Continued elsewhere

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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Blogyear 2015 in review

My posting rate continued its steep decline, only 17 posts this year compared to 24 last year. There are many reasons for that I suppose: I have been writing a lot on private social media groups, and so-called real life has been making some demands on my time. Here՚s a review of all posts except those that were obviously trivial or transitory:

Nerds vs Feminists riffs on some of the tension between feminism and nerd culture, which I took as an excuse to go into The Kids These Days, They Have It So Easy, Why In My Day mode.

Martyrs and the Coordination of Sentiment was written in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings and relates loosely to early writings on the sacred and politics.

This May Day post briefly examines my mixed attitudes towards both the left and capitalism and identifies something I labeled “fake solidarity”, which may be worth a longer examination. And a companion piece issued on Fake Labor Day toyed with my very uninformed notions about the Marxist concept of labor, another thing that might get worth knowing more about.

Three Forms of Antipolitics is also a product of the interaction of various nerdish ideas and politics, or more precisely the efforts of the former to deny or escape from the latter. It led into a followup about the specific incident when Mencius Moldbug got banned from the Strange Loop conference.

Another massacre, another post about the political sacred. I՚m starting to be slightly embarrassed by using such events as excuses to exercise my intellectual obsessions. If I was actually profiting from it, I՚d feel guilty of exploiting tragedy.

Burning Man Politics is about just that. And now I՚m embarrassed in a different way, by the fact that I՚m focusing on the least festive aspects of a festival. Why am I so obsessed with the political dimension of things? It՚s not like I՚m some grand macho radical, or even that I feel qualified to tell other people how they should behave. I don՚t even really like most political discourse these days, which tends to be split between the virulently idiotic and the appallingly self-righteous. But somehow I feel compelled to focus on the topic, as if some obscure duty was calling me.

Then finally I emitted a long piece about play and David Graeber, which is too fresh to be reviewed. It՚s a small chunk cut from a tangled web of thoughts about big ideas like goals, activity, representation, how minds actually work, and the meaning of life. I haven՚t really had much success in squeezing those ideas into blog form.

If I could bring myself to make a conscious effort to build an audience then I՚d probably start from my all-time most popular post on human-hostile systems and try to wire myself into the current excitement about AI risk. I am pretty sure all those people are wrong, but I am not sure why I believe that, and since “all those people” includes some very smart individuals it might be interesting and worthwhile to try to figure it out in more detail.

2016 promises to be an interesting year as the US political system goes through a slow-motion implosion, climate change becomes harder to ignore, and software continues to eat large chunks of the world.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Graeber v. Gradgrind

At the last Refactor Camp I presented a theory of play, which was quarter-baked at best, and I never got around to fully baking it. The underlying impetus was one of my periodic attempts to come up with a theory of mental representation that isn՚t completely broken – which seems like a ridiculously ambitious project, but I don՚t see anyone more qualified tackling it, so every so often I nibble at it. Anyway, that՚s how I came to be thinking about play back then, and haven՚t much since. However, my attention was recently directed to this article by David Graeber on the subject, which rekindled my interest a bit. Graeber also has ambitious goals for his theory of play. He is an anarchist and closely identified with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and he sees play as a weapon in an ideological battle against certain versions of biology and economics, but one that ultimately requires an alternative metaphysics.

I had very mixed reactions to this essay, which seems to have its heart in the right place, but like much of Graeber՚s writing he can be intellectually sloppy, especially about the political implications of whatever he՚s talking about. So this is mostly an attempt to winnow some genuine insights from the chaff of error.

Play is a subject both deep and slippery (in that it is difficult to even define or pin down as a phenomenon) Let՚s define play roughly as when humans or non-human animals engage in behavior patterns that seem to be modifications of more obviously functional ones (like fighting) but in are somehow modified to be less serious, decoupled from their usual triggers and consequences. It՚s tedious to think about play without some actual playfulness at hand, so here՚s a clip of my dog (the white one) playing with her friend:

From this and many other examples, we should have no problems believing that animals play (whether or not play is confined to mammals or is found in other clades is a matter of contention). This suggests, at the very least that play is not a late, spurious artifact of culture but something that is rooted deeply in the foundations of cognition and behavior.

The No-fun Universe

Because play has this definitionally quality of being decoupled from ordinary purpose, it may seem to have no purpose at all. Graeber seizes on this to use play as a tool to attack an ideological enemy that that seems to be a kind of coalition between science, capitalism, and rationality. The apparent uselessness of play becomes an argument against the linked ideas of neodarwinian evolutionary theory and economic rationalism, which in his view are anti-fun, anti-play, and thus anti-human. Under their oppressive sway, reality is a relentless battle for survival and dominance. Both are aggressively intellectually hegemonic as they aim to be totalizing theories that supervene on every single phenomenon of biological or social life. Such theories, according to Graeber, have no room for something definitionally purposeless like play. On observing a worm engaging in some behavior that seemed play-like:
How do we know the worm was playing? Perhaps the invisible circles it traced in the air were really just a search for some unknown sort of prey. Or a mating ritual…Even if the worm was playing, how do we know this form of play did not serve some ultimately practical purpose: exercise, or self-training for some possible future inchworm emergency?…Generally speaking, an analysis of animal behavior is not considered scientific unless the animal is assumed, at least tacitly, to be operating according to the same means/end calculations that one would apply to economic transactions. Under this assumption, an expenditure of energy must be directed toward some goal, whether it be obtaining food, securing territory, achieving dominance, or maximizing reproductive success…
According to Graeber, the very nature of science limits the sort of theories that behavioral scientists are allowed to entertain:
I’m not saying that ethologists actually believe that animals are simply rational calculating machines. I’m simply saying that ethologists have boxed themselves into a world where to be scientific means to offer an explanation of behavior in rational terms—which in turn means describing an animal as if it were a calculating economic actor trying to maximize some sort of self-interest—whatever their theory of animal psychology, or motivation, might be. 
… the neo-Darwinists were practically driven to their conclusions by their initial assumption: that science demands a rational explanation, that this means attributing rational motives to all behavior, and that a truly rational motivation can only be one that, if observed in humans, would normally be described as selfishness or greed. As a result, the neo-Darwinists went even further than the Victorian variety.
Let՚s call Graeber՚s ideological enemy Gradgrindism, after the character in Dickens՚ Hard Times who exemplifies a sort of cartoon version of utilitarian rationality:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over…. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. 
“You are to be in all things regulated and governed … by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery.
Gradgrindism holds that if humans play, that is, engage in behavior without a clear purpose, it՚s a mistake to be corrected. And while most scientists would strongly disagree, Graeber sees the scientific worldview as basically Gradgrind՚s.

Against Gradgrindism Graeber describes the purported tendency of all animal life towards seemingly useless action, and not just in our near relatives the mammals but in ants and lobsters as well. Animals, Graeber asserts, do things just for fun, solely for their own amusement:
That’s why the existence of animal play is considered something of an intellectual scandal. It’s understudied, and those who do study it are seen as mildly eccentric…. even when it is acknowledged, the research more often than not cannibalizes its own insights by trying to demonstrate that play must have some long-term survival or reproductive function.
…Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?
So Graeber paints play as being inherently purposeless, or at least, with no purpose outside of itself. Although he doesn՚t quite say this explicitly, it՚s as if rational, calculating action has an inherently slavish quality to it, since it is always driven by external goals; while play is autotelic, existing and acting for its own sake. It՚s easy to see why an anarchist would be drawn to the latter. Play is autonomous and spontaneous, the opposite of the drab and calculated work of rationality.

Does fun have a function?

This is an extremely problematical stance in about a zillion ways:
  • If play truly has no evolutionary function, then why does it exist and persist ?
  • Since certainly some action is rational and calculated, do we need two completely separate systems for explaining action, one grounded in the utilitarian rationality, and another in just-because?
  • If so, how do they interact?
  • The view of play as purposeless carries within it an explicit refusal to be analytical.
Worse of all, “Just for pleasure” simply doesn՚t fly as an explanation in science or really in any kind of serious thought. Assuming that it՚s an accurate description of animal motivation, the question of why certain actions are pleasurable, why action x is fun and action y isn՚t, doesn՚t go away. To refuse to entertain explanations is anti-science and anti-intellectual.

If play is pleasurable there have to be reasons for it, and knowing those reasons doesn՚t have to subtract anything from the experience of play We assume that many pleasurable sensations (such as those generated by fatty foods or sex) have a grounding in natural selection, and acknowledging that doesn՚t ruin our enjoyment of them If play is by its nature apurposive in some narrow sense, that doesn՚t mean there aren՚t broader rational justifications for why people and animals play.

If I try to steelman Graeberism, the best version I can come up with (and I don՚t know if it՚s still properly Graeberian any more) is that it is not so much a theory of actual animal behavior, but a critique of certain impoverished modes of scientific explanation. It՚s not that even playful behavior doesn՚t have a purpose, it՚s that dumb and greedy theories of rationality fail to be rich enough to capture the actional logic that drives any kind of complicated behavior. Playful behavior doesn՚t have a simpleminded purpose, which puts it perhaps outside the grasp of current science but not of science in principle.


Natural selection can indeed seem like a brutal and merciless engine. But this doesn՚t mean that the products of evolution must reflect this brutality. Evolution, despite the relentless competition at its root, it somehow manages to generate beauty, community, compassion, and other things we prize and praise. If the function of play seems inexplicable under the logic of evolution, take the more easily explicable quality of maternal care. It clearly has a purpose, in the natural selection sense of enhancing reproductive fitness, but we don;՚t think of it as brutal or greedy, even if it was produced by a process with no mercy in it whatsoever. By analogy, lay, if it is really a widespread and important and coherent trait, is likely to be adaptive as well, even if the underlying universe is not particularly playful,

I think Graeber is tripping over a very common confusion, roughly, a failure to understand emergence and to acknowledge that phenomena at one level might have characteristics and qualities that are not the same as those of the underlying level that supports it. Tables are made of wood but can have qualities (such as seating capacity or esthetic style) that are not properties of wood, and organisms, even if they are made of mechanisms that evolved through ruthless competition do not have to be ruthless themselves. In the latter case, of course, the metaphors used to describe genes and the evolutionary basis of behavior adds to the confusion. The “ruthlessness” and “selfishness” of genes is a purely mechanical causal consequence of natural selection without any moral or cognitive content whatsoever.

Play in the foundations of the cosmos

For whatever reason Graeber is not interested in any explanatory theories of play, whether reductionist or emergentist. Instead he urges us to think of play and freedom as foundational qualities, to be found in some form not only in living organisms but perfused through all things down to the subatomic:
Unlike a DNA molecule, which we can at least pretend is pursuing some gangster-like project of ruthless self-aggrandizement, an electron simply does not have a material interest to pursue, not even survival. It is in no sense competing with other electrons. If an electron is acting freely—if it, as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, “does anything it likes”—it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake—which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.
I՚ll give Graeber credit for fairly clearly stating the political/metaphysical principles that are at stake in his argument:
I don’t deny that what I’ve presented so far is a savage simplification of very complicated issues. I’m not even saying that the position I’m suggesting here—that there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality—is necessarily true. I would just insist that such a perspective is at least as plausible as the weirdly inconsistent speculations that currently pass for orthodoxy, in which a mindless, robotic universe suddenly produces poets and philosophers out of nowhere.
It is a real enough question: how can various high-level phenomena, from consciousness to kindness, be supported on a mechanical infrastructure that doesn՚t seem to have any of those things baked into it? There are people trying to answer that, and others who believe that the very effort is misguided and there must be Something Else Going On. So the real issue doesn՚t have much to do with play, it՚s more to do with the supposed limits of materialism as a foundation for human existence. Graeber is adding his voice to the large and diverse set of thinkers who can՚t accept the purely mechanical reductionism of science, especially of human behavior. God or √©lan vital or something is needed, something that can՚t be reduced to crude machinery. Otherwise the universe belongs to Thomas Gradgrind and his ilk.

And if you need to enliven the cold machinery of reality with an animating spirit, why not play? I՚d rather have that be foundational than god or consciousness or any of the other dreary abstractions that are usually proposed for that role.