Laming the Swamp

At the CPAC conference, Stephen Bannon announced a bold new strategy for taming the federal bureaucracy. Given that:

  1.  “swamp monster” appears to be a qualification necessary to obtain a security clearance; and
  2. the federal bureaucracy is hypocritically feeding public prosecutors evidence of criminal wrong-doing by administration officials,

the President’s “Chief Tragedist” is calling upon Academia to “deconstruct” the administrative state. In layman’s terms: the mission of the press-ganged philosophers will be to discover the contradictions inherent in the laws and regulations that legitimate the operation of the executive branch.

The prior exemplar of this approach to governmental process was Justice Antonin Scalia, whose approach to constitutional law was “strict deconstructionist.” Under this policy, it was possible to argue both that gun rights are absolute and that corporations have the rights of citizens. Such positions are reconciled in deconstruction by allowing that every law reflects the attempt by society to solve problems that it cannot articulate due to the biases of its language. In application, deconstruction has allowed analysts to justify every policy and action.

This blogger offers an aphorism: “The Ends Justify the Meanings.” There was a book by Nabokov on this subject: something about a poet’s elegy for his daughter, dead of a suicide, and an attempt by a political hack to interpret it as a call to restore a Scandinavian monarchy. Bannon’s substitution of “deconstruction” for “destruction” is a masterful application of the principle.

Intelligence and Creativity

Joseph at Rationalizing the Universe explores the modern formulation, rooted in Goedel’s Theorem of logical incompleteness, of living with uncertainty. The following discussion ensued:


Brian

You point out correctly that Goedel’s theorem is restricted to a fairly narrow problem: proving that a proof system is “correct” – i.e. – that its axioms and operations are consistent. In other words, we can’t take a set of axioms and apply the operations to disprove any other axiom.

This seems to lead to the conclusion that we can’t trust our proofs of anything, which means that there are no guarantees that our expectations will be met. Unfortunately, expectations are undermined by many other problems, among them determination of initial conditions, noise and adaptation. The last is the special bete noir of sociology, as people will often violate social norms in order to assuage primitive drives.

At this point in my life, I am actually not at all troubled by these problems. Satisfaction is not found in knowing the truth, it is found in realizing creative possibilities. If we could use mathematics to optimize the outcome of social and economic systems, we would have no choices left. Life would become terribly boring. So what is interesting to me is to apply understanding of the world to imagine new possibilities. Mathematics is a useful tool in that process, particularly when dealing with dumb matter.

This brings me back to the beginning of the post: you state that “mathematics is the unspoken language of nature.” If there is anything that Goedel’s theorem disproves, it is precisely that statement. Mathematics is a tool, just as poetry and music are tools. At times, both of the latter have transported my mind to unseen vistas; mathematics has never had that effect.


Joseph

You raise a very interesting point; if we could optimise everything then would we take all of the joy out of being…. you may well be right. I know I get a lot of my satisfaction from the quest to know more. Although I disagree that Godel’s theorems disprove my original statement in this sense; language is essentially about describing things. That is why you can have different languages but they are easily translatable…. bread/pan/brot etc…. we all know what they mean because they all describe the same thing. In exactly the same way, mathematics describes things that actually exist; that isn’t to say nature is mathematics at all – mathematics is the language of nature but it is just as human in its construction as the spoken word. But is matter not matter because a human invented the label? Matter is matter.

To be, these theorems don’t break down all of our proofs; but what they do show is a vital point about logic. One which I think is going to become and increasingly big issue as the quest to understand and build artificial intelligence increases – can we every build a mind as intelligent as a humans when a human can know the answer to a non-programmable result? We hope so! Or rather I do – I do appreciate it’s not for everyone


Brian

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I must caution that the mathematical analogies in classical physics cannot be extended in the same way to the quantum realm. Richard Feynman warned us that there is no coherent philosophy of quantum mechanics – it is just a mathematical formulation that produces accurate predictions. Ascribing physical analogies to the elements of the formulation has always caused confusion. An extreme example was found in the procedure of renormalization, in which observable physical properties such as mass and charge are produced as the finite ratio of divergent integrals.

Regarding human and digital intelligence: one of the desirable characteristics of digital electronics is its determinism. The behavior of transistor gates is rigidly predictable, as is the timing of clock signals that controls that propagation of signals through logic arrays. This makes the technology a powerful tool to us in implementing our intentions.

But true creativity does not arise from personal control, which only makes me loom bigger in the horizon of others’ lives, threatening (as the internet troll or Facebook post-oholic) to erase their sense of self. Rather, creativity in its deepest sense arises in relation, in the consensual intermingling of my uniqueness with the uniqueness of others.

Is that “intelligence?” Perhaps not – the concept itself is difficult to define, and I believe that it arises as a synthesis of more primitive mental capacities, just as consciousness does. But I doubt very much that Artificial Intelligence is capable of manifestations of creativity, because fundamentally it has no desires. It is a made thing, not a thing that has evolved out of a struggle, spanning billions of years, for realization. Our creativity arises out of factors over which we have no control: meeting a spouse-to-be, witnessing an accident, or suffering a debilitating disease. We have complex and subtle biochemical feedback systems which evolved to recognize and adjust to the opportunities and imperatives of living. We are a long way from being able to recreate that subtlety in digital form, and without those signals, meaningful relation cannot evolve, and thus creativity is still-born.

Private Property as a Principle of Social Terrorism

James Radcliffe offers a UK perspective on Trump’s presidential candidacy. I offered this context.


There’s an aspect of the American political trajectory that is perhaps worth highlighting to those outside the country, because it is developing steam in other places.

Fundamentally, government is concerned with negotiating the rules that control the distribution of power in a society. For all of human history, it has been either at odds with or coopted by the concept of “private property,” which most often is allocated arbitrarily from the commons, and held by force even when mismanagement of resources leads to preventable social suffering.

What has happened in America is that, since the ’80s, the conservative branch of our political system has adopted an extremist view of this conflict supported by the economic proposition that the only legitimate means for redistributing power is the free market. That actual markets, with their privileged knowledge and contractual Arcana, are by no means “free” in the theoretical sense has not impeded the propagation of policies, laws and political planks that uphold this principle as the foremost goal of all governmental action.

They are blind to the contradictions of their program: the use of government to supplant government with the free market. Karl Rove, conservative talk radio, the Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are the political terrorists driving the implementation of this program. The consequence is that conservative candidates for president have become progressively less qualified to run the government. Their understanding of government has become atrophied because they actually question its legitimacy.

Trump is simply the inevitable consequence of this divorce from reality.

Solidarnosc, Roboti!

The Russian police arrested a robot that was collecting opinion data at a political rally. Given how little suffering corporations endured to obtain free speech rights in America, I think that soon enough it will be time to let robots vote. It’s not quite as bad as sending 18-year-olds to Vietnam when the voting age was twenty-one, but its getting there.

Okay, probably not.

Beyond Evil to Good

Miguel de Unamuno, considering the road from masculine frailty to faith, observed in Tragic Sense of Life that all men desire two things:

  • To live forever.
  • To rule the world.

The obvious paradox in these impulses is that most of us (myself being a man) attempt to accomplish the second by beating the crap out of other men – which tends to advance the interruption of our seeking after the first.

Work-arounds abound, the most obvious being to have a gun at the ready whenever an altercation arises. The subtlest is the use of psychological conditioning to get others to do the beating up for us. In totalitarian states, that conditioning takes the form of propaganda against imagined enemies, but is often joined with control over basic necessities. In democratic cultures, the conditioning is typically tied to unattainable visions of sexual conquest. When progeny ensue, hypersensitivity to their vulnerability often becomes the lever used to encourage financial exploitation of others.

Obviously in these systems there will be losers – a great many losers. The power of the impulses identified by Unamuno then manifests in a terrible perversion, expressed by a friend who asserted that the world would “know about him.” He testified ominously:

“Yeah, when a man has nothing to lose, there’s nothing he won’t do. And when the world learns about me, it will be nothing like anything that it’s ever seen before.”

I tried to lighten the air, offering that I knew what he meant, and that my sons were sometimes worried that I was going to just walk off and disappear. When he asked “You mean go live on the streets?” I replied, “No, probably they’d find me out someplace like the Amazon in Ecuador helping the indigenous people deal with the mess that Texaco left behind.”

Ah, the contradictory consequences revealed by Unamuno’s observation!

Some men lose everything, and seek to rule the lives of others by ending them, thus finding immortality in notoriety. I have nothing, and so claim this little piece of the blogosphere, writing about everything for almost nobody, and imagine conquering a little part of the world with a sponge and a squeegee. Some men fear the immigrant, and extrapolate our future against Europe’s tragedies where the Muslim population is ten times proportionately larger than ours. Accepting King’s dictum that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I embrace Muslim America as an opportunity for Islamic scholarship to rediscover and reassert the original message of Mohammed (pbuh), and any acts of violence as a cross to be born in conquering fear.

Unamuno’s defense of Christian faith was that we “create this God of love and eternal life by believing in him.” I see that as heresy: we don’t create him; we rather allow his virtues to manifest in our lives. In doing so, we learn to love ourselves and accept love from others, thereby obtaining dominion over the only part of the world that really matters: ourselves. In focusing that strength to the service of loving others, we lessen the burden of their resistance to our survival, and so enter more deeply into their world.

And for those that cannot learn – either those that lash out in violence or those that consume the innocent? What do they become in the end? Not themselves any longer – they become a headline in a newspaper. The history implicit in the personal “why” is lost. They become simply a “what”: 18 in San Bernardino. 49 people dead in Orlando. 3000 dead on 9/11. 47 million during World War II. Their personal history is consumed by the violence they created.

But men like Buddha – who renounced violence to bring a system of self-control to his people – or Jesus – who died to expose the hypocrisy of the military-religious complex – their names are enshrined in the hearts of those they have liberated. They live on in us.

Coming Clean on Student Absenteeism

Daily Kos reports that allowing poor students access to washing machines at school decreased absenteeism in 90% of cases – as well as improving student enthusiasm and participation.

People facing challenges in life test the effectiveness and fairness of the systems designed by those granted opportunity. When something so basic as personal dignity can be addressed so simply, with such a profound impact, it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t do what we can to understand their condition.

Me, Myself and Christ: Lover of Ideas

If to love something is to seek to strengthen it, then in the period between high school and the World Trade Center attack, my life was devoted to the loving of ideas.

Of course, as an initiate to modern scientific materialism, at first I didn’t see it that way. I was strengthening my brain to ensure my future as a knowledge worker. I understood that when exercised, the tissues of the brain become more densely penetrated with energy-delivering capillaries. Neurons that were stimulated by thinking sprouted dendrites that sought axons, and when those synaptic connections were triggered, new thoughts were born.

I didn’t really begin to examine the detailed operation of my mind until my wife began to get angry with me when I didn’t look at her when she was asking for advice. She was a very ambitious woman, seeking a complex balance in life between competing priorities, and when she brought me a problem I would go into a kind of meditative state. Her words would enter my mind, as though through a gateway into a garden that she could not enter. I would hold them all together, not weighing them, but allowing them to find a balance among themselves. When a pathway through the possibilities became clear, I would focus on the most immediate priority and serialize the procedure that would generate the desired conclusion.

The friendship that I offered to ideas was the maintenance of the preserve in which they organized themselves. I didn’t force them together. I have never been invested in the outcome of the determination. I was interested in the truth that was revealed. When none became apparent, I would produce a plethora of possibilities for my interrogator, intuitively probing for more constraints so that I could produce a definite conclusion.

Most people, of course, found this incredibly confusing.

In the quiet hours alone, I continued to grapple with my growing concerns regarding the stability of our civilization. What I realize now is that I was reaching ever deeper into the space of ideas, and that exploration was allowed because I was trusted. Ultimately this manifested as a terrible intellectual force that simply brushed others aside as I pursued ideas to their conclusion.

The outcome on my professional relationships was distressing. In one case, I had identified a fundamental inconsistency in a design method, revealed only through a seven-step chain of reasoning. I tried to offer this to the lead investigator, who fought me at every step. When I finally wore him out one day and was able to lay out the logic, he broke off with the complaint “If you talk long enough, Brian, you can convince people of anything.” In another situation, a potential collaborator noticed me breaking eye contact when he asked a difficult question. I was looking past the blank wall of the cafeteria into the space of ideas. Intuitively, he tried to follow my gaze to enter along with me, but was rebuffed. And finally in 2005 I had a female sponsor show up in my dreams one night, offering to usher me into the quantum realm. She slipped through the atoms of the wall, pulling me behind her, and I simply bounced off. When she mused “I wonder why that happened,” I realized that I was in possession of a view of reality that led into deeper truth.

In the spiritual awakening that occurred after 9/11, I came to understand just how great a gift I had been awarded by the ideas that accepted my attention. My elder son Kevin gained access to them early in his childhood. Distressingly, he considered that space as a private preserve, and worked systematically to exclude his younger brother. So Greg learned to access ideas through his peers.

As they grew older, I offered them some advice. To Kevin, “Ideas are strongest when they are shared.” And to Greg, “People can introduce you to ideas, but eventually you need to make friends with them yourself.”

While in my childhood I was in awe of the past, I am relieved to say now that I am blessed with the awe of realizing how deeply they have integrated that advice into their lives, and to observe how their moral and intellectual skills mesh to create value in the world. While I try not to impose my expectations upon them, I find through them hope for the future.