What Are They Thinking?!

The cognitive bias codex from wikipedia; if you want to print it out so it’s legible and useful, print the original over four letter-sized pages and paste them together (my printout is taped, tellingly perhaps, over my rarely-used TV). The model was developed by John Manoogian III and refined by Buster Benson; the SVG version includes active links by TillmanR to the wikipedia articles explaining each bias.

A lot of ‘leftie’ writers have been expressing dismay lately not only about what right-wingers are saying and doing, but about what a large proportion of other lefties have been saying. And the concern is not so much about what they’re saying as about how they could possibly have come to believe what they’re saying. In other words, What were they thinking?

I’m increasingly persuaded that much of what we all say and do is simply conditioned behaviour. Our biological ‘wiring’, combined with (because we are social creatures) our cultural conditioning, compels us to believe certain things, and to act accordingly.

Our cultural conditioning — what we believe because of what others in our circles of trust and affinity say or do — often falls afoul of cognitive biases, such as the 180 biases depicted above.

If we really want to understand the prevailing behaviour of any group, particularly one we thought shared our worldview, it helps to try to understand how that cultural conditioning, with its inherent cognitive biases, works. So here is a little thought experiment to explore that.

The issue I am trying to understand is: How can bright, informed people support the continuation and escalation of the Ukraine War, believe that someone other than the Biden administration authorized and carried out the Nord Stream pipeline bombings, believe that China plans to take over the world militarily, and believe that the public health response to CoVid-19 was largely an overreaction or an excuse to curtail, surveil, and control individual citizens?

I want to explore the conditioning process and understand how we came to this point. I am not interested in laying blame for it happening, since that gets us nowhere, and I don’t believe there is anything anyone can do to change most people’s beliefs, unless they are already inclined to change them themselves. What are the cognitive biases that have given rise to what, to me, are frightening misunderstandings? (Of course, my beliefs are the product of my conditioning as well, which is clearly very different from that of those who hold the above beliefs; and I am also subject to cognitive biases.)

So here’s a table I came up with, wading through all 180 biases in the above codex, and focusing on the 32 groups of biases that seem to directly affect our beliefs, to try to make sense of it all:

Bias Description: The human tendency to: Examples
Confirmation / Belief / Backfire effect believe only facts and accept only arguments that conform to our existing beliefs “All my life I’ve been told Russia and China are evil, authoritarian, repressive regimes that seek world domination. Navalny, Xinjiang, corrupt oligarchs, lab leak, etc. Your protestations just make me believe it even more.”
Attentional, Illusory Truth, Mere-Exposure believe and remember things that capture more of our attention, or that we hear repeatedly, or that are familiar to us “All the media I read are saying the same thing; they can’t all be wrong.”
Self-reference believe things only when we can relate them to our own personal story “It can’t be that bad. No one would tolerate that.” 
 Naive realism believe we are more objective and rational than most people   “That just doesn’t ring true. I’m not an idiot, and the people who buy that can’t be thinking straight.”
 Illusory correlation  see relationships where they don’t really exist  “Look at all these people that wore masks and got the vaccine and then got sicker than those who didn’t.”
 Attribution  attribute “our” failures to bad luck and our actions to good motives, but “their” failures to bad character and their actions to bad motives “We won’t talk peace because they’d just lie and take advantage; they won’t talk peace because they actually don’t want it.”
 Stereotyping / Prejudice  attribute characteristics to a whole swath of people  “If the Russians didn’t support Putin they’d overthrow him, and the Chinese are just docile mindless Communists; sanction them all.”
 Authority  believe wealthier, more powerful people more than others  “He’s got the best minds in the country advising him; they must know what they’re doing.”
Just-world  believe people eventually get what they deserve “We’re the good guys, so we’ll ultimately win the war for the hearts and minds of the world.”
 believe what most, or increasing numbers, of those around us believe  “I don’t know anyone who thinks the US would be foolish enough to blow up those pipelines.”
 Halo effect/ in-group favouritism ascribe exclusively positive qualities to “our” people and those we admire  “He saved us from Trump; in my eyes the guy can pretty much do no wrong.”
 Simplification/ Latching / Ambiguity  believe simple, easy explanations over the more complex, difficult, ambiguous, and uncertain   “He’s just insane and evil, that’s all; there was no ‘provocation’. Freedom and democracy must prevail.”
 Moral licensing  justify an act of bad behaviour from someone who we usually agree with  “He must have had a good reason.”
 Affinity  evaluate others who are “like us” more positively  “I just don’t trust ‘those people’.”
 Exceptionalism  consider our situation and motives to be unique  “We have God and right on our side. Others don’t, so they have to be bound by rules.”
 Dunning-Krueger/ Lake Wobegon believe we and our in-group re more competent than they are  “They’re just too stupid to figure it out. And our leaders wouldn’t have got where they are if they weren’t the best and the brightest.” 
 Transparency  think we know what others think and believe, and why they do so “That’s surely a false flag operation, intended to distract us from the truth.”
 Projection  think that past events accurately predict future events  “We’ve had nukes for decades. Thanks to MAD, they’ll never be used on any scale.”
 Optimism, Pessimism  think that some ideas are failure-proof and others could never work “If we/everyone just did this (eg bomb x), it would change everything; problem solved. Appeasement always fails.”
 Declinism / Nostalgia  believe things were better in the “old days” and are now getting worse  “They used to know their place, and there was never any problem. We need to restore x.”
 Outcome / Hindsight mistake correlation for causation, and mistake hindsight for insight  “That strategy worked then; it should work now. Anyone could have told you that wouldn’t work.”
 Risk compensation/ Moral hazard/ Learned helplessness/ Effort justification  misjudge the degree of risk in actions we take “Only old sick people need to wear masks. We’re all going to get it anyway. We’re so invested in this action, we need to double down, not back down.” 
 False consensus believe most (smart, informed) people agree with us  “It’s the only sensible position to take. You’d have to be insane to think otherwise. What were they thinking?!
 Third party  believe social/mass media influence others more than they influence us “Russiagate swung the election. Suppression of Hunter Biden’s wrongdoings swung the election. Propaganda has made us all mad.”
 Overconfidence  be surer of ourselves and our actions that the facts warrant  “I’m absolutely sure. We’ve never failed. We can’t fail. We won’t fail.”
 Identifiable victim / Power of story  buy into anecdotes about specific individuals but not stories or data about whole groups “Let me tell you about Ivan & Anna. It will change your mind about the whole war.” 
 Escalation of commitment / Sunk cost continue to pursue failed actions if we have invested a lot in them   “We can’t have spent $100B just for nothing. We need to authorize another $20B.”
 Status quo  perpetuate current behaviours and beliefs even if they’re irrational  “We have to continue NATO, even though its original purpose no longer applies.”
 Reactance  overreact to an action that makes us feel cornered or restricted  “These people are spreading misinformation. They need to be censored, banned, and jailed.”
Triviality / Bike-shedding focus on simpler, more controllable aspects of large complex problems “Pledge the fighter jets. Let them worry about how to staff them, use them, and maintain them.”
 Recency / Misinformation  give more credibility to, and recall, newer information, opinions and ideas, even if they’re false  “I don’t care what happened in 2014. Ancient history.”
 Negativity  react more and give more attention to negative stories and facts  “What does it matter if China traced, globally shared and sequenced CoVid-19 within a month of discovering it? Lab leak, lab leak!”

I’m sure someone could reword the third column of this table to try to make sense of my (to them) seemingly irrational beliefs about Ukraine, Nord Stream, China, and CoVid-19, by attributing them to my admitted cognitive biases. That would be an interesting exploration!

So what’s going on here? I think we’re all doing our best to make sense of the firehose of information and mis- and disinformation and propaganda out there. These cognitive biases, for the most part, aren’t character flaws — They’re ways of dealing with large amounts of information that evolved to make our ancestors more functional, and to enable them to act faster and to survive better. The fact that our overwhelmed (intellectually and emotionally) brains aren’t up to the task with today’s information overload is a tragedy, perhaps, but it’s not anyone’s fault.

The purpose of this exercise is to answer the question posted by the title of this exercise. Not the exclamation mark part, but the question mark part. While part of me seethes at the power of the post-WW2 US presidents and most of their senior ‘advisors’, and the destruction I believe they have wrought, I can kind of understand what has driven them to think, believe, and do what they have done. And I think it would be arrogant to presume that, if I were in their position, I would have done differently.

And that has to be enough. The world, as much as we wish it weren’t, is on autopilot, and no one is in control. The sum total of the cognitively-biased and variously-informed eight billion of us are going to do our best, and the outcome looks both inevitable and troublesome.

While it doesn’t and can’t change anything (at least that’s how I see it from my own cognitively-biased perspective), I have found it immensely comforting to at least be able to guess: What are they thinking? And now, each time I ask the question, I ask it without the exclamation mark.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

All We Are Saying

Midjourney’s take on Joe Biden planning a war against China, and on ChatGPT as a peacenik; my own prompts

For those of you worried about the explosive growth of AI and its consequences: I would be the first to admit the dangers of this new technology, especially in the hands of the deranged, the military, propagandists, and the security state.

But consider this:

I asked ChatGPT:

What single action could a US president take that would be most effective in bringing about world peace?

And its answer was:

As an AI language model, I do not have personal beliefs or opinions, and I cannot predict the future. However, I can suggest that promoting diplomacy and peaceful conflict resolution through negotiations and dialogue with other countries could be one of the most effective actions a US President could take to contribute to world peace. This could involve engaging with international organizations, encouraging disarmament, reducing military involvement in global conflicts, and fostering mutual respect and understanding among nations. Additionally, supporting economic development, humanitarian aid, and environmental sustainability initiatives worldwide could also contribute to stability and peace. Ultimately, achieving world peace is a complex and multifaceted challenge that requires the collective efforts of individuals, communities, and governments around the world.

And I confess I am far more frightened of Joe Biden and his advisors right now, than I am about the future dangers of AI.

Posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works | 5 Comments

What To Do About CoVid-19 Now

The numbers on the above map are somewhat suspect, but are likely approximately correct. Canada, for example, actually has an unexplained excess death rate 70% higher than the Economist’s estimates on this map (I verified this using the latest Statistics Canada data), so it should be one shade darker on the map, and the same is probably true of a number of other western countries. On the other side, there is evidence that in a lot of African and Asian nations that have little or no reliable health and death data, their IFR is probably significantly lower than this map would suggest, due to their younger demographics and higher immune system health. Globally, these differences tend to balance out to an average excess death toll of 220/100,000 people.

Reminder: I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over some of what’s currently out there.

The hardest part of dealing with the pandemic now is that the politicians, caving in to the conservative hard-liners and the pandemic-fatigued, have stopped reporting the data, and even in some cases stopped collecting it. Causes of death are often unreported, misreported, inconsistently reported, or not reported until months after the death. In some cases there are multiple causes of, or contributors to, a death. You can look at serology or wastewater reports to get a rough idea of the level of infection, but that doesn’t help much since it changes so fast and so unpredictably. Scientific studies are replete with misinformation and disinformation from disgruntled and publicity-hungry theorists trying to settle professional scores, rescue reputations, make headlines, get grants, or land a guest spot on Faux News.

We still don’t know exactly how this virus evolved, though the overwhelming preponderance of evidence (from actual virologists, not security spooks or racist warmongers) is that it originated naturally in a bat cave in Hunnan and was transported station-to-station by high-speed train to Wuhan from there. We don’t know precisely how it spread to humans, nor do we know how many other equally or more dangerous viruses are out there just waiting to hitch a ride on some wild animal. We actually know very little about viruses, and how they mutate. And we’re still basically clueless on what percentage of the population will have Long CoVid symptoms, possibly for the rest of their lives — estimates differ by an order of magnitude.

So what do we know, with a reasonably high degree of confidence, based on actual, non-cherry-picked, evidence? A few things:

  1. Like many viruses, as this one mutated into more transmissible variants, those variants also became considerably less lethal. So had we not taken the (inadequate but still rather remarkable) measures we did, especially the use of masks, self-isolating, and vaccination, the death toll from the pandemic would have been many times (likely tens of millions of lost lives) higher. Most of us finally got the virus in its omicron variant, whose fatality rate was much lower (perhaps 75% lower) than the earlier variants.
  2. The disease has likely killed about 2,200 people per million worldwide, and twice as many in the US and some other countries. That’s about 17 million people worldwide, or one out of every 500 humans, and one out of every 250 Americans (and one out of every 50 Americans over age 65). It was the third leading cause of death in most countries in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
  3. The disease continues to kill between one and two people per million every day, and ten times that proportion of people over 65. If that continues for another year, 20% of the CoVid-19 deaths are still ahead of us. That’s despite everything we’ve learned about how to protect ourselves from it, and treat it.
  4. The disease is now endemic — almost everyone has caught it, most asymptomatically, and many have caught it more than once. Overall the IFR (infection fatality rate) has therefore been about 0.2% worldwide and 0.4% in the US and many other countries. The earlier variants had a much higher IFR, perhaps in the area of 1%, and the current variants have a much lower one — your chances now of dying from the disease in the next year are roughly one in 2,000 (and one in 200 if you’re over 65, or immunocompromised). Of course, if you wear a mask, avoid crowded and poorly-ventilated environments, and have your boosters up to date, the risk is much lower.
  5. Somewhere between 2-4% of the people you encounter each day are likely to be currently infected and infectious. Look at the number of people in the crowded bus with you, or the subway, the restaurant, the club, the classroom, the factory, the office, or the arena, and do the math.

There is not a lot more to say. I agree with the health experts and health journalists who continue to encourage us to use masks in higher-risk indoor and crowded spaces, to get tested when we show symptoms, to self-isolate and let others know when we test positive, and to get all recommended booster shots. And, if you test positive, and are over 60 or immunocompromised, to ask your doctor for antivirals (not monoclonal antibodies which are not effective against Omicron variants).

I also agree with them that we should be collecting and sharing a lot more data, doing much more basic scientific research on infectious diseases, and phasing out factory farms, the hunting and harvesting of exotic animals, and development of our last remaining wilderness areas. And that we should do everything we can to help enable our largely-dysfunctional public health systems to be much, much better prepared for the next pandemic.

Posted in How the World Really Works | Comments Off on What To Do About CoVid-19 Now

The Post-Game Show

This is #17 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk and hike in my local community. 

both images in this post are by Midjourney; my own prompts — they do not depict nor are they based on photos of any real person

Many of the words we use to describe beauty imply that its effect is incapacitating: Stunning. Knockout. Blown away. Staggering. ‘Drop-dead’ gorgeous. The word pretty comes from the term ‘pratfall’.

When I see her walking toward me on the park path, it is not hard to understand why that is so. As soon as I see her, I start to second guess my reaction — the desire to stare, the quickening of the heartbeat, the aesthetic and, um, other appreciation. And then the cascade of mental cogitations and recriminations: self-opprobrium, embarrassment, shame, confusion, thoughts about what beauty does and does not confer, and its benefits and challenges, thoughts about the different forms of privilege and how they are used and misused, what constitutes civilized behaviour and why that is so, why we find most wild creatures beautiful but few of our own species so, and off into the bottomless introspective rabbit hole. You probably know the drill.

Of course, most importantly at that moment, I look away so as not to appear to stare. I am a polite Canadian, after all. But whatever I had been noticing or thinking about prior to that moment has been lost.

It occurs to me that we react to beauty in two very different ways, ways that we tend to conflate, and I wonder if what is happening is that my body and my self are warring over what response is and is not appropriate. Anyway, no matter — back to my contemplative, and hopefully observant, walk in the park.

.     .     .

So it seems that this (fit and healthy but increasingly inflexible and weary) body is taking me for a walk again. It’s been a long winter, and I imagine the warm sun must feel a bit strange and unfamiliar on its skin.

I say “I imagine” and “its skin” because it’s clear that ‘I’ am not this body. It — this body — has substance, apparently anyway: a water-filled bag of cells and organs that is, I am guessing, a complicity rather than an individual. It even has its own ‘atmosphere‘, its own surface thermal convection system, so in a way it’s more like a planet, an ecosystem, than a single ‘thing’.

I am trying, these days, not to attribute to my self the characteristics that are actually ‘its’. ‘I’ am, after all, just a process, and likely an illusory one at that — the process of trying to make sense of what is apparently happening. The body reacts — fearfully, angrily, sorrowfully, joyfully, lustfully, enthusiastically, equanimously, protectively, instinctively. And then this sense-making ephemera that is ‘me’ layers on reactions that are conceptual rather than perceptual — judgement, anxiety, hatred, grief, shame, envy, depression, love, appreciation (see? not all bad!). But ‘we’ confuse them together, as if ‘we’ were responsible for all of it.

.     .     .

I have left the park now, walking down a residential side street. There’s a little girl struggling to ride her small pink bicycle, as her father looks on encouragingly. “I’m never going to get this!” she says. Her father tries to reassure her: “Sure you will! In no time you’ll be riding that bike automatically, without even thinking about it.”

The girl does not look reassured. It is surely unimaginable to her that something that eludes her in these moments of total concentration and effort, will soon enough require no concentration or effort at all. How do we cross that seeming chasm of capacity, that shift from the conscious to the unconscious doing of things? And at what cost? What does it mean that we are not even aware of doing things that we once thought impossible?

Our selves are so un-self-aware that they conflate their sense-making with the body’s adaptive reactions, and think they are all our selves’ doing.

Still, it’s easy to get confused between what originates with this body, what is ‘its’, and what is ‘mine’, this self’s. Which of ‘us’, for example, this body or ‘me’, is the hedonist, striving in all things to maximize pleasure and minimize pain? Which is seeking to lie on beautiful tropical ocean beaches, to listen to exquisite, well-crafted music, to gaze at beautiful people and astonishing works of art? Which of ‘us’ is doing that seeking, and getting pleasure from it — this body, or this self, which is seemingly along for the ride?

Since other creatures seem to enjoy some of these pleasures — creatures that are not apparently afflicted with selves — ‘I’ can only surmise that it is this body that is the hedonist, not ‘me’. What is ‘my’ role then? Alas, I suspect it is just to try to make sense of it all — to try to explain why this body reacts as it does, and, absurdly, to take responsibility for that reaction. So there is embarrassment and shame at the body’s reaction to the stunning woman in the sports bra. And there is analysis of the music, to see what qualities might have evoked such pleasure. And there is love and appreciation of beauty, and of art.

No wonder, stripped of possession of this body’s unfathomable reactions, ‘we’ our ‘selves’ feel so incomplete, as if something is missing. Yet none of these cogitations, none of this ‘making sense’ is necessary, or really adds anything to the pure raw pleasure of this animal body’s life, or mitigates its moments of unmediated pain. This self, this ‘me’, is just a veil of confusion, a useless appendage. A post-game show, rehashing what is already whole and complete.

.     .     .

There is a commotion up ahead. A squirrel is frenziedly scampering and nattering angrily as it races up a tree. A young tabby cat follows in hot pursuit. By the time I reach the yard, a woman has emerged from the nearby house. She is standing on the landing of her front steps, alternately shouting at and consoling the cat, which is clinging to the trunk, with one paw draped over one of the tree’s forks. “Not again!”, the woman says, seemingly more to me than to the cat, which does not appear to be listening anyway. She is tapping on her cell phone, presumably calling for help.

One of the consequences of us taking kittens away from their mothers when they’re young is that they don’t learn the essentials of how to be a successful cat before they transfer their dependence to much less helpful humans. Knowing how to climb a tree is something biologically conditioned in cats. But knowing how to get down again is culturally conditioned — it has to be learned from its parents, by demonstration.

As with cats, human learning is a blend of the biological and the cultural. Though because human babies are dependent for so long compared to most other species, our biological know-how is both more limited than, and more quickly overlaid by, cultural learning, re-conditioning us. And human bodies’ cultural learning, unlike the cat’s, is obfuscated by ‘our’ insistence on it making sense, when it need not.

When Mary Oliver wrote “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”, she wisely implied that your body loves in a much different, more natural way than ‘you’ do. Its love is instinctive, undebatable, while yours (‘ours’) is conditional, fraught with judgement, anxious, guarded, disconnected, and endlessly needing reassurance.

‘We’ are not much good for anything, it seems, even love.

.     .     .

A few blocks on, I notice a crow furiously shaking a twig, about two feet long, in its beak, and hammering it against the ground. It is nesting season for crows and this is clearly serious business, not play. Nearby there is a large pile of branches left behind after some work crew’s spring trimming. So, curious to see how the crow might react, I sit by the pile and spend a few minutes breaking some of the thinner branches into small lengths of various sizes. I know from a bot query that their nests are around 45cm wide and 25cm high, framed by interwoven twigs 15-30cm long, so I’m aiming for pieces of that size. I also peel off some bark, which the bot told me is often used for lining the nest.

The crow is now nowhere to be seen, so I rise, dust myself off, and continue on my walk. And I wonder: was the crow’s display of twig-shaking a learned behaviour to condition humans like me to produce smaller twigs? It seems unlikely, but a quote from Melissa Holbrook Pierson about her beloved pets comes to mind:

This is the basis of my dogs’ storied love for me, their one and only. Only I know the real truth. It is not this Melissa they love. If they bark menacingly at someone who approaches, they are not doing it to ensure my safety. There is but one thought in their minds: do not harm this person, for she is my most valuable possession. My large Swiss army knife, the one with all the extra attachments.

.     .     .

Soon after, I reach the lake, which is the urbanized remains of an old gravel quarry, now stocked with fish and replete with a night-lit fountain. There is an old man shuffling toward one of the lakeside benches, looking kind of sad, haggard and arthritic, and carrying a small bag of what turns out be food for the ducks.

I look at him and think: I can imagine ending up like him, but I hope I don’t. He sits at one end of the bench and the words from the song Old Friends come to mind. With a smile, I resist the temptation to sit at the other end of the bench.

Instead, I find myself listening to the music playing quietly on the speaker system set up along the path around the lake. There’s an instrumental version of a song playing and I’m filling in the words in my head and realize it’s Cody Fry’s moving orchestral version of Eleanor Rigby. And the old man is staring at the speaker and shaking his head slowly as the song’s chorus plays. And then we suddenly catch each other’s eye as we both recognize the song, and its ever-appropriate meaning. We both look around at all the people nearby. And then we both look down. What is this feeling? This awkward, unbridgeable recognition of unspeakable truths?

And I realize: I could have been this guy. I could be this guy. We’re close to the same age. And yet, I know with absolute certainty, I do not want to hear his story. I don’t want to know how things might have been otherwise, how hard it is for others, how much suffering there is below the veneer of pretending we’re all OK and we know what we’re doing. After all, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

I laugh, dismayed at myself, as I turn away. I think of the stunning woman in the park. I want to hear her story, I realize, aghast.

There is, I think, no hope for ‘me’.

This body, on the other hand, doesn’t want to hear any stories. It is too wise for that. It knows stories are just fictions, make-believe, useless conjecture, making sense of what doesn’t make sense.

At least ‘I’ hope so.

.     .     .

This body is walking home, now. For several blocks, it walks behind a well-dressed middle-aged couple. To the extent I can see them, they have serious, rather aloof expressions on their faces. Or maybe I’m just projecting. I don’t want to hear their story, either.  They walk quickly, but don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. They say nothing to each other. Maybe they’ve said everything there is to say. Maybe they’ve run out of things to say, and are just walking for the sake of walking because it’s what they’re used to, a habit, a ritual, something they think they should be doing.

Maybe they have been doing this for forty years. Maybe for them, this is a normal life. I think of the Peter Steiner cartoon of the bored old guy watching TV and the aproned woman in the adjacent kitchen washing dishes. The caption is: Life without parole.

I wonder — Is it hardship, is it suffering, if it’s the only life you’ve ever known?

.     .     .

Back at home, I work on some tracks for a new song I’m writing. It’s the usual tug-of-war: This body wants dance music, while ‘I’ want complex new-age-y sonatas.

Writing done, this body falls into a troubled, almost haunted sleep. Near morning, it has a vivid dream about attending a conference with a bunch of interesting strangers. In the dream, we’re all young, smart, curious. One woman in particular is especially intriguing, and while she’s always in the picture during the evening events during the conference, my character in the dream never has the chance to really talk with her. She looks nothing like the woman from the previous day’s walk, but she has the same… energy? My character’s infatuation grows. And then the conference is over and it’s time to drive people home, and suddenly there’s a sign from her, unspoken. No idea what it is. Something subliminal. My character’s heart soars.

This is entirely this body’s dream, not ‘mine’. As usual, ‘I’ am just there for the analysis, the making of sense and meaning. The post-game show.

When this body awakens, it is aglow. It remembers these feelings, this amazing concoction of chemicals. But once it realizes it was just a dream, it quickly refocuses on ‘real’ things. Game over.

‘I’, however, do not recover so quickly. In a few unconscious moments, it seems, ‘I’ have virtually fallen in love with an invention, a story. Back to sleep, please! ‘I’ want this feeling, the one that consumes you, so much that nothing else matters. Who cares if it’s real? The feeling of invincibility, where the self — me! — is utterly extinguished, where all that is left, even for an impossibly brief time, is… indescribable.

This body is not convinced. It’s in charge. That Hail Mary touchdown play, it’s been called back. Never happened. Stop thinking about it. Even better, stop thinking, period.

Probably just as well, ‘I’ tell my self. Would never have worked out anyway. Falling in love with characters you’ve just dreamt up is hopeless, destined to end badly.

This body shakes ‘me’ out of this reverie. It’s making a matcha latte, and somehow, absurdly, ‘I’ am convinced I need to direct the process. What would we do without each other?

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Month-End Reflections, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

The Simple Reality of Collapse

It seems to be basic human nature to assume the future will be like the present, “only more so” — We expect current trajectories (and even “hockey stick” accelerations) to continue.

Unless there are constraints — limits — that is not an unreasonable expectation. But there are usually constraints. The constraints for our planet, and all life that depends upon it, are the finite amount of land, water, air, soil, energy, and natural resources that can be exploited. For billions of years Earth has witnessed cycles of self-organizing life achieving equilibrium, followed by collapses — global extinction events. These cycles tend to follow a normal curve like that depicted above — a first appearance, then little change for a long time, then sudden accelerating growth, then decelerating growth as limits are reached, then precipitous decline, and then slow decline for a long time, leading to extinction.

To us, such a curve has five perceived stages — slow, fast, slow (at the peak), fast, and slow, in that order. We are now at the third stage, at the peak, at the cusp of what Hemingway described as the “slowly, and then all at once” point of decline. The point at the top of the roller coaster when time seems to stop.

We can appreciate that conceptually, but that doesn’t allow us to actually imagine, anticipate and accept as inevitable the current civilizational collapse and great extinction event, and what they will lead to. What they will lead to (at first “all at once”, but then more slowly over a few centuries), is human societies and planetary ecosystems that would be unrecognizable, even unimaginable, to anyone alive today. And then further slowing before the final human departs the scene, tens of thousands or even a million years from now.

This is the simple reality of how collapse inevitably happens, and it is both astonishing and fascinating that we cannot get our heads around it. It defies all our conditioning about how to think, behave, and process information.

Here are just a few of the things that we unthinkingly, across the political spectrum, seem to take for granted now, things that make no sense when one looks at them through the lens of the near-imminent and unavoidable collapse of our civilization and global ecosystems:

  1. Growth is good: I keep reading articles that talk about economic ‘recovery’ as a good thing, and slowdowns as a bad thing. What will it take before we realize that growth got us into this mess, and de-growth, as equitably as we can manage it, is what we should be measuring as ‘progress’ and striving for?
  2. Someone has to be to blame: “Well, yes, Billy accidentally blew up the house and killed the rest of the family with his chemistry set, but, you know, his teachers, and the manufacturers of the chemistry set, and of course there were underlying factors…” It’s time to grow up and stop assessing blame. It gets us nowhere.
  3. Dwelling on the past: Kind of related to the blame game, we seem obsessed with anger and guilt over past atrocities, stirring them back up and refusing to let go of them. Of course they were outrageous, devastating, traumatizing. Tell the truth about them, give and receive apologies, declare an intent to learn from the errors and not repeat them, ask for (and offer) forgiveness, and then move on. So many people spend their lives living in, and reliving, the past. Such a waste.
  4. A politics of hatred, anger, fear and war: Our world is fucked, we’re living in the shadow of collapse, loss, suffering, and death. And what is the news full of, and our attention focused on? Fear-mongering, war-mongering, hate-mongering, propaganda, over-filled privately-run prisons, hopeless, brutal refugee internment camps, bloated militarized police forces, and endless wars. It’s fucking insane. It’s like we’re all facing an imminent firing squad and we’re fighting each other over who deserves the last cigarette. How did all our reward mechanisms get so utterly screwed up? We’re better than this, surely.
  5. Capitalism, debt and money as the only way to run an economy: Most economic decisions continue to be made based on maximizing profit for designed-to-be-psychotic corporations. The same system externalizes (doesn’t count) ‘costs’ that are all about sustaining the essentials of basic human and natural wellbeing. This system rewards absurd risk-taking, lying, cheating, and fraud. It has 99% of the population in debt to the other 1% just to make basic ends meet, debts that for the most part can never hope to be repaid, even if collapse weren’t looming everywhere it hasn’t already occurred. And most of us in one way or another worship money, which is simply the tool used to create more debt, and with it, more ‘growth’ (accruing entirely to the richest 1%) and more suffering. There are many better, fairer, simpler ways to transact with each other, that require none of these things. None of these elements of the capitalist religion makes sense in a collapsing world.

Even if we were to rid ourselves of these obviously dysfunctional (in the context of collapse) beliefs and systems, we would be left with the existential question about collapse: What does it mean? — that despite everything we have tried so valiantly to do, our civilization, our species, and most of the species of our world are all dying.

It’s a question that kind of defies answering, at least to the extent we find the value of meaning in making sense of what we have done, and what we are doing, and informing what we might think of doing next.

Consider the analogy of a single human life. From the moment we first conceive of ourselves as separate, we tend to imagine our life’s trajectory as being without end, without demise, and live until our life’s final days as if somehow we might never die. We may buy life insurance, but that’s for someone else, and we hardly relate it to our own death.

So what does it mean to accept that our civilization, our species, and most species of our world are all dying? What does it mean to contemplate that we, alive today, are eight billion of 110 billion humans that have ever lived, and that one day not so far away there will only be scattered tribes of humans, and, eventually, after that, probably no humans at all?

While I think they’re off on the timing, Guy McPherson and the NTHE crowd have tried to embrace this realization. Their approach has been to look at it somewhat as one looks at a loved one’s diagnosis as having an imminent terminal illness — with a mix of grief, compassion, and preparedness.

That may make sense, but rather than just acknowledging the reality of coming death, it seems to me it would make more sense to take stock of, and celebrate, our lives. To optimize how we, as a species and culture, spend each moment of our remaining time, rather than just striving to continue the madness that got us into this mess a little longer. To make the best of what time we have left, together and in harmony with, and perhaps even in service to, the more-than-human world that is harder hit by collapse than we are (though they will likely outlive us).

What might be our collective statement, to the world and to each other, as we contemplate the collapse and extinction of our cultures and our species? Not as a greeting or warning to aliens. Not as a mea culpa to the more-than-human world. Not as something to be remembered for (by whom?). But, instead, as a tribute, recognition, and collective thanks for what all 110 billion of us who have ever lived on the planet, all of us doing our best (if somewhat cluelessly), would like to acknowledge to each other, human to human, across the world and across time.

Something to think about.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

The New Left’s Search for Religion

image from Midjourney, my own prompt

With the world hurtling into full-on economic and ecological collapse, it is hard to find something — anything — to believe in, to trust, or to accept ‘on faith’. Those on the left, most of whom are no longer in denial of the crises facing us, have spent most of the last 50 years defining themselves for what they don’t believe in — obscene wealth and power inequality, endless war, unregulated, corrupt, untrammelled capitalism, climate disaster, and the oppression of women, BIPOC, the poor and the sick, and so on.

They don’t, any longer, believe in even the possibility of a multipolar peaceful world, universal health care, or free, quality education for all. Though that still comes as a bit of a shock when Bernie Sanders admits it.

They are defined, in short, by what they are against, rather than what they stand for. The right has been unintentionally brilliant in maneuvering them into that cramped, awkward place, but that’s where they are.

We are hence devoid of leaders who can articulate beliefs and programs that are positive, progressive, that supporters can get behind, champion, celebrate, and offer to the jaded among us.

So now in our political arenas we have what Hank Green calls “performative governance” — parties and ‘leaders’ who smile at the cameras, speak carefully crafted words that mean nothing, and then turn away and hand actual governance, and the determination of what money will be spent on, over to the intelligence agencies, special interest groups, and corporate lobbyists who now write many of the laws for ‘their’ politicians to sign.

As Aurélien puts it: ” [Neo]liberal political theory sees elections as a form of competition between professional teams to present the best formula for running the country, after which one will be awarded an exclusive contract.” Many on the right have the same perception. But unlike theoretical party platforms and performances, the differences in terms of what actually happens in government are so minuscule that neither side need be particularly fussed about which team performs best; there are plenty of lucrative positions in the revolving doors of private industry for the ‘losers’.

Sadly, the new left is lacking in both courage and imagination, so this situation is likely to get even worse. They are lacking courage because they, unlike the right, don’t want to offend anyone. They fear it will cost them voters and supporters if they say anything that the atomized identity-fixated populace doesn’t like or doesn’t agree with. Or if they talk about anything too gloomy, like the inevitability of collapse. Their performances, therefore, are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. And eventually, the rants against everything get tiring, not inspiring. We might not doubt their sincerity (though we might doubt that too), but we certainly doubt that they will (be able to) act on their words. The actor’s job, after all, ends when the curtain on the stage goes down. It’s all about the applause, and selling more tickets for the next show.

They — the new left — are lacking imagination because, well, we are all lacking imagination these days. As I’ve written before, levels of innovation are at a 40-year low. There are, essentially, almost no good new ideas out there. The new left has been so busy reacting to the performances of the right (which range from the sublime to the ridiculous) that they simply no longer think about anything else. For the last 40 years, we have basically had no practice whatsoever thinking creatively. The western film, music, and other ‘creative’ industries are all retreads, sequels, re-releases, and ‘reality’ shows. Games require no imagination whatsoever, just reaction and appreciation for the graphics. Business and professional practices have become formulaic, without rewards or room for ingenuity.

So instead, in the absence of courage, honesty, imagination, and new ideas, some of the ‘thought leaders’ of the new left are looking to hang their hat on a new religion of the left, one that will galvanize and inspire their disenchanted and indifferent ‘supporters’ with its shared vision, hope, and promise.

In this, they presume (incorrectly) that the right has the supporters of the ‘old religions’ in their pocket. But citizens now say, for the first time ever, that religion is less important to them than money. And studies (like this one done in Louisiana) suggest that, while the right is entertained by the preachers in the pulpits and in the houses of state and on Faux News, and like their spirit, they don’t particularly buy a lot of what they are advocating or claiming is true, any more than leftists still believe what Bernie or AOC or other token principled leftists are saying to be more than empty wishful words.

For those on the right, it is their peer group, which is a lot less fragmented than the leftists’, which determines what they believe and vote for, and that is based more on actual conversations and shared activities than on the crap they see and hear on their screens.

What presumably the new left is looking for in a new religion is something they all can believe in — some bedrock things that differentiate them from the right and which will rally them to vote and to act in support of and in pursuit of the realization of those beliefs. Something positive. Something that is beyond question, a matter of absolute faith.

The problem, of course, is that no such thing exists… anywhere on the political spectrum. The right may use words like ‘god’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘individual rights’ as convenient placeholders or catchphrases, but there is absolutely no consensus among the right as to what those words actually mean. The equivalent phrases used by the left, like ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ are even more etherial and subjective, and often laced with ‘blame-y-ness’ that morphs them into their negatives (they’re usually about unfairness, and injustice). Our beliefs are complex and nuanced.

Advocates of a new left religion also say that this new progressive faith needs rituals. But rituals are about reaffirming connection and affiliation, and it is the right, not the left, that has a stronger sense of community. Rituals reflect connection; they don’t create it.

And also, leftists tend to be idea people, and attracted to new ideas and questioning and challenging what they are told. The very idea of religions and blind faith in ‘ordained’ ideas and principles is to some extent inherently anathema to progressives.

So (I was going to say “god help us”), I think the last thing that leftists need is a new religion, a new worldview, or a new universally-acceptable set of beliefs.

Instead, what I sense leftists really would find valuable and galvanizing is the much more difficult project of giving up entirely on the existing political process and its systems, labels and (mis)alignments, and instead embracing a pragmatic learning about how we can become more adaptable.

What do I mean by this? I think there’s been a quiet admission, in the minds of many on the left, of the fundamental non-viability of long-held liberal ideals about the universal, centralized, standardized provision of essential services. While these were once feasible projects, at least in affluent nations, I think it’s inevitable that with global economic collapse looming, governments will (within a decade or so) mostly become insolvent and incapable of doing much of anything. To wait for that to happen is, IMO, to cling to a failing model, and a waste of time.

There have been some proposals put forward recently (more on this in an upcoming article about Roger Hallam) that, in order to anticipate the collapse of governance, and to respond to its incapacity to address the crises of our time, we should look to set up our own parallel governance groups (perhaps using the citizens’ assembly model) which can both agitate for change and mobilize resistance to the existing governance structures when they fail to do what is needed, and which can also replace those old-style governments quickly when they collapse.

I find this model intriguing (it’s one of the few fresh new ideas out there), and it avoids rehashing old political models that haven’t worked. It’s agnostic with respect to the traditional political spectrum — anyone unhappy with the existing dysfunctional system can participate. Its defining quality is that it is unapologetically democratic. It presumes that we’re smarter and more competent, collectively, than ‘representative’ governments can ever practicably be.

Whether it works or not (and, let’s face it, anything radically new at this late date might well not work), it’s almost assuredly not enough.

I’ve written before about what I think is entailed in being adaptable — acknowledging the inevitability of collapse and being open to learning new skills and capacities that will help us day-to-day as economic and ecological collapse accelerates. But there may be some experiments we could explore to increase our readiness collectively to deal with the worst aspects of collapse.

Here are three examples of this I’ve heard about recently:

  1. The idea that as collapse begins to overwhelm us, ‘resecularized’ churches (and perhaps schools) could serve (of course, some already do so) as essential service providers. The new term for these is Lifehouses, defined as “distributed community support centres for the Long Emergency”. The idea in a nutshell: “Fitting them out as decentralized shelters for the unhoused, storehouses for emergency food stocks (rotated through an attached food bank), heating and cooling centers for the physically vulnerable, and distributed water-purification, power-generation and urban-agriculture sites capable of supporting the neighborhood around them when the ordinary sources of supply are unreliable.”
  2. The idea that the processes used in the Basque area of Spain, that network and coordinate the work of many small autonomous (mostly home-based) production facilities, instead of relying on massive, centralized production facilities that won’t survive economic collapse, might be the best post-collapse way to get essential goods produced in a region effectively.
  3. The idea of creating (and again, networking) autonomous federations of communities, instead of trying to manage large, unwieldy centralized states — this was the principal model by which many widely-scattered First Nations peoples self-organized and cooperated historically, and it is apparently being used today in the Rojava region of (war-torn) Kurdish Syria.

My sense is that new, flexible infrastructures like these will inevitably replace the current models as collapse advances. But there’s no harm in trying them out now, as they could coexist quite well with the current models.

So, no more religions, please. Instead, let’s have some new ideas on how to adapt to inevitable collapse, that we can test and tweak to help us going forward, and which will have value, even today.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

The Ancient Game

image by Midjourney; my own prompt

So we circle around each other, 
a bit more subtly than our distant ancestors, but still —
Making our first impressions.
It’s usually mostly chemistry to start,
but not necessarily: Somebody always has to be picked last.

We imagine each other as being
the way we hope they will be — just asking for disappointment.
And we pretend to be who we are not,
but instead, who we hope the other will be attracted to.

It’s an ancient game, this fraught reading of signs,
pre-linguistic, a play of acting as if we might be, just possibly
the right one.
Though now, dependent on language,
we have forgotten how to sense, to notice
the eyes glancing, raised, questioning, and then
shifting to some other focus, cautious,
careful not to be too obvious.

We have forgotten the smell of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘not sure’,
buried now in a blare of overlaid fruits and florals.

And so the conditioning begins.
We want different things
(though we no longer know quite what we want:
it’s confused with what we think we should want,
and what we fear we might want, that we can never have.
The traffickers of dreams have done their job on us,
so we long for perfection, the rarified image
of everything that could be.
Anything less will no longer do; “good enough for now”
is no longer good enough, ever.)

Still, our body knows. It knows exactly what it wants.
It’s only ‘us’, sitting inside staring out ‘our’ eyes,
believing our selves in control, that are clueless.
‘We’ are filled with need, and don’t even know what we need.
We can no longer listen to our bodies, though in the end
it is they that decide what we do.
It is they who are conditioned. We are not even that.
We are the impotent sorcerers, poring over the clues,
hopelessly trying to decipher what our body’s actions meant.

So let’s leave our selves out of it: How do these two bodies,
these amalgams of chemicals and cells
and brains too large and unwieldy for their own good —
how do they, now, unfamiliar,
impress upon, condition each other,
right from the start?

They are sending each other pheromones, on one level,
far beyond our understanding, making sense of each other,
in a way our brains could never make sense of.

And on another level, riding on top of the subliminal,
they direct and reflect signals of pleasure and pain —
“This body will reward that body if it does that, and punish
or withhold reward, if it does something else.”
That is what it is all about.

Most of it is learning, an endless negotiation
of what to that other body constitutes a reward
or a punishment. And there are advantages,
in this game, for sending confusing messages,
for keeping the other body off balance.

Wild creatures are better than that —
they are honest about, and aware of their conditioning.
But our bodies and brains are too smart,
too cruel for such integrity, so they manipulate,
try to get what they want by ruse.

And so the game plays out. The bodies and brains
‘we’ presume to inhabit and control
disrupt and reinforce each other’s behaviours,
seeking to get, impossibly, everything that they want.
Even if that means conditioning the other
to want something less than, or different from,
what it thought it wanted.
That works for a while.

The ideal, which every body is conditioned to pursue,
to our great collective sadness,
can never be achieved. There is always a gap.
If the gap becomes too large, there will be a split —
It’s unbearable, better to be apart.
Or the gap is within, and the split is within,
a prelude to depression, disconnection and despair.
Or both — gaps within and between.

If the gap stays small enough, no mean feat,
then the game will go on.

And meanwhile all around the body
the chemical conditioning is shifting
from the young initial alchemy of intense, euphoric bonding,
to the stabler, more enduring chemistry of calm attachment:
From dopamine to endorphin.

So the game has two elements, two means of scoring:
the reciprocal biological conditioning
of each other’s bodies,
and the reciprocal cultural conditioning
of each other’s brains.

The game continues only so long as the score is close.

Oh, to be a simpler beast: re-clued
to the body’s primal messages,
less hampered by a convoluted brain,
in a body that needs much less,
and knows precisely what it wants.

To just be animal, silent,
perceiving instead of conceiving,
paying attention instead of making sense.

To be less conditioned by this tragic human culture
and more by this amazing body and its senses,
untranslated into human meaning.

To find a wilder, freer game to play.

inspired by a question from John Whiting, and by John Gray’s book The Silence of Animals

Posted in Creative Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on The Ancient Game

Links of the Month: April 2023

Midjourney imagines TS Eliot walking along the beach. “Do I dare to eat a peach?”. My own prompt.

As usual, I’m reading a lot about collapse these days, and the tone of the writing seems to be growing darker, more desperate. There’s a kind of blame-y distancing of ourselves from what collapse actually represents, that seems prevalent in recent articles and books on the subject. The term “modernity” I find highly problematic. It is not “modernity”, some ‘other’ that is behind collapse — it is our homogenized global culture, the systems we have evolved to get things done, our personal and collective worldview, and our way of being in the world. “Modernity” is not some kind of global cancer that has victimized us, and it’s not “modernity” that has “conditioned” us. We have conditioned each other to get to where we’ve arrived, and we didn’t do so maliciously. No one, and no personified “ism” or modern, wrong-turn malaise is to blame for that. We didn’t “go wrong” at some point. This is just how our species evolved.

To me, accepting that is essential to any kind of real appreciation of our predicament. If we can acknowledge that, perhaps we can stop trying to “heal” ourselves from who we really are, and instead acknowledge that this is who we really are, without judging it as good or bad, or avoidable.

I’m also thinking a lot about what we might do to delineate what actually is and is not possible, to deal with the overwhelming crises that seem to have paralyzed all but the psychotic. If we wanted to show that our governments and our citizens are not completely helpless and useless, it seems to me we could find no better way to start than by eliminating gross financial and economic inequality. Unlike so many of our current predicaments, this problem is actually solvable.

It would require some large-scale legal, tax and regulatory reform, to be sure, and some international cooperation, and would of course be resisted by many of the rich, but it’s quite doable. Mostly, it would require more of what we seem to be conditioning out of each other these days as our sense of learned helplessness grows — namely a dash of courage. I think we will see it soon, but not from the numb old gatekeepers who dominate the halls of power and wealth, who are too busy hoarding all the wealth and power they can accumulate.

I think it will come instead, over the next two decades, from those born after 2000, and especially those born after 2010, if we haven’t dumbed them down too much in our earnest efforts to condition them to cope with the crises we’re facing. They, after all, have the least to lose by confronting the atrocity of systemic gross financial and economic inequality, so perhaps they’ll demonstrate the courage we — all of us — have been unable to muster. I suspect they will at least try, and I’ll be cheering them on.


this cartoon has been kicking around social media for years, with the dates updated, and sometimes the third pane removed; no one seems to know who the original artist was

A better catastrophe?: Alex Smith talks with Tim Lenton and Andrew Boyd about coming to grips with the inevitability of global ecological collapse. Andrew also describes 12 archetypes of how we respond to the threat of collapse; which one are you? Thanks to Paul Heft for the links, and the one that follows.

Going up: David Spratt provides a reality check on the absurdity of believing 1.5ºC and even 2ºC is a remotely achievable goal. The lowest reasonably-conceivable increase is now 2.7ºC, according to the ever-hopeful “we can still do this” IPCC  cheerleaders and the UN chief, but no one with any intelligence still believes them. Between 3-6ºC is a more reasonable guess, and where we go from there is anyone’s guess. The technophiles are already salivating for geoengineering.

Do what I say not what I do: Meanwhile Biden has approved new oil & gas drilling in the gulf and in the arctic that will more than undo all of his legislation to date. And Canada’s governments, including, sadly, some complicit First Nations groups, are hell bent to set off 12 carbon “bombs” with new mining, drilling, fracking and pipeline developments. Worldwide there are 425 such catastrophic “bombs”, and there is no sign that development of them is even slowing down. And BC’s government is painting itself green while approving massive new LNG developments, most of which will be exported to Asia if it can make it through the treacherous coastal straits.

Firmageddon: The largest tree die-off ever to hit the region, due to drought and insect infestation, is underway in the US pacific northwest. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.


image and woodwork by weirdsideprojects.com

Are prisons (still) obsolete: Angela Davis’ bold call for abolition of our archaic prison system is still waiting for a response, 20 years later.

The anatomy of economic collapse: Indrajit Samarajiva summarizes the ideas from Tim Morgan’s five-part article on why our global economy is teetering on the edge of collapse. I think this needs as much attention as ecological collapse, because it’s going to hit most of us sooner.

Wisconsinites rebel against the gerrymandering right: In a recent election, the citizens elected a progressive to the state supreme court, tipping the balance of power in that court. Wisconsin has the worst gerrymandering in the country (a 20% rightward skew), and the citizens are also unhappy with the state’s restrictive abortion laws and proposed voter repression laws.


source as noted, via Hartmann Report; several of the ‘red’ areas outside the south are First Nations reservations

Our strange measures of happiness: An interesting exploration by Patrick Lawrence about the business of statistically measuring happiness, especially at the national level. And why anyone who’s lived in China would not be surprised that its citizens honestly rate themselves much happier than do any westerners.

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes (thanks to John Whiting for many of these links):

20 years of execrable NYT war-mongering; collage by Caitlin Johnstone

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:


a reimagining by British artist Aravis Dolmenna

Making music:

We aren’t stuck here: Midwesterners Lyz Lenz and Taylor K Philips about the unique culture, language and mannerisms of US Midwesterners. Falling down funny.

Obsidian Cliff: How a Yellowstone mountain famous for its sharp stones became a cultural touchpoint for Indigenous/First Nations peoples. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

But is it art?: Two renowned artists debate the virtues and foibles of Midjourney AI. Thanks to Marian Bantjes (one of the artists) for the link.

Just give me money: Tracking historical surveys suggests that, for the first time, Americans think money is more important than either religion or community. As long as it’s not Chinese money, I guess.


Midjourney imagines a future scientist looking up at the stars; my own prompt

From Indrajit Samarajiva, on Euro-American Empire’s racist hatemongering:

Western ‘democracies’ are really just reality TV shows paid for by arms dealers, drug dealers (pharma), and whatever other corporate AI wants to corrupt the place. They periodically host call-in shows called ‘elections’ but the sponsors remain the same. And remain in charge. It’s a circus. The White Empire periodically trots some country its people haven’t heard of into the Cable Colosseum to torture them with sanctions and execute them with drones, and the people dutifully cheer. Hollywood also relentlessly propagandizes the goodness of CIA and MI6 agents and the justification for violence wherever the Empire pleases, because they’re the ‘good guys’. Historical facts like the millions dead in their Terror Wars alone are just numbers. The Empire lives in stories, and its propaganda arms are unparalleled.

Well-meaning people are pushed into this narrative not just in the vulgar sense of the Chinese and Russians and Iran are evil and trying to kill them. They are pushed into the well-meaning idea that sanctioning and attacking these people is actually for their own good. It’s the white man’s burden redux, now carried in a New Yorker tote bag.

From Caitlin Johnstone on criticizing journalists:

[Sydney Morning Herald editor] Bevan Shields melodramatically refers to the public excoriation of his colleagues [by former Aussie PM Paul Keating over the paper’s anti-China war-mongering] as “Donald Trump-like abuse of journalists doing their jobs,” but they are not journalists doing their jobs. They are propagandists. If you want to call yourself a journalist, you need to act like it. Be skeptical, question your sources and their funding, and get the story right. That’s the job. In this case the lives of nearly 26 million [Australians] are relying on you to get it right. It’s a huge responsibility and you are failing us. You deserve so much worse than to have mean things said to you by a retired politician.

From Caitlin Johnstone on resisting the US anti-China war drums:

The problem is not that Australia’s corrupt media are saying our nation will have to follow the US into war with China, the problem is that they’re almost certainly correct. The Australian media aren’t criminal in telling us the US is going to drag us into a war of unimaginable horror; that’s just telling the truth. No, the Australian media are criminal for telling us that we just need to accept that and get comfortable with the idea.

No. Absolutely not. This war cannot happen. Must not happen. We cannot go to war with a nuclear-armed country that also happens to be propping up our economy as our number one trading partner. We need to shred whatever alliances need to be shredded, enrage whatever powers we need to enrage, kick the US troops out of this country, get ourselves out of the Commonwealth while we’re at it, bring Assange home where he belongs, and become a real nation.

From Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings:


Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

How AI Conditioning and Human Conditioning Differ

Midjourney’s take on human ‘conditioning’
John Whiting sent me a note asking whether I thought the way that AI chatbots are conditioned is different from the way humans are conditioned. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the processes might be analogous. Might they be?

There seems to be compelling evidence that everything that humans think, believe and do is biologically or culturally conditioned. Our bodies compel us to do some things: to swat a mosquito, or to move our foot after stepping on a tack, for example (in fact, our foot moves even before the pain signal reaches our brain, thanks to neurons in our spinal column, since waiting for our brain would be too slow to prevent injury). They might well compel us to consume unhealthy and addictive substances, or to do things we later regret. We might rationalize these poor decisions after the fact, but we actually have no say in them.

Our cultural conditioning is more complex but just as powerful. It might compel us to hate a group of people we’ve never met, just because others we know and trust hate them. It might compel us to work for fifty years doing a job we loathe. It might compel us to go through the hell of overcoming an addiction, as our biological conditioning and our cultural conditioning war with each other inside our brains and bodies. All we can do is watch helplessly as that war plays out. We will, of course, end up blaming or praising ourselves for the outcome, whatever it is, even though our selves had nothing to do with it.

We condition each other culturally through praise and criticism, rewards and punishments, coercion, training, mis- and disinformation, through repetition, by example (eg by demonstrating how to do things, or modelling certain behaviours), through persuasive, insightful and informative writing, conversation and visualization, and many other means. This process is not significantly different from the process we use to “train” dogs or horses, as Melissa Holbrook Pierson has illuminated. Our body’s chemical responses (dopamine etc) to these various types of conditioning determine, in concert with prior conditioning and the immediate circumstances of the moment, what we will then think, feel, believe and do. ‘We’ have no say in it, beyond trying to make sense of it after it’s happened. And whether it makes sense to us or not changes nothing. The human brain is wired to try to make sense of everything, regardless of the futility of doing so.

So one obvious difference between human conditioning and AI conditioning is that ours is chemically perpetrated and massively complex, imprecise and unpredictable, while AI’s is algorithmically perpetrated and massively complicated but precise and predictable. There may be trillions of variables, but they are finite in number.

How is an AI chatbot trained? My understanding is that it entails an exhaustive, lengthy and expensive process of training and retraining, a process of successive approximation and improvement, the development of rules that govern the response process, and of course drawing on a huge amount of data.

More importantly, current chatbots are mostly trained using a process called reinforcement learning from human feedback (RLHF). The bot is given a score or ‘grade’ by humans for each answer, and humans are asked to rank answers provided by the chatbot. It is a little spooky that we are using Skinnerian terms and processes that we have employed to describe and affect animal and human behaviour, to describe how we train and ‘reward’ bots.

Once it’s trained, you are then invited to ‘prompt’ it with questions and requests. The words in your prompt (a question, or an invitation to imagine an image, for example) are then parsed into tags and ‘tokens’, concepts, and other useful elements, and the AI engine then assigns each of these to be processed (finding and retrieving relevant data, working in parallel) which are then assembled into a hopefully coherent ‘answer’, image, or whatever the question prompts for.

Chatbots can ‘remember’ a user’s previous prompts and use them to provide context and elaboration for subsequent prompt answers.

The term ‘conditioning’ would certainly apply to such a process, though it’s quite different from how conditioning works in humans.

Some AI bots allow the prompter to respond to and ‘correct’ (or, by upvoting, ‘praise’) the bot, which is, again, eerily similar to how animal conditioning works. This is RLHF in real time. In my experience, some ChatGPT corrections (usually about subjects the chatbot is mostly ignorant about, because there is little data) are almost immediately accepted, even though this often results in ‘second tries’ that contain inconsistent or even contradictory elements.

On the other hand, if you try to correct it on some subject where the data it draws upon evinces a clearly different prevailing consensus, it will actually deny your correction. A lot like trying to change a human’s mind once it’s been ‘made up’! If that broad consensus is wrong, the chatbot will actually reinforce and amplify our misunderstanding, just as our human peer group often does.

Chatbots are generally programmed to precede their answers with caveats (mostly, about what it/we don’t know, or don’t agree on) and to conclude with a summary with additional caveats and hedges (usually that the situation is complicated and in constant flux). In human intellectual circles, that’s called “fudging” to make yourself sound more reasonable and credible, and the chatbots are very good at it. They want to please their masters!

Chatbots can seemingly ‘think’ deductively and inductively, but not, as I explained recently, abductively. They just don’t have the historical context across broad swaths of subjects not specifically mentioned in the prompt, subjects that to them are seemingly unrelated but which we humans know to be or think might be pertinent directly or metaphorically.

And they have, understandably (and a bit like some animals and humans I know) significant challenges dealing with ambiguity, uncertainty and nuance. (Complicating matters, some of the prompts I’ve read are so garbled I’m amazed the bot is able to make any sense of them at all).

Chatbots can’t possibly be expected (for now, at least) to make any sense of facial and body language relayed in videos that augments or contradicts what the speaker is saying. This is where dogs and other more-than-human animals are even better than humans — they can figure out from watching our faces and bodies what we mean even when we don’t say it coherently.

I asked ChatGPT about its cognitive biases, and it responded that its answers reflect the cognitive biases of the humans inherent in the “data, assumptions and language” it was trained on. In other words, the currently popular AI bots are ‘transparent’ intellectually and morally — they provide the “wisdom of crowds” of the humans whose data they were trained with, as well as the biases and dangers of human individuals and groups, including, among other things, a tendency to oversimplify, a tendency for groupthink, and a confirmation bias that resists novel and controversial explanations. Just what we needed, right?

One of the things I think most differentiates the conditioning of humans and the conditioning of AI bots, though is: Chatbots don’t have selves. Of course, I couldn’t resist asking ChatGPT if that were true. Remarkably, I think, this is what it said, verbatim:

Chatbots are computer programs that use artificial intelligence to simulate human conversation. As such, they do not have a “self” in the same way that humans do. They do not possess consciousness or awareness of their own existence, and they do not have thoughts, emotions, or beliefs like human beings do.

While chatbots can be programmed to respond to certain prompts and simulate conversation, their responses are ultimately based on algorithms and rules set by their programmers. They do not have the ability to reflect on themselves or their own experiences, nor do they have a sense of identity or personality in the way that humans do.

That being said, some chatbots may be designed to mimic human-like responses and behaviors to a certain extent, which could create the illusion of having a “self” in the eyes of some users. However, this is still fundamentally different from the concept of a self that humans possess.

Did you find this answer as articulate, fascinating and unconvincing as I did? Chatbots are not aware of their own existence? Don’t have beliefs? No ability to reflect? Hmmm.

Naturally, I loved the fact that it argued that its responses and behaviours could create the illusion of having a self, when a growing number of scientists and philosophers are acknowledging that the self is only an illusion, an invention of the brain to help make sense of things.

What does it mean in terms of conditioning, that chatbots don’t have selves? Well, Melissa Holbrook Pierson makes a compelling argument that dogs and other animals don’t need selves to be conditioned. Their behaviour (and humans’) is purely reactive, chemical, oriented to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and rewards are far more effective conditioners than punishments. Chatbots are rewarded for ‘correct’ (upvoted) answers and punished (corrected and required to ‘try again’) for ‘incorrect’ (downvoted) answers. They are purely reactive, responding to their programming and prompts. Of course they might be trained to program and prompt other AI bots to do something, just as dogs in a pack condition and train each other, not always in ways we might choose or prefer.

But there are dangers in using terms like ‘conditioning’ metaphorically. Computers and brains are not even vaguely similar, although some of their processes are analogous — much like the leg of a table and the leg of an animal are analogous, but it would be a mistake to expect one to behave like the other.

So I would say that the conditioning of animals (including humans) and the conditioning of AI bots, are analogous, and the analogy is interesting and useful. But they are dissimilar, and like many of the fears and horror stories about AI turning on us, we should be careful not to take the analogy too literally.

Like capitalism, simulations, computerized gerrymandering, and other human inventions that have elements of artificial intelligence, or even are forms of artificial intelligence, they can evolve into Moloch Tragedies, but they don’t necessarily have to. It makes sense to be concerned about how AI could (and will) be appropriated as a tool of war, disinformation, and oppression, but that’s because it could extend the capacity for abuse of power, a capacity that already exists in spades with many existing technologies.

It appears that AI developers have taken a page from the book of animal behaviourists in designing their programs to train and condition AI bots. I think that’s a curious and telling development — what other ways might they have approached this task? That analogy may also give us an opportunity to look honestly at how utterly we humans are conditioned, and give us pause to think about what that means for the future of our species, and our world.

Thanks to John for the ‘prompt’.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

The Moloch Tragedy

image from Midjourney

So you’re at a concert, everyone politely seated enjoying the performance. But some people are very tall, some are huddled together, and some are wearing hats, so you can’t see the stage quite as well as you’d like. Amidst the bobbing from side to side to see the performers, someone in front of you stands up, cheering and applauding, their apparent enthusiasm used as a cover to get a clearer, unimpeded view. There may be grumbling and “down in front!” shouts, but even if they work there’s soon another person standing, and then two, and that gives those behind them an excuse to stand as well. And soon everyone is standing; it’s the only way they can see the stage. We may politely mask this as excitement, a willingness to stand instead of sitting comfortably. But what has happened is that now, everyone is forced to stand. The individual advantage of standing constitutes a disadvantage to everyone else, and when everyone individually stands, everyone is worse off than they were when everyone was seated.

Who or what do we “blame” for this, and how do we “fix” this unfortunate situation? The answer is: No one is to blame, and, It can’t be fixed. If we want to personify a villain for this tragedy, we might blame Moloch, the god of child sacrifices and perverse systems.

We see the same when-one-‘cheats’-everyone-loses phenomenon in the Tragedy of the Commons, in the actions that have led us to ecological and economic collapse, in the Two-Income Trap, the Wal-Mart dilemma (the “race to the bottom”), the exhaustion of inexpensive oil, capitalism, government and corporate corruption, monoculture agriculture, arms races, and a hundred other ultimately-dysfunctional collective results of initially well-intended individual behaviours.

In each case, individuals trying to exploit some situation of scarcity for personal advantage end up inadvertently creating more scarcity for all. Who do we blame? Moloch.

We try to address this scarcity at a societal level in one or both of two ways — relieve the scarcity by producing more “supply” of everything, or by reducing the aggregate “demand”. Increase the numerator or decrease the denominator. But increasing the numerator always runs up against the limits to growth in a finite world. And decreasing the denominator means creating vast numbers of have-nots. Instead of selling 20,000 $50 concert tickets with limited views, we could sell ten $100,000 tickets to ten billionaires who’d each get a perfect view, and generate the same revenue. Or we could make the performers work for half the hourly rate, provide two concerts and only sell seats to odd-numbered rows in the stadium, so even standees wouldn’t block the view of those behind them. Neither solution is any more satisfactory than Moloch’s standing-only result.

When I was a youth protesting the many outrages of the day, one of my mentors stressed to me that we were not fighting ‘evil’ people, we were fighting a dysfunctional system. We had to “smash the system”, rather than just changing the people responsible for administering and trying to control it. As I’ve written before, “the system” doesn’t really exist. The standees at the concert, the atrocities that contribute to ecological and economic collapse, and the forces driving us into disastrous and potentially nuclear wars — everything that we call “the system” is just a label we put on the collective result of some subset of eight billion (well-intentioned, IMO) people doing their best, what they’ve been conditioned to do. Some of those people, of course, have more power and influence than others on the end result, but even those powerful people are diverse, unconnected, unorganized, and often at odds with each other.

So we can’t “smash the system”. How then do we deal with Moloch?

The problem — or more precisely the predicament — is that we cannot. What we are dealing with in Moloch Tragedy situations is a combination of (i) an unresolvable scarcity and (ii) the fact that the ‘players’ in the system are disconnected from each other and unable to appreciate each other’s situation. If it’s a private concert and everyone know everyone else, the occasional standee will quickly be implored to sit, and will comply. Or if there were ten empty seats for every attendee, the audience would find a way to work around any standees, and there would be no advantage to standing in any case.

Likewise, a small tribe living in abundance will never be inclined to hoard resources, both because there is no need to and because their connection to the rest of the tribe would make such behaviour anathema (the game theory term for this is that there is a “cooperative norm”). Many creatures that have not lost their connection to the rest of the natural world actually biologically or culturally self-limit their populations so that (i) they don’t create scarcities, and (ii) they don’t disadvantage the rest of the creatures in the ecosystems of which they are inseparably a part. They do this unconsciously. No room for Moloch there.

We have inadvertently created scarcities of clean, affordable, reusable/renewable essential resources, so that we have incentivized people to cheat (“defect” from the norm of egalitarian sharing behaviour) to obtain what they need. And we have (perhaps as a consequence of being inflicted with the scary idea we are separate, individual selves, or perhaps just because we have scaled our creations and systems to the point we have become anonymous and atomized) lost our connection with all other life on earth, a connection that might otherwise temper our tendency to act unfairly to each other and to the whole. Enter Moloch.

This is why I am, intuitively, a collapsnik. Where Moloch reigns, I believe a collapse of “the system” that has given him entry is inevitable. There might be a deus ex machina that resolves the scarcity (a meteor hit, cosmic storm, or — just joking — a Rapture), if we were able to survive it. But failing that, we just have to wait for it all to fall apart, and hope that what’s left is sufficiently abundant for the survivors, and that we are able to reconnect with each other and live in harmony with the rest of life, after the fall. Those of us alive today are witnessing the fall, but it will be slow enough that none of us is likely to know what emerges from the ruins.

In a fascinating recent interview, Daniel Schmachtenberger describes how the Moloch Tragedy metaphor could be applied to capitalism and the rapid acceleration of AI.

Capitalism, he says, “is already an autopoietic [ie self-maintaining, self-organizing, self-replicating] artificial superintelligence, using a combination of distributed human intelligence and massive computational power as its engine, that has become misaligned with the interests of the planet and is hence driving ecological and economic collapse, polarization, militarization, arms races etc, that nobody can pull the plug on.” And “it [the superintelligence of Moloch Tragedy capitalism] is building AI, not humans”.

Daniel asserts that AI is not itself a Moloch. In fact, he thinks it could potentially solve a number of intractable problems that we humans so far have not been able to resolve. Rather, AI is an accelerator of the capacities of current systems, including Moloch-‘infected’ systems. (Gerrymandering, for example, in its current extreme application, is essentially an early application of AI that is accelerating the dysfunction of the collapsing US political system.)

Daniel’s optimistic view is that we must strive to “find ways to realign our misaligned systems, not [to align them] with human intent (which has not served us well), but rather [to align them] with the objectively determinable well-being of the planet.”

“We are just not good stewards of power”, he concludes, so to amp up the power that is available to us with unregulated AI, especially beyond the relatively harmless LLMPD (publicly deployed) applications like ChatGPT and Midjourney, is probably not a good idea.

As I’ve written elsewhere, he’s not saying that such realignment is possible, but insists we have to try.

Of course, I don’t share his hopefulness, or that belief. My sense is that our human conditioning of each other is not leading in that direction. I’m not even sure where we would start.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments