Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Accursed Ipsissimosity

Your vocabulary word of the day is ippsissimosity, a coinage by Nietzsche from the Latin ippsissima, “very own self”:
However gratefully we may welcome an objective spirit – and is there anyone who has never been mortally sick of everything subjective and of his accursed ipsissimosity? — in the end we also have to learn caution against our gratitude and put a halt to the exaggerated manner in which “unselfing” and depersonalization of the spirit is being celebrated nowadays as if it were the goal itself, as if it were redemption and transfiguration. 
                — (Beyond Good and Evil, p126)
It is not completely clear what the word means, but I take it to indicate something like “the characteristic and intractable uniqueness of the individual”. For some strange reason it hasn’t caught on, and Nietzsche seems to have only used it once. I ran into it as I was pondering writing something on the differences between me and the “rationalist community”. Nietzsche seems to have some issues with the analogous rationalists of his day; that is, the bearers of the “objective spirit”. Like him, I have a good deal of positive regard for this spirit but can’t embrace it wholly; there seem to be a divergence between what I seek and what it seeks.

I am not surprised to find myself both in sympathy and conflict with Nietzsche, given that he manages to be in conflict with himself in the space of this short passage. It seems somewhat shameful to admit that I am not terribly interested in objectivity. Perhaps it would be a sin in any other form of writing – academic papers, journalism, anything claiming to speak with an authoritative voice – but this is a blog, and the whole point of it is that it permits me to write in a personal mode if I feel like it. It would make me happy, I guess, if whatever insights or truths I turn up here are true for other people as well as me, and if they are true for everyone, then objectivity has been achieved. Nice, but not my goal. I am more into selfing than unselfing, at least as far as writing goes. If you want the highly processed industrial intellectual product called “objective truth”, go buy a textbook in the field of your choice. Really, textbooks are wonderful things. The problem with textbooks, and maybe with our whole system of knowledge, is that they are boring, which is why students have to be force-marched through them, and why they usually require a human lecturer to re-personalize the depersonalized contents. The ability to do that is really at the core of the art of teaching, and it doesn՚t come easily or naturally.

The objective spirit has increased its scope into many more areas than Nietzsche could have dreamed of, while subjectivity remains something of a scientific and philosophical embarrassment. We know a lot about the brain from the outside, but scientific theories of consciousness almost always fail to deliver on their promise, which is to reconcile the objective scientific view of the self (the outside view) with the experience of subjectivity (the inside view).

There have been some trends, or a variety of related trends, in cognitive science and related disciplines like anthropology, which might be crudely lumped under the term embodiment or situatedness. An embodied mind is not some universal abstract reasoning engine, but instead strongly constrained by its structure and physical circumstances. Embodied minds have their thinking closely tied to physical action in the world. Classical Artificial Intelligence sought to make chess-playing programs, embodied AI is more concerned with helping a robot manage manage a simple physical task like making breakfast. Traditional AI took its inspiration from formal logic; embodied AI from animal behavior, anthropology, and phenomenology. Traditional AI universalizes Western styles of thought; embodied AI employs ethnography to try to understand particular context and culture dependent modes of thought.

The idea of embodiment always struck me as both stunningly good and rather obvious – or more precisely, the fact that it wasn՚t obvious and needed to be put forward as a radical insurgent movement was kind of alarming. It indicated that there was some kind of culture-level sclerosis going on, a form of brain-damage that I avoided mostly by unplanned deficiencies in my education. As an approach to the mind, it promised fixes for a variety of conceptual and technical problems with the more traditional approach. It fights the tendency in rationalists to see the abstract thought as the most valuable (or in extreme cases, the only) kind. However, embodiment seems to have somewhat fizzled as an intellectual revolution, (although I am no longer involved enough with the research community to know that for a fact). Despite having its origins in fancy Continental philosophy, it seemed to me to be a more pragmatic and realistic approach to the problem of intelligence, one that should appeal to engineers. That largely didn՚t happen, and I think it՚s because engineers are just as entrapped by the standard received mindset of Western culture as anyone else, possibly more so. Our idea of what the mind is pretty much hard-coded in our culture and breaking loose of those received ideas is not easy.

It also seems to me that in one sense embodiment didn’t go quite far enough, as though it too was making some kind of implicit promise that it wasn’t quite delivering on. Consider that everybody is embodied in roughly the same way, so thinking about embodiment doesn’t really address the false universalism of the standard models. Instead of the universal (Western) mind, we have a less universal but still somewhat generic culturally embedded actor.

Ipsissimosity goes a further and necessary step beyond embodiment. It acknowledges not just that minds are bodies, and bodies are situated, but that we are all inescapably and radically unique, we see the view from different places, our minds are not going to be the same because we don’t have the same problems to address.

Unfortunately this is also a radically unscientific position; not in the sense of being counterfactual, but in that it goes against the grain of the scientific process which is to generalize and regularize. You can’t have a science of the unique.

Maybe this has always been psychology’s problem. It wants to be a science and it also wants to be liberatory, but the universalizing and abstracting tendencies of science are inescapably set against the self՚s assertion of its individuality. This doesn՚t have to be a war to the death between science and the individual, although the culture seems to encourage this, probably because war sells newspapers. It՚s more a matter of each knowing their place, and of knowing what intellectual territory they should cede to the other.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Embodiments of the Word

True to the nomadic roots of Judaism, our community is pulling up its tents and setting up elsewhere. Unlike the richer and/or more established San Francisco congregations, we have been borrowing our space, and now will be borrowing a different one. So to ceremonialize this move, we did a ritual thing a couple of Sundays ago where we took the Torah from the old home to the new, marching down 19th Avenue in the unseasonably clear weather, with music and a chuppah like a Jewish wedding. Although I՚m a very occasional participant in the ritual life of this community, this was a unique event that I could not resist, and I even took a turn at carrying the scroll.

It was an odd experience and it engendered some unorthodox (haha) thoughts. We Jews have all these sacramental rituals that revolve around a book, a text, a set of written words – the most holy object we have. Some religions worship persons or places, we revere a document. Honestly, I am a pretty lousy Jew, and don՚t care so much about the contents of this book, but the act of reverence towards symbols is something I can get behind, something that draws me in. The words themselves – well, they are sacred to the community, and so to me insofar as I am a part of it, and certain passages are amazing as literature or otherwise culturally significant – but really, it՚s a bit too much of a stretch for my rationalist mind to treat these particular symbols as anything metaphysically special. But the fact that something so insubstantial as language can be captured in a physical object – perhaps that is not exactly holy, but it certainly seems important and mysterious, and worthy of some degree of reverence. Some foundational aspect of reality is being thus indicated. So my personal holy of holies is not the physical document, or even the ancient text that it is a physical instance of, but semantic embodiment itself.

I work in a field that deals with the technology of embodiment of symbols, in new forms made out of bits and silicon. Certainly it doesn՚t treat them in a very reverential way. We don՚t put texts up on an altar, rather the reverse: documents are treated as a mass of bits, to be pushed here and there like so many truckloads of soybeans, trivialized to mere “content”. Like any other commodity everyone is eager to make a buck off of it in some way.

It is not so much the embodiment of words that is a mystery – in a material universe, how else could we encounter them? – but the opposite, the way words apparently have the power to transcend their physical medium. Words encode thoughts, thoughts float around in thought-space, to be be caught and embodied by other people in other forms. Meaning (and ourselves) seems to exist outside of materiality yet deeply embedded in it. This is hardly a new observation, but too often the oddness of it gets trampled by simplistic philosophical debates. I don՚t have an answer to these philosophical questions, all I have is an attitude towards them that I am trying to cultivate, explore, and describe.

And because I have an advanced degree in something called Media Science that I would like to retroactively justify, one way to do this (that hasn՚t already been worked to death) is to focus on the different technologies of embodiment. Talk is different from writing, writing is different from print (and books and newspapers are different themselves) and digital social media are all different from earlier forms and subtly different from each other. The medium is not quite the whole message, but it՚s a huge chunk of it. Every technology of the word represents a kind of settlement (a Latourian term) between matter and meaning, a way in which they have managed to fit together, to cooperate with each other while dividing reality between them.

Of course, human beings are similar compositions.

So I briefly took my turn at carrying the words of God down the street, cradling it in my arms like a child. Like a child it needs to be protected, gentled, housed. Like a child, it makes demands, it wants to be and is at the center of things.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Romantic Science (or, something missing is missing)

This review by Daniel Dennett of Incomplete Nature by Terrence Deacon is interesting in itself, but one passage leaped out at me, where he attempted to delineate a split between reductionists and holists, or Enlightenment and Romantic science:
There are no entirely apt labels for the opposing sides of this gulf… Reductionism, fie! Holism, fie! …“Enlightenment” versus “Romanticism” is pretty close, as the reader can judge by considering what the following team players have in common; on the Enlightenment side: Darwin, Turing, Minsky, Dawkins, both Crick and Edelman (in spite of their antagonisms), Tibor Gánti, E. O. Wilson, Steven Weinberg, Paul and Patricia Churchland, and both Raymond Kurzweil and me (in spite of our antagonisms). On the Romantic side are arrayed Romanes and Baldwin, Kropotkin, Stephen Jay Gould, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Stuart Kauffman, Roger Penrose, Ilya Prigogine, Rupert Sheldrake, and the philosophers John Haugeland, Evan Thompson, Alicia Juarrero, John Searle, ... Jerry Fodor and Thomas Nagel.
I’m not sure Varela and Gould would appreciate being lumped in with Rupert Sheldrake, and they aren’t around to defend themselves, but never mind. I suppose another label for the gulf would be greedy mechanistic reductionists on one side, vs. those who have some qualms about it. The qualms might be similar, they probably all stem from a sense that viewing minds and organisms as machines leaves out something important – the “aching void” that Dennett refers to. But the things they choose to fill the void aren’t all the same, which is why the lumping is inappropriate.

Romantic science is a recognized thing, but that wiki page makes it seem like a purely historical phenomenon, whereas Dennett recognizes as a living force today. Most remarkably, he says that Deacon’s book has caused him to shift his views in the Romantic direction, to the degree where he is “re-examining fundamental working assumptions”. That I guess is a pretty big deal from someone as prominent as Dennett and someone so identified with straight-ahead materialism.

It reminded me of a similar-but-different dichotomy I came up with the other day, between what I think of as mainstream science, roughly the same as Dennett’s first group, that is, mechanistic and reductionist, and people like Haeckel, D’arcy Thompson, Rene Thom, Buckminster Fuller, Christopher Alexander, and Adrian Bejan whose book instigated the discussion. This group, which probably also includes Prigogine, tend to be more obsessed with form and geometry than mechanism, which gives them a somewhat marginal quality, even when they are obviously right. Their tendency to reinvent metaphysics from the ground up also tends to make them marginalized, even crankish, although their very real achievements undercuts this. I’d say this is a cousin or sub-family of Romanticsm, and driven by some of the same underlying forces. Alexander especially makes this very explicit, that his entire work in architecture, aesthetics, and metaphysics is driven by a need to make a place for what he calls “the quality of life”, which has been exiled from the mainstream mechanical universe.

I guess I need to read Deacon’s book, but my sense is that this dichotomy is never going to be solved or go away. Science by its nature takes a depersonalized (or more precisely, de-subjectivized) view of the universe. Attempts to re-graft subjectivity onto the results of science always seem forced and unsatisfactory. The work of the Romantics, valuable though it may be, has its value in design philosophies or moral philosophies or something else that is on the borders of science but is not itself science. That’s one reason it is attractive, most of us aren’t practicing scientists and are hence are more interested in the consequences of scientific results to our standing in the universe than in the science itself.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013 Blogyear in Review

This was an unusual year for blogging. Thanks to Venkatesh Rao I got to be a “blogger in residence” at Ribbonfarm, and that occupied most of my writing and thinking efforts. It was a chance to do something more thematic, and I returned to some of the same obsessions I had in graduate school and apparently have not finished with: agency, collective action, personae and social interaction, morality, empathy. Big hairy topics that I have no particular standing to pontificate about, if not for the fact that nobody else seems to understand them very well, including the professionals.

So the home blog only got about half as many posts as usual. However, a few of these managed to go mildly viral, which means they were seen by thousands rather than dozens. That is gratifying, for perfectly normal reasons, although it feels weird to me to actually care about that. Weirdly normal. There should be a word for that.

The Popular 3

The current three most popular posts of all time are from this year, and all actually manage to express a clear and coherent point, which is not always the case. And the points seem worthwhile, or in other words, I think they deserve to be popular; the ideas contained therein seem actually valuable and slightly original, and they ought to be in more people’s heads. All three seem like they could be usefully expanded on and may generate some longer writing in the future.

Hostile AI: You’re soaking in it! develops a theory of human-hostile artificially intelligent systems that already exist. Plays off the LessWrong “friendly AI” people, and advocates that they turn their considerable talents to solving real problems.

Lisp is for Stupid People (nobody noticed my recursive acronym, sigh) was a successful effort to get attention on Hacker News, but there is a serious point there, which is that software developers need to get over their self-image as rock stars of the intellect and acknowledge their limitations. Languages and other tools are designed, usually not very explicitly, to augment the intellect, but if we are more honest about our limitations, we could do much better.

“God” == God leverages Alan Moore to solve forever the tedious argument between atheists and theists, by pointing out that gods are not the kind of things that can be said to exist or not-exist, but are best understood as concepts with actual causal power, a metafiction in Moore’s terminology. I connected this to the different powers words have in written vs oral cultures, and to software, which is a relatively new way to link symbols and causality.

The Idiosyncratic 3

And here are three posts that did not rise in the ranks, and don’t make any stunningly clear points, but I have a fondness for so giving them a small boost:

Engineers of Human Souls I really do believe that social media is reshaping who we are, and I sure wish it wasn’t being done so clumsily. I'm hardly the only one to say this, but I keep feeling a need to say it.

The Opposite of Mathematics How often have you picked up a book on some abstruse intellectual subject (in this case, the relationship between mathematics and narrative) and found someone you know in the subject matter?

Proposed Extensions to the Booleans is a minor rebellion against the constraints of my day job, which has to do with what we in the business call "knowledge representation". Doing this involves taking a very crabbed view of what both knowledge and representation are, but since it’s slightly less crabbed than what usually goes on in computers, it is on the cutting edge and potentially useful. But man, do we have a long way to go.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Guest post: Morality for Exploded Minds

My final guest post is up at Ribbonfarm, in which I solve morality for decentralized minds. Well, not quite, but a few hopeful stabs are made in that direction.

It was an interesting experience, playing in someone else's yard. Writing here -- where I can say whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like, at whatever length I feel like -- is very easy; but as soon as there are outside expectations, both in terms of deadlines and to be more coherent in subject matter, writing becomes much more like work, and surprisingly hard work at that. Worth it, I think, the feedback has been pretty positive.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Followup to failure

Today is the 1-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings in which 20 children and six teachers were killed by a presumably insane person who also killed his mother and himself.

On that day I wrote a post about the failure of our society to perform its most basic function of creating a safe environment for the reproduction of the species. I was pretty pissed off. The threat of insane people with guns is not all that big a threat, statistically, but we have failed to deal with other risks that are not as splashy but are certain to cause greater and more universal harm to future generations, such as climate change.

Well, since then, the US political process has failed even more dismally than I would have predicted. I really did think that an incident of this magnitude might actually penetrate the thick miasma of dysfunction that chokes our politics. Whatever else you might say about Americans, we are good at making a fuss over dead children. But no – in fact, it is now easier than ever for the violently insane to obtain the tools they need to realize their fantasies:
Of more than 1,000 gun-related bills introduced in the states since Sandy Hook, thirty-nine laws were passed, the majority of them in California, that make it more difficult to obtain a gun or certain kinds of magazines, while 73 laws were passed that make it easier to obtain or wield a gun, mostly in already gun-friendly states, according to a New York Times review.
So, I was wrong, twenty dead elementary-school children barely register in our political discourse; they are nothing compared to the 10:1 spending advantage the NRA has over gun control advocates. Could there be a clearer signal that our ability as a society to regulate ourselves has basically been eliminated?And if we can't act on such dramatic events, the chances for doing something about the larger risks we face are basically nil.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Neoreaction was the fringiest of fringe idea up until a few months ago, confined to the darkest and dankest corners of the internet. But lately it has burst out of obscurity, gaining new followers in the Singularity/Less Wrong crowd, prompting detailed critiques, coverage from mainstream news sources, and now well-known writers are joining the fray.

What is neoreaction? Roughly, it equates to being explictly anti-democratic. Neoreactionaries believe that democracty has failed and in fact must fail, and that the only viable form of government is autocracy. Why this idea should appeal to anyone in this day and age is a bit of a mystery. Some of the believers are simply extreme rightwingers searching for a coherent philosophy, but oddly (or not) it also draws from the libertarian and rationalist communities. Here’s a map, prepared by believers, which shows how thoroughly this idea is linked to both high-tech libertarians and to the absolute dregs of the internet – men’s rights activitsts, christian extremists, and some truly vile racists – basically, people anyone with any taste whatsoever would cross the street to avoid. I would have some hesitancy about making a diagram like this myself – it implies that rationalists in Less Wrong, who are for the most part both smart and well-intentioned, are tightly linked to scum. But I didn’t draw this, they did. The chief of Less Wrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky, has distanced himself, but the meme pools are clearly leaking into each other in an alarming way.

All recent neoreactionary activity can be traced back to Mencius Moldbug, someone I have had some interaction with online and off (I am somewhat inexplicably on his blogroll). Like many of these people, Moldbug is obviously extremely bright but it is also obvious that has something has gone horribly wrong in his thinking. He struck me as someone who was, like many nerds, attracted towards libertarianism; but was also too smart to not see its internal contradictions. However, rather than backing off and being a normal progressive (which would be boring), he doubled down on the inherent authoritarianism that lurks under the surface of libertarianism.

Like libertarians, his attitude towards actual politics is a mixture of disdain and terror. He can’t tolerate the sloppy and unprincipled clashes of the various interests of society that make up civic life, so he’s constructed an imaginary version of absolute monarchy that makes all that disappear. It’s total nonsense of course, but I can detect and even have a smidgeon of sympathy for the reasoning behind it. An example of moldbuggery (there are megabytes of this sort of stuff):
"…a reactionary is a believer in order, stability, and security. All of which he treats as synonyms….Thus, the order that the rational reactionary seeks to preserve and/or restore is arbitrary. Perhaps it can be justified on some moral basis. But probably not. It is good simply because it is order, and the alternative to order is violence at worst and politics at best. If the Bourbons do not rule France, someone will – Robespierre, or Napoleon, or Corner Man."
This is a remarkably clear statement, and also remarkably false in all of its presuppositions – that you can have human society without politics, for instance, or that the only two alternatives are autocratic rule or gang violence. Moldbug’s entire output is like this: crisply built on axioms that collapse like tissue if looked at with even a minimum of critical thought. And for all the macho posturing that goes on in this corner of the internet, it strikes me as a fearful, shameful, wussified stance. Order and security may be fine things, but if you are willing to sacrifice everything else for them, you have no pride, and you will only produce stultification.

I’m writing this from Chicago, a down-to-earth city far from the various sillinesses of the coasts. From here, disputes between various fringe belief systems seem about as significant as an argument between geeks about whether they prefer Star Trek or Star Wars. There’s nobody here I could even begin to explain this movement to without feeling foolish. However, the fact that these ideas are taken even a little bit seriously by well-connected technical people means they do have significance. Software is really eating the world and what goes on in obscure corners of Silicon Valley nerd culture really does end up having a disproportionate impact on how the world works.

So, I don’t think neoreaction is really going to get much political traction, because it is just too extreme, silly, nerdy, and ultimately self-contradictory. But it does seem to have become a powerful attractor in idea-space, and more people are being pulled into the orbit of this extremely dark belief system. There are short paths between this nonsense and real powers in technology, and that is something that at least needs to be watched.