Myhrvold’s Terrorism Paper

Nathan Myrhvold released a lengthy paper analyzing the technological nature of terrorism and critiquing the American strategy of counterterrorism thus far. I particularly liked his Richter-scale for ranking potential threats. In his paper, Myrvhold suggests a far more proactive policy of investment in counterterrorism R&D. He concludes by stating that, in the likely event that his advice isn’t followed, it’s more likely than not that we will see an attack within the next decade that kills 100,000 – 1,000,000 Americans.

I think he’s correct about the nature of the threat, and I think he’s correct in his prediction. More worryingly, I think he’s right about the political constraints that make proactive measures very unlikely. However, I’m concerned that his prescriptions focus too much on the technology angle, to the exclusion of the domestic policy angle.

Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works” is one of the best economics history books I’ve read. It’s as if Studwell sets out to prescribe the cure for the disease described in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman“, and succeeds brilliantly. The cure he prescribes dates back to Meiji-era Japan and German economist Friedrich List. The antidote explicated by List was applied successfully by Japan, South Korea, and modern-day China. Ironically, the antidote was forcibly administered by Americans, in the first two successful instances — in the case of Japan, by General MacArthur.

The first rung of the development ladder prescribed by List (and successfully implemented in Japan, South Korea, and China) is “land-tenure policies that support smallholder farmers”. Studwell compellingly argues that, without this first rung, no country has ever reached the higher rungs of development. Ever since the dawn of agriculture, the inexorable trend is for rent-seekers to capture an increasing share of the value, and eventually enslave 90% of the population in serfdom. This is the topic of Perkins’ book (and the genesis of what we call “bullshit jobs” — a topic for another post). But in the case of MacArthur (and List), the antidote was clear: land-tenure polices that redistributed land from rent-seekers to smallholders, resulting in full employment and skin-in-the-game for everybody. Overall profit drops, but individual productivity skyrockets.

When we fail to follow List’s (and MacArthur’s) advice, we see exactly the situation that Perkins predicted. Studwell holds up the Philippines as an example of a country that did a particularly poor job of agrarian reform (echoing the often-hilarious accounts in “Sons of the Yellow Emperor“). The rent-seekers capture government, and the fringes fall away and become sympathetic to “terrorist” groups like Abu Sayyaf.

The necessary reforms are unlikely to come from within, and simply forcing countries to become “democratic” isn’t the answer. But imposing these policies from the outside has been successful in the past, and would be a better use of our influence.

Sade “Bring Me Home” and “Skin”

There is still some good poetry coming from the secular realm. Sade’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but her poetry is unimpeachable. This from “Bring Me Home“:

Put me on a plate with petals and a fire
And send me out to sea
Turn my angry sword against my heart
And let me free

The dawn holds the heaviness of the night
I’ve heard the restless sighs and lovers lies
The brook, the beach and seen the devil’s eyes
So bring me home

I’ve cried for the lives I’ve lost
Like a child in need of love

Oh, I’ve been so close but far away from God
My tears flow like a child’s in need of love
I’ve cried the tears so let the tide take me
I won’t fight, I’ve cried the tears

Lay me on the railway line
I’m far away from God

Or from Sade’s “Skin“:

Now as I begin
To wash you off my skin
I’m gonna peel you away
‘Cause you’re not right within

I love you so
Sometimes love has to let go
So this time don’t think it’s a lie
If I say goodbye

A Typical Dream

This is how my dreams go.

In the dream, I discovered some public information about myself that I previously believed to be private. The information appeared to have been deliberately stolen and disclosed, and was selectively presented in a way that portrayed me negatively. I felt confident in my ability to handle blackmailers and those who might otherwise discredit me, and had even invested efforts over the years to set honey traps and alarms for such people. But such matters require a clear, calm head, and I didn’t want to assume that this was a garden-variety blackmailer. So I began to investigate. As I investigated, I found a number of other scattered disclosures of the same sort. I concluded that the effort was likely backed by a sophisticated spying effort, targeted me personally, and probably driven by a single individual working through many proxies.

My first priority was to discern the nature and motives of this newly discovered adversary, without tipping him off. I surreptitiously conducted a number of covert and overt test activities, and monitored for reactive leaks to discern his intent.

Was the adversary motivated by blackmail? Almost certainly not. The leaks were done in such a way as to avoid attention. It seemed that the adversary didn’t expect me to discover the damage until it was irreversible.

Was his motivation to destroy my reputation publicly? Again, this seemed implausible. Though the disclosures were sometimes of the sort that required me to do damage control, the reputation damage seemed to be a side-effect rather than a primary goal. This adversary surely had far more information about me that he could have selectively disclosed in a maximally damaging way, but he chose not to.

Was the adversary trying to cast doubt on the whole idea that one could maintain divergent public and private narratives (see below)? Was he trying to make me see some fatal flaw in the whole public/private strategy that I hadn’t seen before? Again, not likely. He seemed to be operating under the assumption of a public/private split and playing by the rules of that game, but with the caveat that he could override my choices about what stays private versus public. He assumed a public/private split, but he also assumed that he could play on both sides of that equation.

Ultimately, I became convinced that his motives were far more sinister. His goal was to selectively expose portions of my (ostensibly) private history in such a way as to be maximally prejudicial to an impartial judge reviewing all of the evidence at some point in the future. In other words, he didn’t care about swaying members of the general public (though that might be a side-effect), but he cared very much about prejudicing the opinions of a hypothetical unbiased person who had access to all of my public and private history at some day of judgment in the future. In short, he was meticulously and systematically preparing a case against me!

This was a cause for serious alarm. Even if you don’t believe in a judgment day, you care about how an impartial person would judge your character if given access to all of your private history. Experiment after experiment shows that we make choices in a way that allows us to preserve the belief that we are basically good people. We refuse to take actions that we would consider to be inconsistent with the self-image of ourselves being mostly good. Regardless of whether we have a religion or not, we all have an internal measuring stick of a “basically good person” which is independent of our selfish desires. We all have a moral standard that is bigger than ourselves, and we care about how we measure up to that standard. My shadowy adversary was attacking the very foundation of my self-image. He was systematically corroding my identity; using the very narrative that I believed would prove me a “basically good person”, and exposing that narrative in a way that everyone, including me, would perceive to be corrupt. In short, his entire aim was to make it impossible for me to see myself as a “basically good person”.

In normal life, the public/private split is how we defend ourselves from the flawed judgments of others. We each have a public narrative, which is what everyone else believes about us, and a private narrative, which is what we tell ourselves actually happened. Most people will readily assent to the existence of this split, but will postulate that the private history of the average person is considerably more treacherous and sordid than the public history. In other words, we assume that other people are telling us only the good things about themselves and hiding the bad things. But this assumption is exactly wrong.

If you’re like most people, you believe that an impartial judge would be more likely to deem you a “good person” if he had absolute access to your private history. How could he not? You never acted in a way that was inconsistent with that self-image, after all. Granted, you might hide things that other people “wouldn’t understand”, but any self-serving lack of transparency is always backed by an even more compelling private reason why it is morally defensible to hide those things. The typical person, when faced with critics, tells herself, “If only they knew everything I was going through, they wouldn’t judge me so harshly!

It’s a surprising contrast, but it is totally consistent to believe that your unabridged private history will vindicate you, while believing that everyone else’s private histories would condemn them. This is because we trust our own moral judgment more than we trust others’. At the very least, you trust yourself to be fairer in assessing your own faults than others would be. Not only must you protect yourself from others’ poor judgment caused by lack of information, you must consider the possibility that others will actively seek to destroy your external reputation or (like my shadowy adversary) destroy your self-image.

Of course, private things will sometimes leak, and you always run the risk of blackmail or shame. But you tell yourself that you could tolerate these outcomes, because you would still know that your entire sum of actions would vindicate you if disclosed. In contrast, my adversary was a new kind of adversary; he had full access to my private narrative, and was using it in a way that undermined my very identity.

The obvious way I could defend against such an adversary would be to create a third narrative that is private even from my private narrative – a narrative that nobody but I and my supposedly impartial third party judge could possibly know. I needed to go underground, so to speak, and drop the game a meta-level. Once I obtained control of an impenetrable layer of narrative, I could selectively choose experiences that would fill that narrative in a way that would vindicate everything in the other narratives. As long as I could create a truly private narrative I was confident that I could take actions that would fill that narrative in such a way as to inoculate myself from any corruption.

To implement this defense, I needed to figure out how to hide a narrative from this adversary, and he had proven remarkably adept at discovering things I was hiding.

Assuming that my adversary had full control over the physical world, my first strategy was to create a split between physical events and purely mental events. Even if the adversary was omniscient and omnipotent in the physical world, he couldn’t access my mental world (this works, with minor tweaks, even if physicalism is true). And the mental narrative of intentions and motives is just as important as the physical facts when you’re being judged. So my strategy was to construct a vindication narrative where the innermost layer was populated with only mental events. This seemed promising, but I soon found that the adversary could predict the content of the mental events with enough accuracy to be dangerous. I was eventually able to guess how he was doing it, and concluded that this entire strategy would always be vulnerable to this attack, and thus unworkable.

My second strategy was to hide specific actions behind “torn decisions”.

A great many of our decisions are obvious and predictable, and thus are not very interesting for measuring character. “Should I murder this person who annoyed me, or count to ten and walk away?” Making the right decision here doesn’t say much about who you are, it simply says that you’re a prototypical human. To truly define the essence of who you are, we need to look at your “torn decisions”: situations where you were torn between two contradictory choices, with absolutely equal reason for making either choice, yet you committed to one choice or the other. These are the decisions that define you.

Torn decisions are ideal for someone looking to hide his motivations from others. In a torn decision, you have equal motivation for making either choice. By definition, your ultimate choice should appear to be indeterminate to an impartial third party. In fact, it’s this appearance of indeterminacy that most tightly binds the decision to your identity, because the things that were determined are considered to be externalities.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see the flaw in this strategy. You can carefully plot a narrative where you are forced into a torn decision, and where you magically (and for all intents and purposes indeterminately, even to your supposed third-party judge) make the “right” decision. But your plotting prior to the torn decision is bound to be detected. You need to set the wheels in motion before your adversary is participating in the game, or else your torn decision will be seen to be fraudulent, and your plan will be foiled. I needed to find a time when my adversary was asleep, so that I could set the torn decision scheme in motion. Unfortunately, my adversary didn’t sleep, and I was unable to find any opportunities to hide myself.

I finally concluded that I had to move backwards, to a time before the adversary existed. The only way to win at this game is to lay the groundwork before the existence of anyone who could possibly judge you unfairly. In a world of torn decisions, pre-existence is indistinguishable from winning. At this point, some of the urgency faded, because I knew that the battle was already over (regardless of outcome). If I were to win this battle, it wouldn’t be because of any future actions of mine, but would be because of actions that had already been taken. While this applies to events placed in temporal order, it could also work for all of material, formal, and efficient; so it could alternately be framed to work within present time. For example, if I existed as an entity outside the material realm, in a space where my adversary had no access, I could easily cloak my actions in the physical world behind a veil of indeterminacy in real-time.

For my new plan to work, I had to abandon hope of staging my torn decisions and go with torn decisions that were truly torn – where the outcome was entirely indeterminate even to myself. Of course, such torn decisions could simply be random, in which case the exercise would be moot. But I could see two other possibilities in addition to randomness:

First, if it were true that some essential part of my identity had existed before the adversary, it is possible that this essential part previously staged all subsequent torn decisions to appear wholly indeterminate to myself. Obviously, this scenario would require some concept of personal identity (essence, soul, etc.) with a lifespan greater than my physical life. I couldn’t assume such a thing, but if such a thing were true, it would be reasonable to imagine that “essence” operating freely and openly at first, and then strategically dropping behind a veil of indeterminacy right before the advent of the adversary. The threat I was currently facing was very serious, and if I had been able to conceive of the threat (which was obviously possible, since I was having this dream), then it seems only prudent that I would have mitigated the threat.

Second, even if I came into existence after the adversary, the scheme would still work if I had assistance from a third entity who existed before the adversary. If you postulate that there is or was an entity who existed before the adversary, it is plausible to hope that this entity had your best interests at heart (if not, he would be no different from the adversary and it would be moot). So you can hope that you are being hidden behind a veil of indeterminacy put in place by that entity. This entity might even be the same as the entity you visualize as your internal “impartial judge”.



That’s the gist of the dream. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes, and was more like an intense wrestling match than a detailed analysis. I was being attacked, and I tried to defend myself. Since I was experiencing these things directly, my understanding of the mental parts at each new progression was instantaneous, and it was only dreaming the actual physical acts portrayed that took time. The beliefs I adopted in the dream are not necessarily beliefs I agree with. It is typical for my dreams to take some very extreme philosophical positions and see how they play out, rather than stay within one set of beliefs. These dreams often give me new ways of looking at old problems, and can accomplish more in 5 minutes than I could achieve in weeks of conscious effort. This dream left me with quite a bit to think about:

  • The storyline of this dream gives me a new way to think about suggestions, by Mark Balaguer and John Searle among others, that free will can only be explained through indeterminacy. Such suggestions had always seemed strained to me, and I felt they were motivated mainly by a desire to cling to folk-theory concepts of free will. However, it now seems that some combination of an impartial judge and an adversary would strongly motivate a drive to indeterminacy.
  • Attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for the existence of religion have sometimes focused on the theory that evolution endowed us with an oversensitive agent-detection mechanism. It’s better to wrongly infer a teleological agent behind the sound of a twig snapping that it is to wrongly assume no teleological agency and get eaten by a predator. I do believe that hyperactive agency detection plays a role in the formation of religion, but it is very unsatisfying on its own. Surely people would have learned to filter out the erroneous detection events. Instead, they took these erroneous events, rationally analyzed them, and became persuaded that there was something worth preserving in them. With this dream, I can see the outlines of potential new approaches to explanation of agency-detection’s role. For example, it might be the case that the “imaginary impartial judge” is a stable feature of intelligent life. Start with the knowledge that your own choices are prone to errors of judgment, and imagine a standard of conduct by which you can monitor your own judgments to detect and correct errors (since we are biased against error). This standard would be distinct from your immediate “self”, so it’s natural to want to apply agency detection to it. And maybe, you decide that your behavior would be exactly the same whether that standard represented a real or imaginary entity. Just as we dismiss solipsism by saying that we act as if there are other people regardless, we might decide that we act as if this third party exists, whether he really does or not. In both cases, we don’t have much choice anyway, but the point is that it might be no less rational to act as if the third party exists than to act as if other real people exist. Or perhaps this is not enough on its own, but maybe the addition of multiple independent agents with potentially conflicting wills and competition, would lead to this belief.
  • Assuming, for the sake of argument, that “imaginary impartial judge” is a basic feature of any universe that supports sentient life, what are the variable features? For example, if someone decides that there is an impartial judge, does it also follow that he would be wise to imagine an imaginary adversary who is almost as powerful as the judge? Does the fact that such an adversary is conceivable create any urgency to mitigate this potential threat, by acting as if? What about order of existence – does the de facto crown always go the first entity who is lucky enough to spawn into existence and thrive (the conceivability of suicide would be a counterexample)? What are the competitive advantages that any competent “first born” would figure out before anyone else could exploit them? (Creation of servants, masking behind indeterminacy?) How much consideration should be given to alternate configurations – adversary created before judge, for example?
  • If you were able to confirm that the “impartial judge” and “adversary” were basic features of any universe that supported sentient life, would this knowledge justify you to stop acting as if these were real? Would you still be bound to keep defending your own integrity, or might you instead be obligated to transcend this condition? The entire framework of this dream was based on the assumption that we can, and do, ensure by our own actions that we are “basically good people”. It presupposes that the responsibility is all ours, and as long as we are “righteous in our own eyes”, we only need help in our legal defense. But this is quite an assumption, and it might be worth challenging.
  • In a wildly different tangent, this could suggest ways of understanding the intentions behind the “bornless ritual“, the opening invocation of Ars Goetia. Like the invocations of Crowley which came later, these golden dawn invocations often seemed like crude perversions of selected orthodoxy. In the case of the bornless ritual, an obvious gratuitous perversions would be the use of “unbegotten” contra “begotten not created”. But it’s easy to read this as simply a difference of terminology, and the theme could be consistent with “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” And whatever the case, the author seemed to have been familiar with the idea of affiliating oneself with the right portion of the precedence chain. “Bornless” is about as high in the precedence chain as the human mind can conceive.
  • This could provide a different perspective on the symbolic function of Melchizedek in Midrash and Pentateuch. Melchizedek’s name basically means “impartial judge”, and Melchizedek is portrayed as blessing Avram and giving him the name Abraham. Perhaps to postulate an Abraham, your religion must also postulate an independent third party “impartial judge” who existed before Abraham, in order to give him authority. Based on the events of this dream, I think that’s a very neat feature of any religion, and perhaps an essential feature of any religion worth taking seriously.

And many other angles.

This is the first time I’ve dreamed about this specific topic, but I’ve written down hundreds of similarly wacky dreams, spanning topics from “my life with a fragmented body” to “the fascination of the fractal semi-human”. Most of them could be turned into entertaining science fiction stories, I’m sure, and they have provided some fun food for thought.

A Function for Consciousness

One of the biggest open questions for naturalistic science is, “What function does consciousness serve?”. If evolution is true, it would have been far more efficient to endow persons with consciousness-like behaviors without having to resort to actual consciousness. This was the point of Chalmer’s zombie thought experiments. Philosopher John Searle considers consciousness to be so unlikely under naturalism, that he concludes instead that dualism is true! The Peter Watts novel, “Blindsight“, suggested that consciousness might even be a harmful parasite, due for extermination by a less conscious (and therefore, more efficient) rival.

Most naturalists don’t even try to explain consciousness. Perhaps the best attempt was by Daniel Dennett, in the aptly-named “Consciousness Explained”. Or maybe we should look to Drescher’s “Good And Real”, which elaborates on Dennett’s “Cartesian Theater” idea. But these are just attempts, and all too often, naturalists resort to eliminativism, declaring that self-awareness is simply an illusion. Raw eliminativism is weak sauce, though, because it doesn’t explain what function the illusion provides. Consciousness might be an illusion, but you haven’t yet explained what utility the illusion provides — “Was nützen mir das?”.

As I said, this is a BIG problem, and I’m always looking for plausible answers. In this recent interview, Bryony Pierce suggests one potential answer:

My view is that [consciousness] has the function of acting as an interface between cognitive and affective processes, enabling goal-directed action that is sensitive to both needs and opportunities, and grounding reasons. Practical rationality requires interaction between two things: means-end reasoning (cognition), and affective responses (in a loose sense that encompasses all feelings and sensations with motivational force).

Emotion and sensation provide information about physiological states and needs, whereas cognitive processing deals with information about opportunities in the external world. Needs are continually changing, as are opportunities to satisfy those needs, so interaction between the systems responsible for monitoring bodily states and the environment is needed if our bodies are to be able to coordinate the two. This requires a common currency, which consciousness provides.

I mentioned the grounding of reasons, too. Affective responses provide that grounding – the way we feel about anticipated outcomes is sufficient to convince us that we have reason to pursue certain courses of action. Without affective responses, we get an infinite regress of ‘why’s – there would be no reason to prefer one state of affairs to another.

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?

The New Godwin’s

Charles Stross recently revealed that he uses a software package called “Scrivener” to keep track of the complicated plots of novels he’s writing. His disclosure prompted an interesting discussion about the functions of literature, the uses of software, and Tolstoy.

One bright bulb, however, took umbrage at all of this talk of literature, and tossed a stink bomb:

What you think of Tolstoy (or pretty much any “classic”) depends on your relationship to the modern world and modern learning. If you think that fact-free noodling about the nature of man, society, god, nature, and so on is just awesome, you may find something of value in them. On the other hand, if your attitude to the world is “we’ve had 5000 years of people making shit up; how about we concentrate a little more on what can actually be establish factually rather than the opinion’s of some dude whose primary qualification is that he can write well?” then you’re likely to be rather less impressed.

To take an apparently trivial example, which is nonetheless easily understood, IS it in fact the case that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? Should we accept this as true just because Tolstoy says so? Or should we look into the matter rather more scientifically?

You see people using essentially the same template, only slightly reworded, to respond to a surprising variety of discussion topics. I think of it as the new variant of Godwin’s Law. The moment this argument comes into play, you know that all rational discussion has ended.

Trolling people by comparing them to Hitler is so cliched, it’s practically ironic. But you can still catch people off-guard by accusing them of superstitious thinking, and you score extra troll points by insinuating that their “superstitious thinking” is backed up by an appeal to authority. When the hapless victim protests, “I was talking about poetry/metaphor/love/art/beauty or whatever, you know they’ve swallowed your bait, hook, line, and sinker. Just feign ignorance, presuppose that their goal was to make testable hypotheses (isn’t that the goal of all poetry and romance?), then continue berating them for “making shit up”.

Mark my words: this is the new Godwin’s, and it’s catching on fast. It will soon be bigger than Hitler.

Not To Keep

From “Not To Keep“, by Robert Frost —

“Nothing but what good care
And medicine and rest, and you a week,
Can cure me of to go again.” The same
Grim giving to do over for them both.
She dared no more than ask him with her eyes
How was it with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
They had given him back to her, but not to keep.


A puzzling question I sometimes hear is, “What would you do if you knew you were going to die in two months?”. A closely related admonition is, “Live each day as if it’s your last”. Presumably, these sorts of statements are an invitation to live life to the fullest, “Carpe Diem” or something like that.

But these statements don’t make any sense to me. Knowledge of our mortality is omnipresent, and we only seize the day by living in denial and pretending that our lives will endure or have any significance in the cosmic scheme of things. Everyone already lives their lives as dead men walking. That’s what it means to be mortal.

The far more revealing question is, “What would you do if you knew you were immortal?”. Imagine that some sort of “fountain of youth” were discovered, which was not too difficult to reach, and which would grant true immortality to the first 12,000 people to reach it.

What sort of people would compete most fiercely to reach that fountain, and what would their motivations be? Which motivations would you judge to be good versus bad, and what would the ratio be? Of the 12,000 people who made it to the fountain, how many would you be comfortable with having as immortal?

I have no idea what the answer is, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than wondering what people do when they know they are going to die. We already know that answer.

Reverse Solipsism

In the previous post, you were challenged to convince yourself that real people are imaginary. But most people would rather do the opposite. Most people spend a lot of time convincing themselves that imaginary people are real.

The imaginer mistakenly imagines that his imagination is fully under his control, so he assumes that imaginary people will be more pliable and pleasing than the pesky people of the real world. Even if he knows the imaginary people aren’t real, he wants the imaginary people to seem as real as possible, because he can get almost the same feeling as if they were real.

This is the basis of Harlequin romance novels, porn, and all sorts of other fantasy. But for at least 4,500 years, we have realized that reverse solipsism is self-destructive. The Epic of Gilgamesh introduces Lilu and Lilitu, who symbolize the temptation and consequences of replacing real human relationships with the imaginary. The very best modern telling of this story, in my opinion, is “Descent Into Hell“, by Charles Williams.

Of course, for people with means and a modicum of wits, there is a way out. You simply need to imagine the sort of people you want in your life, and then find an efficient way to filter through the 6 billion candidates on the planet to surround yourself with real people who do exactly what your imagination wants them to do. You want them to have the same hobbies as you? No problem. You want them to be supportive of almost everything you do? No problem. The numbers are large, so it’s simply an assortative matching game.

Everyone plays this game. If you’re in relationships with people who do mostly what you would have wanted imaginary people to do, then you’re probably skilled at the assortative matching game. And if you’re not, you’re probably playing the assortative matching game, but just not winning.

There is something repugnant about this game, though. Is it really any less self-destructive to seek out and use real people, rather than imaginary, to incarnate your fantasies? In fact, it seems that this game is just as self-destructive, and commits double harm by harming the other person. It’s reverse solipsism with massive collateral damage.

Some amount (maybe a very small amount) of assortative matching reverse solipsism is healthy and defensible. But my intuition is that excess and harmful assortative matching is endemic to human nature, and that it is worthwhile to consider countermeasures to guard yourself from falling into the trap. When it comes to countermeasures, I don’t have the answers. One tactic is to sabotage your own assortative matching process at times, so that you’re left to deal with people who most definitely do not incarnate your imaginary ideal. Another tactic is to fix your imagination so that it doesn’t require you to filter out so many people. But who knows?

Puzzling About Solipsism

I’m not sure how to frame this.

Imagine that you’re talking to someone about imagination, and you exclaim, “I’m not even convinced that you are not a figment of my imagination!”. Now, it is easy to imagine saying something like this. But can you imagine saying it convincingly?

The best way to sound convincing is to be convinced. And since you’re simply trying to convince yourself and the listener that solipsism can’t be ruled out, it ought to be easy. And perhaps it is easy. Most people can probably imagine it being easy.

But you would also be able to easily tell the difference between rehearsing the statement to an imaginary person and making the statement to a real person. That is, you wouldn’t feel any urgency to also convince yourself that you were unable to tell the difference between the two activities, while convincing yourself that solipsism can’t be ruled out.

This itself is not very puzzling. Rehearsing and performing are two separate things, whether your target is an imaginary person or real. And you can rationalize the difference in other ways. What is puzzling is the fact that people so naturally straddle this fence. It’s practically automatic.

I want to get a firm grasp of that process. What happens in our brains that allows us to so easily hold conflicting public and private truths while being convinced of both? What is the mechanism? And why is it so natural? What are the factors that might cause this split to be more or less easy to achieve?

Maybe it’s linked with the way that our mirror neuron system is able to tell the difference between our own face in the mirror and the faces of others. Or maybe it’s linked with the way the frontal lobe continuously inhibits mimicking behavior. We probably just don’t know.


To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are being continually thrust upon them.

This is from Laws of Form. I was reminded of this quote by Mike Travers, who recently quoted the part that precedes the part I quoted:

We find systems of education today which have departed so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt.

Spencer-Brown here is saying that knowledge should be relatively lower status, while ignorance should be relatively celebrated. But he is not advocating against a search for truth. To the contrary, he suggests that the contemplation of truth should be something that ought to be so driving as to cause one to deceive and ignore others.

I can empathize with Spencer-Brown’s thesis. When I understand something, it’s dead to me. It’s boring. And there are perhaps three “big problems” (which might turn out to all be the same project) I’ve held in my mind for decades, always chewing and sometimes chipping off bits of bone, but not yet getting to the marrow that I know must be there. Nobody knows what my real project is, because I don’t talk about the object of my contemplation. Conversation and collaboration are useful, but only at the periphery, where problems are still real and relevant, but indirect.

Of the thinkers I admire the most, I am convinced that many also have a “real project” that they are gnawing on, and I sometimes imagine that I have caught a glimpse of what their real project is.

But one doesn’t talk about these things, and Spencer-Brown’s advice is terrible advice for the majority of the population. For more than 99% of humanity, it is proper to esteem knowledge and discourage the vain contemplation of “truth“. Given the constraints that Spencer-Brown puts around contemplation, the risk of encouraging crackpots is high, and we don’t need to that, do we?