If I am to try to address the four general areas of concern that I brought up in my last post as well as why, then I need to bring up faith. Faith has always been a struggle for me in some ways and a great strength in others.
First the limited faith. I remember a truly terrible book I read in high school about a Neo russo-Japanese war. The plot largely revolved around these new stealth fighters that not only absorbed radar-bandwidth light, but also masked visible spectrum light with a bunch of cameras and a LED/LCD combo skin. There was an interesting sub-plot about a Russian diesel-electric sub which had been bubble-gummed together for the previous 30 years and was now called into service. The thing about diesel-electric subs is that they are almost totally silent unless they are turning their screws, and unless you have active sonar, they are nearly impossible to detect. There was a semi-climactic scene in the book where a sub-killer helicopter had dropped its sonar array on all three quadrants of the boat, and left it on passive. All three times the helo said that it couldn’t hear the sub, but knew that it was there. The captain surfaced and launched one surface-to-air-missile, and then ‘because he was a man of little faith’ launched two more (out of four). The helo was destroyed and the captain continued on his mission. I still identify with that captain. When it comes to matters of life-and-death, I generally take the prudent path. When I used to take my Marines on convoys I used to have a checklist several pages long to ensure that we didn’t forget any of our mission-critical gear. My Gunnery Sergeant, often referred to it as the ‘NASA checklist’ because, as he said, ‘the space shuttle was launched on a less-complicated list than that.’ It was probably fair-enough. An although I did have a wry smile on when he ask me for the checklist after our deployment, I do think it was probably overboard.
Why do I have such limited faith? Well, probably because my lack of faith has been well rewarded in life. I never had the intellectual ability to grasp and retain something useful the first time that I heard it, so study was always required. For good and ill I believed that my life was a series of understandable outputs based on equally-understandable inputs. I remember when I didn’t believe that. Times when I thought that I was special. I have more than once believed that I had an innate ability, and I often found myself wanting. For instance, I was a bit young for my year-group in school and was picked on pretty mercilessly. My mother, shrewdly, found some ways to toughen me up. I tried wrestling, and I reasoned that because my brothers were good at wrestling, and my friend Chris was as well, that I would be good too. I was sorely mistaken. I remember the tears that streamed off of my face and stumbling to my mother at eleven years old after being contorted upside down into a position that I still don’t fully understand and having the referee slap the mat telling me that I was pinned mere seconds after the match started. The harshest thing about wrestling is that there is no one else to blame, it is you against someone else, and if you lose, you must admit that he simply beat you. I equally remember the crying that I did in my bed before other wrestling matches because I was so afraid to lose, but didn’t understand yet that my winning was largely a function of the practice that I put into it. Once I understood that, and took action, I started to win. I started to apply the lesson in other areas of my life. For instance, I needed to progress belt levels in karate, so I practiced, I learned the appropriate forms, I learned the appropriate sparring techniques, and I put in the time to do them repeatedly. Often, that effort was rewarded with trophies and higher belts. Likewise, if I needed to learn something in school, I would pay attention in class, read the material, complete the practice work, and often, this was more than sufficient to get an excellent mark. Again, in areas where I had some natural aptitude, like learning languages, I often had some ‘faith’ that would be OK, not apply myself, and then be sorely disappointed by the mark. I had something of a domain-specific ‘fixed mindset’ as Carrol Dweck likes to call it.
I realize, in retrospect, that this is not everyone’s experience. Great guys who I went into the Marine Corps with would study their enemy threat weapons as much as I did or more, and they couldn’t retain the information when it came time for a test. I tried to help them, to drill them, but try as I might some of them couldn’t identify the difference between a T-50 and a T-82 no matter how many prominent features I showed them. These people often didn’t have the same problem with faith that I did/do. For them, they had no trouble believing in luck, fate, happenstance, and other things that I deemed to be irrational. The military seems to be populated with lots of people like this. There are things that people see in war that convince even the most rational people I have ever met, Rhodes/Marshall/Truman Scholars, White House Fellows, and General officers, that God has a hand on them. I read this article in the New York Times not too long ago about the commando who stopped Hilter’s light water reactor, and how the Norwegian soldier credits fate to picking up a pair of bolt cutters that were pivotal to the entire operation. I was never quite like them.
I have been cursed, in a way, to believe that because many of the problems which I have faced are soluble to logic and effort that ALL problems are so solvable. My defaults are to look for a better framework or more data whenever anything must be solved. That is, at least, what I tell myself.
The Logical Path
In truth, though, there are questions that I, and perhaps all of us, do not choose to probe because their logical path is terrifying, and the ‘truth’ they reveal is incongruous with the life that I want to lead. I have touched on a few of these logically terrifying outcomes in my previous posts. Let’s leave aside the faith that is required to believe that your actions will not lead to any outcome which bears any relation to any action that you have seen before (the problem of induction that I mentioned with Hume before). Presume that I want to even act probabilistically in the short (30-80 year) term many people have faith that material well-being will bring them happiness despite never having experienced that well-being, and despite great evidence that there are greatly diminishing marginal returns to wealth and the fact that they will die and have no guarantee that such a pursuit will make even them happy at that point when they must let it go. In the mid (80-150 year) term some people put faith in the children they produce. They believe that they will inculcate them with values that are imperishable despite the fact that few of these people espouse the values of their progenitors just a few generations ago. In the ‘long’ (150-500? year) term some people put their faith in creating great institutions such as, companies, courts, governments that they believe will endure. They do this despite the death or great transformation of every civilization within just a few hundred years. Even the Chinese with their ‘timeless’ civilization would have to admit that the influence of the Manchu’s was strong even before the rise of Easternized views of Marx, and this is not congruent with the history of the country. I suspect that very few have designs on making a difference longer than this. People rarely think much beyond the 10K years ago of settled agriculture, or the 100K years of recognizably-modern human speciation. If they do, the eugenic ideas that they advance are often unpalatable. The Nietzschian worldviews espoused in this timeframe are often terrifying to most moderns. Between this timeframe and eternity we have truly few people. As I mentioned, in a few billion years this whole planet will be consumed by the Sun. A few ‘dreamers’ and ‘crackpots’ like Elon Musk think about extending our reach to other worlds. They rarely mention what we may look like if our species is flung across the Galaxy. Long-term transit and time dilation may well prevent interbreeding, and eventually fork the species. They may well be saving the world for a species that doesn’t even exist yet, and may find it quite convenient to exterminate us Homo-Sapiens as we may have out-competed the Neanderthals in some long-forgotten battles in Spain. Even Musk must admit that this is something of a temporary solution. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the universe seems to be flinging itself apart at an ever faster rate, and even a few scattered settlements will not preserve use forever. Some hope that we will be able to contact others in our multiverse by as-yet unfound links below the atomic level. They believe this despite having no evidence that this is possible, or any evidence that any species analogous to us has ever done it. Anything beyond this, the billion-year threshold, is the realm that few moderns try to found. Probably because the few things that seem to last longer than this–religions–are a bit out modded. Religions all have this in common, in my view, a point of view on the eternal and how our actions can interact with it. I will return to religion, but let me summarize this as follows: We all act in faith that the future will look something like the past, induction. Induction is not a logical certainty, and therefore a type of faith. Even if we are comfortable with probabilistic/inductive logic, we must have faith that the actions we take will maximize our utility over some time-frame that is meaningful to us, this is despite only having one life to live and not knowing what will truly make our future selves happy. Even if we suspend disbelief on those two points, then we are forced to believe that we will be truly exceptional and make more than a bit-player difference over some longer horizon despite large probabilities to the contrary (a few hundred years), or no confirmatory evidence (beyond a few hundred years). We are thus, all of us, living in faith, it is merely a question of what time horizon you choose to put your faith in.
Picking you irrationality
So here I struggle. I either adopt the conventions of my era and put faith money, democracy, family, and an increasingly wider in-group, while telling myself it is logical and not based on faith, or I acknowledge that they are all based on faith and merely pick one to optimize for. I have put great faith into creating something (what I’m not really certain) which will last some years beyond my death. I explicitly and publicly say that this is irrational.
There is an alternative to picking. It is something that modern psychologists love to have you do. They have you go back in you past and understand what relationships, and models you have in your brain that you are trying to emulate. If our brains are largely pattern recognition machines, then this is a reasonable approach for understanding why you do what you do and coming to peace with it. Here’s the problem from my perspective. There are often counter-intuitive things that I need to accept because they are empirically true, but that are outside of my experiences. Things like Schrodinger’s cat, imaginary numbers like the square root of negative one, and time dilation. In these cases I need to change my mind, not accept my beliefs. This happens in regular life as well (though any one who flips a light switch depends on imaginary numbers). I hate driving, not merely because I feel cooped-up, but also because I become irrationally upset with the other drivers on the road. Even if I don’t have to get somewhere in a hurry, I come out feeling more stressed than when I started. There are less charitable examples as well. When someone acts unjustly towards me, I have an impulse, however small for never giving voice to it, to put my fist through them. In these situations, it is my mind that must change if I expect to be a member of a functioning society for long. I possess plenty of other base urges: lust, malice, pride, dishonesty, selfishness, just to name a few.
I am thus somewhat like Archimedes, who when speaking about levers said, ‘give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.’ Less poetically. I realize that there is work that goes into changing my preferences, and I am willing to do that, but what is the frame of reference that I can use to stand upon to reform my preferences about the others? Every time scale has its own irrationality. I accept that much of what I have learned and been trained to do sets me up for success in the society as it is today, and I will have a natural, preference to pursue those patterns that are most adored by society. I equally accept that some of those may make sense for some time frames, but are disastrous in others. Government and the religious sphere have always had a role in regulating the negative externalities of too-narrow problem framing, be it driving your fist into someone, or saving time by allowing your puppy to do its business in the park without cleaning up. These preferences are fine, for the time thresholds they optimize for, but is there something durable that pervades all of the time frames above that is worth advancing?
If, for instance, I arbitrarily pick, say the 100 year time frame, then I may well encourage civic virtues that allow us to make it through that window. The norms against murder, following contracts, etc would all be there, but there is no reason to include things like exploring other worlds, the advancement of pure science, or eugenics which might be called for by the other time frames. Some of these values, such as giving to those who are less fortunate, or war, may well be in conflict depending on the time-horizon I pick.
What would it look like to use eternity as a frame of reference? Well here is an interesting thought experiment. Each of the time horizons necessarily follows the others. That is you can’t have interstellar settlement over the next 10K to 100K years with a society that implodes. You can’t have a society at all if I can’t tame my road rage, or penchant for violence. I can’t do any of that without choosing to be irrational about induction.
There are indeed some things that would go by the wayside with an eternal perspective. We may care less about this specific planet, as we know it will one day pass away, and we will be long-since gone on our space-ships to other worlds. We may use this stepping stone for a while and lament its passing, but it will not be the sum total of what we optimize for.
Some people have posited that eternal values exist. Plato hinted at it when he talked about forms. The notion that some things exist not in the real world but only in pure thought. Things like a perfect circle. Robert Persig describes something like this as ‘quality.’ Kant and Nietzsche both talk about it in the moral sense by trying to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons and the eternal return. The Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), Buddhism, and Hinduism all have their comments on eternity as well. Others, such as the Bahai and Universalists have tried to combine these faiths and determine what values they all hold in common.
What would an eternal/timeless value look like? It is probably as foreign to us as our values are to beings with a significantly different time frame of reference than we traditionally have. For instance the self-sacrificial cell death of multi-cellular organisms like us would seem wholly foreign to a bacteria. If we were to personify a bacterium, then nothing could be further from its understanding than self sacrifice for the sake of others with similar genes. Every one of its daughter cells has the same genes. Why would it mix half of its genes with another bacterium create millions of copies of this strange union and then wait for thousands of generations before starting that strange reproduction process again? Likewise, values of homo economicus, the notional being who is always perfectly maximizing his own personal utility are abhorred by many who live lives of selfless service in the military, the church, or other less lucrative ventures which are undoubtedly valued by society as a whole, but not so by the this most selfish men. I imagine that at every level of time that we remove ourselves that we would be equally jarred by the values that are rational in that time-frame. How then could we ever expect to find atemporal values that feel ‘natural’ to us, the short sighted middle-speed beings that we are? It is likely that the values of someone operating at some remove from the cadence we normally operate at would seem truly odd, and this is probably a charitable description. They would care about things that others take for granted, and abjure those things that others honor.
How then, to tell the charlatan from the one that is in touch with a truth that extends beyond the current epoch? There are many people with ideas that are counter-cultural, shocking, and undoubtedly wrong-headed.
It seems to me that such a person would value all shorter forms of aiming for the same goal, and recognize the value they were aiming to espouse, if not the specific methods. Perhaps an example here would be something like bringing order to chaos. Irrespective of the time window, this value is espoused by those organisms without any conscious life and those with highly structured societies. Order is valued. The instantiations are different, but the value is the same. Just as our multi-cellular selves can appreciate the order that single celled organisms bring to the world in the short term and the order that civil society brings to multi-cellular organisms over several generations.
It seems that such a person would be very difficult to classify. We are constantly making up heuristics to make the world more easy to understand, and it seems that a person espousing these values would be difficult to smash into any of these categories. To use the example of order to chaos again, such a person might be very pro production of industry as we conventionally classify Republicans to be. At the same time this person would be very defensive of the other forms of order, like plant and animal life, which are beautiful examples of order in a chaotic world. He would undoubtedly be a tremendous conservationist, something not traditionally thought of as being to the right of the political spectrum. Even if a group of people were created to espouse all of these values, it seems unlikely that a person following them would require the cueing function that most people take from their political parties.
Would such a person receive social opprobrium or adulation? As I already mentioned, it seems that the practices of such a person would be so foreign to most people that they would probably react something like Plato’s barking dog in his Republic. That is, because the thoughts they espouse are so foreign, others are likely to ‘growl’ and ‘bark’ at them merely because they are new, just as a guard dog does for any stranger. Given that such a person is not so much marching to the tune of a different drummer as playing a rock tube in the baroque era, they are unlikely to care what others think. It seems, then, that those people conventionally thought of as leaders, and praised in their own age are not likely to have a firm grasp on timeless truths.
Hallmarks of truth:
If we were to look for the content and not the herald of eternal truth, then what would that look like? It would, by definition, not be time-limited. Let’s start with that.
It would be viewed with equal parts ire and praise in every era. If it were truly timeless, then it would be as challenging to us as to our grandparents as to people from eons past who we barely recognize as human.
It needs to be backward compatible. Even if the discovery of such truth happened at one time as a result of some technological advancement it would need to hold for every form of society and life form that it could be applied to. For instance some truth may be tapped into by way of massive computing power, for instance the existence of large prime numbers, but once discovered, such a prime number would be as prime for the ancient Egyptians as for us. In fact, this is part of what the search for extraterrestrial intelligence searches for in it’s scan of the sky since prime numbers are not naturally occurring as part of background radiation.
Such a truth would be fractal in the mathematical sense. Fractals are infinitely repeating patterns that are the same at every level of focus. Example:
Such truth could not pick a specific time level of remove and reject other time levels of remove. To use my fist as an example again. It may be narrowly rational for me to increase my net worth by punching people and taking their money. While this is undeniably true, it is also the case that at another level of remove this does not serve the same purpose. In the one year time-frame, this behavior is a great drain on society, merely moving dollars, a store of value, from one pocket to another while not creating wealth/efficiency for society as a whole.
Would such a truth be easily recognizable/verifiable, but difficult to produce. Something like an eternal block chain? Unfortunately, I see no reason to believe that it should be easy to grasp, nor graspable at all. Just as a bacterium cannot contemplate its existence, why should we be able to fully understand ours. Perhaps some eternal truths are difficult to grasp and many people will be left on the outside. This not unlike Sir Arthur Eddington, replying to the query about being one of three people in the world who understand general relativity, and replying that he was trying to think of who the third person was. It too, as far as we understand is a very well tested theory, but is exceptionally difficult to grasp, especially in domains that we are not used to playing in. This leads me back to the title of this post, faith, and seems like a fitting place to end.
Are there more tests? Probably. I will continue to mull on this. It does seem though that I have proved to my satisfaction that we are, all of use, operating on faith of some kind, it is just a matter of what that faith is, and that it may be possible to escape the strictures of a time-bound set of guideposts. I have even started to point to what knowledge that resides in that realm may look like. A happy, if unexpected result.
Please, tell me what you thought before reading this, and let me know if this changed your mind.