(1/3) “Man fears time…”


I have wondered if Imhotep had some hidden meaning in the pyramid. Little is recorded about him, but he lived during the Old Kingdom of Egypt under Djoser. He seems to have been born a commoner, and become renown as a great architect, sage, and perhaps the first physician in the world. His monument to King Djoser, the Step Pyramid, is the archetype for all pyramids that followed and the oldest stone structure in the world.

Pyramids are uniquely stable structures. They have survived many thousands of years and all the storms and earthquakes that time could bring. The mass at the peak of the pyramid we may say is in a high energy state. It is supported by progressively larger masses that reside at lower points of the gravitational potential. This is the thermodynamic analogy I mean to draw, and I speculate:

That Imhotep, born a commoner and working at a time when there may have still been living memory of an Egypt much less advanced, and therefore much less hierarchical. He may have understood on some deep level the changes in social structure that were necessary to make the pyramid possible. Because pyramids are built by slaves, and laborers, and craftsmen of many kinds. Hunters and gatherers cannot build them, and pastoral nomads can’t either. Only a culture with advanced agriculture and the division of labor agriculture makes possible can build structures like this.

The great works of the ancient world were not possible without slavery, and systems of exploitation and power rise to reflect the skyward structures themselves. Then, at the earliest years of that civilization, Imhotep may have understood in some way that Egypt had passed into a new thermodynamic mode of existence. A mode in which energy is drawn up through the roots of plants, and into the people who plant and harvest them and other resources, to flow up and be concentrated into progressively more privileged classes, to terminate finally in the vested power, privilege, and abundance of the King.

There is a clear connection here to the flows of energy in ecosystems. Apex predators eat and scavenge whatever they can. A lion will steal a kill from a hyena. The grazing animals are fed ultimately by the sun. People deny this similarity because they don’t want to know they are eating each other.

In a way, modern civilization seems to be an extension of an ecological structure that humans used to be embedded in, or maybe civilization has superseded that ecology completely. We were prey once. Then we became apex predators. We have advanced our civilization by replacing most of the world’s fauna with our own biomass in both livestock and human chattel. And the more developed a society tries to become, the more material must be put underneath in the base. Egypt and other ancient civilizations could only advance so far, but the modern western imperium extends across the entire globe, purchasing its privileges with sweatshops and child miners.

There are observations to make and questions to ask. I won’t have  a proper response to all of these. Among the most important:

  • The poor don’t need the wealthy, but the wealthy do need the poor. The world is right-side up, not upside down as Ayn Rand would have it.
  • Scientific discoveries are typically made by the upper classes.  They benefit everyone, but not uniformly. Most of the benefit reaches the upper classes first, or exclusively.
  • People are interdependent, and though it’s not clear that the quality of life in post-agricultural civilization is better in absolute terms, most people today would not be alive without modern technology. Is it forbidden by the laws of physics to have this modernity without its gross inequality?
  • Are there scaling principles at work such that the thermodynamics of current societies could be used to predict an upper limit to any society’s development, assuming the total flux of energy on the surface of the Earth bounds its base?
  • There are limits on an empire’s geographic span which seem to determine how wide the base can become, and these limits are primarily technological, viz. communications technology may have played a dominant role in determining the size of social structures in each era of history. What effects are due to new technologies, not just in the size, but in the topology of society?
  • If preagricultural societies exist in a “first” thermodynamic mode, and post-agricultural societies are in a second mode, does a third mode exist?  If I have anything worthwhile on this question it will wait until part 3 of these posts.

It has always bothered me that Americans never seem to understand their relationship to the rest of the world. It is the nature of privilege never to recognize itself, but it is absurd to see them so oblivious to how they in fact depend on the poverty in the greater part of the developing world and the working class in their own country.

I can’t go to the grocery store without being reminded of this. My hands aren’t the first to touch the onion and the tomatoes in the produce section. You see, it is apparently very hard to build a machine that can cut the stem of an onion and leave the bulb intact. It’s necessary to have people, sometimes children, do this by hand. They crawl through the field on their hands and knees under the summer sun and cut the stems with a knife. In the western United States of course, these people are mostly immigrants from Central and South America and their children.

The pyramid of Djoser is a reification of the Egyptian social structure in power and exploitation that was necessary to construct it. And like the pyramid, it may be that social structure is just as long lived, and reflects some underlying thermodynamic stability. There is an irony then in the old Arab Proverb,

Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.

Do we really know how to build pyramids, or was that knowledge buried with Imhotep and hidden with his tomb? Have we learned the secrets hidden in our own societies? Do we know what is necessary for a long-lived, sustainable, self-sufficient society?

Does it bear repeating that the Step Pyramid is a tomb? And how long will it last, compared to the sand dunes that flow across the eons of the desert?

Some of these things I have understood, if dimly, since I was a 12 year old crawling through an onion field with a rusty knife in my hand. I don’t know if I’ve made much progress in my understanding. I was actually working on a post about Elon Musk’s Mars Colony, when I realized I hadn’t written this yet.

You are a sociopath.

Why is war the kind of event that can put two brothers on opposite sides of a conflict?



It did seem ironic to me that President Obama would decry the attitude that Americans have adopted toward events like this. Just two days after the Umpqua Community College shooting, a US Airforce C-130 gunship attacked a Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan run by Doctors without Borders, killing 22 (1). Obama in this case had little to offer but a weak apology and no public comment. It seems the killing of foreigners is routine, and Americans’ response to the killing of foreigners is routine.

Why do foreign lives matter so little to Americans? Americans are not special of course, people of every country value the lives of their own over others. Why do black lives matter so little to most whites in the United States, and violence on the part of the police against black youth so readily justified or excused in the minds of the majority?

We like to flatter ourselves with the notion that we are very social and empathetic creatures, but there are important caveats(2). Quite simply, empathizing with others requires us to know them. We know our family members best, our friends and coworkers second.

Imagine that everyone resides in a social network, with ties that extend like concentric circles out to neighbors or friends, then out to friends of friends, etc. until the world population is reached (3). People close-in are typically in the “in-group,” and benefit the most from our prosocial tendencies.

What is the problem with this? It is very subtle and I’m not sure there is a solution. The increasing globalization of the world seems to have made this effect worse:

The consequences of your actions can reach many more people than your empathy can. For the vast majority of the people in the world in whose lives you have some influence, you are a sociopath.

We work in concert to create the systems that individuals live in. Our actions are individual, but the system is collective. Above I think I have only put into personal terms what people usually call institutional or systemic effects. What most of you don’t seem to understand is that you are a part of a system. It is not something you can externalize; it’s easy to say something is the fault of governments, leaders, or corporations, but that lets us cop out of our personal integration with these constructions and our role in legitimating the actions of leaders.

But how much responsibility can we each hold for this? I’ve written here before about the subtle ways individual behavior is integrated, and emerges into macroscopic behavior that is not predictable from, and is even sometimes directly opposed to individual intention (4). There is something incredibly important in what we don’t understand about how a corporation is capable of mass depraved indifference murder(5), and how citizens’ taxes can pay for drone strikes. And there is something we are not understanding about how wars occur.

Most people are not murderers. Most people don’t want to start wars, but often believe when the fighting starts that it must occur. Even most soldiers do not want to kill anyone. But the social system’s behavior feeds back down to the personal scale, putting human beings onto battlefields, and into conflicts they have no inherent desire for. At least, not until they form a connection to their fellow soldiers.

Yet the world has entered new regime of interconnection. The capacity of people to move about the globe, and to interact across arbitrary distances has implications for the consequences of an individual’s actions (6). There is a kind of “nonlocality” in our actions that was not possible before. It allows us to have a more direct impact on the lives of people far away geographically, but also perhaps to empathize where we could not previously. I’m not sure we can know where this will lead.


    1. Kunduz articles at the Guardian , New York Times.
    2. A prior post on Race and Human Groups.
    3. Social networks have a well documented small-world property. It’s never more than 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon. For a”social distance” metric defined in this way it seems the capacity for empathy drops as quickly as the number of people reached expands.
    4. Prior posts: The moral implications of nonlinearity and emergence., The multiplicity of agency.
    5. The 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka is just the one example that came immediately to mind: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22476774. You may be reminded of the 2003 doc The Corporation.

There is an aspect of this I will try to post about later: there are segments of the population that are not well integrated in this globalized social network. They are disproportionately older and are being left behind in a way.

Cogito, Ergo…

From Part IV of Descartes’ Meditations(1):

…as I then desired to give my attention solely to the search after truth, I thought that a procedure exactly the opposite was called for, and that I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable. Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning, and fall into paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of geometry, I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.

In the next place, I attentively examined what I was and as I observed that I could suppose that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed; I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.


There is an error here (2). What is the “I”? What restrictions does the existence of thoughts and consciousness alone put on the forms it may take? Could the thinking thing really be independent of “any material thing”?

Let there be thinking thing, then. A mind. It perceives by some instruments, which correlate with the opening and closing of the eyes, the stopping of the ears. It exists with some temporal sense, such that it recollects “past” events, and anticipates “future” events. It sleeps, it dreams at different times, all correlated with changes in experience.

Clearly the mind doesn’t see without eyes. It doesn’t hear without ears. When the brain takes a whack, its function doesn’t continue independently and unaffected. There is clear physicality to experience, and there are a number of reasons to suspect the brain and the body are the substrates of the mind.

Let us assume, as I have done here before (the “Materialistic Principle”) that that which is not observable does not exist. It follows that the mind can only arise from what is physically observable about the brain (3, 4). I take it that the mind is not “hidden” somewhere inside the brain, then it follows that the mind is not an integral whole; it is an emergent property or process of the electrical signals that pass in and among the parts of the brain.


Creatures are not made by design. They are evolved, but that process gives a striking appearance of design. It obvious that nature is capable of acting as if it was* a creative entity. Maybe not with foresight and planning, yet somehow with an apparent agency.


*It seems to me that we don’t grant nature the capacity to “truly” act creatively for this reason: We see too clearly the detailed mechanisms by which it achieves that appearance. There exists no integral whole for the mind as we trivially observed above; the creativity the mind possesses must also arise through a confluence of components, just as in the case of natural selection.

Clearly there is no god (5), and it would appear that nowhere(!) in the world is there a thinking, creating thing that does not arise from a confluence of more basic constituents in a distributed system. This system’s processes may be distributed more widely in time, as in the case of natural selection, or more tightly distributed in time but highly complex in space as in the case of the brain, but this consequence is unavoidable: selection is not “like” a creative entity, it is one in any sense we are willing to impart to ourselves.

You have heard of a “god of the gaps,” but there is a similar kind of error in reasoning when it is assumed – and it is assumed very commonly – that people posses free will. It is a kind of deification of the self; an intercession of a vague divinity, which, while totally normal and probably embedded as part of the adaptive process in humans(6), in this current discussion I posit that all agency is only apparent agency. Or equivalently, that that which is indistinguishable from agency is agency itself (7).

The development process in technology is so organic, especially for things in which researchers are taking advantage of the principles of evolution and adaptation. It seems strange to me that we should be so cavalier about allowing neural networks to train and evolve. These processes are so poorly understood (8), we risk putting ourselves in a situation where we will have created strong AI on accident before doing it on purpose, and not even knowing how we did it. As I have explicitly stated, the evolutionary process “has a mind of its own.” This cavalier attitude seems to stem in part from the basic assumption that we are so special, that we must be the only thinking things in the universe.

We are not so special, except maybe in terms of how rare a thing we might be, and maybe the processes that made us form an NP Hard problem, which therefore can’t be shortcutted, so that this planet really did necessarily invest a lot of time and sacrifice in creating our species.

But even if we are the rarer structure, we exist not so apart and different from the other structures of the universe. The differences of kind are not differences of kind solely, but come from differences of a quantity of pieces and a subtlety of their organization.

I recall the arguments of Lucretius and wonder why it should take so long for us to see that the types of arguments about objects and matter being made of atoms carry similar implications for our minds and the simplicity that underlies apparent complexity of all forms.



  1. From the translation at Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm
  2. And I’m sure, somewhere in the reasoning I put forth to correct it, heheh.
  3. Is the brain even separable from the body? Can I assume its function doesn’t distribute into processes occurring throughout the nervous system? I remember reading research articles about people’s emotional states being altered with the amputation of limbs, or after having artificial hearts implanted. If the brain relies so heavily on cues from the nervous system, it may not actually be able to access some states or engage in some processes without contingent parts. Or put it like this: Can a congenitally blind person imagine the experience of sight? Do you know what its like to be a bat? Can you even know what its like to reside in the body of another person? Even your identical twin?
  4. Is the brain a quantum computer? What are the limits for what is physically measurable? I recall reading an argument in Schlausshauer that suggested it probably was not a quantum computer – or at least from what was known about neuron activity it couldn’t involve quantum mechanics. I’m just assuming that some microscale structure and electrical signals are as deep as you need to get for a brain.
  5. This is a kind of implicit axiom on this blog, as a part of what I’ve been trying to do here is talk about things purely from a post-theistic worldview, i.e., what are the things we would think about if we were not chained to naive assumptions about the answers to basic questions and having to argue constantly with deists? I’ve thought maybe I should post more about the justification for atheism, but there doesn’t seem to be much point – I don’t dwell on it too much anymore, and it’s beat to death in the popular sphere.
  6. Some lies it might be beneficial to believe, as I have mentioned on this blog before. I think this might be one of them. Apparently Isaac Singer said this: “We must believe in free will — we have no choice.
  7. Notice the use of MP. There’s some real irony here. Some of these things I don’t think most people will realize until AFTER strong AI has been brought into the world and made them incredibly clear to everyone. If it satisfies the turing test, you have no choice: It thinks just as much and probably not too different from how you do.
  8. I am suddenly reminded of the beautifully creative play of AlphaGo recently.

Selection and “Intelligence”.

The human mind is not an instrument for discerning the truth. It is an instrument of survival. You may be assuming that evolving for these two purposes would produce equivalent minds, or minds with equivalent functionality, but that is not the case. There are subtle and important differences between the truth that is believed by a mind that is designed to survive and the truth believed by a mind that is designed to understand the truth as such. In particular, if understanding certain types of concepts would produce behaviors detrimental to the survival of the individual, I expect that evolved minds will fail to support that understanding.

The human brain is not an especially logical instrument. I’m not sure what modern philosophical scholarship on this subject says, but I know this is a popular misconception, and for certain that idea was presupposed and even enshrined by most ancient and enlightenment era philosophers. We should be able to dispense with the notion readily by observing that natural selection’s principles operate on the human brain – if the brain is not a divine construction, and it is purely the result of natural selection, then clearly it is first and foremost an adaptive instrument, and any ability to access facts or ascertain truth is enthralled to the primary purpose of survival; we have no reason to assume that those aims coincide in every case.

Now, why does a significant majority of the human population believe in the existence of a deity? Why do any religions exist? If we choose to set aside for the moment any value judgement about religions we would feel safe in assuming that – for whatever reason – it’s most likely adaptive to be religious – or at the very least to possess a mind that is receptive to religion and superstitions. Natural selection(or in this case cultural or mimetic selection) apparently must have some preference for this. And I’m also going to suggest that this is not a retained archaic trait (that at some time in the past it was necessary, but is now unnecessary and vestigial, and that people who were raised without religious belief or have left it behind are somehow more “evolved”). That would speak to a lack of understanding of the process, because evolution does not produce superiors from inferiors – it produces adaptations and improvements to adaptations, always in response to some constraint and environmental demand. Adaptations have a value only measurable in the terms of specific environments.

With those two points established, I move on to the third:

Selective pressure does not necessarily act homogeneously across the population. It may be nature’s preference to have some distribution of traits.

The above is a consequence of a more basic idea, namely that natural selection is scale-free, which would be better explored in another post. For now, I’m satisfied with asserting that selection acts on integrated systems of living organisms while simultaneously acting on those organisms individually, producing system-wide adaptations. This is closely associated with “group selection.” Group selection is well explored in biology, but in that literature it seems to be common to discuss it as a mechanism for the evolution of altruism and prosocial behaviors. Here I am suggesting not just that group dynamics generate selective preference for individual behaviors, but that selective preference exists for behaviors of the group concurrently.

With those two facts and the above (unqualified) assertion, I arrive at the central point:

Acting on entire systems of human communities, selective pressure has worked to produce a variety of intellectual styles that constitute an adaptation of the system as a whole.

The system is the unit of selection. Just as the organs in the bodies of vertebrates have differentiated and component-ized to act in concert as part of the whole, so I suggest here that natural selection has worked on communities to produce a diversity of intelligences, the interaction and relation of which produce adaptive community scale behavior.

In this hypothesis, I identify only two general types of “intelligences.” Alternatively, I may call them “epistemological approaches”, or “intellectual dispositions”. The distinction is made entirely by what someone identifies as valid sources and justifications for their knowledge.

In type A, which constitutes the majority of people, knowledge is developed primarily through a social praxis. If knowledge is justified true belief, group A finds ideas and facts from books and other communication media, and sufficient justification through authority and prevailing social norms.

In type B, which is kept at a minority, appeals to authority are immediately discarded. New knowledge is gained overwhelmingly in a more empirical way, outside of the social praxis – the popular views are irrelevant for this disposition. These people are the experimenters – not exclusively in the scientific context, but with all types of ideas. For this reason, it is these people who generally produce new knowledge.

Let me take a moment to get away from the assumption that people should be categorizable as ‘A’ or ‘B.’ I only want to suggest that in a particular context a person will either adopt an A or B disposition, or that one type of approach may be a person’s habit(1).

Is it apparent why it should be preferred that type A be the more common? Because the B disposition is less receptive to beliefs that come in through social channels, it is actually less likely to facilitate the propagation and preservation of culture. The continued development of the scientific enterprise, and even the continued growth of other forms of mimetic innovation require that humans communicate culture amongst each other and through generations with limited resistance. The B disposition is a source of attenuation.

The interplay of the two styles then becomes clear: one sector of the community, operating at the boundaries of human knowledge, acts with the style that is best for generating new understanding. That new knowledge or innovation must then be passed into the larger corpus for preservation. Knowledge will not be well maintained in a system of interacting people unless enough of them operate under disposition A. One part of the community must learn, the other part must remember(2).

Extravagantly, I claim that these dynamics have generated the observed distribution of “intelligences”: The greater bulk of the population accepts the knowledge that is given by the dominant culture around them(3). Some minority exists, and persists(by selection acting at scale)  to facilitate changes to that dominant culture, and as generations pass, innovations are passed from the fringe back into the greater community where memory is better held. The entire group of people thereby adapts to ever harsher and more diverse environments, and as will be seen…better competes with other groups.



1. And it should be noted that in whatever sphere a person does not exercise group B thinking, they are defaulting to group A. For example, there may be a mathematician, very esteemed in her field, who is at all times habitually ‘B’ thinking when working on problems in mathematics or reading journal articles, but this same person is not likely an expert in, for example, biology. If there is some commonly accepted belief appearing in textbooks on the subject, it may not be her habit to question that knowledge, as it lies outside the scope of her own ‘B’ habits – and therefore in most spheres outside mathematics she is in group A. I am not sure what it implies about my hypothesis if even all ‘B’ thinkers are group ‘A’ thinking in most situations. There may not be a viable mechanism for biological selection in that case.

2. To avoid a going off on a tangent here I pretend like I didn’t just describe human communities’ behavior as being itself brain-like. That is, again, another post altogether, and I’m sure there are many better written and more credible sources for interesting material in this vein than this blog.

3. I don’t just mean religious people as I indicated above. There are a number of people, for example, who say they believe in evolution, but only have a very superficial understanding of the process or the evidence by which it is known to occur. Although it may be a true belief, they have not justified it independently, and therefore in that case operate under the ‘A’ disposition. Over time, it is expected that a popular belief in evolution will eventually overtake the popular belief in creationism(in the U.S.), though people’s habits of thinking will remain as unscientific as before.