Question of the Day, July 24-25, 2015, Changing our identity

“Do ‘We LITERALLY need to die to the old neurological/biological self and be born into the new?

Clearly no.

Not literally.

Snakes do not die when shedding their skin, the simply remove the old set of constraints and get a new set.

Constraints and boundaries give us identity in a sense, and in another sense it doesn’t pay to make them too hard or they become brittle and break. Snakes have evolved a technique or periodically shedding hard skin to allow growth. Arthropods (insects, spiders, crabs and crayfish) do something similar.

We humans do not have any such hard boundaries.

Our bodies are soft.

Our software, our awareness, is influenced by the systems constraints we accept (mostly unconsciously, mostly from culture).

And we can overturn those constraints, identify them and remove them, and it does not require a literal death, and it is an end to a particular mode of being. And all the history and the lessons remain, and the internal context is now different, so they express with different frequencies in different external contexts.

So in a sense, we are no longer who we once knew ourselves to be, but in another much deeper sense, we were never what we thought we were anyway, that was all illusion.

All distinction is illusion in a sense, and it is all we have – so we do the best we can with the tools we have available.

And no – suicide is not a recommended procedure – ever !!!

Transcendence, most certainly.

And in transcendence the new context has all the old memories, they just don’t mean what they did in the old context.

[followed by]

Hi Jeff & FOS

Jeff – some things in Startrek seem like they might be workable – like replicators, life without money, communicators (cell phones), tricorders.

Other things seem to not be at all workable, like memories or awareness without a matrix, faster than light travel or transporter beams.

FOS – yes certainly our neural networks are plastic, and can (and do) change with time and experience. And it is far more than that.

Our entire systems are turning over continuously, atoms replacing within cells, cells replacing within bodies, ideas within brains.

Our form (at every level) is much more like a fountain (a form in a flow), rather than like a statue (a fixed set of relationships).

So yes, certainly, to be human is to change, at every level, and there is a continuity of memory for most of us (those without various forms of amnesia), that allow us some measure of ourselves and our environment over time.

And I am clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that most of the notions we get from culture as to the existence of essences or souls are incorrect.

And certainly, we each have patterns that were laid down first, and tend to dominate if we are not consciously aware of them, and don’t consciously create that space between impulse and action within which choice can exist (at every level).

So we are kind of like the ancient conceptions, but not really when looks closely with modern tools.

And yes – there is an aspect of constantly becoming in all of us, of constantly creating, even if for many what is created is very close to what was there before (too close for most to see anything different) – thus delivering the illusion of constancy (in a sense).

[followed by]


One thing that one gets from really getting into the detail of how complex we are, is to get really clear that we cannot possibly control everything about what we are.

The more we learn, the more we learn there is to learn.

And what we start out thinking of as us, that isn’t it – not by a very big margin.

Sure we all have destructive patterns, that we recognise at one level, but have not yet developed our awareness to a sufficient depth to get at the underlying mechanisms that deliver that pattern. Without doing that, intercepting at one level will simply result in it “popping up” somewhere else.

And I am confident, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the pathway to mastery is a journey without end.

The Buddhists have a saying, that for the Master, for every step he takes on the path, the path grows by two steps. One simply accepts that.

Past a certain point, the more one knows, the more aware one becomes of the depth of the profound ignorance.

I am quite confident about a range of things, and I am very clear that there are infinitely more things about which I have little or no confidence than there are that I am confident about.

And I don’t let that stop me, and it is there.

And I am so clear that you and I and everyone else is so much more complex than the simplistic notion of “soul” allows for.

And part of me weeps at the vast cost of hanging on to such ideas – and at the same time I acknowledge the reality, and even the logical necessity of evolution happening in that way (in the more abstract sense).

YOU are so much more than the idea of “soul” – of that I have no shadow of reasonable doubt.

And I wish I could just give to others the understanding I have of just how vastly complex and special every individual is.

I wish our society would adopt as its highest values the value of individual life and individual liberty (in a cooperative societal context of abundance), rather than the competitive, exploitative, valuing of money above all else in a context of scarcity.

And wishing it does not make it so.

And taking persistent actions in reality may just make it so.


[followed by]


The term soul, has a technical meaning, of being an aspect of being that is independent of body and accounts for the essence of what we are.

That notion is, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, falsified.

That feeling you feel, of connection to the vastness, that gives you knowing without knowing how you know – that is what science can now gives us some understanding of the major systems of.

It appears to be what our subconscious mind delivers.

Our brains are just mind bogglingly complex. The computational complexity is numbers so large that they just don’t make much sense to many people at all.

Our subconscious brains are so much more powerful than our conscious awareness, or any current set of scientific models or computational systems, that it is overwhelming to most when directly accessed.

That you would describe this as “more than human” to me just shows the degrees to which our educational and cultural systems have devalued the term “human”.

That feeling is the natural birthright of every human being.

It is a key aspect of what we are!

The science on that is unequivocal.

And I am not talking the sort of science that is taught at grade school or even at undergraduate level, but the sort of science one gets from 50 years of practice in the art of questioning, probing and discovery that is real science.

Reality is a complex mix of many sorts of levels of complex systems, and only a very small subset of them are the sort of systems that allow accurate prediction. There are vast numbers of systems that defy prediction in all but the most basic of probabilistic senses (and some don’t even allow that).

So to be human, is to have this “magically” (in the A C Clarke sense of any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic) complex brain, that has these amazing ways of figuring out stuff that for most of us we have absolutely no idea how it does it, and a few geeks like me have a rough idea of how the major systems work, and I know enough to know that the details will be forever too complex in detail to fully understand; and the system as a whole is not predictable even in theory.

And this is what it is to be human.

We are the product of this magical machine – a human brain in a human body in a culture on a planet in a solar system.

Our systems may get ever more accurate at predicting what most people will do in most situations, and everyone will defy prediction some times, and some people will defy prediction much of the time.

Every person is that complex.

Every single one – anywhere.

No exceptions.

That is why I can say with such confidence that our society has its value structure messed up.

We have developed systems that put profit ahead of people.

The only system that makes any sort of ethical or logical sense is one that puts people, and their liberty (provided they acknowledge the cooperative that supports them and act in a generally cooperative way towards everyone else) ahead of everything else.

What anyone chooses as values after those two is entirely a matter of personal choice.

All that really matters is that they value life and liberty – of every sapient entity.

Not that difficult as a conclusions, and such a tortuous path to get to it – simplicity on the other side of vast complexity.

[followed by]

Thanks Jeff & FOS.

There is not much I have to disagree on what you wrote Mendy, and I suspect that the explanatory linkages we have underneath that level may vary substantially, and at that level we are in almost total alignment.

The only quibble I might have, and it is just quibble, is with the use of “cause” in the sentence “I think the beliefs we hold cause us to experience the things that occur in our lives”. For me the word “cause” is too hard, and “strongly influence” would come closer in meaning for me, and if one is using “cause” in the soft sense of causality, then yes, I can align.

For me, the actual mechanics of the mechanisms that allow our brains to form the model of reality that it does, with all the distinctions that it has, and the sets of relationships between those distinctions, is fascinating. That process seems (in the first instance) to be about equally shared between our experiences of the reality in which we seem to exist and the cultural influence of language and behaviour that are in one sense a subset of that reality and in another sense part of a rapidly evolving system of interactive strategies that exist in a separate yet interactive realm.

It seems that once we come to conscious awareness, we are able to develop tools and awareness to give us ever expanding degrees of influence, and at the same time as our influence increases, our awareness of the dimensions of the “playing field” within which we exists grows at an even greater rate, so any thoughts of omnipotence recede rapidly into history.

I am fascinated by the degrees of separation, the boundaries, the degree of permeability between the boundaries that allow for the flow of information and influence at each level of organisation and distinction.

I am also fascinated by the levels of complexity (as distinguished by David Snowden in his Cynefin Framework) present at each level of organisation, and the methods we as conscious individuals learn of effectively distinguishing and interacting with each of them.

For me, cause is a concept that I no longer like using, because for most people it has very hard boundaries, and I can no longer see any hard boundaries, only gradients of permeability, changes in the rates of flow of substance or information, like trees in a river, or rivers in a landscape, or clouds over mountains. All I see is degrees of influence, systems interacting, both causing and being caused, everywhere soft boundaries of interaction (and the degree of softness varies, rocks might be soft to xrays, and less so to us).

[followed by]

Hi Mendy

It seems for me that I see much the same thing, and the perspective from my side is somewhat different.

For me, it is a matter of humanity moving beyond simple distinctions of hard causality, and into fundamental distinctions of systems that are essentially randomness constrained by probability functions, rather than any sort of hard cause and effect.

In this realm, organisation at any level, which includes any level of awareness, can propagate influence up and down the chain of probabilistic interactions (no hard dualistic causality left to break – just chains of influence, varying in strength, through varying the shape of the probability distributions, that can and does give the illusion of hard causality at various levels).

And at the higher levels, it is very much the case of a thing being so because we say it is so (or not).
At higher levels of abstraction that is an inherent property of the systems.

And for me, none of that takes anything away from the lower levels of organisation and emergence, in any of the many realms present.

[followed by]

Hi Deb

Thanks for those comments.

One of them I think is worth further elaboration, because it seems to me there is a gap in communication.

I wrote:
“. . . in another much deeper sense, we were never what we thought we were anyway, . . .”
and you responded:
“the first is subjective to our own person and interpretations” which is true in a sense, and is not at all what I was pointing at.

There is certainly a real sense in which all understanding is personal and subjective, and that seems to be a rather trivial sense, in the larger scheme of things.

What I was trying to get at, in as few words as possible, was the idea that all understandings are approximations, at some level.

It seems that reality is really really complex, at the level of detail.
And at the level of human perception and action, there are many simplifying assumptions we can make that work within certain margins of error.

For example – Flat earth.
For builders, assuming the earth is flat works for all practical purposes on most projects.
The difference between flat earth and round earth, at the top of two 30ft poles 100 ft apart is just over a thousandth of an inch. Builders rulers don’t measure down to thousandths of an inch, they might go down to 1/16th but few builders working with wood go below 1/8th in practice (3mm if using metric, 5mm is more common).

So certain simplifying assumptions are useful and practical in certain domains, and it does pay to be aware that they are simplifying assumptions, and the domains to which they are applicable. Failure to do so can lead to very big problems if scaling a project.

Newton’s assumptions about round earth and gravity were much better than flat earth, quite good enough to get a space ship within 100ft of a target on the moon.

However, if you want greater accuracy than that, then you need to go beyond Newton, and add in relativistic effects of gravity wells, and distortions of time and space.

If we want to start dealing with very small things, single atoms or parts of atoms, then we need to add in a whole other set of considerations under the general heading of quantum mechanics.

Same sort of thing goes for human awareness.

There are many levels at which one can understand the function of a human being, and all are related, and all influence each other, and all are very complex, and can be simplified to useful analogies at different levels.

It seems clear that all cultures come with sets of stories and understandings which are such simplifications that have historically proved useful in particular contexts.

One of the key simplifications is the very idea of “Truth”. Plato started out assuming Truth to be something eternal and invariant. It now seems beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that nothing could be further from truth.

It now seems clear that all “knowledge” of the realm of reality within which we find ourselves is a heuristic approximation of something.

On the scale we normally experience, things big enough to see with our eyes, on timescales of a tenth of a second or more, the world appears to have permanence and consistency.

When you get down to scales that are significantly smaller than atoms, and times that are 1/10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 part of a second ( which is to an atom as a second is to us) then things are very different.

By the time you average zillions of atoms over a fraction of a second, all those individual inconsistencies cancel out, and things appear very predictable. Ideas like true and false seem to make sense.

When one gets to other scales, one starts to encounter different sets of truth states.
The next simplest is True, False and Unknown.
Beyond those lie probabilistic logic, where uncertainty reigns supreme, and any idea of true or false is an asymptotic illusion.

And most people find it very difficult to let go of the idea of truth.
Most find it very unsettling to enter the realm where nothing is certain 100%.

So one more set of analogies.
Most people don’t know how computers work.
Even most programmers don’t know how computers work.
Not many programmers are like me, having built their first machines from components, written programs in machine code, written assemblers and a language and aspects of an operating system.
And mostly that is fine, and sometimes not.
There are real issues with mobile phones, as people who do not understand the hardware try to write code that will minimise battery usage. It is actually a really difficult problem with multicore processors present in most modern phones. Putting a core to sleep when it seems to be doing nothing, but is actually waiting for another core or another device to give it some critical piece of information, can cause system failures (and does).

So coming back to us, people.
It seems beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that we are highly evolved organic beings, recursive sets of cooperating bacteria in a sense.
And all that biological and chemical complexity gives us brains.
Those brains are the most amazingly complex sets of frequency modulated signal processors and neural network pattern recognisers (and generators, including the dimension of time) capable of infinite complexity.
Add into that complexity all of the inputs of culture, all the distinctions at successive levels of abstraction, all of the symbols and symbol manipulation rules, all of the contexts, and recursively more abstract levels of context. And you get us.

So yes – in a very real sense, all understanding is subjective and personal.
And in another sense, any experience or understanding of reality is a model made up of many necessarily simplifying assumptions and heuristics (rules of thumb that work in practice), so that adds another necessary level of subjectivity.
And acknowledging all of that subjectivity, there does seem to be evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that we are part of some larger system that we generally identify with the term “reality”, and that reality does seem to have rules that work in certain contexts and at certain scales.

And there is also an aspect that reality is so much more complex than our processing systems are capable of distinguishing, that we will always be limited in our experience by the simplifying sets of assumptions we adopt in the specific instance and in the specific context.

At a whole different level, at the level of the personal, it seems that the construction of our awareness goes through a set of stages, one stage of which constructs an “ego mask” to hide the reality of what we are, as much from ourselves as anyone else.

It seems that this double internal deception is a systemic response to adopting a set of values that require us to declare ourselves to be bad or wrong or evil at some very early stage of our personal growth. It seems that this individualised version of original sin is a core driver of many of the pathologies we observe in society.

Seeing it is not easy.
Its entire purpose is to stay hidden.
It tends to get very good at hiding, with a lifetime of practice.

So this is a slightly deeper glimpse into the depths of complexity that I see in everything around me.
Complex topologies delivering impulses to action in a vast and hugely dimensional “space” of possible strategies and actions.

And in one of those dimensions, is the dimension of approximation to reality given the current context – containing a (potentially infinite) set of heuristic based stories.

And in the reality of being, is the conscious awareness, sitting atop the unconscious impulses to both identification of context (at every level of context, recursively including the possibility of new instances or levels of contexts) and to action (at every level of action, thought, speech, movement, etc).

How we focus attention, direct context, dance with the vast and deeply unknowable systems that are us at our subconscious levels, seems to be the art of existence.

In this vastness, there is no one size fits all, cannot be.
And one can be quite confident that anything that appears like Truth, is actually illusion.

It seems that this reality we live in is a system of a type of complexity that does not allow for hard boundaries, and does work really well with fuzzy boundaries. One needs to be flexible, firm and flexible – amount of firmness highly dependent on context ;).

And if one is sufficiently far away from a fuzzy boundary it looks quite distinct and sharp, just as if one looks at the path taken by a sailing ship tacking into the wind from a sufficient distance it looks like a straight line, and it isn’t.

[followed by]

Hi Deb

Use of the word “superior” comes from a context that I am not using, so to me, just doesn’t work.

There are several things that I am explicitly saying:

1/ is that all understandings of reality are necessarily simplifications, approximations to something far too complex to be understood in detail. In this sense I make no claim to any sort of absolute knowledge of reality, only to a level of accuracy in certain contexts that far exceeds any of the models available from culture that are more than about 70 years old.

2/ in terms of analogy, it is like the flat earth model. Thinking of the earth as being flat is perfectly useful for most day to day operations. It works, within all common limits of measurement.
If however, one is trying to soft land people on the moon, then it doesn’t work, and if you try to make it work people will die. To get to the moon then at a minimum you need Newtonian gravity and mechanics.
To get to Pluto you need to go beyond Newton, and incorporate Einstein’s special and general relativity, and it will probably be easiest doing that if you include instruments that have a lot of Quantum Mechanics in their design.

3/ In exactly analogous fashion, I am saying that the models that we get from culture work in the cultural domains in which they evolved, but do not scale accurately to the modern contexts of the sorts of human and technical networks and systems we have present today.

4/ So I am not making any claim to any sort of “Absolute truth”, and I am making claims as to utility of approximation in specific contexts.

I am quite specifically saying that none of the contexts of our cultural past are universally applicable to the sort of systems complexity that is in our very near future. Some aspects, certainly, and other aspects will need to be abandoned as and when sufficient evidence of the need emerges.
There is no historical precedent for where we are, let alone what is coming – none!!!

An abacus is a great tool for calculating costs of goods and services, but not very good for running millions of Monte-Carlo Markov Chain simulations.
I am all about selecting tools of appropriate utility for the context.
And one of the real difficulties that humans have is being able to identify context.
I encounter that issue so often. We have wwoofers stay with us often, mostly kids from cities, and as a kid who grew up in the country I find the complete absence of knowledge about living systems baffling. Most of these kids have not the slightest concept of how to treat a plant or an animal – stuff I learned as I was learning to walk. So three times this year I have lost crops to people doing stuff that was so basic to me it just never occurred to me that I would need to explicitly state it (one person weeded with a hoe right up to the trunk of every plant – and went deep – end of pumpkin patch – his intention was to help, the actions didn’t work, I made assumptions that underestimated the extend of ignorance present).

So it is not about superiority.
It is about functionality in context.
And being able to see that the context is changing is not easy.
We all have a strong tendency to interpret things into the distinction sets we already understand. Being willing to question even the things we are most confident of is neither common nor easy; and one needs the luxury of quite a bit of time to even begin to attempt it.

If I need to get to the top of a wooded hill 5 miles away, using a horse is a reasonable solution. If I need to get to a town 500 miles away by nightfall, then a car or aircraft is required, a horse wont do.
For most of human history, most people didn’t travel more than 20 miles from their place of birth in their lifetimes.
That is certainly not the case today.
Many of the old models simply will not work in the modern context.

[followed by]

Hi Deb

Wwoofer – Willing Workers On Organics Farms – a network of people who travel the world giving a few hours labour each day in exchange for food and lodging and discussions (see as an example).

When I wrote:
“There is no historical precedent for where we are, let alone what is coming – none!!!”
and you replied
“I totally agree that no one knows what the future will actually bring !!!”, that isn’t what I meant.

I get that there is always a sense in which no one knows exactly what the future will bring, and we all operate within certain parameters of expectation.
We expect that when we turn on the tap water will flow, or flick the light switch and electricity will produce light via some mechanism, or press on the accelerator and the car will go faster. In this sense we all have expectations and plans about the future, and we put different reliance on different plans in different contexts and timeframes.

So in a very real sense, we do all act in practice as if we know what the future will bring, and mostly we get it right.

Some systems are so chaotic (in the mathematical sense of chaos) that they are impossible to predict very far ahead at all – weather is like that. We can make regional predictions a few days in advance with quite good accuracy, but not to the degree of being able to say (in the case of showers) if it will rain in your back yard after you hang the washing out or not.
So some systems lend themselves to accurate prediction with high reliability (like the operation of jet engines) and others do not (like weather).

Knowing the sort of systems one is dealing with (in the mathematical sense) allows one to gain confidence about what aspects of the future can be predicted with useful accuracy (and to what degree of scale it is reliable {in time, space or any other domain}), and what cannot. And none of this is definite, it is all a matter of probabilities, and in this sense we are all the descendants of a very long line of successful gamblers (every human being, plant, bacteria, etc).

In this sense, the interpretive schema supplied by culture are in a sense tuned by evolution to the context of their time.

The context is changing.

What I am doing is using a hybrid system.
I am using the intuitive skills of my biological brain, in a context of the widest varieties of interpretive schema I have been able to investigate, to get an intuitive sense of the sorts of things that seem likely to be most useful in getting to a state that is both safe and interesting for everyone.

That cannot be driven by the emotional systems of human beings. Those emotional systems are the result of selection conditions from our past, and are not necessarily useful in our future.

Our emotional systems will be a component of our future, and we may need to modify them to fit the environment, rather than trying to remake the environment fit them. I have real personal experience of this in surviving cancer, and making the intentional choice to eat food that tasted foul, and reject all food that tasted great, in order to survive.
It worked.
In the process my neural networks retrained, and over 6-10 months started to enjoy much of the food I was eating. Had I stuck with my simple desires, I would be dead. I used intention derived from higher level cognition to retrain those lower level systems.

The systems I chose came from a set of intuitive assessments of ever more refined datasets selected from vast amounts of evidence I searched online – over a 3 week period (around 100 hours a week of speed-reading, discarding most things within 10 seconds).

I have belonged to and engaged with a wide variety of groups and individuals and paradigms that most scientists would not go anywhere near, because I needed to understand (at least to a useful order of approximation) how and why they worked as they do.

The topology I am working in, which is the topology of all existing interpretive schema, requires that I have a useful working knowledge of instances of all major sets of schema. The influences of that “landscape” on the probability distributions of threats and opportunities (attractors and modulators in the vocabulary of complexity theory) is every bit as important at the impact of technology, and the general “landscape” of strategies and algorithms (as recursively applied over fitness landscapes).

I’m not very good at socialising.
I’m quite experienced at playing with this sort of conceptual stuff.
And I do need to force myself into a space where I can make as much of this stuff as possible available to as many people as possible, at least by some sort of useful analogy.

Hoping this is all – some sort of useful analogy.

[followed by]

Hi Deb

Everyone I meet is a communications test case, in a sense.

And you and OM and Mendy and Jeff and FOS and Lulu and Judi and many others here are much more than simply that.

I do actually have human emotions, and just because I do not let them rule my behaviour doesn’t mean that I don’t feel them.

I value my friendships here.
I value being valued.
I value belonging.

And I get that I kinda don’t fit anywhere, to about the same degree as I sorta fit most places.
And I got 50 years ago that it would be the necessary outcome of my chosen strategy.

I am capable of quite long term thinking and planning, and have been since the age of 6.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
This entry was posted in Ideas, Nature, Question of the Day and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comment and critique welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s