#56 On systems and their yardsticks

Dear Jamie,

I love snide but every part of your second paragraph tells me you didn’t understand my last letter at all. But the gut/unconscious is a good topic. The politics thread is getting stale.

We’re about to go on an Amazing Race of sorts, a race into the meta. I said that there are lots of ways that we understand ourselves to be wrong (congnitive biases, etc). You went meta and said that even knowing those limitations is evidence that our brain is uniquely suited for knowing things. Fair enough but you can’t stop there if you want to be serious about true knowledge. One more level my friend, take my hand. How the brain and world actually works is independent of our conscious knowledge about it. And that especially applies to brain science.

Our brains and gut function in a way we don’t understand. The brain and gut were the same when our theories of the brain and gut were different 20 years ago. The brain and gut were the same before we even had science to question how they worked. And critically, the brain and gut will be the same in 20 years’ time, when all our theories about them will be refreshed in a new set of pop science books. I know you know this but I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.

Through every twist, dead end and flash of insight science has achieved the rational mind kept thinking and the subconscious kept intuiting. System II has made real knowledge gains, despite it spending a lot of time spinning its wheels and going in the wrong direction. It’s most bountiful yield has been into how rational thought itself should work. And that makes sense. We’ve honed rules of logic and rationality that are very close to reality. And it’s quite clear system II is at its best when it follows these rules.

In contrast the subconscious can do no serious thinking, but it’s not supposed to. Shall we also criticise it because it’s not capable of digesting food? The conscious is an organ for rational thought, the subconscious is an organ for intuitive thought. The subconscious does its thing, we don’t know what that thing is. It’s not thinking that’s for sure. And applying logic as a yardstick is not an indictment of system I, it’s an indictment of the otherwise rational measurer insisting on using the wrong tool.

The subconscious clearly has a ton of hard-won knowledge that our conscious is no-where near grasping.* Just how does it beat the heart 100,000,000 times without fail and under unpredictable stressors? How does it do this and simultaneously control breaths with a similar unrelenting frequency? How does it attract you to a healthy compatible combination of genes in your potential mate without a genetic test? How does it track hundreds of relationships, multi-dimensional hierarchies and intuit social queues? It’s truly mind boggling. Rational theories stretch thin over these systems, they easily tear – simply not up to the task. And system II, failing to understand it, has the nerve to dismiss it as illogical and intervene on the basis of one of its soggy hypotheses?

While we argue and hypothesise it chugs away successfully exploiting real knowledge of complex systems with infinite variables.

Not only has the subconscious honed survival knowledge over the eons, it’s capable of new knowledge too. From a logic point of view that must be true, otherwise how did the existing knowledge get there in the first place? That specific process is probably tectonically slow. But even in our day to day the subconscious contributes to thinking. It clearly has a major role to play in creativity, a critical factor of system II knowledge generation.

You and I are compelled by Deutsch’s optimism to say that anything that isn’t physically impossible is possible given requisite knowledge. So it’s foreseeable in the future we would have the explicit knowledge to make a rational, system II, conscious intervention in heart beating, breathing, hierarchies or even society itself strategically better. Earlier I said intelligent intervention will make it worse, but I do believe that it is possible to make it better. There’s a paradox here I couldn’t shake for a while.

But I recently thought up an obvious answer: Just because it’s possible to rationally solve every problem, doesn’t mean we have the means to rationally solve every problem right now. Last time you visited Canberra I asked under what circumstances would you have your genes engineered by a hospital. You, having just had an organ unnecessarily removed, had the rather question-begging answer “when we know how to do it properly”.

The new (< 10,000 year old) problems you worry about are complex. We should keep pushing system II as hard as possible to understand them, but if we want to survive, I suggest taking system I seriously.

Love,
Mat

#55 On the unconscious

Dear Mat,

Apologies for the lateness but I was on my own European jaunt and was equally if not more appalled by the moribund ivory tower I encountered at an academic conference.

One somewhat snide response to your call for giving people real problems, would of course be that it’s something someone without serious real problems would say: i.e. a rich, educated, Western male. So on an historical scale we are tower-kept princes, not Grimeses — and we wouldn’t want it any other way, surely?

But instead — having nonetheless said the snide thing — I’ll respond to your mention of the gut.  Continue reading #55 On the unconscious

#54 On surviving for a living

Dear Jamie,

In 2009 I went on a trip to Europe. The year before I had read the life-turn-upside-downing 4 Hour Workweek and made a bunch of friends from all around the world. The ironclad arguments in the book had a year to stew in my mind. My friends, having graduated and left Australia, were one year into the rest of their lives. While the book was mulling and my friends were milling I was questioning whether academia was for me.

It was quite a trip to determine the direction of one’s life; the lifescape I was presented with over those two weeks was as diverse as one could bear. One started a career they still hold, one was starting PhD, one was dealing with a terminally ill family member, one had to force me to tightrope-walk a highway curb under construction in the middle of a still-running busy highway just to avoid gypsy taxis in Romania, one had lots of money but complained of having no meaning, more than one had relationships turn upside down. The whole time I had The Cat Empire’s The Car Song stuck in my head. The whole time.

In the precious moments that song wasn’t blaring, my mind was capable of expertly argued justifications why the structured path of academia was “optimal”, but my gut was bubbling at me it wasn’t real enough – or something, the gut is never as coherent as the mind. The ivory tower was super attractive, but it kinda felt, I don’t know, thin? But after weeks of painful deliberation, no matter how I cut it, I couldn’t honestly say I’d have been a net benefit for the world after costing $4M of taxpayer money to produce papers.* Well that’s not quite true. My mind was capable of justifying but it was incapable of quelling the ol’ bile dump.

In the intervening years I’ve come to believe that in academia I wouldn’t be surviving enough. Or, more accurately, I wouldn’t be surviving the right kind of environment. You survive academia the way you survive bureaucracy, by surviving the opinions of peers. Survival is an issue in artificial environments too, it just means less.

– – –

There are degrees of survival pressure. To take pure examples from stories, an example of little to no survival pressure would be the tower-kept sheltered prince. An example of the opposite would be Rick Grimes in a zombie apocalypse. Each extreme disgusts us in a different way. One is necessarily brutish, dirty, untrustworthy and cutthroat while the other invariably descends to be weak, saccharine, hoity and naïve.

What’s the goal? Do we want raise everyone to a white prince? We certainly don’t want everyone to be a Rick Grimes.

I believe that as humans we are subconsciously aware of the sweet spot between these extremes, and that that’s because a balance of these is the optimal strategy. I’m aware how loose and psychological this sounds, but if we have any pre-programming in our brains, surely programming around survival itself would be up there. The prince is free to be creative but is fragile, swept away (or adopting your colourful language “slaughtered”) when foundations shift. Rick Grimes can look after himself, but can’t progress at all, what with all the M16s of Damocles about the place.

The gut is a survival compass. It drives Rick Grimes’ to still get up in the morning even though it’s probably hopeless, and it makes restless those princes who have everything. Following that compass stirs life into being. This is all hardly new. As you said the elite have been milling about since the beginning of time, while the workers were doing actual milling. The inevitable “slaughter” that wipes out the aristocracy is merely a failing dike that once obscured the years of ignored reality at bay.

It’s true western societies are more tower-like than any other.** The idea that we need a new ethic to guide us is, I think, naïve. It’s the exact kind of thing someone in a tower would think.

We are asking the same questions as our ancestors just from loftier towers whose foundations stand in the same ancient soil. The question was originally of man vs nature, then chaos vs order, then god vs devil, then reason vs passion then head vs heart, to our 21st century picture of a biased but rational brain vs mood-determining gut biota.

Rather than implement an artificial moral or economy to finally crush the spirit of our gut so that people can live “meaningfully” in constructed towers, we should use our knowledge to eliminate true suffering and orient our civilisation to give our people the gift and respect of real problems to solve – at least we’ll solve real problems doing it.

Mat

* 30 years at average cost of $130k/yr. A solid underestimate for an average academic. Taxpayers have already paid me $130k to do my PhD.

** Though ironically I think democracies are the most real system. Our political system works so well because it succeeds more than other other in communicating reality up the chain. That’s my reasoning for why modern democracies are more real than the god-kings and their administrators. The irony is that intellectuals are stumped as to how democracies manage to survive despite all the mess, while in reality they survive because the mess is aired.

#53 On equipment for living

Dear Mat,

One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.

I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway. Continue reading #53 On equipment for living

#52 On reasons for selection

Dear Jamie

Damn it man all I wanted was an exact explanation of the hierarchy of value boiled down into a sentence or two. What good are you?

I’d like to sully your thinking by forcing it into categories. Here’s what I have. It seems like there are four reasons to explain why a work has currency now. Firstly, what’s said and/or what’s interpreted has Continue reading #52 On reasons for selection

Reviewing reviews

Most nonfiction book reviews suffer from the same problems. If they’re critical they generally go one of two ways.

  1. The author misses out topic X, I know about X and here are some other books on X that should have been addressed.1)X can be another author, or a whole other tradition, etc.
  2. The author is seemingly a part of Intellectual Trend Y and I don’t like Y, here are its antecedents, whom I also dislike.

It won’t have escaped your notice that neither review assesses whether or not the author’s argument was valid. 2)Quick calculation tells me that in my blessed life, benefiting from the internet, aldaily.com most notably, I have already read some 1000 nonfiction book reviews, at least 2000 fiction reviews. Maybe that’s more than any other genre of writing… I guess news articles probably beat them out, even though I’ve been avoiding them for 5 years. Continue reading Reviewing reviews

Footnotes

1. X can be another author, or a whole other tradition, etc.
2. Quick calculation tells me that in my blessed life, benefiting from the internet, aldaily.com most notably, I have already read some 1000 nonfiction book reviews, at least 2000 fiction reviews. Maybe that’s more than any other genre of writing… I guess news articles probably beat them out, even though I’ve been avoiding them for 5 years.

The blog of Jamie Freestone and Mathew McGann