On Antisocial Stoics

I would like to address a claim that is sometimes made against stoics, particularly against some of the ideas of Marcus Aurelius, who said, among other things, “Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own, and nothing to grow upon you that will give you agony when it is torn away.”  Given the extremely elevated status of friends and interpersonal relationships in our society, this concept doesn’t jive well with the idea that we all have to form deep bonds with one another.  The idea of being stoic and of suppressing your emotions as subservient to your mind seems to conflict with the idea that we’re supposed to share our feelings with others.  Why the belief is that if someone else is aware of the factual state of your existence creates a bond is beyond me, but it is implicitly assumed in our interactions with one another.  The most canonical example is when you encounter someone you know and ask them how they’re doing, what’s going on with them, or the like.  Both of you probably know, if you thought about it, that the other person’s answer is irrelevant.  Neither of you could give a damn.  But it’s the greeting you use because it is a sharing of information of a moderately personal nature, or at least it’s a question requesting that information which implies a certain closeness.  Whether you’re doing it to provoke that sense of intimacy in the other person, in the impressions of people listening in, or to convince yourself, I don’t know.  However I do know that very little of what is commonly thought of as conversation is an actual sharing of empathic significance or deep thoughts.  What is commonly accepted as “small talk” is the norm of human interaction, and it is accepted as having zero functionality.

Now, I am of course being a little over-literal here.  The purpose of small talk is that it is talk where everyone concerned might be uncomfortable in having a real conversation, it fills up the time and allows people to get comfortable with one another.  However it is not and will never be the goal or endpoint.  It is vital that just “being with” other people is never something you’re setting out to do, because standing next to other humanoid figures and flapping your vocal folds is, in and of itself, not really a worthwhile activity.  If you’re interacting on an empathic, mental, philosophical, or whatever medium in a way that gives you genuine enjoyment such that you would actively choose to enjoy that person’s presence in favor of some other activity you enjoy then of course it’s a good thing- that’s just a basic pursuit of your own satisfaction.  This is obvious and a trivial proof, but I think I need to inject it here so I’m not scaring off exactly the people who need to hear this.

The best corollary to this whole mess is our modern conception of sex, especially among men.  Men tend to be in a position of weakness and insecurity due to having conflicting internal models and programming and all manner of other nonsense going on in their heads leaving them a little lost and confused.  One of the dominant themes that result is a pursuit of sex that is driven more by social power than actual personal satisfaction.  Many men are more gratified by the fact that they are having sex than they are enjoying the sex itself.  They’ll brag to their buddies about it and allow themselves that extra iota of self-respect because they “got laid.”  The self-destructive side of this thinking is that they honestly believe they aren’t worth anything unless they can convince a woman that they are worthwhile enough to sleep with.  I am unsure of how many women have this problem, but it is widespread among men.  I suspect that because women are dealing with this population of men, they live in sexual abundance and don’t develop the same complex- attractive women at least if not all women.  I am speculating now, but I find it probable that women have a similar complex revolving around marriage, gratified more by the fact of being married than they enjoy the marriage itself, resulting in the “must get married” effect at a certain age.  Many, many people of both sexes are gratified more by the presence of other people than they are actually enjoying being with them.

The simple fact of the matter is that if you go out seeking deep bonds, what you will find is the most superficial of relations with people as desperate for companionship as yourself.  Deep bonds, described as such, actually don’t exist as we conceive of them.  It’s not that you spend a lot of time with someone or that you have known them for a long time, or even that you know a great deal about them and their personal preferences such as their favorite flavor of ice cream.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that knowing a huge amount about their preferential minutiae actually subtracts significantly from the goal that most people are seeking.  If there’s a woman I like, I could care less what her favorite flavor of ice cream is.  The question is whether or not she is fun to be around.  If I was to feverishly try to get her to like me or memorize her personal preferences, that’s work.  Stupid, counterproductive, and manipulative work, at that.  That’s all.  Perhaps we have deep empathy, perhaps we’re alike, maybe we have good discussions or great sex, it makes no difference (OK, I lie) the question is only if she’s a positive presence in some- preferably many- ways.

Part of the problem is the widespread perspective of the “personality.”  And for the love of life NEVER evaluate someone’s “personality” as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  Both those words are the most abused semantic identities ever created, and they both can mean nearly anything while being very specific about one thing and one thing only- and by hiding the implementation of that judgment there is no way to argue with it.  There is no such thing as a personality- a person is composed of the sum of their mind and actions derived from it.  There is no way that you can ascribe someone a personality which if they do something that is “not like them” then they’re being fake or somehow not being themselves.  Whatever the circumstances, they are merely exhibiting a decision-making pattern you haven’t previously observed or were otherwise unaware of.  It is the same person, ergo they are the same person.  This idea that we can understand someone else, ascribe them a simplified model that will predict their behavior and then expect that behavior from them is disgusting.  People are very complex- one person is far more complex than the sum of all of their understandings of other people, much less someone else’s understanding of them.  It can’t be your personality that you like coffee, and that you’re doing something bad when you don’t drink coffee.  The drive to be consistent is not a natural one- it’s a societal stamp mark on the inside of your brain that tells you to be simple so that others can understand you better.  But who gives a flying shit about whether other people understand you?  Do what you want!  If you wake up and wonder if eggs scrambled with cocoa and baking soda tastes good with ketchup, then go right ahead and try it!  It doesn’t have to be your personality that you eat weird things- it’s just something you want to do, so you do it.  That’s a bit of a weird example, but it holds.  Why we don’t expect one another to do what we want is just beyond me, especially in our day and age with so many options available.  There are all manner of stigma against jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, sluts, you name it, there’s a stereotype that someone wants to slot you into.  So, how about, just to screw with them, completely break their model of the world by totally not fitting into the model they would like you to.  Just for fun.

So here’s the question.  “Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own, and nothing to grow upon you that will give you agony when it is torn away.”  The idea here is that you are your own pursuits and not permitting external people or objects to influence you or your goals.  This is both a warning against addictions of all forms, perhaps especially social ones, and a caveat emptor for everything you allow into your life.  You control your personal sphere- to the best of your ability at least.  It is your responsibility and nobody else’s to make sure that only elements you want are a part of your life, and it’s your duty to yourself to safeguard the vaults against the thieves that would seek to plunder your wealth.

I have something to say about victimization here.  Blaming the victim for a crime committed against them is the original scam.  It is the classical attempt to cheat and then get away with it, and the more serious the crime, the more potent a tactic it becomes.  The idea that you control your person means that yes, to a degree, you are responsible if something bad happens to you.  There are precautions you could have taken, etc. etc.  No matter the event, there are always choices you could have made to avoid that outcome you deem makes you a victim.  However part of the idea of being actually in control means that you are never a “victim” of other people’s choices or actions, because the very idea implies that you aren’t actually in control.  So you are only actually a victim when the aggressor has actively applied intelligence to disable, short-circuit, or otherwise evade whatever defenses or precautions you have taken against being taken advantage of.  Think of it like this: if you’re on a desert island and a bear comes and steals your food, then you’re a victim.  But you could have done any number of things to prevent your food from being stolen, such as hanging your food from a tree, out of reach.  The bear is fundamentally at fault here (I don’t believe the conventional idea of “blame” either, so this explanation might be a little awkward without a background but I’ll have to go on anyway) but that doesn’t mean you can sit there and rage about how that damn bear has made you a victim.  Your actions, to the degree that you invested resources to prevent an undesirable outcome, resulted in some probability of that undesirable outcome occurring- a risk.  Now, there are obviously far too many *possible* risks to address, but we can exercise our reason to determine which ones we need to address, which ones are worthwhile to address, and which ones we can safely ignore.  If you ignore a risk you should not have, then you are responsible for that mistake, even if you aren’t the acting agent of the aggression committed.  A bear is too animate.  Let’s go with physics.  You leave your food outside for a long time, and it rots.  Well?  You are responsible because you misjudged the risk of it rotting, didn’t take sufficient precautions, and now your food is gone.  In this case, there is no aggressor at all- it’s you against the laws of physics, but the situation is exactly identical.  You can mope around claiming to be a victim, perhaps go to the government and demand that your food be replaced…  yada yada.  Now, I absolutely do not want this concept of judgment and addressing of risk to be confused with actually blaming the victim as the active agent in their own victimization.  These are completely different concepts entirely.  An agent acting in a way that is exploitative of another agent is doing so because their incentives line up appropriately to make that a course of action they find acceptable.  The idea of punishing them is to tip these scales enough that it is no longer economical to exploit others.  There is of course the problem of giving the power of retribution to who, exactly, which I won’t go into here because this isn’t a post about anarchism.  The reason why you can’t have the punishment be equal to the crime (remove connotations of law or government) committed is that the risk of capture is never 100%.  Let’s say a thief steals purses.  If he gets caught 50% of the time, but each time he’s caught he only has to return the amount he stole, then it doesn’t really change the thief’s decision-making circumstances that much.  However, if the cost is losing a hand then the thief will think twice before stealing that purse because there would need to be a lot of money in there to justify a 50% chance, or even a 1% chance, of losing a hand.  Now, the funny thing about punishment is that you also have to account for a certain probability of false positives.  So if an innocent man is accused of stealing that purse and gets his hand cut off, well that’s pretty damn unjust, isn’t it?  So we have to scale back the punishment until it is enough to stop thieves while being acceptable to the innocents based on the risk of being hit with that false positive.  Keeping in mind that we are assuming the populace has a say in what the punishments are.  If you’re a totalitarian government, you could give a damn what the civvies say, and drastic punishments make sense because it’s less crime you have to deal with, freeing up resources for you to put towards your own ends.  Draconian methods of control are, pound for pound, more efficient in terms of resources spent versus results achieved.  Their main problem, in fact, is that they are so efficient that it makes life a living hell for nearly everyone.

After that long digression, back to the main issue.  If you’re simply enjoying another person’s presence, then there’s no further expectation in the matter.  If they leave, you’re no longer enjoying their presence.  You start to run into problems when you ascribe ultimate value to people or objects, because you can’t unlink ultimate value as long as you actually perceive it as “the ultimate good in the whole universe.”  Now we run into a very controversial edge case when dealing with the loss of loved ones.  I say it’s an edge case because it doesn’t happen very often relative to our lifetimes.  We’re not losing loved ones every other week.  A model that was focused primarily on dealing with death of the most intimate friends (I will not say “and family” because if your family are not your close friends then why are you with them?).  You know what, I’m going to elaborate on that parenthetical thought.  Your family, especially your nuclear family such as parents and immediate siblings, are people.  You know them for longer, and have more opportunity to become very good friends with them, and when you’re a child there is a certain amount of not-having-a-choice in the matter that forces you to make friends or make war, and rational individuals choose the former in all but the most extreme circumstances.  So there’s just very close friends.  The fact that you’re biologically related is of no philosophical significance whatsoever.  Medical significance, yes, but only because knowledge of your family’s genes can be used to deduce your genes.  Social significance, of course not.  So I will treat death of family as the death of friends who were equally close as family members.  Now, to be honest, this is a topic that I’m reluctant to exercise my usual methods of beating to death because there may be readers who have such a powerful subjective experience of the matter that I will waste my time if I try to dismiss the bits that require dismissal, focus in on what is significant , and use it build up a new model that more accurately fits reality and rationality.  We have arrived at the idea that being with people is something you do for yourself, but it seems like lunacy to say that the death of a loved one shouldn’t hurt because you aren’t able to enjoy their presence any more.  That’s just not strong enough, right?  BUt isn’t that exactly what mourning is?  You won’t speak to that person again, or see them, or talk to them, or whatever else.  If you could do those things then you wouldn’t care if they were technically dead- that’s just a cessation of some bodily functions.  If they could die and leave the person intact, now wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing- you wouldn’t have to worry about death.  This is actually a fairly direct deduction for most people, but the idea that the physical death isn’t the source of their trouble, isn’t.  It is the result of the event of death that they’re mourning.  Many religions exploit this weakness in thinking to interject “But life does continue after death!” and then the explanations, the fairy tales, and the bullshit that follows.  They are careful, however, to always exclude the very functionality that death precludes because they are unable to provide it.  They can’t help you talk to your dead loved ones, so they hide them away somewhere as ghosts or in heaven where you will go, too, once you die.  The intuitive universality of the death process makes this nearly logical, except that a slight elaboration can add a significant degree of control over the behavior of the people who want to believe.  And some of the crueler religions take advantage of exactly these people, and make this death process conditional upon your life, and exactly prescribed behaviors.  The most common trick is to exploit vague semantic identities such as “good” and “bad” which enable retroactive changing of what exactly those conditions are for live updating of the behavior of the believers based on what is expedient at the time.  I’m always amazed and fascinated at the complexity of religion as an organism, and the huge potential that religion proves memes have as a life form.

I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t feel pain- what a ridiculous assertion for a stoic.  The idea is that pain, like other sensations or emotions, are there to help you, not govern you.  If you felt fear and were unable to do anything else but freeze up, curl up into the fetal position, and pray, then what use is that?  For animals like the possum, it is an irresistible instinctive reaction programmed into them because in 99% of cases (at least in the genes’ experience) this is an effective defense mechanism, and giving the possum control over the matter would just screw up the system.  This isn’t strictly accurate because possums evolved their primary featureset in the time before memetic delegation had been “invented” by evolutionary processes.  The application of reason is itself a major feature of humanity, and quite novel in genetic terms.  If you wanted to be truly biological about it, you can look at memetic evolution as the ultimate genetic trick, but the problem is that it is so effective it makes genes obsolete.  Also, intelligence is so effective that genetic evolution can’t keep up with the rate of change.  For the prurient example, we have invented cars and now they’re everywhere.  And now possums, with their very effective defense mechanism of freezing up when afraid, causes them to get run over by speeding cars, and the genes can’t un-wire that feature given the new environment because they aren’t able to perceive and judge.  I would like to say, though, that genes are definitely alive.  Not just in the sense that a person is alive, but the gene of HUMANS is alive in a strange information amalgamation of the genes in every person in a way that we really can’t quite comprehend because there’s too many people, too much noise, and too much uncertainty about genes themselves.  The day that we truly understand genes completely, we won’t need them anymore because we’ll be able to construct our own biological machines to any specification or design we like.  They’re just like any other machine, but far more complicated and sophisticated.  Especially the organic ability to reproduce.  Interestingly, though, the body is itself one of the few things that we are currently unable to separate our selves from.  Some can conceive of what that might be like, and most of them have it wrong (I guarantee that I do, but it’s more complete than most, at least).  Note that the objective is to separate your self from as much as possible of what you don’t want, of that which subtracts from your good or your happiness.  I would argue that, for as long as it works, your body adds immensely to that happiness.  And as far as it doesn’t, it subtracts immensely.  So an ability to perfectly fix the human body, a hypothetical perfect medicine, would obsolete the need for mechanical bodies unless their features were so far beyond those of a human body (which is the case) that you could get even more out of one.  Probably the main advantage is the ability to add processing power and memory, and the ability to have direct inputs.  Anyway, permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own.  I am not my body, but insofar as I use it, rely upon it, and wish to keep it, it is mine.

So if I don’t even value my own body enough to want to keep it, what does that mean?  Well, I never said that I didn’t value my body, just that the value it provides is of the material sort, similar to eating a burrito, except that instead of the satisfaction of the burrito, my body contains the hardware necessary to eat the burrito, and without it any sort of gustatory satisfaction would be impossible (not strictly true- a perfect simulation of the experience is an identity).  This is similar to having a computer.  The computer in and of itself doesn’t actually provide a whole lot of satisfaction, but the things you can do with it will.  Perhaps the computer hardware hobbyists who make it a point of pride to have the best possible machine wired up in the best possible configuration get significant enjoyment out of simply possessing the hardware itself.  However, even with that example, we see parallels with the human body, such as with fitness junkies who make it a point of pride to have bodies sculpted out of steel, and enjoy simply having it.  Important note: most of these “fitness junkies” are doing it because of other people, not because they genuinely enjoy it, or because they even want the results.  And they get further conflicted by the fact that they are causing a change, which might conflict with their perception of themselves, or with others’ perceptions, and for some reason they’re anxious to step outside of that box.

Anyway, my entire point is quite simple, as usual, but it’s dressed up with many trimmings like mirrors in every corner of the room to show off the gleam on the little gem in the middle.  The idea that you should be dependent on others, the idea that that constitutes good social practices, the concept of a social personality, all of these things are foisted upon us because others had them foisted upon them.  We are the monkeys conditioned not to reach for the bananas within our reach because someone, at some point in the past, was punished for trying.  So now we have to live with everyone else.  But the most vital point is this: they don’t matter.  If you want to reach for that banana, they could physically stop you, but if they do then you have a clear and objective obstacle in your way, which can be overcome, instead of the hazy, confusing aimlessness of contradiction.

Unorthodox Determinism

I have recently encountered a massive conflict between the proponents of free will and determinism, and to me both sides seem a little shortsighted.  The free will crew believes they have free will more or less because they want to, or they argue that if the universe is deterministic then things like moral responsibility or experience become worthless.  Now this is clearly false because the only thing the deterministic side claims is that the universe follows universal causal rules and there are no miracles that violate those rules.  They can counter the free will arguments with arguments about building houses, saying that “you start building the house because if you just sit on your ass then it won’t get built.”  Saying that it is predestined that the house be built and then doing nothing is an incorrect and fraudulent corruption of deterministic thinking.

Though a fascinating debate, you’re both wrong.  And you’re both right.  Free will is a direct result of a causal, deterministic universe to the point that without such a universe then free will would be meaningless.  Time for an example; let’s take a deck of cards and mix it up randomly.  Clearly, while the deck is just sitting there, the order of the cards is fixed, unchanging, and predetermined.  The fact that this is true does not mean that the contents of the deck are somehow irrelevant.  In fact, the knowledge that they aren’t changing doesn’t actually help you at all because you don’t know what they are.  If you were playing a game like Texas Hold ‘Em Poker then you have to allow for the fact that any of the unknown cards could be any of the cards you haven’t accounted for.  In reality the identity of those cards is completely fixed.  Another player can be looking at some of those cards and be presented with exactly the same situation but with a different context containing differing information.  By the logic of the free will corps, the fact that the cards are predetermined somehow makes the game irrelevant, boring, and useless.  This is clearly false due to the interplay of information and unknowns.  There is a case to be laid against my example because I introduce a second layer of free will in the players’ responses to their predetermined cards, but we’re talking imprecise examples right now and I’ll lay out my true and complete argument shortly.  So with our deck of cards, you can draw a card and then its position is locked in in a past-historical sense, but its position was equally predetermined beforehand.  Your knowledge has changed, and that’s all.  It is a significant and common fallacy, however, to then assume that the cards could not have been ordered in any other way.  The fact that they could have been drawn in any other logically possible way means that you are forced to allow for it on equal terms with the way they actually were drawn.  Notice the quantum zippering effect of multiple strings of possible futures being reduced to one single past as you draw each card.  Also note the interesting effects of inference as you go through the deck.  If all the clubs are gone then you know that the next card will not be a club, for example.  Saying that the future is predetermined is really an extremely short step from the obvious truth that the past is predetermined, or more accurately that it is unchangeable after the fact.

The fundamental principle in question is emergent behavior.  Our universe exhibits emergent predictability based on inherently random subunits.  The most elementary particles behave extraordinarily erratically, but macroscopic objects exhibit stability, and extremely large conglomerates of matter such as stars or galaxies are materially determined into the future, and the fluctuations on the lowest level aren’t going to affect entities of such a massive scale.  The weight of probability is just too large at high scales.  The basic organizing principle of the universe is therefore that, probabilistically speaking, it follows the path of least resistance.  The universe resolves itself into the most probable stable arrangement based upon the input of all its particles.  Humans inhabit the scale at which the world around us is stable, but still able to fluctuate enough for small systems’ outputs to produce differing results as conditions require.  Life is the self-organization of matter, and as life becomes more sophisticated in its organization techniques, its ability to convert more matter into animate matter increases.  Once upon a time the chaos event horizon was on the microbial level; random fluctuations in the primordial soup produced the first RNA capable of duplicating itself purely by “chance.”  Statistically, on earth’s conditions, given the vast volume and time scales we’re talking about it wasn’t really “chance.”  Especially so because of the anthropic principle.  If we hadn’t appeared, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it.  If we had appeared somewhere else, we’d be talking about it wherever the conditions were suitable for us to appear.  So it’s really not randomness.  In the inexorable way that life does, it proceeded to duplicate itself and divide into more complex lifeforms.  Eventually, the chaos event horizon broadened into macroscopic lifeforms by the development of the cell- particularly those of the eukaryotic variety which allowed organisms like us to overcome the problems of osmosis and diffusion.  A giant, human-sized amoeba (or even a non-microscopic one) is impossible because substances absorbed through the membrane wouldn’t diffuse to the nucleus and other structures.  So lifeforms like us are composed of trillions of little cooperating microbes which don’t violate those rules.  How does this relate to determinism?  Well, it could be said that the development of life exactly as it was, including down to the individual organism level, was predetermined.  Does this change how, beforehand, it couldn’t have been determined how the future would have unrolled?  Asking what would have happened had the universe proceeded in a slightly different manner is exactly the same as asking what would have happened if one of those cards in the deck was a different card.  Guess what?  The answer is very simple.  The card you had drawn would simply be different, leaving you to ask the same question.

So now we’re ready to address the true issue on determinism.  We live in a causal reality where effect follows cause all the time.  We can formulate models and simulations to meaningfully represent the world around us and make predictions about our world.  Let’s do an experiment.  What happens if you throw a rock up?  It falls down.  Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ve just proved that we live in a deterministic universe.  The fact that our universe is composed of immutable, consistent laws acting on a consistent basis means that it is possible to predict the future.  Let’s take a more useful example.  You’re walking along some mountain trail, and you come upon a gorge.  Across this gorge are three bridges.  One of them is extremely rickety, and if you try to cross it then you will fall.  The second is very stable, but on the other side are some soldiers with guns, and you of course have no papers!  If you try to cross there, you will be shot.  The third bridge is a small townie bridge that looks safe.  Which bridge do you cross?  If you answered bridge #3 then I’m glad we can agree that we live in a deterministic universe compatible with free will.  Due to the deck-of-cards-effect, whatever happens to occur was probabilistically certain.  However, we live in a causal universe so if you choose to cross the rickety bridge and you fall to your death, you were predestined to arrive at the choice, choose the first bridge, and fall to your death.  If you choose the second bridge, the same concept holds for you being shot.  And if you choose the third bridge, your fate is to make it across and go on your merry way.  If this sounds like I’m ignoring the deterministic aspect of my argument, that’s because your perspective of determinism is fundamentally flawed.  You seem to think that the fact that it is predetermined has meaningful import on what is predetermined.  You seem to think that if determinism is true, that makes it possible to say things like “your destiny is to take the first bridge and die.”  This is ridiculous.  Let’s modify our situation so that, back in Phuket, some mystic told you that you would be faced with this choice and that you would choose the first bridge and die.  When you arrive at that situation, you choose the safe way, you live, and then laugh at the insanity of the mystic.  Or perhaps you’re of the religious bent and you decide to run headlong down the rickety bridge, and fall to your death because the mystic said you would.  Obviously any sort of mystic divination is impossible.  Unless that mystic is blessed with an absolutely unbelievable amount of brainpower, their prediction is futile- more on this shortly.  And even if the prediction was effective, the fact that they said it (actually just the fact that they predicted it) changed the conditions and thus invalidated the prediction.  Lots of time travel fiction has all sorts of weird, twisted, self-referential paradoxes.  For example, later on in your quest you come upon another bridge which looks perfectly sound but then as you’re crossing it gets hit with a meteor and you fall to your death while the mystic laughs over your corpse.  Or maybe whichever bridge you choose turns out to be the rickety one and you fall to your death.  Or maybe something even more bizarre.  Such paradoxes/improbabilities/insanities are entertaining, but they embody a truly stupid way of understanding the world if they push it as truth.

Now we’re at an interesting understanding of fate.  We can make useful predictions about stuff like rocksy flying, but not about the nature of the universe.  Why are our simulations good in some circumstances, but not in others?  Simple.  Imperfect models will produce imperfect results.  It turns out that our model of the rock flying is more than sufficient to predict something so simple.  It’s a solved system.  However, if you wanted to be perfectly accurate in describing the nature of the rock’s motion, down to the last particle, you would still require a massive amount of processing capability.  That’s unnecessary because a simplified model is good enough for our practical purposes.  Tic-tac-toe, young children eventually figure out, is a solved game.  It’s possible to at least tie every single time.  Theoretically, a sufficiently powerful intelligence can represent any information set or solve any such problem.  If we can predict the way the rock will fall, a vastly more intelligent agent might predict the chemistry of a microbe and thus its activity.  An even more intelligent agent might work on an organism as complicated as a human.  An even more intelligent one might “solve” the planet and its ecosystem.  We can’t play chess with that type of knowledge because the game is so fantastically complicated relative to our mental faculties that we cannot just solve it.  In fact, we can’t even verify if it can be solved.  I would bet it can as long as you don’t employ “infinite intelligences” in your proof, but now we’re getting off topic.  Back to the real world, if you thought chess was complicated, then how on earth would you even begin to go about solving the behavior of, say, a squirrel?  The task boggles the mind.  However that wouldn’t even require that much processing capability- you only need all the data about the squirrel and its surroundings out to the limit of the squirrel’s perceptual ability, plus an exact model of the squirrel’s behavior.  Now consider doing the same thing with the earth as a whole.  Simply impossible by any modern standard.  As we expand our simulation’s purview to a galaxy, a cluster, and so on, the amount of processing power required expands to insane levels.  Eventually we reach the edge of the universe, but probably long before then we’ll have run out of real estate with which to run a simulation.  In order to create processing capability, you have to store information somehow.  Fundamentally, all our information storage methods involve the placement, polarization, or other modification or use of some form of the universe’s substance.  It therefore follows that it is impossible to simulate the complete universe because in order to do so you would need one bit of information for every bit in the universe.  Basically, you would have to represent the universe with itself, which gets us nowhere as to predicting it.  However, more efficient but imperfect models can probably make fairly accurate assertions about the future, such as the case with the rock.  The use of heuristic models in place of pure simulations is what gives intelligence its power.

Now I need to close the loop- free will and determinism.  So we live in a predetermined universe because the universe follows causality, in the form of consistent laws and a consistent representation of itself.  Yet at the same time the fact that it is predetermined alone gives us absolutely no information about its nature, and just like the deck of cards which is predetermined but at the same time unknown, the universe’s causality is exactly what makes it useful to us as organisms.  You choose to cross the safe bridge because you know you’re going to get across, and you can make that prediction because you implicitly understand and respect the causality of the universe.  Yet at the same time, because your intelligence allows you to do that, you are forced to acknowledge the fact that a more intelligent predictor could make more powerful predictions than you, and so on and so forth up until all solvable problems are, or can be, solved.  However, it is the fact that these predictions can be abstracted that gives us the foundation upon which free will is built: choice.  Without the power to abstract features of the universe into utility and options, there can be no choice.  If you were unable to predict in the simulation sense, then trading money for food would have no meaning because food would have no meaning for you.  In fact, the continuity of your existence would have no meaning, time itself would have no meaning.  When you make a choice, it is implicitly assumed that there is a positive action being taken- “I choose this over that.”  But in order to do that, you first have to know what this and that are, and you can only do that by extrapolating into the future.  In fact, consciousness itself cannot exist without extrapolation into the future.  It’s what processing power does that distinguishes it from the rock at the core of the earth with random electrical impulses flashing through it.  Abstraction is an extrapolation into the future by creating, combining, refining, or modifying concepts derived from the past on the basis that such extrapolation will have utility later, even if it’s a split second later.  Without “If I do this then this will happen” free will is completely worthless.  A simulation takes data from the past and computes the future, and a hypothetical takes data that perhaps hasn’t happened (yet) and computes the potential future.  The inference I was talking about back with the deck of cards is your mind rearranging and making manageable the objective world around it, in this case the deck of cards.  You were simulating a few known conditions of the remainder of the deck when all the clubs, or all the kings were drawn.  And clearly you can handle a hypothetical under the same conditions because you’re reading this right now and thinking about what would happen if all the kings or all the clubs were drawn.

So you really can’t get away from the conclusion: while the universe is predetermined, the fact that it cannot be simulated perfectly means that your experience right now is the best shot you’re going to get at it.  You have free will because exactly what’s going to happen cannot be known, and must necessarily be unknown.  It’s an endless deck containing an infinite variety of cards.  We have an endlessly cascading moment of probabilistic chaos, and while we can throw imperfect simulations at it until we’re blue in the face, nobody can know with absolute certainty exactly what’s going to happen.  The universe is predetermined, but each and every one of us is blessed with limited perspective.  Enjoy it.

Of course I have another caveat, however.  If we were somehow to have total perspective on our universe, it would be conclusive proof that there existed at least one other, more grandiose universe encompassing it that we couldn’t have total perspective on.

Sex, the True Self, & Social Interaction

Sex is the primary motivator of biological life. Stop giggling you immature high school girls- get over it. Now the obvious issue with sex is that if you’re a biological organism, you can’t have any if you’re dead. So sex and death drive human motivations. It’s really not that hard to draw a direct line from any and all choices back to either sex or death. Eat a big mac or a ham sandwich? One of them will make you fat and slow- easier for a predator to catch, as well as making you less attractive. However, it also provides a high amount of energy in the short term, despite its notable lack of nutritional content. The other is cheap, freeing up resources to finance more materiel to attract the opposite sex, or to avoid death.

Now this is especially critical when applied to interpersonal relations. This is a widely understood argument, but I will reiterate it. Essentially, social ostracism is death because some predator will come along and eat you. However, more importantly (in the short term anyway), social ostracism is extreme negative progress in the sex direction because not only does it lower your value, if you’re alone in the wilds then there’s not a lot of opportunity anyway. So the need to “fit in” as it’s called, is hardwired into us as a sort of sex-and-death issue. If we were dumb sacks of meat that would work pretty well in maintaining social cohesion. However, humans are a dual entity. We are a genetic and therefore programmatically biological entity, and those genes also create for us a brain and a prototypical mental organism which then develops. The layers of abstraction up from raw chemical reactions to higher-level consciousness is evident in the brain. At the lowest level is basic chemical interaction like we witness in microbes. Once life becomes macroscopic, it needs an organizing brain and we see small organizing-only brains- think jellyfish. More complex lifeforms need motor functions, as well as organizing and processing ability and we see the first reptilian brains. This is used to process visual input usefully, for example. Then we see mammalian brains which use emotions as genetically programmed situational motivators so the genes can create archetypes of situations which the brain can use to react as the case warrants.

This is the point at which humans would function well in a puristic sex and death motivation scheme. However, humans go one more. We have developed a cerebral cortex capable of higher-level thinking such as logic, art, and constructive or reductive thought. As a result, humans often have conflicting drives between the three “thinking” brains. Our reason may tell us to do one thing, our mammalian emotions something else, and our reptilian brain physical body may want something else. Now, a conflict between just the mammalian and reptilian brain is pretty easy to resolve- you can just define one as always overmastering the other and you can’t go too far wrong. If the reptilian brain always wins then we’d have immense sex drives, be prone to territorial aggression, and react intensely to danger, hunger, and other stressors. If the mammalian brain always wins then- maybe you didn’t guess this- we’d have immense sex drives, be prone to aggression (not necessarily territorial), and react intensely to danger, hunger, or anything else that provoked a powerful emotional response.  Put a squirrel in an oven and observe the reaction.  Not a great deal of difference.  However, if it’s our cerebral cortex in charge, all bets are off.  The reason for this is that the cerebral cortex uses association as its primary mode of information transmission.  This allows us to construct systems of thinking such as logic and reason, or just random collections of emotional, psychosomatic, and abstract bullshit- for example, religion.  Now, it would be inaccurate to say that “lower mammals” use only their mammalian brains.  Rats, for example, can learn to navigate mazes, and that’s not an emotional function.  So there’s some associative processing going on, but it would be a stretch to say that a rat could understand logic or mathematics or other higher order thinking.  Similarly, a rat couldn’t understand religion because its associative circuitry is not voluminous enough.  Please note that “associations” are the only operation that a brain is actually capable of, in the same way that 0 and 1 are the only things a computer is capable of.  However, by associative thinking I am referring to connecting at least two thought-entities together by association, not associating hunger with getting food or a bell with salivating.

Returning to sex and death- the human brain is actually capable of anything, from being more reasoned than knee-jerk associations, to jetting off on a blind, insane, random romp through fantasy land.  So when presented with the opportunity to steal food, in a puristic sex-and-death scenario it would be obvious: scarf away!  However, we can decide not to due to some abstract, random concept called “morality.”  This is functionally identical to, say, giving a significant fraction of your income away to some entity claiming you’ll be in paradise after you die.  It is different, however, in its salient reasoning.  The reason why morality is a useful concept is because it gives you a clear functional benefit- if everyone obeys morality, then you can be confident that nobody will steal your stuff and you can concentrate on producing more instead of safeguarding what you have.  The degree to which everyone is immoral is the degree to which corruption reduces the efficiency of all human endeavors.  Unfortunately, there is a situation I will call ‘pragmatic immorality’ where you are well aware that, in the strictest sense, your actions are technically immoral.  However, the absolute payoff is high enough to justify that immoral action to yourself without rationalization.  My favorite example is with the button that you press, with a 1 in a million shot of killing someone, but in return you get $1 million.  While you could feasibly argue that pressing the button was categorically immoral using equivalence arguments like “that’s like killing someone for $1 trillion,” I am not ashamed to say I would press the button, meh, as many as 100 times.  I get $100 million, and am 99% sure that nobody was harmed.  The issue with this approach to morality is that each person’s position of pragmatic immorality is different.  So, while categorical morality is quite clear, we are willing to deviate from it for personal benefit provided the gain is large enough.

So now we arrive at the true self.  I am aware that it appears like all the topics raised so far have no connection whatsoever, but I’ll get there.  My thoughts on the true self/false self issue is that a human being is far more complicated than the common perception would lead you to believe.  This actually causes us to dramatically simplify ourselves to conform to others’ expectations.  I believe that this phenomenon is what causes us to get to know people better over time- at some point in our interaction with them, maybe over months or years, we’ll see a large variety of different sides of that person because they’ll gently push the boundaries on what they permit themselves to be like around you, or maybe circumstances will reveal them.  This is why we’re more comfortable around people we’ve spent more time with- because we feel less “rules” pressing in on our behavior that we subtly fear breaking.  The fact that this happens on both sides causes a generalized de-escalation of tension, which you translate as liking that person more because you feel better in their presence.  Now, I propose that our common model of social interaction is basically fundamentally broken, broken because it evolved randomly based on the whim of whoever wanted to jockey it.  Some symptoms are conformity and cronyism, anxiety and tension, as well as just plain meanness.  For myself, and people like me, the common method to avoid this is to simply restrict who you interact with to filter out the problem cases, who seem to relish “social structures.”

What do I really mean, you ask?  This post has become so cluttered with related but tertiary ideas that I’ll need to do another later.  Basically, our current mode of society is for everyone to feel unworthy.  Everyone is looking for something to be, desperately begging for a way to prove that they are somehow valid, silently begging to be led.  Predominantly, people are unhappy and told that material prosperity will solve their problems- if only they had X, you should go buy that.  Your true self is perpetually repressed- just for now- in the name of pragmatism, for that job, for sex, for acceptance, for whatever.  In fact, the trend is continuously shifting to younger people.  I feel that the last naturally occurring true-self to true-self interaction I ever experienced was in preschool.  As early as first grade I was harried for grades, for friends, told to draw “the right way” and so on.  Many of the people I meet nowadays have probably never experienced anything other than their current drab style.

You don’t believe me?  I’ll talk more about this, but for now I’ll give you a test and you can see for yourself.  Right now, get a piece of paper and something to write with.  Alright, in the words of Epictetus “First, decide who you would be.  Then, do what you must do.”  As an exercise this is a little hypocritical because I’m telling you what to do, but hopefully you’ll get the gist.  What you need to do is write down 5 characteristics that you think the ideal person, in your conception of them, has.  Of course don’t do anything that is logically, physically, or materially impossible like turn the moon into cheese.  But make them tough ones- here are three examples: 1) being unflappably honest all the time, or 2) being socially free to do whatever they want- talk to anyone, have a good time, not tolerate second-grade behavior, to cut out people who present too much of a problem, be congruent, be positive, be real. And 3) Be confident, powerful, unashamed of what you want, determined to get it, and you could care less what anyone else thinks.

Get your five.  And then, here’s the tough bit. Do them.  That’s all.

But! But! But!  What’s the problem, crybabies?  You’re telling me that the 5 things you thought of are what your ideal person does, and now you’re turning around and saying that for some reason you can’t do them?  Is your nature fixed by some agent that you can’t control?  If it is you might want to figure out what that agent is and either get rid of it or get the hell over it.  You are responsible for yourself, and you have now realized that there is no reason why you can’t be that person, save your own weakness to do so.

Sorry for the tough love.  You’ll get over it.

Homeopathy, Magic, & the Placebo Effect

Homeopathy is essentially the practice of prescribing water. Every homeopath doctor will tell you that there is not a single particle of “active ingredient” in the solutions they sell you. This is probably a good thing because they put things like poison ivy or rattlesnake venom in there before diluting it to nonexistence. Studies have authoritatively shown that it has no real medical value beyond a simple placebo. However, here’s the issue; even if we know that, should we still practice it?

This article espouses a viewpoint I have held for a long time regarding alternative medicine, but in a fresh way. I’m going to expand still further on it. Despite the fact that homeopathic remedies have no medicinal value, their patients still consistently report being cured or at least relieved of symptoms. So we know the patients actually fare better than if they had received no treatment whatsoever, although the nature of the treatment is irrelevant provided it doesn’t actively harm them. So essentially the homeopaths are making an absolute killing by selling gullible people a completely non-effective product. If only it were so simple.

The truth of the matter is that the placebo effect is a product of presentation, and presentation alone. So when you buy homeopathic remedies, you are paying the price of the product, competed down to whatever level, plus a little on the side for the vendor. However, the primary cost of selling placebo remedies is facade. A homeopathic hospital or doctor would need the authority, accreditation, imposing building and lobby, realistic-looking bottles and labels, etc. etc. Inventing a rationalization, and even going so far as to list plausible-sounding side effects. You are paying for a magic show. And the strangest thing about it is that it does in fact work, like magic. Perhaps this explains the immortalized human tendency to want to believe in magic. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit.

The absolute truth, undiluted? The human mind is capable of magic in every sense that counts. We can understand and manipulate the world around us. Consider a device such as your iPod. It’s magic, seriously! Let’s assume that magic actually existed- essentially you’re talking about a different set of physical laws of the universe which humans can take advantage of. We already do that! It’s not easy, but if you expect magic to be free then you’re just a child. That’s the appeal of Harry Potter- free power. And I can tell you that Rowling’s representation of a wizard world is ignorantly constructed to the extreme. I should make another post about this because I can blast Rowling for hours. Nothing personal, but her poor scribblings hedge out great minds like George R. R. Martin, and Rowling was making millions while Martin quietly ascended on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Modern culture as a whole can be either quality or commercially viable, but not both. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, though.

Anyway, back to real magic. Clarke’s Third Law is even more general than Clarke ever knew. Technology itself is indistinguishable from magic, because technology is the exploitation of natural phenomena. Magic would be the same, only you might do something like psychically move energy from the air into a specific object, thus setting it on fire with the power of your mind. This is impossible, so instead we concentrate energy in, say, a match, using the power of the mind. Magic as a concept is so appealing because it is unfamiliar. There isn’t anything remarkable about a match because you’re used to them. But someone who could stare at some tinder and foosh! That would be something, huh? More importantly, the common conception of magic is the ideal of free power that somehow easily just breaks the natural structure of things. Somehow, we won’t explain why, you can wave a wand and say a word, and whatever you wanted will just happen. It also gains further appeal from the idea that it is somehow just barely not accessible. We fantasize about receiving massive fortunes, too, but a barrier of pragmatism tells us that there is simply no way anyone would be stupid enough to mail us a check for a billion dollars. But maybe, just maybe, there lies within ourselves the secret to mentally starting that fire. In reality? You’re right- learn how to make a fire and guess what? You can make a fire. But you can’t do it effortlessly, you have to learn how and then implement that knowledge, and often neither task is easy.

Consider, say, mathematics. It seems very unmagical. However, you’re working with the theory behind our brand of real-life magic. Presumably in Harry Potter there should be some rhyme or reason as to why things work the way they do, and why saying X and moving your wand in pattern Y produces result Z. But because it’s a flight of fancy catering to part of you that wants without price, you don’t have to understand any of that, you can just do it and it will somehow work. Trust the teacher, as it were. As an interesting aside, how in hell did they discover any of that stuff? “Let’s wave our wands randomly with random words that sound Latinesque and see what happens!” The horror! The HORROR! Imagine that a warehouse stuffed to bursting with millions of different prototype skunkworks weapons fell through a timewarp, giving a band of A.D. 400 Christians enough firepower to pummel a modern state to green and glowing waste slushee. The problem, of course, is that they can only figure out how to use it by trial and error. It would be worse than that.

Anyway, my point in the magic tangent is that our minds are capable of magic in every substantial sense. And there is a second sense, beyond that of technology. The wackjobs are on the edge of their seats, hungry for a new sympathizer- no, not the first time and not this time either, crazies. Humans have the power to control their own minds. For the second time, the well-adjusted readers are probably going “What? Duh!” Being self-aware is more magical than we know, because we have the power to consciously adjust our own thoughts and behaviors. A squirrel does not. And yes, the squirrel is my typical example of a lesser life form. A squirrel has no control over its own behavior, being essentially hardwired from birth. With intelligence, however, it becomes advantageous to the organism for the genes to begin to cede control. Humans are still highly genetically influenced, but much less so than less intelligent creatures. This is because unintelligent creatures, if they weren’t provided with a model by their genes would act, well, unintelligently. However, intelligent creatures can actually learn and encode information in their brains that their genes can’t interpret. Thus, the genes start to provide psychologies instead of instincts to provide a framework for the brain to operate within rather than explicitly mandate its instructions. This is rather like programming a computer- just recently we have seen the shift from data that can be predicted to the point where programmers are being forced to consider data which they could not predict, and instead provide frameworks for the handling of data, allowing the computer to decide so the programmer doesn’t have to. The program when it’s running is like the human brain when it’s active and running- i.e. in each living human being, and the code the programmer writes before compiling is like the genetic code before it’s used to make a person.

Yes, I am going to get back to the placebo effect, the title was not lying to you, dammit. That was related, albeit perhaps only in my own mind… Anyway, the placebo effect is a predictable outcome of a hunter-gatherer group lacking useful medicine, but possessing much older fear, pain, illness, etc. responses that still serve them well. Consider the pain response- it is very useful for indicating damage or distress to the body, but once it has served that function it is no longer useful, it’s just painful. But the organism cannot be permitted to have a “pain switch” because otherwise it would just leave it off all the time. So the genes instead force the organism to experience pain, but have a different individual have the ability to make it go away. So we start seeing medicine men practicing voodoo or prayer healing or whatever. Once the individual has recognized that something is wrong, and presumably already attempted on their own to solve the problem to a limited degree, and it may turn out that nothing can be done for them. In which case, the pain then serves as a survival disadvantage because it’s distracting, disabling, whatever. In such a situation it is highly advantageous to have the individual notify others in the group of their problem, thus assuring that the pain signal was received, and then give the sufferer a “free” mechanism to make the pain go away, as long as they are convinced by someone else. Interestingly, this leads to a whole host of societal changes, such as tribes rallying around a medicine man’s ideas, and using different brands of arcana as methods of establishing unity, mind control, subservience, and even extracting payment of utility from third parties.

So we return to homeopathy. One particular brand of arcana no longer useful for establishing unity or subservience, but quite effective at extracting payment. Interestingly, even though the vendor is parting with nothing, the buyers are in fact receiving a service. So I think that in an environment where it is possible to empirically prove that the remedy does not work, yet where it continues to work, the process should be promoted. I also think that different alternative remedies have different target audiences, or they wouldn’t coexist. Acupuncture seems to be more effective because the people willing to undergo it know they are going to have hundreds of needles inserted into their bodies by a complete stranger. They’re damn ready to get over whatever it is they want to recover from, and they have some hardcore faith in the process. Homeopathy, on the other hand, is for the less committed sufferers. The stranger is essentially giving them water to drink and convincingly claiming it will cure them. Now, I don’t even believe in the process but nevertheless I’d be prepared to try it if a doctor told me there was no formal medication for whatever I was suffering from- if it wasn’t too expensive, anyway. However, the fact that less belief is required means that the placebo effect is less potent.

Now, I’ve covered a huge amount of ground with a hop skip and a jump and would like to point out just a few of the connections that I didn’t get to make before due to the damnable nature of linear text. Firstly, you should have noticed a clear correlation between medicine men and religion. Here’s a connection; religions concerned with healing all tend to require especially firm and unyielding faith- the acts of Christian faith healers are an excellent example. The link between strong faith and healing is more or less direct. A different connection, although genes control the framework of our thoughts, couple that with sentience and we can modify those frameworks however we want. However, the process is very obscure to most people. A simple example; let’s say you want chocolate. How do you become happy? The most common answer would be, eat chocolate. I’m saying virtually everyone on earth would answer that way, and absolutely everyone in the United States, minus me and, what, three others? The better answer is to just stop wanting chocolate. How very Stoic of me. No, seriously, why not? Though I obviously can’t prove this, I’m thinking that those monks with the freaky powers up in Tibet that we hear so many myths about are just like us, but with the critical difference that at least one, at some point, unlocked the power of the placebo effect and could apply it in diverse ways. Not feeling cold, evading sickness, sharpened perception, precise motor control, etc. etc. The list could be pretty much endless. The process would essentially allow you to hardwire your own choice to whatever the maximum human potential for any given act or activity would be. Anything you could psych yourself up to do, you could just choose to instantly receive all the benefit of psyched-up-ness without needing to go through all that effort and usually brutal psychological side effects like irrational disloyalty, blind faith, obedience, submission to manipulation, etc., etc. It’s speculation, completely unfounded, but maybe, just maybe, there’s something within us capable of free power.