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[salon] Salon Discussion, December 18 - Transience Divine
January 4th, 2007
08:26 pm


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[salon] Salon Discussion, December 18
Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. The thoughts in this post came from a recent Salon, but are not meant to be an accurate reflection of the dialogue.

One topic we discussed was the possibility that the use of money to make money-- that is, usury-- may be the origin of many of capitalism’s problems. I have many thoughts on that one, so I'm going to leave it for it's own post. [Don't let me forget to write that one.]

We started by talking about Bush and his [then] newest foolishness: the rejection of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. When his public approval and political capital are at history-setting lows, and the situation in Iraq getting ever more disastrous, it seems inconceivable that he would hang on like a tick to his hard-line "victory against the infidels" stance. Unless he actually believes the drivel he spews.

At a protest two years ago, a speaker read from the autobiography of a cold war general whose name I forget. He spoke of the times he almost removed his stars so he could speak freely about his doubts of the reasonableness of the American actions he was helping to engineer-- but ultimately he didn't because everyone else seemed so solid in their beliefs. Much later, he found out that everyone had similar doubts, and kept them private just like him.

Jeff described a similar situation, but where parroting gave way to belief. People at his company spent so long excusing and using an effective advertising untruth that they forgot it wasn't accurate. If people propound a belief enough, they can forget that they never believed it. Just like in Don't Think of an Elephant, facts and beliefs have only the most tenuous connection. Beliefs are to facts what form is to content-- except that the human mind works far more with beliefs than with facts.

We carry around a model of the world in our heads, the composite of all our beliefs, which performs two basic functions. Every causal relationship we understand about the world is a consequence of this model, and as such it is the basis of all our decisions. Causality cannot come from observed facts alone, and must rely on a baseless belief (ask Lacan, "decisions are mad"). Second, it manages our perceptions. The senses take in a colossal amount of data, but it is only the details called out as interesting by our model that arrive at the consciousness. As such, the facts we absorb are inseparable from the belief system we hold.

In this sense, belief, model, paradigm, and Weltanschauung are essentially the same, and it follows that the majority of our intelligent knowledge and mental capabilities are functions of our models of the world. The same is true of our stupidities-- see Libertarianism Makes You Stupid, or NLP’s claims about the structure of neuroses.

To reword Chomsky's Plato's Problem, where do models come from? Artificial life programs have tried to provide a sufficient basis for arbitrarily complex models through competition-- with interesting but inconclusive results. Their approach is by random evolutionary changes, where the most effective models result in the most capable organisms. The analogy to human models claims that our heads are competitive environments where memes (the Dawkins kind) battle it out (I had been reading Edge just before the Salon).

Models don't just live in the mind. They pass from person to person, and have been honed by a million years to do so. Models live in the collective consciousness, and we are constantly passing them around like airborne viruses in the complex and unconscious ways we communicate with each other. As said in the bedroom scene in Waking Life, "When a member of a species is born, it has a billion years of memory to draw on."

Of course, serviceability isn't the only reason a particular model will predominate, because the collective consciousness can be variously hospitable to certain ideas. That's how parroting (and lying) can lead to whole-hearted belief.

Another ramification is that most of the guts of our intelligence are hidden from us. If civilization were to collapse, how much of our knowledge would we be able to draw on? Aside from the knowledge that's only applicable in a world built to support it, no knowledge is entirely separable from the frameworks that support it. Every container we have for knowledge-- our memories, the collective consciousness, the written language, mathematical systems-- is deeply structured, and almost none of the knowledge is can stand on its own, outside those containers. Whole areas of mathematical truths that we take to be necessary and obvious where a confounding struggle to the ancient Greeks-- and, similarly, some of their simplest truths we can only describe with difficulty.

The biggest piece I’m missing in these notes was our discussion of redistribution of wealth versus ideal libertarianism—the self-determination libertarianism allows and its problem with children. One solution to children in libertarian society is to consider them as extensions of their parents, but the potential for exploiting people that way is almost endless. With the above discussion, I wonder if it makes sense to consider anyone to be truly independent. We rely on each other and society not only for everything we do, but for everything we think.

Jeff had one suggestion which deserves more airtime: currently social security is taken as a percentage out of people’s paychecks, up to a certain amount—but that places the burden most on the wrong people. Why not flip it? We should be taking a percentage out from all paychecks only down to a certain amount, and leave the poorest unburdened.

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:January 5th, 2007 06:57 am (UTC)
The use of money to produce money isn't th problem with capitalism, it's the entire definition of capitalism (a bit of industrial production in addition.)

Libertarianism does approximately jack-shit for self-determination, except for the wealthy. The vast majority of people are not wealthy, and in a libertarian system, even fewer are wealthy.

Libertarianism depends on the a priori assumption that what 'the market' does is somehow inherently good or beneficial, and that interfering with this natural process is somehow bad. I find this notion absurd--the amount of human suffering a libertarian system would entail is enormous. It is like arguing that because evolution is a natural process, we shouldn't treat the sick or wounded.
[User Picture]
Date:January 5th, 2007 01:22 pm (UTC)
I agree with you in regards to libertarianism. Much like its polar opposite communism, it's a nifty idea that falls apart when put into practice in anything other than a small group of like minded people. Whereas communism simply doesn't take the more self-serving and rapacious aspects of human nature into consideration, libertarianism takes only those aspects and disregards the fact that we are also a social animal.

Like most ideals they end up being just that and while they make for interesting theoretical topics, simply don't pan out in the real world.
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2007 06:34 am (UTC)
I agree that libertarianism and communism are similarly problematic. Libertarianism, unfortunately, has a much stronger effect on the American political system--which means it's ultimately more annoying.
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2007 05:26 am (UTC)
It's difficult for me to distinguish capitalism in the abstract from the consumerism, corporatism, and free-market-ism that it's associated with in America. I suppose the comment really applies to pseudo-free-market-ism: combining a free market with safety-nets and labor-protections seems to work really well (as much as I hate to admit it).

And yet it provides for the destructive self-driving system you call corporatism, where the whole of society warps itself into an efficient machine for the exploitation of people and the environment. One solution would be to simply disallow corporations in the modern sense (characterized by a division between owners and managers, and the placement of the corporation on equal legal footing with individuals), the way they were outlawed in 19th century England.

But I think making the charging of interest beyond need (whatever that means) could be a far more elegant and equally powerful solution. Currently, wealth begets wealth, but that's a bad side-effect of the free-market, not a necessary or beneficial behavior. What is the government offered loans to anyone at rates which only accounted for risk and inflation, so that the government was never making money off the loans? It would undermine the power of the powerful but leave capitalism as a system stronger.
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2007 06:56 am (UTC)
When I speak of 'Capitalism', I mean an economic system in which capital, i.e. money and factories, is used to produce shit which is then sold for more money. This is contrasted with the systems which proceeded it, such as feudalism, when the primary unit of wealth was land and value was produced by farming it.

Free markets, of course, existed under feudalism and in the economic systems which preceded that...

By 'corporatism' I mean specifically the culture of the big-business American corporation. Not all businesses operating in a capitalist, free-market economy are corporations.

Consumerism is generally defined as a movement to protect consumers.

combining a free market with safety-nets and labor-protections seems to work really well (as much as I hate to admit it).

Why do you hate to admit it? It's a pretty reasonable thing, all things considered.

There are a bunch of reforms which need to be made to the corporate system. Your suggestions sound like a decent start. ^_^ I think that we also need to fundamentally change a lot of American thinking on the subject, unfortunately.

I could see your usury solution helping with a few things, but there would still be a lot of other problems--like low wages...
[User Picture]
Date:January 5th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC)
Having a very strong belief in communicating through music, I like this thought.. (stolen from wikipedia):

"The worldview map of the world would be similar to the linguistic map of the world. However, it would also almost coincide with a map of the world drawn on the basis of music across people."

I've always tried to broaden my musical interests, and upon reflection I believe a large portion of *my* worldview (Weltanschauung) is derived from music. I wonder where the overlaps are.. Take a person with a very limited view (a single culture), and limit their exposure to the rest of the world to music. Take another, and limit their exposure to everything *but* music. I wonder what differences in their models, if any, would become apparent?

Also, careful with this: "When a member of a species is born, it has a billion years of memory to draw on." I dislike the implication. A member may have the *cumulative result* of a billion years of experience - after being matched against varying models and filtered - but has no option to parse the collective set of memories through his/her own model for further refinement/enlightenment. Within our species knowledge is quickly lost, so one could hardly say we have the full benefit of our predecessors' experiences. I draw an analogy to an adaptive signal processing filter - the resulting constants (err, the term is misleading in this case) are finite in number, following select information from varying inputs. Because the description of the filter is finite in length, it cannot possibly uniquely represent its inputs (1:1) - many different sets of inputs could result in the same filter properties, much like the similarities between our models despite different sets of experiences.

My knowledge in this arena is quite limited. Is it common belief that within an individual mind, only memories matching or refining a model are preserved? For a moment I pondered whether or not I could recall a detail that did not fit my model of the world - but my head quickly told me that anything I thought of that was connected with my experiences of the world would be related to my model. Sigh. It's difficult to find an anomaly just by thinking about it. I guess it would feel like the flash of inspiration that comes with any type of learning. It's easier to search out new experiences than to try to re-evaluate old ones. Cop-out?
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2007 05:47 am (UTC)
This is the first I've heard the claim that music is isomorphic to worldviews, but the development of music in different cultures certainly follows the path of other model-of-models: each new development has made new kinds of music "possible" that couldn't be conceived of before, but the new world of music afterward can never be called "better" than the old one.

As for memories, there's a problem distinguishing conscious and unconscious memories and we don't really know how it works. A person's world-model is like a filter between the senses and the conscious mind, but since the model is actually built into unconscious mind, we don't know how much is retained there, or if the unconscious mind has its own model for what gets dropped. At the very least, your unconscious mind remembers more than your model allows (this is a result from hypnosis, which seems to be able to bypass models)-- but people disagree on how much and whether those aspects of your experience can ever penetrate into your consciousness.
[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2007 06:40 am (UTC)
I think it's possible for people to remember things which don't forget in their mental models--but It's probably very rare. Of course, it probably happens more often in cases where people's mental models allow for or acknowledge the fact that there are things in the world which don't fit within their models :P

The other side of this, of course, is that people's models change over time--which means that there must be some function by which new information can be incorporated which varies slightly from the current one.
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