Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reasonable Radical

Finally I figured out what I really do. I'm a de-mystic.
--Richard St. John, Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky and Rich

I love everything technical and obscure. I just hate the fact that it's obscure. I think of the 20th century as the Sheet Metal Age, when everything's true insides were enclosed in tin shells, enameled and chromed, and sculpted to look like what they weren't-- or to look like nothing much, so long as it's not what they are. I feel about the inner workings of things like I do about literacy. We're supposed to be familiar with the world we're walking around in. Not just familiar but able to grab hold and adjust. Otherwise we would be like that character of dystopian horror, The Consumer. I also love psychology and politics. I want to know why people act oblivious, why they put up with not knowing, not having control. But also what might be possible and how.

So I developed a habit of joining discussion groups of disaffected nerds like myself, hoping, you know, that we would figure it all out and reform the world.

After a while I noticed that disaffected nerds seem to fall into two categories. The first are the grouchy sticks- in- the- mud. These people seem to carry an enormous kit of reasons why it'll never work and it ain't gonna happen. Sometimes they have particular detailed scenarios of how the world is going to go to hell. You know, that plan will never work because the Mafia will blow you up with nukes before you get started. You may wonder why the grouches stick around in groups of reformer wannabees. I wondered that.

The other type is the person who has a shining radical idea that, if only people would embrace it, would solve all our problems. But the radical never seems able to convincingly explain his ideas or give them traction, and no amount of feedback, friendly or hostile, seems to draw him out in a satisfying way. He may be blissfully self-assured, or annoyed at how everyone misconstrues his points and fails to understand the logic. He may spend his time in detailed definitions of terms each more obscure and frustrating than the last. But he's in his world and it seems far away.

(There's a third type: polite, well- spoken, interested in things, but seemingly not obsessed with knowing everything and changing everything at once. How can anyone be like that?)

I decided that if I could, I would like to be a "reasonable radical." I want to learn about new ways of thinking that cut through confusion and show simplicity at the heart of things, and yet be able to attach these ideas to points that matter, and be able to talk about them in a sensible way, without having to hole up in an obscure terminology, and without having to shield my eyes from parts of reality that spoil the story.

By radical I don't mean leftist, but just "at the root." Any idea that undercuts everything and proposes a different foundation. Here are some of my favorites:
  • All living things and people are just machines.
  • Our minds are just like running computer programs.
  • We are clouds of matter and energy flowing according to differential equations.
  • There is no externally-defined right and wrong.
  • Money is the neurotransmitter of value in the world.
The "radical" part of my ideal is to be able to take ideas like that and admit their truth, to be committed to truth, grit the teeth and sweep away superstition. There are ideas that can serve as metaphors for everything, but more than metaphors, they are thoroughly true for everything, and it's important to be able to follow an idea to that point and look at the world seriously from a new perspective. Sometimes radical ideas have radical applications, but sometimes having faced up to an idea mainly serves as a reminder of fuzzy or fearful ideas you had before you faced it, in case you run across their kind again.

But the point isn't just to be punched in the gut and set spinning, or to convert to a new religion. It's still the same world after a radical idea as it was before. The same things are real and true. A metaphor for everything is also a metaphor for nothing. Hopefully you'll be set to interesting rethinking of things you took for granted before.

The "reasonable" part is not to be overly impressed or thrown by radical ideas, while respecting their power and truth. Pulling out a radical idea to impress or snowblind people can be charlitanism or self-delusion. As far as I know the only immunization against that is to have picked up, handled and filed away a dozen radical ideas oneself. The thing to do with a radical idea is to try to see how it can help you, to compare the view through it to the view around it. But also, to separate the dizziness and flinching from the real issues. "Now that we know this is true, what do we have to do?"

I think the reflex to tie free- floating ideas back to the cold ground is what sticks- in- the- mud are really up to. They've just come to assume that's all you can do, or that such effronteries must be brought down with vengeance and in flames.

Between the people who won't take in any idea, and those who wear their one idea like a suit, there isn't much useful conversation. The adversarial model of ideas is boring.


Simon Levy said...

I see good and bad interpretations of these ideas. I suspect that people who dislike them dislike the bad version, and people who like them like the good (sensible) version. To wit:

* All living things and people are just machines.

Bad version: living things and people can be understood the same way we understand contemporary machines (cars, watches, digital computers).

Good version: materialism (the philosophical position that you shouldn't try and explain away complicated phenomena by resorting to mysterious ideas like "soul" and "mind" that have a non-existent or trivial connection to the physical world.

* Our minds are just like running computer programs.

Bad version: we can understand our minds the same way we understand a process running on a computer (strict layers, discrete states, separation of memory and execution).

Good version: as in computer science, abstracting away from concrete hardware can be helpful in understanding how the brain implements the mind.

* We are clouds of matter and energy flowing according to differential equations.

Bad version: diff eq's. are all we need to understand ourselves.

Good version: diff eq's. can provide us with better ways of describing many mental processes (learning, decision making) than traditional symbol-crunching formalisms like predicate calculus.

* There is no externally-defined right and wrong.

Bad version: The God Delusion argument (religion, ritual, mystery have no useful role in modern life)

Good version: Our notions of absolute right and wrong are helpful fictions deriving from our need to interact with each other and get along in the world.

* Money is the neurotransmitter of value in the world.

Bad version: ungrounded / positivist / circular utilitarianism (utility / value are revealed by what we spend money on).

Good version: psychologically/ culturally informed free markets -- e.g., the well-established fact that beyond a certain level of comfort (food, clothing, shelter, heath), people derive increasingly less happiness from having and spending money; current research ("neuroeconomics") showing that people don't behave rationally when it comes to getting/spending/sharing money.

Anton Sherwood said...

A common thread in most of Simon's "bad versions" is what Dennett (in Darwin's Dangerous Idea) calls "greedy reductionism".

FutureNerd said...

I should put in some religious, spiritual or anti-reductionist radical ideas to stir the other side of the pot, like,

* Thy will, not mine, be done.
* We came to realize that we are powerless...

Hmm, I'm running pretty dry right now, but my point is that I gave the impression that I equate radicalism with, or that I'm only interested in, reductionism or extreme- sounding materialism. That wasn't it at all. I think I came up with those examples because they trigger a particular kind of unwillingness or inability to receive , that I was thinking about that day.