Axiomatic Human Properties

In any philosophy of human nature there are certain parameters of the human condition which are inserted axiomatically. These properties are extremely significant to the formulation of any philosophy governing people, namely ethics and politics, but usually aren’t addressed in a uniform and clear manner. The following elements are single pieces that might be composed together to create complex ethical theories or political philosophies. Simply rattling off a list of beliefs about human nature being one way or the other in reactionary mode is pretty much a waste of time. Connecting them together to create a model that accurately reflects the world, or some piece of it, can be very important to the advancement of human knowledge. Big names in political philosophy like Hobbes, Locke, and Nietzsche have built their ideas up from the same basic elements, but they’ve done it in such a creative, novel, and useful way that reflects the way many people see and interact with the world. I believe that spreading a little understanding about what exactly the building blocks of such thinking can improve the quality of thinking in the US and around the world.

The first and most commonly addressed one is whether people are fundamentally good or evil. This question has so many ramifications for all aspects of any philosophy. If people are inherently evil then it is necessary to use some form of philosophical machinery to control, alter, or ameliorate the evil nature of humanity. This is a totally different viewpoint from someone who believes people are fundamentally good, who doesn’t need their philosophy to do much to control human behavior. Indeed, the entire realm of philosophy, particularly ethics, is more focused on what individuals decide virtue is, and each person can have their own philosophy and you can trust them to be virtuous anyway. Their virtue is given, the philosophy is a result instead of the other way around. If human nature is evil, however, then philosophy must come before human virtue can be achieved, and it is necessary to identify the philosophy most conducive to society and then enforce that point of view on everyone. If they can’t be forced to accept it, they must be forced to at least obey it through the application of laws and punishments. Most political philosophers of sufficient import are in the camp of humans being evil, and most of the governments derived from their philosophy depend upon coercive application of laws and police and courts in order to control their population. Whether people or philosophy come first is the ultimate chicken-or-the-egg question, and its primary embodiment is the debate over whether human nature is good or evil.

There is also a question about whether one man is competent or not, regarding whether one man has great powers available to him or if one man is nothing by himself. It is reasonable to have a point of view where human nature is good, but naturally stupid. This is more akin to the Stoic idea, where everyone has virtue as a driving force. Every murderer has a justification for why they saw fit to commit murder (assuming they aren’t innocent), and they really believe their justification. If they were fundamentally evil, they could care less about virtue. They may still be trying to dress up their actions as virtuous to cynically try to escape punishment, and we arrive at a Chinese Room dilemma of having to verify whether or not someone “really believes” something or if they’re just pretending. In most all cases, however, they truly believe their rationale, despite the fact that it is highly irrational. Murder and other crimes, viewed in a broader context by a rational being, are all stupid, even discounting the additional punishments inflicted by laws. If you lie for your own benefit, then nobody has the incentive to trust you. In the extreme short term, perhaps you don’t care, but if such a person was actually rational they would realize the immense value of having a perfect reputation and rock-solid name can yield far greater dividends for their own success than simply cheating and running. The law is an attempt to make this choice “more obvious” by putting a direct penalty on undesirable actions, making the line of reasoning a little easier for the less rational in the populace.
It is also possible to have a worldview, and this is the particularly sinister Hobbesian or Machiavellian view, that people are both cunning and malevolent. If this is the case, the only recourse is to make people act outside of their nature. Indeed, not only is distrust of everyone to be expected, but there’s no authority to look to for protection who isn’t subject to the same rule- they can’t be trusted, they will seize power and abuse it. Hobbes is the more primitive philosopher, and his answer to the cunning-and-evil dilemma is to put the most cunning and evil of them all in charge, the better to protect the people under the power of the ruler. Obviously he didn’t phrase it like that, but in effect creating a single all-powerful ruler in such an environment will only magnify the problem. Machiavelli addresses the issue more accurately by saying yes, it is the most cunning and evil who will be in charge, and the more cunning and evil he is the better a ruler he will make because cunning and dirty tricks are the best way to get ahead. An extremely pessimistic view, but at least it’s internally consistent. It’s actually very difficult to disprove that argument because it contains within itself its own genesis, but I believe it fails on the grounds that people would shy away from a world like that and attempt to make it a more pleasant place to live in for themselves and others.

Whether people are rational, whether people are social, whether people are natural leaders, natural followers, etc. Indeed, there is always a huge debate over what properties we can ascribe as natural to humans, and which ones are learned or inculcated, and by whom they are or should be conditioned by, whether it’s the parents, the community, the government, the religion, etc. Different philosophers have proposed different traits as being innate, and I imagine that at some point some thinker has claimed each and every imaginable aspect under the sun must be natural and innate. The oldest anachronism of this type is that humans are innately social beings, and indeed this is backed up by recent discoveries in biology, anthropology, and genetics. If we are innately social creatures, then we will congregate into groups and there is no modification you can make to the human condition that will overcome this. You can compensate for it by conditioning behaviors, but the natural tendency will still exist. The idea of human nature is actually a special case of the naturalness argument which argues that people have both a natural ethical decision-making faculty and also makes a statement about the tendencies of that faculty. The argument that there is no such faculty can be used to construct nihilism, pragmatism, and numerous other theoretical frameworks. The same can be said of any given property that you wish to ascribe as natural to humans.

What properties are innate to a person, and what properties can change through the course of their lives. This is a similar issue, but quite distinct, from the question of whether a person has the capability to change themselves, and to what extent such willed self-change is possible, or what properties or aspects can be changed this way. The same question applies to other vectors such as parents, the state, etc. Innateness is distinct from natural appearance in that a property that is innate is dependent entirely on physical (or other immutable) composition. A naturally emergent property is merely said to exist, with no particular emphasis on how or why it is that way. If it’s innate then it is a product of the human physical (possibly soul or spiritual) existence. If it’s not innate then it is acquired at some point over the course of your life. Note that non-innate properties can still be natural. For example, humans lack the capability to walk at birth so it’s not truly innate (I use a philosophically difficult example because this is highly debatable, I apologize, but there is no example of something that is obviously not innate but is natural) but it is natural because it is a naturally emergent behavior. A better example may be language, where it could be argued that a natural faculty for languages in general exists, though perhaps not innate, but the faculty for any particular language such as English is definitely not innate (although it also probably isn’t natural because saying “humans naturally speak English” is obviously wrong. We can get around this by citing a particular unspecified instantiation, such as “Humans naturally speak some language” but this is rapidly becoming too complicated to use as an example).
An argument for extreme nativism puts total emphasis on innateness. The entire course of your development is preprogrammed into you as a baby, and is fully contained within your existence at any point in time. Extreme nativism is a more or less extinct line of reasoning. The opposite end, what has been called “tabula rasa” or “blank slate” is the idea that you have zero internal programming at birth- you are totally blank, and you acquire a mind and life over the course of your life. While this seems a lot more reasonable, purist tabula rasa thinking is also more or less extinct. It’s clear that there is some mixture of the two going on, but exactly how much of each is present is not entirely clear. I dislike this phrasing of the issue, but this debate has been called “Nature vs Nurture.” I hate saying that because nurturing is a natural process- indeed humans have certain parameters for raising children encoded into our genes (preying mantises have different ones…).

Part and parcel of the natural human condition debate is what is mutable about human nature, and what is immutable, which of course form a continuum between hard wiring and total flux. A certain trait might be imparted at birth, but still be changeable such as through changes in gene expression. My hair color is different than it was when I was eight (I was blonde, now I have brown hair) and this is a property that is usually associated with genes and assumed to be immutable. We usually assume that the Nature side of the debate assumes immutability, and the Nurture side likes mutable traits. There is no requirement that these assumptions be the case, but nevertheless they tend that way. It makes intuitive sense because after all, if you were born without a certain trait, it must have been installed at a later time and must therefore be reversible, right? Wrong. Conditioning received as a young child is often highly immutable and tough to change, and mental models touching core beliefs are often very difficult to change as well, even if they are destructive.

The reason why these human properties are axiomatic is that for the most part you can come to any conclusion you like and have it result in an internally consistent model. These are fundamental building blocks from which you can construct any theory you like. While someone may disagree with you on axiomatic grounds, a direct proof of their argument will not be sufficient to disprove or otherwise dislodge your position. As it should be, an argument made from such axiomatic points can be incorrect from premises, or improper in logic, and pushing an alternate position will not influence the impact of an argument made by someone else. There is an immense possible composite-theory space that can be created just from the extremely few basic axioms I have chosen to mention here, and there are many, many, many more that can be used reasonably.

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Creationism and Logic

Watch this creationist if you can handle the stupid.

Quite simply the most disgusting display of the stupid virus I’ve seen in a long, long time.  I’m not going to even attempt to address her because it will degenerate into a litany of how incredibly stupid this woman is, such as how Charles Darwin didn’t use no scientific method, or how the entire world appeared fully formed billions of years ago, and how (irony!) unlikely it is for the world to just pop into existence complete with plants, animals, and people.  I will instead try to present a more rational discussion of the argument between atheism and creationism so that both sides can understand why A) 99.9% of creationists have got the stupid virus.  Some of them have it BAD, like this young lady.  B)  Atheism and evolution are not synonymous, but I would venture to bet that all atheists credit evolution with the status as by far the most probable explanation for the origin of life on earth.  C)  Evolution is not a theory of metaphysics, and D) It is possible to have an argument for God that is not dripping with the stupid virus, but it doesn’t look even remotely like the arguments fielded by creationists and religious people today because, as I said earlier, the vast majority of them are outrightly stupid and proud of it.

Firstly, the video link above doesn’t even make a reasonable attempt to represent any of the arguments it claims to attack.  If there was such a person who created an argument along the lines of the one she is outlining, atheists would line up to take a whack at them.  Perhaps because the argument she outlines looks EXACTLY like the creationist argument, only it occurs much earlier chronologically, and there’s no god.  In order to have a reasonable debate, you first have to understand the argument you are taking a stance against.  The only thing worse than a straw man argument is a straw man argument by someone who honestly doesn’t understand that they’re knocking down a straw man.  Then they proudly look to their authority figures like a child who just built a sandcastle.  That wasn’t an argument, that was you creating an argument that has even fewer legs to stand on than your own, and then proceeding to bash it to bits with crummy logic, however the starting proposition was so ridiculous that the audience doesn’t even need the explanation.  The explanation becomes little more than theatre, as priests and missionaries will understand thoroughly if they’re any good at their jobs.  This is not how scientists think, though.  For scientists, there exists some truth which they can find, and which other scientists can similarly find independently.  As a result, as the number of scientists increases, the reliability of their findings as a community will (hopefully) improve as well.  This of course falls flat if there is not an assumption of universality and of equality of function between humans.  By contrast, if the Pope has a direct line to God and everybody else has to talk up the chain of command, the Pope could theoretically run very different experiments than anyone else could to determine the structure of the universe.

Now on to some more substantive concepts.  Atheism is not the same thing as evolution, not by a long chalk.  Atheism is the belief that there is no god.  I suppose atheism could qualify as a theory considering any tests you run for the existence of god return negative, which count as positive proof for the reciprocal argument, but its label is irrelevant.  Atheism is a theological statement.  Evolution is the theory of biology, not theology or metaphysics.  It is the logical result of three factors: 1) a population with differing properties between its constituents, 2) a method for increasing the quantity of that population which draws upon its current members (in most biologies, sex- sometimes asexual), and 3) a method for altering the properties of the population between generations.  This role is also filled by sex, but mutations also have a marginal effect.  If you accept that those three things exist, then evolution as a theory is already a given.  The Bible itself contains enough evidence for evolution in the bloodlines it describes where one family member inherits properties of another.  That’s it, the chicken’s done.  We have evolution.  Evolution as a broader theory explains the immense diversity of life based on small changes in individual species over large timescales which eventually stack up to create significantly different species.  All this bullshit about how “my granddaddy wasn’t no monkey” is A) wrong because whatever ancestor we both inherit from probably looked very different from modern monkeys, B) wrong because such a creature would be a different species entirely from humans, most likely, meaning in the context of the human species identity we are no longer related, and C) wrong because this basically constitutes a failure to accept obvious proof on the grounds that it might discredit you or your family or be otherwise uncomfortable.  This woman is attacking her straw doppelgangers of evolution and atheism like they are synonymous, which is itself an absurd proposition.  Now, atheists being atheists and failing to accept the assertion that God exists because there’s no evidence for it, are shall we say rather likely to also support the theory of evolution considering the immense amount of evidence backing it.  Moreover, religion will oppose evolution because it is a viable and self-sufficient alternative to religion.  Evolution requires no help from God or some other agent to explain the nature of the world, in a similar way that the Big Bang theory requires no God in order to explain the nature of the cosmos.  In similar fashion, the idea that the earth isn’t the center of the universe is, well, was jarring to the religious because it detracts from the earth’s special status as God’s chosen planet.  Even the most stupid-virus afflicted creationist has gotten the picture on that score, however.  Although perhaps I shouldn’t speak so soon because you can find someone prepared to believe anything these days.  Well, if you don’t believe the earth is round and orbits the sun, you are beyond fucking help pal.  The fact that you can’t actually be packed off to an asylum on “religious” grounds I find highly amusing, though.  But if you try anything really psycho with me or mine, expect to get hurt, badly, because I am far smarter than you.

Evolution’s lack of metaphysical explanation is something most creationists cannot understand.  By creationist ideology, ANY assertion about the world must be metaphysical.  Metaphysics has its place, but in day-to-day affairs, metaphysics really doesn’t do much, usually.  This is one of the reasons why creationism can grab people so powerfully, because any assertion about the world at all will require challenging that person’s most basic presuppositions about the world.  By “going to root” immediately, the amount of work required to even consider the thought of a slightly different world is much greater than for a scientifically-minded individual.  A scientist can easily conceive of one specific piece of errata being wrong, while the entire model as a whole being functional. It is entirely possible for us to be wrong about, or flatly not know exactly how every animal evolved from every ancient creature in all of history, but still accept the theory of evolution. For religion, however, any given single aspect of errata must be correct.  Therefore, challenging that single piece of errata will resolve to a challenge of that person’s metaphysics and most basic ideology.  People have died over whether the bread and water taken at communion is the body of christ, or whether it is, metaphorically, the body of christ.  Because challenging any assertion in a religion constitutes a challenge of the fundamental truth of the religion.  In the case of the people who accept the fundamental truth unconditionally, this means only shaking their most deeply-held roots will convince them of even the smallest thing, and such a shaking will likely be effective at completely changing their entire ideology.  This also serves to help a religion by preserving homogeneity among its believers, which is a powerful tool for social pressure based conversions.  The religions that people practiced because they were pleasant and easygoing have all gone the way of the Quakers.  I bring up the Quakers frequently because I think that they are memetically very interesting because they didn’t use the most effective and widely used today methods to acquire converts, and they’re all but extinct now. However, I’m not going into that for now.

Lastly, and this is the topic I intend to focus the most on, is it possible to have an argument for the existence of God that is actually intelligent and reasonable?  Right off, I’m going to say that most of the people who want to prove the Bible and common creationism or most religions that I know of, no.  It is impossible to make a case for a particular religion which includes a text of stories such as the Bible.  Invariably, they are filled to a comic level with contradiction, which by definition cannot exist in reality, among other reasons.  However it is possible to have an intelligent philosophical argument about whether or not there is a God, or even many Gods.  What is a god, and what properties must such a being necessarily have to constitute a god?  If there was a god, how would that change the metaphysics of the world as we know it?  What broad categories of metaphysics require, make possible, or render impossible the existence of a God or gods?

My favorite argument for the existence of God is called the ontological argument, because it’s just fun.  Basically, it goes like this: can you conceive of a being that is all-perfect?  Yes.  Ergo, there exists a God.

Smiling now.  It’s an amazing argument isn’t it?  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Now, it happens to be sound but in a very interesting way.  Basically, on a deeper level the argument is that a perfect being would be more perfect if it exists.  Therefore, an all-perfect being must exist because you can conceive of a being that is all-perfect.  I think this argument is philosophically interesting, but of zero metaphysical consequence, and doesn’t actually prove that there is a god.  It’s pretty easy to poke fun at this argument by parodying it with a pair of children, “Can you think of a big-huge candy bar?”  “Yeah?!?”  “Well, wouldn’t it be even better if it existed?”  “Yeah!”  “Therefore, there exists a big-huge candy bar.”  A fun argument because even atheists who are experienced at arguing against the existence of God will be completely stumped.  Well-read atheists will of course have heard of it and probably be able to call you on using the ontological argument by name.  Now, there are as many writings on why the argument is valid or absurd as there are philosophers, but I think that it’s wrong because it uses a premise-truth paradox.  This is an extremely rare form of paradox whereby the premise creates a paradox whereby if it is true then it must necessarily be true, and if it is false then it must necessarily be false, and there is no other criteria by which you can judge the truth or falsehood of the premise.  So, can you conceive of a being that is all-perfect?  I would say the answer is probably not.  You can create a generic entity and slap the label “all-perfect” on it, but that doesn’t count.

An argument similar to the ontological argument whose name I can’t remember for the moment stems from an interesting application of modal logic, using possible worlds.  Basically, any logician would give you as axiomatic that there exists at least one possible world where some form of something that could be called a God exists.  Jumping from there to conclude that God must therefore exist in all possible worlds because God is omnipresent and all-powerful is one tactic you might use to throw an atheist.  With a little logical discipline they will quickly understand how you’ve cheated them.  Basically, they gave you that there exists some possible world on the grounds that, and this is of course exactly how modal logic is created, that these worlds are global-strength containers that nothing within them can possibly escape from or otherwise influence other possible worlds.  Taking advantage of their generosity in giving you “some form of something that is God” in one possible world to say that because it is omnipresent, it therefore exists in all possible worlds is to cheat on the application of modal logic by putting God in some world that contains all possible worlds, axiomatically, and without the consent of the person you’re arguing with.  Don’t use this, please.  An atheist who doesn’t figure that one out might want to take a class on logic to make their thinking a bit more rigorous.

These are canonical examples of arguments for God.  They aren’t perfect, but I am an atheist exactly because I can’t think of a good argument for why God exists.  That’s where you come in.  If you are religious, come up with a well-reasoned, solid argument for why God exists.  If you can’t do it, hen you should be an atheist too because you don’t believe God exists either.  If you can, however, tell it to atheists.  If it really is a good argument, and they’re really atheists for the right reasons, they will actually believe you.  If I were presented with such an argument that was sufficiently good that it outperformed the default position of atheism, and also explained all the observable phenomena of the world without contradiction, I might even believe you.  Do not, however, even attempt to push Christianity or other religions as-is on me because it’s frankly not worth my time anymore.  If you’re interested in atheism there are resources all over the internet.  They don’t really exist offline, which is fascinating if you ask me.  Atheists correlate with the tech-savvy young?  Cool.  We’re going to win.  Even if we can’t convince you, we’re young.  You’re going to go first.

Not considering the idea of immortality in digital form, which of course is out of the question for the religious.  So atheists still win.  The atheists shall outnumber the hordes of the faceless dead, such shall be the glory of their technology.

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.

Is There a True, True Self?

I have compared the “true self” to the “false self” before, and while I will still stand behind the claim that the distinction can be made usefully within a certain semantic realm, I’m going to go the other direction in this post because in a different, more general realm, there is no “true self.”  As a matter of fact, if you look at it in the most general, explicit sense, you have no self at all apart from the information that constitutes your decision-making and thinking matrix.  What I’m trying to say is that when someone says that they act a certain way and that’s their “true self” and all other ways of acting are them doing something other than being their true self, they are misleading themselves.  No matter what they do, they cannot escape the fact that the same decision-making matrix, no matter how intricate or complex, caused them to act that way in each of those situations.  Now, if they mean to say that they have a preferred mode of behavior, but are forced to use a different mode of behavior in varying circumstances, well of course.  I have preferred modes of behavior, too, like I prefer to sleep or go out or play video games to doing actual work.  That doesn’t mean that I’m my true self only when I’m in the process of a preferred mode of behavior.  But that’s exactly how a lot of people reason out their reactions to, most commonly, certain other people.

I’m getting into material identity again, but since it is I suppose my preferred philosophical specialty I may as well.  Because of the fact that there is no single piece of information you can subtract from a person to make them not-that-person, the person as a whole (considered as a contiguous entity) only has meaning as far as perception will take it.  Relative to someone else, it’s their perception.  Relative to the person themselves, it’s their own perception that matters.  Imagine that you woke up and you were a different person!  Now, because of the nature of logic, this sentence has no true parseable non-tautological meaning.  I have included in the sentence that “you” are a different person, meaning you are still you.  So the Engish way to handle this issue is to change the meaning to “you wake up with a different body, probably that once belonged to someone else.” or something similar.  No matter the way you parse it in English, it isn’t handled in a logically rigorous way in the same way that we don’t answer the question “Would you like tea or coffee?” with “Yes.”  While logical, it conveys little useful conversational meaning.  Bear in mind though, that if we spoke a truly logical language, you would answer in a way that did convey conversational meaning, the same way you don’t say “Yes” in English (Although framework of asking the questions would probably receive more semantic-structural changes than the affirmative/negative response structure).

But I digress, seriously this time.  We nearly had a terminal digression there into the land of logical languages.  Back to the issue of having one identity.  The truth is that we have an assumption here that we haven’t questioned: is it necessary to treat identities in the same way that we treat physical objects?  Once again this is a conceptual piece of English- we like to treat concepts like objects.  We can pick up drawing, have an idea, find an answer, and so on.  I’m not going too far into this as a topic- I would recommend Steve Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought for more on the subject.  Anyway, the assumption that identity is an object has numerous flawed bases.  Firstly, there is 1 “person” per body, and we can count bodies.  Ergo, there must be 1 and only 1 identity per person because that person has 1 and exactly 1 body.  The next flawed idea is that identity is immutable and does not change.  That there could ever be a “one true” identity.  This isn’t even true for the lowest-level aspect of identity at the level of the physical body, so how anyone can formalize the idea that identity must be fixed is beyond me, but it does happen.  It should be completely obvious that the body of a child is different from the body of an adult, and so assuming that there is any relation beyond material continuity is a flagrant violation of logic.  Now it is not an error to say that there may exist similarities between these two identities/bodies/people, especially considering how causally connected the latter stage is from the former.  But to say that there is a fixed identity from which changes may be noted as deviations is just plain wrong.  People change a lot- people change very quickly.  Through the course of a day each of us goes through periods of high and low energy, moods, thought patterns, and who knows what.  However there are people who are guilty of the next identity fallacy, which is that somehow those aspects aren’t significant pieces of your identity.  They are passing and trivial and should be ignored because in the grand scheme of the human identity they are categorically different.  Well this is wrong, but it’s less obvious to most people because it has some deep religious roots.  The idea that the body is distinct from the soul, and that the soul is much more important than the body can ever hope to be is an old religious idea with tendrils all over the place.  The idea that something like a state of hunger contributes to your identity in any significant way is perhaps odd.  But look at it this way.  If there was a teleportation machine that destroyed your body and created one exactly like it at a different location- I have used this example before.  If there was such a machine, and it re-created your body perfectly in every detail, except it omitted recording information needed to compute and recreate a state of hunger (somewhere between total satiety and death by starvation) then is it a valid teleportation machine?  I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t step through that bastard for a billion dollars, and not because I might be a starved corpse on the other side- it’s because I have no idea what information went into the complex computation of my own state of hunger/satiety.  Probably all kinds of things from the contents of my intestinal tract to levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters.  If the machine omits all that information, I don’t come out the other side of that teleporter.  Someone else does.

So I am aware that I have a difficult position to defend here.  I’m saying, at the same time, that there is an immense degree of flexibility in what constitutes a person- that you can still be “you” in the sense that counts from the time that you’re a child until the day you die, but at the same time the standard for building a teleporter must be absolutely flawlessly perfect in order to preserve material identity.  The reason for this is that I’m making the two comparisons based on different criteria.  I’m a strict materialist- everything can be reduced to an arrangement of matter and energy if a sufficient level of detail and fidelity is used.  However, matter and energy in and of themselves are just rocks and colored lights- they have to be organized into information patterns to be interesting.  So in the case of a stardard human life, without being teleported, the information pattern persists in direct fashion through space and time and can be identified perfectly as being materially continuous.  However, once you introduce the ability to jump around in space and time, you have to get a little bit smarter than that in order to maintain material continuity.  To think about material continuity, I’ll call it the Where’s Waldo? Effect.  If it’s possible to look into the universe like a giant, four-dimensional Where’s Waldo book (including all periods of time) and find you, or any given person, then you have material continuity.  When you introduce the ability to jump around in space, then you need to have the end of one string and the beginning of another match to a sufficient level of detail that the four-dimensionally-conscious being looking into the Where’s Waldo Universe can put together the pieces.  The same thing is true if you’re jumping through time, of course, but most conceptualizations of time travel account for perfect material transport as a matter of course, so it’s not as interesting to talk about.  Still, if you have a time machine then you necessarily have created a teleportation device because you could teleport back in time exactly enough time to go wherever you’re going and then go there, arriving at exactly when you left.  Not a super elegant mode of teleportation, but quite effective in physical and relativistic terms.

In fact, to be even more technically precise, it’s impossible to build a teleporter without somehow cheating relativity.  The modern idea on how this might be done is taking advantage of quantum entanglement to transfer information instantaneously to anywhere in the universe- it might also be done with some form of tachyon particle but entanglement shows much more promise.  It’s something of an important idea that material identity is both time and space independent because even if you could transfer the totality of your information instantaneously anywhere, I find it unlikely that it’s possible to instantly create a new body for you on demand.  As long as a more or less perfect copy gets made (ideally before you get “re-activated”) it makes no difference if you lost some time in the middle.  The real question is- how perfect does this copy have to be?  That is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer.  I have no idea how you would go about answering it in a mathematical sense.  As long as you have material continuity to fall back on then you have nearly endless flexibility, but the second that gets taken away it really becomes a question of what you believe the limit is.  And a strange sort of “are you feeling lucky, punk?” kind of attitude.  It’s the same operation, because material continuity is just using the super-perfect teleport trick over impossibly small distances and over the smallest possible time lengths (Planck time, approx 10^-44 seconds) using the same medium that the stability of the information pattern itself is composed of, so the accuracy is so absolute as to be perfect.  Sure, particles jitter and all sorts of other stuff is going on, but that’s the nature of the pattern that you’re made of anyway.  Even in periods of the most rapid change you can conceive of, relative to the length of a single Planck time- I mean, come on.

I don’t think that 10^-44 seconds will even fit into the human mind as a workable unit of time.  That means that you would need 1 followed by 44 zeroes of them in order to get one single second.  To put that into perspective, if you had that many nanoseconds the total length would be 3×10^27 years, or enough to contain the entire history of the universe (15 billion years) over 200,000,000,000,000,000 times.  A Planck time is small.  There is no practical way that sufficient change to break material identity could happen on a timescale so small.  So I just say that no matter what, material continuity equals material identity.  It’s not strictly true, but if you’re seriously in doubt then you must be talking about some thought-experiment edge case like “what if we had a particle accelerator that could destroy n brain cells in exactly 1 Planck time, how many would we have to destroy…”.  They’re awesome, and I do it all the time, so that’s great, but as a rule of thumb I think the idea of material continuity = material identity works quite well.

Impulsiveness

Is impulsiveness a desirable characteristic?  I am the categorical thinker- I like to think about things before I do them.  However, as part of that thought process it’s important to be able to suspend thought when necessary.  As such, whether or not impulsiveness has a place in the repertoire of the contemporary rationalist is an interesting question.  Firstly, we need to look at where impulsiveness is typically used.  Impulsiveness is often associated with interpersonal exchanges, with social people and people who enjoy parties.  It is strongly disassociated with business or financial decisions, with some exceptions such as small purchases and gambling.  So while common sense thought acknowledges that impulsive action is improper for weighty decisions, for more trivial matters it helps a great deal.

Before we get into the topic, we need to make some distinctions.  There is impulsiveness and then there is recklessness.  The way I conceive of the terms, impulsiveness is thinking of an action and allowing it to proceed into reality without too much analysis.  Recklessness, on the other hand, implies a full knowledge of the action beforehand, but doing it in spite of your analysis that it is foolhardy.  I will talk about both, but first let’s cover the less complex issue of impulsiveness.  In social situations, impulsiveness is a great aid because you can’t think too much about what you’re going to say.  There are a large number of very smart people who have difficulty in social situations because they don’t realize that their strategy for dealing with reality is not universally applicable- it needs to be changed to fit their needs of the moment.  When I was a kid I was like this.  I have since learned to pragmatically and completely apply rationality and can piece together the solution to such puzzles.  Basically, if you think too much about what you’re going to say, you give an unnatural amount of weight to when you do speak.  So unless you’re able to spout endless amounts of deep, profound thoughts, invariably you’re going to be putting a lot of weight behind fairly trivial statements, and the inconsistency comes across as awkward.  Impulsiveness will decrease the weight of what you’re saying and give it a sort of throwaway characteristic which helps you in a number of ways.  Firstly, if it doesn’t work out, nobody really notices, and you can keep going with whatever suits you.  Secondly, it puts you in a more dominant position of just saying whatever you feel like saying.  You aren’t vetting your thoughts to check if the rest of the group will approve.  This brings us to the second flaw in the introverted thinker’s social rut, the fact that they are attempting to apply thought to the situation to do better and it shows very obviously to the rest of the group.  This is a complex point that I can’t encapsulate in one post, but basically any attempt to earn approval guarantees denial of it in direct proportion to the effort spent.  The introverted thinker’s goal is to earn approval, and his model for deciding what to say is, logically, fixed upon achieving that goal.  While their intentions are good their entire approach has so many incorrect assumptions they aren’t even capable of recognizing the fact that their whole paradigm is nonfunctional.  They just dive right back in with a “it must work” attitude instead of reworking from first principles.

Impulsiveness is also a pragmatic tool to be used liberally in situations of doubt.  When it is clear that hesitation will cost more than immediate action, you have to go.  When I was younger I had this model of “going for help” which essentially contained the idea that the concept of help was distant.  So “going for help” would take a long time, and there was a significant chance that the window would close for whatever the situation was.  So my primary course would have been to just go do it myself.  This is an incorrect application of impulsiveness because of incorrect information.  A proper application of impulsiveness might be, for example, you are handed a test with 100 4-answer multiple choice questions, you have 100 seconds.  Now there is no way you could conceivably cover 25% of the questions if you legitimately tried to answer them.  However, if you guess randomly you have a 1 in 4 chance on each question and so over 100 questions you should get 25 correct.  This is clearly your best strategy given the rules of the game.  You concluded that the best strategy is to suspend rational inquiry into each question because it is simply not worthwhile.  You wouldn’t work for an hour to earn a penny, and you wouldn’t think for X seconds per question.

The other fallacy that makes impulsiveness distasteful to many is the idea that the answer actually matters.  With our test example, you don’t actually care what the answer to any given question is, you have all the information needed to create a sufficient strategy.  For social impulsiveness, the simple fact of the matter is that your actions really don’t matter that much.  Provided you don’t do anything truly inappropriate, at least.  The, and I use this term very reluctantly, “antisocial nerds” ascribe a great deal of value to their interactions and to what each party says.  This is a misunderstanding of the nature of the communication.  The actual content is unimportant.  Nobody cares if you’re talking about the weather, cars, or anything else.  True, this doesn’t make logical sense, and in a perfect world people would communicate usefully instead of feeding their egos by the fact that they’re talking to people.  Most of the “extroverts” are pleased by the fact that they’re talking to people, and are anxious when seen by themselves- this mentality is communicated to introverts and affects them quite adversely because they prefer to be alone for some part of their day and they may believe that there is something wrong with them.  Don’t buy it, please.  The people who *need* to be around others to validate themselves are the unstable ones.  It’s similar to the way men and women treat sex.  Men are usually sexually insensitive and are more pleased the by fact that they are having sex than they are enjoying the sex itself.  They are usually seeking validation from society instead of their own enjoyment.  Of course, most women can pick this up immediately and they would prefer not to be some boy’s tool to self-validation.  Women, you aren’t off the hook, you do the same thing, but not with sex.  Instead, you get validation from men paying attention to you while others are watching.  Don’t get me wrong, it goes both ways.  Some women perceive that they get validation from having lots of sex, and some men get validation by attention from women, they’re just not as common as the other way around.  Impulsiveness as a concept is often bundled with these behaviors which, although nobody really knows why, are widely believed to be “creepy.”  That’s just not the case.

Now, recklessness is a whole ‘nother can of worms.  Doing something that you know to be crazy, or doing something because it’s crazy, has a completely different backing behind it.  Most reckless people do it because the cost of the reckless action is balanced or outweighed by the enjoyment or rush they get from it.  This is the same mechanism that makes skydiving fun, even though skydiving is actually reasonably safe.  If you had a significant chance of dying you wouldn’t be able to sell it to people as a recreational activity without some serious social pressure backing it up.  Ziplining is another example- there has only ever been one zipline death, and that was under suspicious circumstances.  But we perceive it to be dangerous and enjoy a rush from it.  There is, however, a time when outright reckless behavior can be a rational course of action.  Usually these circumstances fall into two categories though, 1) you’re trying to make other people/agents believe you’re reckless, or 2) direct and/or thought-out strategies can be expected or countered easily or are otherwise rendered ineffective.

Category 1 is the more common of the two and can potentially occur in any game or strategic situation.  Essentially your strategy is to do something stupid in the hope that your enemy will misjudge your tactics or your capabilities, enabling you to take greater advantage later on, or in the long run.  In poker, it is sometimes a good thing to get caught bluffing.  That way, next time you have a monster hand your opponent might believe you’re actually bluffing.  If you’ve never been caught bluffing before, they would be much more likely to believe you actually have a hand and fold.  Obviously, if you get caught bluffing enough times that it seriously impacts your pile of chips, you’re just bad at poker, but a single tactical loss can be later utilized to strategic advantage.

Category 2 is much more interesting.  Let’s take a game like Total Annihilation.  By the way, TA: Spring is totally free and open source, and it’s easily a contender for the greatest strategy game ever made.  Although it’s not fundamentally that complicated, there is no in-game help so it can be very confusing for new players.  Feel free to log in to the multiplayer server and just ask for a training game- after one or two you should be up to speed and ready to play for real.  Anyway, in Total Annihilation, at least the more standard-fare mods, there are dozens if not hundreds, there are huge weapons that deal death massively and can pose a serious threat in and of themselves to the opposition.  Things like nukes, long range artillery, giant experimental robots (and you can FPS any unit, bwahaha!!), etc. etc.  Anyway, the construction of one such piece can actually end the game if it stands uncountered or undestroyed for too long.  However each has a counter, which range in effectiveness.  For example, antinuke protects a fairly large area, but if you throw two nukes at it, it can only handle one.  Shields protect against long range artillery but they have a small area and cost a lot to run, and so on.  Now, a calculating player can probably figure out the ideal choice for the opponent in a given situation.  If he’s focusing all his stuff in one place, he may as well get both shields and anti-nuke, but the other player(s) could then steal the whole map.  If he goes for the whole map himself, the other player would probably get air units to attack his sparsely defended holdings.  If he consolidates in a few carefully chosen locations, nukes might be in order, and so on.

This is where we get to the recklessness-as-tool element.  Potentially the greatest advantage in complex games of strategy is surprise, or doing something that the enemy did not expect and must react to.  Ideally the enemy has limited ability to reorganize to counter the new threat.  This is true of real-world military action- there are issues with communication, chaos, and a host of others that make reacting quickly difficult.  The more resources sunk into the threat, the more resources that will be necessary to counter it (assuming that the attacker isn’t just stupid).  There would have been no point in the Manhattan Project, for example, if the enemy could put horseshoes on all their doors to render nuclear weapons impotent, and it would never have been started.  Now let’s say we have a game of TA where it would be obvious that hitting the enemy with a nuke would be the best course of action.  Of course, this same idea will have occurred to the person about to get nuked.  OK, so then big guns are the best strategy.  Except that your opponent can think of that, too, because he might guess you’re not going to use nukes because it’s too obvious.  And so on through all the possible options, whatever one can think of, the other can too.  Whatever strategy you might use to maximize your utility can be equally though of by the enemy.  We are dealing with a perfectly constrained system.

But what if we de-constrained the system just a little bit.  We remove the rule that says we must maximize value.  Now we could feasibly do anything up to and including nuking ourselves.  So we need a different rule in its place because now we’re working with a screwed up and dysfunctional model.  This is where the trick is.  Because you might still have a meta-model of maximizing value in your selection of an alternate strategy, meaning you will be just as predictable, albeit through the use of a much more complex algorithm.  No, you have to truly discard the maximizing value paradigm in order to get the additional value from surprise, and the trick is to not lose too much to put you behind after your surprise factor is added in.

My problem here is I’m trying to reduce a complex and multi-dimensional strategic game to a single aspect under consideration.  My other problem is that many of you will have never heard of Total Annihilation.  The same idea applies to more or less any other sufficiently complex game, such as Starcraft, but value is too directly transformed in most modern games to make such meta-strategies significant.  If you have more troops, or the right kind of troops, you win.  If you’re behind, you’re behind and there’s not a lot you can do about it other than try harder in doing what you were doing before.  So while surprise might give you some advantage, it’s probably not going to be worth enough to be behind to get it.  Careful application of force certainly helps, but it’s not as vital as in Supreme Commander or Total Annihilation.  No, I’m not harping on the games in question, I’m not demanding that you must play them, I’m just sharing my particular taste in video games.

Impulsiveness once again.  I seem to be digressing more and more these days.  Basically what I’m trying to communicate is that in some situations (games to use the theoretical term) the act of analysis must be take into consideration in your planning.  How much time can you spend analyzing, what should you be analyzing, how is the enemy thinking, etc. etc.  Once you bring the act of thinking into the purview of strategic considerations, impulsiveness is one option for a viable strategy that just does not occur to someone who cannot conceive of the act of thinking as a strategic concern.  They implicitly believe that life is a game of perfect information with unlimited time for a given move.  The truth is, you’re acting when you decide what to do, and that act will have an effect on the world and on the results you get.  There are lots of proverbs about hesitation, but they don’t seem to extend to when to think and when to just act.  On the whole, I think most people have an implicit understanding of this type of decision making- it comes pre-packaged with the HBrain OS, but they haven’t really considered exactly what it is they’re doing on a consistent basis.  I’m just here to point it out so those who haven’t can read about it and be provoked into it.

The St. Petersburg Paradox

I’m in more of a mathematical mood right now, so I’m going to cover a piece of abstract mathematics.  I want to talk about the St. Petersburg Paradox.  While a famous problem, you can wikipedia it for more information if you like, here’s a short summary.  Imagine we have a game of flipping a coin.  Starting at $1, every time the coin lands heads, you double that amount.  When it eventually lands tails you win however much you have earned so far.  How much should it cost to play?

Now I very much enjoy this problem in a pure mathematical sense, but Daniel Bernoulli, the man who invented it, apparently took the mathematics of this problem rather too far.  Bernoulli noticed, as the more astute among you probably either deduced, or probably already knew, that the game’s expected value is in fact infinite.  This means that no matter what the cost to play, you should always accept.  However most common people wouldn’t pay even $50 to play this game.  Bernoulli deduced from mathematical bases a utility function of the game which would explain this behavior using a logarithmic idea of value.  He supposed that people’s valuation of money decreases as the amount of money they possess increases, or to use another term, he proposed a diminishing marginal utility function for money.  While this approach, I guess, works, the even more astute among you will have noticed that this doesn’t actually solve the paradox.  You can just have a game’s payoff function that uses the inverse of whatever utility function and still end up with an infinite payoff that nobody will take.  Other mathematicians have wrestled with this problem, and so far the conclusion, as far as I am aware, is that utility must be bounded in order to resolve this type of paradox.

Now, I am not a professional mathematician, but I believe that I have solved this paradox.  SImply put, all these mathematicians have been assuming that people have the same conception of reality that they are working with; a mathematical one.  These mathematicians have assumed that people think of money as a number.  That seems obvious, right?  Money is measured numerically.  Well, yes, but the fact that different people have different ideas of what money or other commodities are valued at means that it isn’t a number.  Numbers are objective, inherently.  Two people must categorically agree that a 7 is a 7, it always was, is, and will be 7, and that 7 = 7, which also equals 6 + 1 and an infinitude of other identities.  However we all know that two people might have a differing opinion of various exchanges, such as $3 for a mango, for example.  Someone who loves mangoes might buy at that price, someone who doesn’t, won’t.  So we can’t say that $3 = 1 mango in the same way that we can say that 7 = 7, even if all mangoes in the world were always bought and sold for that price.

The issue here is that these mathematicians, while brilliant direct deductive thinkers, think of the universe in a flatly rational way.  While this is probably the best single perspective through which to view the universe, it fails when dealing with people that lack a similar rational strictness.  Have you ever been beaten by someone at a game you were clearly better at, simply because the other player just refused to play “properly”?  This happens all the time in poker and numerous gambling or card games.  In games like chess this rarely happens because in a game of perfect information, “proper” play can be categorically proven to be superior during the game itself.  If it would result in a bad situation, then it isn’t proper play.  Where information is limited, “proper” play might land you in situations you couldn’t predict or prevent.  Anyway, a more textured view of the perception of the universe would allow for nonlinear and unconventional conceptual modes for perceiving the universe.  For example, perhaps a certain subsection of people conceive of money like power.  The actual number isn’t as relevant as the power it holds to create exchanges.  The numbers are negotiable based on the situation and on the value sets of the parties involved  So the St. Petersburg Paradox could be equally resolved by saying that power doesn’t scale in the same way that money does.  If you offered someone a utility function of power, it would mean nothing.  Power is not infinitely reducible: the ability to do something doesn’t blend seamlessly into the ability to do something else.  The atomic unit of power is much larger than the infinitely fine divisions between any given numbers.  Having ten very small amounts of additional power is also not the same thing as one very large new executive power.

People can link together abstractions and concepts in many, many different ways.  For example, some successful investors say that instead of looking at your money like it’s your fruit, look at it like your bag of seed with which to grow more seeds.  True, you’re going to have to sell some of those seeds to get what you need, but its purpose is to grow.  As you accumulate more and more, the amount you can draw off increases while still maintaining useful volume.  This gives a completely different outlook on money, and will generate different decision behavior than looking at money as something to be spent as it is earned.  This same principle can apply anywhere at all, because in order for something to exist in your perceptual map, you have to think about it.  You might think of movies like books that have been converted, like picture books, like snatches of real-life experience, like a sequence of scenes strung together like string being tied together, or like a strip that runs through its full length in only one direction the same way every time.  There are other possibilities of course, but that’s as many as I could think of while I was in the process of typing this post.  This is only looking at a small slice of the possibilities of conceptual remapping (analogues and analogies, specifically) but other forms would require a great deal more explanation.  I think you get the point though.

Back to mathematicians and the St. Petersburg Paradox.  The paradox only exists if you look at utility in the mathematical sense.  There exist models, such as the one that “common sense” seems to indicate, that don’t see a paradox.  These models instead see a game that has a sliding scale of value and beyond a certain point the value is zero (or negligible).  This gradual fading of value is responsible for the probable effect of many people deciding to play the game at differing values.  I don’t think even the most hardcore mathematician would play the game for $1 million a round, even though it will eventually pay for itself.  The utility solution fails to take into account the common sense evaluation of time and effort as factors in any given activity.  You could factor in such an evaluation, but you would probably then be missing something else, and so on until you have built up a complete map of the common sense and shared perceptual map of the most common conceptual space.  But then you have duplicated the entire structure you’re attempting to model and created a simulation instead of a simplification.

On simulations and conventional models, we currently use both.  Our simulations, however, tend to be based in the real world, and we refer to them as experiments.  This is how we collect evidence.  The problem with the natural universe is that there is such an unimaginable profusion of activity and information that we can’t pick out any particular aspect to study.  An experiment is controlling all those other extraneous factors, or removing/minimizing them from a confusing universe so we can focus on a single test.  Once we have our results from that test we can move on to test another part of reality.  Eventually we will have built up a complete picture of what’s going on.  Simulations are data overkill from which we can draw inductive conclusions because we don’t understand all the underlying mechanics.  Models are streamlined flows, as simple and spare as possible, which we can use to draw deductive conclusions.  For example, the equation for displacement for a falling object [dp = v0*t + (1/2)a^2*t] is a simplified model, subtracting all other factors than the one being considered, allowing us to deductively conclude the displacement for any values of v0, t, and a.  Mathematical conclusions are a sequence of deductive operations, both to make mathematical proofs and to solve/apply any given instance of an equation/expression/situation/etc.

Our minds operate on the most basic level using models primarily, and simulations second.  This is because most of the time, a model is close enough.  You don’t need to include every factor in order to get an answer at sufficient precision.  You don’t have to factor in the time, the temperature, or the quantum wobble of each atom in a baseball to figure out where it’s going to land.  If you wanted a perfect answer you could simulate it, but you can get it to an extremely high level of precision by simply ignoring all those marginal factors.  They are not worth computing.  Now we are beginning to factor in the distinction I’ve brought up before between algorithms and heuristics.  Models are often heuristics, and simulations are often algorithms.  Models can include algorithms and simulations can include heuristics, but on the whole a simulation (given correct laws and good starting conditions) will algorithmically compute exactly what is going to happen.  A model, on the other hand, is a much more efficient process that throws away data in order to make calculation simpler.  Usually a lot simpler.

Now I am willing to bet that some readers will be confused.  I just said that simulations need the right laws and starting conditions- isn’t that the same thing as a deductive process needing the right logical framework and initial premises?  Well, yes.  That’s because a logical construct is a simulation.  However, it is a simulation constructed using information already stripped of extraneous information by creating a model of it.  The line between model and simulation is not black and white- they are simply approximate labels for the extremes of a spectrum, with conflicting ideals.  The perfect model is one law that determines everything.  The perfect simulation is a colossal, gigantically massive data stream that represents everything, down to the last spin on the last electron.  This is also where we get the fundamental distinction between philosophers: the conflict of rationalism versus empiricism.  The rationalists believe the model to be the “one true philosophical medium” and the empiricists believe it’s better to use simulations.  The tricky part is that in order to construct a simulation, you have to have models to run each of its laws and each of its elements.  In order to have a model, you have to have a simulation to draw patterns from.  So we have an infinite recursion where rationalists and empiricists are chasing one another’s coattails for all eternity.  Fortunately, most people who have thought about this much have come to more or less the same conclusion, and figured out that rationalism and empiricism go hand it hand quite nicely.  However there is still a preference for choosing to understand the world through one mode or the other.

How does all this apply to the original issue of the St. Petersburg Paradox?  So we have mathematicians who are definitely rationalists- I imagine there aren’t many professional mathematicians who are empiricists.  And these mathematicians construct a model that represents a certain behavioral set.  Their problem, however, is that reality doesn’t actually support the conclusion they are saying is the most rational.  So they change the model, as they should, to better reflect reality.  All well and good.  Their problem, though, is that they are actually doing their job backwards in one concealed respect.  Implicit in their model is the idea that it is the case in the simulation they are describing that the population they are describing has the same conceptual map that the people who created the model did.  I am aware that I could have simply said we have some ivory tower mathematicians who are out of touch with reality, but I wanted to cover in-depth what the disconnect with reality is.  They are correcting their model by making it better reflect empirical reality in one respect, but in so doing they are simultaneously doing the same in reverse by assuming things from their meta-models onto reality.  We have rationalism and empiricism, simulations and models, inductive and deductive thinking, all chasing their dance partner around.  But the most vital thought is that the process must only go one way.  You must always push forward by correcting both to better fit the other in reality, rather than working backwards and assuming things onto reality which are not the case.  If you do this, and then entrench your position with a rationale, you are screwing up your meta-model of reality.  And, like a monkey with its hand caught in a banana trap, the tighter you squeeze your fist the more surely you get stuck.  For every ratchet backwards on the progress ladder, you get more and more firmly stuck in place, and it even gets harder to continue to go backwards.  The wheel spins one way, it grinds to a halt in the other.

The Fundamentals of Reason

I realize that I talk about reason and rationality a great deal, but I haven’t done a great deal to explain exactly what I mean by those words.  In fact, through a great part of history it was perfectly acceptable to treat divine inspiration or the product of a drug-induced hallucination as a basis for decision-making.  However that is clearly not rational by today’s standards.  I want to try and stay away from the philosophy of science, though, since that sort of discussion will not have meaning for too many people.  What I want to get across is that we are all fundamentally rational beings because rationality is a prerequisite of survival.  If we did fundamentally insane things on a regular basis then our species would be long extinct to make room for those that react to reality instead of a fantasy world.

Everyone, even the craziest of the crazies, is fundamentally rational.  They know how rationality works, even if it hasn’t been formalized for them.  They know how to apply it to make the right decisions and to sort truth from falsehood.  The trouble comes because rationality is so flexible.  As a meta-rational strategy, it may be wise to ignore rationality.  It may be proper to do any conceivable action in the right circumstances.  If you live in a society where those who don’t jump up and down and make monkey sounds when the man in the absurdly tall green feathered hat says “mookly!” are killed, then you damn well better jump and make monkey sounds.  If you live in a society where your interests are served by neglecting strict basic rationality in favor of a unified community perspective, even if that perspective is clearly ridiculous, it may be a reasonable choice.  Rationality, for those who have experienced it in formal form, is a very seductive thing because it lets you know things.  Truly know, not just “think” or “suppose” but actually know, and prove to a specific and known degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.  The first step is to establish that all propositions may be false given certain future evidence.  If we discovered a rock that fell up, that’s a vital piece of information.  It doesn’t actually prove that gravity is false though, as the stereotypical example says.  Because clearly there’s some value in the model of gravity because it’s been right so often in the past.  If it needs to be extended to cover a more general field of circumstances, so much the better.  This is how knowledge is advanced.  Once you acknowledge that you can never be absolutely sure (and I mean in the sense of absolutes) of anything, there is a ceiling on the strength of propositions.  This ceiling is, put succinctly, “To the extent that it is possible to know anything, I know that ______”  Now, a lot of postmodernists take this to mean that nothing means anything.  Ridiculous!  What it means is that if you observe something, you don’t get to say “that didn’t just happen because I know X.”  Conversely, if you fail to observe something, you can’t say that “I know it is so anyway because X.”  This one is trickier because it may actually be valid in certain circumstances because you can put a weaker proposition in the position of being negatively tested against.

OK this is getting a little confusing.  I shall rephrase.  If a devout Christian fundamentalist who believes that the Bible is literally true, word for word, was presented with a real-life situation which clearly contradicted the Bible, and continued to believe in the Bible, that’s a problem.  The fundy is assuming that the Bible is true in absolute terms.  The contents of the Bible are so true that even reality cannot touch it.  This is, of course, living in a fantasy world.  However this is a common example of someone attributing far too much strength to a proposition- more confidence in a specific statement than you can possibly have while still keeping an objective view of the world.  For the fundy faced with a contradiction, they have basically two alternatives.  Firstly, they might conclude that the Bible isn’t literally true and that reality is, well, real.  Or, they can come up with an explanation of some kind that will explain why the contradiction can exist, explain how it isn’t really a contradiction after all, or shatter their thinking faculty by believing that contradictions are admissible in reality.  There is a fourth option: ignore the problem.  While there are countless problems that are given this treatment at any given time, the invasive nature of religion invariably fills the victim’s life and worldview until they are forced to take one of the aforementioned options.  Modern religions dislike dabblers- they prefer converts, and vector mechanics are selected for accordingly.

The second pillar of rationality is deduction.  The ability to conclude things.  Now, some would say that premises are more important than deductive ability, and while they would probably be right.  It is possible to be a hardcore rationalist operating from very bad premises, arriving at awe-inspiringly terrible conclusions with great certitude.  However, your premises are only subject to rational analysis once you have established the ability to measure them.  Which requires deductive, abstractive, and meta-analytical faculties.  So I place deduction higher.  Anyway, most people understand how this works.  Socrates is a man.  All men are mortal.  Therefore, Socrates is mortal.  Actually this is rather a more complex statement than necessary to prove deductive faculty.  7 = 7, and therefore 7 = 7 will do nicely.  The basic laws are available on Wikipedia, but the structure you use isn’t as important as the ability to follow one.  True, single-order binary logics using only true and false statements have very strict and well-understood laws for operating and maintaining truth values.  But what if you want a system with three states, or n states, or a paradigm specifically designed to deal with ethical choices?  The ability to understand, follow, manipulate, formulate, and eventually innovate in thought forms is important.

Thirdly, your premises.  This is where a lot of people screw up.  If you start from bad premises, there is nothing you can do to arrive at a reasonable conclusion, even if it is factually true.  In fact, it’s worse if you arrive at a conclusion that is correct through flawed reasoning because you will then apply that reasoning elsewhere with undeserved confidence.  This is how we get Creationists on TV talking about how the banana is perfectly shaped for the human hand, therefore there must be a God who designed both the banana and the human hand.  They are operating from some extremely bad premises, but actually, if you admit their premises for the sake of argument you arrive at a relatively strong hypothetical conclusion.  This type of thing happens a lot for religion.  It’s like a compression algorithm in the religion virus’ DNA that also increases its rate of spreading.  It reduces the amount of information that must be transferred (only the premises, not the whole structure), it makes it easier to bypass the natural pseudo-rational approximant functions naturally embedded in the brain, and also enables the subversion of those very faculties once the premises are accepted.  Religion is itself evolved to be an amazingly effective virus for transmission between minds.  It’s what makes discussion about it so fascinating; I’m always finding new things that the religion virus has capitalized upon and been selected for.  You see the same type of thing in a lot of famous books and movies- it appeals to a wide diversity of people and has been selected for among a large population.  The “classics” then provide the seeds upon which new diversity is created.  Of course, in this case the metric by which we measure the species’ utility is entirely subjective and changes with the times so it’s less of a purist evolutionary system, but still an interesting thought.  Also, it’s important to point out that each “species” has essentially one organism: the contents of the book.  In olden days this wasn’t so- every bard and performer had their own version which they performed for specific results.  This is probably why a lot of the very old tales, including fairy tales, have an almost mystical amount of power in them.  They have been naturally selected for in a much more proper fashion with more than a single set of genes in the pool.  Modern books are all carbon-copies of one another because we’re so precise in our exchange of their information contents.  Anyway, now that I’m thoroughly off topic from the basis of rationality, it’s time to return.  If you start from good premises, and use proper rational tools, then you must arrive at a valid solution.  Now it’s important to note that while at one point in time given a certain set of information, a set of premises may be proper and produce the right results.  However, later in time, you may encounter a result which contradicts your original construction.  This is OK, it just means that your premises weren’t perfect, they only covered certain cases.  In reality, it’s more or less impossible to create a model to cover all cases without creating a model as complex as reality itself, thus defeating the point of using a model in the first place.  This is the difference between a rational model and a pure simulation.  A pure simulation would duplicate exactly the information content of the subject matter being considered, and is not necessarily a tool or vessel of intelligence.  If it were, we could say the universe as a whole is a vast intelligent being because it has so many atoms that all can be represented as information patterns performing constant exchanges that we are contained within and thus may never understand.  The second we “understood” the picture, our minds contain a new piece of information which we haven’t accounted for, and so on forever in infinite recursion.

Anyway, I started this post off in fairly short and focused form, but now my mind is all over the place.  It’s a pleasant way to be, but it isn’t conducive to great writing in a linear mode like a text stream.  I hope I’ve given you some food for thought to chew on, and of course the basis for the tools to do it with.