The alpha and omega of our humanity: an all-too-familiar trope

It is a standard narrative trope. We’ve encountered and enjoyed it millions of times: life is not as it seems. Our hero is not what she appears to be. Behind the veil of illusion, there is a different and more profound reality to discover.

If I have previously reflected on the ubiquity of this trope, I probably concluded that it is so commonplace only because it is a very easy idea to hang a story around.

I am now wondering if there is something much more fundamental to the trope. I am wondering if an ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is the ultimate source of our humanness.

Take, for example, religion and science.

On the one hand, religion tells us that the savage and unpredictable storm is really an angry god. On the other hand, science tells us the storm is really an atmospheric disturbance created by the interplay of fundamental laws. The explanations are different, but they both rely on the idea that the truth of the matter is very different from what we directly experience. For them both, direct experience is an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists.

With these examples in mind, take a closer look at learning, creativity, language, consciousness, hermeneutics, the human reproductive cycle — really, just about anything fundamental to understanding humans as humans — and the trope turns up time and again. It seems to be as ubiquitous in reality as it is in our stories. If that is correct, perhaps, the trope appears in our stories so often only because we are fundamentally the kinds of beings that make sense of the world from that perspective. Perhaps, our stories mirror and reinforce an innate way of looking at the world.

Now, if this is true, here is a curious thing.

True happiness, the sages often tell us, is found only when we learn to appreciate the here and now, our given circumstances, the moment. Unhappiness, we are told time and again, is rooted in an inability or an unwillingness to appreciate the inherent value of direct experience. We suffer unnecessarily only when we grasp for superfluous wants beyond the here and now.

If the sages and I are both correct, it looks like our ability and willingness to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists is not only what makes us fundamentally human but it is also the root cause of our unhappiness. We are our most human, it seems, when we treat the given as something to be looked through and dismissed. We are also our most unhappy when we fail to appreciate what we are experiencing in the moment.

My highly speculative and totally-talking-out-of-my-ass theory to make sense of this apparent conflict is that the species is coping with a recent adaptation. Our brains, at some point in our recent evolutionary history, developed an ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists. From this adaptation, many of our most distinctively human traits have sprung. We are, nevertheless, mammals fundamentally and, for most of our evolution, we were animals that took direct experience as a given and succeeded because of it. We carry both traits in us now because they both helped us to succeed over the course of our existence.

The big worry for me, however, is that the ability to treat direct experience as an illusion behind which a more fundamental reality exists might actually be a maladaptive trait. Because of it, we dominate and control the environment like no other species and are reproducing at a frenetic rate. On first impression, this seems like the very definition of an evolutionary win. However, if our species gets wiped out in the next century or two because of our domination of the environment and frenetic population growth, that will be a undisputable lose. Our “success” might be so fleeting in geological terms that in a few thousand years no trace of us will remain beyond a curious spike in carbon emissions. If that is the case, as a species, we would have been much better off never developing the traits that allowed us to dominate nature and reproduce so frenetically.

There, of course, remains an outside chance that enough people will recognize the reality of what is coming and act together to make the dramatic changes necessary to avert the species’ oblivion. Perhaps, our day-to-day existence will become so difficult that we will have no choice but to change our ways before it is too late. There is even the faint hope of some kind of technological fix. And while the colonization of other planets is also feasible, abandoning the ship does not really seem like much of a solution or a victory, when we were the ones who scuttled it.

It seems we have painted ourselves into the corner of a familiar story. A catastrophic outcome is inevitable and only a miracle will save us. Is there a plucky band of misfits assembling now who will save us, thanks to their courage and conviction? Perhaps, a higher power or powers has already picked the chosen one and will reveal his or her true destiny shortly. Perhaps, that flickering light is not a star but a starship racing towards us, laden with the technology and know-how we will need to survive and flourish. One can only hope that there is some reality in these well-worn fantasies, but that in itself is an all-too-familiar story.

One more exorcism: there is no force in reason

We like to think that reasoning, logic and argument can compel a change of belief and force others to agree with us. This presumption is so deeply and widely accepted that we too easily overlook the spooky magic at the core of the standard characterization of reasoning, logic, argument, and, ultimately, thinking itself. Our beliefs certainly do change but there is no reason to believe that reasoning, logic or argument forces us to do it.

In the standard account of a well-reasoned and logical argument, someone makes their case by articulating premises that are probably true. Then, they illustrate how a conclusion is a natural consequence of those premises. Finally, they assert that the conclusion must also be true because the premises are true.

At this point, the other person involved in the argument must accept that the conclusion is true. If they are not so inclined to make this concession, they must demonstrate that the premises aren’t true or that the conclusion is not a natural consequence of those premises. However, in the end, if the premises are determined to be true and it is agreed that the conclusion follows from the premises, in the standard account, the conclusion must also be true and must be accepted as true. At this point, everyone who previously thought the conclusion to be false promptly accepts that it is true and realigns their other beliefs accordingly.

Now, if you have ever been in argument with anyone about anything, you know that arguments rarely if ever play out in this fashion. Even when the people involved in the argument agree in principle with the standard model of argumentation that I’ve just outlined, they will rarely change their minds in this way, especially if anything of any value or importance is at stake in the argument. At best, they may concede that the opposing argument is sound or plausible but they will almost always insist that there is something wrong with it that, for the moment, they are overlooking.

Logicians, philosophers and know-it-alls of every ilk generally characterize this as a consequence of the inherent fallibility of humans. For them, we humans know the ideal form of reasoning, logic and argument but, like fallen angels everywhere, we simply can’t measure up to it. A few gods amongst can, perhaps, but most mere mortals can’t.

This, of course, is absurd. If there really is some kind of force at work in reasoning, logic, and argument, it should consistently work in predictable ways and not only in trivial or paradigm cases.

Today, we now know enough about brains to predict with some certainty that the fundamental mechanism of belief change will almost certainly be neurological. If that is the case, the notion that reasoning, logic, and well-formed arguments have any role to play in belief change looks even more dubious. Are we too imagine that some neurons are especially attuned to the sweet harmonies of reasoning, logic and well-formed arguments? Of course not.

Instead and much more plausibly, because we know that the connections between brain cells strengthen when the same cells frequently communicate with each other, it seems much more likely that our beliefs change in response to stimuli that make the very same neurons communicate with each other in new ways over and over again. We may already see this mechanism in action today, thanks to cable news and the echo chamber of social media. It certainly seems like people change their beliefs simply because they hear a statement, claim or talking point repeated over and over again.

Because we are primates and the most important stimuli in our environment are other humans, I suspect, the experience of belief change will always feel sociological to us, even if it really is neurological. The people you associate with, listen to, and identify with will ultimately determine what counts for you as reasonable premises, sound reasoning, and appropriate evidence. If people in your tribe repeat a claim over and over again, I suspect you will also eventually believe it too, with or without argument. This isn’t something that only happens to those whackos who watch Fox news. It happens to all humans everywhere — including you and me. It isn’t an aberration or a moral failing . It is just the way humans create, reinforce, and change their beliefs.

My last word on political philosophy (hopefully): chase no more

The fundamental question of politics concerns power: is power an end unto itself?

If it is, politics is fundamentally about managing power. It involves creating and managing social practices that determine who wields power and the extent to which they wield it. In principle, power could be exercised with an eye to true, good or best outcomes, but, so long as power is seen as an end unto itself, gaining, maintaining and exercising power will always trump the true, the good, or the best. Inevitably, this kind of politics is or will become authoritarian because any balance of power will always eventually be upset in favour of someone or some group.

If power is not an end unto itself, politics is fundamentally a form of inquiry. It involves creating social practices that have the best chance of identifying true, good, or best outcomes. It is unlikely that any set of social practices will always identify true, good, or best outcomes, but the shared commitment to social practices that aim for these kinds of outcomes can, nevertheless, justify abiding by outcomes even when we or others disagree with them. This kind of politics relies on both the expertise of the individual and the wisdom of the crowd.

In principle, we could empirically determine which of these two approaches to politics works best for human flourishing. In practice, however, people who think power is an end unto itself are little interested in empirical justification. For them, the experience of power is the most important consideration. It trumps all other considerations, including empirical evidence.

The human propensity to treat power as an end unto itself is, I think, the essential challenge of all politics. The authoritarian urge seems to be primordial, in an infantile sort of way, and can manifest itself in anyone and everyone, wherever they happen to fall on the conventional political spectrum. It also seems highly unlikely that there is any particular set of social practices that will exorcise the authoritarian urge from human existence. Instead, we must constantly work to correct, inhibit and contain it whenever and wherever it might emerge.

We must also accept that people who treat power as an end unto itself are not interested in facts, figures, argument or reason unless these are used to buttress their own power. Accordingly, it is appropriate, I think, to use power to contain or dispose of those who treat power as an end unto itself. However, if we are successful, we must be careful to remember that it does not prove that we are right and they are wrong. It only shows that we are sufficiently powerful to contain or dispose of those who would use power to contain or dispose of us, whatever the merits of our beliefs and values may be. A successful exercise of power proves nothing about the truth, value or merit of anyone’s beliefs. Might does not make right, even if it is our right that it serves.

*

At some point in their growth and development, all things being equal, most humans will be able to make effective judgments about most matters that relate to them. No person will always be right but no person will always be wrong either. Furthermore, between right and wrong, there will always be many different judgments a person can reach that, all things being equal, are reasonable even if they are not wholly correct or wholly wrong.

Similarly, when a majority of people who are effective judges independently reach the same conclusion about some state of affairs, all things being equal, the fact of that independently shared judgement is the best evidence we have that the conclusion is correct. We can’t say with absolute certainty that the conclusion is correct but, in most cases and as a general rule, we should tentatively accept that the conclusion is probably correct even if we or others disagree with it. At the same time, we should also accept that we may learn in the future that the conclusion is incorrect. That is simply the nature of inquiry, political or otherwise.

It is the interplay between the effective judgments of individuals and the wisdom of the crowd that drives and shapes any politics conceived as a form of inquiry. The ultimate aim is to develop social practices that make the most of both. Practically-speaking, this means we should expect our social practices to evolve and change over time. We must always be ready to propose and test new ideas, mechanisms, and institutions and we must give up on the idea that any one person or any one group of people can, could have or will ever identify the one and only true form of government for all time. To do otherwise is to simply give up on the hope that our understanding of the world and each other grows and evolves over time.

*

Politics does not only happen at the ballet box or when parliament is in session or between the commercials of the nightly news. It happens wherever we live, work and play. It happens whenever we decide together how we are going to live, work, and play. It happens wherever and whenever we answer in word and deed the question: is power an end unto itself?

Our answers shape our lives, our communities, our society.

*

It takes only a moment of reflection to realize that we live most of our lives in authoritarian communities, organizations and institutions.

We are born into families that are authoritarian. We are educated in institutions that are authoritarian. We work at jobs that are authoritarian. Our political system is run, administered and governed by authoritarian individuals, groups and institutions. Our economy too.

The habits and practices of politics are like any other. We learn from doing and, if authoritarianism is all we do, then, our politics are also authoritarian, whatever we might think of the ribbons and bows of periodic elections. Elections are also an instrument of authoritarianism.

*

I want to tell a noble lie. I want to claim that we need only conceive of politics as a form of inquiry to ensure everything will always work out well for everyone. Unfortunately, inquiry doesn’t work that way. We can make better or worse judgements based on the evidence, but there is nothing in and of itself that can definitively point the way to the best outcomes for all people for all time. There are no guarantees.

We also can’t avoid the use of power and there is always — always — a risk that we will abuse it, even when we use it judiciously and cautiously. Nothing can absolve us of the responsibility of the wrongs we may do even when we intend to do right. There are better and worse ways to avoid the abuse of power, but there is nothing in and of itself that will prevent all people for all time from abusing power. Again, there are no guarantees.

And, perhaps, after all these years, that is all political philosophy I need.

I suspect now that I may have wanted much more than that only because I also wanted there to be some kind of secular magic that would guarantee the best outcomes for all people for all time and that would also absolve me of any responsibility to attend to the unintended consequences of my well-intentioned actions. I suspect I also wanted to avoid the messy and uncertain business of winning friends, influencing people, and fighting enemies. I hoped also, I think, that I might bequeath to the world some magical words that would help solve all problems everywhere. I would then be free to enjoy the beauty of the day safe in the comfort that I had done all that I could to do to make the world a better place without ever breaking an egg, pulling a trigger or currying favour. I see now that I was chasing a chimera, a wild goose, and a dragon all in one.

*

I am suddenly reminded that my very first essay in political philosophy was written in grade eleven or, perhaps, grade twelve. It was a short paper that attempted to explain what Marx had meant by the notion that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” I don’t remember if I wrote anything noteworthy, but I do remember struggling to write the paper. I also remember enjoying very much the struggle to write it. I also received a good mark. It’s easy to imagine that the struggle and the reward made me feel important — perhaps, even special. It probably provided a heady rush of meaning, purpose, and distinction at a time of lonely adolescence. Like opiates everywhere, it soothed and it distracted and, like junkies everywhere, I remember that first fix with a mix of fondness, regret, and understanding.

It has been said before and it will be said again: “In my beginning is my end.”

The lottery of life: the not-so-secret to my (sort of) success

Believe it or not, I have spent much of my life not fully aware that fitting-in and ingratiating oneself to a group is the key to success.

I understood, of course, that currying favour was a thing that people did to succeed, but I probably thought (or hoped) that it wasn’t a necessary condition of success. It has finally truly dawned on me that social acceptance is the key driver of everything we humans do or don’t do, whether we are successful or not.

Because this now seems to me to be such an obvious and simple truth, I can’t help but wonder — out loud, of course — why it took me so long to figure it out. The answer to that question also now seems pretty obvious too: privilege.

I was able to overlook the very obvious and essential role of social acceptance in human achievement only because I am a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, settler male who is reasonably tall. Society is pretty much designed to accept people who look and talk like me. It is baked right into the system. To be accepted, I only need to exist. As a result, it was very easy for me to take it for granted. Like fish everywhere, I overlooked the very stuff I was awash in.

It also occurs to me that I have been able to play out my adolescent fantasy of being a L’etranger-philosopher-king-without-a-cause only because of that baked in social acceptance. I can “take risks,” “blaze my own path,” and “speak truth to power” precisely because I’m not really ever putting myself at risk. Society has always got my back.

At this point, I can imagine one totally reasonable response to this “discovery” and my decision to share it: “Well done, Dr. Privilege, you finally figured out what people have been telling you for decades. What do you want? A hero biscuit?”

I hope not. My aim here — I think — is to acknowledge the lottery that I have won simply by being born. I also want to flag the idea of privilege for people who might be similarly naive. If I overlooked the full impact of privilege in my life — and I am a reasonably well-attuned to issues of social justice — I’m sure that I’m not alone. We all have our blind spots, I suppose.

If the concept of privilege is new to you, this is a good introduction:

Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide

If the concept is familiar to you and you know some good introductory resources, please share them below. I am sure I have more to learn.

The game of life: there is no way around it.

Once upon a time (but, really, not that long ago), I think I believed I could, if I worked hard enough at it, write a poem, a story, an idea so high and wild that I would never need to write another. To put it less allegorically and less plagiaristically, I think I believed I could craft a text that could compel others to action and, if not action, at least, maybe, it might compel others to like and admire it.

I say, “I think I believed” because I don’t recall ever explicitly thinking, “If I get this sentence just so, then, people will understand, act, and admire.” But, looking back on all of it, it certainly seems like this belief was implicit in my dogged pursuit of an aesthetic and conceptual perfection that was forever just beyond my reach and entirely unseen by everyone else (my Harvey, I suppose). It is as if, it seems to me now, I worked so hard because I thought perfection would give my words and ideas super powers. Otherwise, why bother?

Once articulated, it seems like a rather childish and somewhat spooky hope for a well-read and well-travelled atheist such as myself, but you don’t have to look very far to find this hope in others. For example, the rhetoric of debate is built around the notion that arguments are expected to compel belief by the sheer force of their logic. People’s heads explode online and around the dinner table precisely because they expect others to change their beliefs in the face of arguments that are so obviously correct that any idiot should be able to see it. In fact, and to put too fine point on it, as I so often do, it could be claimed — and, heck, I am going to go right ahead and make the claim — that the hope at the heart of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism and the entire Western liberal tradition — is the hope that truth, whether accessed through faith or reason, can compel people to change their beliefs and behaviours to align with it.

And that hope, in case you didn’t know, is almost certainly wrong.

There is no property independent of people that can compel people to believe or act any one way or the other. And while there is still much to be learned about brains, beliefs and behaviours, I feel pretty confident in asserting that the key consideration, when it comes to belief formation, is going to be the people with which one identifies. Moreover, the evaluation of beliefs and behaviours will always be done by people. So, even if it turns out that we can sometimes come up with a new idea completely on our own (p.s. it won’t, but let’s pretend), the value of the idea will always be determined by people and is not intrinsic to the idea itself.

So, I suppose this is a very long and unnecessarily elaborate way of saying (as per the uzhe) what most teenagers have probably figured out — that fitting-in, ingratiating oneself to a group (ideally, one that is wealthy, powerful and beautiful) is the only path to success. If you want to be a successful anything (writer, plumber, banker), you need to ingratiate yourself to the people who determine who is or is not x, y, or z and who also determine whether or not people are a success at it. There is no way around it.

2018 goto 1989: a return to programming

Towards the end of Grade 10, back in 1989, I programmed a baseball simulator.

More accurately, I tried to program a baseball simulator. It was based on the Strat-O-Matic board game. The language I used was Pascal. More specifically, it was probably Turbo Pascal.

I managed to get only one small part of the program I had envisioned working. But, in the end, I got part of it to work. It was a very satisfying conclusion to hours and hours and hours of hard and solitary work.

Did I mention the hours of work?

Almost thirty years later, I have decided to dip my toe into programming again. In doing so, I have discovered that many of the basic concepts and techniques are very familiar to me. It seems some of the hard work with Pascal all those years ago has stuck. My explorations feel more like a homecoming than a journey into the unknown.

Admittedly, I am very much a newbie. There is much much more to learn and, for me, therein lies the fun. There will always be much more to learn. The field is always evolving. Thanks to the internet, there are also plenty of high-quality resources to help keep my learning moving forward.

So, where am I headed?

I have an idea for an web application that might have some commercial value but I’m not holding my breath. I also have an idea or two for some games that I think will be fun. I’d also like to explore what is possible in terms of storytelling. There has to be more that can be done with the internet beyond using it as a fancy distribution channel. And, yes, I have an idea for a baseball simulator. In this case, however, its inspiration is Ookiku Furikabutte and Baseball Stars.

Whatever the outcome, developing the ideas into a functioning reality will be a valuable learning experience. In this day and age, if you can conceive it, conceptualize it, and break it down into discrete and manageable problems, you can build it.

And the importance of breaking a problem into its smaller parts is pretty much what I learned with my first baseball simulator. I was overly ambitious to start, but, eventually, I focussed on one part of the game and got it to work. With a bit more time and focus, I’m pretty sure that I could have developed the whole thing. Now, thirty years later, I have the focus. I need only make the time.

A postcard from journey’s end: twenty-five years in the making

You probably didn’t notice it, but, in my last post, I finally figured it out. After about twenty-five years of figuring, I found the answer I was looking for.

Physicists, I have heard, hope to explain the whole universe with one or, perhaps, a few equations.

Darwin, in fact, explained biological diversity with a few simple premises that can be articulated in one sentence.

It turns out that I was trying to do something very similar. After considerable research and reflection, I have explained the very many different meanings of human existence with one sentence.

I’m reluctant to claim that my sentence explains the “meaning of life” because that expression is too often and too easily conflated with the notion that life has a specific purpose. I think my sentence concerns only the more mundane notion of meaning.

Maybe an analogy will help. If physics is concerned with the hardware and biology is concerned with the software, my sentence explains how the hardware and software interact to create content.

I will also happily admit that my sentence is probably only of use to me. I haven’t offered anything like an argument, so I’m not expecting or even trying to convince anyone of anything. I share the sentence in the same way I might share a postcard, and, like postcards everywhere, the sharing is probably more important than the card itself.

Pace Douglas Adams, I doubt knowing the question my sentence answers will make much difference to your appreciation of it. It may even confuse matters. And, truthfully, the journey started because of an experience — not a question. I have asked myself many questions over the years because of that experience, but my sentence doesn’t really answer any of them. Instead, it explains how any answer to any question comes to be accepted as an answer to the question. And, for me anyway, that answer ends the journey.

Unlike Casaubon, I have finished my masterwork, with plenty of time to spare. I suppose that isn’t too too impressive when the masterwork is shorter than a tweet.