Essays

The Overlapping Circles of I Oct 25, 2012

“I” is an interesting word. It frames the way we think about ourselves, and it certainly seems well defined in everyday usage. But I’m going to argue that it’s ambiguous. It depends on where you draw your circle.

“I am the body that produced this sentence.”

“I am the brain that produced this sentence.”

“I am the neurons that produced this sentence.”

All of these statements are true. And they refer to very different things, orders of magnitude different in scale. My body is composed of some 10 trillion cells, but not all of them were used to make this sentence. A lot of them sat idly by while others worked on its production. You could cut off all my limbs, even my torso, and if you kept pumping nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood through my brain, I could still produce the sentence. My brain is about 100 billion cells, two orders of magnitude smaller than the body. But still, much of my brain isn’t involved in language production. My cerebellum keeps me on my feet when I walk, but it didn’t produce this sentence. You could cut out much of my brain and I would still be able to think these words. The sentence is formed mainly in a small region called Broca’s area, which is probably only about a billion neurons. Another two orders of magnitude smaller than the entire brain. So who am I?

It might be harder to see, but we can scale up too.

“I am the society that produced this sentence.”

“I am the ecosystem that produced this sentence.”

“I am the planet that produced this sentence.”

I couldn’t create language if I didn’t belong to a social species. This body didn’t produce the thought on its own, it takes a network of people for words to bear meaning. Our society as a whole wrote this sentence, almost 8 billion individuals, 8*1022 cells. But how could this society live without plants and animals to feed on. This sentence couldn’t have been produced without the entire food web, probably some 1036 cells, and that’s only 1/10,000,000,000th the mass of the Earth. But each sentence is true, depending on your perspective. The motion of the Earth’s atoms created this sentence. Who I am depends on where I draw my circle.

“I am the Universe.”

Lost in Translation -Oct 26, 2012

Using language is tricky business. It seems so natural to us that we rarely think about it. We make these noises at one another and somehow deduce what the other is thinking. We associate sound patterns with models of the outer world. It’s really a bizarre evolutionary strategy, but it worked.

Now we can’t imagine it any other way. And there’s no other way we could imagine it. Our ability to make abstractions and think logically were side effects of speech. Talking introduced a serial processor to our highly parallel brains, forever changing the way we see the world. Now we can’t stop categorizing. Consciously and subconsciously we’re associating all of our sense data with mental concepts. And the words we use to describe the universe change the way we perceive it.

Language is our lens towards reality, but it’s blurry and scratched. Our perspective is dependent on our words, but there is no perfect vocabulary. Language evolves through a pattern of natural selection. The most frequently used words have the highest fidelity, and therefore change the slowest over time. A word’s “goal” is to be an effective replicator, not an accurate descriptor. Words don’t have to have logical meanings to gain popular usage. They’re just the sounds that get repeated the most. They are utilitarian. Words persist if they are useful; logic and truth have nothing to do with it.

We have to be aware of implicit assumptions. Sometimes effective memes are misleading. A speech pattern can get copied even if it paints an inaccurate picture of reality. Every now and then we should take off our language glasses and examine them for defects.

There’s one inherent problem we can never get rid of: subjectivity. We treat words as if they have objective meaning, but meaning depends on perspective, and perspective is subjective. Definitions are fluid. Webster will never win. Each of us has a slightly different idea about what words mean. Natural language evolution doesn’t stop. That’s why clearly defining words is crucial for conversation, but that can lead to an infinite regress. We’re stuck describing words with words and hoping we share some common ground.

Our vocabularies limit us in other ways. When we look through language, we see objects. We imagine distinct pieces of reality, different types of things all around us. But that’s not how the universe really is. The universe is one big fractally mess. It’s one connected space-time fluid, one object, one thing with different properties in different regions. I know I’m bordering on mystical nonsense, but when you look at the smallest scales all you see is an ocean of fundamental particles obeying the laws of nature.

Language forms a windshield constructed from tiny panes of glass, dividing up our picture of the universe into little boxes. But beyond that lens is one swirling soup of energy and matter without any borders. The closer you look at any portion, the more detail you can see. And as you zoom back out, the image just becomes more intricate and complex. Every concept is intertwined with every other concept in the awesome self-similar network of reality.

You live too long in the world of words and you forget how to see the universe.

The Property PerspectiveNov 3, 2012

Something’s always bugged me about property. It clearly only exists in the minds of human beings. There’s no objective way of distinguishing my stuff from your stuff. I can’t go look at an acre of land and determine who it belongs to, I have to ask someone. And if I ask two different people, they might disagree. It must be subjective. Yet ownership implies objectivity. When I say something is mine, I don’t just mean “I feel like it’s mine.” It’s not an opinion statement. I mean “It is mine.” You can’t have it. That’s a contradiction. How can that be?

Contradictions are awesome. They’re the most useful problems to stumble across, because they tell us there’s a flaw in our reasoning. There are no contradictions in nature, and yet here’s a concept with an inherent contradiction. That means our idea must be flawed. Something’s wrong with the way we think about property. We need to take a closer look.

The contradiction is not in our physical behavior. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the way we move stuff around, no physical laws are broken when we buy, sell or give stuff away. We’re not disagreeing with the universe by defending our land. The contradiction is in our understanding of the process. The non-sequitur is in our description of these activities. Our language glasses have another defect. It’s a failure of the human imagination to accurately describe what’s happening.

To get at the problem, we need to look at what this idea really is. Property is a mental shortcut for dealing with some common social situations. It’s a predetermined pattern of behavior that tends to work well for most people most of the time. It’s a meme.

Property is a really effective meme that evolved with our species. By influencing incentives, it encourages efficiency. By encouraging efficiency, it promotes propagation. And propagation implies prevalence.

That’s my most concise, alliterative way of saying that the concept of property tends to spread itself. This set of ideas and behaviors we call “property” encourages the transmission of the ideas and behaviors we call “property.” It’s really a pretty cool trick if you’re an idea that wants to spread.

Individuals who believe they own property will behave differently than people without this concept. Ownership changes values. People care about the things they own. They don’t want to lose them, and often want more of them. So property discourages wastefulness. It incentivizes efficiency, because people who believe in ownership tend to want to own more stuff.

Efficiency promotes propagation. Societies that effectively use their available resources are able to grow their own population, and conquer less efficient societies.

The idea of placing higher value on things that only I can use spreads itself. The concept is good at self-replication. People didn’t spread the property meme, the meme spread itself. And ideas that are good at spreading quickly become the most common ideas.

So it doesn’t have to be logical. This concept became widespread despite the inherent subjective/objective contradiction, because it worked well enough in general to promote its own replication. The prevalence of a meme has nothing to do with reason or truth, it derives solely from its ability to propagate.

Once we recognize that, we can look under the hood and see what this concept is really made of. We can break “property” down into behavioral patterns, the physical processes that don’t contain contradictions. What actually happens when we make a trade?

If you try to take my computer, I’ll try to stop you. But if you pay me enough, I will no longer stop you from taking it. From the property perspective, it looks like the computer has a new owner. But we know there’s a contradiction in that reasoning. Nothing about the computer changed. What changed is my behavior. You didn’t buy my computer, you bought my reaction.

We don’t exchange property, we exchange actions. Atoms don’t change when we pay our bills, but behaviors do. My groceries aren’t altered by handing the cashier some money, but the security guard acts totally different. Whether or not you call the police when I take something has nothing to do with the object in question and everything to do with your idea about who owns it.

The recognition of property has become an evolutionarily stable strategy in our society. Since most people believe in property, it pays to act like property exists.

So is there any good protocol for assigning legitimate exclusive use of scarce resources? When should I help my neighbor defend “his” land, and when should I help my neighbor reclaim land that was “stolen” from him? How can I tell who’s right? I don’t have an answer at this point. I’m not sure we need a one-size-fits-all solution. Since it’s inherently subjective, it might fall on each of us to think long and hard about ethical property distinctions and act accordingly.

There are No Countries Nov 8, 2012

People keep asking what country I’m moving to; what country is more free than the United States? I’m not moving into another country. I’m living outside the country paradigm. I’m living on Earth, that’s it. I don’t have a nation. I don’t have a government. I don’t have a country.

Countries don’t physically exist. There’s only people and ideas, land and water. I didn’t physically leave the United States. I philosophically left the United States. I didn’t move out of the country. I simply recognized that it was never there at all. It was only an idea. A meme. Only a belief that each of us can accept or reject. I reject it.

I don’t see any countries anymore. I don’t see any borders. I’m blind to armies and authority. I don’t see any policeman or soldiers, politicians or bureaucrats. All I see is people.

I didn’t leave America when I sailed out of Miami. I left years ago. Sailing across the Gulf Stream was only a symbol of my awakening.