Knowledge is a Human Project

I.

I like to be generally personally correct.  This tendency of mine is nothing special.  Probably most people like to be correct.  Or at least we think we like to be correct.

Often, I notice my opinions changing according to circumstance—according to who I’m talking to.  And like, what’s up with that?  Obviously the state of the world does not change depending on my personal conversations.  When I notice myself expressing different opinions depending on whether I’m talking to my friends or my family or strangers on the internet, my first instinct is that I must be being disingenuous.

But I don’t think I’m being disingenuous.  Don’t get me wrong, clearly, if my goal was to be as close as possible to correct at the given moment, then changing my opinion based on the recipient is a failure to achieve that goal.  But if my goal is to be generally correct, then it is probably beneficial for me in safer circumstances to entertain a new framework, so that in more important circumstances, I can be closer to correct.

This, by the way, is essentially what song birds do.  Male song birds sing both by themselves and while with females.  When courting a female, the song is consistent, and the pattern of neuron firing looks the same with each repetition of a motif.  When singing alone, the song is more variable, and the neuron firings are more variable:  In higher stress situations, the birds are singing their best version of their song; and in low stress situations, the birds are experimenting and improving.

Okay, so in order to be correct when it matters, I experiment with different ideas when my correctness matters less.  This is generally how learning works.  Perhaps it’s not obvious that this is what is happening when I adopt unusual opinions, but it’s hardly surprising.  But I don’t think this is the full story.

II.

Sometimes I imagine myself as a point in ideological space. I can draw a hypersphere around myself: the locus of ideologies that are some given difference from mine (of course drawing this sphere requires putting a metric on ideological space, which seems nigh impossible to rigorously define, but I feel comfortable using an intuitive metric).  And when I draw this hypershere, I notice that I feel much more annoyed with some of the ideologies on the sphere than others.

To put this observation in more concrete terms, let’s consider a one-dimensional case:  When I interact with someone whose worldview is generally similar to mine, but who is a few steps economically to the left, I feel a much stronger sense of disagreement than someone who is a few steps economically to the right.

There are a number of mundane explanations for this: the style of discourse in each direction is different; people to the left of me sometimes remind me of individuals who I dislike for reasons unrelated to politics; and so on.

But a key reason for this asymmetry is that I actually just do not believe in the correctness of my own opinions.

I mean, when I state my beliefs one by one, they all sound correct to me.  But when I step back, and I imagine a world where the median ideology is my personal ideology, I start to feel uncomfortable.  I start to feel like hang on, we need some conservatives to counterbalance these crazy leftists.

So if my goal is to be generally personally correct, it’s obvious what I should do, right?  I should shift my personal opinions a little bit away from socialism.  But is that really my goal?  Is it a good goal?  What does my own personal correctness even serve apart from my own ego?

(Okay, so obviously personal correctness can help me make decisions.  If the question is whether lentils are nutritious, then I want to be personally correct for the sake of my diet.  But if the question is about economic policy, I’m not personally making decisions about what economic policy to adopt, so my own personal correctness is less obviously important)

III.

In a previous post, I talked about conceiving of humanity as an integrated whole instead of as a collection of individuals.  One idea that I explored in that post is that diversity is not accidental.  In ants, diverse task-thresholds within a nest lead to malleable division of labor.  Of course humans are not ants and it’s not always accurate to generalize from one species to another, but if we conjecture that humans are similar to ants in this particular way, it sheds insight on my ideological predicament.

Knowledge is a human project.  It doesn’t really matter what I personally think about economic policy.  What matters is what we collectively think about economic policy (and what the people in charge think about economic policy).   It is beneficial for the human super-organism to create individuals who think in a variety of different ways, so that a community always has multiple angles from which to address important questions.  And it is beneficial for the human super-organism to create humans who seek out under-performed intellectual tasks: We form our beliefs not only based on our values and priors, but also based on our intellectual skill set, and on our perception of how that skill set fits into aggregate cultural ideology.

Like most people, I exist in multiple communities.  Different communities send different signals about where my intellectual skill set is most useful, and my beliefs morph accordingly.  Sometimes my instinct is to temporarily forget my reservations about a particular perspective, so that a community can explore in that direction.  Sometimes my instinct is to morph my opinion to push against a group consensus.

This perspective explains not only ideological sentiments that shift with social context, but also the way that we interact with art.  Many people deride the tendency of “normies” to be enthusiastic about a work of art only because it’s popular, or deride the tendency of “hipsters” to criticize a work because it’s popular.  And it’s true that if people were ideal isolated opinion-havers, then we wouldn’t have these tendencies.  But people aren’t designed to be isolated opinion-havers.  We’re designed to work in concert with other people.

Individual humans act as nodes in the cultural network, amplifying or dampening signals in a way akin to neural networks.  Whether a person amplifies or dampens a signal depends on personality (enthusiastic or cynical), personal beliefs (in agreement or in disagreement), and perception of overall cultural opinion.

IV.

I’m not saying that the system works perfectly, and no one ever needs to worry about being wrong.  For one, the human evolutionary context is pretty far removed from the current state of the world, so the intellectual task-thresholds we’ve developed may not work well for the present day.  For another, for any given human trait, it’s very difficult to know whether that trait is evolutionarily selected for, or basically random.

Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky points out that evolution is a tinkerer not an inventor.

Humans have chins. Humans have chins. Apparently, all humans do have chins hidden away someplace or other. Humans have chins. And weirdly, we’re like the only primate that does. You look at, like, other apes and stuff, and they have the sort of weak chins that suggest sort of immoral characters and criminality and things like that. We’re the only species that has chins.

And apparently, there’s been some like nutty adaptationist school somewhere back when, trying to make sense of why it is that humans evolved chins. Why it is that human faces come to a point there, and what’s the adaptive advantage? And you can, like, stab rivals — or you can get crumbs from out of the corner on the floor and stuff with your chin. Until somebody figured out that there’s no way that you could have a primate face that has a muzzle foreshortened and a jaw at this angle. You do this, and you do this, and you’re going to get this little spandrel thing sticking out there. And oh, there hasn’t been selection for a chin because you have selection for a hominid face with a shortened muzzle, and this thing pops out there.

So maybe my irrational ideological tendencies and my obnoxious hipster-ism are just irrational and obnoxious and not a part of some greater functioning whole.  Maybe these tendencies are not beneficial in themselves, but are a byproduct of some other advantageous trait, like, you know, the oft discussed “tribalism,” or group identity around uniform belief.

(Maybe this whole post is just a misguided attempt to say “Hey, so you think I’m wrong? Well guess what, I’m proud of being wrong sometimes!  That’s my role in human society.”)

I’m not at all suggesting that all incorrectness functions to temper human super-brain.  I’m just saying that the expectation that individuals should always be correct is short-sighted.  An optimal system for group correctness would not optimize for individual correctness.  And perhaps too much concern about our correctness in our isolated bodies, instead of focus on how we contribute to a larger intellectual whole, is counter productive.

 

Humanity as Superorganism, Social Ailments as Superorganism Illness

I am he as you are he as you are me, and we are all together. – John Lennon

In recent years, I think I have seen an increased awareness that humans are social animals.  Deprive a person of human contact, and you’ll cause them a host of psychological and physical problems that can last a lifetime.  But I haven’t seen many people take this idea to its natural conclusion.  The focus on what social deprivation does to the individual is short-sighted.  As social animals, we must have an evolved social super-structure.  Human society is not merely a collection of individuals; we are a superorganism: a single lifeform made up of much smaller individuals who interact in complex and surprising ways.  In any attempt to understand the issues that humanity as a whole faces, we must step away from the individualist framework and instead adopt the superorganism framework.  Just as medicine works better when viewing a body as a whole rather than a collection collection of cells, any attempt to address wide-spread social issues should consider human society as a single, integrated whole.  Issues like environmental degradation, mass anger and hatred, and unchecked economic growth are not just the effects of the conglomerate actions of billions of human individuals, they are the symptoms of superorganismic social structure that is integrating information in dangerous and harmful ways.

My goal with this essay is to convince you that a conception of societal ailments as superorganism illness is both meaningful and true.   For the former: This framework offers very different solutions for social ailments than most other frameworks.  Because humans are nodes in a system in many ways analogous to a neural network, changes to the ways we interact with our friends, acquaintances, and strangers can have significant and surprising consequences.  In some sense, this essay boils down to “Being nice is Good—Good in ways that reach far beyond what most ever imagine.”

For the latter: The animal kingdom is full of cases where group behavior is fundamentally different from individual behavior.  “Emergence” is a key concept in biology that can be summarized by the adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” An organ is more than the sum of its cells.  An organism is more than the sum of its organs. And a superorganism is more than the sum of the individual organisms that comprise it. In fact, the line between an organism and a superorganism is blurred.  An individual human – typically considered an organism – can be viewed as the result of the interaction of many cells with their own behaviors and “desires.”  Even an individual human cell can be viewed through endosymbiosis as the interaction between even smaller cells contained within the cell environment.

These comparisons between life at different sizes are more than a silly abstraction.  Recognition of the fractal nature of lifeforms allows us to expand organism-level understanding to larger and smaller systems.  Evolutionary processes act on all levels, and through superorganism evolution, animals can evolve seemingly strange behaviors that only make sense as part of a larger whole.  The human superorganism has its own emergent behaviors and desires that will not be obvious if we view humanity as a collection of individuals.

I. Individual and collective cognition

What I want to focus on in the human superorganism is collective consciousness and emergent cognition.  To be clear, I’m not talking about ESP or psychic abilities.  Group level cognition is a serious and well substantiated theory in behavioral biology.  How do groups of organisms make decisions?

The simplest form of group cognition is integration through polling.  This type of cognition can can improve accuracy as random noise is canceled out, but this sort of integration is not truly emergent—all ideas still stem from individuals and the integration cannot fix individual fallacious reasoning: When wrongness is systematically biased, polling cannot prevent it.   Nevertheless there are plenty of instances where group cognition is truly emergent – that is fundamentally different from the cognition of an individual.  This emergence is crucial for understanding, for example, how environmentally destructive group behavior arises from people who do not want rising sea levels or severe weather.

A simple example of emergent cognition is the rational behavior of ant colonies.  Individual ants – and individual humans – are susceptible to violations of the regularity principle.  The regularity principle of rational decision-making states essentially that preferences should be consistent.  If A is preferred to B, when presented with options A and B, then A should be preferred to B when presented with options A, B, and C.  Fallacious violations of the regularity principle are extremely common in organism-level cognition, and are perhaps best illustrated by the way that salesmen take advantage of them, as described by Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational.  Ariely conducted an informal experiment on his students to demonstrate the use of a “decoy” to change economic decision making.  The Economist offers three choices for subscriptions: “Internet-only subscription for $59,” “Print-only subscription for $125” and “Print-and-Internet subscription for $125.”  When presented with these three options, most students chose the third, because of its obvious superiority compared to the second “decoy option.”  However, in another class, when Ariely removed the decoy option and offered only “Internet-only subscription for $59,” and “Print-and-Internet subscription for $125,” the majority selected the first option.

Polling cannot fix this fallacy: because the fallacious reasoning is enough to influence majority opinion, the polled group understanding changed with the decoy.  New forms of information integration, on the other hand, can create new cognitive processes that avoid this fallacy.  Although individual ants can fall for decoys, ant colonies as a whole are not susceptible to violation of the regularity principle.  Instead of having individual ants assess all three options, each ant assesses only one, and the structure of the colony works to process the collective opinion.

Cognition, collective or otherwise, is fundamentally a process of integrating information.  A human, an ant, or a neuron has an experience and transmits its experience to others.  These others in turn transmit information, and through these transmissions, the experience combines with other experiences and decisions are made.   When considering any question about society as a whole, we have to consider the question of how relevant information gets integrated by the human network.  In the case of climate change, how does environmental science travel through the network?  In the case of misogyny, how do ideas about dating norms transmit through the network?

Unfortunately, these are not easy questions.  Group cognition phenomena can get far more impressive and complex than the simple ant example, and as they increase in complexity, they become increasingly difficult to understand mechanistically.  Much like we do not understand how thoughts emerge from networks of neurons, we also do not understand exactly how individuals combine to create group level behavior.  Still, the question is not entirely intractable.  Both neural processes and collective cognition fall under the umbrella term “swarm intelligence” and can be studied by an expansion of the principles of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.  The force laws between individual atoms and molecules can result in complex and predictable macroscopic phases of matter.  Similarly, the rules governing individual neuronal or organismic behavior can combine to create macroscopic or megascopic cognition.  Some sort of understanding of cognition can be drawn from the lower-level rules governing neurons, even if the intermediate steps are complex and mysterious. To understand human society, we must begin by examining the rules for individual behavior.

Academics have noted a number of similarities between neurons and social animals.  Both brains and superorganisms involve a complex and adaptable communication network.  In brains, the network itself is highly complex but it is comprised of very simple components.  For superorganisms, the network is formed by the connections between much more complex individuals.  In ants, this network is necessarily simple.  Although, ants may recognize their own individuality, they probably cannot recognize their peers as distinct from each other.  The communication connections for ants are therefore based on proximity and the network is shaped by the spatial distribution of the ant colony.   Humans are more complex than ants, and our networks therefore can be more complex and are more analogous to neural networks.  Tribal structures reflect the clustering of neurons in the brain, such that the cognitive system consists of many smaller communication circuits along with a network of farther reaching nodes that connect them.   Extrapolating from primate trends, humans evolved to be connected on an individual level with about 150 people.  The potential for complex group communication networks is therefore very high, and the potential for complex group cognition is as a result also high.

Even the nature of the communication within brains and among social animals is analogous.  Each point in the communication network provides either positive or negative feedback, such that some signals amplify and others die out.  The exact nature of these positive and negative feedbacks is also fairly similar.  Each communication node has some particular received signal threshold at which it will begin signaling.  These signals are continually spreading and cycling, and as neurons or animals receive certain types of signals, they change their connections and their signal thresholds, such that the brain, or the superorganism can change permanently and learn .

Of course, social networks and neuronal networks are far from perfectly analogous.  One important distinction between brains and superbrains is the nature of the signals.  Neuronal signals are incredibly simple, consisting essentially of a flow of chemicals down a tube.  A pain signal is transferred to the brain, where the pain is integrated with other simple inputs to create a complex situational picture, and ultimately to cause decision-making.  Human signals take the form of ideas.  Human experience is transferred through language along super-neuronal pathways, and the communication structure serves to transform experiences into ideology, and ideology into action.           

All of this is not to say that the human superorganism has thoughts or experiences in the traditional sense.  The superbrain may not be structured correctly for such things; and the complex, less predictable nature of humans compared to neurons makes the network less clean, and therefore, potentially, not precise enough for real thought. However, decisions and desires often do not stem from thoughts.  Instead thoughts are often secondary rationalizations of decisions and emotions that are made at a “lower,” less conscious level (see Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow).  The human superbrain may or may not think in the traditional sense, but it does make decisions and have desires, and like a neural brain, those decisions and desires can have little to do with the “desires” of the individual neurons.  The human superorganism has its own mind with its own consciousness in a way not too different from each of us.

II. Case study: Environmental degradation and climate change

One function of brains in organisms and collective cognition in superorganisms is the maintenance of homeostasis – that is, maintaining a constant and hospitable environment and keeping the lifeform running on a basic level.  These functions include keeping chemical energy (food) available, staying at the correct temperature, and keeping the concentration of carbon dioxide at a reasonable level.

Environmental issues are essentially a failure by the human superorganism to maintain homeostasis.  A healthy superbrain should keep population growth in check, preserve the local ecosystem, and amplify the voices of individuals who have a good understanding of the more complex issues facing the society.  Instead, the human superorganism is growing uncontrollably, pursuing environmentally destructive pleasures, and ignoring the alarm calls of some of its more knowledgeable members.  In some sense, the human superorganism is mentally ill and engaging in self-destructive behavior.

Superorganism level diseases are not a new idea, and generally result from a failure in collective cognition.  Organisms and superorganisms both evolve such that the tendencies of the individual neural nodes are conducive to healthy cognition and decision making.  However, sometimes these natural processes can be changed or coopted by maladaptive behavior, leading to mental illness in organisms, or colony disorders in superorganisms.

In superorganisms, a crucial part of homeostasis maintenance is the division of labor.  Essentially, labor specialization is analogous to cell differentiation, so in superorganisms, since individuals can switch jobs, “cell differentiation” becomes a tool to employ to maintain a balanced environment.  In ants “colony-level division of labor can result from single insects with different task thresholds.”  The communication network between ants passes information about what the colony needs throughout the nest, and individuals respond based essentially on individual preferences.  This form of collective cognition bears uncanny similarity to Adam Smith’s invisible hand.  The natural functioning of economics depends on having a mixture of individuals with different utilities and skills.  This healthy balance of individuals is not emergent solely from economic forces, it is the result of tens of millions of years of evolutionary social engineering.

Anthropogenic climate change is in some sense a market failure.  Unnecessary consumption drives increased use of fossil fuels.  Many have argued that capitalism caused the Anthropocene (or the new geological era defined by globally recognizable human impact), and in some sense I agree.  This explanation, however, is insufficient: Markets are natural and humans have evolved with checks and balances on the collective cognition processes.  Self-organization into groups with governments is meant to amplify the voices of individual brains, in order to actively keep the market forces of the superbrain in check.  These governments are failing to do their job.  Even in nations with large and active governments or state-run economies, greenhouse gas emissions can be high.

The Anthropocene is therefore a simultaneous failure of market forces and voice amplification, and therefore it must stem from changes in economic decision making and social connection at the individual level. From these changes emerge a mentally ill and self-destructive superbrain.

III. Neuronal changes: Social bonding and consumption

Increased consumption and problems with social bonding are probably closely causally linked.  An inadequacy of social bonds can cause consumerism.  Without social opportunities, mammals turn to other options, desperately trying to fill the hole left by a lack of community.

The most marked example of this is drug addiction.  Famous experiments on rats offer a bleak view of mammalian self-control surrounding certain forms of consumption.  Rats are willing to press a lever to self-administer cocaine or opium, even over food consumption, until either the drug or the starvation kills them.  These experiments however, are deeply flawed.  Rats are social creatures, and these experiments tend to be conducted on rats who are isolated.  An alternative experiment, commonly termed “Rat Park,” kept rats in colonies where they could play, cuddle and have sex with other rats.  Rats who lived in Rat Park had drastically lower rates of drug use.

Rat Park and similar experiments led to the theory of addictive behavior as a maladaptive attempt at bonding.  Without social connection, mammals will attempt to bond with something else.  The object of bonding can be drugs, or any other pleasurable activity.  For humans, a lack of bonds can lead to consumerism.

It is difficult to empirically test this mechanism, but one thing is clear: lack of social bonding can cause huge behavioral changes in humans.  Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that plays a central role in human social interaction.  It is released during sex, cuddling, and other intimate interaction.  Dysfunction (caused by lack of human contact) in the oxytocin system is linked to both addiction and antisocial behavior.  In other words, insufficient cuddling can lead to destructive economic desires and changed social connections.

A lack of bonds can cause consumerism, but it is not easy to definitively show that such a lack exists.  Society-wide failure to make sufficient human connections is more difficult to detect than increased consumption.  A good proxy for this issue is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the disorder often linked to high functioning psychopathy.  The symptoms of the disorder include exploitation of others for personal gain, an unwillingness to empathize with the feelings or desires of other people, and a sense of entitlement (DSM-5, 2013).

I want to emphasize here that I am looking at rates of NPD not because I think that the few individuals who are diagnosable for this disorder are causing the rest of society to suffer inordinately.  These individuals suffer themselves from guilt and social isolation, but do not necessarily have a negative impact on the world at large.  In fact, some individuals with psychopathic traits may play an important role in a healthily functioning society – those individuals are better at making utilitarian ethical decisions, and a healthy superorganism would allocate certain kinds of tasks to them accordingly.  Rather, I am assuming that an increased rate of NPD is indicative of increased rates of more exploitative and less friendly social behavior across the board.  Rates of NPD range from 0% to 6% across communities, with far lower rates in more traditional communities.  Modern society is socially cold and self-centered.

In hunter-gatherer societies where rates of NPD are low, as well as in other primates, babies maintain skin to skin contact with their mothers 50-90 percent of the time.  In the United States, that number is only 16 percent.  Skin to skin contact and affection are incredibly important for primates.  Baby rhesus monkeys, given the choice between a terry cloth doll mother without food or a wire mesh doll mother with food, will rush their eating so that they return to the softer, more apparently affectionate doll.  These doll mothers are not enough though.  75% of female rhesus monkeys raised this way ended up being abusive mothers themselves.

In humans, parental neglect or inconsistency is linked with NPD.  Narcissism then is self-perpetuating, as childhood loneliness leads to adult parental neglect.  Less human contact as a child is linked with dysfunction in the oxytocin system, and higher risk for drug addiction.  However, childhood is not the end-all-be-all for either of these conditions.  A healthy social environment can lead to less addictive behavior, and less narcissitic tendencies.  In essence, the neuronal-level changes in the superorganism, are caused by both childhood and adult loneliness.

And indeed, modern society is incredibly lonely.  We may not notice this loneliness most of the time, since it is so integrated into our lives, but the loneliness becomes apparent when looking at community response to stress and war.  People miss war, in spite of the extreme trauma involved.  There is nowhere in our society where people can get the same degree of social connection as with their fellow soldiers.  Veterans suffer from increasing rates of depression, and even for civilians war can be positive. After the bombings in London during World War II, many said that they missed the community created by air-aid shelters.  These sentiments about war are in stark contrast this with more communal, less socially stratified societies, where returning from war is relatively easy.

IV. The slow spread of loneliness

The Anthropocene then is a superorganism illness, caused by pathological consumption and social connections in individual humans.  These pathologies are caused by loneliness.  Where, then, does the loneliness come from?

In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins describes memes, and the idea that thoughts as they spread through society are subject to the same pressures as genes in biological evolution.  This idea led to the now common analogy of ideas as viruses.  Ideas are contagious.  An idea infects a person’s mind, and causes their mind to eject more of the idea, and more minds become infected.

Loneliness is contagious, but it is not quite a thought virus.  A better analogy is prion disease within the superorganism.  Prions are sometimes called “atypical slow viruses” because of the way they spread slowly through an organism before causing symptoms.  It can take years from initial infection for the disease to develop.

Prions are not conventional viruses.  Conventional viruses are balls of RNA and protein that infect cells, and turn those cells into factories to make more virus.  Prions are a contagious protein problem.  When certain proteins in the body fold incorrectly, they can cause other proteins to fold incorrectly as well.  Cell by cell, the new folding is slowly passed along, subtly changing cell behavior.

Loneliness wants to spread itself, and it spreads more easily than social connectedness.   Associated emotional states, like shyness, hostility and anxiety are passed from person to person within a community through facial expressions and body language.  Once a community becomes sufficiently lonely, rates of narcissism skyrocket.  Fantasies of power and success, hallmarks of NPD, permeate the community, leading to new sorts of amplification and group behavior.

This spread of loneliness leads to the Narcissistic community.  The individuals in this community are not “bad.”  As mentioned previously, Narcissism in a few individuals can be healthy for a community.  It is the combination of individuals that is a problem.  With high rates of Narcissism, certain traits play off each other and create a group pathology.

As loneliness increases, new types of rhetoric become more successful.  Self-interest and a belief in tribal superiority lead to the expansion of Narcissistic communities.  Nazi Germany, under claims of Aryan supremacy blazed its way through Europe.  Great Britain (and England in particular) has used rhetoric surrounding modernity and civilization to justify its push for a more gradual and world-wide adoption of its culture of individualism and sex-negativity.  Sex-negativity and individualism in turn drive loneliness and Narcissism.

Loneliness is widespread in modern American culture.  Social media allows people to talk without connecting.  Face to face interaction and skin to skin contact are essential for the neurological effects of social interaction to take place.  On a more familial connection level, healthy adult connection is rendered almost impossible by standards of monogamy, the nuclear family, and other aspects of American culture.  Other primates and humans in more traditional cultures do not sleep alone, or even alone with a single partner.  Furthermore, American culture is so connection-negative that modern English profanity often centers on activities and body parts that are used by adult primates to express affection and community sentiments.  Primatologists estimate that in the recent evolutionary past, humans were generally each close to five other people.  On average, the American adult today has only two close friends.

Today, Narcissistic rhetoric pervades American politics.  Donald Trump has been noted repeatedly for his Narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies.  His voice is amplified through the lonely people’s maladaptive attempts at achieving connection.  Phrases like “so much money” and “you’ll win so much you’ll get sick of winning” push those consumption buttons. Indeed, Donald Trump is particularly popular among some of the loneliest internet communities.

The social structure that amplifies narcissistic traits makes it nigh impossible to keep consumption in check. Narcissistic individuals engage in rationalization to justify their self-serving antisocial behavior (DSM-5, 2013).  In standard narcissistic fashion, modern political leaders magnify tiny scientific doubts within climate science to postpone environmental protection and protect their own interests and standards of living, at a cost to less powerful individuals and the future of humanity as a whole.

V. What now?

Prions generally have no effect until they reach the brain, and cause erratic behavior, madness and debilitation.   In the case of the loneliness prion, the early stages can even look positive, as economic growth gets conflated with happiness, and societal expansion is perceived as healthy flourishing.  This apparent health, however, cannot last.  In a list of three “Key Points” on prion diseases, the Hopkins Medicine Health Library (2017) ended with the cheery statement “Prion diseases are always fatal.”

For the human superorganism, there is still hope.  A prion disease may always be fatal for an organism, but superorganisms are far more flexible and adaptable. If we want human society to be better, we have to work on curing this super-organism prion disease.  Science alone cannot offer a solution to problems like climate change.  I do not want to downplay the importance of science in a healthy human superorganism – human understanding is crucial for the ability to make healthy societal decisions – but our society already has a large scientific community.  The right voices are already out there, they just aren’t being amplified.  So, what can we do as individuals to help solve the problem?  We need to be kind to each other, and trust that the emergent cognitive network will transform that kindness into something revolutionary. Let’s start by hugging each other more often.  Hugs may or may not cure the prion disease, but if the hug solution fails, and society collapses, at least we can experience the apocalypse together.

Pastiche of Proust

pastiche: a work of art in the style of another artist

This post is the last in a series of three pastiches of French authors.  As with the other two, there is commentary at the end.

The first post (Stendhal).  The second (Flaubert).


There were in essence two Caltechs: The Caltech with a campus that for the past months I had physically occupied and with students with whom I spent late nights agonizing over physics sets; and there was the other Caltech—the Caltech I had yet to penetrate, which existed in some realm beyond the physical, on some higher plane of being, and which, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its physical proximity, felt all the more distant: The Caltech that I had imagined since my childhood, an attracting stationary point in the Hamiltonian of human intellect where genius reverberates and distills within the very hallways like photons in a laser cavity—situated just south of the Lake Avenue exit from the Foothill Freeway, where, seated in my parents’ Nissan on our way to Joshua Tree, I would peer out of the window, and deduce in the pattern of cracking on the freeway walls the presence of Feynman, Einstein, and Newton, as if their glory was encoded in the physical laws that governed the surrounding region. Nadia Petrov, this goddess with whom I this evening shared the confined space of a single-dorm-room, was of this latter Caltech. For the first weeks of term, I had not noticed her. When every evening at 6:05 we would surge into the dining hall and like gaseous atoms condense in random fashion onto each of the round wooden tables, laid out with food in advance by the student waiters, I would instinctively avoid Nadia’s table, the one exception, just south of the kitchen door, which always attracted the same students, who would sit night after night in the exact same arrangement. In my ignorance, I supposed this stable droplet to be asocial upperclassmen, probable loners who had nothing much to offer; until one Thursday in early November a sophomore sitting next to me leaned toward me and said, with the generous air often adopted by those fortunate enough to have privileged access to a great secret, that the girl with the long brown hair, whom from our vantage point on the northern end of the dining hall we could see in profile, was Crellin House Secretary Nadia Petrov who had been on top of every roof on the Caltech campus.

The reader should be made aware that Crellin House was not without reason the most exclusive House at Caltech. Since its establishment in 1930, it had been home to all the aspects of science that are exciting, if perhaps not strictly legal. The type of science, and of scientist, you see in the movies—scientists who nobly risk their lives in exposure to gene altering radiation for the progress of mankind, who like the Pantheon atop Mount Olympus paint the landscape of the coming cybernetic age, and who we see in the final act laughing maniacally as they ride a bomb to their deaths driven insane like Georg Cantor by the contemplation of infinities. But about ten years before my matriculation, Crellin House, as a compromise with a professor who was threatening legal ramifications after three frosh accidentally shot a potato through his office window, was forced to clean up its act. Gone were the days when during Rotation, Crellin would offer rooftop tours to any prefrosh who “wasn’t a wanker” and “wasn’t gonna narc.” Gone too were the days when members of Crellin House (or cryps as we called ourselves) would at midnight douse each other in lighter fluid so that they could leap flaming and naked into Millikan pond. Nowadays many cryps did not even know their own secret history, and must have assumed I suppose that the mysterious aura Crellin House still maintained in the hopes of cultivating a culture that one day like a phoenix would rise again, was all a fun game, and that the euphemisms (rugby, hiking, crochet) referred literally to a jumbled assortment of hobbies enjoyed by the Crellin House residents; and so with her talent for urban exploration, Nadia seemed to me to be a part of a long lineage of daring freethinkers, like Wolfram or Pauling, stretching all the way back to Thales of Miletus.

We were sitting, her on the couch and me on the floor, in Erik Aguila’s room (where Nadia deigned to visit because although still only a junior, Erik had an Erdos number of two), and because Nadia was watching Laura and Terry who were arguing about the relative prestige of Santa Barbara and IAS, I was able to stare at her without being noticed and to study her features. She wore a vacant expression, like an alien of intellect far beyond human conception who has been as part of some perverse experiment temporarily confined to a human body and who has forgotten for a moment to arrange her face into something resembling human emotion. Occasionally she would shift slightly, or tilt her head almost imperceptibly to the side in appreciation of a meme, and I thought if I could not discern the motors and gears of flying cars in her movements, it must be because she concerned herself with quantum mechanics or with some other abstractified version of reality that as a frosh, I could not readily comprehend.

Laura, who was now detailing her run-in with Stephen Hawking, happened to mention Daffeh. “Daffeh?” said Nadia, her face twisting into a lopsided smirk. “That Flem who is always hanging around Crellin Lounge? I don’t know how he still hasn’t gotten the hint that no one likes him. He acts like a full cryp, even though he’s just got a social membership. He’s always asking me about how to get through such and such a door, how to climb this or that, how to ride on top of an elevator. I heard him the other day bragging to some of our frosh about that one time he set a coconut on fire. Someone should warn them against him. He’s such a creep.”

Until just the day before, I had assumed based on his constant presence and knowledgeability that Daffeh was in fact a full cryp, but when yesterday he had referred to the dinner punishment of a pitcher of water over the head as a “shower” instead of a “dump,” I had been compelled to ask him about his house membership. “No, I’m not a full cryp. Not that I couldn’t be if I tried, but I just don’t think anyone should have to subject themself to that kind of process, you know? Besides, don’t you think the whole Crellin ethos is a bit antiquated? We don’t live in the age of rogue geniuses anymore—with the internet, information spreads more quickly and freely than ever before, and no one man can outpace the human machine. Nowadays science is collaborative, and the best scientists are the coordinators. Anyway, I’ve never cared for Nadia and her crew. Whenever anyone acts all too cool for school like that it just turns me off.”

It was obvious to me even at the time that Daffeh, although sincere, was not being entirely truthful in his dismissal of Crellin House and the values it stood for: As at that point I only partially understood, the machinery necessary to fully fathom a computational system—as Gödel has mathematically proven—must always be more nuanced, more complex, and more complete than the system itself; and accordingly the mechanisms of introspection (because our brains are fundamentally nothing more and nothing less than organic computational machines) must always rely on approximation. Our minds—equally capable of thinking one thought and its opposite—hold nothing to be one hundred percent true, and thus the opinions we express when polled by ourselves or by an external force, although we may believe them to be a complete representation of some aspect of our essential inner-being, are in fact a probabilistic collapse, biased by circumstance and emotion, of our ethereal selves onto an imposed finite set of possibilities. In this way, Daffeh’s disavowal of Crellin House values was a measurement of his internal state that collapsed his being into temporary, complete, all-engulfing belief; but as in the measurement of the position of an electron wherein one loses all information about momentum, so this singularity of thought sent Daffeh spinning into wild contemplation; because although he managed to maintain an anti-Crellin outlook with half of his being, his other half was still tied like mine to notions of scientific heroism, to a conception of science that was a relic of an imagined past and contained promises for a fantastical future, to a theory of science that lacked any tangible foothold in reality to act as a tether to our dreams where figures like Euler and Carnot were allowed to swell like weather balloons to mythic proportions in our minds and floated up into the ionosphere; and so a short while later, Daffeh withdrew from conversation and went to stand staring into the fireplace, drawing desperate ragged breaths as if his lungs had been abruptly transfigured into useless sacks of fluid like Hippasus of Metapsetum drowning in a sea of social rejection.

Nadia continued to talk about Daffeh for several more minutes, and although I had understood all that she was saying from the first few sentences, I continued to avidly listen. It occurred to me that like an android who experiences what the rest of us do in a year within a single second, Nadia must have to constantly remind herself to speak orders of magnitude more slowly than what she found natural, and she therefore might in an occasional misestimation jump so far ahead that it would leave her listeners baffled, or conversely she might linger on a single point for half an hour, uncertain of whether her audience understood. We therefore listened with rapt attention to every word, so that we might be capable, when she finally skipped ahead to her conclusion, of comprehending the leap. About ten minutes later, Erik, realizing that Nadia had finished her single malt Scotch, interrupted to offer her another dram. While Erik went to fetch ice for the whisky, Laura and Terry, nodding vigorously like bobblehead ballplayers in a sedan attempting a washed-out dirt road, reiterated, without expanding on, all that Nadia had just said, and Nadia with a generous smile that offered them co-authorship on ideas that had really all been hers slowly rotated her head forward and back on the axis defined by a line from one ear to the other. Erik returned with the scotch, and since Nadia was across the room, he handed me the glass to hand to her. Nadia leaned down from the couch with her arm outstretched to accept the glass; I reached up, glass in hand, playing the part of man in “The Creation of Adam;” and as the glass transferred from my hand to hers, our fingers touched and our eyes met, and my innards stretched like the core of a moon on an eccentric orbit around a giant planet.


In Search of Lost Time was published in seven volumes from 1913 to 1927.  It takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Narrator, a young bourgeois, is obsessed with gaining social acceptance among the nobility.  For Proust, the allure of the nobility is greater than ever after the nobles have been rendered politically and economically obsolete.  The nobles are cruel, and behave like middle schoolers in the popular clique, and yet adult people idolize the nobility and long for their approval.

The depiction of cliques at a school or in high society is of course nothing new, and nothing special.  What makes Proust interesting is the way he investigates the psychology behind admiration of these cliques.  Proust is fascinated with the mechanisms of prestige.  Snobbery in the novel is characterized by a grand historical narrative (not necessarily an accurate historical narrative), that permeates everything the characters do and think. This permeation is deeply integrated into Proust’s style in his feudal, medieval, and Catholic imagery.  What I suggest in my Proust pastiche is that, as with the French nobility, notions of scientific “snobbery” are based on an artificial and constructed narrative of the role of science in society.  Because the snobbery here stems from science instead of nobility, feudal language has been replaced with the language of science fiction, retrofuturism, and science history. Proust’s Catholic references have been largely replaced with references to Hellenistic society and religion, because science traces its roots to ancient Greece (although, perhaps appropriately, this heritage is largely fictitious—Renaissance Europe got most of its mathematical and scientific knowledge from India and the Middle East).

Of course, many scientists really do love science.  I don’t want to tell those scientists that they’re wrong.  But there is a certain artifice in a lot of science cultures.  A lot of scientists are unhappy.  Publication incentives create an attention economy that makes it harder for real intellectual inquiry to happen.  Research is highly specialized and often doesn’t feel like it bears any clear relation to the philosophical questions that originally motivated the scientist.  Advisers are negligent.  And unless you’re lucky, few people care about your results.  A lot of scientists are unhappy.

And yet, these scientists who are unhappy—unhappy for tangible reasons—still find academia difficult to escape.  These people aren’t trapped by economic circumstances: They generally have good career capital and could find higher-paying and more fun jobs elsewhere.  They’re trapped like Proust’s Narrator is trapped in the orbit of the nobility; they’re trapped like Daffeh is with Crellin House.  I have heard unhappy scientists say things like “Yeah in some sense I always knew that this was all there was; that this is what academia is, but at the same time I think I assumed that I would do it and it would somehow work out differently for me.” But in spite of this seeming clarity, these people continue to work in scientific fields.  They work in scientific fields because in spite of their tendency to voice the opposite, they still believe in a narrative of scientific progress and academic meritocracy.  If they can only be better people, then academia will turn out to be what they thought it was when they were children.

This state of both knowing and not knowing is a central theme in Proust’s work.  Proust is preoccupied with the gulf that can divide the experiencing self and the perceiving self.  The thoughts we think we have are not necessarily the thoughts we think when we’re not examining ourselves.  It is in part this difficulty to observe ourselves that can trap us in toxic narratives.  How can we escape a toxic thought pattern when we can’t even see ourselves thinking it?

Proust’s seven volume work is in part an attempt to tackle this question.  It’s not an easy question.  It can be a life-long struggle, and it requires the ability to somehow escape our own heads.  This pastiche more closely follows the themes and style of Proust than either of the other two pastiches.  It is also close to being literally true.  If I replaced superficial details it would be a depiction of actual events.  There are, evidently, strong parallels between the world Proust portrays and the world I occupy.

And yet, this pastiche was the hardest of the three for me to write—and not because of the unusual sentence structure.  I spent about a week agonizing over the lack of Proustian snobbery in my life.  I mean, sure, I’d seen plenty of obnoxious concern about prestige, but it lacked Proust’s historical and linguistic element.  I was ready to give up; I quoted Frederic Jameson “there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of…our own everyday life;” and I resolved to write an experimental post-modern version of Proust about how modern life feels like an ahistorical cycle, we live in a simulation, etc.

And then a friend asked me why so many scientists work as scientists even though it seems to make them unhappy.

Aha! Of course. It all came together.  The pastiche was easy to write.

In some sense then, my own difficulty writing a Proust pastiche is in keeping with Proust’s themes.  At times, the cognitive dissonance Proust’s Narrator needs to maintain in order to remain infatuated by the nobility is so great that it pushes against my suspension of disbelief.  From an outside perspective, it feels like snobbery should be easy to escape.  When we want things that it doesn’t make sense to want, we should just stop wanting them right?

Proust tells us that it’s not easy.  Proust outlines the obstacles.  And maybe with a better understanding of the obstacles, we have a better chance of escaping and finding true happiness.

Pastiche of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

pastiche: a work of art in the style of another artist

This post is the second in a series of three pastiches of French authors, all depicting undergraduate life at Caltech, appended with commentary targeted at readers with no familiarity with French literature.

The first post in the series.


It was eleven fifteen pm, Friday, May 5, 2018; Clifton, having made his usual half-hearted attempt to enjoy interhovse; was back in his room on the second floor, leaning out of his window, and watching the pulsating mass of students in the courtyard below, dancing to “Just the Way You Are,” when a knock rapped against his door, and a falsetto voice called his name; and before he could make to answer, he heard the sound of a door-code being punched; the door opened just wide enough to allow entrance; and David Hedon (who was always called by his first and last name), slid sideways into his room.

“Why aren’t you at the party, my dude?” David Hedon asked, and without waiting for an answer he pulled a small ziplock bag of white powder from the pocket of his hoodie and dangled it in Clifton’s face. He had scored half a gram of ketamine off a grad student in the physics department, and was feeling generous, so had stopped by the party to collect a few of his favorite people, and now he was hoping they could all hang out in Clifton’s room.

The six of them sat in an ellipse on the carpeted floor, beneath the faded mandala tapestries, taking turns holding a teaspoon beneath a nostril and sniffing milligrams of ground crystal into their sinuses. When it was his turn, a frosh named Tobias anxiously admitted that he had never insufflated anything before, and they all delighted in advising him on how it was done.

“It’s exactly what you’d expect, you just hold it up against your nose and breathe.”

“You have to check which nostril you’re breathing through first.”

“Careful not to breathe out and blow it everywhere.”

“You have to, like, sniff, don’t just breathe in.”

“Did you know that you generally only breathe through one nostril at a time?”

“And make sure to hold your breath, to let it settle on your mucous membranes.”

“It’s called nostril-cycling. One nostril for fifteen minutes, then the other.”

“No, hold on, that’s way too much. Five milligrams at a time.”

Tobias, flustered, ended up with ketamine on his face and in his throat, but not in his nose. David Hedon suggested he try again, but he shook his head saying he would wait his turn.

The conversation turned to research, and homework, and classes; and it continued with starts and stops as they each sunk into a gentle fog, lapsing repeatedly into quiet stillness, until it subsided entirely.

Some time later, Liz, who was seated next to Clifton, tilted toward him, leaning forty five degrees, and holding her arms erect in front of her. They swayed through the air in no particular pattern. “Do you ever think it’s weird that we live in Euclidean three-space?” she asked the room at large.

“Hey Clif,” said Thurin from across the room, sitting up a bit, and straightening his shirt, which was printed with a headshot of Chairman Mao. “You tryna go to grad school next year, or what?”

Clifton had spent his youth daydreaming about professorship, prestige, and nerdy female admirers, but now, with grad school applications only a few months away, and his path to success more tangible than ever before, these thoughts brought him only the immense pain of losing what he had for so long assumed was rightfully his. “What’s the point?” he said morosely. “For every professorship in high energy physics, there are like fifty qualified post-docs.”

Prescott pulled some weed out of his pocket and started rolling a joint. “You know what? We just need to cut it out with this `everyone is equal’ bullshit, ya know? Like, obviously, obviously you’re going to have statistical psychological differences between different ethnic groups. Obviously. Why not use that to help make an informed choice?”

“The medieval Muslims were fucking brilliant,” said Hannah, accepting the joint from Prescott, and taking a puff (Clifton wished they wouldn’t smoke in his room), “have you seen their art? They deeply understood quasiperiodic structures. Modern mathematicians have only started really working that out within the last thirty years.”

“Anyway,” said Thurin, who spoke no Spanish, but was confident in his ability to master anything he set his mind to, “I figure if physics doesn’t work out for me, I can just run off and join the Zapatistas.”

Prescott swore them all to secrecy, and told them his plans for a machine-learning line of hotels. He was already in communication with potential investors—friends who had graduated a couple years before and were now making half a million dollars a year in finance. Hannah had gotten honorable mention in the art of science competition this past year, and was going to pursue music visualization or paleontological drawing or maybe film if mathematics didn’t work out. David Hedon, who was unconcerned about his future, had taken a seat next to Tobias, and was talking in a hushed tone, perhaps advising him on proper insufflation technique.

Hannah handed Clifton the joint, and he walked to the window, hoping to lead by example. Leaning out, he was assaulted by the sound of Pitbull yelling “It’s going down, I’m yelling timber!” The mass of students was still pulsating on the dance floor. “Have you considered that dance is just the excitation of human eigenmodes?” It was Liz. The window wasn’t really wide enough for two people, so her arm was pressed against his. Clifton was struck with the absurd image of the two of them, hand-in-hand, picking honeysuckle in San Marino. He exhaled smoke into the warm night air. With the ketamine and cannabis making their way into his brain, and the rhythmic throbbing of the party below, he forgot his anxieties about the future. Clifton felt a deep sense of belonging in the universe, as if his body were perfectly in tune with the resonant frequencies of the globe.


Sentimental Education was published in 1869 and depicts a cross-section of French society leading up to the 1848 revolution.  It takes a cynical look at how cultural angst can fester and erupt into futile violent conflict.  Characters from all walks of life coexist in social spaces against a backdrop of indulgence and malaise.  Interpersonal relationships exist ambiguously between real friendship and transaction.  Political discussions are vapidly idealistic and self-serving.

Like many scenes in Sentimental Education, my pastiche takes place at a party.  The rhythm of the prose matches the rhythmic beat of dance music, and detailed imagery creates a sense of presence while also characterizing the subculture being depicted.

Flaubert uses juxtaposition to suggest similarity between people, ideas and situations that are superficially very different.  The juxtaposition of the chaotic insufflation instructions and the political discussion draws attention to the way that people are more interested in being heard than in being helpful.  The juxtaposition of the different political ideas—self-serving racism under a façade of rational common sense vs ignorant endorsement of both anarchism and totalitarian communism—suggests that these ideas are both born of the same narcissistic reasoning.  Indeed, Flaubert is full of seeming opposites that are really one and the same: conservatism and communism, love and hatred, extreme optimism and extreme pessimism.

This last duality rings especially true today.  We’ve been told to expect success and happiness, and we are bombarded with constant opportunity. The constant opportunities foster indecision and inaction, and the expectations of success mean that we are constantly disappointed.

United States Foreign Policy Works in Mysterious Ways

1

In a 2015 private email conversation, published on Sam Harris’s website, he (neuroscientist and popular atheist philosopher) and Noam Chomsky (linguist and prominent critic of US foreign policy) exchange thousands of words in an attempt to reach a common understanding, and get nowhere.

(I don’t particularly recommend reading this conversation. Throughout, Chomsky comes across as rather grumpy, which is human, but perhaps not rhetorically the best choice. Harris is more civil, but is hardly his best self.)

A main point of contention between them is the Al-Shifa bombing: in 1998, shortly following truck bombings at multiple US embassies in which more than 200 people were killed, the Clinton administration destroyed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, claiming that there was strong evidence that it was manufacturing chemical weapons. Since the bombing, no evidence of chemical weapons manufacturing has been found (and in this case lack of evidence is evidence of lack—if Al-Shifa had been manufacturing chemical weapons there would be certain chemical traces), and the US federal government has since acknowledged that the evidence that prompted the attack was not as solid as first portrayed. Still, the United States has not apologized, nor has it formally investigated the attack or its impact.

Chomsky argues, and Harris appears to take his word for it, that the human loss of life (there are no formal estimates because the attack was never investigated) resulting from destroying Al-Shifa was comparable to, if not greater than, the death toll from 9/11, and he points out that a similar attack in the United States, or in the UK, or in Israel would result in serious outcry, even though in the more developed world redundancies in the pharmaceutical supply chain would make the impact far less.

The consequences of the Al-Shifa attack were, obviously, horrific—I trust Harris would agree, although he never goes so far as to explicitly say so. Instead, he takes issue with Chomsky’s implicit “moral equivalence” between 9/11 and Al-Shifa—within Chomsky’s silence on the relative morality of the two events there is a real sense of moral ambiguity and the suggestion that Al-Shifa may have been worse.

What is lacking in Chomsky’s worldview, according to Harris, is recognition of the importance of intent. Two events with the same body count can have vastly different moral implications depending on the intent of the actors. Murder is wrong. Death as a side effect of sincere humanitarian action is unfortunate, but is sometimes just. Of course, as Chomsky points out, almost all atrocious acts are committed while professing sincere benign intentions (Chomsky cites the examples of Japanese and German fascists), but it is a central tenet of Harris’s worldview—and one that I agree with—that we should not pretend not to know the difference between someone who is fighting with sincere belief for the supremacy of their ethnic group, and someone who is fighting with sincere belief for freedom. I agree, intent is important.

But in his discussion of intent, Harris displays alarming ignorance on how we should judge intent. He ranks the relative evilness of three different actions, in descending order (and I quote):

1. al-Qaeda wanted and intended to kill thousands of innocent people—and did so.

2. Clinton (as you [Chomsky] imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill thousands of innocent people. He simply wanted to destroy a valuable pharmaceutical plant. But he knew that he would be killing thousands of people, and he simply didn’t care.

3. Clinton (as I [Harris] imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily. He simply wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it.

(I should clarify that Chomsky’s view is that the Al-Shifa attack was retaliation for the embassy bombings.)

There is, in essence, no evidence for Harris’s version of events. Although the United States government claimed at the time to believe that the factory was producing chemical weapons, they have since mostly retracted that claim. Harris is taking on faith that the intent of the United States government was good. The goal of US foreign policy is always to further Harris’s version of the American Project: to prevent war crimes and oppression; and to advance freedom, democracy and human well-being.

 

2

I would hope, that as a prominent atheist, Harris would know better than to have blind faith in the benevolence of institutions.

Throughout history, governments have used religion to grant themselves legitimacy.

In Europe, the Catholic Church maintained control through Christianity for more than a thousand years, and kings ruled through divine right. In the Middle East, the Ottoman empire maintained cohesion through Islam. In India the ruling caste derived its right to rule from the Hindu religion. And so on.

Sociologists have theorized about the American Civil Religion. Although ostensibly secular, the United States government draws much of its legitimacy from quasi-religious structures. There are sacred texts (The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution) and sacred symbols (the flag); and important historical figures are celebrated in state-run temples monuments and memorials, and their portraits enlarged 100-fold are even blasted into sacred mountains.

This quasi-religiosity isn’t necessarily a bad thing (okay, so Mount Rushmore was definitely a bad thing, but more broadly the American Civil Religion is not necessarily bad). An important part of leadership, and an important function of religion, is fostering positive group identity, and a lot of important activism has been done in the name of American ideals. And if our moral leaders are also in our government, there’s nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, a well functioning democracy would elect many of its moral and spiritual leaders to government positions. But when we find ourselves using religious or quasi-religious reasoning to justify violence we should be very afraid, and very very skeptical.

 

3

Suppose I told you that there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere in between Earth and Mars.

What? You don’t believe me? Well, why not? Surely you can’t disprove the existence of the teapot.

What if I told you that this outer-space teapot, through the power of caffeine and warm water, actually enforces peace worldwide? That would be nice to believe, wouldn’t it?

Well, yeah you can point out that yes it’s a nice story, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. It would be nice if we all lived forever in the sky, but that doesn’t mean we’re immortal. But you still can’t disprove my benevolent teapot.

Oh, you think you can disprove it? There are lots of violent areas that drink tea. Horrible atrocities have been committed in tea-drinking countries!

No, no, no, no, no. The teapot works in mysterious ways.

 

4

What Russel’s teapot in its original form (the first two paragraphs of the previous section) sought to show was that the burden of proof should always be placed on the existence side of a debate. Non-existence cannot be proven.

This burden of proof question can be reframed as the question of a default belief. What would a rational person believe in the absence of evidence? Is there a teapot in outer space? No.

Who bears the burden of proof in the question of the intentions of the United States government?

Well, first of all, surely the default answer should not be that any given authority is good. Authorities throughout history have acted in oppressive and tyrannical ways. We should have evidence before we claim that any particular authority is a good authority.

But I would go even further. This question, although it may not be obvious on the surface, is a question of existence: The existence of a fundamental benevolence (or in the case of cynics the existence of a fundamental malevolence). The fundamental benevolence of the US federal government cannot be disproven. Evil doers who ramble at length about their evil plans exist to my knowledge only in movies and in the Nixon White House. We should not have to find definitive proof before we doubt the benevolence behind an action that led to the deaths of thousands of people.

 

5

I’m an atheist, but I don’t particularly dislike religion. When I was a child, I thought that eradicating incorrect beliefs could do a lot of good for the world, but I’ve come to realize that beliefs like belief in the Christian God are often harmless, or even beneficial. Yes, Christianity has been used to justify oppression and exploitation, but it has also been used to encourage love and compassion. So to be clear, I’m not arguing against faith in the US government simply because it resembles religion.

Faith in the US government resembles the worst aspects of religion. As Sam Harris has pointed out in his criticism of Christianity, “Religious faith…erodes compassion. Thoughts like, ‘this might be all part of God’s plan,’ or ‘there are no accidents in life,’ or ‘everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves’ – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.”

Faith in the US government erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “This looks atrocious but it is all part of a sincere humanitarian program,” are the selfish refusal to connect with the suffering of other people.

And the effect of this refusal to connect is horrific. The American Civil Religion isn’t just a personal belief system. It is the story that holds up the most powerful government in the world. Blind belief in the US government does not only prevent empathy: Under the framework of the American Civil Religion itself, belief in the benevolence of the US government makes us complicit in foreign atrocities.

The US government is (to some approximation) democratic, and is held accountable to the American voter. The soul of the average American is good. When we see a stranger suffering, we care. We have compassion for others. The average American does not want to kill thousands of innocents. The average American would be willing to endure significant personal inconvenience in order to avoid personally causing the deaths of thousands of innocents. But when we blindly accept that all foreign intervention is well-intended, we are essentially asking the government to prioritize our personal comfort over the lives of thousands of innocent human beings.

If we believe that the government is democratic (because certainly if we don’t believe the story that legitimizes it, we have no reason to assume that it is benevolent), then by assuming that any given foreign action is benevolent, we are saying that foreign malevolence would make no difference to us. Which changes more votes: The decision to bomb foreign medical facilities, or small changes in domestic GDP?

This is what faith in its worst form does: justifies ill-gotten comfort so that we can live pleasurable lives through the oppression of others. The prosperity gospel tells wealthy people they deserve their wealth and should live luxuriously without interrogating the often exploitative source of their money. The American Civil Religion tells us, when we see innocent people dying of preventable disease in Africa, that this is the world functioning as well as it can. The US government is trying its best. Sometimes it looks like the government committed horrendous war-crimes in retaliation for a relatively small embassy bombing, but we know that the plan is Good, even if there are occasional well-intentioned mistakes.

 

6

Maybe this post should end with a call to action, but I don’t know what we should do. Make ourselves more aware somehow ??? of all the times when US foreign policy has looked really atrocious? And then what? I don’t know. I don’t have the answers.

But I will say at the very least we should not assume, when we hear of something horrific the US government has done, that it is an innocent mistake. Even if we trust the people we’ve elected to represent us, we should remember that these people are working under perverse incentives. Clinton wound up killing thousands of innocent people, and we don’t know how he felt about it. I, personally, childishly desire to believe that Clinton is a Good Person. I met him when I was three years old, and he was nice to me. I disagree with his policies and his personal conduct, but deep down, aren’t we all Good? But even if the government is made of Good People, to do the most good they need to be re-elected. They need to focus on what the American voters feel and see.

It is therefore our civic responsibility to feel and see the suffering and deaths of the people who don’t get to vote for the American World Government, to demand evidence for the benevolent intentions of government decisions. It’s not enough to elect good people to the government. The government has to have the right incentives, and those incentives come from the voters. When we hear about an event like Al-Shifa, and we assume without evidence that it was a well-intentioned mistake, we are in essence giving our government permission to make future similar “well-intentioned mistakes.” We are saying that atrocious acts committed abroad will not change our votes. We are asking the government to prioritize our personal comfort over the lives of thousands of innocent people. We are complicit in mass murder.

Pastiche of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

pastiche: a work of art in the style of another artist

For a class I took my last term of college, I wrote pastiches of three different French authors—Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust—all depicting undergraduate life at Caltech. I set out to answer the question, approximately “What do the lenses these artists provide tell us about science in the twenty-first century?” I’m publishing them here with commentary at the end of each pastiche targeted at readers with no familiarity with French literature. This post is the first in a series of three.


The Safety of Mathematics

“It may be vacuous, but at least it’s self consistent!” – Hugh Everett

—The only rational pursuit in life is the accumulation of wealth, said Liam. From a position of economic power, one can reshape the world according to his values, and can truly make positive change.

Liam had gotten this naive notion from his reading of HPMoR and from Peter Singer, and to him it seemed to descend so directly from irrefutable axioms that he was astonished when his listener didn’t immediately agree.

His listener was Emilia Bowman, a junior planetary science major, who like many Techers took very little care in her physical appearance, but who was still quite pretty. Up until this instant, she had been listening to Liam with bored indifference—mingling with the new frosh was one of her duties as an upperclassman, but not one that she particularly enjoyed. But Liam’s pronouncement intrigued her. For Techers, any idea that cannot be phrased in terms of a concretely testable hypothesis is not worth discussing. The lounges of the Caltech Houses are full of mathematical and scientific facts, but devoid of moral and political discussion, thus protecting the Techers from the embarrassment of being wrong if the pendulum of the moral majority swings too far one way or another: The culture of scientific inquiry is abstracted beyond the concerns of politics. This abstraction provides safety, but people like Emilia are bored by intellectual safety. Without fully understanding why, Emilia found herself feeling alert, and she removed her hands from her pockets to drum her fingers against the palm tree under which she and Liam sat.

A few weeks at Caltech had caused Liam to forget to be suspicious of his peers. In Georgia, he had needed to pretend that dinosaurs coexisted with men just to graduate high school, and arriving at Caltech he was full of fear of ostracization and ridicule for being poor, and for being from the South. But upon discovering that Techers were kind, and were eager to talk about evolution and sex and atheism and myriad other topics that had been taboo, Liam found himself shedding years of practiced constraint. It was because of this newfound liberation that Liam mistook Emilia’s amused smile for encouragement, and he began gesticulating and speaking animatedly of utility, late capitalism, and John McAfee.

Emilia listened to Liam’s testimonial with ironical pleasure. His ideas were patently absurd, but she found the conviction with which he expressed them charming. It takes a certain type of bravery to risk being wrong, she thought to herself. And I have to admit this frosh is exceptionally good-looking. The hunger evident in Liam’s eyes when he talked of vast riches might have scared her coming from an older man, but his expression’s stark contrast with his youthful femininity instead produced in her a cute effect, like a lion cub play-pouncing on a mouse that induces one to forget that it will someday grow into a formidable beast.

Emilia needled Liam with questions, which he answered with eloquence, and pleased with his own eloquence he talked faster and faster and with more and more confidence, until Emilia, abandoning her usual reticence on political questions felt herself taken over by the thrill of academic discourse. She began sharing with Liam her own political observations. Small indiscrepancies in her world view, unaddressed for years, now came to light, and she began formulating new theories with the clarity of thought that only comes in those rare instances when we forget to consider how our opinions might be received.

—For my SURF the summer after my frosh year, she said (and here she allowed herself to be sidetracked by the specifics of her research, but I will not subject the reader to the tedium of novel scientific inquiry). …And so there I was doing shots with these professors, on my right hand side a woman who had recently gotten tenure for her work on rocket propulsion, on my left this guy who was still only an adjunct professor, but he was also making six figures as a part time analyst for a mining company.

—What’s wrong with that? asked Liam, unsure of the source of the horrified tone Emilia had adopted.

—What’s wrong with it? Nothing necessarily. It all depends on your political outlook. What disturbs me is the willful ignorance. Rocket propulsion. Rocket propulsion! She thought she was propelling us to the space age.

—Her research is being weaponized! cried Liam with sudden comprehension.

—Exactly. And look. I’m agnostic on pacifism, Emilia said as if discovering her words for the first time as she pronounced them; like, of course sometimes violence is justified. And exactly when and where is a difficult question. I wouldn’t fault the professor for having a different view on that than I do. What I fault her for is her willful ignorance. Like. What do you think the death toll was of the people present at this party? Do you think any of them thought they’d killed even one person? Of course the thought of responsibility never crossed their minds. They just follow the career path laid out for them. They study whatever subject attracts money and prestige. That’s the nature of modern violence. It’s abstracted beyond recognition. Murder is committed without the perpetrator even being aware.

Liam was deeply moved by this story, and found himself uncertain of how to verbalize the impression Emilia had formed in him. Staring into Emilia’s brown eyes, he felt a tear run down the side of his nose, and made no effort to conceal it. It is completely appropriate, he thought, that I feel such pain at this unknowing element of warfare and oppression.

—When one commits crimes it should be done with enjoyment, said Liam, finally breaking the silence. The power a hitman feels when he fires at his target at least slightly redeems the murder.

—Exactly, said Emilia; we’re so insulated here in urban America. We benefit from war without feeling the euphoria and despair of that kind of commitment to an idea or to a people or to a homeland, or to…whatever else wars are fought for. How can we know whether a war is worth fighting when we can’t feel the cost? How can we feel the depth of commitment needed for combat without being forced to make those life-or-death decisions?

—We’re cowards! said Liam. All of us are cowards. We live in fear of responsibility and so we experience a muted existence. This is just what I was saying earlier about the global poor. We can forget our ideals and live comfortable lives; or we can work hard, earn to give, and become powerful enough to really make a difference.

And so it was that these two managed to spend hours intellectually invigorated and deeply moved by each other’s company, and it wasn’t until 3 am that Emilia had to depart, saying with sincere regret that she needed to get some sleep before her 9 am class the next morning.

—Well, it was nice to meet you, said Liam. And he cursed himself for his sudden awkwardness. He found that he had placed his hand on her bare arm, and warm tendrils climbed up his wrist from where their skin touched. Overwhelmed by the power of the sensation, he quickly removed his hand. He hoped that it was too dark for her to see the flushing of his face. Well. Good night. Sleep well, he added, hoping to distract her from what had just transpired.

—Good night. Nice to meet you too, Emilia smiled, somewhat touched by the frosh’s stilted politeness. She slept soundly that night. The relief after having synthesized certain ideas that she hadn’t even realized were lying dormant inside her gave her a peace of mind she had not experienced in years. The thought of romance did not cross her mind because she had never before imagined that a twenty-year-old woman might develop feelings for an awkward kid of just eighteen. To her Liam was simply a person whose company she very much enjoyed, and to whom she hoped to speak again very soon.

Liam on the other hand, hardly slept at all. Within minutes of lying down, he felt that heaviness in his stomach that we experience when we’ve spoken too quickly and too honestly, when we’ve exposed our innermost selves to the judgments of other people. He mentally cataloged everything he had said, and noted now in the deafening silence of his dorm room all the little inconsistencies in his logic, and all the ineligancies of his phrases. Without an audience, comments on which he had congratulated himself at the time sounded vapid and trite. And worse, Emilia had struck him with her quick wit and profound intelligence. She must have been aware of all his logical and rhetorical missteps, and now was probably laughing about him with her upper middle class Californian friends. He even went so far as to doubt her sincerity: She made too much eye contact; she spoke too loudly, her speech was too rushed. She had said repeatedly that Techers didn’t talk about politics. How could he have missed such an unsubtle hint? Was she making a mockery of him by imitating his mannerisms?

But then again, what if she was sincere? he wondered, and images of his lips pressed against Emilia’s cheek rushed unbidden to his mind. The girls in Georgia, convinced by the church that substantive conversation was unbecoming, had never engaged with him, so these feelings, usually first experienced at a much younger age, were completely new. What pure perfection, in her smile, in her eyes, he thought, sighing.

—I have never in my life met anyone so intelligent and so eloquent, whispered Liam to himself. And for a moment he experienced the pure bliss of fantasy. But then the impossibility of such a creature reciprocating his feelings tumbled him into despair. After all, he thought I’m only a poor frosh with a weird accent, and she’s probably got all sorts of high-value guys hitting on her constantly. And now with Emilia’s imagined rejection tied to his low status he became angry. What do they have that I don’t? Inheritance and a couple years of experience? And he pictured the ASCIT president or the IHC chair kneeling before Emilia with a bouquet of roses. They wouldn’t feel compelled to remove their hands from her arm. Why should I be so embarrassed when I touch a girl? And Liam felt that to prove his worth, he should earn his right to touch Emilia without withdrawing. He resolved to seduce her starting the following day.


The work this scene imitates, The Red and the Black, was published in 1830, during France’s protracted transition from a feudal mercantilist state with government legitimized by divine right to a representative capitalist state with government legitimized by liberal ideals like democracy and freedom. Although himself anti-feudal, Stendhal is more interested in critiquing the liberal project than in exploring the mechanisms of feudal oppression. The novel is concerned with the ways that newer more abstract means of violence and control rob the individual of sincere experience, and with how the new social hierarchy corrupts idealistic personal endeavor into serving the ends of powerful people.

In my pastiche, two young college students attempt to seriously consider the question of personal responsibility in a world of abstract violence and control. Liam takes a naive version of the Effective Altruist perspective and is concerned about all the good he could fail to do if he doesn’t reach his full potential. Emilia takes a more anarchist view and is concerned about all the evil she could accidentally do if she’s not actively aware of the consequences of her actions. My goal with this piece was to expose the tension and synergy between these points of view. In a world where individuals can acquire absurd levels of personal power, when thinking seriously about the question of personal moral responsibility, we have to both consider our potential philanthropy and the obscure ways that our careers strengthen a social system based on exploitation, violence, and oppression. As foreshadowed, but not explored in this pastiche, neither Emilia nor Liam can maintain the kind of honesty they achieve in this scene in a world in which success necessitates unquestioning dedication to specialized research. If this passage were to continue into a longer work, Liam, who is held to the same incentives as everyone else, would be forced to subdue his qualms and choose fields with money and prestige, thereby betraying the ideals he claims to hold in his pursuit of philanthropic potential.

Liam is based on the main character of The Red and the Black, an ambitious and talented young peasant named Julien Sorel. Julien’s political views, (expressed almost entirely by reference to political thinkers) are a hodgepodge of incompatible left-of-feudal views—he supports both military dictatorship and liberal democracy. Liam’s political views come from friends who remind me of Julien Sorel, and they were not chosen as a coherent set, but rather as a set that I have seen coexisting in individuals and in communities. Liam’s personal failings, therefore, are not intended as a criticism of any coherent set of ideas, but as an exploration of how these ideas function in imperfect form. Ideas don’t exist in idealized intellectual spaces; they exist in the ecosystem of collective human consciousness, and in addition to engaging with the best and most philosophically nuanced version of an idea, it is important to explore its common mutations.

This brings us to the romantic aspect of the scene. In The Red and the Black, Napoleon’s worldview is constantly turning up where it clearly does not belong. Julien falls in love with an older woman and engages on a foolish Napoleonic quest to hold her hand. Similarly, Liam cannot maintain a sincere relationship with another person, as his social thoughts are corrupted by the language of capitalist value. Stendhal’s lens provides clarity to the surprising overlap between the deeply compassionate Effective Altruist community and the deeply hateful The Red Pill community. Political idealism and interpersonal dehumanization are two sides of the same coin, as political and economic language infects our most deeply human experiences and prevents us from engaging naturally with other people.