Why Hope?

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Since we have launched the new Epsilon Theory site, the engagement from our readers has been, without question, the most rewarding part for both me and Ben. I am grateful for the emails and responses to We Were Soldiers Once, And Young. I’m grateful to our member John, who doesn’t let me get away with any bullshit.

I’m also grateful to our member Thomas, who posted an incredibly thoughtful response to one of David Salem’s notes from last week. In this comment, he challenges whether hope is the right response to our present social and political environment. It’s an earnest and entirely reasonable challenge. “Hope”, as Thomas points out in quoting Henry Rollins, “is the last thing a person does before they are defeated.” And so it is. And yet, I’d like to stand again in defense of hope – and duty, its fellow laborer.

I’ve done so before, in a prior piece I called the Two Churchills.  But today I want to talk instead about Two Worlds.

In one world, humans have never been so free to live the life they choose. In this world, diseases are being conquered. Scientific and mathematical breakthroughs are being achieved. Fewer people die in violence, in conflict and in war. Fewer crimes are committed. Fewer children go hungry. Fewer people are imprisoned and killed by their own governments. We are learning to harness new sources of power. We are learning about the stuff we are made of.

This is our world.

Is this world at risk? As it ever was, yes! Our prosperity and fruitfulness appear to have put a strain on our planet’s climate and ecology. The balance between protecting our world and ensuring that we may still be so productive as to offer the poor nations of the world the same promise we took hold of in the last century is delicate. We may face escalating challenges from increasingly resistant pathogens. Many of the technologies we are now exploring – from gene editing and genetic modification of foodstuffs to artificial intelligences – carry immense potential…and uncertainty. And no matter how far our science may advance, we can never bury the road to serfdom brought on by the occasional circumstances in history that have so often compelled societies to vest their power in authoritarian governments.

And yet, on balance the World of Reality is, by any comparison to a world that has existed for human beings, a paradise.

But there is another world, a world which is at once both imaginary and real. It is the World of Abstraction.

The World of Abstraction is a world awash in narratives and memes. It has always existed alongside the World of Reality, because many of those memes are hard-wired into the human brain, or else into human cultures as patterns and heuristics. But in only the last ten years, practically all of humanity has gained near-constant access to the megaphones of always-on news, internet-enabled mobile devices, and broad, multi-layered social media presence. The number of bi-lateral human interactions we have today is a fraction of the interactions we have in front of an audience. When we speak to each other, we speak to each other AND to the crowd of people watching.

The World of Abstraction is The Panopticon. A circular prison with clear glass walls, an invention of Jeremy Bentham to explore prisoner behavior under the conscious influence of the constant, silent knowledge of perfect surveillance. By everyone.

The picture the panopticon presents of the world – what we call common knowledge – isn’t just a fuzzy picture of the World of Reality, shifted slightly by the change in how we communicate knowing that the crowd is watching the crowd. It is something completely changed, affected not only by third- and fourth-level abstractions, but by individuals who recognize how to leverage this panopticon to shape that common knowledge. These are the people we call missionaries. This is how you will know them: they are the ones who tell us what something really means. Some are benevolent, or wish to be. Others are not. When a powerful enough missionary is committed to using this power to create the perception of an existential conflict, our World of Abstraction becomes what we have referred to as a competition game. A stag hunt, as it is referred to in game theory, in which the equilibrium is a bad outcome for everyone. Donald Trump has done this. The US Media has done this. Debating who came first or who is more ‘responsible’ is a vain enterprise, and in the now-typical recursively meta sort of way, part of the conflict itself.

The world’s present travails are not wholly the result of these missionaries and the narratives of which they are the purveyors, nor of the competitive game they spawned. That’s a Pollyannaish delusion, too. Humans have lied, murdered, cheated, stolen and been horribly unhappy for millennia. They will still do those things. We would still disagree with one another in the World of Reality, sometimes vehemently, and would find countless issues for which our differing value systems bring us to an unpleasant impasse. But I am convinced that the specific unhappiness about our current time and our current political environment is not driven so much by the state of the World of Reality, as by the World of Abstraction.

There is good news: the world we truly live in is the World of Reality, friends.

There is also bad news: our brains will do everything to convince us that we live in the World of Abstraction. And in a sense, our brain will be right. A paranoid delusion or a mind beset with depression may cause a person to see and perceive events, people and language other than they truly are, but the actions they take in response will be very real.

So it is for each of us.

Our hope need not be a vain gasp at the end of all things. Our commitment to kindness need not be a futile gesture. In the best case, our hope is a flag in the ground that tells other people, “I am willing to look like a fool in the World of Abstraction. Come look like a fool with me and see the world for what it is.” If enough people rally around the flag and reject the narratives of this competition game, even the ones that feel right to us, even the ones that help our values to win some battle or other, I believe it can be defused. I may be naïve. Or maybe I’m right, and it is possible, but we don’t succeed.

That’s OK. Even then, in the worst case, hope and kindness and a commitment to good faith will be a necessary guide to a functioning civil society, if and when the competitive game causes us to do what competitive games tend to: fall apart.

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James
Member
James

The two worlds are so very intertwined; I don’t believe the world of reality could exist without the world of abstraction. Is it really “bad news” that our brains want to convince us that we live in the world of abstraction? I believe the constant panging fear of the abstraction world is what drives people so hard to create and maintain the world of reality.

That’s the really screwed up thing about humans. Complacency is the worst possible condition for us, it leads to stagnation which will rot away the mind. You can’t have highs if there are no lows.

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Victor K
Member
Victor K

When I read ET, I see that you, Ben H, and now David S, are doing a fantastic job showing us how external narratives are constructed, replete with missionaries and common knowledge. The expose on the ‘Wall Street favorite’ is a masterful example. (I suspect that ‘pre-existing condition’ could be rendered as well.)
(But) our human brains will construct a narrative even from randomness. (And so we have the Las Vegas victims being so-called Trump supporters.) Some minds need simple ways of organizing the randomness around them, and it is at this moment where the unhinged may merge an external narrative and their internal need for simplification, too often with disastrous consequences.
More rational minds put a governor on this tendancy, but in a widening gyre and competition, those governors appear to be failing.
So Faith, Hope, Love – I get it now!

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michael gjerde
Member
michael gjerde

Thanks for another perfectly timed article. In his book Sapiens, Harari believes that cooperation based on what we call narratives ( he calls myths) is what makes humans so successful as a species. So it could be that the world of abstraction really is as important as the real world. Having two almost non-overlapping narratives is clearly what is breaking us. The Second Foundation writing bringing clear eyes and open hearts to this time and place is truly bringing hope to my days. Thanks for creating this pack!

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John
Member
John

Just to echo the comments above, thanks for continuing to put big ideas up top. It helps.

I’m no anthropologist, but even I can see that Homo Sapiens owes its success to teamwork (it sure ain’t our speed or strength). Over the millennia a profound receptivity to (and facility with) narrative abstraction has been selected for in our DNA precisely because well-organized teams beat unorganized teams, technological advances result from abstractive thinking more often than chance, and having a shared narrative Mission is a prime indicator/motivator of a strong team.

I don’t think we can switch this off. It’s indivisible from our humanity. We abhor a narrative vacuum, so it matters greatly what our narratives are. People acting under the influence of narrative can do amazing, beautiful feats: rescue strangers from flood and fire, jump on a live grenade, etc. Equally, if you feed them slightly different narratives, they can become torturers (e.g. Milgram experiment).

My worst anxiety, presently, is that tinctures of fear and loathing will corrupt our best narratives more easily than we realize. It may only take a nudge! Then terrible beliefs will become commonly held, and we will slip a long, long way backward.

Ahh! Oh, and Happy Halloween!

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Thomas
Member
Thomas

“I don’t think we can switch this off.” – Roger that, John. Brings to mind the time Joe Rogan sat down with physicist Lawrence Krauss. At one point during their talk, Krauss asserted with total sincerity that people should just take comfort and embrace the meaningless of the universe. I didn’t mind his insights about astrophysics but this obsequious personal outlook was a galactic heap of rubbish. Essentially the guy was arguing that people should abandon any and all narrative abstractions and instead be richly fulfilled with… nothingness.

Well…, while the rest of us have been trying to stay afloat on a sea of endless story arcs, Krauss is lately getting the ax from his post at Arizona State for sexual misconduct. He should’ve stuck with trying to fuck his nothingness instead of other people. Evidently the guy doesn’t watch much TV either as Rick & Morty explores meaningless in a much more compelling way.

Safe to say we can be assured that opting out of narrative altogether in favor of exquisitely constructed intellectual agnosticism is not something to take seriously. But activating hatred and fear certainly is. So serious that the US War Department (later renamed Department of Defense) at one point took great pains to deconstruct such narratives:
Don’t Be a Sucker (1945)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGAqYNFQdZ4

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Victor K
Member
Victor K

Thomas, I’m going to speculate that very few followers here are in the loop about Krauss. I could easily be way off. The author of ‘A Universe from Nothing’, he is also a theo-skeptic. He is part of main stream cosmology and astrophysics and uses ‘science’ as an anti-theist (agnostic) tool.
I disagree with your specific reference to Krauss in this forum even though to me your ‘exquisitely constructed intellectual agnosticism’ has more idea-density than any four words other than ‘much ado about nothing’!
Ever since theoretical astrophysicists started relying on big mathematics to legitimize their ever-expanding bubble of cosmology books, they are looking more and more like modern economists – heaven help them! We don’t need to pile on. Cheers

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Thomas
Member
Thomas

Points taken. I do likes to fool about with words. Although I kept typing meaningless instead of meaninglessness.

I hadn’t thought about how Krauss’s crowd are akin to modern economists but it sounds like they vacation on the same cruise line. I do however think Krauss is relevant as an extreme example of opposition against the importance of narratives. It’s rather confounding for me when highly intelligent individuals are simultaneously oblivious to mundane truths about the role which narrative performs in human societies. My densely worded description of Kraussism hopefully reads as rather absurd because I think his suggestion about embracing meaninglessness is largely the same. To be clear, I don’t actually disregard the grand argument he makes about how insignificant humankind is against the immensity of the universe or the non-negotiable limits of nature. But it’s still such an ill-suited and useless suggestion to put forward in this moment of history. It sounded to my ears like Krauss just wanted to bypass our narrative hurdles because that’s what he does. Yet as John states, “we abhor a narrative vacuum” and very few would find Kraussism to be of any help in their lives. Neither would it help to combat the powerful narratives of “fear and loathing” that John also writes of. Maybe we can give it another look after each of us is given few spare decades to ponder the cosmos.

In the end, the guy was rather ungracious in communicating his ideas during the Rogan interview. Lousy advice that didn’t persuade. By contrast, Neil deGrasse Tyson knows how to work an audience and speak persuasively.

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