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This is going to be a long post.

kxcd #701, follow link for original cartoonI 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…

Next: Assumptions

Written by jphaas

July 31st, 2011 at 3:11 am

Posted in philosophy