduce, which requires some amount of planning and structure.
Creativity, in fact, may be the process of going back and forth between the conceptual and experiential; escaping from your old concepts, but then creating new ones, only to repeat the cycle, building off previous iterations along the way. When a new concept hits the scene, for example “military-industrial complex”, it opens up the ability to perceive the world in ways that were previously impossible, opening the space of potential actions. But when people are still critiquing the military-industrial complex fifty years later, it becomes an anchor, locking down a certain way of perceiving the world that isn’t fluid with reality. A good test of whether something is true or not: if it’s really true, and you say it, it becomes not true any more.
Anyway, to put it succinctly: our minds make stuff up. That’s what minds do. That’s what they’re for. That doesn’t mean the stuff they make up is right or accurate, even though 99% of the time we believe it. So when we look at the basic facts we have to take for granted, the things that any software we want to write for the human mind has to start from, my perspective is that the list is very short. What we know, what we really know, is pretty much absolutely nothing.
This changes the game: it means that family tradition, religion, culture, science, everything we think we know about the world is up for grabs. In fact, that’s really what the scientific method is all about. Believing in science doesn’t mean believing in a body of knowledge such as Einstein’s laws or evolution or geology, it means taking a “show me” approach to reality. It means taking the things you believe and asking “how can I prove myself wrong?” And if you fail, then saying “Okay, I couldn’t prove myself wrong today; I’ll keep on assuming it for now, and maybe I’ll be cleverer tomorrow.”
So there we are. We’re at a bit of a crisis point as a culture with this realization. Over the last century we’ve broken pretty much everything down. But we still cling onto a lot of empty beliefs we don’t really hold with, because we haven’t learned how to live with uncertainty. We’re still a little afraid to let go. But I think we’re starting to learn, and what I want to do in the following posts is to build some tools that work in a world where we don’t take our concepts too seriously.
Next: Ontology and Epistemology, yay!
This is going to be a long post.
I want to write down, as clearly as I can, how I see the world. I want to do this because I have the dumb but unshakeable belief that thinking about things clearly is a kind of magic: that if we try to understand a little harder, draw distinctions a little sharper, lay it out from the top on down, that we can transcend the limitations that exist in the normal course of life. I program computers, as a hobby and right now for a living, and with computers, if you think about the problem hard enough and frame it the right way, you can pretty much make anything happen. By thinking hard enough, you can accomplish in a day what a naive approach might accomplish in a year or even a lifetime. In the real world, though, for the most part, we still interact point-and-click mode. Although it’s exciting to explore randomly and see what we find, I also think it would be cool to be able to switch into command mode, get behind the scenes and start programming in the native language. I want philosophy that compiles.
Science, at its best, is a form of this exploration. Instead of just doing stuff, a scientist stops to learn the rules, and starts to create the logical connections that exponentially magnify her ability to make cool things happen. However, we’ve only really cracked the code relative to certain physical systems, which allows for some neat technological effects but is still a step away from the total programming experience I imagine. Although we can blast things through the air, communicate around the world instantly, and manufacture everything from silly putty to new species of plants, most of the really important problems, like people achieving their potential and dying happy, true political freedom throughout the world, overcoming tragedy-of-the-commons situations like environmental pollution, or even something as simple as a healthy global economy, are still as opaque to us as they were to people who died a thousand years ago.
The primary unsolved system between where we are today and where I imagine we could go is the human mind, specifically the realm of values and choices. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we want and where we are going? Right now these questions are not subservient to the realm of logic in any systematic way. We basically live in the dark ages. Half of us believe in stories passed down from our parents and from our parents’ parents that originated back in the day out of tribal myths. Half of us don’t really believe in them but pay them lip service because we don’t know what else to think. Another half (oops, are we past 100% yet?) define themselves mostly in opposition to said myths, and a final half don’t really think about it much at all. It’s no wonder that solving anything that requires an understanding of not just how things work in the physical world, but how they ought to work, is completely beyond our civilization’s ken.
There have been minor revolutions going on for the past few decades attacking the problem of the mind from the inside, via cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and from the outside, via behavioral psychology. This is great and will bring much power, but by itself it is inadequate. Science is fundamentally a descriptive discipline. It can tell you what things are, but it can’t tell you how things should be. But “should” is exactly what we need to get our arms around to solve these problems. What we need, in addition to science, is a normative discipline.
The great normative discipline is design / engineering. When you are designing a house, you are accountable to physical laws, but not determined by them: your house needs to respect gravity if you don’t want it collapse, but the law of gravity won’t tell you how to build your house. I think human nature is like building a house in that regard. Humans aren’t fixed; we are programmable creatures that can rewrite our own source code via new ideas. But there are also laws and constraints that govern our operation. If you try to rewrite human nature without understanding the chipset, like Lenin did in Russia and Castro did in Cuba, you get Windows 2000 and a blue screen of death.
I want to write the Linux kernal for the human mind. I want an operating system, the basis of our conception of what we are and why we are in this world, that’s open, robust, and serves as a platform for infinite expansion. Like any good programmer, I’m starting from the work that other, more talented people have already done. Above I said that we live in the dark ages. That’s actually not true. People have been thinking about these questions for thousands of years, and I think that we are on the verge of breakthrough. I don’t think I have much in the way of new ideas here, nor do I think I need them: what I aim to do is pull together the best that already exist and combine them together via an engineering mindset. This is a big problem, and I don’t expect success on day one. Rather, I’m putting this out here with the hope that it will push the ball closer to the goal, and that others will join in and help me slam it into the net.
The gameplan is to start by working our way through, from the fundamentals on up, what we know — and more importantly what we don’t know — about what we are and what this universe is that we live in. Right now, this is a draft: there’s a lot of legwork to do, especially once we get into the space of things that we can actually test empirically. I want to start by getting the ideas all out on the table, and and going on from there. Although I have visions of this coming together into something book-like, I’m going to start by writing it as a series of posts which will link together into an overall whole. Right now I have the material for 6 or 7 posts half-drafted, and I figure that there’s never a better time than the present to get started, so here goes. This is chapter one. Stayed tuned…
I’m always interested in great ways of finding great people. Most interesting problems in life come down to talent acquisition at some level or another. Here’s a random late-night thought on a potentially good way to do it. I haven’t tested this in practice, so if you want to give it a go, please report back the results! The idea is that this would be a written pre-screen… in-person discussion is obviously the most important element, but generally some kind of pre-screening is necessary. Okay:
“Applications suck. They almost always involve a careful series of half-truths (if you’re honest; outright lies if you’re not) designed to put a positive spin on who you are. From my vantage point, I’m actually very uninterested in hearing a positive spin. Although the quality of the spin job you are able to do does tell me certain things about your writing ability and resourcefulness, it really doesn’t have all that much to do with the qualities needed to build a long-term relationship that works out well for both of us. The fact of the matter is, most people have excellent qualities and are also total disasters, and ability to hide how much of a total disaster you actually are is not very correlated with long-term success. So rather than hearing spin, I would much rather have genuine communication, and genuine communication is predicated on honesty and vulnerability.
It would be a very sadistic thing to ask you to write an unbiased, strictly accurate assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. There is no such thing as unbiased and accurate; even a third party observer would have a hard time doing that. What would end up happening is a careful process of calculating exactly how honest you can be without ruining your chances of getting the opportunity, which would be like a standard application but even more vile because of the inherent hypocrisy. So rather than asking that, let’s use hyperbole to make this whole thing easier. Please answer the following two questions: a) convince me, using honest expression of your experiences, that you are a complete, total disaster and absolutely worthless; b) convince me, likewise, that you are basically God’s gift to mankind and the greatest thing not only since sliced bread but since the notion of slicing things itself. Scoring is very simple: to get this opportunity, both essays need to be convincing: ie, I want someone with both the highest highs and the lowest lows, not someone in the middle.
In return, you can grill me when we meet in person about all the reasons this is the worst opportunity ever (and all the reasons that it is the best). Thanks — please don’t spend too much time on this, have a life instead!”