A World With No One In Control « how to save the world

A World With No One In Control « how to save the world.

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard

“There’s an implicit presumption, in everything the media reports on, in our whining about governments and elites and bosses, that as civilization culture has grown ever larger and more global, the power and control of those at the top of the pyramid has grown correspondingly larger, and that they’re still in control, still worthy of praise and re-election and multimillion dollar bonuses when things go right, and still worthy of blame and overthrow and opprobrium when things go wrong.

“But there’s plenty of evidence that if that ever was the case, it isn’t the case now. One of the key attributes of complex systems is that, unlike merely complicated ones, because of the huge number of variables and moving parts and interactions and effects between and among them, we can never hope to understand what’s really going on in them, or predict or significantly influence what happens in them. They become larger and larger black boxes, ever more mysterious, until suddenly they produce great depressions, peak oil and runaway climate change, and no one knows how, or why, or how to mitigate or change them. Like Charles Barsotti’s cartoon above says, in complex systems nobody knows anything. And no one is in control.”  Read the rest…

[I agree with most of Dave’s epiphany about complexity, but another aspect of reality is proximity–we do know a little about a little, and we can predict or control a little about a little. So there is a place for small hopes and puny efforts, even in the context of the grand complexity and absurdity which Dave Pollard portrays most eloquently. The ego that wants to control or save the whole world is the same one that wants to renounce the world and absolve itself of all duty and responsibility. –PR]

:: Pema Chodron – On Shenpa :: (being “hooked”)

Pretty Good Truth

Human knowledge of reality and truth is always relative.

“Real” Reality and “capital T” Truth belong to metaphysics, or perhaps to secret and invisible regions of the natural world, but not to the human mind. We may wish to infer that an absolute, objective level of reality exists, but we must admit that any ultimate reality is largely unknowable to creatures such as ourselves.

The best versions of reality and truth we can capture might be called “Pretty Good Reality” and “Pretty Good Truth.” (I’m thinking of the security program called “Pretty Good Privacy”).

PRETTY GOOD will do for most ordinary purposes.

(BTW, “Pretty Good Reality™”, “Pretty Good Reason“, “Pretty Good Ethics“, “Pretty Good Truth“, and “Pretty Good Free Will™” are copyright by Poor Richard under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDe­rivs 3.0 Unported License.)


What about those who hyperbolically and hypertensively crusade against relativism (esp. “moral relativism“) usually without the slightest understanding of it?

They wrongly believe that relativism means that “anything goes.”

People who fret about “moral relativism” are children. One cannot explain subtle matters to them.

Relativistic Morality

Everything in human life is relative, but morals, well examined, can be the least relative things of all. The passion to be a moral person can come from a place of true conscience, compassion, integrity, and nobility, or it can come from a place of fear and conformity. But if it is the former, the desire or passion to know reality and the passion to act morally are inseparable. In this kind of pragmatism, the fact of relativity is acknowledged, but one struggles through constant practice to achieve one’s highest and best approach to morality and objectivity. The life of the mind, properly understood, is not unlike the athletic life. Excellence comes from practice on the field, not only from books and chalk board talks.

Non-authoritarian, adult, secular morals are based on some version of the “Golden Rule“, which is about empathy and reciprocity, and on utility (the highest good or greatest well-being for the greatest number) both in respect to people and the entire interdependent community of life.

Empathy is a feeling or sentiment that evolution has given us (in part via “mirror neurons“) to make the fundamental law of reciprocity more agreeable to us. But reciprocity (or the “law of reciprocal maintenance” as G. I. Gurdjieff put it) is an essential law of living systems and ecosystems, with or without empathy or consciousness.

Some people find in the law of reciprocity a justification for living things feeding on one another, but I question that. To fully satisfy the law of reciprocity one would have to be willing to be eaten or otherwise exploited in return. If there were a species of creatures that treated us as we treat the cow, pig, dog, etc.–would we be happy about that? The question of pain is only one factor to consider when imagining how agreeable such a reciprocal relationship would be to us. Would we only be concerned about the process and not the end? Because nature may be in some respects a “war of all against all” (Hobbes), does that limit the human imagination from devising less cruel and violent relationships with nature? Of course not, unless one is simply a dull clod.


One aspect of  human relativity is perspectivism. This is a philosophical view developed by Friedrich Nietzsche that all ideations take place from particular perspectives. This means that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. This implies that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively “true”, but does not necessarily entail that all perspectives are equally valid.


A basic idea of epistemological relativity is that the closest anyone can come to objective reality or truth is some approximation. Each brain creates its own simulation(s) of reality based on its sense inputs, its processing of those inputs, its interpretations, and its own intrinsic characteristics. Since brains can communicate with other brains, multiple perspectives can be combined or merged to some extent.

Wheels within wheels

“…and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” (Ezekiel 1:16)

We are further removed from absolute truth or reality by the possibility that all we know of reality may be part of another level of simulation. Reality may consist of recursive simulations within simulations. This is the “simulation argument” or “matrix hypothesis”.

http://en.wikipedia/simulated_reality :

“A simplified version of this argument proceeds as such:

  1. It is possible that an advanced civilization could create a computer simulation which contains individuals with artificial intelligence (AI).
  2. Such a civilization would likely run many, billions for example, of these simulations (just for fun, for research or any other permutation of possible reasons).
  3. A simulated individual inside the simulation wouldn’t necessarily know that it is inside a simulation — it is just going about its daily business in what it considers to be the “real world.”

Then the ultimate question is — if one accepts that the above premises are at least possible — which of the following is more likely?

a. We are the one civilization which develops AI simulations and happens not to be in one itself?

b. We are one of the many (billions) of simulations that has run? (Remember point 3.) In greater detail, this argument attempts to prove the trichotomy, either that:

  • intelligent races will never reach a level of technology where they can run simulations of reality so detailed they can be mistaken for reality (assuming that this is possible in principle); or
  • races who do reach such a sophisticated level do not tend to run such simulations; or
  • we are almost certainly living in such a simulation.


Poor Richard


Proof Positive? (PRA 2.0)


theory of stuff

plasma lamp

Image via Wikipedia

Matter is said to have various forms–solid, fluid, gas, plasma, etc.

Energy is also said to have various forms–kinetic, potential, thermal, gravitational, sound, elastic, electromagnetic, etc.

Energy and matter are transformable from one to the other, as when wood burns or nuclear weapons explode. The amount of energy (e) in a piece of matter is equal to the mass (m) of the matter times the speed of light squared (c2),  giving the famous formula e=mc2.

According to the theory of stuff, energy and matter are two different forms of stuff. Stuff may have other forms such as dark matter or dark energy (technically called strange stuff), but we aren’t really sure yet. The important thing is that energy and matter are two forms of the same stuff. What stuff is, in and of itself, is not known. We may know in the future, but we don’t know now. All we know now is that matter and energy are two forms of stuff which can be converted back and  forth. If any of our matter/energy is changing into other kinds of stuff, other kinds of stuff may be changing into our familiar stuff in exchange, without us ever suspecting a thing.

As far as we can tell, the total quantity of matter/energy stuff  in our universe is constant, but this may be a peculiarity of our perspective– our spatially, temporally, and constitutionally limited and local observation. Everything is “wiggling and giggling” so much it’s hard to get a clear fix on things. For all we know, our whole universe is blinking in and out of existence and alternating with any number of other universes. This is the alternating multiverse (AM), as opposed to the direct multiverse (DM), theory. As in the case of alternating and direct current (AC and DC), both AM and DM may coexist[1].

There are many forms of stuff and many, many ways that stuff may interact with other stuff. It is unlikely we will ever know the half of it. It is perfectly reasonable for Shakespeare to say “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy .” (Hamlet Act 1. Scene V). However, all forms of stuff, all properties and behaviors of stuff, and all interactions of stuff with other stuff —are phenomena of stuff.

And by convention/definition, all stuff is is what we call “natural”. Natural simply means “made of real stuff” as opposed to imaginary stuff like unicorn poop.

Getting to the point…

The only point I have here should go without saying: anything that is or has ever been attributed to supernatural agencies or mechanisms, if there is any validity to the experience or observation in question,  is most likely the work of some form of natural stuff.

Just as there is no fundamental dichotomy between matter and energy (only a diversity in the observed form and behavior of stuff), there is probably no real dichotomy between matter and what we call spirit. If spirit exists, it is probably made of stuff.

The real dichotomy is the one between justified and unjustified belief.

Whatever kind of stuff or behavior of stuff is in question, the difference between anecdote and scientifically-established, probable fact remains. All the distinctions between well-controlled experiments and one-off observations, between high and low probability, between justified belief and imagination, etc.– all those distinctions remain in full force and effect.

If that’s not what you are hearing in church lately, maybe you should switch to the Church of Reality.

The Church of Reality

The Church of Reality is about making a religious commitment to the pursuit of the understanding of reality as it really is.

This reality is the sum of everything that actually exists. Our definition of reality includes what some people call “other realities” that actually are real with the exclusion of imaginary realities and religious fiction. We care about what is really real, not what we want to believe is real.

Maybe I’ll see you in church….

Poor Richard



1. My whimsical description of an alternating wave function producing an Alternating Multiverse is remarkably similar on some points to the “Many Worlds” hypothesis of Hugh Everett:

Wikipedia: Hugh Everett III (November 11, 1930 – July 19, 1982) was an American physicist who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics, which he called his “relative state” formulation. He switched thesis advisors to John Wheeler some time in 1955, wrote a couple of short papers on quantum theory and completed his long paper, Wave Mechanics Without Probability in April 1956[2] later retitled as The Theory of the Universal Wave Function, and eventually defended his thesis after some delay in the spring of 1957. A short article, which was a compromise between Everett and Wheeler about how to present the concept and almost identical to the final version of his thesis, appeared in Reviews of Modern Physics Vol 29 #3 454-462, (July 1957), accompanied by a supportive review by Wheeler. The physics world took little note.

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Normal Schnormal

The older I get, the crazier I realize that I am. Despite some evidence that I am getting smarter at peeling back layers of reality and seeing more of the big picture, the more clearly I see myself, the worse I appear in my mental bathroom mirror– full of neuroses, false narratives, revised memories, self-deceptions, obsessions and compulsions, unconscious associations, and cognitive biases.

If I’m right that each age and each age group suffers from its own set of individual and collective self-delusions, the only rational behavior would be for all of us to abandon our faith in normality, whatever we currently think it is, and work together in multi-generational, multi-disciplinary groups to re-explore the world and to prospect for new nuggets and veins of reality together.

Homer statue at the University of Virginia

Homer statue at the University of Virginia (Image via Wikipedia)

Prospecting for reality…

I think this is what Thomas Jefferson hoped would happen at the University he established. He doubted the value of simply handing out degrees as certificates of competence. He wanted to create an ongoing, living experiment–a diverse demographic of people living and laboring together in a common cause: questioning normality and learning something new about reality every day. I don’t think the University of Virginia has lived up to that hope over time, but time isn’t all over and done, yet.

When I suggest abandoning normality, I’m not proposing anarchy. I’m really talking about “beginner’s mind“. Of course, there may be some babes worth saving from the dingy bath water of normality and tradition. But normality is  missing something we need to keep the whole bathtub from going over a cliff: We need a diversity of experimental colleges* and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, I see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard


* “Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”); indeed, some colleges call their members “fellows”.” (Wikipedia: college)

Related PRA 2010 posts:

Externalizing Reality

In economic theory, an externality is any cost or benefit not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss. Classic examples are the cost of pollution not included in the price of a manufactured product, the death of coal miners not included in the price of electricity, and the cost of mass murder or the little matter of global warming not included in the price of oil and gasoline.

Economic externalities are only a small subset of a more general category I call cognitive externalities–anything that is filtered out of our mental picture of the world around us.

We all externalize parts of reality, not because they are unknowable, but because they are unpleasant or inconvenient. That is the principal basis of all our corruption, all our dis-enlightenment. We all do it. Its in our DNA. But the costs or consequences of externalities in economic models or in any other domain of reality, are disproportionately borne by the poor and powerless. One of the worst examples of externalized reality is this: despite some remnants of local color from country to country, the new world order is a global East India Company with helicopter gunships. A Martian anthropologist studying the last five thousand years or so of human history would have to conclude that the primary industry of our species is conducting mass murder for profit and that the masses, even in the dominant cultures, have all devolved into cargo cults.

If cargo cults are mentioned in anyone’s personal library of mental narratives they probably take the form of a story about the peculiar behavior of small numbers of black natives somewhere on the coast of Africa in some prior century. Am I the only person with a story in her head about how that same behavior shows through in all of us under the euphemistic label of “consumerism”?

People live by stories. Each person’s head holds a library of short and long narratives and we pull one off the shelf that fits something about any particular situation or circumstance we meet from moment to moment. Too often these stories are on the level of children’s picture books, suggesting simple but wrong solutions to complex problems or situations. Most of us have stories about history that are wrong, stories about our families that are wrong, stories about nature that are wrong, and stories about ourselves that are wrong. And anything that doesn’t exist in the current active mental story, right or wrong, is externalized from a person’s reality in that moment.

Sometimes, reality is externalized on purpose. The principle weapon of special interests today is information asymmetry, a simple idea (better known to most of us as fraud, deception, marketing, public relations, spin, infotainment, etc.) that won a Nobel Prize for economics. This has resulted in a vast and thriving industry of disinformation and information pollution that corrupts and perverts every institution of society. But by far the most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

Our addiction to self delusion is encouraged and enabled by a liar’s code. If you don’t unmask me I won’t defrock you. Popes, presidents, senators, CEO’s, teachers, and parents set the example for one and all.

Of course there is such a thing as an ethical (justified) lie, a lesser evil than some dire alternative, but self deception dissolves sanity itself. Identity itself becomes externalized. Self awareness fails and then, as Yeats said, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” This is the truly unpardonable sin. But it won’t be avoided by force of will, strength of character, or high moral ideals. Our cognitive deformity, self-delusion, settled upon us by evolution, will be undone not by willpower, for which humanity is not noted, but mostly by wit, art and innovation–things we are good at.

The opposite of the unpardonable sin of self deception is liberation from self-imposed delusion–especially delusions about ourselves. The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and look clearly at uncomfortable facts is the essence of authentic enlightenment. It was inscribed on the entrance of the ancient Greek Temple of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself.”

Externalizing inconvenient reality (sometimes called denial, self deception, willful ignorance, or preserving cognitive consonance) is a coping mechanism. I would never suggest that we discard a coping mechanism without replacing the truly protective parts of it with something new. In fact with many, many new things.

The Greeks knew what they didn’t know (self-knowledge) but their philosophical methods were empirically weak. Today we know how to come by that knowledge–by the scientific method. We must discover and invent new cognitive prophylactics and prosthetics not as Sir Thomas Moore invented Utopia or as Reagan-era bean counters invented “Trickle-Down Economics”, but as Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin: with all the real working parts. We need a science and technology of cognitive hygiene and end-to-end information quality control. Despite living in an “age of science,” we still mostly resort to authority and reputation to judge the quality of information. I guess there are many reasons that “fact checking” remains in the dark ages. Information Quality Management is fine for database administrators, but we human beings reserve the right to our own facts, just as we reserve the right to mate with the worst possible partner. Still, without surrendering such rights, it might be nice if the scientific/academic community devoted more effort to producing a science and technology of information quality assurance that we could consult or ignore at our own risk.

In addition to empirical knowledge, like that which we might gain from brain signals, functional MRI pictures, or implicit association tests, enlightenment grows from coaching and practice with the object of re-engineering faulty parts of the operating system of the brain. Unlike genetic engineering, it requires exercise and training much as any physical, athletic ability.

I’m not drumming up a utopia built on some cult of cognitive science. But we MUST discover alternative practical means to protect ourselves from that suffering which we seek to evade by externalizing reality. As we do, we may find that workable solutions to nearly every other problem and crisis are already on the table.

Poor Richard

“The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0”

“The Enlightenment 2.0″

“The Inner Hunchback”

“Is Spiritual the New Supernatural?”

The Inner Hunchback

12:34 AM 1/21/2010

The first fully rational brain will be an artificial one. Ray Kurzwiel thinks it will begin operation in 2050 or so. Of far greater importance, however, is the race to create the first fully rational human brain, which will take longer. The current status of human brain evolution is the predictably irrational brain.

Rationality, or the capacity for consistent logical reasoning or critical thinking, is only a newly emerging function of the brain. The rational thinking engine is still incomplete. It only runs in short bursts, between which it operates in very predictably irrational ways. Its operation is hindered by millions of glitches and bugs created by innumerable accidents of automatic, unconscious learning (also known as cognitive biases, logical fallaciesimplicit associations, bad algorithms, spaghetti code, corrupt memory, null pointers, bad wiring, programming bugs, etc.

Now that humanity has the power to destroy the world without even meaning to, we can no longer afford the leisurely pace of biological evolution for completing and perfecting our rational thinking machinery. We must somehow seize the day and re-engineer the brain with our own hands–no matter how gooey the going may get.

12:45 AM 1/21/2010

Imaginary Psychology Doctoral Thesis: “The Big Picture, or Epistemology, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame

In Victor Hugo’s story, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, each character was embedded in (or inhabited) his or her own particular point of view (POV) or psycho-social frame of reference. (see also: reality, world view, gestalt, paradigm, culture, “The Matrix“, etc.). For each different character, some portion of the POV was an accurate match with actual facts and circumstances (i.e. reality) and some portion was inaccurate, containing errors, distortions, delusions, false beliefs, imaginary fantasies, wishful thinking, glittering generalities, etc.

(ASIDE: Wherever the true parts of the POV and the false parts of the POV come into contact, the stress of cognitive dissonance (i.e. clashes, contradictions, dilemmas, paradoxes, non sequiturs, etc) might develop like heat produced by friction. To reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance a waxy, rubbery, sticky, slippery substance (akin to “psychological mucus”) will form between all incongruent, conflicting, contradictory, disconsonant, discordant, discrepant, disparate, dissonant,  and divergent joints, gaps, and fractures. Over time, this mucus-like mental substance might accumulate to such a degree as to make up a substantial portion of the overall weight or volume of the POV.)

Returning to Hugo, each of his characters had its own set of insights and delusions and each had times when its POV helped it to adapt or solve problems and times when the POV failed to do so. Each character attempted in its own way to incorporate knowledge of the world from trusted sources such as religion, academic or political authority, kinship, popular culture or traditions, subcultures, etc.

Hugo gradually leads the reader through each character’s reality,  giving us vantage points from which to glimpse the insights and  errors of each and the opportunity to gather up a “big picture” of our own.

In Hugo’s story, the cathedral was perhaps symbolic of this big picture, and perhaps it was also a proxy inside the story for the author himself.

( BTW in the self-development theory of G.I. Gurdjieff, each human being is like that–a composite of semi-autonomous personalities or identities ranging from hunchbacks to princes.)

And perhaps Hugo’s cathedral is (like the proverbial elephant which a group of unsuspecting blind men are asked to feel and then describe) also a proxy for the real world, (or at least its mental representation within the rational brain). Perhaps Hugo’s characters, like the legendary blind men, are “seeing” only the parts of that world that fall within the limited physical and mental “reach” of each. Of course the natural inclination is for each person to defend “the evidence of his own senses”, so to speak, and to dispute anything contrary.

The difficulty of repeatedly transcending one’s personal world-view to piece together the best “big picture” of reality is one of the greatest ongoing cognitive, emotional, and social challenges of every human being.

Poor Richard


There is no answer. There is no solution. There is only practice. (Anon.)

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