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

6 thoughts on “Closed Minded

  1. did i say systems were wrong? Or just that the word ‘system’ implies a certain cohesion? And you suggested ‘model’ and we were both happy. And then you made us coffee.

      1. i like that these articulate and erudite ponderings of yours conclude: it’s all meaningless but good coffee is still a way to start the day. Also thanks for getting up and making me coffee. I wake up so I can drink the coffee that you’ve made. And then pumped full of caffeine the question of whether God has a bigger beard than you doesn’t seem so important.

  2. It could just be a bias because the mental process resonates with me particularly, but this rant seems really important to me. I feel like I have articulated each of these points at one time but never put them together into such a cogent narrative (haha) that might have the potential to give a theistic mind an insight into what it might be like in my head.

    Well done.

  3. wandering away from God a bit…I was thinking that language (including music) are systems. But not models. Well I guess they model something? Does language model thought? Does music model the physics of sound? Not exactly. They are our systems of narrative.

    1. Emlyn says:

      I would say that language and music definitely are systems, or have systemness. Our minds have to be built out of systems, because what else is there?

      And we can use models to better understand our intuitive narrative machinery and its products. So for instance we add the study of grammar to language, which is a model (set of models) of how language works. Or the study of harmony, obviously, is using models to understand deep truths about music.

      The coolness of getting at the systemness of our intuitive abilities, by applying models (like grammar and harmony) is that we can then let the models take us into otherwise uncharted territory. So we find out more about ourselves than we otherwise would know with the deep study of language, and we write things we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to write. And harmony, well, say what you like about western high music, but there is no path to four part harmony from only folk music traditions.

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