The Universal Roots of Fantasyland

Intellectual history and cultural criticism always teeters on the brink of totalism. So it was when Christopher Hitchens was forced to defend the hyperbolic subtitle of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The complaint was always the same: everything, really? Or when Neil Postman downplayed the early tremors of the internet in his 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death. Email couldn’t be anything more than another movement towards entertainment and celebrity. So it is no surprise that Ken Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Wrong: A 500-Year History is open to similar charges.

Andersen’s thesis is easily digestible: we built a country on fantasies. From the earliest charismatic stirrings of the Puritans to the patent medicines of the 19th century, through to the counterculture of the 1960s, and now with an incoherent insult comedian and showman as president, America has thrived on inventing wild, fantastical narratives that coalesce into movements. Andersen’s detailed analysis is breathtaking as he pulls together everything from linguistic drift to the psychology of magical thinking to justify his thesis.

Yet his thesis might be too narrow. It is not a uniquely American phenomenon. When Andersen mentions cosplay, he fails to identify its Japanese contributions, including the word itself. In the California Gold Rush, he sees economic fantasies driving a generation to unmoor themselves from their merely average lives. Yet the conquistadores had sought to enrich themselves, God, and country while Americans were forming their shining cities on hills. And in mid-19th-century Europe, while the Americans panned in the Sierra, romanticism was throwing off the oppressive yoke of Enlightenment rationality as the West became increasingly exposed to enigmatic Asian cultures. By the 20th century, Weimar Berlin was a hotbed of cultural fantasies that dovetailed with the rise of Nazism and a fantastical theory of race, German volk culture, and Indo-European mysticism. In India, film has been the starting point for many politicians. The religion of Marxism led to Heroic Realism as the stained glass of the Communist cathedrals.

Is America unique or is it simply human nature to strive for what has not yet existed and, in so doing, create and live in alternative fictions that transcend the mundanity of ordinary reality? If the latter, then Andersen’s thesis still stands but not as a singular evolution. Cultural change is driven by equal parts fantasy and reality. Exploration and expansion was paired with fantastical justifications from religious and literary sources. The growth of an entertainment industry was two-thirds market-driven commerce and one-third creativity. The development of the World Wide Web was originally to exchange scientific information but was exchanging porn from nearly the moment it began.

To be fair, Chapter 32 (America Versus the Godless Civilized Word: Why Are We So Exceptional), provides an argument for the exceptionalism of America at least in terms of religiosity. The pervasiveness of religious belief in America is unlike nearly all other developed nations, and the variation and creativity of those beliefs seems to defy economic and social science predictions about how religions shape modern life across nations. In opposition, however, is a following chapter on postmodernism in academia that again shows how a net wider than America is needed to explain anti-rationalist trends. From Foucault and Continental philosophy we see the trend towards fantasy; Anglo-American analytical philosophy has determinedly moved towards probabilistic formulations of epistemology and more and more scientism.

So what is the explanation of irrationality, whether uniquely American or more universal? In Fantasyland Andersen pins the blame on the persistence of intense religiosity in America. Why America alone remains a mystery, but the consequence is that the adolescent transition from belief in fairytales never occurs and there is a bleed-over effect into the acceptance of alternative formulations of reality:

The UC Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik studies the minds of small children and sees them as little geniuses, models of creativity and innovation. “They live twenty-four/seven in these crazy pretend worlds,” she says. “They have a zillion different imaginary friends.” While at some level, they “know the difference between imagination and reality…it’s just they’d rather live in imaginary worlds than in real ones. Who could blame them?” But what happens when that set of mental habits persists into adulthood too generally and inappropriately? A monster under the bed is true for her, the stuffed animal that talks is true for him, speaking in tongues and homeopathy and vaccines that cause autism and Trilateral Commission conspiracies are true for them.

This analysis extends the umbrella of religious theories built around instincts for perceiving purposeful action to an unceasing escalation of imaginary realities to buttress these personified habits of mind. It’s a strange preoccupation for many of us, though we can be accused of being coastal elites (or worse) just for entertaining such thoughts.

Fantasyland doesn’t end on a positive note but I think the broader thesis just might. We are all so programmed, I might claim. Things slip and slide, politics see and saw, but there seems to be a gradual unfolding of more rights and more opportunity for the many. Theocracy has always lurked in the basement of the American soul, but the atavistic fever dream has been eroded by a cosmopolitan engagement with the world. Those who long for utopia get down to the business of non-zero-sum interactions with a broader clientele and drift away, their certitude fogging until it lifts and a more conscientious idealization of what is and what can be takes over.

I, Robot and Us

What happens if artificial intelligence (AI) technologies become significant economic players? The topic has come up in various ways for the past thirty years, perhaps longer. One model, the so-called technological singularity, posits that self-improving machines may be capable of a level of knowledge generation and disruption that will eliminate humans from economic participation. How far out this singularity might be is a matter of speculation, but I have my doubts that we really understand intelligence enough to start worrying about the impacts of such radical change.

Barring something essentially unknowable because we lack sufficient priors to make an informed guess, we can use evidence of the impact of mechanization on certain economic sectors, like agribusiness or transportation manufacturing, to try to plot out how mechanization might impact other sectors. Aghion, Jones, and Jones’ Artificial Intelligence and Economic Growth, takes a deep dive into the topic. The math is not particularly hard, though the reasons for many of the equations are tied up in macro and microeconomic theory that requires a specialist’s understanding to fully grok.

Of special interest are the potential limiting role of inputs and organizational competition. For instance, automation speed-ups may be limited by human limitations within the economic activity. This may extend even further due to fundamental limitations of physics for a given activity. The pointed example is that power plants are limited by thermodynamics; no amount of additional mechanization can change that. Other factors related to inputs or the complexity of a certain stage of production may also drag economic growth to a capped, limiting level.

Organizational competition and intellectual property considerations come into play, as well. While the authors suggest that corporations will remain relevant, they should become more horizontal by eliminating much of the middle tier of management and outsourcing components of their productivity. The labor consequences are less dire than some singularity speculations: certain low knowledge workers may achieve more influence in the economic activities because they remain essential to the production chain and their value and salaries rise. They become more fluid, as well, because they can operate as free lancers and thus have a broader impact.

This kind of specialization and out-sized knowledge influence, whether by low or high-knowledge workers, is a kind of singularity in itself. Consider the influence of the printing press in disseminating knowledge or the impact of radio and television. The economic costs of moving humans around to convey ideas or to entertain evaporate or minimize, but the influence is limited then to highly-regarded specialists who are competing to get a slice of the public’s attention. Similarly, the knowledge worker who is not easily replaceable by machine becomes the star of the new, AI economy. This may be happening already, with rumors of astronomical compensation for certain AI experts percolating out of Silicon Valley.

Simulator Superputz

The simulation hypothesis is perhaps a bit more interesting than how to add clusters of neural network nodes to do a simple reference resolution task, but it is also less testable. This is the nature of big questions since they would otherwise have been resolved by now. Nevertheless, some theory and experimental analysis has been undertaken for the question of whether or not we are living in a simulation, all based on an assumption that the strangeness of quantum and relativistic realities might be a result of limited computing power in the grand simulator machine. For instance, in a virtual reality game, only the walls that you, as a player, can see need to be calculated and rendered. The other walls that are out of sight exist only as a virtual map in the computer’s memory or persisted to longer-term storage. Likewise, the behavior of virtual microscopic phenomena need not be calculated insofar as the macroscopic results can be rendered, like the fire patterns in a virtual torch.

So one way of explaining physics conundrums like delayed choice quantum erasers, Bell’s inequality, or ER = EPR might be to claim that these sorts of phenomena are the results of a low-fidelity simulation necessitated by the limits of the simulator computer. I think the likelihood that this is true is low, however, because we can imagine that there exists an infinitely large cosmos that merely includes our universe simulation as a mote within it. Low-fidelity simulation constraints might give experimental guidance, but the results could also be supported by just living with the indeterminacy and non-locality as fundamental features of our universe.

It’s worth considering, however, what we should think about the nature of the simulator given this potentially devious (and poorly coded) little Matrix that we find ourselves trapped in? There are some striking alternatives. To make this easier, I’ll use the following abbreviations:

S = Simulator (creator of simulation)

U = Simulation

SC = Simulation Computer (whatever the simulation runs on)

MA = Morally Aware (the perception, rightly or wrongly, that judgments and choices influence simulation-level phenomena)

US = Simulatees

CA = Conscious Awareness (the perception that one is aware of stuff)

So let’s get started:

  1. S is unaware of events in U due to limited monitoring resources.
  2. S is unaware of events in U due to lack of interest.
  3. S is incapable of conscious awareness of U (S is some kind of automatic system).
  4. It seems unlikely that limited monitoring resources would be a constraint given the scale and complexity of U because they would be of a lower cost than U and simply tuned to filter active categories of interest, so S must either lack interest (2) or be incapable of awareness (3).
  5. We can dismiss (3) due to an infinite regress on the nature of the simulator in general, since the origin of the Simulation Hypothesis is the probability that we humans will create ever-better simulations in the future. There is no other simulation hypothesis that involves pure automation of S lacking CA and some form of MA.
  6. Given (2), why would S lack interest in U? Perhaps S created a large ensemble of universes and is only interested in long-term outcomes. But maybe S is just a putz.
  7. For (6), if S is MA, then S is wrong to create U that supports the evolution of US insofar as S allows for CA and MA in US combined with radical uncertainty in U.
  8. Conclusion: S is a putz or this ain’t a simulation.

Theists can squint and see the problem, here. We might add 7.5: it’s certainly wrong of S to actively burn, drown, imprison, enslave, and murder CA and MA US. If S is doing 7.5, that makes S a superputz.

In my novel, Teleology, the creation of another simulated universe by a first one was a religious imperative. The entities saw, once in contact with their S, that it must be the ultimate fulfillment of purpose for them to become S. Yet their S was very concerned with their U and would have objected to even cleanly pulling the plug on their U. He did lack instrumentation (1) into U, but built a great deal of it after discovering that there was evidence of CA. He was no putz.

Ambiguously Slobbering Dogs

I was initially dismissive of this note from Google Research on improving machine translation via Deep Learning Networks by adding in a sentence-level network. My goodness, they’ve rediscovered anaphora and co-reference resolution! Next thing they will try is some kind of network-based slot-filler ontology to carry gender metadata. But their goal was to add a framework to their existing recurrent neural network architecture that would support a weak, sentence-level resolution of translational ambiguities while still allowing the TPU/GPU accelerators they have created to function efficiently. It’s a hack, but one that potentially solves yet another corner of the translation problem and might result in a few percent further improvements in the quality of the translation.

But consider the following sentences:

The dog had the ball. It was covered with slobber.

The dog had the ball. It was thinking about lunch while it played.

In these cases, the anaphora gets resolved by semantics and the resolution seems largely an automatic and subconscious process to us as native speakers. If we had to translate these into a second language, however, we would be able to articulate that there are specific reasons for correctly assigning the “It” to the ball in the first two sentences. Well, it might be possible for the dog to be covered with slobber, but we would guess the sentence writer would intentionally avoid that ambiguity. The second set of sentences could conceivably be ambiguous if, in the broader context, the ball was some intelligent entity controlling the dog. Still, when our guesses are limited to the sentence pairs in isolation we would assign the obvious interpretations. Moreover, we can resolve giant, honking passage-level ambiguities with ease, where the author is showing off in not resolving the co-referents until obscenely late in the text.

In combination, we can see the obvious problem with sentence-level “attention” calculations. The context has to be moving and fairly long.

Gravity and the Dark Star

Totality in Nebraska

I began at 5 AM from the Broomfield Aloft hotel, strategically situated in a sterile “new urban” office park cum apartment complex along the connecting freeway between Denver and Boulder. The whole weekend was fucked in a way: colleges across Colorado were moving in for a Monday start, half of Texas was here already, and most of Colorado planned to head north to the zone of totality. I split off I-25 around Loveland and had success using US 85 northbound through Cheyenne. Continuing up 85 was the original plan, but that fell apart when 85 came to a crawl in the vast prairie lands of Wyoming. I dodged south and east, then, (dodging will be a continuing theme) and entered Nebraska’s panhandle with middling traffic.

I achieved totality on schedule north of Scottsbluff. And it was spectacular. A few fellow adventurers were hanging out along the outflow lane of an RV dump at a state recreation area. One guy flew his drone around a bit. Maybe he wanted B roll for other purposes. I got out fast, but not fast enough, and dodged my way through lane closures designed to provide access from feeder roads. The Nebraska troopers were great, I should add, always willing to wave to us science and spectacle immigrants. Meanwhile, SiriusXM spewed various Sibelius pieces that had “sun” in their name, while the Grateful Dead channel gave us a half dozen versions of Dark Star, the quintessential jam song for the band that dates to the early, psychedelic era of the band.

Was it worth it? I think so, though one failed dodge that left me in a ten mile bumper-to-bumper crawl in rural Nebraska with a full bladder tested my faith in the stellar predictability of gravity. Gravity remains an enigma in many ways, though the perfection of watching the corona flare around the black hole sun shows just how unenigmatic it can be in the macroscopic sphere.

But reconciling gravity with quantum-scale phenomena remains remarkably elusive and is the beginning of the decades-long detour through string theory which, admittedly, some have characterized as “fake science” due to our inability to find testable aspects of the theory. Yet, there are some interesting recent developments that, though they are not directly string theoretic, have a relationship to the quantum symmetries that, in turn, led to stringiness.

So I give you Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind’s suggestion that ER = EPR. This is a rather remarkable conclusion that unites quantum and relativistic realities, but is based on a careful look at the symmetry between two theoretical outcomes at the two different scales. So how does it work? In a nut shell, the claim is that quantum entanglement is identical to relativistic entanglement. Just like the science fiction idea of wormholes connecting distant things together to facilitate faster-than-light travel, ER connects singularities like black holes together. And the correlations that occur between black holes is just like the correlations between entangled quanta. Neither is amenable to either FTL travel or signaling due to Lorentzian traversability issues (former) or Bell’s Inequality (latter).

Today was just a shadow, classically projected, maybe just slightly twisted by the gravity wells, not some wormhole wending its way through space and time. It is worth remembering, though, that the greatest realization of 20th century physics is that reality really isn’t in accord with our everyday experiences. Suns and moons kind of are, briefly and ignoring fusion in the sun, but reality is almost mystically entangled with itself, a collection of vibrating potentialities that extend out everywhere, and then, unexpectedly, the potentialities are connected together in another way that defies these standard hypothetical representations and the very notion of space connectivities.

Fantastical Places and the Ethics of Architecture

Lemuria was a hypothetical answer to the problem of lemurs in Madagascar and India. It was a connective tissue for the naturalism observed during the formative years of naturalism itself. Only a few years had passed since Darwin’s Origin of the Species came out and the patterns of observations that drove Darwin’s daring hypothesis were resonating throughout the European intellectual landscape. Years later, the Pangaea supercontinent would replace the temporary placeholder of Lemuria and the concept would be relegated to mythologized abstractions alongside Atlantis and, well, Hyperborea.

I’m in Lemuria right now, but it is a different fantastical place. In this case, I’m in the Lemuria Earthship Biotecture near Taos, New Mexico. I rented it out on a whim. I needed to travel to Colorado to drop off some birthday cards for our son and thought I might come by and observe this ongoing architectural experiment that I’ve been tracking for decades but never visited. I was surprised to find that I could rent a unit.

First, though, you have to get here, which involves crossing the Rio Grande Gorge:

Once I arrived, I encountered throngs of tourists, including an extended Finnish family that I had to eavesdrop on to guess the language they were speaking. The Earthship project has a long history, but it is always a history of trying to create sustainable, off-the-grid structures that maximize the use of disposable aspects of our society. So the walls are tires filled with dirt or cut wine bottles embedded in cement. Photovoltaics charge batteries and gray water (shower and washing water) is reused to flush toilets and grow food plants. Black water (toilet water) flows into leachfields that support landscape plants. Rainwater is captured from the roof to fill the gray water reservoirs. And, amazingly, it all works very well.

Here’s my video on arrival at Lemuria. There is wind noise when I’m on the roof, but it dies off when I get inside.

Architecture and ethics have always had an uneasy truce. At the most basic, there are the ethical limits of not deceiving clients about materials, costs, or functionality. But the harder questions build around aesthetic value versus functional value. A space that is sculptural like a Calatrava train station or Frank Gehry music hall is a space that values aesthetics at least as highly as functionality. There is no reusability in curved magnesium panels.

Where experiements like the Earthship thrive is in finding a weighted balance that gives functional and sustainable solutions precedence over the purely conceptual aspects of architecture. What could be is grounded by ethical stewardship.

Lemuria is standing up to a heavy downpour quite well right now as the monsoonal storms lash over the high plateau. I think I can hear the water flowing into the cisterns and an occasional pump pushing water through filters. It almost seems more fantastical that we don’t build houses like this.

Bright Sarcasm in the Classroom

That old American tradition, the Roman Salute

When a Pew research poll discovered a shocking divide between self-identifying Republicans/GOP-leaning Independents and their Democratic Party opposites on the question of the value of higher education, the commentariat went apeshit. Here’s a brief rundown of sources, left, center, and right, and what they decided are the key issues:

  • National Review: Higher education has eroded the Western canon and turned into a devious plot to rob our children of good thinking, spiked with avocado toast.
  • Paul Krugman at New York Times: Conservative tribal identification leads to opposition to climate change science or evolution, and further towards a “grim” anti-intellectualism.
  • New Republic: There is no evidence that college kid’s political views are changed by higher education and, also, that conservative-minded professors aren’t much maltreated on campus either, so the conservative complaints are just overblown anti-liberal hype that, they point out, has some very negative consequences.

I would make a slightly more radical claim than Krugman, for instance, and one that is pointedly opposed to Simonson at National Review. In higher education we see not just a dedication to science but an active program of criticizing and deconstructing ideas like the Western canon as central to higher thought. In history, great man theories have been broken down into smart and salient compartments that explore the many ways in which groups and individuals, genders and ideas, all were part of fashioning the present. These changes, largely late 20th century academic inventions, have broken up the monopolies on how concepts of law, order, governance, and the worth of people were once formulated. This must be anti-conservative in the pure sense that there is little to be conserved from older ideas, except as objects of critique. We need only stroll through the grotesque history of Social Darwinism, psychological definitions of homosexuality as a mental disorder, or anthropological theories of race and values to get a sense for why academic pursuits, in becoming more critically influenced by a burgeoning and democratizing populace, were obligated to refine what is useful, intellectually valuable, and less wrong. The process will continue, too.

The consequences are far reaching. Higher education correlates necessarily with liberal values and those values tend to correlate more with valuing reason and fairness over tradition and security. That means that atheism has a greater foothold and science as a primary means of truth discovery takes precedence over the older and uglier angels of our nature. The enhanced creativity that arises from better knowledge of the world and accurate and careful assessment then, in turn, leads to knowledge generation and technological innovation that is derived almost exclusively from a broad engagement with ideas. This can cause problems when ordering Italian sandwiches.

Is there or should there be any antidote to the disjunctive opinions on the value of higher learning? Polarized disagreements on the topic can lead to societal consequences that are reactive and precipitous, which is what all three sources are warning about in various ways. But the larger goals of conservatives should be easily met through the mechanism that most of them would agree is always open: form, build, and attend ideologically-attuned colleges. There are at least dozens of Christian colleges that have various charters that should meet some of their expectations. If these institutions are good for them and society as a whole, they just need to do a better job of explaining that to America. Then, like the consumer flocking from Microsoft to Apple, the great public and private institutions will lose the student debt dollar to these other options and, finally, indoctrination in all that bright sarcasm will end in the classroom. Maybe, then, everyone will agree that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that coal demand proceeds from supply.

Less Dead

I’m feeling less dead than I could be. Here’s the rattlesnake that struck and bounced off my running shoe this morning:

He started rattling after the initial strike, which seems like an evolutionary spandrel. At least he didn’t have a machine gun. I’ve named him Bartholomew and wish him the best on his future journeys. And here is the juvenile oryx who was laughing at the situation nearby:

Zebras with Machine Guns

I was just rereading some of the literature on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) as a distraction from trying to write too much on ¡Reconquista!, since it looks like I am on a much faster trajectory to finishing the book than I had thought. EAAN is a curious little argument that some have dismissed as a resurgent example of scholastic theology. It has some newer trappings that we see in modern historical method, however, especially in the use Bayes’ Theorem to establish the warrant of beliefs by trying to cast those warrants as probabilities.

A critical part of Plantinga’s argument hinges on the notion that evolutionary processes optimize against behavior and not necessarily belief. Therefore, it is plausible that an individual could hold false beliefs that are nonetheless adaptive. For instance, Plantinga gives the example of a man who desires to be eaten by tigers but always feels hopeless when confronted by a given tiger because he doesn’t feel worthy of that particular tiger, so he runs away and looks for another one. This may seem like a strange conjunction of beliefs and actions that happen to result in the man surviving, but we know from modern psychology that people can form elaborate justifications for perceived events and wild metaphysics to coordinate those justifications.

If that is the case, for Plantinga, the evolutionary consequence is that we should not trust our belief in our reasoning faculties because they are effectively arbitrary. There are dozens of responses to this argument that dissect it from many different dimensions. I’ve previously showcased Branden Fitelson and Elliot Sober’s Plantinga’s Probability Arguments Against Evolutionary Naturalism from 1997, which I think is one of the most complete examinations of the structure of the argument. There are two critical points that I think emerge from Fitelson and Sober. First, there is the sober reminder of the inherent frailty of scientific method that needs to be kept in mind. Science is an evolving work involving many minds operating, when at its best, in a social network that reduces biases and methodological overshoots. It should be seen as a tentative foothold against “global skepticism.”

The second, and critical take-away from that response is more nuanced, however. The notion that our beliefs can be arbitrarily disconnected from adaptive behavior in an evolutionary setting, like the tiger survivor, requires a very different kind of evolution than we theorize. Fitelson and Sober point out that if anything was possible, zebras might have developed machine guns to defend against lions rather than just cryptic stripes. Instead, the sieve of possible solutions to adaptive problems is built on the genetic and phenotypic variants that came before. This will limit the range of arbitrary, non-true beliefs that can be compatible with an adaptive solution. If the joint probability of true belief and adaptive behavior is much higher than the alternative, which we might guess is true, then there is a greater probability that our faculties are reliable. In fact, we could argue that using a parsimony argument that extends Bayesian analysis to the general case of optimal inductive models (Sober actually works on this issue extensively), that there are classes of inductive solutions that, through eliminating add-ons, outperform predictively those solutions that have extra assumptions and entities. So, P(not getting eaten | true belief that tigers are threats) >> P(not getting eaten | false beliefs about tigers), especially when updated over time. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that William of Ockham of Ockham’s Razor-fame was a scholastic theologian, so if Plantinga’s argument is revisiting those old angels-head-pin-style arguments, it might be opposed by a fellow scholastic.

¡Reconquista! at 50K

¡Reconquista! has taken on that magical quality of momentum where it is almost writing itself. Or maybe it’s just that satire, bleak and horrifying, is the perfect mood for the times. These counts do not include early plot development and notes, which read out at another 4K or more, depending on how you factor it.

The analytics put me on an exit trajectory around mid-August.