The Intelligence Process

I have generalized the scientific method, at least for my own use, because while the scientific method works perfectly for science there is as yet no model which ideally describes the application of intelligence against objective reality. Now, this basically is the scientific method, but factors in a number of elements which are useful to exclude in scientific discourse.

1.) Assumptions: Intelligent agents always begin from assumptions, and although there is nothing we can do about it, it’s not a bad place to start unless you use poor assumptions and do not recognize them as assumptions. Also includes circumstantial evidence about surroundings, self, etc. The initial information set at any reference point you choose.

2.) Deficit: Any set of assumptions will find a case or situation where information is lacking, possibly a method to do a certain thing, maybe a rule about the world, or perhaps unknown circumstantial information. Formally phrased this would end up something like a question, spurring the creation of a solution. This step is also significant in providing us with the drive to seek stimuli.

3.) Hypothesis: A solution/guess is derived based on assumptions, utilizes rational, predictive, and imaginative abilities. Given accurate starting information and sound methods, this result will be useful. Otherwise, it is suspect (although it may still be useful or accurate- by the “the moon is made of cheese, therefore the sky is blue” effect, it’s just not reliable).

4.) Ecology Check: The hypothesis is actually cross-checked with the assumptions before being tested against reality. This is, for example, why people who don’t like broccoli may decide not to eat broccoli. Without this step, there would be no reason to assume that you wouldn’t like broccoli now, regardless of how you thought it tasted yesterday. While not a strictly logical approach, this is usually an immensely useful heuristic process.

5.) Test: I have actually combined a number of the scientific method’s steps here- steps like “prepare” and “procedure” and somewhat pointlessly specific and I just rolled them into this step. The objective of the test is to analyze the effectiveness of a piece of information you have put into “sandbox mode” as a hypothesis. The reason for this is that you cannot test a deficit, you can only test positive information. It can be disproved. Statements like “there is no such thing as a goose” are disprovable- they are simply about the nonexistence of something rather than its existence, all you need to do is find a goose. A negative statement might be “a goose can transform into an elephant under some conditions.” [s] Wow, that’s helpful [/sarcasm] Now, here’s the rub. Testing is the most important part of intelligence, but at the same time it is the most liable to fail. It is inherently an inductive process, as I have said before. So statements like “all swans are white” cannot be proven authoritatively. They can, however, be disproven, by finding a swan that is not white (as there indeed are). Yet if you have seen a million swans and they were all white, and you have no reason to believe your field of swan observation to have been constricted by some other factor, then you may conclude that all swans are white, and you would be quite rational in doing so. Provided that you recognize that you are making an assumption for practical purposes.

6.) Inference: The test only provides you with the data to make an analysis. Deciding what the test means is a whole ‘nother can of worms. In the case of our goose example, perhaps I’m a goose breeder who wants to grow a better goose. This is a subjective and situational step, so I’m just going to make something up here, but let’s say this here goose breeder is of the entrepreneurial variety and decides that because there are only white geese, if he could produce multicolor geese he would make a killing. Goose show spectators around the world would be shocked into buying spectrum geese at exorbitant prices. Now, even in this extremely short example, look at all the other factors and assumptions I brought to bear to determine what the meaning behind “there are only white geese” was. I needed some ideas about the nature of the world, the economy, my own experiences and tendencies, all these things which are a complete construction on top of the conclusion “all geese are white.”

7.) Compression: Another step which, while being illogical most of the time, is highly useful. Concept compression takes a number of forms, usually dependent on someone’s learning style. There are auditory learners, visual learners, kinesthetic learners, etc. etc. My experience is that each of these labels is an oversimplification. When I’m learning a method or a set of information I mainly gauge how familiar any given piece feels. This is extremely effective for nonlinear processes like abstraction, but extremely poor for rigorous linear processes, or arbitrary elements like rote memorization. If I have to give a presentation, I cannot memorize a script, and memorizing bullet points is even tougher. I can, however, just learn holistically about the entire topic to be covered and then just stream of consciousness about it and do quite well. Now, I have other methods for lots of different things, as do we all, but I’m reasonably sure that’s my main label. I have my own theories about how we label thoughts and sensory data, but that’s probably for another time. For now, I think we can agree that we don’t encode in memory the actual sensory data or concepts or ideas received/conceived/whatever, but actually a compressed interpretation of that information.

8.) Association: The issue with putting this step at number 8 is that association is the sole purpose of the neuron in the brain, so this is actually going on all the time, at every step along the way. Whenever you string two bits together in your brain you’re making an association, so the entire process itself is associating one step with the next. Also, anything that happens to be going on might be associated with the thoughts you had at the time, or maybe you’re connecting together two similar things, maybe tests you’ve made or hypotheses from different times, whatever. However I think this is the best place to put it because in the strictest sense, you can’t associate anything that you don’t remember, and you can’t remember something until it has been compressed. If you’ve ever done that experiment where you have to count the number of R’s in a sentence, but the question afterward asks about the number of H’s, or similar, you know what I’m talking about. You didn’t encode how many H’s there were. (Actually, to be proper, you didn’t encode the number of R’s either, you created a program on-the-fly that would increment a number whenever you saw R as you scanned the line, encoding a single number which is much more efficient. Encoding the number of R’s would be memorizing “there are 7 R’s in the sentence [blah]” which you probably didn’t do because it’s stupid and wasteful.)

9.) State Hook: This step has the same issue as associations in that you are experiencing some sort of state all the time, however it goes after association because it is used as a sort of meta-tag on top of any inter-idea associations you may have made. If you make the association of press button->get candy conceptualized and ready to go, realizing that you can now have candy if you want it, then your state, perhaps happiness, sadness, hunger, or other conditions (not necessarily related to your body) are applied. If you wanted candy, for example, you’ll get a state change, some different associations, and a different resulting behavior than if you just ate. For example, you might be more inclined to find that candy tasty.

10.) Framing: I’m wrapping up all the higher-level thinking into one big category, because you’re basically just repeating this step over and over again to go from beliefs to values to paradigms or whatever else. Ascribing synthetic meaning to things is framing. Rearranging models or performing manipulations on your conceptions is performing operations by adding synthetic meaning to delete, replace, or augment bits. Naming something is a framing operation. Grouping things is a framing operation. Note the distinction between associating two things, and grouping two things. When two things are associated, one might lead you to the other. However a fir and a poplar can both be trees without the mention of firs causing you to think of poplars. There are also a number of interesting oddities of peoples’ histories of associating groups with individual members, or maybe something else entirely. Free association: “Tree” and they say “Larch” then that’s one model they have of the standard tree, perhaps representative of trees as a class to them.

11.) Confirmation: Any given piece of information has several stages to go through before it is really accepted, and some will always be more respected than others. This level of trust or integration is a full spectrum extending from violent opposition to devil’s advocate thought experiment to skepticism to acceptance to total faith. Your belief may increase due to emotional reaction, resonance, application, utility, or any of a number of other reasons. Healthy systems of thought will tend to eradicate false beliefs in one shot once they are disproved- systems that are unhealthy may have a tug-of-war with emotional reactions, etc. pulling in both or (god forbid) more than two directions. Persisting beliefs will tend to gradually increase in acceptance due to increased association and exposure, and extinct beliefs are just not even in your head anymore. I’m going to use this step as a placeholder for several significant levels of acceptance, to the point that a given piece of information is trusted/believed to 1. the same degree as your original thoughts, 2. the same as your perceptions, and 3. on the level with your beliefs.

12.) Utility: The function of intelligence to maximize its utility given a specific information set, defined by the previous steps.

13.) Morality: The function of intelligence to deduce and follow morality. The reason why this is a product of intelligence is that morality is simply the application of reciprocity in society to utility. Morality is doing what is best for everyone, an abstraction out from doing what is best for you, with the significant difference that morality is a higher level, and therefore guides and supersedes personal utility. On a slightly related note, arbitrary social laws are a hijacking of this function to no real benefit- or more commonly, to an impossibly small benefit at the expense of a potentially massive gain. If they did blatant harm they would be abandoned as corrupt and pointless by the lower-level and more powerful utility principles.

14.) Creation: Intelligence seeks to produce. Artistically, socially, culturally, whatever. We’re seeking to stimulate others’ perceptions and minds, satisfying the sensory deficit with the richest material we can produce because we want to experience also. This works even if nobody else existed in the world because the act of creation is a bottomless supply of auto-stimulation.

15.) Self-Actualization: Realizing your potential, from Maslow. Drives artists to be artists and accountants to suicide. Just kidding. Not everyone’s greatest potential is in direct creation of memetically or mentally stimulating material.

16.) Philosophy: Understanding and wisdom. The drive to understand ourselves, our world, our thoughts, everything. The problem is that we are like computers seeking to describe their own code. We can’t do it because every line of code used to help the computer understand its other code…. is one other line of code requiring explanation. What makes me happy? What do I want, really? What should I do? If you had everything you could conceivably want- infinite utility, morality, etc. then is life pointless? Why or why not? What would you do?


More Simulated Realities

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Now, more in-depth on your brain, simulations, and the computability of the universe. Asking if the universe is computable is basically asking if all aspects of the universe’s functioning are a) universal, b) consistent, c) predictable, and d) functionally limited in scope to our own universe. If the laws of physics are not universal then one part of the universe might follow different laws of physics than another. If they are not consistent then they may be subject to change over time. If they are not predictable then mathematics cannot duplicate them- although randomness and like phenomena are duplicable in a probabilistic fashion. Lastly, if the universe is not limited in scope, then we’re just sunk. Basically what I’m saying by the scope of the universe is that there cannot be some other non-observable otherworld that affects our own universe. Although that outside influence may itself be subject to universal, consistent, and predictable laws, if we can’t discern its workings from within our own universe then we cannot simulate our own universe because we can’t simulate its effect. Although the most complicated of our 4 contingencies, it’s probably the one we have least to worry about. Most physicists or scientists would agree that all four of these are well established to be true of our universe.

If the universe is computable, and there are those who say it isn’t although they are completely wrong, then it is physically possible to create a simulation matching our own universe in complexity, size, or resolution, but never all three at the same time or our entire universe must necessarily have been subsumed into creating such a simulation. We can shave off a massive amount of unnecessary computing power by limiting our simulation to salient details only. For example, we can use macroscopic heuristics to make objects behave like objects without needing to simulate the position, energy disposition, etc. of every atom within said object. Unless someone within the simulation is actively perusing each atom of that object, nobody will notice the difference. And if anyone should examine those atoms, why our simulation can just render those atoms for them like the light turning on in the refrigerator. So in a conceptual sense, it wouldn’t be very hard to make a simulation that was extremely believable to someone within it. There are several different models of simulation we might have, and each has its advantages.  A brain interface simulation like the Matrix means that you get to keep your body, and don’t face any of the weird issues associated with copying your mind from one place to another.  However, you also don’t get to play the simulation at whatever speed you would like because it can only operate at the same speed that your extra-simulation brain can handle.  If you still want to keep your body, maybe you can go for a half-and-halfer arrangement, where you plug in your brain and a temporary copy of it is loaded up into the simulation as a virtual self, strongly typed back to your original brain which must be temporarily disabled so the “real” you doesn’t walk off.  This is weird because there must necessarily be two copies of you existing at the same time, one in reality (unconscious?) and one in the simulation.  But this method gets you the in-simulation advantages of scaling with the simulation’s speed, etc. etc.  Of course the best way in my opinion is to just be a virtual self completely.  This means you are governed by the simulation’s physics, and so on and so forth.  Probably the most effective way to manage this situation is for your virtual self to exist in a meta-simulation connected computer that you own.  So you still have a body- it’s just a computer connected to the Internet, basically.  If you want to create a simulation for yourself, you can do it within your computer, like imagination with a sensory supercomputer.  You might even opt to purchase/rent additional processing power into your property if you so desired.  Or, you can place your processor into another simulation governed by someone else, somewhat like interfacing with a game over the internet.  Your mind would of course be kept discrete and secure from all the other workings, but functioning within the simulation.

Now things get interesting. Once we had a simulation that was indistinguishable from reality, why would you want to live in actual reality? There’s no reason whatsoever why there should arbitrarily be only one- that’s absurd. But your body as you know it could be exactly created as a sequence of virtual atoms within the simulation. If that was all you did then there would be no effective difference between being in a simulation and being in “real life.” But why stop there? Carefully crafted algorithms to alter the content of the simulation would effectively give you magic powers. Absolute control over material reality, mind reading perhaps, whatever floats your boat. If you owned your own private simulation you would be as a god among NPCs. While you could play one hell of a game of Sims or Civilization or whatever you wanted, I imagine playing with only bots would get tiresome very quickly. What you need are some real intelligences to sink your teeth into. Of course in such an advanced simulation, you have lots of options. Option A is to simply arrange some virtual atoms into intelligent agents. There’s nothing stopping you from having a legitimate human opponent whenever you wanted. Or even a super genius opponent. Hell, you could hand-craft a genius expert at anything you wanted by setting up a smart person in a situation where they just practice practice practice at whatever you want to challenge them at. You then set the simulation on maximum speed and step back for a millisecond. When you return your opponent will have perhaps thousands of years of experience, and will destroy you. You could simulate the Matrix universe which contains within it another simulation, or perhaps the Firefly ‘verse, or whatever other fiction world you pleased. Full Metal Alchemist anyone?

Option B is probably even more fun: other simulation gods. PVP takes on a whole new meaning. Highlander is just the beginning. World of Warcraft is the tip of the iceberg. Try KAOS in a simulated real-world environment, with each player being assigned some other player to kill, somewhere in the world.  I for one would particularly look forward to some genius coding up some Halo-like universe where a player commands armies in RPG/RTS format where each of your characters is essentially a real person. You start off solo and may eventually build up armies of millions if you so desire, and if you can. Each side would be headed up by one Player. Maybe they can respawn, but that’s kinda pathetic. If you die, you should be dead. In a game like that any hardware you may have obtained could be easily gotten back in a new character if you were so inclined. Randomly generated authentic characters, on the other hand, would be priceless.

Which raises an interesting and vital question- if you’ve created a real person in a virtual world, do they have rights? Are they entitled to better than a gameworld of eternal war? We have no problem blowing away humanoid models in modern shooters, but when those models are atom-for-atom replicas of real people with fully functioning brains and the works, then what? I’m not really sure of this point, to be honest. While I do believe that they would be people in every sense, and that in truth their reality is just as “real” as ours despite the fact that they live in a simulation stemming from ours. However, I am disinclined to believe that it is unethical to create such a world. It is unethical to kill people within that world, but the creation of a world with the intent of waging bloody mayhem within it is not unethical. The distinction here is that by the act of creating the world, you have not killed anyone. In fact you have given life to everyone created within that world. The fact that you did so in order for other people to wage war within it is irrelevant. Intent is never significant: only action matters. However, even if you were to go inside that world and kill everyone within it, have you really taken anything from them? After creating your world, are you morally obligated to keep it running on behalf of those within it? No, you can cancel your simulation whenever you like and you have given those within it life for a certain period. Is it better than never having existed at all? Of course. In fact, I would go so far as to say that any existence whatsoever is superior to nonexistence. Yet, while some people will continue to enjoy war games with perfectly realistic human beings, I’m not sure I would find it enjoyable for long. The people running the simulation would obviously sanitize the battlefield to make it enjoyable because nobody would pay to participate in the hell of war as we know it. Perhaps some of the more hardcore people would want a somewhat realistic experience, but I’m not one of them.

I suspect that we would see many more peaceful video games with much improved realism.  Current games are trying to capitalize on the visceral immersion factor they can acquire through violence.  If they’re indistinguishable from reality, that gut reaction is no longer necessary.  Simulating a poker room, open ocean, or even a farm (where you only decide what gets done- it fast-forwards through the actual farm labor, if you’re even the one doing it) makes a lot more sense.  Interestingly though, anything you learned to do in such a simulation would be fully applicable in real life.  If you learned to swordfight in your pirate game world then if you picked up a sword in real life, the skills would be the same.  This is ignoring the fact that if we have developed sufficient technology to interface your brain with a computer to that degree, you could probably just download whatever knowledge you desired and it would be available to you in both cases.  The possibilities of creating simulations for ourselves are just endless.  I want to be a cyborg.

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Gradual Anarchism

You know something that I never really understood about the common stereotypes of anarchists is that everyone seems to think anarchists are violent.  This seems to me like claiming that all people who read Harry Potter are violent.  There are violent people who read Harry Potter.  Sure, there are violent people who are anarchists, probably because they’re looking for an excuse for their violence.  It’s just that the other anarchists aren’t up in their faces saying “don’t do that or we’re going to shoot you.”  That tendency has nothing to do with anarchism.  In truth, I would bet there are virtually zero violent anarchists, and there have never been very many at any point in history.  Anyone who thinks along the standard anarchist line, that the government exercises violent, coercive force and is inherently corrupt as a result, isn’t going to want to employ those exact methods.  The punks who just want to do whatever they want aren’t anarchists- they’re just criminals who want cheap redemption.

Real anarchists are depending upon the rise of individualism.  Even if nobody else does, they’ll continue to do their own thing, including paying taxes, dealing with bureaucracies, etc., whatever is necessary to survive in a corrupt environment.  However, when enough people start finding themselves, and start to feel the chafing of arbitrary power, we’ll find ourselves free soon enough along the very channels of corrupt power that has been such a problem so far.  Government is an adaptive entity, and it really has no choice but to deal with the objective reality set before it in the natures of its citizens.  If they’re weak, uneducated, and passive conformists then government has a freer hand to exploit them, their money, and the peoples of other countries with that money.  However, the converse is also true.  If the citizens are capable, intelligent, and rational, and value their freedoms then the government has little choice but to accommodate them.  Governments can change much faster than they would have you believe.  For example, the US government is structured to put the brakes on radical change, such as by having the senate serve six year terms, and having Supreme Court justices serve for life.  While this was a great design mechanism for smoothing out swings in popular opinion, if 90% of the country was committed to a personal philosophy of freedom and individualism the changes would become evident very quickly.  Even the most well-entrenched Supreme Court justice would blanch at the prospect of supporting an infringement on that national psyche’s doctrine.  In fact, 90% is massive overkill.  My point is that gradually growing the philosophy of anarchism is the only effective way to truly make society free.

My position on anarchism is quite mild.  Yes, anarchism is a great idea in the sense that an absence of mandatory, arbitrary government power is a good thing.  Yes, public order is not that difficult to create in a stateless society, in fact it’s probably far, far easier.  I suggest only one change from the current model of government, but it’s something of a doozy for those who haven’t thought along these lines before.  The Change: Participation in government must be completely and totally optional.  I need to clarify this point- I am not referring to (cue nasally voice) “oh, you don’t have to vote, that’s fine.”  No, I mean that if I decide not to participate that I pay no taxes, I get no services, and you have no moral authority to imprison or otherwise punish me if I disobey your laws.  You might choose to do so anyway, but then at least we’re clear that you are using hired men with guns to abduct me from my home against my will.

Let that soak in for a bit.  What if you could just choose to not be involved with a government?  A lot of people would continue as before, but then they chose it.  I have absolutely no problem with that.  Hey, after a few years maybe the government will have changed enough under its new optimizing influences that I might even rejoin it.  It’s certainly got a good basic blueprint- the Constitution and balanced powers and such.  Regarding those optimizing influences, if government participation is completely optional then I can withdraw from it and then go and create my own organization that fulfills some of the same functions, but of course, mine will do them better and cheaper or nobody will join me.  Maybe I’ll advertise the fact that my government has an extremely minimal set of laws that are clear and easy to understand.  Obviously the entire structure of my organization will be open for the public to peruse, or else why would anyone bother to trust me?  I could be asking them to agree that if they ever smoked pot, they’d agree to spend 20 years in in a rape gulag jail.  Who would want to join that?  More importantly, as owner of this government, I don’t want to have to build jails if there’s any way I can avoid it but still promise my customers law and order.  It’s in my interest to make participation as enjoyable and painless as possible, providing as many services as possible for as little cost as possible.  Apply this type of reasoning to every aspect of running a government and you’re approaching how awesomely powerful a solution The Change is.

The truly beautiful piece of this solution is that a “democracy” is where everyone gets to choose what they want.  The government’s sick perversion of this idea is that, rather than choosing what you want, you get a vote which is part of a mass decision-making process.  And whatever decision is reached by the masses, stands, irrespective of whether you like it.  Can you imagine if this same logic applied to other areas in your life?  “What am I going to have for lunch?”  The vote says the nation wants to buy hamburgers.  Therefore, you must have a hamburger along with everyone else.  It’s insanity.  If you wanted a hamburger you could just go out and buy one.  Or if you would prefer a sandwich or salad or anything else you can just go get that instead.  However, if you want something too esoteric then you’re going to have to work pretty hard to find or acquire it because nobody is going to be selling. it.  However if you think this exotic dish will appeal to a lot of people you can start your own company and sell it yourself.  Afterwards if lots of people do like it, then they can just go get it- from you.  Why we think freedom is great for insignificant decisions like what we’re going to have for lunch, but when we get to the really important decisions it’s vital that we be slaves is just beyond me.  Well not really- the obvious answer is that there’s not that much cost-benefit ratio in controlling what you have for lunch, but in taking half your income to buy weapons there is a massive niche.  The beauty of freeing people from their mandatory government participation is that they can be free in the ways they want to be free, and constrained in the ways they want to be constrained.  I guarantee that there will be at least one government (if that’s what you call it) for every significant niche.  Rather than voting into a massive pool, you vote with your feet and join wherever you like.  And if at any time that government displeases you or screws you over, you just leave and join somewhere else.

We are approaching the conception of a Dispute Resolution Organization, but we’re not quite there yet.  These governments will necessarily need to cooperate because of the nature of their environment.  Their customers/citizens might be dispersed throughout a certain area.  Although I can imagine a DRO basically owning an entire city and everyone in it belonging to that DRO.  That model could definitely work.  Perhaps that’s the future of communism, where everyone’s needs are taken care of by producing to the extent of their ability.  Anyone who wants to join that city can do so.  I suspect that there would be a severe shortage of high-capability individuals, but maybe there’s a solution to that problem that our future communist DRO will find.  Anyway, in the event of an incident involving individuals from different DRO’s, the organizations would represent their customers.

Let’s say somebody is accusing someone else of theft.  Obviously both DRO’s want to have conclusive evidence that their resolution is just, one way or the other.  They don’t want to let a guilty person go unpunished, and they really don’t want to punish someone who’s innocent.  Let’s say they conclude he’s guilty and the DRO’s make an agreement.  The thief’s DRO will fine him the value of the TV plus damages and legal fees, as per his contract to pay fines if he is found guilty of a crime, and give it to the victim’s DRO, who will then give the victim the value of their TV plus pain and suffering damages or whatnot.  If the thief is unable to pay these fines, then their DRO will cover the damages in the form of a loan and give the thief an honest chance to earn it back.  If the thief is a serious repeat offender for crimes more serious than just petty theft, the DRO will probably terminate service because it’s cheaper to have model citizen customers, and he’s not helping the DRO or anyone else.  Of course now you’re probably asking why the thief should care that his service has been terminated, since now he can steal whatever he wants and no DRO is going to punish him.  Well, he has the slight problem that if he was to be murdered then nobody would look into his death, except maybe DRO’s interested in finding out if one of their customers did the killing, or possibly some charity organizations.  He has no representation for wrongs against him, and no services provided by DRO’s.  However, more seriously, businesses have absolutely no incentive to trust him, and simply won’t do business with him, or they might charge more to compensate for the risk of dealing with him.  He might find it impossible to find somewhere to live, buy food, or get a job.  However DRO’s would have great incentive to pick up people like him, even though they’re a bit riskier than longtime customers, and might have to pay a little more for equivalent services, they get exactly the sort of basic representation and credibility they need.  Also, a DRO  would presumably  be designed to deal with new customers, providing the right incentive structure to make it more advantageous to be honest and forthright, while at the same time being enjoyable and providing valuable services

I have yet to meet someone in person who has conceived of the possibility that government participation doesn’t necessarily have to be mandatory.  If the topic shows up, usually I am met with either apathy or a “but you have to vote” mentality.  The latter group is especially annoying because their response clearly indicates they totally misunderstood my argument, and they can’t even visualize the idea of not being a part of a government.  Clearly you don’t have to vote, and though it’s probably a good idea, that’s not what I’m talking about anyway!  Give the people the option of choosing their government, or creating one that suits their needs, rather than merely giving them a vote to move a colossal mass of humanity just that fraction of an inch.

Ancient Wisdom

I just read a fascinating article, about how ancient knowledge is, strictly speaking, younger than modern thought. Somewhere in the middle I was struck by the remarkable feeling of “why on earth didn’t I think of this?” I suppose to some degree I’ve always thought this, but never articulated it. When you read older texts the natural inclination is to pick bits out, I like that, I like that, that’s just nonsense, and that’s freaky but there might be some truth to that… and so on.

That the article is a response to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is actually a coincidence, but I suppose I need to address some of the ancient wisdom aspects of the stoic school of thought. At its core, stoicism is a single tenet in similar fashion to cynicism (philosophical Cynicism, not the colloquial use). Stoicism is the belief that the pursuit of truth, the application of rationality, will make you happy. Cynicism says that being virtuous will make you happy, and stoicism extends that by saying that being virtuous is the pursuit of truth. All evil is the product of ignorance, bias, error, or some other irrationality. To me this seems perfectly obvious, but I imagine most of the people reading this are puzzled by that assertion.

Well, let’s start with the basic question here: What is morality? Morality is adherence to a moral system. A moral system is a set of principles governing ideal or preferred behavior for human action or choice. Ethics is the art/science of determining what system of morality produces the most desirable behavior. So basically what we’re saying is that if everyone could conclusively figure out what the best behavior for them would be, they would do it because by definition that’s the behavior that is best for them. The basic argument here is that morality is not arbitrary: it has a very definite function of producing the most positive gain for you, as well as everyone else. Therefore, the application of reason to figure out the best course is essentially the basic building block of morality. Once you’ve figured it out, assuming you’re still sane, you really have only one course because it’s the one that gives you (and everyone else) the most utility.

The clinch comes when we try to distinguish utility from utility, for example by saying that it’s more moral to help others than to help yourself- which is of course nonsense. If you have a job, you are under no moral obligation to give away all your money to the unemployed. In fact, such an action could (and I would) be construed as evil because you are incentivizing unemployment for those most vulnerable to it. Now there is nothing wrong with giving them money, but do not attempt to argue that there is a moral compunction to do so. Reasoning such as “the greatest good to the greatest number” sounds very appealing on the surface because it is the heuristic that most people use to maximize utility. As a heuristic, it is dazzlingly effective. However, applying that principle without having a firm grasp on what morality actually is, treating the heuristic as the primary model, produces some absolutely stunningly delusional behavior.

Let’s take an example. You have a month’s supply of food, and you go to Africa where there are millions of starving children. Your month’s supply of food is meant to feed 1 person for 30 days, or about 90 meals. That could easily be stretched out to feed 90 starving African children for 1 meal, or maybe even 180 kids for half a meal. But then of course you have no food for a month and nearly starve yourself. Not to mention that all those kids you fed are still in the same position: plus one meal, looking for the next one. What exactly have you accomplished? The greatest good to the greatest number is quite authoritative: um, yeah, 180 starving people versus 1 well-fed person? Hey, you should even volunteer to be killed and eaten (sarcastically speaking- a real utilitarian places an extremely high negative consequence on death so they wouldn’t argue that). I would instead argue that you have, at best, accomplished nothing. At worst, you are actually helping to create more starving African children, making it impossible for African agriculture to get off the ground, etc. etc. etc. resulting in a net negative utility for both parties. I’m not saying you shouldn’t help, I’m just saying you picked a damn stupid way to help out. How about this instead: employ 180 starving African children in such a way that you can pay them and make money at the same time. That way you feed them indefinitely, and turn a profit at the same time. Sound like a smarter plan? Just maybe? Perhaps big companies find it unprofitable to purchase African labor for one reason or another, perhaps Chinese labor is cheaper, or it’s riskier, or something. Well, that’s a perfect situation for charity to step in. Sure, we’ll accept paying slightly more for labor, or suffer some extra risk, because we want to employ starving African kids. We can charge just enough extra to cover it and slap a label on the front with a truly pitiful, heart-wrenching picture of African poverty to make up the difference. People are nice- if they think you’re doing something worthwhile they might pay slightly more to help you out as a kind of donation. Here’s the magic behind this tactic: the more money you get in donations the more resistance you’re going to get to getting more (of course you also have more resources so it may even out, but that’s more complicated). It’s harder to get a $100 donation than a $50 donation, basically. However, as you sell more African-labor products, you can expand and employ even more starving African children to make even more product, which even more people will buy, and so on. And on top of that, you have more money in profits which you can turn around and do what conventional charities do as well.

Wow that went off topic hardcore like a sky plunge. Before we return from the wilderness, I want to address utilitarianism again. Utilitarianism is a technique, a mental tool, that we all instinctively use to maximize value for ourselves, and presumably others as well. However, holding it up as the foundational moral rule is an error because it doesn’t actually maximize individual value- it’s a systemic attempt to justify social equilibrium and equal distribution. Consider: if everyone followed the principle of “the greatest good to the greatest number” then what would result? Well, for starters, it’s pretty obvious that poor people get more value out of money, so if you’re rich you would give them money until you were equal, after which giving them further money is a net subtraction because you would have less, and thus be losing more “value” than they would be getting. What about relationships? Clearly people with fewer friends would get more value from having an additional friends than people who have lots of friends, so you have to identify how many friends each person has, and attempt to address that inequality to the extent of your ability (I’m not even going to go into romantic relationships). Regarding ability, clearly anybody with a skill is deriving more value from it than those who don’t. However skill is difficult to transmit, so while it would be your moral duty to teach everyone your skill, during that process (continuous due to new people being born) you would have to surrender all products of your specialized skills to the community as a whole, etc. etc. etc. We’re going to call this here. Utilitarianism basically says that because you are one, and the world is legion, you deserve to have nothing that everyone else doesn’t already have. You’re powerless and worthless, and must sacrifice to others. Of course, this thinking is then applied to everyone- so who exactly is gaining from all this sacrificing?

Now we arrive back at stoicism. Your life and freedom are preconditions unto themselves- the fact that you are alive justifies your life, and while you have a natural right to it, you most certainly do not have my guarantee of it. In order for me or anyone else (read: government) to make that guarantee I would have to be prepared to defy legality, morality, perhaps even reality. Would I kill that guy over there to save this guy over here because this guy has my guarantee that he will live? No. The same holds true for your liberty. You’re free, but I have no responsibility to uphold that freedom. Even you have no responsibility to uphold your own freedom. Hey, maybe you enjoy being locked in a cell while prison guards deprive you of sleep and torture you with batons. Maybe you would pay good money to have that happen to you. And you’re thinking “uh uh, only if they’re strippers!” As you may have gathered, these aren’t fundamental tenets of stoicism: there is only one. These are corollaries that I have arrived at. Your mileage may vary, and that’s great. Marcus Aurelius is the same way- he’s got his answers, I have mine. Mine are the later draft, and I think I am more right than Aurelius was in his day, but in the future there will be other philosophers who have teased even more truth out of reality. However there is a constant: the power to pursue that truth. Previous thinkers always help- if those future thinkers were born into today’s world they probably wouldn’t do any better than I can. I have the unbridled arrogance to say that my own musings into this blog are as valid as the most famous thinker you can name: who do you want- Socrates? Rand? Newton? Nietzsche? Anything you happen to write falls under the same heading. While there exists some absolute truth, the simple fact is that we aren’t omni entities that can discern reality in such different ways from one another that one of us can say the other’s line of thinking is bunk to the extent that I can denounce a squirrel. True, if you say something that is just hogwash then I’ll call you on it. But this is just one squirrel talking to another. Albert Einstein is a squirrel. I’d love to see that sentence end up quoted on some other blog. “Today on the Zen Stoic: “Albert Einstein is a squirrel.” What do you think?”

I’ve gone from Ancient Wisdom and starving children, to dominatrices and “Albert Einstein is a squirrel.” I think I’m done here.