Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Great Unreasoning

Wherever we go, and whatever we do, we find ourselves surrounded by a variety of human and animal noises:

"Woof!"—"Meow!"—"Moo!"—"Baah!"—"Tweet!"—"How about them Red Sox!"

And, naturally, we find ourselves wondering, What are they all saying? What does it all mean? Does it mean anything at all, or is it just a lot of meaningless background noise?

To be sure, sometimes it is just noise. But it seems that while animals use just one or two utterances (bark, growl, whimper) to convey an entire range of meanings, humans use a vast, seemingly infinite array of utterances to convey just one meaning: "Me! Me! Look at me! I am important! My opinions matter!" How is it that animals, with their restricted vocal repertoire, nevertheless manage to convey thoughts such as "Let's all fly south now!" or "Tiger on the prowl! Form an orderly stampede!" while we, with our virtual symphony orchestra of linguistic means at our disposal, never seem to manage anything better than the weak and ineffectual "What I think we should all do is... baah!"

Recently, science has started to shed light on the phenomenon. In one experiment, dogs were given bones to gnaw while two different kinds of prerecorded growls were played to them: playful growls and defensive growls. To the human ear, the growls are almost indistinguishable. However, it was observed that a statistically significant number of dogs would leave the bone alone whenever a defensive growl was played to them. In another experiment, human infants were instrumented with electrodes and two types of prerecorded human voices were played to them: calm, soothing voices and angry voices. The infants were observed to remain calm when hearing calm, soothing voices and to become agitated when hearing angry ones. "It is uncanny!" said Doctor Obvious, a Behavioral Scientist at Johns Hopkins University (no relation to the famous Captain Obvious). "It is as if there exists some innate, private channel of communication that we cannot directly observe." How is it that a mere infant, incapable of even parsing the sentence "I am feeling very angry right now!" is nevertheless able to sense anger? To an Asperger Syndrome sufferer such as Doctor Obvious, this appears as a great mystery.

It appears that animals, human infants and, to a lesser extent, adult humans have the uncanny ability to read minds. It is not a pure sort of telepathy; for instance, it is of no use when trying to figure out what random number your dog or someone happens to be thinking of. (If a mind is sufficiently simple, it is sometimes possible to sense what dollar amount it is thinking of.) It is also not a pure sort of telepathy because it generally doesn't work over distance. A lot of it depends on physical proximity, and on synesthetic perception, which combines sight, sound, smell, touch and other senses into a single perceptual bundle. It is a sort of communication that arises spontaneously out of shared experience, and cannot be simulated or reconstituted in its absence.

Animals can be taught to make all sorts of noises, but they can rarely be taught to associate them with specific meanings. For instance, I taught our cat to whisper when meowing, to avoid waking up my wife. Now I can say "Shhh!" and the cat will meow silently. She will only do this in my wife's is absence. It doesn't matter whether my wife is sleeping or out for a walk or in France: the cat doesn't distinguish between different kinds of absence. She doesn't mean anything specific by her silent meowing, except "Fine, I'll be quiet if I must." I know this because, after years of study, I have learned to read her simple cat mind.

It is rather similar with us humans. We can learn to say all sorts of things and sound quite educated and intelligent, but of course it all still boils down to one thing: "Me! I am well-spoken, well-read and well-informed! My opinion matters! Listen to meeeeee!" To which I say, "Shhh!" Just as songbirds learn their specific birdsong to fit into bird society, we try to learn the dominant dialect—be it posh or jargon-laden or bad-ass or pseudo-folksy or crazy mumbling—so that we can say what those around us want to hear. Just as with birdsong, human speech is mostly not about communication but about demonstrating one's fitness. The actual communication happens along other channels: subtleties of voice, body language, sight, touch, smell and other sense-data, which I hesitate to call data since they cannot be usefully observed and recorded.

To be sure, we humans do have some communication strategies up our sleeves that give us a major advantage over other animals. These boil down to our ability to use what linguists call "wh" words (what, when, where and so on) along with their corresponding "th" words (that, then, there, etc.) which linguists call deictic terms, from the Greek δεῖξις (point of reference). We also have ways of indicating entities that aren't immediately present or visible ("the big rock on the other side of that hill") or not even directly observable (electrons, black holes) or that are never actually observable (angels, elves, pixies, etc.) This is all either useful or entertaining, or both, but we also have the strange ability to play a sort of mental puppet theater with entities that we can't directly observe, or can only observe under special, staged circumstances ("Behold, the Wizard of Oz!" or "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States!") and it is here that we tend to get into an awful lot of mental difficulty that other animals seem to be able to avoid.

Our species' hypertrophied linguistic abilities have allowed us to create entire systems composed of elements that we either cannot directly observe or cannot observe at all: mathematics, physics, ideologies, theologies, economies, democracies, technocracies and the like, which manipulate abstractions—symbols and relationships between symbols—rather than the concrete, messy, non-atomistic entities that have specific spacial and temporal extents and that constitute reality for all species. There is a continuum between products of pure thought, such as chess or mathematics, sciences which produce theories that can be tested by repeatable direct experiment, such as physics and chemistry, and the rest—political science, economics, sociology and the like—which are a hodgepodge of iffy assumptions and similarly iffy statistical techniques. Perfectly formal systems of thought, such as logic and mathematics, seem the most rigorous, and have served as the guiding light for all other forms of thinking. But there's a problem.

The problem is that formal systems don't work. They have internal consistency, to be sure, and they can do all sorts of amusing tricks, but they don't map onto reality in a way that isn't essentially an act of violence. When mapped onto real life, formal systems of thought self-destruct, destroy nature, or, most commonly, both. Wherever we look, we see systems that we have contrived run against limits of their own making: burning fossil fuels causes global warming, plastics decay and produce endocrine disruptors, industrial agriculture depletes aquifers and destroys topsoil, and so on. We are already sitting on a mountain of guaranteed negative outcomes—political, environmental, ecological, economic—and every day those of us who still have a job go to work to pile that mountain a little bit higher.

Although this phenomenon can be observed by anyone who cares to see it, those who have observed it have always laid blame for it on the limitations and the flaws of the systems, never on the limitations and the flaws of the human ability to think and to reason. For some un-reason, we feel that our ability to reason is limitless and infinitely perfectable. Nobody has voiced the idea that the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns. It is yet to be persuasively argued that the human propensity for abstract reasoning is a defect of breeding that leads to collective insanity. Perhaps the argument would have to be made recursively: the faculty in question is so flawed that it is incapable of seeing its own flaws.

Or we can argue that argument itself is perhaps not the right approach, and instead rely on direct observation. Formal systems and languages can be taught to machines, but natural human languages cannot. Observe that there aren't any robots that can speak a language—any non-formal language—with any degree of mental adequacy. This is not for lack of trying: there have been many large, ambitious efforts to capture all aspects of human language, including semantic models of the "real world"—all to no avail. As far as robotic technology, artificial intelligence and the like, all we can do is breed autistic savants. Lock some high-functioning autistic people in a room with some expensive computer equipment, and eventually they manage to reproduce, electronically if not biologically.

Humans lack the ability to make machines human, but they certainly do have the ability to make themselves machine-like, and some of us have formed a subspecies that mostly interacts with machines, and with other machine-like humans. There are now hordes of humans running around compulsively diddling their electronic life support units. Why do we need to design and manufacture robots when we can just breed them? When it comes to making machines that work and play well with other species, our record is no better. Yes, there are documented cases of cats that ride around on Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, but we are decades away from engineering a Roomba that could successfully fetch a ride on a cat. Yes, it certainly is possible to condition animals to behave in a machine-like fashion, but people who do so stand to be accused of cruelty to animals. They should stick to experimenting on humans.

Another approach to take toward dislodging the strange notion that human ability to think knows no bounds is to put it down to an innate fault of human language (well, almost every human language): the arbitrary distinction it draws between being and doing, or between state and action. For no adequately explored reason, being is grammatically more often a state than an act. Is it easy to be you, or is it hard work? If so, how do you do it—be, that is? If you not so much act as happen or occur, then everything you do is the result of everything that you've done and that's happened to you over your entire life. If you speak a language, it is just your being acting itself out. There is, then, no language that can be abstracted away from your entire existence, any more than a meow can be meaningfully abstracted away from a given physical cat: you have to be there to hear it, or it's just not the same. Those who are interested in this train of thought should look up Phenomenology. Maurice Merleau-Ponty is my particular favorite.

If making machines into humans runs into difficulties with how well humans are able to think about machines, then what about the converse? How well can we fashion humans into machines, and where does that begin to break down? Making humans into machines (aside from direct human-machine interaction) commonly goes under the names of politics, political science and social engineering. The most advanced model of social organization we have attained is known as representative democracy, where all sorts of different people can make their opinions heard by voting, and their elected representatives then see to it that the majority opinion prevails on a wide array of public policy decisions.

Modern society is highly specialized, and so there are all sorts of different people, who know a whole lot about certain things and next to nothing about everything else. Suppose we have a society that consists of dogs, cats and sheep. You wouldn't want to take a sheep hunting with you, dogs are useless at trimming a lawn or rodent control, and cats... well, you get the picture. But they can still form opinions on all these things that they know nothing about, can't they? And then they can periodically go and cast a vote, to give voice to their opinions. Usually the "Baahs" carry the vote. When their elected representatives can't tell their constituents' opinions from their votes alone (this is the part that always makes me laugh) they have to look to opinion polls to find out what the populace is thinking at the moment; that is, what the sheep think of duck hunting and rodent control, and what sort of grass dogs and cats should have to eat. Alternatively, the different animals can form special interest groups, to lobby the government and to counter the prevailing majority opinion. But the politicians don't like to be seen as "caving in" to the special interests. And so either you have a corruption of the democratic process by the undue influence of special interests, or the "Baahs" prevail. And that is the best the world of politics has to offer, because alternative political arrangements are commonly viewed as being even worse.

Doesn't it seem laughable that the entire edifice of modern political science rests on mere opinion? Some mornings I entertain up to a dozen mutually contradictory opinions, and that's before even getting off the toilet! It is a flaw of the English language that when someone is convinced of something, the result is said to be a change of opinion. If one is indeed convinced, wouldn't that change one's convictions? But it's easy to see why nobody bothers to conduct "conviction surveys," because the results would be quite boring. Convictions hardly ever change, because they are generally not amenable to persuasion or argument. Convictions tend to form as a result of actual experiences, not from listening to pundits or experts or from reading the popular press. They form part of who we are, not what we might be thinking at any given moment.

It is almost impossible to change someone's convictions through persuasion or argument, and it is equally difficult to cause someone to form convictions through these same means. That is why the most difficult subjects of our time—ones involving hard issues such as overpopulation, natural resource use and depletion, global climate destabilization, looming national bankruptcy and the like—are more or less left out of public discourse. They are of no consequence as matters of opinion, while as matters of conviction they are political dynamite. Plus, just how many people are there whose lives have provided them with the experiences they would need to form convictions on these subjects? These subjects are avoided for the same reason one doesn't leave coiled hoses lying around a slaughterhouse: the sheep might think that they are seeing snakes, stampede and ruin your whole work-shift. It is much better to just let them move smoothly along and cast their vote for "Baah!"

The relatively few people who do have firm convictions are often regarded as "unreasonable" because their convictions cannot be reasoned away as mere opinions can. That to me seems exactly as it should be. Humanity is in the process of demonstrating that it can successfully reason its way into a cul de sac. But is there any reason to believe that it can also reason its way out of it? Perhaps it is high time to start being unreasonable, to decide for ourselves that we do not like the cul de sac into which our reason has steered us, and to refuse to go into it any deeper. Perhaps we could even find a way out of it. And perhaps a few of those people whose minds you can sometimes almost read will almost be able to read our minds as well, and will choose to follow us out. And the rest will just stand around and argue about it: "Baah!"

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bloody Tulips!

Excellent photo gallery of the uprising in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

[Update: Ethnic cleansing of the Uzbek minority in the south of Kyrgyzstan was organized by a nephew of the overthrown president Bakiev.]

Five years ago Kyrgyzstan (former Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic) went through a so-called "tulip revolution." Organized by George Soros and the usual suspects from the Orange Revolution Syndicate, they got rid of one unsavory dictator and installed another one – all in the name of democracy and freedom, of course. And now, just five years later, an uprising has taken place, the president and his entourage have fled, the government buildings have been looted, and the people are dividing up the land that they feel the rich elites have stolen from them.

This little country is important to the United States only because geography forces US and NATO to use it as a trans-shipment point for resupplying their endless war in Afghanistan. It is also used to channel out a lot of Afghanistan's heroin export. The proceeds from the heroin trade end up in Western banks, and that, in turn, keeps the war going.

But in spite of all the drug money flowing through the system, the Orange Revolution Syndicate is not doing so well these days. They lost the Ukraine, Georgia has been in the political morgue since it started and lost a war with Russia, and now they have lost Kyrgyzstan as well. Poor George Soros! There just aren't that many countries left in the world that a multi-billionaire like him can undermine using his ill-gotten gains in the name of "open society."

Fearless Russian photojournalists have wandered into this mess, and have brought us this. Many thanks to them and to RT for letting us see for ourselves what a contemporary revolution looks like: bloody and chaotic as ever, but brought to us via cell phones and the Internet, with order restored by citizens using all of the advanced communications technology at their disposal to organize their effort. This is not your grandfather's revolution.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Collapse Competitively

[En français]

We are heading toward economic, political and social collapse, and every day that passes brings it closer. But we just don't know when to stop, do we? Which part of "the harder we try, the harder we fail" can't we understand? Why can't we understand that each additional dollar of debt will drive us into national bankruptcy faster, harder and deeper? Why can't we grasp the concept that each additional dollar of military spending further undermines our security? Is there some sort of cognitive impairment that prevents us from understanding that each additional dollar sunk into the medical industry will only make us sicker? Why can't we see that each incremental child we bear into this untenable situation will make life harder for all children? In short, what on earth is our problem?

Why can't we stop? We can blame evolution, which has produced in us instincts that compel us to gorge ourselves when food is abundant, to build up fat reserves for the lean months. These instincts are not helpful to us when there is an all-you-can-eat buffet nearby that's open year-round. These instincts are not even specifically ours: other animals don't know when to stop either. Butterflies will feast on fermented fruit until they are too drunk to fly. Pigs will eat acorns until they are too fat to stand up and have to resort to crawling about on their bellies in order to, yes of course, eat more acorns. Americans who are too fat to walk are considered disabled and the government issues them with little motorized scooters so that they don't have to suffer the indignity of crawling to the all-you-can-eat buffet on their bellies. This is considered progress.

Or we can blame our education, which puts mathematical reasoning ahead of our common sense. Mathematics uses induction—the idea that if 1 + 1 is 2 then 2 + 1 must be 3, and so on up to an arbitrarily large quantity. In the real world, if you are counting acorns, then 1 + 1 acorns is not the same as 1,000,000 + 1 acorns—not if there are squirrels running around, which there will be once they find out that you are the one who's been stealing their acorns. A million acorns is just too many for you to keep track of, and your concerted effort to keep adding one more to the pile while fighting off squirrels may cause small children to start calling you silly names. The bigger the pile grows, the more likely you are to have to take inventory, and in the process you are increasingly likely to make a mistake, so that it turns out that 1,000,000 + 1 is in fact 1,000,001 - δ, where δ is the number of acorns you have lost track of, somehow. Once δ > 0, you have achieved diminishing returns, and once  δ > 1, you have achieved negative returns. In the real world, the bigger you think a number should be, the smaller it actually turns out to be. At some point, trying to add one more to the pile becomes a particularly wasteful way of making the pile smaller. This result is not intellectually pleasing, and there is no theory to back it up, but it is observable anywhere you care to look. The fact that we are unable to adequately explain any given phenomenon by using our feeble primate brains does not make it any less real.

The concept of diminishing returns is quite simple for most people to understand and to observe, but notoriously difficult to detect for the person who is at the point of achieving them. The point of negative returns is even harder to detect, because by that point we tend to be too far gone to detect much of anything. If you already had N drinks, can you tell if you are at the point of diminishing returns yet? Will another drink make you happier and more sociable, or will it not make much of a difference? Or will it cause you to embarrass yourself and spend the next day nursing a debilitating hangover? Or will it send you to the emergency room to be treated for vomit inhalation? As a general rule, the more you imbibe, the more difficult it becomes for you to draw such fine distinctions. This rule does not seem to be limited to drinking, but applies to almost all behaviors that produce a feeling of euphoria rather than the simple satisfaction of needs. Most of us can stop ourselves from drinking too much water, or eating too much porridge, or stacking too many bales of hay. Where we do tend to run into trouble with self-control is when it comes to things that are particularly pleasurable or addictive, such as drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and rich and delicious food. And we tend to lose it completely when it comes to euphoria-inducing social semi-intangibles: satisfaction of greed, status-seeking, and power over others.

Is this the best we can do? Certainly not! Human culture is full of examples where people stood up and successfully opposed such primitive tendencies within themselves. The ancient Greeks made a virtue of moderation: the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription MHΔEN AΓAN—"Nothing in excess." Taoist philosophy focuses on the idea of balance between yin and yang (阴 阳)—seemingly contrary natural forces that in fact work together and must be kept in balance. Even in contemporary engineering culture one sometimes hears the motto "Better is the enemy of good enough." Sadly, though, engineers who are good enough to abide by it are something of a rarity. At the micro level of solving specific problems most engineers do strive to achieve the clever optimum rather then the stupid maximum, but at the macro level the surrounding business culture forces them to always go for the stupid maximum (maximum growth, revenue and profits) or the stupid minimum (minimum cost, product cycle time and maintainability). They are forced to do so by the influence of a truly pernicious concept that has insinuated itself into most aspects of our culture: the concept of competition.

The concept of competition seems to have first been elevated to cult status by games that were played as a form of sacrifice before gods, in cultures as different as ancient Greece and the Mayan civilization, where competitive events were held to please their various deities. I much prefer the Olympic version, where the object of the games was to express the ideal of human perfection in both form and function, rather than the Mayan version, where the outcome of the game was used to decide who would be sacrificed on the altar of some peculiar cultural archetype, but being open-minded I am ready to accept either as valid, because both are competitions in defense of principle. It was Aristotle who pointed out that pursuit of principle is the one area where moderation is not helpful, and who am I to refute Aristotle? But when moving from defending an ideal or a principle to performing mundane, practical, utilitarian functions it is the idea of competition itself that should be offered up as a nice, sizzling-fat burnt offering on the altar of our common sense.

If the goal is to achieve an adequate result with a minimum of effort, then why would two people want to compete to do the job of one? And if there is in fact work enough for two, then why wouldn't they want to cooperate instead of wasting their precious energies in competition? Well, they may have been brainwashed into thinking that they must compete in order to succeed, but that's beside the point. The point is that there is a major difference between competing for the sake of a principle—such as the perfection of divine creation—and competing for mere money. There is nothing divine about a big pile of money, and, just as with a big pile of acorns, the bigger the pile, the more "squirrels" it tends to attract. In fact, those who are sitting on some of the bigger piles of acorns often seem rather squirrely themselves. To mix metaphors, they also tend to be chicken-like, roosting on their acorns and expecting them to hatch into more acorns. But be they squirrels or be they chickens, or be they drug-addled mutant chicken-squirrels on steroids, they are certainly not gods, and their acorns are not worthy of our sacrifice.

Once we dispense with the idea that competition is in any sense necessary, or even desirable, new avenues of thought open up. How much is enough? Probably much less than we have now. How hard do we need to work for it? Probably a lot less hard than we are working now. What happens if we don't have enough? Well, perhaps then it's time to try working just a tiny bit harder, or, better yet, perhaps it is time to take a few acorns from those who still have too many. Since having too much is such hard work (mind the damn squirrels!) we'd only be helping them. We certainly don't want to keep up with them, because we know where they are headed—a quaint, exclusive little place called collapse. What we should probably be trying to do instead is to establish some sort of balance, where enough is, in fact, enough.