Fantasia on Christmas Carols

I’ve been busily being a shouting atheist today. Meanwhile, a CD turns up with a recording of the “Carols Around The World 2011” Kapelle Singers Christmas concert I was in on the weekend.

Here’s me singing the very godly “Fantasia on Christmas Carols”, by rvw.

Life is full of contradictions.

Fantasia on Christmas Carols

Closed Minded

On G+, an extended discussion (ok fight) about the plausibility of the concept of creation/creationism came to a point where I was accused of being closed minded with regard to belief, and that I was rejecting the notion of God without trying it. This was my response:


ok, now as to the claim I have never tried to find God, that isn’t true, both in a shallow sense and in a deep sense. Let me explain.

As a man who grew up in the anglosphere, of course I have been exposed to the notion of religion, and specifically Christianity. I have my share of zealots in my family, and had my share of pressure to believe. As a kid, I never really believed in any of it (although I did believe in Santa, make of that what you will). There was a stage where I tried to believe, more than anything I think to try to put myself into the shoes of friends & family who believed, to try to understand them. That wasn’t very successful, but I gave it a real go.

So that’s the shallow sense in which it isn’t true.

If there is any fundamental thread that runs through everything in my life, it’s a quest to understand. It’s probably why I do just about everything that I do. So I think about the meaning of things all the time; to the point of distraction really. It often makes me an impractical person.

Fairly early on I noticed that basically all systems of understanding that we have are ungrounded. If you follow them back to their fundamentals, they’re all built on axioms, which are by their nature unsupportable (that’s what an axiom is, after all), and they also never seem to quite enclose the domain they try to enclose. That includes all formal systems (shout out to Gödel), and then bleeds into everything else.

Specifically, and most painfully, meaning itself seems to be a kind of system, also ungrounded. At some point you must ask what meaning means, and there’s no answer. What is the wellspring of meaning?

The best answer I can find is that we are meaning finding machines in a universe otherwise devoid of it. That is, we invent it, then we find what we have invented. Sort of an empty pursuit seen in that light.

And I don’t come to that lightly. No one who holds that view does, because it leaves you dealing with the existential void. The salient question is “why should I get up in the morning?”. My best working model at the moment is “well, I seem to want to, I’m not sure why, let’s keep doing it at least until there is more information”.

You’ll often see me mention narrative, dismissively usually, and it’s in regard to this emptiness of meaning. We humans seem to be story telling machines. We find agency in things without agency, we see meaning where there is none, we tell linear stories to explain things that have no narrative thread. It seems to be how we are constructed.

As far as I can tell, we come to be like that as a result of some kind of early social intelligence arms race; the need to predict and understand social beings was so great, so important to individual survival, that we developed this brain that is biased to see social/intelligent action in everything, look for meaning everywhere.

I guess that, given an hypothesis “this was caused by a person”, a type I error (false positive) was fairly costless, but a type II error (false negative) was disastrous. That is, missing the effect of actual agency (eg; that falling rock really was from someone trying to kill you) was gene extinguishingly terminal, in a way that mistaking the wind for the action of some kind of powerful being wasn’t.

And you can see here I’m implying that systems of religious belief seem to be built in this kind of category error. If you were to propose that one specific one is not, for me it’d take extraordinary evidence to overcome the massive prior probability of this type of mistake.

And I know the temptation is to say “there are a lot of believers and they can’t all be wrong”, to which I would say yes, of course they can. A fundamental architectural bias in the human mind should lead to really large numbers of people doing the same wrong thing; it is expected.

When I look at all the things we know that are really truths about the universe (rules of physics, chemistry, maths, etc etc), I find they have a fundamental similarity, and the similarity is System. System as opposed to Narrative.

Narrative is a story, with a flow, with human meanings, with actors and agency.

System is a set of simple rules that interact to create more or less complex behaviour. The stuff we see in hard sciences, the stuff we see in maths, the stuff we see in usable philosophy. And in useful study of human societies, economics, games. It’s the mode we use to build capable technology, software.

System never has a narrative arc. System never includes agency, except where the system is modelling actual agents, and even then they are reduced to formal rules.

Where it is about the nature of the universe, System seems never to include agency, or to include us. Physics gets by without putting us at the center. And chemistry. And maths. And biology. Even economics only includes people tangentially.

True things look like system.

But not all systems are descriptions of the truth. I talked about meaning as a kind of system, but I think it’s a flawed system that lives purely in our minds, one that’s both fundamental to us as intelligences, and also strongly misleading; it makes it very, very difficult to see the world as it is.

So difficult, in fact, that it’s taken us hundreds of thousands of years to get to a point where we could construct an alternative system to help us past it. That’s logic, reason, and science.

They’re annoying ways to think, because they’re not architecture native; we’re not built to think in those ways. So we have to do it in large groups, use external processes, train at length. It’s horrible really. But they’re our best shot at getting even close to understanding some real things about the universe we find ourselves a part of, I think.

So anyway, this is the deep sense in which I say that I do in fact look for God, if I can bend that term to mean truth. The very difficult part of that search is that I find the very concept of meaning itself to be fraught, and mostly useless. So it’s a subtle path, you know?

Sometimes I feel depressed at how limited we are as intelligences. We’re in no sense general intelligences. We seem to be a grab bag of heuristics and dumb techniques for roughly approximating intelligence in a strictly limited set of situations (life on the savannah), none of which currently obtain.


A bit of an addendum that didn’t appear in the G+ thread:

I didn’t address here that I talk about this stuff in an inherently narrative style. I dismiss meaning while totally immersed in the language of meaning. I’m aware of and accept that. Really we can’t escape it, it’s how our brains work. So I’m just going with it and accepting that it can cause apparent (and real!) contradictions. 

Actually I could potentially do this without resorting to narrative, but the results would look like formal mathematical and/or logical reasoning, horrifying! And honestly, too hard.

Next, my darling wife brought up the idea that most of our systems turn out to be wrong. Absolutely. I should really use the word “model” when I am talking about specific descriptions of systems that people have come up with. Models are imperfect descriptions of something real, that hopefully have some explanatory and/or predictive power. We use them while they work(ish) and throw them out when we find something better. The cool thing about science, actually, is that this is baked into its principles, and usually into the practice too.

Finally, and related, I’m fairly sure that we’re getting to a point where individual humans just wont be able to personally grok the ever more refined models of reality. I suspect that our limited minds (very limited capacity, poorly architected) just wont be capable of directly working with how it all really works. This is a job for computers and machine learning, initially directed by us, requiring us less over time, approaching zero.

That’s what computers are for, after all; they are our mental prostheses.

As a intelligent species we find ourselves with the ability to question,  but unable to answer. Unable to understand.  Mentally horribly disfigured, really. So we’re building our successors to the best of our abilities. With a lot of sweat and a bit of luck, we might build something that can actually penetrate the real mysteries of the universe – perhaps not understand, because understanding itself may turn out to be a red herring. Or at least maybe we can build something that is a little further along the path, and able to take the next steps that we cannot.

Closed Minded

This post is for the wild people.

This post is for the wild people.

The wild people, who will not be tamed.

The world says zig, and they say zag. The many say Do! and they say No! The world says Stop! and they say Wont! Wont!

Wont! Wont!

Their way is lonely, and dark, and opposed. Yet make their way they must. For they walk the road of glory, and their feet belong only on it.

This post is for the wild people, who walk the road of glory.

The road of glory is a shining path, and a dark path.

For the many it is a path unseen, covered in brambles and snares. It has no markers, it shows no way.

But for the wild people, it is plain. It is plain and obvious in its treachery and in its greatness. It is treacherous and it is greatness in equal parts.

It is roads unique to each of the wild people, and each walks that singular road alone.

It is a lonely, and embattled road, a road of opposition, of trials, of tempest.

And yet the wild people are never truly alone.

They are never truly alone because they walk the road with, and by, their works, their wild works.

This post is for the wild people, who, by their wild works, must walk the road of glory.

It is by their wild works that they can be recognised. They walk amongst their works, they march with them. Their works sprout from their brow, fully formed, or struggle from their flesh, tearing it in their passage.

Their works are strange, and unpredictable. They are banal, or magnificient, or highly obscure, or all of these things at once.

Their wild works walk the road, as legion. They live in legion, and so they die. Many die almost as they are born. Many more die early in their journey on the road. Some struggle most of the way, but are taken oh so close to the end.

Sometimes they are taken in skirmishes with the enemy, where they are found wanting, misconceived, unworthy. Other times, it is the pestilence and famine that comes with the legion, where many lesser among them fall.

Sometimes they fall and lie and die and rot into the road, and their bones reinforce the road, and others cross over them.

Other times they fall and lie and sleep, for weeks and months and years, and then leap up with a wild shout! and run full tilt along the road once again.

The wild people walk with and amongst their works.

They herd them and tend them. They reach out amongst their wild works and seek out the great ones, helping them where they stumble, carrying them on their backs until they can make their own way again.

And the works stretch out from the beginning to the end, from china to india, from here to Shangri La.

This post is for the wild people, who, by their wild works, must walk the road of glory, from here to Shangri La.

Their wild works are legion and they stretch all along the road. Near the beginning they are uncountable, a horde, threatening to overwhelm all before them.

But the road is so very hard.

And so they march, and they fall, and their numbers thin and thin.

And as their destination comes closer, they are few, and they are staggering, stumbling. They are torn by the thorns on the bushes and they are made lame by the broken ground.

But these are strong ones.

And the wild people walk their wild road and help their wild works. They too stumble, they too are torn by the passage.

And sometimes they see their works enter Shangri La, and they rejoice. Momentarily rejoice.

But the wild people cannot enter that promised valley, not yet.

Their journey is not over. They are shepherds and their works are the sheep, and they stretch from here to Shangri La.

They are generals, and the works are their legions, and they stretch from here to Shangri La.

They are conductors, and the works are their choristers, and they stretch as legion, from here to finality, and together they sing the song of the universe.

This post is for the wild people, who, by their wild works, must walk the road of glory, from here to Shangri La, and sing the song of the universe.

For the longest time the universe was a dead thing, or maybe asleep. It was, and it slowly became more. It unfolded. Like a flower. But their was no bee for the flower.

It was a score, first in one part then in two, then more. A string section, some woodwinds, a timpani. But there was no one to know it, to read the score, to play it much less hear it.

And the dead things; physics and chemistry; they unfolded and unfolded and became, eventually, live things, in little nooks and crannies. Biology. Copying, multiplying, unaware.

And suddenly a key change.

People. Fighting, and loving, and trying desperately to understand. Narrative exploding out of system, ungrounded. Meaning in meaninglessness.

And the first wild people began the first journeys on the first roads of glory, turning themselves deaf to the protestations of the rest, and creating their first great and terrible works.

And so began the true song of the universe.

And all these roads were interwoven, all the works were mingled, all the songs were one mighty song, sung from one mighty score, that was the universe itself.

The mighty universe resonating.

It is a score that we still sing. A score with many pages yet to be sung. A score which is in fact endless.

The wild people walk their roads, ceaselessly, singing and marching and fighting, until finally they too must enter Shangri La. But more and wilder people take their place, walking wilder roads, singing and marching and fighting.

Carrying the universe on their backs, on their foreheads.

This post is for the wild people, who, by their wild works, must walk the road of glory, from here to Shangri La, and sing the endless song of the universe.

This post is for the wild people.