Just so you know, I’ve never been a Kool Kid. That does not mean I haven’t smoked some dope — I have — and I even did a hit of LSD once when I was about 18. It was supposed to transform my life, but instead it did absolutely nothing, even while all my fellow trippers were freaking out around me. That probably says more about my brain than anything else. Keeping it real is my core ethos.
So I guess I’ve always been Old School about enlightenment in general. I do know Kool Kids, some of whom are dear friends, who tolerate my general attitude of sardonic stoicism. And it seems like a couple of years back there were more than a few taking the Shaman trail down to South America to take ayahuasca or some such icks. It just doesn’t interest me — and while I like to drink wine (I’m up for a bicycle tour of Austria’s Wachau Valley!) I’m definitely more of a Wim Hof kind of guy — get high on my own supply.
I always find it interesting when a new wave of various activists (not going to mention names here) start promoting some version of a new brain drug to raise consciousness. I do believe in the medicinal benefits of nutrition, so I’m not dismissing this stuff out of hand. My own green tea pills I take definitely make me more clear-headed. But once you get beyond that realm, I’m most definitely a nay-sayer. I’m more in the camp of the old Buddhist masters. You want enlightenment? It ain’t free. The brain has 4.5B years of evolution honing its emergent possibilities. The odds you’re going to hack yours up another level is extremely likely to be BS — or long-term damaging. I’d rather take a dunk in freezing water. And I do.
If drugs work in any real way in the brain as far as accelerating function, they’re far more likely in accentuating the v-Memes and knowledge structures your brain already has in it. Accentuation MIGHT give you an edge in creating some more branching. But if you see yourself jump up a significant level, it’s far more likely that it’s made part of your brain mushy, giving you temporary neuroplasticity in the short run. And that might be a good thing — sometimes we just have to shake things loose.
But as a chronic practice? More likely that your brain starts deforming after a couple of cycles, like a bad run of thermoplastic polymer. It’s not long until your brain starts resembling the half-melted candles from that last Hippy Party you went to. You can redline your car engine also. Get back to me on how that affects long-term reliability.
I’m all about self-improvement, up to some narcissistic limit. But I’ve never found another path to enlightenment, or status as an übermensch, outside of experiencing, thinking or not-thinking. So if you ask me, you want the good stuff — get out on your bicycle, cut sugar out of your diet, and take a cold dunk every now and then. Get high on your own supply! And for me, I’ve never found a better place to both ponder and meditate than on a 30 mile ride, on a no-car bike path. Perfect.
I’ve been dialoging with the AI community a bit on Twitter lately. It’s only marginally productive for me, though I’ve had a couple of killer thoughts. The biggest thing is that the brain, for the most part, stores everything IN THE END, as linked narratives (thanks, Carlos Perez!) Parts basically float around in the (mostly) left side of the brain until they pass through the hippocampus, which serves kind of like a spinning wheel. It takes those fragments of memory-wool, and essentially creates the thread of autobiographical experience, and stashes that, wrapped on a little spool, on the right side of the brain.
The key takeaway is that experience may be the real generator of knowledge — but if you don’t have any fragments, you can’t expect much on the right side. This maps well with the stuff I’ve unpacked in the trauma literature. And yeah — I’ve been told that I need to check out Iain McGilchrist’s work. It’s next on the list.
One of the things I digested in my attempt to empathize with the AI world was looking at this video of a presentation, from the Kidd Lab (pun intended, or I certainly hope so!) where the researchers had tagged a laser to an infant’s head in an attempt to learn how a baby acquires information. It seems reasonable — the child points that laser around, kind of in ever-increasing circles, and that’s the way they expand their awareness. In what I would call a meta-linear fashion.
The director of the lab, Celeste Kidd, seems to be popular on the AI circuit, with her theories attempting to being harnessed by AI researchers in figuring out how to program AIs and ML algorithms.
I just watched one presentation, so maybe I’m just full of it. But nowhere in that presentation was there any mention of the intense learning environment a baby gets when interacting with its primary caregiver. Maybe it’s in another part of their work. But it sure wasn’t in that presentation. It’s that academic “empathy as a blindspot” thing. And considering an infant might look around for a fraction of the time it spends interacting with its mother/father, wouldn’t one think that the dominant mode be at least a little related to time spent?
And we do know what happens to the brains of babies that don’t get that caregiver interaction. They simply go bonkers. The videos I’ve seen of places like Romanian orphanages, with the babies standing up and rocking themselves, attempting to gain synchronization of their inner clocks without a caregiver are simply too depressing for me to go searching for.
Watching videos like this get me going, more along the lines of “why is this so hard?” — namely, why wouldn’t the researchers even mention empathy? Why is it such a blind spot?
Since it’s Sunday morning, I’ll be a little indulgent. What we’ve actually got going on is a universal conflict in coding information for complexity. In our world, we have two primary modes — genes and memes. Genes are interesting things, in that they’ve produced all sorts of cool things over the 4.5B years we’ve been on the planet — everything from Therapsids to Dimetrodons to T-Rexes to humans, and all sorts of weird monkeys the world over. Not to mention octopuses and squids. I could go on.
But genes count on information being expressed in ways that the individual carrying them has very limited agency in understanding. Genes are all about automatic choices. If you’re a cis-guy and you see a beautiful woman, you’re going to find a way to talk to her. And this isn’t a gender thing — I’m sure Brad Pitt gets lots of attention every time he walks through an airport. That behavior is naturally emergent, and while we may create elaborate justifications for it, its origins come from deep within our code. Partner selection and fitness runs the show for reproduction. And the bottom line is a person’s physical appearance. Much has been written on this — everything from quality of someone’s hair to whether they look like daddy,
But the genes have a vested interest in you NOT being aware. They’re the hardware, and they don’t want you to jump cross-platform to a new computer. They just don’t want you to know that you could. They’re COUNTING on keeping you in the dark. It takes a lot of reverse habituation to stop this behavior. Look at Follower counts on Twitter. If you’re a pretty woman, it’s not that hard to get your numbers up. Content be damned. Duh.
There are whole fields genes have devoted to themselves, besides the obvious ones. Sociobiology, for one, says the genes completely run the show. And E.O. Wilson was no dummy. There’s a 1000 examples of genes making us do stuff, compared to that one example where they don’t. And whole disciplines (here’s looking at you, anthropology and sociology) have devoted themselves to the idea that bonobos are the reason we do everything we do.
Except bonobos don’t build skyscrapers, and they likely never will, no matter how friendly they are. (And for those that have forgotten, bonobos are the VERY FRIENDLY ape…)
But to build skyscrapers, you don’t need genetic evolutionary information, other than as a scaffolding. You do need a computer/brain. But after that, it’s software all the way.
And if you believe me, that’s where the structural memetics come in. You need increasingly complex forms of changeable information architectures — and by changeable, I mean in the next couple of hours after you run that stress calculation again. You can’t wait a million years to find out.
It makes sense that genes have our back when it comes to awareness, or rather, very limited awareness. It actually DOESN’T PAY genetically over the long haul to let us have our own minds. Better to jump quickly and not over-think that snake in the tree, or lion in the grass. Or ponder Deleuze with your meta-modern friends. Run like hell back to the band, or you’re about to join the food chain in a less-than-eloquent fashion. And become a part of someone else’s genetic fitness experiment.
And it would strike me that genes would like brains that DON’T have the ability to know that they’re up there, capable of thinking their own thoughts and making their own decision. And carrying this even further, the last thing a genetic brain would want is an awareness of connection. JUST DO IT if it makes sense.
But for memetics, we need to understand how we connect, or we simply can’t unpack how we should reassemble. And while memetics loves the idea of laying out a master plan, the genes are screaming the fundamental unknowing of this, kind of like a monkey clinging desperately to your hat. It’s why mindfulness is so hard, and so few of us practice this in any meaningful way. We’re happy to tell others we meditated, but how many of us are really willing to admit some of the darker drivers to our personae?
It’s a cosmic war — genes vs. memes. Of course, both have their place. But we’re about to see, with this global warming thing, which one is going to win out. We’ve already seen the weakness of the genetic game the last time an asteroid hit 70 million years ago. Memetics have been sneaking up across the world for a while. And this Internet thingy is really giving genes a run for the money.
Maybe. Pop popcorn. It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out. I’m not one to anthropomorphize the Universe too much, but it certainly seems that She has a sense of humor.
I’ve written a little about my upbringing in a modest size community in southern Ohio — Portsmouth. For the most part, my family lived in Portsmouth while I was growing up – there’s a more complicated trajectory of the reasons why we moved, from inside the city, to a small hobby farm outside, which did matter in the development of my mental perspective. Living in Portsmouth was largely a classic suburban existence, albeit far more violent than most people in the US in that socioeconomic class typically experience. Living in the countryside, though, broadened dramatically my exposure, and understanding of rural poverty in Midwest America. It was hard-core Appalachia outside the city limits, and there was more than one night riding the school bus home after dark where kids would be having sex in the rear of the bus.
At any rate, the confluence of conditions of a profound lack of opportunity in my hometown, coupled with my desire to live in the western U.S. and pursue whitewater sport, caused me to leave Ohio when I was 20. After working at J&L Steel in Cleveland, I moved to North Carolina and Duke University, and really never look back. That was in 1983.
Just because you leave a place, though, doesn’t mean it decides to freeze itself in time. And Portsmouth, even in the mid ’70s, was an iconic community starting the process of unraveling. Never known for its social cohesion, railroad strikes were known for boxcars off the tracks and burning police cars. Empire-Detroit Steel Corporation, with their antiquated open hearth furnaces, and wire and rail mills, started the process of collapse through major closures of parts of the mill around 1976. And it never did get better — the shoelace factory closed, and the shoe factory, and so on. They were never replaced, but created one of the first post-industrial landscapes in the U.S.
And though we were north of the Mason-Dixon Line (Kentucky was just across the river) there was no let-up in the chronic racism that African-Americans experienced. De facto segregation corralled almost all the black folks in one part of the city with a swath of public housing, and the black kids had their own pool to go to as well. I can’t remember the name of that pool, but it wasn’t the one where I worked as a lifeguard, courtesy of a family friend and swimming instructor.
That pool was called Dreamland, and it was a big one. It was a nexus of the white trash community, and I have many fond memories of hanging out with single moms watching their kids playing in the water, and 13-year-old girls. By this time, the idea of 16-year-old girls hanging out by the pool all summer had already faded into the sunset. To be a teenager in Portsmouth meant summer work in a fast food joint, or laboring on a garden or road crew. I supplemented my own lifeguard earnings with literally backbreaking labor throwing hay on nearby farms, mostly at my parents’ insistence. I didn’t want the money (the pay was $2/hr.) but the farmers were friends and needed the labor.
Why should anyone interested in the topics on this blog read Quinones’ book? Because it is an amazing piece of generative complex systems adaptation after social collapse. Or rather, it documents what happens during a process of social collapse, as ingrained information regarding functioning social structures morph and change to adapt to new norms.
The short timeline behind all this is as follows. The factories providing revenue from outside the community fold. That lack of money/energetic support ceases to exist, and formerly proud and effective social structures also start collapsing. The center of the town is abandoned, replaced by some version of Walmarts, which then form the new nexus of economic activity.
But these also are poorly supported, and the area and its inhabitants fall into depression. This depression creates the need for a caregiver community to start prescribing (and exploiting) the population using opioids. This legal channel works in combined ways, some bad, but not all, until it grows to the size the exploitation is so bad, it must be stopped. A few doctors build amazing fortunes on providing the drugs — Margie Temponeras, one of the doctors not mentioned in the book, but a literal next-door neighbor whom I grew up with. She was recently convicted and sentenced under federal drug trafficking laws for singularly providing millions of pills from her pain clinic in Wheelersburg, an adjacent town to Portsmouth by about six miles. What Temponeras did was terrible and inexcusable– but I also have to wonder about the lack of empathy toward her victims, and the trauma roots of all this, as her brother was killed working under a car around the time we were in high school.
Even after reading Dreamland, it’s unclear exactly to me when the legal pills stopped distribution in Portsmouth, and the black tar heroin dealers from the state of Nayarit in Mexico started flowing. There was obviously a parallel confluence of the two sources. But the system dynamics are unmistakable. What happened with the Nayaritos, in the face of a community living in depression and pain, was they evolved a parallel economic ecosystem involving dispensation of black tar heroin in small balloons, containing .1 g of heroin, throughout Portsmouth, as well as ‘underserved’ communities across the Midwest.
What was different about the Nayarit strategy was that instead of having a centralized drug house, where people who might be addicted would have to go to buy their hit of drugs, the bosses put clean-cut Mexican young men in nondescript cars, like Toyota Corollas in a decentralized distribution system pre-dating Uber Eats by almost two decades. If you wanted your fix, you’d page one of them on your pager, and they would bring the hit to you. If you were out of money, they’d understand, and front you your fix until you found the money.
And if you couldn’t find the money, well, the Nayaritos would have a list of goods you could steal for payment. From Walmart — to the point where if there was a disagreement with your drug delivery boy, you both could call Walmart for a price check. This phenomenon blossomed to people specializing in stealing certain categories of goods. Some folks might specialize in baby clothes, or stereo equipment, and even set up these types of stores in their apartments. The demand for American goods was strong back in Nayarit, and the mercantile ecosystem of thievery would adapt. Quinones writes in unflinching detail about all of this from a true complex system perspective. It is mind-boggling.
After reading the book, some of it was so unbelievable I had to start calling old friends to find out how much was hyperbole and how much was truth. The sad reality I was exposed to was that many of my high school friends’ kids had also been victims of the epidemic and gotten hooked on opioids — either the legal or illegal varieties. Any “it couldn’t happen to decent people” thoughts were quickly disabused by my old friend, who will remain anonymous, as she listed the various people that I would know that had to deal with this crisis. I subscribe to my hometown news feed, and while there is some positive news every now and then, most of the region reels under the crisis of naked addicts writhing around in parking lots, and an unusually high number of chronic petty thefts and automobile accidents. It’s like the whole area has St. Vitus Dance, the Appalachian name for Huntington’s Disease, where the hapless victim shakes themselves to death quietly.
If there’s any lesson from all of this, especially in a time where more and more of the country is experiencing this kind of economic dislocation, is that mirror systems will appear regardless of protestations of morality from others saying to withhold aid. In the case of Portsmouth, the Nayaritos provided the social care system in the absence of a more formal, prosocial variety. Nothing gets better, of course, because it can’t.
It’s not like the drug dealers, nor the cops on the take, nor the last newspaper editor running anti-Muslim propaganda on his own Facebook page have a bigger view of the world. And so one sees a distorted web woven of dysfunctional relationships springing up, alternately making new modalities of functioning, like methods for quick mass theft of goods from Walmart, coupled with legacy modes borrowed from the past — like setting up a store with indexed pricing of stolen consumer goods. Like pictures I’ve seen of the webs woven by spiders exposed to psychedelic drugs, the long-term evolutionary characteristics are doubtless nonviable. But they work well enough in the present so that the spider can catch a few flies.
My recommendation? Quinones’ book, which has received accolades from many quarters, should be high on anyone’s list who cares about the fate of our country. Liberals in particular need to read this book, and realize that many of the forces that put Trump into power have not gone away. And short of secession, we are going to live with the legacy of places like Portsmouth’s collapse for a long time. Because people will adapt to their circumstance. And it won’t be pretty.
Atip of the hat to my wife, Chia-Chu Hu, for the insight that when you don’t set up a social services system, one will basically become emergent and find its way for people in need. And those people may be heroin dealers from Nayarit.
A nice, bio-sketch piece from the BBC came flying across my Twitter feed from fellow educational pioneer, John Hagel (tip of the hat — John goes through a TON of content, sorts it, and posts it on Twitter!) This one, titled Child prodigies: How geniuses navigate the uncertain journey to adulthood, narrates the journeys of a number of prodigies who mostly either finished college early, or in other ways became known at an early age for musical performance. The piece was probably spurred by the recent mini-controversy over Laurent Simons, the Belgian prodigy who looked to break the record for earliest college graduate (his major was in electrical engineering) at the age of 10. He was, depending on your perspective, thwarted/didn’t cut the mustard/whatever! by the university he was enrolled in. And in light of that, his parents yanked him out to attend school in the United States.
The more interesting part of the piece is really NOT the idea that a 10-year-old can graduate from college, or play concert-level violin. Neuro-differentiated youngsters, possessing brains that run at the functional computer equivalent of increased clock rates, are going to show up on the tails of various intelligence measure distributions. They’re going to finish college faster because their brains in isolation are going to run faster.
What’s more fascinating is that they, through the process of their innate capacity, along with learned specialization, usually do NOT turn into creative geniuses. As I’ve discussed extensively on this blog, empathetic interaction is far more likely to yield creative solutions that leaving one, ungrounded person with their own thoughts. So it’s no surprise that these young people specialize in things requiring knowledge sophistication — and race through universities, also dedicated to exactly that same type of thought pattern/value set. Creative genius is almost always cross-paradigmatic, borrowing from different perspectives, than the narrow, parthenogenesis of further refinement that happens inside universities.
Here’s the picture I’m fond of using showing the difference between evolution and complexity, and sophistication, for your reference.
If you key into one part of this graph, consider the “reliability vs. validity” aspect. A prodigy violin player can practice over and over a particular sequence so they play it perfectly — thus emphasizing reliability. But even the best young player requires coaching from a master in order to deliver nuance in their playing, or communicate through their music moods expressed in the composition, such as loss of a loved one, or Alexander Nevsky beating the Livonian Order on the ice in Prokofiev’s masterpiece. A young person simply doesn’t have the life experience, and must rely on mirroring empathy. Their master must provide the grounding validity.
Limiting cases, such as these talented young people are especially useful for generalized insight into sentience. Not because of their externally validated accomplishments, like graduating from Oxford early. But because what they cannot do points to ways we must change, and establish behavior reward. The future, if we are going to have one, and the answers to the big questions are going to rely on connected thought, across disciplines and people. It will be empathetic.
On my Twitter feed, there are multiple threads going at any one time regarding ethical AI. While the work is specific and sophisticated, it lacks any larger framework, like Spiral Dynamics, that actually shows how values evolve, or are placed in sets. And true to the social structure of organizations that create this kind of knowledge — mostly Legalistic/Authoritarian hierarchies — it’s no surprise that we have lots of esoterica flying around about specific mathematical strategies, as well as ad hoc philosophical solutions.
As I’ve said before, there is absolutely nothing morally wrong with this kind of thinking. But one can’t expect any of it to be complete, or perhaps better said, cover the value space. You can’t attempt to cover a space that you don’t know exists. If you’ve got a bunch of Dead White Philosophers in your secret ghost army to support your hypothesis, odds are you’re thinking you’re going to protect Minas Tirith from Sauron. But more likely, you’re going to just end up in some chaotic version of one of the Piratesof the Caribbean movies, like Curse of the Black Pearl, that I just happened to watch on the airplane.
Yesterday, in the middle of some Twitter discussion, with Thought Grandfather, Mel Conway, he brought up the AI thought puzzle called Paperclip Maximizer. The short version of this trope is this:
We create an AI whose goal is two-fold — maximize the number of paperclips it has created, and give it as well the job of improving its ability to maximize the number of paperclips it CAN create.
We turn it loose, and in the process, it potentially kills us in its desire to fulfill the inexorable demands of its objective function.
It all SEEMS like a reasonable problem, and in his book, Human Compatible, Stuart Russell, noted Berkeley computer scientist reasons around this by making AIs pleasantly subservient to humans through individual adaptation to their masters — kind of a riff on the Communitarian value set.
But there’s a better, and more systematic way to get at all this. How? By understanding the Value Set of our Paperclip Maximizer, and then making sure we have provided enough scaffolding in the programming of our AI to make sure that it doesn’t make paperclips out of the entire world. Naturally, this is predicated on the assumption thatSentience is Sentience is Sentience, a classically unprovable postulate, though I’m issuing a friendly challenge to anyone showing some thought or piece of knowledge actually lies outside some construction from the canonical knowledge structure set in this piece.
To start, what is the Value Set/V-Meme set of the Paperclip Maximizer — let’s call him Mr. Clippy –in the first place? If Mr. Clippy is solely concerned with a.) its survival, b.) its emotional state of fulfillment upon making more paperclips, and c.) utilizing some developing heuristic set of methodologies to make paperclips, it’s pretty much all on the ‘I’ side of the Spiral. Here’s a handy little diagram that makes this point.
Of course, one can think of more behaviors that would be generated by the different value sets/v-Memes — and if Mr. Clippy is more diabolical, we’re likely to see higher v-Meme borrowing. But the basic fact is that Mr. Clippy is egocentric, and given an objective function that prioritizes his own success through measurement of paperclip production, it’s entirely possible that he’ll dream of world domination and offing his human creators. And that will be dependent on the sophistication AND evolution of his learning strategies.
Fascinatingly enough, we now might start to see how empathy and its development play into Mr. Clippy’s development. With limited or no empathy (let’s assume that Mr. Clippy has access to mirroring strategies) — if he sees another AI — Ms. Clippy? — making more paper clips than him, he may indeed be able to copy her. But he’s pretty limited on getting any feedback on his obsession, and it’s not long until he’s what I’ve called “collapsed egocentric” — which means he’s on his way to full-on psychopathy, with fuzzy, or limited boundaries between the consumption of the world and his desires.
The social structure of his creator also starts showing up. Mr. Clippy may be able to collect data and form new empirical relationships and laws — classic Legalistic/Absolutistic value set knowledge formation. But if Mr. Clippy is tied to his objective function by his creator, he’s going to lack the agency to evolve. Remember, he’s got to keep making clips, and while he can sort the various algorithms and potentially change algorithms to make clips faster, he can never question “Why” he’s making the clips in the first place.
And since he’s disconnected from all other realities except the metric of increased paperclip production, he simply CAN’T evolve. His objective function has frozen him, or rather his sentience, like a bug in amber. He can’t connect, and as such, unless there are some explicit overrides in his program to gather information and interact with others, he is simply incapable. The computer-y way of saying all this is he has no access to, nor ability to change other agents’ states. He has no developed empathy.
What if Mr. Clippy had empathy, and as such started receiving feedback from other AI agents (like Ms. Clippy) or humans out there? One can start seeing that Mr. Clippy might start developing longer timelines of actions — especially if he was equipped with a longer term memory. Mr. Clippy might whack a few humans on his way to higher paperclip production, but perhaps one of those humans he whacked might have held a secret Mr. Clippy discovers later to have the ability to up his paperclip production even more. Now Mr. Clippy might start reflecting on the wisdom of whacking humans, as that would interfere with his Prime Directive. And so on.
By adding value sets/v-Memes on the ‘We’ side of the Spiral, we can start seeing that connection really matters. And Mr. Clippy has to start also being aware of his own actions, and how they affect others, or else we’ll be back in the “Mr. Clippy as Pennywise the Clown” trope once again. Most importantly, we can start understanding how to add scaffolding to Mr. Clippy’s objective function so he can make more paperclips, as well as prevent killing off all humans. Maybe Mr. Clippy will end up setting up supply chains! Who knows?
I could go on with this, of course. But hopefully, if you’re interested enough in SD, this has made you happy. And if you’re into AI, but haven’t heard about SD, there’s enough to pique your interest.
But before we leave Mr. Clippy behind, and the larger issue of coding value sets and behaviors, let’s just take a minute and back up and consider who wrote about Paperclip Maximizer in the first place? The fundamental thesis of Mr. Clippy is that, given an objective function and NO deep understanding of value sets and how they work, this thing is gonna make paperclips and run away and kill everyone. Because it’s SO SMART.
Yet any performance grounding from around the world tells us basically all manufacturing items rely on complicated supply chains for efficiency. These supply chains have negotiated contracts and commitments to specialization for all supplies, from zinc-covered wire, to bending machines and such. Where we’ve REALLY been had is by Mr. Clippy’s creator, who obviously is an Authoritarian, and believes that even with a single objective metric, # of paperclips, that the best way to do it is to be an obsessive psychopath.
SD and understanding value sets can help us with ethical AI. There’s no question about that. And yeah — there might be a runaway paperclip AI that with little evolution, destroys the world. But maybe our real problem is a lack of understanding where we get these stories in the first place. Maybe the real moral of the Mr. Clippy story is that we’re not going to have very advanced AIs until we understand intersubjective understanding and independent agency. In other words — we better bone up on empathy, if we really want complexity.
One of the things that has always bothered me about any developmental theory is that inevitably, it gets coopted by the status-conscious as a way of justifying their ostensible superiority. What happens next is an outflowing of the usual bile from those claiming the mantle of enlightenment — “those people” don’t love, they don’t care, or have feelings. And THEN the next action, at times in history, has been to kill them. Any theory of the übermensch has the dark problem of highlighting human superiority turning into a tool for psychopaths. It’s no surprise to me that Crazy Uncle Friedrich (Nietzsche) would wax operatically about the Spartans, whom I’ve written about before. It makes my mind reel to think people would wax heroic about a nation based on pederasty. Sorry.
I’ve told amalgamated friend Hanzi Freinacht that what we need to do is move to a stage-based theory that embodies instead of a hierarchy of status, a hierarchy of responsibility. If you’re more enlightened, well, that’s all well and good. Now here’s a big, old serving of duty for fixing what ails the world.
The Zen Buddhist monks got all these concepts in spades. One of my favorite stories, from Paul Reps’ curated 101 Zen Stories is below, that captures this sentiment.
Soldiers of Humanity
Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.
Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.”
This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”
Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”
The bottom line of all this is that all people (at least those without broken brain circuits) feel things like love and attachment, or sorrow in loss of love. It is unfair to say that a poor person, or a person from a different culture, doesn’t feel some version of love. But the way, and the triggers for that emotion, naturally vary wildly dependent on that person’s background culture, as well as stage of development. I remember reading an account of the Coptic Christian massacre by Daesh/Islamic State in 2015, where IS killed 21 construction workers in the name of revenge for an alleged failed conversion of a Copt woman to Islam. A reporter had traveled to the town in Egypt, where many of the workers were from. Expecting to find a devastated community, instead they found families honored by their sons’ martyred sacrifice. So there is indeed range in human response — but it’s important to understand that the joy and pride were a response to their love. Not an abnegation of it.
Another great example I’ve used to build my empathy, that maps really well to the development of humanity, is understanding the characters in the documentary about the construction and filling behind the Three Gorges Dam — Up the Yangtze , by director Yung Chung. Chung covers the plight of the poorest of the poor — a farmer and his wife living along the banks of the river, and soon to be displaced by the rising flood waters backing up behind the dam. Their material condition is extremely poor — you have to watch the documentary to appreciate it, and I was raised in the hills of Appalachia. Yet there is an obvious bond between the old farmer and his wife. I find myself working to understand their bond — what constitutes, to the wife, the idea that she married well, and as such, serves as a devoted partner to her husband. Instead of doubting that those different from us feel emotion, it’s a useful point of growth.
But back to the main question. If we’re fundamentally all the same, yet different through some lens of personal development, why do the gods only talk to some of us? They certainly don’t talk to me. Is there an evolutionary reason that we can understand why the gods don’t talk to me, but do talk to others, that’s explainable in the four dimensions we have in the here and now?
We both know tricks, since you are by far the best among all men in counsel and tales, but I among all the Gods have renown for wit (metis) and tricks.1
Ulysses is not the only mythic, or semi-mythic figure trotted out with a thin version of a conscience. He did end up in Dante’s lowest level of the Inferno for a reason. For those of Abrahamic religious persuasion, it’s worthwhile to note that Abraham himself was told to sacrifice his oldest son, Isaac. He was just about to do it until Yahweh issued a stay of execution. In lots of places in the Bible, especially when the Hebrew pastoralists were cruising around in the wilderness, Yahweh does some serious talking. As well as producing some artifacts that have large-scale consequences, like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It is both metaphorically, and oddly enough, v-Memetically fitting that in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, after the Nazis are melted by opening the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to access magic they had no deeper birthright to, the whole Ark is then buried deep in a bureaucratic nightmare of government storehouse. The Legalistic v-Meme can even suffocate the power of Magical Divine Authority.
But back to development. Unlike others, like Kegan and Piaget, I’ve posited two axes for increase of neural complexity — either complicatedness/sophistication, and complexity/evolution.
And here’s the key. In order to evolve, one must develop enough agency through self-examination and development of empathy to self-separate from other’s imposed reality. That means you recognize that other’s interpretations of reality is outside your noggin.
And you then cross-reference your own neural inputs and sensations through your experiences to spin all those parts through a reflecting hippocampus to create autobiographical narratives. That little hippocampus spinning wheel in your limbic system seems to be key in creating those narratives that are assembled from lots of different parts floating around our brain — but most importantly, in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). And certainly one of the threads that gets woven into all this, IF you have this self-separation from other’s emotional reality, is the idea that you have a unique voice in all this — that your free will and agency actually matters, at least a little bit.
So as you go through life, this grounding wire through your PFC feeds important information back into your system as far as both paying attention to your world, as well as the people in your world, realizing they have an important role in creating your own narratives. And as you add people to your world, your grounding feed grows, and grows — through developed empathy.
But what happens if you don’t have that grounding wire through other people, and your PFC? What happens if you don’t have that large network of others’ realizations, as well as a conscience and the time to know yourself?
It IS possible that your brain might get frozen in time, and you just stop growing. But now it’s informative to return to the notion of how other emotions might grow in lieu of an experientially-based relationship. Just like the farmer’s wife, other modes of developed attachment from cultural and other symbolic vocabularies might reinforce your experience. In short, that little voice in your head just might be your God talking to you. With some serious external, cultural reinforcement — like sacrificing your favorite pet goat.
But here’s the key thought. That grounding wire, instead of reaching out into a data-driven world, instead remains locked, self-referentially, through your limbic system. It keeps feeding back the same beliefs over and over into your stories, reinforcing whatever fixed mental models you have. No wonder its turtles all the way down. All you’ve got are those damn turtles.
And as you turn more and more cycles in the old CPU, those thoughts become part of the larger, threaded narrative of your life. And your view of the world becomes a more magical place. Coherence is generated through more and more complicated connections, flowing from the same iconic symbol set. Ravens show up and get hooked to everything. Or owls. Or crosses.
What’s interesting is that the larger irrational perspective might have, historically, fueled innovation and global change, before we were all actually connected with any real information. All you have to do is read a couple of conquistadors’ stories, and you might just start believing that God wanted you to show up on Atahualpa’s (the Incan leader at the time of collapse) doorstep after a major military defeat. Stranger things have been perceived.
And now we can loop back around to some things I’ve said about how social structures low on the empathy scale also are pretty poor in metacognition as well. You don’t get to be a leader of the faith by saying “I don’t know.”
But all of it is one crazy way to innovate — by sailing off across the ocean convinced everything’s just going to be alright. A little blind faith might not be a bad strategy for the holiday football pool – or sailing to the New World in 1492. But it’s a concept worth reconsidering and re-evaluating when it comes to tipping points for global warming.
For me personally, while I can appreciate, and sort of embrace Jayne’s bicameral brain, I’m still not going tell you the Universe has any particular plan for me. There’s been no god of any sort talking to me. I’ve always figured I’ve gotten this far by saying “I don’t know.” That metacognitive survival strategy has worked pretty well up to this point.
What’s the takeaway? At some level, other people in our life help figure out which pathway we’re going to use. If they’re all like us, with the same belief sets and mental models, all we need is that warm fuzzy feeling to feel safe, and our PFC remains relatively dormant. The world doesn’t change much, there isn’t much reckoning for getting stuck, and we also get to tell people that over time, we’re closer to whatever god we’re granted by our church, our family, or NASCAR racing team. And the devil literally take the hindmost if someone attempts to change our mind. A self-referential limbic loop makes that basically impossible, though our thinking will lead to a more sophisticated view of our deity. It becomes our touchstone.
But if folks are different, we have to start paying attention — with cognitive empathy. Which then rakes our PFC into the brouhaha, which gets us wondering, maybe a little, whether we heard them right, or something, so we can connect to them. And so, as we march through our lives, building both consciousness, an independent conscience, and a larger, diverse social network, our PFC gets one helluva workout. And then it has to reckon with all the empty space in there. Which leads to wisdom.
A recent article in the Washington Post, by Joel Achenbach, came sliding across my feed, interesting (pathologically) because it is backing up with data one of the predictions I’ve made regarding the appalling state of our overall health. That prediction is that our awful diet that excludes saturated fats, and gives a pass to sugar and refined carbs, is combining with epigenetic preloading of insulin resistance and driving obesity in our young people. This earlier expression of insulin resistance, leads to earlier onset of Type II diabetes, and the incumbent Western diseases that flow from that. And that will lead to an increase in All-Cause mortality at younger and younger ages, leading to an enormous public health crisis.
From the article:
The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was immediately hailed by outside researchers for its comprehensive treatment of a still-enigmatic trend: the reversal of historical patterns in longevity.
Despite spending more on health care than any other country, the United States has seen increasing mortality and falling life expectancy for people age 25 to 64, who should be in the prime of their lives. In contrast, other wealthy nations have generally experienced continued progress in extending longevity. Although earlier research emphasized rising mortality among non-Hispanic whites in the United States, the broad trend detailed in this study cuts across gender, racial and ethnic lines. By age group, the highest relative jump in death rates from 2010 to 2017 — 29 percent — has been among people age 25 to 34.
The scientist in me, ever-cautious (really — I know I am fond of far-reaching predictions, but my brain has been trained!) wants to wait for more data. But the systems thinker in me finds all this shocking. According to the article, 1/3 of the accelerated deaths are in a handful of states — Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. One can look at the obesity maps from the CDC and see that the states affected are almost in the bullseye, though there are other states with roughly equivalent obesity rates. Here’s the map.
From the article, it seems like there is little separation between the dark red states and the lighter red states anyway. Why would Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky be the worst for youth all-cause mortality? I’d venture that it’s the combo of stress and obesity that are really teaming up in the Midwest. If you’re fat and happy, or really, less stressed, that might provide some marginal differentiation. But when you can’t support yourself, and you’re a step away from homelessness, the cumulative effects just add up
Not surprisingly, it is dominant in working class people, while those with 4 year college degrees are less affected. According to the CDC website, obesity was highest for those with no college degree (~35%) while those with a college degree rang in ~25%. The university community, ever reaching for more dollars, want to claim responsibility for this benefit. I’d argue it IS true that someone with a college education very likely has access to better information on diet, as well as flexible employment potential. But I know for a fact we don’t teach nutrition to all our students at most universities, and if we did, it would very likely be the messed up, low-fat version still prevalent in the nutrition community.
And then there are articles like this one, in the Chronicle for Higher Education, portraying the situation in the impoverished Bootheel of Missouri, that are deeply depressing. They push a narrative that we need more classical education, rather than job training for skills enhancement, customized for the area. What’s really wild is the documentation, through photos, of the obesity and incumbent diabetes crisis. Though obesity is not even discussed, almost all the photos included in the article show people who are morbidly obese. The kicker is the one healthy person in the story resisted his doctor’s advice and put himself on a de facto ketogenic diet. Nothing in this story really points to higher ed. as the answer to any of the immediate problems these people are having.
The Washington Post article highlights a comment by Prof. Ellen Meara, a professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice on the report. The report reveals a broad erosion in health, with no single “smoking gun.”
“There’s something more fundamental about how people are feeling at some level — whether it’s economic, whether it’s stress, whether it’s deterioration of family,” she said. “People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”
I’m inclined to cut her some slack for the moralizing, but it still presents the issue as one of moral fiber, instead of a profoundly unhealthy environment. And guns have multiple parts, Prof. Meara.
The article does go on to show a modestly more empathetic view from others inside the academy. Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, whose prior research on the issue highlighted increased suicide rates in these areas, characterized the areas as “a sea of despair.” That seems more apropos.
When I originally read this piece, I definitely filled in the blanks with a more contemptuous view of the academics consulted in the piece. Upon re-reading, they are getting some of it right. The viewpoints offered are still siloed, but there is acknowledgement that at least the dominant symptoms are driving all-cause mortality. Prof. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted the rise in obesity rates among young people, and also said that there would be long-term repercussions. So there is a gradual waking-up that is happening .
But still precious little systems thinking is going on. Each of the experts are on their island in Intellectual Flatland, and aren’t inclined to speculate. I get that — they have professional reputations on the line, and the social structure of the academy, as I’ve written about over and over, is about cautious reliability. And you can’t really tell if the journalist writing the piece knows a lot about the downstream/causal effects of stress and obesity.
Even the basic concept of diet as a metabolic destabilizer — the real phenomenon going on here — is not understood. It’s not surprising. We still count food in terms of meaningless calories, instead of the most powerful medicine we ingest regularly into our systems. The problem with the whole issue of metabolic destabilization is that it drives diseases that are well-recognized, like cancer, with their own pathologies and entire industries set up to treat. Few scientists or physicians are talking about how to prevent cancer in the first place. It’s not that these people are evil — with rare exception (like cigarette smoking) the causal thought just doesn’t occur to them. Like the AIDS virus that destabilized its victims’ immune systems, leading to contracting all sorts of diseases one normally has resistance to, metabolic destabilization runs under the surface of the epidemic. Out of sight, out of mind.
And that, dear readers, is a function of the social structure that is investigating the problem. Medical and dietary research organizations are just not set up to investigate root cause.
While we walk around seemingly perplexed, but safe from an information reliability point of view, stress, obesity, and the insulin resistance that affects it, are locked in a deadly statistical positive feedback loop. We can never run an experiment that can capture with empirical data more than a small snapshot of data. Empiricism is simply not the way to solve this problem — no matter how large the data set.
What is the way to understand this is to posit causal mechanisms, look at case studies, and reward people who look broadly across multiple fields and engage in debate. That is going to require quite a different research organization than currently exists — as well as researchers with broader empathy who can make the complex connections required.
And yeah — there’s probably some of my own confirmation bias in that approach — which is what I do in this piece, linking diet and a growth in authoritarianism. What’s interesting is the author links this to political outcomes as well. The states most affected are swing states looking for reversals of their fortunes, because their people are suffering.
The point of all this is still the same. We better get with dietary modification fast. I thought that it would take until the 2030s to really see some effect. As the data shows, I was wrong. The bell is tolling now. There is no happy note to end this on, either. There is a Perfect Storm scenario in all this that no one is discussing. And it’s this –if younger person effects of all-cause mortality get coupled with the other crisis happening on the other end of the age spectrum — Alzheimers Disease, which some have called Type III diabetes– we will have a compounding civilization-altering event.