Category Archive: The Beginning of Infinity

Allen Lane: 2011.

Education for the closed society

But in a static society that beginning of infinity never happens. Despite the fact that I have assumed nothing other than that people try to improve their lives, and that they cannot transmit their ideas perfectly, and that information subject to variation and selection evolves, I have entirely failed to imagine a static society in this story.

For a society to be static, something else must be happening as well. One thing my story did not take into account is that static societies have customs and laws – taboos – that prevent their memes from changing. They enforce the enactment of the existing memes, forbid the enactment of variants, and suppress criticism of the status quo. However, that alone could not suppress change. First, no enactment of a meme is completely identical to that of the previous generation. It is infeasible to specify every aspect of acceptable behaviour with perfect precision. Second, it is impossible to tell in ad­vance which small deviations from traditional behaviour would initiate further changes. Third, once a variant idea has begun to spread to even one more person – which means that people are preferring it – preventing it from being trans­mitted further is extremely difficult. Therefore no society could remain static solely by suppressing new ideas once they have been created.

That is why the enforcement of the status quo is only ever a secondary method of preventing change – a mopping-up operation. The primary method is always – and can only be – to disable the source of new ideas, namely human crea­tivity. So static societies always have traditions of bringing up children in ways that disable their creativity and critical faculties. That ensures that most of the new ideas that would have been capable of changing the society are never thought of in the first place.

How is this done? The details are variable and not relevant here, but the sort of thing that happens is that people growing up in such a society acquire a set of values for judging themselves and everyone else which amounts to ridding themselves of distinctive attributes and seeking only conformity with the society’s constitutive memes. They not only enact those memes: they see themselves as existing only in order to enact them. So, not only do such societies enforce qualities such as obedience, piety and devotion to duty, their members’ sense of their own selves is invested in the same standards. People know no others. So they feel pride and shame, and form all their aspirations and opinions, by the criterion of how thoroughly they subordinate themselves to the society’s memes. [381−2]

A static society involves – in a sense consists of – a relentless struggle to prevent knowledge from growing. [385]

What participation means

The conditions of ‘fairness’ as conceived in the various social-choice problems are misconceptions analogous to empiricism: they are all about the input to the decision-making process – who participates, and how their opinions are integrated to form the ‘preference of the group’. A rational analysis must concentrate instead on how the rules and institutions contribute to the removal of bad policies and rulers, and to the creation of new options.

Sometimes such an analysis does endorse one of the traditional requirements, at least in part. For instance, it is indeed important that no member of the group be privileged or deprived of representation. But this is not so that all members can contribute to the answer. It is because such discrimination entrenches in the system a preference among their po­tential criticisms. It does not make sense to include everyone’s favoured policies, or parts of them, in the new decision; what is necessary for progress is to exclude ideas that fail to survive criticism, and to prevent their entrenchment, and to promote the creation of new ideas. [345-6]

Creating wealth and wisdom ex nihilo

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empir­ically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it. They are, both individually and collectively, seeking the truth – or should be, if they are rational. And there is an objective truth of the matter. Problems are soluble. Society is not a zero-sum game: the civilization of the Enlightenment did not get where it is today by cleverly sharing out the wealth, votes or anything else that was in dispute when it began. It got here by creating ex nihilo. In particular, what voters are doing in elections is not synthesizing a decision of a superhuman being, ‘Society’. They are choosing which experiments are to be attempted next, and (principally) which are to be abandoned because there is no longer a good explanation for why they are best. The politicians, and their policies, are those experiments. [345]

Decision-making: choosing explanations

To choose an option, rationally, is to choose the associated explanation. Therefore, rational decision-making consists not of weighing evidence but of explaining it, in the course of explaining the world. One judges arguments as explan­ations, not justifications, and one does this creatively, using conjecture, tempered by every kind of criticism. It is in the nature of good explanations – being hard to vary – that there is only one of them. Having created it, one is no longer tempted by the alternatives. They have been not outweighed, but out-argued, refuted and abandoned. During the course of a creative process, one is not struggling to distinguish between countless different explanations of nearly equal merit; typically, one is struggling to create even one good explanation, and, having succeeded, one is glad to be rid of the rest. [341]

Measurement in science

[I]n genuine science, one can claim to have measured a quantity only when one has an explanatory theory of how and why the measurement procedure should reveal its value, and with what accuracy. [317]

Probability and justificationism

Since explanationless prediction is actually impossible, the methodology of excluding explanation from a science is just a way of holding one’s explanations immune from criticism. [316]

Bad philosophy

Let me define ‘bad philosophy’ as philosophy that is not merely false, but actively prevents the growth of other know­ledge. [308]

Convergence in the multiverse

Since the growth of knowledge is a process of error-correction, and since there are many more ways of being wrong than right, knowledge-creating entities rapidly become more alike in different histories than other entities. [302]

Moral imperatives

Could it be that the moral imperative not to destroy the means of correcting mistakes is the only moral imperative? That all other moral truths follow from it? [235]

Optimism as a prerequisite for freedom

Unless a society is expecting its own future choices to be better than its present ones, it will strive to make its present policies and institutions as immutable as possible. Therefore Popper’s criterion can be met only by societies that expect their knowledge to grow – and to grow unpredictably. And, further, they are expecting that if it did grow, that would help.

This expectation is what I call optimism, and I can state it, in its most general form, thus:

The Principle of Optimism: All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge. [212]

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