Reasoning From the Unknown

Builds Upon: Wine Tasting, Empiricism, Perception

A clever person understands the paltry limits of their own will and imagination and finds ways to work around them. They know they are a dullard, a mere survival machine compared to the creativity of the universe.

The default impulse of living things is to assert power to spread as far as possible. Left to our own devices we couldn’t have gotten far if the universe hadn’t spent thousands of years whispering its secrets in our ears.

The clever person understands that any formal system should allow us to anticipate and capitalize on accident and error. It should be open to the idea of arriving at a different destination than originally intended.
For folly is sometimes just the voice of the universe trying to tell us something important.

Penicillin would never have been discovered by a Correct-minded person. The culture containing the aberrant mold growth would have been destroyed without being given a second glance.
But as it happened, one of the scientists in the lab had a curious nature.
Fleming accomplished something great by approaching the universe with a playful attitude and rolling with ‘mistakes’ just to see what would happen next.
He intuitively knew how to reason from error, from the unknown.
It requires a certain wise sense of humility to do as he did. Fleming seems to have understood that human judgment can account for only a scant few of the possibilities.

Someone invested in the ascendancy of human reason cannot reason from the unknown. They have already enthroned direct rational inquiry as king of creation.
The literal-minded worship order in all things yet lapses in ‘order’ are how discoveries get made.
Seeing patterns in seeming chaos tells us more than does forcing ‘chaos’ into order.
Champions of Enlightened rationalism seek to conquer nature with pure reason while neglecting the far more sublime powers of the intuition.

In the oceans of his dream world, Kekule found the secret of the benzene molecule. Edison would deprive himself of sleep and doze off with ball bearings in his hand so that the crash of metal would wake him up in the moment he drifted off. It was his hope in that one instant when the rational and intuitive minds met that he would discover a piece of his answer.

The playful person cultivates these powers of the intuition
They understand the power of a recombinant system over explicit inquiries.
For the human will is a weak and narrow force by itself. The less of it one must use, perhaps the better.

The playful person might design a system intended to circumvent or regulate oneself; a concept inimical to those crusaders who try to overcome ‘irrationality’ or ‘darkness’ in a fantastic journey towards the Absolute Explicit.

Science has proven to be an effective philosophy of observation but it tells us little about the observer.
Science is a tool. Any sentient being could be scientific.
It doesn’t come with a user manual for human beings.

It does not tell us if we are asking the right questions for the right reasons.
It does not let tell us the important questions we’ve failed to ask or why we’ve failed.
For each inquiry there are an infinity we could have made. So how ought we to inquire and then use this tool most effectively?

Clearly, the very first step for a being to maximize its effective use of this tool is to understand itself and know its limits.
The ability of humans to recombine ideas in new ways has lots of weaknesses and blind spots.
With the aid of machines and computers, we might create models that augment recombinant powers of the imagination.

Effective use of the intuitive mind in conjunction with conscious reason is one such machine. So too could we create explicit thought systems designed to cover for mental weaknesses and maximize our strengths. And of course we would do best using computer programs to explore patterns to the fullest.

Imagine for instance choosing some musical patterns and then creating an algorithm with random elements to see how the unknown replies? Might the ‘answer’ give us ideas a human usually couldn’t have thought of?

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Cultural Recombinance

Builds Upon: Innovation As Exception To The Rules

We predictably see more languages, world views, art styles coming from heterogeneous peoples in the Caucasus divided by mountainous geography than we do from a river valley in China with a population many times greater.

A smaller population split into a hundred separate slivers generates a greater variety of ideas than a single population under one unified culture and language.

Yet forcing modern people to live in mountain valleys without internet access is a crude, inefficient, literal-minded method of achieving the overall principle: The promotion of cultural recombinance.

One of the major problems of mass culture is its potential to kill off heterogeneous elements of society.
In the 21st century many of the events around us can be explained as a struggle between emerging recombinant systems and established, fixed systems.

Thus far, social variation has been dependent on geographical accident and technological limitations in the spread of information.
If one were to visit even a culturally unified land such as Korea a couple centuries ago, one would surely not have found any two villages with the exact same customs, dialect, or kimchi recipe.

With the emergence of nationalism, central governments all over the world tried to spread the dialect and customs of the capital city to every corner of the nation. First through systems of mass education and later through mass media.
Today French and Italian people cling to their local culinary traditions in no small part because their other local distinctions were stamped out in the age of nationalism.

There is an obvious problem with a culturally fragmented population for the nationalist: it presents a huge obstacle to the mass unity necessary for the nation-state to defend itself from other nations and to engage in sustained conquest.
Yet forcing mass unity kills the domestic wellsprings of culture.

The symmetrical internet has been a huge step in the right direction.
Most previous forms of mass communication have been largely asymmetrical, tools that have allowed elites to control and hand down culture to the masses from above as never before.
While the internet gives rise to a mass culture with memes known to millions of users, one also sees the proliferation of countless subcultures.
In the internet community we have a glimpse of what a loosely united yet creative society might look like.

Open source is also an important step that challenges the inherent asymmetry of capitalistic production.
No matter how many corporations are competing to fulfill our desires, the variations they hand down to us pale in comparison to that which can arise from millions of individual users customizing tools to their needs.
Worse, companies must cater to the needs of a majority in a sort of democratic process. A frustrated minority can end up losing when they go shopping for mass produced goods.
The market as we know it succeeds in mapping out the general shape of coastlines, but it is incapable of accounting for the fractal intricacies.

For example, an ice cream parlor might double or triple the number of flavors it offers but any such increase in variation is puny next to the output of a recombinant system.
As soon as the ice cream parlor allows customers to combine flavors any way they like, an exponentially greater potential for variation emerges.
If the parlor offers 31 flavors we have 961 possible permutations for just two scoops and 29,791 permutations for three scoops.
If we further extend the principle and create a wiki ice cream parlor that has no flavors when it first opens and relies on its customers to choose what they’d like or even create their own flavors. Favorites would get upvoted.
One would see a different combination of flavors at every single location. The number of possible permutations would become astronomical.

Despite its advantages, a society that promotes cultural recombinance faces a major obstacle.
Such a society must be able to outcompete repressive but united neighbors who can bring the might of millions to bear in collective action. This is exactly why fixed, conformist social models have been dominant throughout history.

If a recombinant civilization realizes even a fraction of its power it has a commanding edge over its rivals.
Wherever in history a small state happens upon a formula that allows for a higher rate of recombinance it effortlessly produces new ideas and technologies that elude the best minds in neighboring empires.
For instance, both gunpowder and removable type had been known in East Asia for centuries but other civilizations were able to take the same ideas and keep recombining them and extending them to new applications.
It seems obvious to us in retrospect to make a wheel or written language.
Most number systems before the elegant Arabic numerals now seem clumsy and archaic. It seems moronic to us now that you’d have any more than 10 numbers for a decimal system.
A small example from our own time:
The real time strategy game has been essentially unchanged since its origins about 20 years ago. I recently downloaded the genre’s famous progenitor, Dune 2 from abandonia and found that aside from refinements such as multiple unit selection, rallying, and queuing, little has changed.
Without critical examination, a system sooner settles into a stable
orthodoxy which allows a single model to be refined but which actively blocks experimentation with new models.

In any case, Darwinian evolution on the level of individuals or of societies is driven by the selection of favorable mutations.
Thus a system that has exponentially greater rates of variation also has a much higher rate of mutations.
As the probability of favorable mutations rises, so do the chances of simultaneous mutations with the potential for synergistic interaction. Perhaps a critical mass of mutations is necessary for certain game-changing leaps to take place.
Ultimately, an exponentially recombinant system is the natural foundation of a post-Darwinian social order in which social structures are no longer left to accident of nature.

The Dimensions of Culture

A nation of a billion doesn’t necessarily produce more original thinkers than a society of 10 million.
All the people who ever lived in classical Greece would fit in a single dreary modern city or province.

More scientists are alive now than in all the rest of history combined and they are able to draw from the knowledge of all those who came before them.
Yet our society doesn’t necessarily produce thousands of Isaac Newtons.
The Europe of Isaac Newton’s time had a fraction of today’s population and a much smaller percentage of their number were scientists. These few scientists had far less wealth at their disposal and only a fledgling scientific tradition to draw upon.

In the modern USA, one can drive hundreds of miles and experience the same exact culture, same dialect, same architecture, same chain restaurants.
Though one travels a long distance geographically, one has not gone far in terms of culture.
Meanwhile in the English countryside, there are noticeable changes in people’s accent, physical appearance, and their local ales every 20 miles or so. There is more cultural variation in a 100 mile stretch of the geographically smaller UK or France than in 1000 miles of the United States.

When it comes to societal variation or creativity sheer numbers of people or money don’t seem to be the decisive element.
The ways that people are organized and categorized are far more important.

A ‘medium-sized’ town of 150,000 people in our own time produces little in way of ideas and culture.
Yet for several centuries Venice was a superpower with nearly the same population.
The classical Athenian city state only had about 300,000 inhabitants and most of its soldiers, statesmen, and thinkers came out a pool of 40,000 citizens.
Far later in history, London had a population less than 1 million until the 19th century.

Even the greatest megalopolises of ancient times numbered no more than 1-2 million people. In our own time, Tenochitlan, Rome, or Babylon might be big enough for a professional sports team or two but they’d otherwise be undistinguished from hundreds of other urban centers.

Now, it takes a city of 20 million to do what a city of 1 million people used to do.
A town of 150,000 once fit to be the capital of a superpower now does what a village of 7,500 people used to do.

As the number of people and amount of wealth grows, it becomes evident that additional size doesn’t change the proportions of the system itself.

In certain material ways, size does translate into increased proportions. A modern city of 20 million has far more, far larger buildings than its equivalent in the ancient world.
A city with 20 times the population might build 20 hanging gardens each 20 times the size of the original.
We might also consider that a wal-mart supercenter in a modern rural backwater would easily have been one of the great wonders of the ancient world.

Yet how does proportion work if we think in terms of culture and ideas?

If a cultural bloc is composed of 150,000 or 20 million people, how much does output of culture and ideas really change?
At the very least, we don’t see the exponential growth we’re used to seeing if we are looking at purely material criteria.

There is a key bottleneck here:
-Skyscrapers can be built ever larger and more numerously as a civilization expands.
-Yet the idea of building a skyscraper can only be come up with once no matter how many skyscrapers a civilization might build, no matter how large they are.

Furthermore, if material development outpaces everything else, might it actually hurt the growth of creativity and ideas by creating a social mono-culture in its wake?
After all, what invisible impact might there be on human creativity in aggregate when one can buy the same cup of coffee at the same exact coffee shop with the same floor plan across a swathe of thousands of miles?

If we make all the same basic assumptions about our world as our neighbor and share many of the exact same experiences in our daily lives, to what extent are we capable of producing anything different?
If the number of subcultures and cultural blocs remains constant with size—or even decreases, why would we expect any increase in cultural output?
Indeed, if 150,000 people were organized into 20 different subcultures, might we see more creativity than from a population of 20 million divided into only 10 subcultures?

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: how might we engineer a human civilization to maximize human cultural and creative output?
In recent weeks I’ve received questions about the concept of a revolutionary ‘steam engine of the mind.’
As part of my ongoing reply: Imagine a civilization that combined modern size with ancient proportions in the realm of culture and ideas.