Jordan B Peterson – Harvard Talk Postmodernism & the Mask of Compassion – 1 error

Jordan B Peterson – Harvard Talk Postmodernism & the Mask of Compassion

Great talk, and as you explicitly asked to identify error, there does seem to be one at about 1:14:00 into the talk – you say “The fundamental dilemma of faith is whether or not you should live by the truth.
You determine to live by the truth when you make the decision that if you tell the truth the outcome is the best possible outcome.
You see that is an existential decision.
It is predicated on something like faith in the fundamental nature of being.
Because if you align yourself, to the degree that you can, with the truth, then what you are doing is acting out the proposition that being is structured in the best possible manner. Because otherwise you wouldn’t align yourself with the truth.
… Maybe you don’t want to compromise your self because your self is what you have to stave off the catastrophe of being, and if you compromise that you have nothing, except perhaps what other people will give you.”

I am trying to find levels that I can align with that statement, and it is difficult.
It seems to me that at one level we cannot know what truth is, and we can have some reasonable confidence about things that are not true, and we can avoid those (as you have often said – and I concur).
Thus avoiding saying anything we are reasonably confident is untrue, and using our best endeavours to create the most accurate model possible with our words, will (on average, over time) have the property of improving the models generally in use.

That then leads into a very complex investigation of the nature of values, the nature of valence, the idea of discount rates one applies to future verse present outcomes and values, the nature and value of personal existence and perhaps even existence itself (in as much as we might have any beginnings of a conception of what that might be), the roles and responsibilities of a self in social and ecological contexts as balanced against individual freedom and self expression.

And we seem to largely align on many of those dimensions of investigation, and in a rejection of nihilism, and an acceptance of the necessity of limits on freedom in the sense of necessary boundary conditions required to maintain form at any and all levels of existence (biological, cultural, spiritual, and whatever might emerge and transcend those).
Form requires boundaries.
Without boundaries, all is without form (and void in a sense).
It is the field boundaries that give atoms form.
It is cell walls that allow cells to exist.
It is our internal sense of morality that allows complex society to function, far more so than any set of laws or rules.

And all boundaries must be flexible. Hard boundaries become brittle and break. A cell wall that was not selectively permeable would lead to starvation from lack of food, and a build up of waste products.
Flexibility and permeability are important aspects of effective boundaries in complex systems, and they do not detract from the fundamental requirement for boundaries, they are an integral aspect of it.

So searching for something that is overly simplistic clearly is not going to work.
We must accept complexity, and the many levels of complex boundaries required to maintain it.
And within the set of boundary conditions that are actually required, exists the infinite set of freedoms that are possible.
And saying that the set of freedoms is infinite, is not at all the same as saying that one has the freedom to do anything – it is something very different (in that I align with your rejection of nihilism and post modernism, as simply not understanding the necessary conditions for complexity to exist).

And it seems that this reality within which we find ourselves has many levels of fundamental balance between order and chaos, between confidence and uncertainty, and there is no escaping that to any sort of childish notion of absolute confidence about anything.

And we all have to have useful heuristics that we use in practice.
And living life, being responsible in social and ecological contexts, speaking the best approximation to truth that we can in a way that optimises the probability of others understanding that for what it is, and not misinterpreting it as something else, does in fact seem to be one of the best heuristics available.

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Unequal Societies

A Facebook post by Deb to my page

A response to a Facebook post by Deb – Wondering if it is even possible to prevent the worst trajectories imagined in this article . . .
Are we about to witness the most unequal societies in history?

Not only possible but essential and likely. [To Deb’s wondering]

One of the things that seems to be the case is that morality is an essential part of any system that wants to survive a long time.

The one thing that is common about systems of morality, is that all surviving cultures have one.
Cultures without them tend to self destruct in an escalating cycle of conflict and violence.

Strategic systems that want to last a long time have to be based in cooperation.

One can generate systems that generate high minimum standards for all, and allow for individuals to move to any level they can as a result of their efforts above that minimum (within the limits necessary for survival of social and ecological systems – all complex systems have limits that must be respected).

That seems to be what Jordan Peterson is pointing to with his research.

If we head down the path of decreasing minima, it should be obvious to all that it will end badly for all.

Those at the top do in fact seem to be getting the idea that markets and universal abundance are antithetical to each other, and if they really want to live a very long time, they must opt for abundance for all, in cooperation.

[followed by – in response to to Deb thinking it unlikely.]

Hi Deb
I stress that what I am proposing is not by any definition socialism.

What I am saying is that we are the most profoundly cooperative species yet to evolve, and we are not purely cooperative, but are multi-modal depending on context.

I am also saying that the evidence from a strategic study of evolution is that new levels of complexity are associated with new levels of cooperation, and that raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by cheating strategies, so at every level cooperation requires sets of attendant strategies to detect and remove cheating strategies and thus maintain the cooperative.

I am also saying that such strategic sets are present and necessary at all levels. When one understands this aspect of evolution, then far from being nihilistic or favouring any sort of post-modernistic relativism, evolution actually demands effective moral constructs at both the social and ecological levels.
Understanding that, and the need for such boundaries for the survival of higher order complexity, it becomes in the long term personal self interest of everyone to maintain such things.

And it is not simple, as the set of necessary boundary conditions can be very context sensitive – such that what works and is necessary in one context can actually be quite destructive in another context.

And in a very real sense, this is exactly what is happening in terms of money and markets as stores and measures of value. Markets work well when most things are in fact genuinely scarce, but when automation delivers the possibility of universal abundance of anything (what people actually need), then markets actively work against the delivery of any such universal abundance.

Thus we are in an age when our exponentially expanding ability to automate the production of goods and services has the promise to deliver universal abundance of all the physical necessities to allow everyone to self actualise in whatever way they responsibly choose (because there are very real social and ecological responsibilities and limits present), but the classical notions of markets and values associated with them in history now work against the interests of everyone, as they tend to concentrate wealth into fewer and fewer hands (without providing for the needs of all).

So we can continue to use money as an abstract measure of value during this transition period, but for planning purposes we need to alter the way we have created and distributed money, such that everyone has enough for a high basic standard of living and the freedom to make real and interesting choices (within responsible limits). That does not meaning putting any sort of upper limit on wealth, and it does demand that we put a high lower limit in place.
The security of everyone, even those at the top of the distribution, is actually dependent on this.

It seems that the current attitudes towards free markets and post modernistic nihilism are based in a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, one based in the very simple (and wrong) idea that evolution is all about competition.
Competition is an aspect of evolution, but not the aspect that leads to complexity, but the aspect that drives back to simplicity.
Cooperation is what allows complexity to emerge, and the emergence of such complexity has classically been in environments where most risk to individual survival has come from factors outside of the population of others like self.

The next level seems to require that we recognise that we are all far more alike than we are different, and that the interests of all of us (including our personal liberty) demand a level of cooperation that is above the interests of market values.

All of that is clear to me, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

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MILE – Movement for Indefinite Life Extension

It’s odd to think that I started seriously promoting indefinite life extension when Zoltan was 1 – October 1974 was when I realised that from a cell’s eye perspective, every cell in existence would consider itself to have been alive since the beginning of life (some 4 billion years). Thus the default mode of cellular life must be immortal, and the age related senescence we experience must be an added layer that we must be able to stop (with sufficient understanding of how it works).

The question then became, what sort of social, political and technical institutions do we need to deliver as much freedom and security as possible to entities that have the potential to live a very long time.

Delving into the depths of both biological and cultural evolution, and into complexity theory, has shown me that all new levels of complexity are characterised by new levels of cooperation, and cooperation requires sets of attendant strategies to be stable.

So in this strategic context, complex systems require boundaries for survival.
Jordan Peterson seems to have a better grasp than most of the many layers of evolved systems that are embodied in us and our cultural contexts, and the necessity of these sets of boundaries for the survival of complexity.

Without boundaries, everything degrades to “grey goo”.
We need boundaries, and we need to acknowledge the minimum set of boundaries that are required for the exceptionally complex set of systems that we are.

Some sort of morality is part of that minimum set, at every level.

Ideas like libertarianism are stable only if they acknowledge all of the many levels of such minimum sets – which is not my experience of the political movement.

Freedom is actually maximised by having the minimum set of boundary conditions necessary, and with those boundaries having flexibility and permeability appropriate to the specific contexts present.
There will always be uncertainty and evolutionary change in the nature of such things.

So I am all in favour of life extension, and of maximising freedom, and that demands new levels of social and ecological responsibility. It cannot in any way be any sort of reversion to any sort of childish notion of freedom to follow whim irrespective of consequence, it demands of us something of a much higher order.

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Radicals: A disturbing guide to the future? with Jamie Bartlett

At 10:30 he defines radicals as “the group outside the Overton window, who want to fundamentally change the norms and the way that we run society”.
That sort of works for me, and it seems to miss something.
To me Jordan Peterson exemplifies the modern trend to evolutionary explanations involving multi-level embodied cognition – at both genetic and mimetic levels.
It seems clear that reason is the tip of a huge computational iceberg that has emerged by survival over eons of time.

Perhaps the Medici are the radicals you are looking for Dil.

I like the root of the term radical – which is root or ground or the basis of things.

To me, the key to our future is creating models, understandings, that are ever closer approximations to the reality we find ourselves in, and in that understanding we will find greater degrees of freedom and security.

It is pushing into the depths of our understanding, removing the “truths” that do not belong there, that will deliver the benefits we seek.
And all freedom comes with responsibility.

The key is finding what boundaries are necessary for survival and which are either illusion or redundant.

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From Parts to Patterns – Part 2 – Capital Institute – Updated

Shifting From Parts to Patterns

“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

I came back to this again this morning, and decided to try from a different perspective.

Leonardo only had part of the picture, and was therefore, essentially wrong.

Those of us with sufficient interest and time now have some beginnings of an understanding of how evolution works.
Evolution is about differential survival of variants in populations across all the different contexts encountered by the members of that population over deep time.
Thus variants that have very high survival value in very rare contexts, and minor costs the rest of the time, can be present in significant concentrations in populations.

This process embodies systems.
It selects patterns that survive at ever more complex levels, simultaneously across all levels.

It is now clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that this process has given rise to all the living diversity that we see around us, including ourselves.
It has structured our bodies and brains.
In the biophysical contexts of genetic selection, it is responsible for all the capacities and tendencies to all the feelings we have.
In the cultural context of mimetic selection it is responsible for most of the language and wider cultural constructs that we inhabit.
In our personal journeys within both of the contexts above it is a very complex mix of choice and survival at many different levels.

So at many levels, our behaviour in reality is the result and the expression of embodied patterns of being, which in one sense encode systems that have been selected by differential survival of variants over vast times and wide sets of contexts.

So yes – one must look at the many levels of systems.
No – one cannot take a purely reductionist view of seeking certainty from lowest level systems.
And it is more complex than either of those imply.

It is more dimensional that a holistic/reductionist view implies.

To my mind the disasters are not so much caused by the use of reductionism, though being overly reductionist certainly has its problems (understanding the influences of subsystems is an essential part of understanding the operating limits of emergent systems), the biggest issue seems to be an addiction to certainty.

It seems that the hardest notion for most to give up is the idea of truth.

The idea that uncertainty, even chaos, might be a fundamental aspect of this existence within which we find ourselves seems to be the hardest thing for many to get.

It does seem to be what Heisenberg uncertainty is pointing to, a sort of fundamental yin/yang balance between order and chaos, that in pairs of fundamental quantities (like position and momentum) require that the more we order and confine one aspect, the more chaotic and dispersed becomes the other.

This balance of order and chaos seems to apply at all levels of emergent systems.

And at all levels, the limits on chaos can give very close approximations to order when aggregated over large collections. Individuals may be unpredictable in any instant, but large collections over larger times give far greater confidence to predictions in many cases (but not all – some, like weather, are essentially unpredictable at all levels).

I love David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework for the management of complexity ( ). It shows clearly that classical engineering approaches to order are only applicable to the simplest of domain spaces.

Wolfram’s ideas of maximal computational complexity are also important. The idea that there are aspects of reality that cannot be reduced, as they are already maximally computationally complex, and the easiest way to see what they will produce is to let them do it.
A great deal about being human seems to be like that. Wolfram explains that quite beautifully in this short clip ( ) published in March 2017.

So there seem to be two big picture aspects here.

One aspect is that the reality of where we are going cannot be reliably predicted, as it is of an order of complexity that we must simply live to find out where it goes.

The other aspect is that we must all accept the fundamental uncertainty that comes with such complexity, and be willing to relax the boundaries of our cherished truths to allow the reality of our existence to create as close a model of itself as we can manage. And that would seem to be a potentially infinitely recursive process, as the emergent complexity of such behaviour folds back into the models of itself, ongoingly.

And there are some important lessons in this that seem to be consistent.

Complexity requires boundaries.
Without boundaries everything becomes amorphous goo.
We require boundaries at every level – physical, individual, social.
And those boundaries need to be both flexible and selectively permeable, and both of those need to be context sensitive.

So liberty in such a context cannot mean existence without boundaries, as that must, by definition, lead to non existence.

Liberty, in a context of complex systems, must mean accepting those boundaries that are necessary for survival, and no more. Morality is essential to survival.
And it seems that there cannot be any sort of absolute certainty about what those boundaries are, and there can be degrees of confidence in particular contexts.

The real problem comes with novelty.
Novelty, if real, has no historical precedent.
If something is truly novel, then by definition it has not existed previously.
That has two profound issues.
1 – most people are unlikely to see it for what it is, and are likely to classify it as something that is similar in some aspect to something from their previous experience (and in doing so miss the novelty that is present).
2 – there is no historical proven precedent for how to most effectively treat the new thing.

We already know enough to know that we face many levels of existential threat that we have no effective risk mitigation strategies for, so we have to keep on exploring new stuff, to solve the old problems, and along the way, we are bound to both encounter and create new problems. So long as we are alert for that, open to those possibilities, we are probably on the safest possible path.

And Wolfram in the short clip above points to our exponentially expanding ability to automate things.

This exponentially expanding ability to automate is now the single greatest driver of change.

Markets can only put a positive value on things that are scarce.

If you doubt that think of air. Fresh clean air is arguably the single most valuable commodity for any human being, yet of no value in any market where it is universally abundant (which is most places).

What few people have yet grasped, is that the need for scarcity to deliver market value is now directly in opposition to our technical ability to fully automate the production and delivery of a large and exponentially expanding set of goods and services.

Our social systems are currently largely driven by profit, and profit demands scarcity.
So while our existing systems can deliver radical abundance to some, they must always fall short of delivering such abundance universally, even if doing so is technically possible.

That is why something like Universal Basic Income (UBI) is required as a transition strategy, to take us from our existing market based systems (which arguably worked in times of genuine scarcity) to whatever evolves as our abundance based systems going forward.

And one of the attributes of complexity that is clear from a study of evolution from a systemic view, is that new levels of emergent complexity are always characterised by new levels of cooperation, and cooperation requires attendant strategies to prevent invasion by cheating strategies. Arguably most of our existing financial and political systems can be characterised as cheating strategies. That doesn’t mean that we need to get rid of any people necessarily, we just need to change the strategic environments within which those people exist, and their awareness and self interest will respond accordingly.

And it seems that security will always demand an element of massive redundancy and diversity in our systems, so it seems that within the broadest possible context of cooperation, we can see massive variability in instantiated sets of social and technical systems, each within their own sets of boundaries, and each interacting within wider sets of boundary conditions.

And the idea that we can use hard rules to define such conditions is not sustainable.
Those higher order boundaries must have flexibility in dimensions many will not even be able to distinguish. And that will require active communication systems and openness like never before.

And Jordan Peterson has the best development I have encountered of the levels of complexity embodied in many of our deep cultural constructs (he misses a few things, but gets far more than most – is as good a place to start as any).

I am clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that our survival demands that we go beyond markets as a dominant force in our social planning infrastructure. The context has now changed sufficiently that market values can no longer be used in a planning context, though they can retain utility in a delivery context for some time to come. Our existing debt based money creation system must change, is changing.

We have much to do.

[followed by]

Hi John,

If you look at Snowden’s Cynefin framework for managing complexity (which is a very simplified framework for getting a feel for the types of complexity present and the sorts of management responses appropriate ), then you will understand that what most call the “scientific method” of holding all else steady and varying a single aspect to test the effect of that single aspect, is only appropriate to the simplest of Snowden’s 4 classes.

Any scientist with a reasonable understanding of complexity and statistics will understand that – and unfortunately that is a small subset of those who call themselves scientists.

So scientists come is a vast spectrum of understandings and methodologies – much like human beings generally and cultures generally. Most scientists are every bit as dogmatic as most adherents of any religious system – just a different set of dogmas.

The only thing that should be common to all scientists is a willingness to let the evidence from well formed experiment be the determinant of questions. And there is always room for argument about how well formed an experiment is, and conceptual bias from particular modes of interpretation can be a major factor (dogma).

What we “see” is very much a function of what we expect to see, modulated by what is actually there. Human beings are very adept at subconsciously pushing whatever shaped observational peg is present into the nearest shaped conceptual hole that it will fit in, and using that as evidence for “truth”.
Becoming aware of the many levels at which we have a strong subconscious tendencies to such things is a big part of the process (Yudkowski’s “Rationality from AI to Zombies” is a reasonable catalogue of many of those, and at the same time it mostly ignores the fact that rationality is only ever the tiny tip of human behaviour, most of which is and must always be, subconsciously heuristic). Reality is far too complex to ever be able to handle consciously. Everyone, at all levels, has to make vast sets of subconscious and conscious simplifying assumptions and take heuristic shortcuts to be able to make any sort of sense of anything.

Part 1 of understanding science is getting that our conscious experience is never of reality itself, but can only ever be of a subconsciously created model of reality. Once that sinks in, it demands a certain level of humility from us.

Uncertainty is fundamental.
Simplistic assumptions occur at every level, always.

Building a reasonably useful approximation to the levels of complexity present in reality takes many thousands of hours of work. One has to train and retrain neural networks over and over. There simply is no substitute for experience in doing such things.

And we each need to be able to use the tools of science to inform our models, without being blinded by the dogma of any particular set of scientific paradigms.
Building more accurate models demands that we be prepared to try out things that do not seem at all sensible from our current models (that is the definition of novelty in a very real sense).
Being willing to trust intuition and feelings enough to design tests, and then having the stamina to keep on testing modes of communication until one finds one that has a reasonable probability of success, of weakening the bounds of dogma at some level to allow new possibilities to emerge in a new mind, that is part of the process. It can be a very lonely journey.

When the core concept of economy – the market – encounters an exponentially expanding set of conditions (fully automated systems) that fundamentally undermine it, and turn it from something beneficial to something that is an existential risk to humanity, that can be very difficult for people to see.

When one has been taught that evolution is all about competition, it can be difficult to see that actually evolution is exponentially more about cooperation as successive levels of complexity emerge.

Understanding that morality is one of the necessary boundary conditions for complex systems like ourselves to exist was not clearly visible to Nietzsche or the Post Modernists, yet to those with a sufficient depth of understanding of evolution and complexity and strategy it stands out like the proverbial.

So I just caution you, yes, certainly, acknowledge that the simplistic term “scientific method” as applied to holding all but one variable constant, is appropriate to only a tiny subset of the systems in reality, and do not make that mean that the wider methods of science, statistics and complexity are not appropriate more widely.

And certainly, acknowledge that many systems are genuinely chaotic, and do not have any significant predictable attributes, and trying to predict them is a waste of time. Learn to identify them and avoid them to the greatest degree that is possible.

And many other systems are complex, and require an iterative approach of probe, sense, evaluate, amplify or dampen aspects as appropriate, and repeat. That’s life. Accept it. Enjoy it.

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Aubrey de Grey with Myriam Locher about the end of aging at START Summit 2017

When you look at life from a “cell’s eye” perspective, then every cell alive today sees its own history as having been alive since the dawn of life some 4 billion years ago.

That is true of cells in bacteria, plants or us.

From the perspective of each of those cells, every time a division happened, it was the “other one” that went and did whatever it did.

Thus, the default mode of cellular life must be indefinite.
Age induced cellular senescence must be an added layer of systems.
It is not a primary aspect of cellular life.
As such, we must be able to regulate it in some fashion.
We just need to model it.

To my mind, nothing is more important than building a working digital model of a cell, complete will all the levels of interaction that happen.

It is a massive computational task, and once we do it, we will be able to use statistical tools to find those interactions that mediate the “aging” mechanisms. Then we can design and test effective mitigation strategies.

This much was obvious to me in 1974.

How we alter our social and technical institutions to mitigate all the other sources of risk to long life has been the dominant question in my mind since 1974.
It seems that the very idea of measuring value in exchange, in markets, is now the single greatest generator of such risk.
Full automation of production and distribution put the interests of market value and the interests of human life in direct opposition. Anything universally abundant has zero value in a market, but humans require a universal abundance of a basic set of goods an services to survive and flourish.

Markets were a great tool in times of genuine scarcity, but as our ability to to automate exponentially expands the incentives of markets and the needs of humanity become diametrically opposed.
We are in that transition zone.

How we manage that transition will define our survival probabilities.

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Life Extension?

Eric’s Facebook post
Movement for Indefinite Life Extension

Can indefinite life extensions be achieved in our lifetimes?

I have no reasonable doubt that we can extend lifespans indefinitely.
The big questions are:
Will we?
Will we (as a society) devote sufficient resources to make it happen?
Will it be available to all?
Will we take the next necessary step, of restructuring our social, technical and political institutions to deliver the sort of contexts that actually deliver both freedom and security in sufficient abundance and reliability that people actually get the real chance to live very long lives?

It is this latter question that has dominated my thinking for the last 43 years.

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