Thought & Action

A Survival Manual for Dangerous Times

Category: Philosophy

Science and Technology Links

Robot submarines explore undersea rivers:

 

In many ways, undersea rivers are similar to the rivers we see on land. They have banks on either side. Smaller rivers called “tributaries” feed into larger ones. The rivers carve valleys into the sea floor. They follow meandering paths and can even change course, resulting in abandoned sections similar to oxbow lakes. Ultimately, they spill out onto the abyssal plain in the ocean depths in similar ways to a river estuary.

[…]

Rather than flows of fresh (or at least salty) water, undersea rivers are slurries of silt and sand that cascade along channels on the seabed. Each particle tumbles through the water under its own weight. A new river starts on the continental shelf like an avalanche in the mountains, picking up speed and momentum as it moves until it flows like a liquid. Once started, an undersea river can flow for weeks and even months at a time, moving the same amount of sediment in one go that all the world’s land-based rivers transport in an entire year.

[…]

Yet the sheer power of these enormous flows of sediment can make studying them a challenge. In January 2016, Paull and his team lost a fixed monitoring device, along with the one-tonne tripod it was mounted on, when a powerful sediment flow swept down the Monterey Canyon at 12mph (19.3km/h). They eventually found it, after following the pings from its beacon – three miles from its original position, almost completely buried in mud. When they managed to pull it out, they found steel plates on the frame had been bent out of shape and ground down to a knife-edge. A float on top of the tripod, made of carbon fibre and titanium, had also been badly eroded. Ten months later, they lost a second tripod in a similar manner, while another event saw an entire mooring dragged four miles (7.1km) out of position.

More deep sea news: 100 ships, fitted with state-of-the-art “multibeam sonar”, will spend the next 13 years mapping the ocean floor:

With only 5 percent of the ocean floor mapped, our knowledge of what’s beneath is about as detailed as a set dinner table with a wet blanket thrown over it. You can see the outlines, but how do you tell the candelabra from the turkey?

Fortunately, we’re about to whip the blanket off and reveal this aquatic meal in exquisite detail. In June, an international team of oceanographers launched the first effort to create a comprehensive map of all the world’s oceans. To map some 140 million square miles of sea floor, the Seabed 2030 project is currently recruiting around 100 ships that will circumscribe the globe for 13 years. The team, united under the non-profit group General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), recently announced it had received $18.5 million dollars from the Nippon Foundation for its efforts.

[…]

Modern ships like those that will be employed by Seabed 2030 are outfitted with multibeam bathymetry systems. These sensors ping large swaths of ocean floor with sound waves that bounce back, and are analyzed by computers on deck. One ship can now provide thousands of square kilometers’ worth of high-resolution maps during an expedition. Still, it would take a lone ship approximately 200 years to chart all 139.7 million square miles of ocean.

That’s where Seabed 2030 comes in. It will facilitate the collection of multibeam measurements on a coalition of ships charting previously unexplored territory, while also serving as a repository of existing map data. “When you look at a world map it seems like we’ve got it all figured out,” Jakobsson says. But those maps are just rough, artistic estimations of what the seafloor looks like. “I foresee a lot of new discoveries,” he says of the mapping project. After all, “our major discoveries have been because of mapping”—and there’s a lot more to be found.

Naturally, there are many enterprises waiting to put this knowledge to productive use, though, as always, environmentalists are not too happy:

The discoveries lying in wait beneath the waves aren’t only of interest to oceanographers. Hidden in the subsea mountains and valleys are vast pools of resources like precious metals, rare earth elements and even diamonds. “It’s like the old Klondike [Gold Rush], but the streams lead to the ocean,” says Steven Scott, professor of geology at the University of Toronto and consultant to the marine mining industry. “There’s mining for diamonds off of Southern Africa, tin deposits off of Indonesia, gold off Alaska.”

Currently, seafloor mining only takes place in these relatively shallow, near-shore locations, rather than in deep international waters. That’s partly because prospectors can’t target mining operations without accurate maps of most of the sea floor, but also because international laws make it challenging to exploit resources in international waters.

“We know so little about potential environmental impacts” of ocean mining, Gjerde says. “Some are starting to question if we know enough to authorize mining to proceed. We really need a better understanding of the deep sea before we start to do any irremediable harm.” Gjerde is co-author on a recent editorial in the journal Nature Geoscience arguing that while deep-sea mining might fuel economic development, the industry should increase its efforts to protect marine habitats.

[…]

“Mines on land are soon going to run out,” Scott says. “Every electronic device in the world has rare earth [metals] in it … we need raw resources.”  And what happens when we eventually run out of things to mine from the ocean? Scott says, “We start mining asteroids, or Mars.” Well, at least we’ve already got the maps for those.

For more on deep sea mining, see Nick Szabo’s series of essays (part one, part two, part three).


 

1200 workers convert an above ground train line to a subway line in 4 hours. Because the workers had such a tight time to complete the project, every step had to be tightly choreographed.

 

 

Tokyu Railways, the operators of the track, are one of Tokyo’s numerous competing private rail companies.

 


 

On a more pessimistic note: tech venture capitalists sink 10 million dollars into a “wireless ultrasound phone charger”. If built, this would no doubt be incredibly useful — the only wrinkle is that the very concept defies the laws of physics:

Having done my share of ultrasound physics AND wireless charging work in the past, the first thing that struck me about the idea was that, to transmit any appreciable amount of energy through sound waves, those waves would likely burn you, or at least deafen you, and any other small animals in the vicinity.  This is why charging is currently done inside copper wires surrounded by plastic – so you don’t get hurt!

[…]

I used nice round numbers and assumed things like perfect focusing and a 1 square meter transmitter (seriously… 3 feet by 3 feet??  The cracks are showing…) and then calculated how much power you’d end up with at the phone, and it turns out to be about 100x less than the standard wall charger.  That means it’ll take 100x longer to charge your phone with one of these, assuming you’re willing to deafen your dog and mount a 9 square foot speaker on the wall.  Instead of a charge taking overnight, with UBeam it’ll take three months.  Oh, and whatever you do, don’t ever stand in front of it or you might get killed!

UBeam’s investors included top tech investors Andreesen Horowitz, and it’s disheartening that they’re willing to throw money at such a project without doing proper due diligence. Though the company’s PR machine is still whirling, last year, their former VP of engineering wrote a series of blog posts confirming the above claims and describing the company as a sham. It’s a fascinating insight into the dark underbelly of technology innovation.

Life under Sharia Law

An interesting Reddit thread.

American expat in Saudi:

Executions happen on Friday. If you accidentally walk up to the crowd and look foreign, they will clear a way and push you to the front of the group. I don’t know why they do this. I asked one of my Saudi counterparts, and he said that it was to show how efficient their justice system is. I personally felt like it was more of an intimidation thing, but I can see both sides of the coin. I’m just glad I didn’t hurl in front of all those Saudis.

[…]

The Saudis definitely were not welcoming hosts. I mean, I had a chauffeur, a great place to live, and a fat paycheck, but they make it very clear that they are “above” you. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like a servant status if you are a westerner working there.

I almost forgot. Homosexuals 100% get killed there. It’s no joke. It reminded me of V for Vendetta. Just being accused of being a homosexual is a death sentence.

Native of Saudi:

Not many restrictions in childhood iirc and no stark differences in treatment between males and females. Once I hit puberty, things took a turn for the worst. I was not allowed to socialize with the other sex. Any females I used to play with as a child, I could no longer treat them the way as before. I couldn’t talk to them or be alone with them. Otherwise it would be assumed that I was after something sexual. I was basically treated as a horny animal who is not to be trusted around girls. And girls, pick up on this too and learn to be afraid of the other sex. Needless to say you couldn’t date or get to know the other sex. Schools, government offices, restaurants, mosques were all segregated. Shops and malls were policed and at some point, young males were outright banned from entering malls. If you’re a saudi single male, you’re constantly reminded of how undesirable you are. The country has nothing to offer for fun. No cinemas, of course no bars or clubs. Nothing but dining and shopping and some other few things. And in most of these places you’re greeted with a sign telling you, you’re not welcome. For families only. I spent my teenage years driving with friends on the streets, smoking shisha and spending time in one of my friends’ house. I do realize that despite how shitty this was, women had it worse. At the very least I didn’t need permission to do most of this stuff and if I had messed up, my family wouldn’t have come down on me so hard.

Another expat in Saudi:

Odd experience – While grocery shopping, muslim women would drop notes in your shopping cart. Comments were about doing anything to leave, meet me in America and will marry you, etc., etc..

[…]

Workers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, etc., would be treated like dogs. Pay was about the equivalent of $125.00 a month. Heard horrible stories.

Had one co-worker gunned down in the street by terrorists.

Military contractor in Afghanistan:

In Afghanistan it was a daily occurrence to come across self described “deeply religious” clerics who took great pride in their “understanding” of sharia law. I remember one of our mechanics watching as the cleric lost his shit over catching a glance of a woman’s ankle and then 30 minutes later laughed as he called one of the tea boys over to bring him his noon time tea, before proceeding to molest the boy in the back room for an hour or so. It was a daily occurrence. He was respected in the community so he was untouchable. It was by no means an isolated incident. By their logic the tea boys (whom were generally orphans) were property and not people. So it was not a sin to molest them. Yet seeing a woman’s ankles would get them all worked up and everything would stop while they would go pray and wash and renew themselves.

Expat in Qatar:

The main issue is getting raped, particularly by a local. If you are sexually assaulted by an Emirati, just leave the country. Cut your losses, get the medical help and counselling you need in your home country, but don’t bother pursuing it. Because the perpetrators will almost certainly get off scot free and you (as a woman) may get imprisoned for sex before marriage. As a raped man it may even be worse if you got charged with homosexuality, even if you were straight.

Saudi native (female):

I really struggled with freedom of movement. We didn’t have a driver, and my brother hated driving me around, so I ended up not leaving the house for months at a time expect for school, uni or work. When I started saving up and later earning money, I would take taxis after I kept going late to work because of my brother. I got sexually harassed by a taxi driver a few times​, and I always made sure I’d write down the car plate number, registration number, and if possible the driver’s name and phone number. One time was pretty bad that I called the police and told them what had happened. I told them I knew the driver’s details, but all I was given was “for your own sake, keep this to yourself.” I later made the mistake of telling my mom what happened, minus the police incident and that I had the driver’s details. I made her promise not to tell any of my brothers, but she went ahead and told them. They treated me like a gullible idiot for not taking down the driver’s details, and ever since then, I wasn’t allowed to take taxis or be with a driver by myself, which resulted in my forced isolation at home again. Thing is, I didn’t give them the driver’s details because I knew they would have just gone and beat him up, and I didn’t want that bullshit, but I dug own grave by trusting my mother.

Several commenters discussing slavery:

I’m from India, and a colleague of my father was once telling me and my sister about the people who go to work in Dubai, a representative of some rich guy will go to some village, basically paint a very beautiful picture about the life in Emirates, basically ‘buying’ people in bulk, over there they are treated like shit and make about enough money to send a little home but not enough to go back there.

You get fucked over the day your passport gets confiscated. Most Indians who leave for work there are poor and illiterate. When they reach there the employer takes their passport away. And then to leave the country you need an exit visa to be signed by your employer (not happening anytime soon). The Indian Embassy does conduct efforts to rescue expats in such situations

Source: Friend who worked at a company that worked with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to help expats come home safely.

In response to “India, Bangladesh actively collaborate with the enslavement of their own citizens”:

 As an Indian, I can say this is categorically false. If you approach the Indian Embassy they’ll do everything to help you. The problem is that most of these migrants are illiterate and know nothing about their rights and thus are unable to utilise these options, I suggest you to look up the Indian external affairs ministry’s work in saving multiple citizens from Saudi Arabia and UAE.

 

Gibbon on Ancient Virtue

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, obviously, not light reading. Still, it’s more readable than you might expect. More rational, too — as a son of the Enlightenment, Gibbon is critical of religion; indeed, he’s one of the earliest real critics of Christianity, and wrote at a time when to do so still carried real personal risk. At the same time, he predates Marx, Freud, and other modern thinkers. Modern historians largely see him as old-fashioned, and his views as simplistic. In other words, he stands against both religious dogma and modern nihilism.

I disagree with the moderns. Though Gibbon lacks some modern knowledge (such as that gained from the last two centuries of archaeology), he is wrongly labeled as simplistic for setting out a grand integration of Roman history. Modern history tends to see historical events as being too complex to be traced back to individual causes; instead, events must be explained by a wide range of overlapping factors. But causes and effects form a tree-like structure, and everything can be traced back to a small set of fundamental causes. Toyota understands this, and so does Gibbon.

One keystone of his theory is the classical notion of virtue: habits of thought and action that lead to success in reality. Vice, in contrast, leads to destruction and disaster. The Roman Republic grew strong by building a social system that rewarded and encouraged the virtuous. After it became an empire, the social order slowly degenerated, and philosophical, wise, courageous, and far-sighted emperors gradually became replaced by brutal, vain, cruel, and short-sighted rulers. Gibbon traces this trend through the centuries, and through many aspects of Roman society.

In the purer ages of the commonwealth, the use of arms was reserved for the ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade. The legions themselves, even at the time when they were recruited into the most distant provinces, were supposed to consist of Roman citizens. That distinction was generally considered, either as a legal qualification, or as a proper recompense for the soldier; but a more serious regard was paid to the essential merit of age, strength and military stature. […] After every qualification of property has been laid aside, the armies of the Roman emperors were still commanded, for the most part, by officers of a liberal birth and education; but the common soldiers, like the mercenary troops of modern Europe, were drawn from the meanest, and very frequently from the most profligate, of mankind.

The public virtue which amongst he ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense in our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Such a sentiment, which had rendered the legions of the republic almost invincible, could make but a very feeble impression on the mercenary servants of a despotic prince; and it became necessary to supply that defect by other motives, of a different, but not less forcible nature; honour and religion. […] The golden eagle, which glittered in front of the legion, was the object of their fondest devotion; nor was it esteemed less impious, than it was ignominious*, to abandon that sacred ensign in the hour of danger.

* (Ignominious: very shameful; reproachful; dishonourable; infamous).

You can get a taste of the rest of the book here.

Objectivist Epistemology

Two years ago — in August of 2015 — I read a book that changed the direction of my life.

I was living in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, at the time. I had about six months worth of savings in the bank and was taking some time out to recover my sanity and decide on my future life direction. I rented a cheap studio apartment and spent my days riding around on a motorised scooter and sitting in hipster cafes (alongside Western digital nomads and Thai graphic designers), reading up on philosophy, history and finance, in between endless games of Civ IV.

At the time I’d also been diving deep into a range of different philosophies and worldviews. I’d first read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged a year earlier, and loved it.

(I think it’s good to first read Ayn Rand in your mid-20s. I notice many people who first read her as a teenager, initially become fanatically obsessed with her ideas, and then become disillusioned a few years later, ascribing their earlier obsession to immaturity and youthful ignorance. I read Atlas just before I turned twenty-five, and was surprised at the philosophical and emotional depth contained within. But my thoughts on that book are a topic for another post).

However, I was still skeptical of Ayn Rand’s philosophical system. I wanted to integrate the insights I’d gained from different belief systems and worldviews, but how would one go about that? I didn’t think it likely that I was the lone genius who would be able to solve all the riddles of philosophy. Still, I was surprised that after long centuries of human thought, we were nowhere close to a consensus. (For a while I was enamoured with the idea that the collective intelligence of humanity would somehow converge on the right answer, as different belief systems were tried and tested in the crucible of history).

This was my state of mind when I discovered a whole stack of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction in a hippy bookstore near Chiang Mai’s old city walls. I bought Philosophy: Who Needs It, a collection of her essays, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, her only real non-fiction book.

Now, I’d been planning to read ITOE for a while, so I don’t want to turn this story about serendipitous twists of fate. Had I not discovered the book in that particular shop in that particular time, I’d probably have simply bought it on Kindle. But it was a fitting place to discover such a book, since within its pages I found enlightenment. In its pages, Ayn Rand, widely held to be the shallowest, most evil, most brutal philosopher of the 20th century, seeks to uncover eternal truths about the nature of human consciousness.

I think she succeeds. Here’s the first few paragraph of chapter one, “Cognition and Measurement”, so you can judge for yourself:

Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.

Although, chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual — epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage.

Sensations, as such, are not retained in man’s memory, nor is man able to experience a pure isolated sensation. As far as can be ascertained, an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.

There’s a lot going on just in these few paragraphs. Ayn Rand is an extremely careful and deliberate writer. You can look at every word and ask “why is this particular word used here?” In particular, you can ask “why does she not use this near-synonym, or why does she differentiate these two words?”, because she is very careful about delineating concepts.

Likewise with sentence structure. It’s from Ayn Rand I learned about the power and beauty of grammar. Words refer to concepts, the basic elements of human thought; grammar, by teaching us the proper ways of joining words into sentences, therefore teaches us the proper ways of relating concepts and structuring our thinking.

Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.

This sentence alone integrates many observations.

“Consciousness, as a state of awareness” — the “as a state of awareness” implies that there are other ways of looking at consciousness — for example, as a faculty possessed by living beings. Right now, we’re considering it as a particular condition awareness can be in. “Consciousness” is a slippery term that has caused endless confusion in philosophy (and in mysticism, and religion), but “awareness” is pretty straightforward. Other “states of awareness” might include “drowsy” or “delirious”, so by “consciousness” I take Ayn Rand to here mean “the state of awareness where the agent is fully aware of reality”.

“Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process” — hang on, “consciousness as a state is not a state” — is Ayn Rand contradicting the law of identity right out of the gate? No, she’s simply saying it’s not a passive state. Because of her careful use of language, we know the implication is that “process” and “state” aren’t mutually exclusive. In this case, “a state of awareness” can be “an active process”.

(A process is an ongoing activity or series of actions. In Ayn Rand’s view, consciousness is a faculty that, like any faculty of a living organism, serves the organism’s survival as a self-sustaining process. So “consciousness” is like “metabolism” — it’s an ongoing activity an organism performs to remain alive. Or, it’s one sub-process that helps maintain the broader process that is the organism’s life).

“an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration” — Ayn Rand is all about thinking in essentials. What are the essentials of the process that is consciousness? “Differentiation and integration”. Splitting and lumping. Consciousness — any consciousness, human or animal — is an active process that constantly separates things, then recombines them.

It’s no coincidence that Ayn Rand uses mathematical terms here, as she believes that there is a deep relationship between cognition and mathematics. “Integration”, in particular, is a fundamental concept in ITOE, and in her philosophy as a whole.

That’s just the first sentence. Let’s look at the second:

Although, chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual — epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage.

“chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual” — this was really big for me when I read it. I’d been studying Buddhism in depth, and though Buddhism is heavily focused on breaking down consciousness to a more basic level, I hadn’t encountered a clear breakdown of these three stages. Many Buddhist writings seemed to imply that there were two stages, though the different schools seemed to identify them differently, e.g. sensations vs. combined perception and concepts (in Vipasanna), or concepts vs. combined sensations & perceptions (in Zen). (This is a topic for another post, however).

“Although chronologically, …, epistemologically, …” — again, note the careful sentence structure. This careful balancing of her sentences allows Ayn Rand to convey the complex organisation of her ideas to the reader.

“epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage” — this is another of Ayn Rand’s big philosophical ideas. Perceptual observation is the basis of all knowledge. At the perceptual level our minds have already performed some automatic integrations on raw sensory data. This touches on a major debate in Western philosophy, between rationalists and empiricists. Rand in some sense can be said to be closer to the empiricists, though she seeks to carve out a third position. (Roughly, where perceptual observation is the base, but conceptual cognition is the essential next step).

Then the next two paragraphs expand on the nature of sensations and percepts:

Sensations, as such, are not retained in man’s memory, nor is man able to experience a pure isolated sensation. As far as can be ascertained, an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.

Differentiation and integration appear again: the sensory level is “undifferentiated chaos” the perceptual level is built on “automatically retained and integrated” sensations. “It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.” Perception is how we apprehend reality. This might sound innocuous, but it sets the stage for Ayn Rand’s fundamental conflict with Immanuel Kant, who held that perception ultimately only gives us a world of representations, and not access to true reality.

I’ve spent a lot of time examining one page, to show how much depth there is to these ideas. From these first few paragraphs, Ayn Rand then builds out the foundations of her theory of knowledge. She explains how the human mind integrate percepts into concepts, how concepts relate to reality, how we form higher-level concepts through abstraction from abstractions, how we form concepts of consciousness itself, the role of axioms in cognition, and how the properties of consciousness determine the correct methods of human cognition. It’s a ground-breaking, mind-expanding book.

For me, reading ITOE in Chiang Mai, I felt like arriving on dry land after having nearly drowned in the ocean. I finally saw how it was possible to gain a certain foundation for one’s knowledge. Once I understood this basis, I was able to go back to Ayn Rand’s other writings, and see how the system fit together. I also realised that she’d gone much further than other philosophers. It was as though she was Mendeleev, having developed the philosophical equivalent of the periodic table, when the others were still at the level of alchemists, groping around in a foggy realm of mystery.

By changing my thinking, ITOE changed my life. To illustrate its importance, I split my adult life into three phases: university, from 2007-2012, the crazy years, from 2012-2015, when I was all over the place, and the rational phase, from 2015 to the present, after I integrated Ayn Rand’s philosophy into my decision-making, re-analysed my fundamental beliefs, and set about identifying my deepest values and purpose in life.

Needless to say, I highly recommend grabbing a copy.

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”

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. Since writing this article, I’ve studied Objectivism in great depth, and I’m now happy to call myself a hundred-percent, “dogmatic”, “Rand-worshipping” Objectivist. I’ve also concluded that the Brandens were dishonest, and that Kelley’s “open Objectivism” was seriously misguided. (See here for details). Accordingly, I’ve struck out some snarky comments about ARI and the endorsement of Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand.

Intellectuals vs. Pragmatists

welding

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.