Comment to The Portal 001 – Eric Weinstein and Peter Thiel

You Tube – Peter Thiel on “The Portal”, Episode #001: An Era of Stagnation & Universal Institutional Failure.

Technologist and Investor Peter Thiel is the guest as he joins Eric Weinstein in the studio

Some really great stuff, and much that seems to me to be lost in various sets of framing failures.
And perhaps, it is just as Eric has said elsewhere, that the depth of the issues is so great that even in 3 hours one can barely scratch the surface – and I have tried multiple interpretations, there does seem to actually be errors present.

I align strongly with Peter’s concerns on violence, but not with the framing set he is currently using – it was useful but seems close to failure in our current context.

For the sake of clarity I will very briefly mention the major meta issues of “framing” that I see causing these two exceptionally intelligent individuals that I greatly respect to go down paths that seem to me to contain very high risk of violence and existential level risk.

So what are the “Framing issues”? :
1/ Experience as models
2/ Cognition within models
3/ Systems and boundaries
4/ Freedom and diversity
5/ Evolution as cooperation
6/ Hidden preference in the games theoretic context of a tournament species
7/ Paths/trails and levels of risk

My context is that in 1974 as I completed undergrad biochem it became clear that viewed from a cellular perspective, every cell alive today would consider itself to be the original cell; so indefinite life is the cellular default, and age related cellular senescence that our somatic cells experience is some set of genetic overlays on that basic theme. Therefore indefinite life extension is possible. I just don’t yet know how to do it, and I do know it is doable.

So in that context, my major focus over the last 45 years has been exploring as many domains as possible for strategies that deliver to potentially very long lived individuals a reasonable probability of living a very long time with reasonable degrees of freedom.

The only classes of solutions to that problem space that seem to me to have reasonable long term probabilities associated with them are those that can be universally applied.

So back to a small expansion of the Framing issues: given this context, and then on to some explicit problems with them in the conversation between Peter and Eric. And to be explicit, this set of “Frames” is a very tiny subset of the sets I use, and they seem to be critical to understanding major risks present in the directions of strategic thought discussed and implied by both Peter and Eric.

1/ Experience as models

It seems that all of our conscious level experience is of a model of reality created by various levels of subconscious processes. The “resolution” of that model (and the resolution of the sets of responses that occur to consciousness) can vary greatly (many orders of magnitude) in their complexity depending on various levels of context. Several of those “levels of context” are chemically mediated. And it gets even more complex as additional levels of higher level abstraction are added to the mix.

2/ Cognition within models

We never get to deal with reality directly. All we ever get is some level of simplified model. It is therefore not surprising that levels of simple abstraction can be usefully applied to levels of model and give useful outcomes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those models work in reality, however well they work in our personal experiential “model” of reality. And that can be a highly recursive and difficult concept to become intuitively familiar with.

3/ Systems and boundaries

All levels of systems require boundaries. Sometimes a simple gradient can be enough of a boundary, and sometimes something more is required. A cell wall is much more complex than a simple gradient. A cell wall is selectively permeable, allowing some things to come and go with ease, blocking others, and actively transporting others. A cell wall can be very responsive to context. The more complex the system, the more complex the boundaries need to be. Simple hard boundaries tend to drive systems to simplicity, and to remove complexity. Hard boundaries tend to become brittle and break in some contexts – causing catastrophic failure.
All levels of structure (subatomic,atomic, molecular, cellular, organs, individuals, tribes, populations, ecosystems and all levels of abstract structure – self, society, culture, intellectual paradigms and levels etc) have minimum levels of boundaries required for their continued existence. But attempts to over simplify boundaries that must be complex introduces existential level risk into systems.

4/ Freedom and diversity

In the context of boundaries above, freedom cannot be absolute, but must be constrained within the contexts that allow for existence and diversity. Diversity is the necessary outcome of phenotypic freedom in a very real sense. If one has individual life, and individual liberty as values, then one must accept indefinite expansion of diversity, even as one admits of limits on diversity of particular types in particular contexts that produce unacceptable levels of existential risk.

5/ Evolution as cooperation

Few people understand evolution in a strategic context.
If most people think of evolution at all, it is usually some version of competition, some version of “nature red in tooth and claw”.
One can certainly find many examples of such competitive evolution, but what few appreciate is that such competitive environments drive systems to some set of minima on the “complexity landscape”.
The emergence of complexity is always predicated on new levels of cooperation.
In this sense, true freedom is necessarily predicated on cooperation, as it is only in cooperative environments that real diversity can emerge.
And of course raw cooperation is vulnerable to exploitation, so at every level there emerges something of an ecosystem of “cheat detection and mitigation” strategies (as various levels of evolution occur between cheating strategies and their detection). Evolution can get very complex very quickly, and we as self aware individuals are the result of at least 15 levels of complex systems (not 15 systems, 15 levels of systems).
The other aspect of this is the contexts that support the emergence of new levels of cooperation. It is only when the threat from external factors exceeds the threat from others within the population, and there is some level of cooperative activity that can mitigate such risk, that new levels of cooperation can emerge. We are in such a context. Climate change is but one of the smaller risks.
As soon as one extends individual life to some reasonable approximation of a very long time, then the levels of personal risk go way up, and cooperation is essentially the only game in town.

6/ Hidden preference in the games theoretic context of a tournament species

When one gets to the games theory level of tournament species, then it is clear that there are strong reasons for conscious agents not to be consciously aware of their deep preferences or limits; because to be so consciously aware exposes the risk of revealing them to opponents, who would then always win. So the idea of hidden preferences can have many levels of strategy behind it, and need not be at all simple.

7/ Paths/trails and levels of risk

Anyone who spends any time in nature will notice “game trails”. These trails are present because they lower the everyday risks that are present. If you are making your own trails, then there is risk of minor injury, and multiple minor injuries can add up to major vulnerability to predators or starvation. So there is always a complex balance, over deep evolutionary time, between reducing risk by staying with the herd, and exploiting opportunity by exploring new territory and finding new rewards. That is true at every level of strategy. It is present in many levels of biology and culture, and is something Jordan Peterson speaks well about. Every level of system needs both conservative and liberal elements. The greater the levels of communication and cooperation between those elements, the greater the security of all involved. And there can be no simple boundaries on something with so many infinite dimensions – all systems are necessarily low resolution models.

Returning to the discussion between Peter and Eric directly:

At about 1:08:00 into the discussion the subject of power laws comes up. I agree with Peter that not all things resolve into power laws.
All people have essentially the same amount of computational power, some just use more of it for abstract rather than more “concrete” activities.
And here we see the first hints of major conceptual problems with the notion of market values and social structures. And this is a vast and complex topic, and we do not have time to explore it in depth, but some useful simplifications can be made.
Markets only value things that are scarce. As soon as automation makes something universally available, then it has no market value. The systemic response thus far has been to erect artificial barriers to abundance (IP laws and others), to maintain the existing market structure. To a degree I can see the need for that as part of a transition strategy to abundance based thinking, and it is not a stable long term strategy. Just as UBI is a useful transition strategy that can buy us the time necessary to do all the very complex work to create alternative risk mitigation systems to all of those currently embedded in the market system.

And the thing to get is, that as automation makes things abundant, those things lose monetary value. So viewed from a monetary perspective, they are not productive, but viewed from the perspective of what is available to individuals, they can be incredibly productive. One has to chose metrics very carefully; crossing boundaries leads to dangerous conclusions. Peter appears to have crossed such a boundary at this point in the discussion.

At 1:12:35 Peter says – If we have automation then we need UBI, but he doesn’t see automation. Those I have met who are easily capable of delivering such automation are not doing so precisely because we don’t have UBI, and they can see the social consequences of doing so without it. We have a classical conservative/liberal block. The conservative says, show me the system in practice and I will look at changing systems. The liberal says the social damage from such a practical change without systemic change at the same time is too great. Deadlock.
We must break that deadlock.
If someone like Peter cannot see that, we are all in deep trouble.

At around 1:20:00 I agree with Peter that we need individual responsibility, it is one of the necessary boundary conditions for survival (both individually and collectively – that is both social and ecological responsibilities). Where we disagree is that markets are capable of doing that in contexts of universal abundance of much at all.
I also agree that framing UBI as welfare is not useful. It isn’t welfare, it is a universal dividend of the sum of human achievement to date.
Which segues nicely into the next topic of “Solving the inequality problem”.
To me, this is a major “framing error”.
The problem is not inequality.
Inequality is an essential aspect of freedom, diversity and creativity.
The real problems are insufficiency and insecurity.
The marketing dogma is that demand is infinite. The psychological reality is quite different.
For most people, demand limits quite quickly, and most are very happy with quite reasonable limits of material goods and services.

I share Peter’s aversion to violence, and aspects of our reality can be very violent and we ignore them at our peril. So one must be willing to confront violence, and with sufficient channels of communication and sufficiently diverse networks of diverse agents, that is a reasonably tractable problem space.

Agree with Peter’s comment at 1:27:30 that too much central control is never healthy for intelligent people.

Where Peter and I seriously part company is 1:30:50 with his assertion that “it is hard to see how the process works without growth – the legislative process does not work”. In the sense of the existing processes, we can agree. But in the more abstract sense of systemic solutions to the space of such problems; there are many examples of things working. I spent about 14 years in one such collaborative consensus project here in Kaikoura, New Zealand (side note Peter is somewhat notorious here for having gained citizenship with only 12 days in the country – would be nice to see him here more often – to get a greater appreciation of the depths present in this culture).

At 1:34:10 we get to the heart of the Framing issue, and the reason for everything above.
What is human nature?
Yes we are deeply complex.
Yes we can be competitive or cooperative.
What we express is deeply dependent on context.
To a reasonable first order approximation it is true to say that we are fundamentally cooperative.
Placing people in an insecure competitive environment (markets in a context of exponential automation) does produce tendencies to violence and extreme competitive behaviour.
Conversely, delivering material and social security reduces the risk of violence and promotes cooperation and diversity. And it is extremely complex territory – many levels of complex adaptive systems that are not predictable even in theory; that demand an iterative approach.
It is only if the threats are external that we can support cooperation. No shortage of real external threats, we just need systems to ensure individual security and freedom. UBI isn’t any sort of final solution, and it is a useful transition strategy.

From about 1:46:45 the subject of preference falsification comes up.
To me it is a clear mis-framing.
It needs to be reframed in an evolutionary games theoretic context of hidden preference limits in a semi tournament species.
When that is done, the issue can be resolved.

Agree with Peter at 2:02:00 that people realise bad faith acting and grow out of it; and that is a deeply dimensional issue.
Bad faith acting can be a deeply recursive issue.
At what level is an unwillingness to seriously consider an alternative framing of an issue a matter of “bad faith”?
Where are the borders between “ignorance” (intentional or otherwise), “inability” (genetic or cultural – some form of faith capture), and “bad faith”?
Is “faith” an appropriate term, in an age of evolutionary epistemology and ontology?

I am committed to individual life and individual liberty, to the greatest degrees allowed by reality.
I acknowledge that there are many levels of fundamental uncertainty in reality, that are often masked by our overly simplified experiences of it.
I acknowledge that freedom demands responsibility if it is to be in the service of life (the value of life comes before the value of freedom). There are many more ways of dying than there are of living.

And this is profoundly deep systemic and strategic territory.

I can see no class of solutions that deliver reasonable probabilities of long term survival that are fundamentally founded in competitive markets.
There will always be a place for markets, and in the larger scheme of things, they need to be bit players to the levels of individual responsibility we must assume if we are to survive.
Jordan seems to me to have captured much of that in a way that communicates well to many people (even if he isn’t fully conscious of it himself). As he says, knowledge is often like that, we embody it before we become conscious of it.

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 www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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