23 Comments
Mar 12, 2023·edited Mar 12, 2023Liked by Mills Baker

thus: we are dependent on the many slightly-deranged people who can again and again conjure confidence for their unsystematic and questionably-rational ideas and push them out into the world despite their fragility

just @ me next time

Expand full comment
author

Lmfao!!! Builders, man; can’t reason with em, can’t have anything worth a damn without em! (Note: not a reference to The Age of Em).

Expand full comment

This is lit, certainly.

An experience I had while reading was that I nodded along to your proposed outline, thinking to myself how much I’d like to read that piece. Then, when you blew up your own idea, I suddenly felt foolish for thinking it was good. That is, you were persuasive enough to convince me of both sides. But ... I still think the original outline is GOOD and is a post you should write! Does that make me foolish for thinking so, or you foolish for not writing it?

I feel like this exactly illustrates your point: rationalism (and especially rationalism on the Internet) has the ability to knock our collective confidence in our own thoughts so much that it leaves the great majority in paralysis and unable to express them at all.

This is very obviously bad and so I guess I’m just here to thank your ego, I guess, for posting it anyway. And I eagerly await the post from the outline, of course.

Expand full comment
author

I legit cannot tell anymore! I'm (naturally) persuaded by both approaches as well. I really do respect how rationalism can help reduce error, but I also really do feel that rationalism has profound limits, beyond which we regularly must operate in life and in culture and elsewhere.

I'll try to write that post! If I do, I think it will have a lot to do with how we've migrated to implicit / emergent value systems as the rate of change acceleration has made authoritative / institutional meaning complexes weaker. What we see is a "natural aristocracy": absent imposed values, we value youth for all the obvious reasons (health, looks, further from death) and there's nothing countermanding that or suggesting any reason one might want "childhood's end." And what do I know, maybe they shouldn't want it! But I liked it.

Also HAPPY SATURDAY!!!

Expand full comment
Mar 14, 2023Liked by Mills Baker

What a cool piece. I have thoughts.

This is to say I love your ideas, and how you write about them. But I'm too concrete to be able to contribute to the idea space in the traditional way.

That doesn't mean that Karl Popper and his ideas aren't interesting or compelling, they are. But, I don’t find his ideas quite as actionable as I like. It means I'll look for parallels, and it means that I'll look for context. In Popper's case, that context was the emergence of quantum physics. He was learning about the physical world at a time when physics itself was being rewritten. But, never do I find a way to actually test his ideas. It's because I'm not smart enough to figure out how to model them, or make them actionable.

I sort of feel as though you sense the same thing happening again.

Maybe we live in a parallel time. We are living in an age where the fundamental concept of information, something I've learned how write equations to describe, equations with concepts like bandwidth, signal, noise, rate and bit, that are very precise, are being scaled to magnificent complexity. Honestly, it is emotionally overwhelming.

On the other hand, I can think of examples in cases that can partially address some questions. But, I have also started to be circumspect about examples, so forgive me the indulgence.

Your question above about the behavior of a population learning about the behavior of a population is a great one, and there is an example to observe. Wall street traders are a group, when someone figures out what the group of traders in aggregate are doing, and capitalizes on it, others in the group interested in that kind of thing, copy the trend and weaken it (markets are short term zero sum). Some try to find out how to bet against it. While others ignore it, sometimes to their own peril. And personally, I don't worry too much about it because, in general, markets are somewhat constrained by reality. When they're not, when traders figure out how to do something like create a side market that affects the capitalization of the market, like a credit default swap, then I worry. In the 1930's it was trading on margin that got us. The 2000 crash was a classic bubble, the kind of behavior caused by fear of missing out. Boom-bust cycles dominated the capital markets in the the late 19th century, I think until the first world war.

In general though, the question is about feedback. Most sapiens don't have a super strong grasp about how feedback systems behave. Even those who do understand feedback might lose sight of things where the feedback and signals are multi-dimensional. Then, there are the effects of noise and errors, which is where you start your piece, young adults being subject to an unrealistic inputs. Like any good system element, they try to adjust to accommodate the input.

One of the problems with feedback systems is the polarity, positive feedback can cause instability if it is not contained in a system with greater negative feedback. And in most cases, delays and lags in the system, which affect the time varying "polarity" are key factors, in fact, the other big knob besides gain and polarity, used to tune a feedback system. A final and also large factor is a constraint/s.

As a parent of young adults, I do find the kinds of content on the web and through the ubiquitous apps, less than lovely, and I agree it makes us prone to unrealistic comparisons. But lately, I've been less concerned about the kinds of expectations the web/internet/social media create, and find myself more concerned about the sources of noise and error in our culture. In addition to widely discussed sources of misleading information, I was recently reminded of a source of noise and error in the embodiment of talk radio. To most people, this ubiquitous pass over space on the radio dial is uninteresting if it's even encountered. In our marketplace of ideas, noise and errors are not great things. A little bit of noise might help to make sure that the systems present to correct it are able to do that but large erroneous signals are hard to correct.

One feature of the discussion above is, for a given system with defined functional elements with inputs, outputs and network interconnections, a calculable response is generally possible. Remarkably complex behavior is possible for systems with a modest number of elements - see the game of life… Still, the thing reads a little like philosophy.

A number of issues make human systems intractable, presently. First and foremost, the internal “calculations” we do as elements in the system. Second, how we are actually interconnected is not well defined and is time varying. We also receive inputs from aggregated sources in groups. Finally, we have inputs from the environment.

The Dominion/Fox news case has given us a great example of the internal calculations inside semi-isolated elements in the greater social mesh.

Advertisers, media companies, food companies and many others have statistical models based on sub-groups to estimate the response to a larger campaign. So, we are already using techniques to model the response of the larger system.

Here I need to hand the argument to Heather Havrilesky who has made a case that human emotion is still the largest most important part in any of these kinds of systems. Personally, I feel that science, one starting to model human emotion is also developing strength. And, the models of emotion I sense have the strongest long term potential, involve feedback.

Expand full comment
author

Well, first off: this is one of the best comments I've ever seen, let alone received. Thank you for sharing your perspective, and I happen to also be "more concerned about the sources of noise and error in our culture" than about any particular / specific dynamic or constituency. I don't really know what to make of it, and I suppose that's one point: the scale and scope and dynamism of the world seems "hard to make sense of," or perhaps impossible, without significant reduction and compression, which are both... sources of error.

But second: your pub is great! You don't have likes enabled so you won't see that I've been going through the posts. Very excited to have found it and subscribed! For anyone who sees this, it's https://kensvamps.substack.com.

Expand full comment
Mar 14, 2023Liked by Mills Baker

Wow. thanks! I've disabled the comments and the like because I've been trying to stay focused on the writing part. I do see the number of visits though.

Since I reestablished a substack profile, I've only made a couple comments. This piece was just something that really struck me. The last one was really really cool as well, but I didn't feel like I could stay in the boat with the big kids on the topic.

Expand full comment

Very tangentially, let me pitch my most braindead critique of rationalism (or more likely a strawman thereof)

The rationalists sometimes describe rationalism as a "martial art of the mind" https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/teaxCFgtmCQ3E9fy8/the-martial-art-of-rationality

> You don’t need huge, bulging muscles to learn martial arts

lol, anyway

> Within martial arts schools, techniques of muscle have been refined and elaborated over generations. Techniques of rationality are harder to pass on, even to the most willing student.

Ok so it's like martial arts: a pursuit of a discipline with a special real world relevance.

The only problem is that also martial arts seem to be pretty fake? And maybe in a pretty similar way? I'm mostly getting this from this youtube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjbSCEhmjJA

This theory goes that a lot of what passes for martial arts is people LARPing hand to hand combat. When revered masters of many traditions meet people who actually fight and don't have to follow their rules, they get the shit kicked out of them. Being really really good at hand to hand combat is already a very teenage boy idea of what it means to be formidable, but if it also utterly fails on those terms, that's very funny.

When you talk about your ideas getting "absolutely demolished" by the scary rationalists it makes me wonder what kind of demolition we are talking here. Are they getting knocked out, or are they just losing the equivalent of a karate chop contest..

I guess this all just dancing around the question: what are we doing here? What are all these ideas and stories and graphs and arguments *for*? I think there are some potential good answers for this that don't involve escaping critique from imagined rationalists :)

Expand full comment
author

I really like this metaphor for two reasons. First, on its merits: you do wonder how much we’re just “in” a context or system that’s self-referential and dependent on our adherence to it for its putative performance. But I’m pretty pro-critical-rationalist in that I think there’s real correspondence between rational models and the world. But it’s still a great description of one kind of risk or failure mode for systems of thought. I mean, there *is* a lot of kabuki!

But the other thing is: this was one of my dad’s beefs, like his version of the firefighter thing. He’d boxed, and it drove him crazy to see in a movie some 150 lbs. martial arts guy demolish in these perfectly choreographed exchanges some giant dude. He *swore* it couldn’t and didn’t happen, but this was before the internet could resolve such claims and we debated it a lot. So he’d love that this had cropped up in a convo about epistemology.

Expand full comment

(I'm dumping this in your comment thread instead of anywhere else because it's a very poor argument and the rationalists would destroy it)

Expand full comment

Listen: U THINK, Therefore U WRITE. Rationalism and Art kan subsist 2getha. How do we know?? The Father of RATIONALISM, RENE DESCARTES combined GEOMETRY and ALEGEBRA. ART & MATH!! Say What?? (Thereby causing generations of students to FLUNK....but thats another thought for another day). Youth-Obsessed kulture seems 2 B driven by GREED n AMBITION rather than any form of RATIONAL thought (re: a nod to your point about CELEBS). In short: Artists have to learn to fuse the two and be RATIONAL in your approach to Ya ART butt be IRRATIONAL in the EXECUTION of it.

Expand full comment
Mar 12, 2023·edited Mar 12, 2023Liked by Mills Baker

Reading this made me think of a part of this book that is totally worth it tho quite pop - never split the difference (by a former FBI negotiator on negotiating) - about how humans are not... rational. So rational solutions don't work well in irrational systems such as 1:1 human dynamics.

This whole lil section is worth reading, but I'll try to excerpt it: https://subwayreads.org/book/never-split-the-difference/. He essentially goes to Harvard and kicks everyone's ass at negotiating who has been studying it and creating rational theories about it since the nixon administration, and reflects on why that happened --

For more than three decades, Harvard had been the world epicenter of negotiating theory and practice. All I knew about the techniques we used at the FBI was that they worked. In the twenty years I spent at the Bureau we’d designed a system that had successfully resolved almost every kidnapping we applied it to. But we didn’t have grand theories.

...

In my short stay [in Harvard Law School’s Winter Negotiation Course] I realized that without a deep understanding of human psychology, without the acceptance that we are all crazy, irrational, impulsive, emotionally driven animals, all the raw intelligence and mathematical logic in the world is little help in the fraught, shifting interplay of two people negotiating.

Yes, perhaps we are the only animal that haggles—a monkey does not exchange a portion of his banana for another’s nuts—but no matter how we dress up our negotiations in mathematical theories, we are always an animal, always acting and reacting first and foremost from our deeply held but mostly invisible and inchoate fears, needs, perceptions, and desires.

That’s not how these folks at Harvard learned it, though. Their theories and techniques all had to do with intellectual power, logic, authoritative acronyms like BATNA and ZOPA, rational notions of value, and a moral concept of what was fair and what was not.

And built on top of this false edifice of rationality was, of course, process. They had a script to follow, a predetermined sequence of actions, offers, and counteroffers designed in a specific order to bring about a particular outcome. It was as if they were dealing with a robot, that if you did a, b, c, and d in a certain fixed order, you would get x. But in the real world negotiation is far too unpredictable and complex for that. You may have to do a then d, and then maybe q.

Expand full comment

This is spot on. My need to ration is often at odds with my desire to imagine. The former somehow seems like the more prestigious way to write, but I think the latter is the more important reason to write!

Expand full comment
author

Whoa, you too?! That’s wild! I do think there’s a prestige dimension to it too, esp if you’re immersed in the online scene. The internet seems to reward that type of writing!

Expand full comment

Totally, it makes us look like intellectuals lol. But driving so deeply into the data just means we’re only focused on facts and figures and completely ignoring what we’re noticing! Which could be more insightful! (And when we press publish that’s when we learn if we might be onto something!)

Expand full comment

Very well said.

Expand full comment
author

Whoa, thank you!!!

Expand full comment

Such good Qs!! I think “maybe” is smart to guide a person’s insights but I like to think about subjectivity as a kind of truth because it’s true for that person. I think we’re each living a unique reality. Some people are literally living in a dystopia while others are living in luxury. We need the subjective to explain parts of our shared reality that rationality can’t reach. We can’t grow, learn, explore or change without the subjective. This is why I always think nonfiction, memoirs and essays are so valuable because it’s a form that allows us to question the abstract experiences that are hard to qualify. (Assuming the writer is trustworthy, willing to tell a story that’s true to them haha and doesn’t have an ulterior motive to manipulate) and then you can reach people who have the same feelings but haven’t been able to put it into words. The first part of your essay did that to me! ❤️‍🔥❤️‍🔥❤️‍🔥

Expand full comment
author

Well-put, and thank you!

Expand full comment

I feel your dilemma more than I can say. On the top of everything, I have a cultural layer as well. Being Hungarian, I have a tendency of expressing myself with a directness that is often perceived as rigidly categorical. I have written several posts to make the case for the opposite, but that does not help with what is - mostly - style.

As for your question, the youth obsession is not a new phenomenon. Arguably, it started with "The Sorrows of Young Werther" which was published in 1774.

Still, I see what you mean, but I will have to think about it....

Expand full comment

I really appreciate the nuance of this piece. I also find your acknowledgment of the need for epistemic humility incredible valuable. And I enjoyed how you wrapped it by pointing out that sometimes we can’t know for sure and so we just have to go for it. (Apologies if my paraphrase is too far off the mark). Thank you

Expand full comment

“To the extent that Western culture has become youth culture, Western culture valorizes what seems good to the young. The paths society consecrates as desirable —the lowest form of consecration, but all we have left— are those paths which appeal to the young.”

Nailed it. Hard stop. 🤘🤘🤘

Expand full comment

This just came across my timeline for some reason. Great read! This particular topic of social media, phones and depression was kinda trending around then, I think? Might have been due to some research? I dunno.

A couple of thoughts/questions. Are rationalist a prominent influence in any area? I think they are in the philosophy of science, but I don't know Popper well or Deutsch at all- legit curious!

Also, sometimes I think about the qualitative data being amassed by Substack. Could be a pretty valuable source for behavioral analysis. What I am asking is--how are you manipulating my behavior here and why? Haha. Cheers.

Expand full comment