Thought & Action

A Survival Manual for Dangerous Times

Two Automation Quotes

“Experts” agree that mass automation is imminent. Real experts are skeptical. (Bolding is mine):

Yes, someday TerrAvion might go unmanned, but as a former military drone unit commander, I both look forward to the day and think it is further off than people in the Valley think. We’ve had the technology for unmanned trains for 60 years and yet when all you care about is price per ton/passenger mile, sometimes an operator is the last part of the labor fraction to take out. Mapping is a similar price per pixel type operation.

Smallsats are cool, but they are really only attacking price and reliability of satellite–they aren’t even close to say Pleaides or WorldView3 constellations on performance, let alone matching RapidEye for agriculture.

Regarding the disposition of the civilian mapping data market, I think if you look at what the military did in Iraq and Afghanistan the unlimited defense budgets of the 2000s might give an idea of what civilians of the 2020s will be doing. The satellites mostly got used by division and theater level staff to answer long term questions, say 20% of questions. Hand launched drones, which were ubiquitous in company storage rooms, but not in operations answered a few micro questions say 5% of aerial data needs. The remainder of planning questions got answered by air-breathing aircraft of one type or another. Not sure why the venture community has not largely not noticed this.

Source.

Air travel has always been rich with conspiracy theories, urban legends, and old wives’ tales. I’ve heard it all. Nothing, however, gets me sputtering more than the myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation—this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computer, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. The press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. In some not-too-distant future, we’re told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture altogether.

[…]

But one thing you’ll notice is that these experts tend to be academics—professors, researchers, etc.—rather than pilots. Many of these people, however intelligent and however valuable their work might be, are highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes. Pilots too are guilty. “Aw, shucks, this plane practically lands itself,” one of us might say. We’re often our own worst enemies, enamored of gadgetry and, in our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like and in the process undercut the value of our profession.

[…]

A flight is a very organic thing—complex, fluid, always changing—in which decision-making is constant and critical. For all of its scripted protocols, checklists, and SOP, hundreds if not thousands of subjective inputs are made by the crew, from deviating around a cumulus buildup (how far, how high, how long), to troubleshooting a mechanical issue to handling an onboard medical problem. Emergencies are another thing entirely. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill situations that arise every single day, on every single flight, often to the point of task saturation. You’d be surprised how busy the cockpit can become.

[…]

I would like to see a drone perform a high-speed takeoff abort after a tire explosion, followed by the evacuation of 250 passengers. I would like to see one troubleshoot a pneumatic problem requiring an emergency diversion over mountainous terrain. I’d like to see it thread through a storm front over the middle of the ocean. Hell, even the simplest things. On any given flight there are innumerable contingencies, large and small, requiring the attention and subjective appraisal of the crew.

Source.

Review of Peikoff’s “The DIM Hypothesis”

An article I wrote very soon after I became seriously interested in Objectivism, in 2015. It’s not the article I’d write now, and I make many comments below that I wouldn’t make today. But I leave it up as interesting example of my intellectual development.

Grand sweeping theories of history aren’t so popular these days. Neither are Objectivists. So it’s not surprising that a grand theory of history based on the tenets of Objectivism has been virtually ignored.

The DIM Hypothesis claims to offer such a theory, and is the product of over ten year’s work by Leonard Peikoff, the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute and the man anointed designated by Rand as her “intellectual heir”.

The book touches on a topic of common interest to conservatives: what caused the modern-day degeneration of Western thought and culture? Was the cause merely, as Spengler suggested, the entropic decay inevitable to all complex societies? Or was it the product of determined action by a particular group of people? Did it all begin with the progressive intellectuals? Or the Puritans? Or Luther?

Objectivists have an unusual answer: Kant.

More specifically, a mode of thought which originated with Kant, and which came to dominate every field of knowledge in the centuries following the Enlightenment.

Peikoff’s book describes three fundamental modes of thought: the Disintegrative mode, established by Kant; the Integrative mode, established by Aristotle; and the Misintegrative mode, established by Plato.

Peikoff differentiates the three modes by their stance towards “integration”, a cognitive process which, in the Objectivist theory of knowledge, is essential to rational thought: integration essentially involves logically combining pieces of knowledge into systematic wholes. (“Synthesis” is a near-synonym). At the most basic level of thinking, humans integrate perceptual observations into abstract concepts; at higher levels, they integrate concepts into propositions, propositions into theories, and, sometimes, theories into universal systems of knowledge.

Thinkers can choose to integrate or not, and they can integrate validly or invalidly. Disintegrators eschew integration wherever possible; integrators perform valid integrations; misintegrators integrate, but invalidly. (Peikoff judges validity based on his Objectivist framework, which, as I’ll discuss below, some might object to).

If integration is so great, why isn’t everyone a dedicated integrator? Because, Peikoff suggests, people hold differing beliefs on the efficacy of human reason. These beliefs fall into three broad stances:

Stance #1: human consciousness is necessarily divorced from ultimate reality, and the world we observe is merely a construct of our perception; logic is the manipulation of meaningless symbols; therefore neither observation nor logic can give us true knowledge.

Stance #2: the world we observe is merely a shadowy reflection of true reality, which is an abstract realm lying beyond space and time; observation of reality is therefore misleading or worthless; deductive logic built on a priori axioms (often axioms based on mystical insight or revealed truth) is the proper means of gaining knowledge.

Stance #3: the world is a knowable realm of concrete entities, perceivable by human senses; inductive logic is the tool which enables us to organise our perceptual observations; logic combined with observation is a reliable path to knowledge.

The first represents Kantian disintegration; the second Platonic misintegration; and the third Aristotelian integration. Not everyone holds these beliefs consciously. Indeed, most people don’t. However, Peikoff holds, the deepest thinkers — the ones who have the greatest influence on cultural developments — do tend to follow one of these stances explicitly.

Peikoff labels Aristotle, Newton, and (unsurprisingly) Ayn Rand as archetypical integrators; Plato, Hegel and Einstein as archetypical misintegrators; and Kant, Rawls and Niels Bohr as archetypical disintegrators.

The systems defined by Plato, Kant and Aristotle are internally consistent, and so act as stable attractors in intellectual history.  However, Peikoff also defines two ”mixed modes”, Worldly Supernaturalism and Knowing Skepticism: misintegrators who maintain some commitment to reality, and disintegrators who maintain some commitment to reason. “Knowing Skepticism” is, in fact, the dominant intellectual tendency in our culture, and reveals itself in the obsession for statistical methods and p-value hunting in science, or for unprincipled pragmatism in politics.

I’ll use Peikoff’s labels to designate the five modes from here on:

I: integration (Aristotle)

M1: partial misintegration (“Worldly Supernaturalism”)

M2: pure misintegration (Plato)

D1: partial disintegration (“Knowing Skepticism”)

D2: pure disintegration (Kant)

The broad sweep of Western history within Peikoff’s framework is then as follows. The Greeks represented the world’s first I culture, and saw the establishment of I and M2 philosophy by Aristotle and Plato in Athens. The rise of the pragmatic but pious Romans represented a swing from I towards M1; Peikoff paints interesting portraits of the freedom-loving Greeks and the duty-bound Romans, and of the contrasts in their respective cultures.

The dark and middle ages were dominated by pure Platonism in the form of Christianity (M2), and were followed by a swing towards M1 with the rediscovery of Aristotle by the medieval scholastics. The Enlightenment — in particular, Newton’s revolutionary “system of the world” — led to another brief flourishing of I, but Kant’s “Copernican revolution of thought” represented the establishment of D, which would slowly come to dominate Western culture. Fascism and Marxism are both typed as M2; modern liberal culture is largely dominated by D1, but is gradually moving towards D2.

The bulk of the book is devoted to applying the framework to four broad fields, chosen to best illustrate the role of conceptual thought in history: literature (the most conceptual of arts), physics (the most conceptual of sciences), politics, and education. Conservatives will likely agree with much of Peikoff’s analysis, and possibly also encounter some fresh insights. For example, though Peikoff describes in detail progressive ideology in education (D2), and its rejection of traditional pedagogy in favour of self-expression and socialisation, he also notes that modern education is more “pluralist” (D1) than progressive; not committed to a single ideology but to a range of contradictory goals, and not teaching leftist dogma but simply a confusing mishmash of subjects.

He also distinguishes traditional socialism from postmodern egalitarianism, saying that the latter is not merely the evolution of the former, but is something fundamentally different. Socialists tended to view society as an entity with an existence transcending that of individual people, and had a concrete plan for achieving their utopian future; egalitarians, lacking a coherent worldview or plan, aim only to remove “inequality” or “oppression” or “hatred” from the world — and see these things as intrinsically bad, regardless of context. Socialists therefore are typed as M2; modern-day egalitarians (whether environmentalists, feminists, OWS or others) are typed as D2.

The section on physics is possibly the most questionable, as Peikoff is not a physicist, and he appears to be relying heavily on second-hand summarisations. Peikoff cites Newton as an exemplar of I for his establishment of the modern scientific method; Einstein is labelled as M1 for his tendency to reify abstractions; quantum physicists are labelled as D2 for their rejection of Aristotelian logic; and string theorists are labelled as M2 for their rationalistic theory of everything. The obvious problem here is that the latter three, even if wrong, did expose errors with Newtonian mechanics; that said, it is possible that modern physics has fallen down various philosophically-invalid rabbit holes, which would explain its split into mutually incompatible schools of thought.

The obvious danger with any grand theory of history is that the complexity of mankind’s story in shunted into an over-simplified conceptual scheme, where contradictory evidence is ignored to maintain a neat and tidy framework: in other words, misintegration. Peikoff naturally takes care to avoid this trap. The early chapters of the book, which aim to show that integration is the fundamental intellectual issue, are themselves a good example of integrated thought in practice — and, at the same time, demonstrate that Objectivists are not the intellectual lightweights they are often painted as.

I think Peikoff makes a solid case for the existence of the three modes, and for these three representing the fundamental categories of thinking styles. Certainly, one of the defining characteristics of modern thought is the eschewal of system-building and the rejection of any coherent philosophy as “dogma” and “ideology”, and I think Peikoff is correct in diagnosing this tendency as disintegration, and in linking it to the commonly-held belief that human knowledge must always be uncertain and limited.

His distinction between integration and misintegration is more slippery, since it rests on a notion of “validity” defined within the framework of Objectivism. Theists may well object to the requirement for valid integrators to be either atheists or deists; they (and others who share Peikoff’s rejection of modern nihilism, but not his Objectivism) might be tempted to simplify the analysis by grouping together M and I. In this viewpoint, history would become a two-sided battle between integration and disintegration, between light and darkness, between divine knowledge and wilful ignorance. (Peikoff notes that this is precisely how M-thinkers have tended to view history). I think that there is, however, a fundamental difference between the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions of rationality, and that both are fundamentally distinct from modern skeptical nihilism; on this basis, I think the D/I/M trichotomy is justified.

I would have preferred to see more justification, though, for the notion that “philosophy is the prime mover of history”: the assumption that political, economic and social trends are all caused by intellectual movements, which ultimately stem from one of the three fountainheads (Plato, Kant or Aristotle). Certainly, many seemingly disparate movements often have shared philosophical roots. However, other factors also influence the spread of ideas. The Renaissance didn’t happen merely because Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle hip again (as Peikoff and Rand sometimes suggest), but also because of the printing press and because of Europe’s economic and technological development. Additionally, trying to link all intellectual developments to the three fountainheads seems to be based on an excessive belief in the primacy of individual genius.

Peikoff ends the book with a very unusual prediction: religious totalitarianism in the United States within fifty years.

His reasoning is that the current D-dominated culture is likely to fizzle out from its own internal inconsistency, and, without a strong representative of I waiting in the wings, a resurgence of M2 is the overwhelmingly likely outcome. Based on current trends, this will most likely be in the form of evangelical protestantism. Peikoff draws an analogy to Weimar Germany, where the pragmatic mainstream parties of both left and right (D1) could offer no firm resistance to the fanatically consistent ideology of the Nazis (M2).

Peikoff’s modal breakdown of the US population is interesting:

D1: 15 million people; mostly college graduates,

D2: “high 6 or low 7 figures”; hardcore activists, generally allied with D1.

M1: a small niche, including some “old-school Catholic theologians” (most mainstream, liberal churches are modeless).

M2: between 60 and 120 million people; baptist, evangelical or similar Protestant churches.

I: 100,000 at most; Objectivists being the only significant representatives of this mode.

Interestingly, most people in the right-leaning blogosphere (from Orthosphere traditionalists to Moldbug the Misesian atheist with his taste for deductive rationalisations) would arguably fit into M1.

As for Europe, with no strong native religious movement or other ideological group posing a serious threat to the reigning orthodoxy, Peikoff sees the culture continuing to be dominated by D1 and D2 for the foreseeable future — unless, of course, a large and fanatical religious group moves in from outside.

Objectivism today is in a strange place. Rand’s novels are extremely popular, and have seen a surprising increase in popularity since the 2009 financial crisis, but her non-fiction remains largely unknown and her philosophy is almost universally dismissed in both left and right-wing circles. David Kelley’s Atlas Society has succeeded in spreading a more “open”, “benevolent” and “tolerant” version of Objectivism, but (to my eyes) a version that doesn’t pack quite the same punch. (In my mind, I see the Atlas Society as representing the wooly liberal branch of Objectivism, and Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute as the cranky neocon wing [May 2016 note – a cheap joke, ARI aren’t neocons.]).

At the same time, those of us who are young, conservative and prone to reading extremely long articles on the internet also seem to have largely overlooked Objectivism, perhaps assuming (as I originally had) that it is little more than an egoistic version of libertarianism. But I think it contains original truths, and possibly answers to some of the questions we’ve asked ourselves.

Personally, I think Objectivism is worthy of further study for anyone with an interest in preserving civilisation. That said, though Rand billed Objectivism as a complete philosophical system, her non-fiction writings only contain a cursory sketch of such a system, with many details needing to be filled in or updated. Read them, integrate their ideas with your own understanding, test your understanding against reality: Rand at her best advises no less.

For those who want a comprehensive overview of Objectivist thought, I’d recommend Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It, followed by her Romantic Manifesto and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology — the first is a readable collection of her essays on diverse topics, and the latter two are arguably her deepest non-fiction writings. If you complete the list above, I’d recommend finishing it off with The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden, a balanced biography which details both the positives and negatives of the early Objectivist movement.

Note: this article was originally published on Social Matter

Intellectuals vs. Pragmatists

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Should you focus more on theory or practice? The logical answer is that you need them both, and that you can’t separate the two. But we see constant opposition between people who focus on theory and people who focus on practice — between intellectuals and pragmatists.

Intellectuals resent pragmatists; they see them as amoral, greedy, and undeserving of their success. Pragmatists despise intellectuals; they see them as useless, ungrounded and annoying.

When pragmatists talk, intellectuals dismiss them. When intellectuals talk, pragmatists ignore them.

Why?

Examples

The archetypical intellectuals are professors living the life of the mind in academia. The archetypical pragmatists are career strivers in the corporate world.

That college professors are impractical intellectuals is a common viewpoint. But are corporate strivers really anti-intellectual? Investment bankers and management consultants certainly aren’t dumb: their work is, in fact, extremely mentally taxing. But, when journalists (another breed of intellectual) write about evil capitalists, they’re sure to mention their ignorance and lack of culture. It’s as though they go to special lengths to exclude certain undesirable people from the intellectual club.

The tech startup world contains a mixture of both tribes. At one extreme are the “idea guys”: people with a long list of elaborate and half-baked ideas and a short track record of actual success. At the other extreme are the guys running sketchy-sounding online businesses in areas like affiliate marketing or black-hat SEO. No-one would call the idea guys pragmatists, nor would you describe the online marketing hustlers as intellectuals.

Perceptions

People tend to follow a mixture of these two impulses. But it’s assumed that pragmatism and intellectualism pull in opposite directions: that the more intellectual someone is, the less practical they are, and vice versa. The absent-minded professor is a well-known trope, as is the street-smart, uneducated wheeler-dealer. Over-thinkers are advised to get their heads out of the clouds and to come down to earth.

These examples also imply that pragmatists are more respected. But compare the common perception of people in intellectual professions — academics, journalists, artists — to those in pragmatic professions — businessmen, military officers, policemen. Intellectuals are commonly seen as more morally pure, more detached from worldly concerns; whereas pragmatists are seen as vaguely dubious, assumed to be involved in questionable activities.

Contradiction

So we have a seeming contradiction. The more removed someone is from reality, the less real-world success we expect them to have — which makes sense. But the closer someone is to reality, the more ethically dubious they seem. And, as noted earlier, intellectuals are assumed to be more intelligent — though, on closer inspection, this doesn’t actually hold up.

Maybe not all pragmatists are anti-intellectual, and not all intellectuals are impractical? In point of fact, we do see people who combine the best traits of the two groups. So why do people tend to fall on one side? Why is there a split between the two?

I think the split arises from the tendency of intellectuals to create elaborate, ungrounded theories, and from the tendency of pragmatists to over-react to this by abandoning theory altogether. This creates the notion that theory and practice are opposed: that theory is impractical, and that practice refutes theory. Let’s look at this in more detail.

Intellectuals

Theorising is fun for intellectuals. Academics and idea guys all enjoy building abstractions on top of abstractions, and combining ideas in clever and elaborate ways. Theorising tends to depart from reality because the mind prefers to work with things which are clean, precise and predictable, yet the real world is messy, unclear and volatile. Think of chess; it’s warfare, simulated for intellectuals.

Amongst academic intellectuals, this tendency appears when thinkers attempt to shunt reality into some abstract framework — words on a page, symbols on a blackboard — and then proceed to build further abstractions on top of the framework, while ignoring reality. Sometimes they take this a step further, and declare that reality is invalid if it doesn’t fit their abstract theories. [1]

Amongst more enterprising intellectuals, the tendency manifests as the belief that problems should be solved in the cleverest way possible. [2] In the for-profit world, people try to combine multiple buzzword trends into one “disruptive” product. In the non-profit world, people try to solve multiple issues with one TED-worthy big idea. [3]

Notice that in all these cases, intellectuals succeed or fail based on convincing some third party funders of how clever they are; not on whether their ideas are actually effective in the real world.

Pragmatists

Pragmatists adopt anti-intellectualism as a defence against unrealistic theorising. If you can’t refute the intellectuals, but don’t want to follow their wonky recommendations, one obvious move is to avoid abstract theories as much as possible, and to keep your focus on the concrete and tangible.

Pragmatists tend to ignore or dismiss any information which doesn’t relate to their current goals. If the prime directive is to hit the quarterly revenue targets, that’s simply a fact of reality, like the Sun — and any whittering that chasing short-term sales will hurt long-term profits is perceived as distracting noise.

Short-termism is therefore a common trap for pragmatists. Enron, Zynga and Groupon kept working until they didn’t, but, while they were working, the fact they they were built on shaky foundations wouldn’t have been obvious from their sales figures. You would have had to examine their fundamentals to have seen the cracks. [4]

The other trap is assuming that practicality implies chasing certain goals: e.g. sex, money or power. Reality never tells you what to do. In some situations you’re essentially fighting for survival, and it’s easy to prioritise (think of Israeli or Singaporean foreign policy). But, at other times, you find yourself faced with excess capacity and many possible routes forward, and deciding which to take requires thought. If you only chase short-term, “pragmatic” goals, you flop around, get in trouble and squander your initial advantage (think of American foreign policy). [5]

Executives

So, we have one group who excessively focus on theory, and another group who abandon theory altogether. Both lead to pitfalls. What about the people who successfully integrate theory with practice?

In the 19th century, Prussia rose to become one of the Great Powers of Europe. The ideal Prussian military officers was half thinker, half man of action. They would analyse past campaigns and form theories of military strategy — and then put their theories to the test in real-life combat. They certainly saw no split between theory and practice, and their new concepts of military organisation and strategy helped the Prussians dominate Europe militarily.

We see a less hardcore version of the same mindset amongst the genuinely innovative entrepreneurs who first develop a solid understanding of their target markets and their industry, and then use this knowledge to launch products which are both novel and valuable. Poker players, traders and engineers (especially those with experience managing large projects) also seem to naturally develop this mindset.

I call the people who combine theory and practice — who are both smart and get things done —executives.

The executive approach is to begin pragmatically, but to then slowly build up a theory as you proceed. You spot similarities between different events, identify the common patterns, and form new concepts based on your own analysis of the underlying causes. As you form new ideas, you constantly put them into practice, scrapping them if they prove unrealistic.

As with the Prussian officers, you keep yourself in a position where reality will punch you in the face if you start believing bullshit. Ultimately, you aim to build a rock-solid theory that’s been hit hard from every angle, but which has managed to remain standing.

Executives beat pragmatists by thinking long-term. They don’t simply act on the range of the moment; they notice when the fundamentals of a situation tell a different story to the surface details.

Executives beat intellectuals by understanding that abstract ideas are just tools for dealing with reality. Experience doesn’t have to be shoe-horned into existing concepts; concepts can be revised to fit experience.

But not all executives think the same way. Next week, I’ll analyse the fundamental beliefs of three very different executive minds.

Picture credit: Chetan Menaria

 

[1] This basic tendency is Platonism — the belief in an abstract world of truth more real than the real world — and it has sprung up constantly amongst intellectuals throughout history.

[2] The mistake here is confusing cleverness with intelligence. Intelligence is identifying the fundamental reality of a situation and a sensible plan of action; cleverness is building the most elaborate theory for a situation and a complicated, fragile plan of action.

[3] One example of this was the idea of building water pumps in African villages, powered by children’s roundabouts. When the children played on the roundabout, water was pumped up — a classic “two-birds-with-one-stone” idea. But when the roundabout-pumps were installed, it transpired that they had to be used constantly to produce sufficient water, and adult women ended up having to spin the roundabouts manually. In effect, the charity had built a very expensive, very inefficient pump.

[4] Yes, these companies did have models — smart pragmatists do use abstract frameworks, but they exclude certain pieces of data from their analysis, and ignore slippery issues of interpretation. (This is how pragmatists can end up flopping over and becoming pseudo-intellectuals. Zynga, for example, followed pure behaviourism — the idea that humans can be modelled as pure stimulus/response machines).

[5] Specifically, to make decisions when faced with open-ended possibilities, you need a concept of value. Some people assume the Darwinian drives (survival, sex, money, power) are the only source of values, but this assumption is also questionable. More on this is a future post.

An Ideological History Of Early Christianity [Full Text]

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I’m interested in ideologies. How do ideologies grow, how do they organise, and how do they suppress competing ideologies?

The story of Christianity is an epic of ideological warfare: a tiny religious cult that grew to dominate a continent-spanning empire, and then, after the empire’s collapse, built a thousand-year organisation amidst the ruins.

One core assumption I make is that people’s actions are moral and rational within the framework of their own ideology. Given Christian beliefs, it was rational for Christians to try to take over the world; given Roman beliefs about religion, it was rational for the Romans to persecute Christians.

As a conservative atheist, I was struck by the intellectual rigour and integrity of early Christians. Early Christianity was not a collection of vague platitudes formed by feel-good consensus: early Christians lived every premise of their creed, fought over a single word in their doctrine, and died defending their ideas.

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