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: 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.


The “great man” of history.

Donald Trump is a weak candidate: he is a fool, lacks charisma, and is a poor strategist in politics and everything else. One has to wonder how this feckless clown could have possibly met with such success.

There have been other people like this before: Pat Buchanan is the first that comes to mind, but also Barry Goldwater. What is it about Donald Trump?

There is nothing about Donald Trump. Society has always produced people like him, and always will, but what is special is the time we find ourselves in. Apparently the United States is ready for a return to nationalism and nativism, and it is on these currents he has sailed to the nomination.

It’s these massive trends that seem to be beyond our control and understanding, so we lean on our need for narratives, and tend to focus disproportionately on the individual actors of history. Though it is through systems the actors’ scripts are written.

The world is “complex” in a particular sense: most individuals contribute a little to the large scale behavior, as would be expected in a system that aggregates all their actions uniformly – one that is effectively stochastic or chaotic on all scales. But somehow the world is ordered in some ways and not totally chaotic – there is enough structure for a few people to have an apparently large impact, so their actions reach much further than would be expected in a chaotic(or “noisy”) system. The world may be on the ‘edge’ of chaos.

My point is that the true complexity of the world is something we don’t understand, and most people fail to take a system level perspective for that reason. Human faculty is more amenable to storytelling. We like to have heroes and villains, even if this perspective makes some of the deepest problems of human society more difficult to solve.

I can take up one example to illustrate the point – not long ago, one of the disgusting things Trump said was that women would have to have some kind of punishment for getting an abortion. The media seized on this of course, and there was a lot of blather about this, but here is the problem: Trump has passed no law, and may never be able to pass any such law, but the conservative takeover of state and local governments almost complete. And it is at the local level that a slow, creeping regime of anti-choice law has been imposed in many parts of the country. It is this greater problem that is distracted from when the national discussion centers on some celebrity shitstick – it is the greater problem because Trump will almost certainly lose, but the steady loss of women’s rights will continue afterwards.(1)

I have been expecting for a few months now that Donald Trump will break the Republican party, as the tides have dictated. The fundamental dilemma is being exposed: No candidate can win the Republican primary without being staunchly anti-immigrant. No candidate can win a general election while being staunchly anti-immigrant. This transition seems to have occurred during the Bush administration, while most of white america failed to notice. I am expecting a 3rd party candidate to appear in the next few weeks from establishment conservatives. In the aftermath of 2016 (before the election, even?) there will perhaps be a tectonic shift in the allegiances of both parties, as the system reforms itself and responds to the radical shift in the country’s demographics.

I have posted here before that what lies on the other side of a singularity, or a phase transition cannot be predicted. We may find communists and neonazis, radicals left and right jumping into the melee. We are approaching the hour of extremes.


  1. Obviously climate change is another prime example, and one for which we can’t even find a proper villain to motivate our action. The bad guy in that case is us.


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.
  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.

The moral implications of nonlinearity and emergence.

There are a few concepts I think it would help to take care of: The first is in the companion post here.

The other is described below; it just happens Dr. Neil Tyson tweeted about this yesterday:

It has often been repeated, and my experience bears this out, that the real trouble doesn’t come from what we know we don’t understand, but from what we think we understand but really don’t(3). If we had the right questions, the answers would soon follow.

There are so many people who study the subjects of human behavior: psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. How many of them would pretend to understand something of quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is just linear algebra, some complex variables, and the very general physical concepts of uncertainty and wave interference that require those mathematics. But waves interfere linearly: that is, they just stack. And the operators that appear in the equations of (non relativistic) quantum mechanics are just stand-ins for acts of measurement or transformation on the information of the state, and as required by the Schrödinger equation(4) act linearly.

But the behavior of the vast majority of the systems of the world, which do not submit to the simplifications and contrivances of a well designed physics experiment, is not linear. In living systems, the interactions between, and really it seems the integration of components result in a nonlinear relationship between small scale and large scale behavior.

The consequences of that nonlinearity are profound and confounding. Pen and paper analysis becomes useless for many questions, when no equation can be written down. The growth of systems implies its regime – the very rules it obeys – can change radically as its configuration traverses a complex and unknown topology, making computations and simulations necessary, though not sufficient to understand. These systems are very hard, yet the people who study these fields today do pretend to understand!

And now we must be honest: we, as humans, do not understand ourselves. The softer sciences have made progress, but it has been slow and groping, stymied by their being bound to the use of inferior, insufficiently rigorous tools. What knowledge they have gained is washed out by an ocean of biases, assumptions, and plain ignorance in the greater public, as a drive toward self-serving beliefs come into play particularly in human affairs.


And now to the proper subject of this post, and the reason I tagged it “Black History Month.” (I’d hoped to make more general comments, but this post is already too long and a specific example serves as well.) A few days ago this article appeared on the Atlantic from Dr. Adia Wingfield(1)(emphasis mine):

Progress has undoubtedly been made since the days of explicit segregation, and most white people no longer openly advocate for segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and offices. When speaking to researchers, many even argue that integration is important and necessary. … Despite laws prohibiting segregation…it persists on several fronts today.

Some of the most striking studies done on present-day segregation have to do with how it’s connected to the ways families share money and other resources among themselves. The sociologist Thomas Shapiro, for instance, argues that the greater wealth that white parents are likely to have allows them to help out their children with down payments, college tuition, and other significant expenses that would otherwise create debt. As a result, white families often use these “transformative assets” to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, based on the belief that sending their children to mostly white schools in these areas will offer them a competitive advantage. (These schools are usually evaluated in racial and economic terms, not by class size, teacher quality, or other measures shown to have an impact on student success.) Shapiro’s research shows that while whites no longer explicitly say that they will not live around blacks, existing wealth disparities enable them to make well-meaning decisions that, unfortunately, still serve to reproduce racial segregation in residential and educational settings.

Local decisions and actions have global consequences, not always the linear sum of the local, or even foreseeable from the local. This is the deeply nonintuitive part, the part people will fail to understand because it violates some vague assumption I might call ‘linearity of intent’, and because they really can’t anticipate that something bad could come from most people meaning well:

It is not actually necessary for people to be racist to reproduce a systemically racist society. (5)

This carries more general implications about the morality of actions, carried out locally, which have global consequences not directly foreseeable, but I will stick to this example specifically. There is a kind of transmutation that occurs through the nonlinear aggregation of people’s behavior, so that decisions which appear acceptable at the one scale grow to have dire consequences in the larger.

In this case it means that people doing their best by their children, by the fact of acting in a world in which whites enjoy disproportionate privilege, perpetuate segregation and the systemic oppression follows (6, 7). Hiring managers, acting without any racial intent of their own, reinforce the topology of social networks by selecting from a pool of applicants which comes to them with such bias already built-in (8).

It follows that we can’t assume our actions will not remain unaltered by their integration with the actions of others, and that the globally/systemically reproduced intent of the macroscopic system will be the same as the majority’s. Even worse: there are cases where emergence creates a system that behaves in ways that are directly opposed to the intent of individuals.

Without a better understanding of nonlinearity and emergence – and with a rigor that deprives us of safety in our preconceptions – I don’t imagine a solution to these problems can be found.



  1. Two Atlantic articles about segregation and poverty.,
  2. WaPo article about whether more intelligent people are less racist.
  3. I can’t find a proper attribution. It wasn’t Twain.
  4. And some basic “common sense” type assumptions…when all possible events are accounted for, their total probability is 1.0. That the position from which distances are measured should imply nothing about the prediction, and such.
  5. In 2014, I realized to my surprise how much sociologists had been able to learn; that this was not a foreign or outlandish concept to them, but some had already made this observation, ex.: Bonilla-Silva.
  6. Another very related example comes immediately to mind: it is not necessary that most police in a black community be malicious to do harm. It is only necessary that they be afraid, indifferent, ignorant, or any mix thereof.
  7. If many of our problems really do take on this form, can they even have a solution? I have heard that busing in an earlier era was actually closing the black/white achievement gap and undoing the evil of segregation before American’s more inveterate nature reasserted itself during the 1980’s. This American Life, 562.
  8. This was also discussed in the Wingfield article.

The multiplicity of agency.

The multiplicity, Ω, is the number of ways a system might be configured given some observable macroscopic state (macrostate). If I flip a coin and catch it in my hand, and I do not look at it, its multiplicity is two(1). A body with no extension (a particle with no length, width, or depth can’t twist, bend, rotate, etc.), contained in some box can occupy some position in that box and have some velocity, and only these two variables contribute to its multiplicity.

If I take a large handful of coins, and toss them up in the air, there is an expectation that “about” half of them will come up heads, correct? What may be less apparent, but can still be intuited, is this: As the number of coins being tossed increases, the percent by which they deviate from a 50/50 split will decrease. This is sometimes called the Weak Law of large numbers, and it is the simplest kind of emergence I can think of; it is a macroscopic, qualitative property that arises from increasing a quantity in the system. It is a statistical impossibility that a large number of fair coin tosses will not reveal the underlying probability of a single toss.

Viewed another way: there exists a set of all possible outcomes for every coin flip. Because they are all equally probable, and there are so many more outcomes with the coins split about 50/50, those outcomes are much more likely. The states that split the coins evenly have a much greater multiplicity.

There are many different kinds of statistical convergence, and I suspect they can all be associated with a type of emergent observable property. If the multiplicity as it appears in formal statistical mechanics, is sufficiently explained, I may give the multiplicity of agency. 


Let there exist some macroscopic behavior of a community. This behavior is associated with an effective, or apparent agency which emerges from aggregation of individuals, or the local behavior of components. The multiplicity of this agency is the number of local behaviors which all contribute to reproducing the same macroscopic behavior.


  •  People shopping for clothes will operate under a number of motivations, and may weigh a number of different things when making purchasing decisions. Different people also go with very different fashion choices, or will prefer certain stores, etc. To the extent that all of these variations in local behavior typically contain a common thread of preferring lower priced goods, the market will generate a downward pressure on costs of production which is robust to all of this variation. This pressure has contributed to the creation of sweatshops. Because people make decisions at a local level and act at that scale, the apparent macroscopic agency, or systemic behavior is indifferent to this.

What I am trying to get at is a way of understanding systemic societal problems in rigorous terms that show the qualitative differences between global scale and local scale behavior.

  • This seems closely associated with problems of nonlinearity, and a violation of the basic assumptions people habitually make(2) when trying to understand these systems. It’s just not enough that ‘most people’ would not want some particular system behavior.
  • How do wars occur, anyway? It would be too simplistic to attribute this completely to leaders. It would be safe to say that most people do not wish for these events, but we seem to habitually behave in ways that contribute to tensions and conflict; that the greater multiplicity belongs to the emergent agency which creates and maintains hostile divisions between people.

Maybe as a species we are just feckless? After all of our advances in technology and science, why do we still not understand ourselves well enough to solve fundamental problems like poverty and violence? I would hope we are not still holding on to the notion that our individual free will has relevance and power to affect our behavior as a society(3), as the recurrence of civil wars, the tendency of markets to produce dangerous bubbles, and many other phenomena demonstrate that the aggregation of behavior can create systems acting in direct opposition to local intentions.

The companion post is here.


  1. There is some subtle interpretational issues here with what probability means, but I will gloss over these because they are largely philosophical, and to the extent they relate to underlying issues in classical and quantum probability, etc. I think I can get away with ignoring them for the purposes of this post.
  2. The prior post about linearity.
  3. Econophysics, for example, can get pretty far, and reproduce some surprising results assuming individuals’ behavior is entirely random. It hardly seems to matter that people operate under coherent local rules at all, at least for certain properties.

Strong A.I. and the growth of conciousness

I lay out a general design for the kind of process that I suspect may be necessary for the development of strong artificial intelligence.

Some problems in complexity are NP Hard. There are no shortcuts: there exists no polynomial time algorithm that would allow you to see the future of the system before that future actually comes in its own good ‘time’ so to speak. The only way to see is for the full system to walk through the entirety of its history with full fidelity to the details of its interactions and structure. It has occurred to me that perhaps the development of any strong AI would require a process of development similar to this, even if it were done in silico. And therefore the development of a strong AI requires that the AI have its own full history and evolutionary path, in which it would pass through a series of stages in the same way as the human brain has passed through its own.

Maybe this does not entail that the process take 500 million years the way the brain has, but it may require that some computational runtime or informational/entropic kind of equivalence to substitute for the years must be followed through in the process. There should be some kind of energy and dissipation cost associated with generating it.

Some modern development processes have made use of fitness functions and an iterative/evolutionary process for producing new technologies. Assuming the reader is familiar with some of these methods, the immediate analogue to natural selection is obvious. What may be less clear from what I mentioned above is that to develop something very complicated, with an exceptionally long history like the brain, it might be necessary to first select not for typically human brain properties like language, abstraction, theory of mind, etc. but to, in the course of this evolution-like simulation, first select for more basic things.

For example, we may begin with some kind of smaller neural network on the order of 100 components (like a worm), and subject to a fitness function for mobility like light seeking. Later on more sophisticated behaviors would be required, using a more complex set of constraints. In each subsequent stage the process selects for more complex tasks and augments the network, building from the prior one. I imagine that something like this; a living system evolved through a virtual ecosystem could at some point, generate a very advanced piece of artificial intelligence and perhaps even necessarily would do so (1) .


  1. The U.S. military had the stealth technology used in the F-117A for more than a decade before it was revealed to the public. Sometimes I wonder what sorts of things they have in their possession today that we won’t know about for another 10 years, a technology that seems so improbable and fantastic and on the boundary of science fiction you would have trouble convincing anyone they could have possibly done such a thing. This is one of those kinds of things.


How do we cope with what we do not know? It is impossible for us to have perfect knowledge of the world. Even in situations where it is possible to gain more knowledge we have tendency to make assumptions and produce decisions without waiting for all of the available information. This does make sense: there is an optimization that has to take place, which mediates the need to act in time, the conclusions the brain is able to extract with the information it has, and how long it would take to obtain more information.

We have to habitually induct to draw the best conclusions with the information we have. This requires assumptions, and the purpose of this post is to discuss one typical assumption people make and how.


The weight of an object is a linear function of the mass. If I put an object on a scale, and then put a second object on the scale, the weight is twice as much. For a pendulum, if it is perturbed only slightly from the equilibrium position to start the motion, the fact that the sine of the angle is about equal to the angle itself means the force of gravity pulling it back will be linear in the angle (1). In contexts less obviously related to physics, try these questions:

If twice as many people enter a room, does the volume level of their conversation about double, or is the increase greater than that?

If a city suffers a net 2% out-migration of the population, will the effects be about 1/3rd that of a 6% out-migration or more severe? Which effects would be linear, and which not?

Is it better to pick a Basketball team with nothing but the very best players, or is it better to pick a team that works together better than any other? Can we expect teams selected through both principles to be the same, or sometimes radically different?

If everyone on the highway wants to get where they’re going sooner, will they if they all decide to drive faster?

Many of the processes of change that people experience are “smooth”, meaning they change gradually, or changes occur continuously. People have to extrapolate, and it seems their intuition is reproducing a kind of linear approximation, where they project out from the point of their present experience and expect change in the future at the same present rate. This is the assumption of linearity in a temporal situation. You may notice that interaction among the parts of the system is important in each of the questions I asked above. In the time-oriented case, nonlinearity can sometimes result in correlations of later states to prior states – a significant dependence on history so that the system is sort of interacting with itself across time.

I think most people don’t even take a single course in basic physics. Those that do have trouble even with acceleration, velocity, and position. It seems curvature is not an easy thing to intuit about, and indeed I have always been surprised at how completely wrong my own intuitions have been about many physics problems. In simple cases, though, you can find a variable that is linear (velocity for a free-falling object) and apply your intuition with that, combine it with some math and manage pretty well.

Some problems are inescapably nonlinear, however. Some problems involve interactions between system components, and maybe even a response of components to global properties (people and politics, mass media). Some problems exist for which it can be demonstrated no equation for the solution exists – I can’t write down an answer that can be computed by hand in a few steps. Some kinds of problems require a computer to literally walk the state of the system forward one instant at a time. There exist problems for which no known algorithm can reach a solution in a finite span of time. It also can be shown there exists a class of problems for which no such algorithm could ever exist, assuming classical logical operations.

One thing that should be disturbing is how often climate scientist’s predictions fall short – I have noted a pattern where the predictions made several years ago seem to have underestimated how dire the situation would become. They have been uncovering unexpected effects, and they are typically bad. These problems, we hope, and have good reason to hope, are of the ‘walk the system forward’ kind, but there is the problem of chaos at short timescales and it does not seem to be clear under what circumstances the larger scale cyclic behaviors could be guaranteed to continue suppressing this (2).

I think people have developed a very solid track record of not accurately predicting the future. Now I’m referring not just to changes in the climate, but also about the impact of technology and other changes (3). I should probably not have as much confidence in my own expectations about the future as I do, but I have this idea in my head that things are about to change very profoundly. It is so implausible that the earth could possibly continue as it has, we must be approaching a singularity of a kind – a sharp, discontinuous change in the rate of change, and a “phase transition” into a new regime of global system behavior. It could be amazing or it could be cataclysmic. I expect the worst, but this could be my own pessimism in play. I hope everyday that I am just some fool.


  1. I think it’s funny that “clockwork” universe is used to describe a deterministic one, given that a pendulum clock with a sufficient driving force, and perturbed sufficiently from equilibrium can behave chaotically.
  2. I mean mostly that it’s not clear to me. I do not study the climate professionally.
  3. Arthur C. Clarke aside, WaPo:

On Race and Human Groups

This post should be read first.

Do you want to know what would happen if White Nationalists in the United States actually got what they wanted? If all of the Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians and other non-whites were all removed from the country?

It would be found, very soon after, that religious divisions among “whites” would become much more salient. People would also begin to segregate themselves, or build a social hierarchy with dependencies on hair and eye color, and height. Much like what was going on in Germany during the Nazi era. Modern white nationalists for the most part don’t like to draw distinctions between different types of white people, but even in the absence of government policies in this regard these types of divisions would appear on their own.

I know this because the “races” that are in the bedrock of modern American society themselves appeared somewhat spontaneously, and of course have absolutely no root in biological fact.

This entire interview should be watched, but Coates has a question at 9:55 that I am going to try to respond to.

“I can understand what the end of white supremacy would look like. But I’m going to tell you what deeply scares me.  Do you need someone underneath? Do you need someone to play that role?…[referring to a 14th century Europe HIstorian] She said if the Jews were not there, they would have invented them. That you need somebody to play that role….we invent social systems, and we invent  technology, and we invent different things all the time, right? There’s no reason why…just because it hasn’t existed that it can’t.”

Human beings are social creatures. But this eusociality is not without restrictions and equivocations. Their altruism extends overwhelmingly to one’s own clan, tribe, clade, or gang. The “war of all against all” alluded to by Hobbes has never actually occurred. It does not even seem to be possible. Overwhelmingly, what happens is that groups are formed by people dividing themselves along whatever salient characteristics are close at hand, and conflict arises along those lines so formed.

  • How are these groups formed, exactly?

I don’t have the kind of theory that allow me to say I have the answer to this.

  • Is it necessary for the groups to be antagonistic?

No, not in all cases. I don’t have quantitative details on how dependent the conflict is on these variables, but I expect when the population density increases, competition for resources will become more intense. This is one of the primary drivers of inter-group conflict. I think it will be found that when the economy is going very badly, groups become more antagonistic. This has implications for the capacity of global society to deal with waves of immigration from the Global South into the North as the consequences of climate change and the energy crisis, visited disproportionately on developing nations, drive them from their homes (2).

  • On what scale do groups appear?

There seem to be multiple overlays of different categorizations in play: there are religious divides, nationalistic ones, lines by party, etc. though race seems to have a unique power. What has been of interest to me is the restriction that technology seems to place on the size of groups that may form. Before horses and the printing press, and during the time of city-states, I think it was most common for people to divide along familial or tribal lines (1). Larger states dominated by divisions along ethnic and religious lines may have required both. I wonder if the Civil Rights movement would have been possible without television and radio, and the role they played in creating both national scale black and white identities which could supersede more parochial ones. The advent of the internet suggests we have entered a new regime, with new possibilities.

  • Is there anything special about “race”?

I have come to suspect that the reason for the power of skin color, and other more obvious phenotypic traits is simply that they can be determined at a glance, and at a great distance. You would have to communicate with someone to determine their national origin, or to hear their accent. Ordinarily you would have to know someone fairly well to determine in detail their political leanings. A style of dress can be changed readily. The singular, overwhelming power of race is that membership can be determined for total strangers, and prior to any communication. It is nature’s own team jersey. Once the symmetry is broken along this line, though it is subtle, the non-linearity of the system takes hold and dictates the growth and dominance of the schema.

  • There is something sickeningly Darwinian about this.

Yes (3). And I have neglected invoking terms of thermodynamics to describe what is going on when groups form and engage in conflict. I don’t imagine it would sit well with anyone if I suggested the following: That segregation and group formation is a kind of phase separation like oil and water, and driven by entropy. And because it is driven by entropy, asking a society not to do it is like asking a machine to engage in perpetual motion. That they might both be forbidden by the same laws of physics. I’m not sure of this last part. As far as entropy goes, is creating a more equitable society like building a bridge, or more like trying to get a snowflake to last all summer? Only a quantitative theory could answer this.


  1. There will probably be more on this subject later.
  2. No matter how bad it hurts, at some point I have to write down what I actually think is about to happen. The worst effects of climate change won’t be that it’s too hot in July, or that there is a very strong El Niño. They will be fed through such a complex system we won’t even know we did it to ourselves.
  3. Sometimes I think the idiots who believe in creationism have actually better anticipated the implications of Darwinian theory, even while they fail to understand Darwin, and refuse to accept the incredibly stark evidence of evolution. Because the creationists refuse to believe the thing when its consequence is so terrible, and evolutionists are just ignoring the consequence. Sometimes I hear stupid shit even from biologists that we are above the kind of competition animals engage in, and that we are somehow above the core principles of evolution. Nothing could be more wrong – the competition humans engage in must only be of a different kind or at some other, non-individual scale and not so easily recognized when it is seen in the mirror.

No one will be left on the sidelines.

The problems of climate change and global sustainability will enthrall this entire generation. Its storms, both literal and socio-political will sweep up the entire planet’s population.

It seems strange to me that discussions about climate change and the energy economy should almost always occur separately from discussions about the world’s social problems and violent conflicts. The degree to which all of the Earth’s systems are integrated should suggest to everyone that these problems cannot be solved independently.

People who live in cities beside rivers that are drying up are not going to just disappear. Neither are the people living in areas that will soon be below sea level.

Developed countries have built their infrastructures often haphazardly, with missteps and inefficiencies. Can they adapt on such large scales as quickly as the Earth is capable of changing the climate regime they operate under?