The Meaning Crisis

tl;dr:  Meaning is provided by ancient and deep neural circuitry. The “crisis of meaning” (for humans) is the inability to find ‘meaning’ for issues deemed ‘important’ by other neural circuits. Anxiety and psychological distress arises from a feedback loop searching for meaning. This feedback loop manifests both as “Culture War” and is of concern for the design of AGI, StrongAI.

The “Meaning Crisis” is popularly discussed and debated these days: John Vervaeke has a fifty episode youtube series on it, David Chapman has a multi-volume website-book on it, and there is an endless collection of posts on the Culture War.  Meaning is important to understand, as it has implications for transhumanism and AGI/StrongAI.

Why do people crave meaning?

This is a rhetorical  question, and I propose an ‘operationalist’ answer below.   Now, meaning is important for the ‘deep’ questions in life, but it’s easier to get started with a unfraught examples. Consider the sentence:  “If the engine stalls under load, that means the power is inadequate“. This is of the form “If situation X, that means fact Y is true“. Another form is “If you perform X, that means Y will happen.

Basic Darwinian survival “means” that humans, indeed, all animals must have an ability to asses this kind of operational, quotidian concept of meaning. Not all meaning is created equal: “If I stop to smell this rose, I will feel good” has a meaning subordinate to “If I stop to smell this rose, the bear who is chasing me will eat me.” Thus, one concludes that (almost) all animals have priority-ranking systems.

… Although, apparently, jellyfish don’t. They give equal weighting to eating, and fleeing predators. The evolution of bilateria provides the needed neural circuitry to make up one’s mind about this. (Reference: Tony J. Prescott “Forced moves or good tricks in design space? Landmarks in the evolution of neural mechanisms for action selection” (2007))

People Crave Meaning because Biology

Which brings me to the operationalist answer to the question posed above. David Chapman presents multiple scenarios involving a crisis of meaning; one example involves an extramarital affair, and what it “means”.  Now, in the case of having an affair, one is engaging some very deep and old parts of the brain, dealing with mate selection and procreation. It’s vital to get these right, as the survival of the offspring is in question. Or rather, get this wrong, the offspring don’t survive, and such faulty behavior is bred out of the population. Animals know how to mate.

Thus, having an affair triggers sustained activity in large parts of the brain. Basically, the brain is saying “Pay attention! What is happening right now is really important! Deal with it!” The various neural layers dealing with ‘quotidian’ meaning fall into action, trying to extract if-then relationships between perceptions and actions. The claim here is that the meaning crisis arises from the fact that solving this particular problem is hard … it’s effectively unsolvable. Faced with unsolved problems, we have brain circuitry that says “think harder, think more, your survival depends on this”, and we’re now stuck in a feedback loop of pondering the answer to an unsolvable problem.

Of course, this feels like a crisis: when the bear is chasing us, and we cannot find an answer to the problem, a feeling of crisis ensues, expressed variously as helplessness, hopelessness, fear, determination, sheer will-power, grasping-at-straws, try-anything, pray to God, …

I propose that the ‘meaning’ of the affair “feels” just like being chased by that bear, but in slow motion. By “feels”, I mean, the brain senses that this is important, the brain is demanding an answer to the predicament, an answer is not being found, crisis and loss of ‘meaning’ ensues. This is a deeply ingrained feedback loop in the brain, and once switched on, it is not easily switched off.

Indeed, resolutions to the meaning crisis seem to often involve demoting the importance of the original problem: the crisis often resolves when one convinces oneself that “Ah, whatever, it didn’t really matter anyway. No need to feel miserable over it.

The converse is also true: awakened at night, you find some issue has gained immense importance, and you are tortured, anxious, unable to sleep, as the issue has no solution. Usually the torment dissolves by the next day, but can linger on for days or months. The claim is that these are old, deep neural circuits trying to do the job they’ve evolve to do, and are making your life a miniature hell as a side-effect.

Wrong Answers

David Chapman spills oceans of virtual ink on nihilism and eternalism, and how these are faulty foundations on which to build meaning. What he does not seem to say is that the reason that nihilism and eternalism are popular is that they provide the missing answer to the question driving the crisis: with the answer in hand, the feedback loop is halted, one is relieved and can get back to ordinary life. (The bear is no longer chasing you; nihilism/eternalism resolved the crisis.) People are terrible in ‘rational’ reasoning, and don’t notice the inadequacy of nihilism/eternalism. And it mostly doesn’t matter: it not only resolves this crisis, its a cure-all for (almost) all crises: its a rock you can depend on (as the Christians call it).

To be clear, the ‘feedback loop’ I am describing here is meant to be taken as a literal feedback loop: it really is one set of neural circuitry raising an alarm: ‘this is important, find out what it means‘, and a different set of circuitry saying ‘I don’t know, I can’t figure it out‘, feeding into those reinforcement circuits saying ‘well try again, this is important, your survival as a species depends on finding the answer.‘ Failure is not an option: you are flooded with hormones, and thoughts, each elevating the problem to high importance, and driving senses of high anxiety and/or loss-of-meaning and all the other stereotypical psychological responses.

So, it seems for me, that the crisis of meaning is the conflation of multiple forces:

  • (a) Old, deep brain structures that make you unhappy when you cannot find resolutions to ‘important’ problems, where ‘importance’ is ranked by other old, deep brain structures.
  • (b) Sloppy reasoning and intellectual laziness allows nihilism/eternalism to provide adequate answers, adequate guidance to shut down the feedback loops that are making you miserable.
  • (c) This shutdown and relief from pain are so significant that the ‘answer’ of nihilism/eternalism is marked as ‘really good stuff’, and ‘generically useful’ and ‘apply whenever you feel bad’: these are perceived as cure-alls.
  • (d) Whenever there is some obvious social or political problem, one’s favorite personal cure-all is trotted out as the right solution for everyone else, too.

This last point results in Culture Wars, especially evident when religion is providing one of the bedrocks of meaning for one group, even as another group rejects religion without proposing a clearly defined, simple foundation on which to build meaning. Or, more directly: failing to provide an easy, simple cure-all for resolving all emotional and psychological crises that one might face.  It’s no wonder that those of faith reject those without it: faith is the tool for resolving the crisis. If you are not clear on this, you should ponder the lyrics to Amazing Grace.

Neural Feedback Loops

l’ve posted before on ‘Endorphin Supply Chains‘, which is about the tobacco (nicotine) feedback loop that couples neural circuits in your brain to a hundred-billion-dollar capitalist industry. It is a huge feedback loop, of tremendous importance, over which we, as individuals, have precious-little control. We live in a capitalist society: it has organizational structures that are bigger than us.

Likewise, in this post: there is another deep feedback loop.  It is the one that searches for meaning. It is primitive, because finding meaning correctly allows a species to survive and thrive. Yet we, as individuals, cannot find meaning for everything. If those those things we cannot solve are also given high importance by other neural circuits, a sensation of unease takes over. Allowed to grow (fester?), it can mature into full-blown crisis. The feedback loop does not stop at the individual level; it is coupled to the global brain, and has resulted in two World Wars, as Chapman so marvelously explains.

The Risk to StrongAI

The relevance for AGI, for Strong AI is that we must be cautious with our feedback loops, with the systems that provide motivation for behavior.  They can very easily amplify negative, unwanted actions.  Wrong thinking, as David Hume noted in the 18th century, results in wrong action.

Feedback loops establish the basins of attraction in dynamical systems. In this (mathematical) sense, the activity of  any AGI/StrongAI is a dynamical system. (Well, anything and everything in our Universe is a dynamical system.) In the case of software having the ability to act in the physical world, the “laws” of unintended consequences apply.  A system smart enough to “think” but not smart enough to escape its own destructive feedback loops risks not only killing itself, but taking down Humanity with it.

Social Network Crisis Reading List

This is a list of interesting reads dealing with network theory, social media, and political crises. Stuff like algorithmic propaganda, memetics and the epidemiology of memes, as inflamed by social media. This provides footnotes and references for claims that I make in the other blog posts.

This is a complement to the Capitalism Reading List (political/economic network theory – how epidemics of memes affect the politics and economics) and the Neurochemistry and Bio Networks Reading List (network theory at the cellular and individual brain level.  Nicotine and caffeine are neurotransmitters powered by capitalism). There’s some duplication across these lists.

  • Why some biologists and ecologists think social media is a risk to humanity – Vox – 30 June 2021. An interview with two of the 17 authors sounding an alarm about the memetic crisis in social media. The snark in me wants to say “better late than never”, but the academic weight of the disciplines of epidemiology and ecology are important. In particular ecology: this is a widely (and wildly) misunderstood science. People think its about birds and bugs in forests. It’s not: its about complex systems and complex networks, with stuff like differential equations thrown in for good measure. The actual paper is here, in PNAS: Stewardship of global collective behavior, Joseph B. Bak-Coleman et al. PNAS July 6, 2021 118 (27) e2025764118;
  • Project Cassandra – the Guardian – 26 June 2021. This describes a multi-year project, the goal of which is to predict future wars based on literary analysis. How? Quote: “When Azerbaijan gave anti-Armenian books to Georgian libraries, the project predicted conflict. A year later, war broke out.” This might sound like old-fashioned  propaganda. What makes it literary is that the authors are not explicitly propagandists; rather, they are describing and mirror society in novels and plays. Authors who are showered with literary awards and prizes. And who touch a nerve: books that are banned, authors who are jailed or forced to flee their country. For, literature holds a mirror up to society. Lead researchers: Jürgen Wertheimer, Isabelle Holz, Florian Rogge (literary critique) Julian Schlicht (number crunching).
  • Aljosa Puzar,  (2021). Towards a critical cultural epidemiology. Academia Letters, Article 570.  This article is ostensibly about the sociology of pandemics. Careful reading shows that it is a far more careful study of the topics I try to broach here. For example: the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 is presented as a coupling of primal fear, neurochemically and socially expressed, to neoliberal competitiveness, capitalist supply chains and “neuro-politics”.
  • The Consilience Project – Making better sense of the world. – by Daniel Schmachtenberger – 27 February 2021. There’s been a “War on Sensemaking” – we’ve be subjected to a disinformation campaign coming from all quarters. This project notes that “The world faces unprecedented catastrophic risks across the spectrum of finance, governments, ecological health, and global stability. To respond appropriately, leaders and citizens need increased capacities to make sense of what is happening in the world and to communicate and coordinate effectively.” and that “The goal [of this project] is to restore the health of our information commons by helping educate people on how to improve their information processing so they can better detect media bias and disinformation while becoming more capable sense-makers and citizens.” My knee-jerk reaction is that this is a bit naive, given that the majority of the GOP is delusional and is politically doubling down on the insanity.  But hey, someones got to do it, so it is a commendable effort.
  • Explaining the Trump Movement Through the Lens of the Social Organism – by Fergus Thomas – Irban Group – 19 Dec 2016.
    Marvelous article reviewing the basics of memes and network theory. Recall how I talked about the collapse of sand piles, cellular death, and supply-chain contagion as explainable by network theory? Well, the same applies to the spread of memes on social media, and the incredibly invasive power of memes into the thought-patterns of humans.  The article on “Trump Psychosis” makes it sound like its all about psychology – what individuals think (in a group setting). The article on “Russian Disinformacya” makes it sound like its just social, informational manipulation.  This article  bridges over into the network theory — its the network that matters! The things that are bouncing around between brains — the messages and the memes — are one thing, but the network topology — which brains are talking to which ones, is really the key.
  • Part 1: The Next Great Online Community – Jamil Abreu – Feb 7, 2020. In case you think that “social media” means facebook, youtube, twitter, well … uh no. There’s a bit more to it than that, as there is both a history of it, and a theory of software: when you design software to run a social media site, you are also (unintentionally?) designing the rules by which that community plays. And these rules have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Building online communities is not a simple game.
  • The Wisdom and/or Madness of Crowds – Nicky Case. So in case you’re not following what I mean by “network theory”, and how that applies to politics, economics and psychology, the above is a simple, fun game that explores the mathematics (gasp!) of network theory. Its a game. you can play it in your web browser. Its short – maybe 20 minutes – its fun! Do it now!
  • Meaningness – David Chapman -2010-2021. This is a vast collection of thoughts on social politics, viewed from the lens of “meaning” – as in, deep, personal inner thoughts, the things one thinks when pursuing the “meaning of life”. The core thesis is that we’ve built society and culture on shared belief systems of what is right, and what is wrong. Shared beliefs about what makes nations great, and what makes life worth living: the stuff of political philosophy as well as religious feelings (beliefs). As it happens, the foundations appear to have been infirm. It’s best to start reading these tracts in the middle. My favorite is a portrait of the early 20th century. I like it because I understand this period well. I spent years studying Art History in school. Art History? Whaat? Hey, check it:   “Systems of meaning all in flames” explains. The bit about the culture wars of the 1980’s Reagan era is also very worthwhile.

Is the Texas PUC Incompetent?

Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I’m misreading. That I’ve misunderstood what was being said. That I misunderstood the intent.  Because surely, surely, the Texas Public Utilities Commission cannot possibly be so stunningly, overwhelmingly incompetent, as they were during this week’s electricity crisis.  Perhaps the biggest electricity crisis Texas has ever had.

Because I read the two orders that the PUC wrote to ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) at the depths of the crisis.  No matter how many times I read and re-read the legalese, the first order seems to say that the PUC was shocked, absolutely shocked, that the electric generators were not gouging the customers in the midst of the crisis. And they ordered ERCOT to retroactively gouge on their behalf.  The second order, a day later, said “Remember that first order? Never mind.” It was signed by only some of the commissioners. Apparently, Commissioner Shelly Botkin still thinks that her job is to tell the utilities to gouge the customer.

But maybe I am misreading the text. It is, after all, dense legalese 😀. Let me quote; you decide:

ERCOT has informed the Commission that energy prices across the system are clearing at less than $9,000, which is the current system-wide offer cap pursuant to 16 TAC §25.505(g)(6)(B). At various times today, energy prices across the system have been as low as approximately $1,200. The Commission believes this outcome is inconsistent with the fundamental design of the ERCOT market. Energy prices should reflect scarcity of the supply. If customer load is being shed, scarcity is at its maximum, and the market price for the energy needed to serve that load should also be at its highest.

In other words, they are shocked, completely shocked, that the free market is not ripping off customers.  To “fix” this situation, here is what they recommend:

Pursuant to this authority, the Commission determines that adjustments are needed to ERCOT prices to ensure they accurately reflect the scarcity conditions in the market. Accordingly, the Commission directs ERCOT to ensure that firm load that is being shed in EEA3 is accounted for in ERCOT’s scarcity pricing signals. The Commission further directs ERCOT to correct any past prices such that firm load that is being shed in EEA3 is accounted for in ERCOT’s scarcity pricing signals.

I read these paragraphs five or six times to make sure I understood them.  They seem to say: “Free markets aren’t working. We order you to jack up the price to maximum.”  Lets critique this.

  • Free markets aren’t working. Many people agree with this. We live in the era of “late stage capitalism” where there is abundant evidence of the damage and outright evil caused by free markets.
  • However, the GOP have been cheer-leaders for free markets — that is what they shout out to the voters. Behind closed doors, not so much: there is abundant evidence that the GOP leadership gerry-rig deals that are anti-competitive. They only say they want “free markets”; in practice, they interfere whenever they can.
  • The PUC order is an example: ERCOT provides a more-or-less free market for electricity. It seems to mostly work. But the PUC decided that the free market is not good enough. They decided to order the utilities to raise their prices. To the maximum (and then some, in the second part of the order.)
  • The maximum is ninety times the normal rate. Ninety. 90. Normally, you pay about 10 cents per kWh. Sometimes less, sometimes more. (Some parts of the US pay 20 cents, sometimes). The PUC order directs that prices be raised to $9 per kWh. Some perspective: when you sit in front to the computer all day, you might use up 10 cents of electricity. You might think twice if this cost you $9. Also, you might want to turn off the light in the kitchen.
  • The PUC issued this order in the middle of the greatest crisis the Texas electrical grid has ever had. A catastrophe is unfolding. A total electrical blackout must be avoided. Every elected official, every appointed administrator should be working 16 hours a day to avert disaster. Electric linemen are thawing frozen equipment. Their bosses are manning the phones, coordinating relief efforts. Ted Cruz is flying to Cancun to sit in the warm sun. And the PUC figured out how to waste everyone’s time while also showing they are utterly ignorant of grade-school economics.
  • Because this is rank ignorance. Yes, economics is complicated. Yes, the electrical grid is complicated. Yes, the order clearing system is complicated. Penn State offers online classes on these topics. This is not that. This is an order to gouge the victim, because they think that gouging the victim is the normal thing, right thing to do. Something that free markets should be doing. Like, when someone is choking on a piece of food, merket regulation means that each Heimlich maneuver should cost  $9,000. Or whatever the mandated maximum for government-regulated Heimlich maneuvers.

Obviously, this is a gross misunderstanding of capitalism, of economics, of the way the world works, and of basic human decency. Apparently, the PUC realized this, because a day later, they wrote this:

However, the Commission determines that its directive to ERCOT in its order dated February 15 to also correct any past prices to account for load shed in EEA3 should be and is hereby rescinded and directs ERCOT to not correct any such past practices.

In other words, “never mind“. This time, only two of the three commissioners signed the order.  The third, Commissioner Shelly Botkin, apparently is still confused.

In the wake of the gross incompetence demonstrated by the Texas Public Utilities Commission during the height of a historic utilities crisis, I hereby call for the commissioners to resign. If they do not have the common decency to recognize their mistakes, and remove themselves from a position of authority, the Governor of Texas should remove them.  This is the purest form of bad governance that I have directly witnessed in the last few … umm, weeks.

The commissioners are:

Deann T. Walker,
Arthur C. D’Andrea
Shelly Botkin





I’m old enough to know what happened in the Soviet Union. These three people are the American version of Soviet apparatchiks. America faces a disaster as long as people like this are in power.  This is the kind of leadership that destroys countries.

To be clear, I think ERCOT did a commendable job. Gov. Abbott has got things exactly wrong. He needs to think very hard about why he appointed apparatchiks to the PUC.

If you think that I have made errors of fact, errors of exaggeration, distortion or sarcasm, let me know. Convince me that I’m wrong. Show me that these people are not the incompetent buffoons they appear to be.


March 2021: All three are gone; two resigned on their own, and Deann was forced to resign.

News stories

  • How an obscure paperwork foulup left much of Texas in the cold during blackouts. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram) Bud Kennedy March 20, 2021. Basically, they shut off the electric power to the gas compressors that supply gas to electric power plants. Dohh! Choice quote: “Most West Texas gas compressor stations and pipelines were never listed as “critical” priority customers to keep power, the same way as hospitals or 911 centers. In a state with more than 1,000 public employees overseeing the energy industry, not a single one was assigned to double-check whether gas plants filled out their electricity paperwork. Absolutely nobody in Texas was checking to make sure energy facilities kept power.
  • Minnesotans furious that they have to pay for Texas’ deep-freeze problems – Natural gas prices surged across the country during Texas’ February freeze.
    Tim De Chant Apr 23, 2021 – Minnesotans get to pay $500M to a Texas gas company. Everyone in the state gets a surprise $400 gas bill to pay for the Texas PUC screw-ups. Choice quote: “The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, told The Washington Post. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.

Harnessing creative talent

Well, actually, paying for creative talent. The old model was capitalism – get a job, get paid for it. The newer model is Open Source – Wikipedia, Linux – volunteer, do it for free. Obviously(?) this is not sustainable; in the end, you have to have money to buy groceries. Where does this money come from? No one has launched a startup business based on editing Wikipedia. To support their habit of editing Wikipedia.

Open Source, Wikipedia, Linux aren’t just habits, they can border on obsessions. Every amateur psychologist knows that engineers are powered by autistic behaviors.  Small-market capitalism (medieval-era market capitalism) worked great, if you were obsessive about candle-making and shoeing horses. Medieval lords and ladies, the landed gentry, were for the most part economic leeches. Maybe providing some military security. Maybe a judge and a courtroom. Only a tiny percentage used their wealth to pursue higher studies – divinity, law, and what we now call science. Market capitalism never paid for science, except for a brief golden era of 1945-1975 when corporations ran R&D departments. Science is partly funded by Universities, but mostly by government grants. Anyway, writing grant proposals is an odiously unpleasant task.

And no one has written an NSF grant asking for money so that they could edit Wikipedia.  Or write open-source software (well, outside of some narrow scientific usage). Yet these activities are recognizably beneficial to society.

This essay is an exercise in hand-wringing:

  • How do we fund socially beneficial behavior in an increasingly knuckle-headed political environment?
  • How do we reach political agreement on what constitutes socially beneficial behavior?

Well, I guess I could sign up for an account on Patreon. Do you think my fans will pay for exclusive early access to physics research results? Or maybe the exclusive privilege to read blog entries like this? What makes you think I have fans? Do you think that sounds far-fetched? Thought so.

Patreon requires you to create content that is mind-blowing enough that you can nurture actual fans. Wikipedia and Open Source don’t fit into that category.


Pull on this thread, and you get nowhere at all. You hit the wall. Capitalism as-we-know-it. Is there an alternative?  Yes there is! The first hints of an outline is in my next (earlier) essay: Post-Capitalist Political Economy.

Post-Capitalist Political Economy

With regards to distributed ledgers and alternative credit/IOU systems, Mixmix wrote:

Might be interesting to look into mana – in te ao Māori (the Māori world) one aspect of mana is like respect / honour, and decisions are made based on whether it increases the mana of all involved. Really interested because it’s not zero-sum at all. The best path is the one where everyone leaves “richer”.

Mana might work when communities are small, e.g. smaller than the Dunbar number (about 200 people). After that, you have to distinguish social policy from monetary policy, and realize that politics plays a fundamental, key role.

Consider the problem of “taking care of grandma” (or raising children, or looking after anyone who is sick … the traditional feminine roles — I have a terrible urge to talk about why these roles are filled by women, not men, but I think you probably already know why…) In a community of 200 people or smaller, everyone can agree that “taking care of grandma” is a worthy activity. The “cost” of taking care of grandma is 100% negative on a ledger system: everyone else must provide food, shelter to her. There is only one positive externality: grandma is alive, and you can visit her. But how are you going to put “grandma is still alive” on your distributed ledger? How do you say “one living grandma is worth 10,000 IOU’s”?

This is where social policy comes in: the village communally decides that taking care of grandma is worthy (unless everyone hates her…) If you have more than 200 people in the village, say you have 20K people, then how do you allocate “money” (IOU’s, whatever) to “taking care of grandma”? The usual process is to propose a “social safety net”, have everyone vote on it, and then levy a tax on all transactions, and earmark that tax-money for taking care of grandma. Walk down this path for a while, and you end up with capitalism-more-or-less-as-we-know-it.

Distributed ledgers are technologically interesting, but are useless/unfair, unless you couple them to a social policy which kind-of means you have to couple them to a voting system. This is how you solve @Dominic’s bootstrap problem.

We need a distributed ledger with an integrated social policy platform. So that we can allocate funds to taking care of someone-else’s grandma, while also giving the boot to free-riders and general assholes. (Until such a day when the free-riders and assholes become homeless w/mental stability issues camping in the neighborhood park. Then things are hard, again.) So what we’re really looking to do is to erect an alternative, parallel political economy that can compete with capitalism.

Coupling a distributed ledger to a liquid-democracy voting system seems like the way to go. Maybe something with smart contracts ala ERC20 to store the social policy.

Wow. for the first time, ever, it seems like maybe there is a path forwards. Thank you @MixMix; I’ve been stumped by this problem for a long long time.

(To be clear: I’m proposing a technology infrastructure that can issue not only altcoins, but can also determine social policy. It is up to individual communities to determine what their social policy is, and to federate as they desire.)


The Global Brain, Redux

Do you mind if I lecture a bit? I’ll try to keep this short. Search for any terms you are not familiar with. (Cross-post from #securescuttlebutt.)

  • Bacteria use small peptides to “talk to each other”. Search “quorum sensing in bacteria“. Tree roots and fungi do this too.
  • Slime mold can solve the two-armed bandit problem: explore vs. exploit. Microscope slide, a drop of food on the left, on the right. Which will they choose? The bigger blob of food? The closer blob of food? The algo they use is a good one, but not the best-possible one; the best possible one requires storing some binary bits.
  • Communication by peptides is limited by speed of chemical diffusion. There’s also huge cross-talk.
  • Neurons are star-gate, star-trek teleporters for small peptides, now called “neurotransmitters”. A neurotransmitter walks into a neuron here, and a millisecond later, pops out three feet away. Speed is a million times faster than diffusion, and no crosstalk! The algorithm space expands hugely!
  • Jellyfish have neurons but don’t have brains. They can eat, and they can flee predators. Except they sometimes do both at the same time, because they have no supervisor to suppress eating while they’re fleeing. Bilatarians do have this. The first brains.

    Jellyfish have a circular ring of neurons running along the perimeter, able to detect and paralyze food as it swims by.
  • Lets skip ahead. Animals invent language. I stub my toe. Some peptides get released, they go up my spine to my brain, I say “ouch”, and the neurons in your brain know that my toe hurts! This is magic! Forget star-trek teleporters, neurons are now communicating with freakin sound waves! That’s just bat-shit insane!
  • In stone-age villages, grandmas pass cultural heritage to grand-children by oral tradition. Culture has a longer lifespan than human lifespan. It also spreads, one to many. Culture is a stable structure that lives on top of neurons, on top of brains, and continues to live and thrive even as old brains die and new brains are born and added to the network. Lo-fidelity maybe, culture mutates over the generations, but … semi-stable.
  • Phonecians invent the alphabet. Just memorize these 26 symbols, and the sounds that match with them, and you can read-write. Joe Blow, anyone with an IQ over 120 can do this, without training, without a classroom, without an education. This lowers the mutation rate of oral tradition, and supplies a stable long-term storage. Much more stable than oral tradition. Also, fraud-tolerant. You’ve got it in writing.
  • This means that thoughts and ideas can survive on pieces of paper. Or clay tablets. whatever. For decades, centuries, millenia.
  • Like, who is Aristotle? Sure, he’s partly dead clay, but he lives on the be brains of thousands of professors and millions of students. Lives on to this very day. Our neurons are connected to Aristotle’s neurons. Aristotle’s neurons are still influencing our behavior. The network is not sound-waves, the network is written material. This is a store-and-forward network that has survived millennia. Aristotle is a store-and-forward network.
  • The printing press / radio / television / mass media changes everything. Network connectivity between neurons changes to a hub-n-spoke model, broadcasters at the hub. About 1% to 5% of neurons on this planet broadcast to the other 95%. The 1% here are the newspaper editors, journalists, TV stars, movie producers, sports stars, mayors, CEO’s. These people are smart: say, IQ of 120 or better. Because mostly book publishers won’t publish a book written by a moron. Think of this as neuro-science: there are brains connected by various channels, transmitting assorted information. Information that is mostly stable, mostly verifiable, mostly true. Long-lived. Broadcast from the governing few to the masses.
  • This means that the total compute power of western civ has ramped up by million-fold, compared to Medieval times. So, in 1300 AD, you had a handful of universities with brilliant scholars: Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas. In the Middle ages, you had maybe thousands of scholars at any given time. Maybe 10K. Now you’ve got many tens of millions, not just universities, not just corporate R&D departments, but also sports-coaches figuring out how to fine-tune athletic performance, city councils figuring out how to run a city. There were lots of brains in the Middle Ages, too, but those brains did not have a network to connect them. Mass media and publishing provided the network. We’ve got many millions of brains figuring shit out, but now they are in sync, because they can communicate better. We’ve got the printing press! Raw compute power via human brains is explosively, exponentially larger than the Middle Ages.
  • Twenty years ago, we invent social media. This completely alters the network connectivity between brains. Suddenly, brains that had only a small, limited reach (the drunken uncle at thanksgiving, the sulky teenager in the high-school lounge) now has a freakin huge audience for their nut-ball flat-earth theories. Or whatever else they care to think about. And so memes, like germs and viruses and #covid spread without a mask, unfiltered, infecting other brains. I mean, mass media used to filter out the shit, because, again, newspaper editors filter out the total garbage. But #youtube and #facebook mostly does not have a filter, so anything goes.
  • Spend some quality time studying “phase transitions” and “second order phase transitions”. This is hard science- physics, the physics of ice melting, the physics of water boiling. Phase transitions change freakin everything. We are in the middle of a phase transition in how human brains are connected. It is literally that big. If you are not seeing this, you are truly missing the big picture.
  • And don’t forget the neurotransmitters. #nicotine #addiction is a real thing, and there’s a cascade of half-a-dozen protein expression and DNA methylation processes involved in this. These same (well, similar) circuits keep you addicted to #facebook, and to #gaming and to #QAnon. These circuits in your brain are now wired to similar circuits in billions of other brains, pumping endorphins with each “like”, with each new subscriber. This is the system we are dealing with.
  • Yes, of course, #capitalism and #politics are layers built on top of this system, but they date back to the invention of the printing press. The invention of social media, the phase transition …. changes everything. We are all part of the Borg now, and we love it. Do not be fooled, there is no going back. Whether or not there will be global systemic collapse, who knows, but seriously, we’ve increased global human brain compute power by 1000x maybe more, over what we had in the 1980’s. What is this brain thinking? Well, surf #youtube for a while to find out. Is it healthy? Watch The Social Dilemma to find out. But do not underestimate what happens during a phase transition.
  • Seriously: study network science. The #math, the #physics, the #neurobiology, the #psychology, the algorithmic #propaganda. This is wayyyy larger than what almost anyone suspects. This is fundamental on a planetary scale.


(I posted this on #scuttlebutt yesterday, in response to a discussion about revolution.)

The current reality that I am faced with is almost half of the US and A voted for Trump and I don’t see how any amount of revolutionary fervor will change that. The reality is that these people live in a different mental universe than we do. That’s the “system” that we’re dealing with.

Let me talk about systems.There is the overtly visible system: the elected politicians, the 0.01%’ers who pull the strings, the networks of lobbyists who glue it all together. A very big complex system. Relatively unchanged for decades, centuries.

There is the brand-new system: the Fox News, the #propaganda mills, the delusional posts that is called #facebook, or social-media in general. Social media allows mind-viruses to spread, unchecked. There’s no mask. It’s daunting: its not just human psychology, its also #neurobiology. The circuits in your brain that make #nicotine addictive are related to the circuits that make political affiliation addictive.

Then there’s the reality: half of the US somehow managed to overlook or not notice Trump’s crimes. How is that even possible? What, exactly, is the “system” that causes this to happen? I mean, sure, I can hand-wave about echo chambers and social media and addiction and #capitalism, but honestly, I don’t understand it.

The closest I’ve come was hanging out on an alt-right, sharply 100% pro-Trump social media site and it was … shocking. People talked about being raped as children, by parents, by relatives, by school-teachers. People talked about losing fingers, arms, eyes from dangerous machinery. People complained about having a terrible education – in primary school, grade school. Unprepared for high-school, couldn’t hack it. Not ready for it. All kinds of mental issues, depression, hopelessness, anger. There was one guy, I’m imagining him as bearded redneck wiseman, trying to hold things together, playing the role of pastor, tending to his flock of broken-down chewed up human beings. And yes, of course, the above is interspersed with talk of libtards and guns and bigotry and utter hatred/contempt for Democrats.

Honestly, it was shocking. The mainstream media are happy to report on the gun-toting bigotry; we all know about that. A casual perusal for facebook gives absolutely everyone who cares to look a nice sampling of alt-right insults and hateful behavior and general stupidity.

What is invisible is the pathos. The decrepit and the broken will spew vile bile on facebook. They won’t open up about the absolutely horrible lives that they’ve endured, until they are in a safe space, where they can open up to each other about how completely broken they are.

Ride the white horse!

As revolutionaries, we here in #ssb are, in a sense, very lucky to be able to rationally discuss revolution and the Matrix movies. But we’ve got this problem: this 49% of America that has been so screwed over by the system, so badly, that like a drowning man who can’t swim, they are grasping for straws, enthralled in the delusional belief that Trump will #MAGA, that Trump will save them, heal them, shelter them from the depredations of “the system” aka “the #Democrats” that have screwed them over (too blind, too deluded to the fact that the #GOP is actively making things much worse for them, while playing them for fools (that they are…))

That’s the revolution, that’s the system we have to fight.

Free will

Eisenstein g_3 modular form

As a physicist, I get to think about free will just like the rest of ’em.  I was recently prompted to set my thoughts to writing on the talk page of the Wikipedia article free will theorem. I think I can string together a few more pieces, and clarify how it actually “all works”. Caution: the rest of this article is about physics and math. So good luck with that, if you are not widely read.

The free will theorem starts with three postulates: an upper bound to the speed of information; the importance of spinors, and quantum entanglement. Not a bad foundation. Lets see how it plays out.

In some theories of entanglement, the resolution of wave function collapse happens via propagation of the phases of the wave-function into the past, see, for example, the two-state vector formalism. Here, it is not information that is travelling backwards in time, but rather the geometric phase (aka the holonomy). There is a U(1)-connection relating the phase of the quantum-mechanical particle (taken to be the phase of the spinor on a spin manifold); that phase has to be consistent across time (and not just space, as it is in the Aharonov–Bohm effect); to describe this consistency, one has to use the holonomy of the connection. If the phase in the future, after wave function collapse, is going to be consistent with the past, then you have to propagate it “all the way around”, “into the past” as well as “into the future” — to close the loop — the holonomic loop (aka the Wilson loop). That’s what makes the two state-vector formalism work. Roughly speaking, it is not “information” in the sense of “classical bits”, that propagates into the past, its the qubits. Anyway, that’s the general idea, as I understand it. The article on Aharonov–Bohm effect has a tortured, painful explanation of the space-like only version of this; I’ve seen far more elegant explanations elsewhere. Aim your search-engine at “U(1) holonomy” for details. Maybe throw in “Dirac string” into the search.

Anyway, that is my understanding of wave-function collapse. There’s no speed-limit in this. Basically, you can think of the past as being “not yet fully frozen” or “not yet fully determined” until the future forces those holonomic loops to close; when they finally freeze up, that wave-front of “freezing up” is what necessarily propagates at the speed of light. (I suppose if you are bold, you can claim that the U(1) of the quantum mechanical phase its exactly the U(1) of electromagnetism; this would explain why its the “speed of light” and not some other speed that is involved. I don’t know if one can be that bold, or not, but it sure seems reasonable.) The loops are what is carrying the “classical bits” of information, the classical bit corresponding to the question “is this loop closed yet, or not?” which has a clear yes/no answer.

The elegance of this is that it replaces a fairly nebulous concept of “causality” with something very concrete and algebraic: the holonomy, and Wilson loops, more generally, with which one can do explicit calculations: it is the cornerstone of algebraic topology. You can do calculations with loops, things like spectral sequences or more generally the Postnikov tower. You cannot do comparable calculations with “causality”. You can’t stick “causality” and “determinism” into some equation and turn the crank. It doesn’t work.

The other problem with the naive concept of the “speed of information” is with what happens at the event horizon at a black hole. My (faulty and naive) understanding is that, again, this is where the holonomy plays a key role; the holonomy in a certain sense “escapes” the black-hole information paradox. The holonomic loops are free to thread through the event horizon; that is because they are not “physical particles” and have no “speed” and thus no “speed limit”. Whatever is entangled inside the horizon must still be phase coherent across the horizon with whatever is going on outside. The evaporation is what “tunnels” the phase from the inside to the outside. Thus, it is not “information” that is being radiated away during during evaporation, it is the end-points of the holonomic loops; when these finally close, the “information” that they are closed is now outside of the BH. For evaporation (Hawking radiation), the end-points happen to be entangled spinors. They carry no information by themselves, the information is “created” when the wave-functions that embody them are a part of collapse. That is where “information” comes from. It is also “why” it looks like information “lives on” the event horizon; the information is a count of the not-yet-closed loops that are waiting for closure. This is consistent with the replica trick (from spin glasses) that is used to resolve the ER=EPR suggestion. The ER’s are the places through which the Wilson loops thread through.

In more abstract terms, information is a cobordism, or rather, the content of what is required to specify a specific cobordant arrangement. From what I can tell,  its got something to do with spectral triples, but I don’t entirely get it. The spectral triples describe the operators needed for the operator product expansion across  the event horizon boundary. Or something like that. I dunno.

So, the above is a sketch that offers up the mathematical details for why “causality” and “determinism” are faulty concepts. John Baez explained one aspect of this elegantly  where he argued for getting rid of category “Set” and replacing it by category “nBord” and category “Hilb”. (See “Quantum Quandaries: A Category-Theoretic Perspective” in “The Structural
Foundations of Quantum Gravity” (2006)) It gets rid of the stupidities with set theory and functions, which are the same stupidities of “causality” and “determinism”, that everyone gets so hung up about, and replaces them with e.g. the infinity category (or the infinity groupoid as that’s more appropriate.)

So where does “free will” come from? Roger Penrose suggests a path. Let me suggest a revised model. Modern physics uses the Standard Model to describe particle interactions.  For this discussion, let’s fall back to a simpler description, which can be used in generic settings (including in curved space-time): this is the resonant interaction. In this case, the conservation of energy becomes a Diophantine equation. Now, Hilbert’s tenth problem asks for the enumeration of such solutions, and it is now known that this is algorithmically impossible — there is no computer program that can achieve this. What does this mean? Well, “determinism” or “causality” is that thing which results when you use digital algorithms; such systems have no “free will”.

Put it this way: whatever free will is, it is certainly not a deterministic coupling. When you say “1+1=2”, it is what it is and there can be no other way. Any set of equations that couple together a bunch of different things “determine” those things. For example, mathematical proofs are “determined” by their premises; they proceed in a purely mechanical way unto their inevitable conclusion. When a certain path is not Turing computable, one gains a certain freedom, as it were; one is not forced to march down that path. So, for example,   when pondering the conservation of energy in the resonant interaction, the resonance condition is “fixed”: one must have a balance of energy. Re-interpreting this as Diophantine equations, we equally see that they are “fixed”, determinate. Balancing these against Hilbert’s tenth problem, we’ve got a rub: A certain set of deterministic, unbreakable equations have solutions that are not recursively enumerable. It is, as it were, that these equations can “make a choice”: they can say “I choose to be solved like so, or like so.”  There is no algorithm forcing their hand.  From the point of view of the Conway-Kochen free will theorem, an electron can choose to do this, or to do that. I’m being crazier here: a Diophantine equation can “choose” to express itself this way or that way.

This is how one builds the bridge from undecidability (Turing incompleteness) to “free will” in physics. To be crystal clear: the outcome of the interaction between physical (quantum mechanical) particles (in a curved space-time background) requires a decision problem to be solved, that cannot be solved using algorithms/Turing machines. Ergo “free will”.

(Footnote: It is not clear whether or not geometric finite automata (GFA), for example, the quantum finite automata (QFA) can evade these non-computability results. That is, can a QFA or GFA ever be an oracle? That is an interesting question in itself.)

Neurochemistry and Bio Networks Reading List

This is a collection of supporting articles and footnotes for some of the other blog posts here. It focuses on biochemistry, neuroscience and the physics and mathematics of phase transitions in networks. It is meant to be a complement to the Social Network Crisis Reading List, which describes social media (facebook, youtube) as networks, and  the Capitalism Reading List, which focuses on the political and economic fallout from the crisis in social media (in the context of neurobiology). Articles on ecology too, as ecology is the science of complex biological, environmental systems.

  • The medications that change who we are. By Zaria Gorvett, 8th January 2020 BBC Future. A single dose of LSD makes one person hallucinate. A single dose of speed gives a single person superpowers for a day. A single dose of anti-depressants makes one person slightly happier for a day. An entire society high on pervetin…
  • Speaking of an entire society high on Pervetin, there’s “The Very Drugged Nazi’s“,  by Antony Beevor, The New York Review of Books.  We’re talking Pervetin (trade name for methamphetamine), Eukodal (trade name for Oxycodone), Benzedrine, and Heroin (everyone knows that: trademarked name for diactyl morphine).
  • How to use chemicals responsibly: “Wireheading Done Right: Stay Positive Without Going Insane“,  by algekalipso, Qualia Computing. August 20, 2016.

A few words about what chemicals do:

Neurochemistry and it’s manifestation in Politics:

  • Aljosa Puzar,  (2021). Towards a critical cultural epidemiology. Academia Letters, Article 570.  This article is ostensibly about the sociology of pandemics. Careful reading shows that it is a far more careful study of the topics I try to broach here. For example: the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 is presented as a coupling of primal fear, neurochemically and socially expressed, to neoliberal competitiveness, capitalist supply chains and “neuro-politics”.

Meta Reading List

Notable stuff I’ve stumbled across, worth checking out.

  • The  Dark Forest Theory of the Internet by Bogna Konior. If you just search for the title, you’ll get lots of hits to … something else. The one you want to read is this one: because Bogna is a far superior author.  What’s it about? Well, clearly inspired by the Liu Cixin books.  Written as a companion piece to a sculpture:  Black Market : Zero Hedge (2019) by Andrej Škufca.  Wait, what’s it about? Oh, right. Its about the kinds of things I sometimes write about. In my other posts here.  Except Bogna writes better than I do.  So there. It’s about that. (7 Sept 2020)
  • Facebook is a Doomsday Machine by Adrienne LaFrance  Since the title is left-explanatory, I decided to wallow in photos of decommissioned Titan nuclear missile silos instead.  Afterwards, I forced myself to read the article. It mostly states the obvious, if you think about such things, but let me re-iterate: 1) the algos drive engagement, and that means promoting extremist posts. 2) Zuckerberg is the most powerful man in the world. (yes, he’s more powerful that the POTUS. Good luck with that, Biden. You’re screwed. We’re screwed. We’re all screwed.)  3) His activities are detrimental to humankind. 4) There’s pretty much nothing we can do about it.  5) Lots of other curious commentary.  Misses the point that we are living in a phase change. But whatever, that’s a topic too big, too abstract.  (18 Dec 2020)