Ending war via algorithm

Feb 22 2020

Bertrand Russell’s not entirely crazy dream of ending war via logic

The truth, whatever it may be, is the same in England, France, and Germany, in Russia and in Austria. It will not adapt itself to national needs: it is in its essence neutral. It stands outside the clash of passions and hatreds, revealing, to those who seek it, the tragic irony of strife with its attendant world of illusions.     

                                    –from Russell’s essay “On Justice in War-Time” 

Among the many things Bertrand Russell is known for are these two: (1) laying the foundations of “analytic philosophy,” which values clear expression and fine-grained analysis over grand theorizing; (2) disliking nationalism, especially in its belligerent forms. I’d never imagined a connection between the two, but the philosopher Alexander Klein, in an essay published this month, says there is one. 

Russell, according to Klein, hoped that the rise of analytic philosophy would reduce the stature of grand philosophical paradigms with names like “German idealism” and “British idealism.” He wanted to “destroy a conception of philosophy as an articulation of a ‘national mind’,” Klein writes. 

This may sound like a pretty roundabout way to combat nationalism—and it would have seemed especially ineffectual at the time Russell was doing some of his writing on the subject, as World War I was engulfing Europe. But, Klein says, there was a second sense in which Russell hoped analytic philosophy could discourage national conflict. 

The methodology of analytic philosophy involves defining your terms with painstaking precision, thus crystallizing the meaning of propositions so they can be evaluated via strict logic. Russell’s “theoretical antidote to the irrational, sectarian vitriol between European nations,” writes Klein, “was to try to show how logic could function as an international language that could be used impartially and dispassionately to adjudicate disputes.” Well that would be nice!

Through the looking glass

In last week’s newsletter I introduced the strange worldview of Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist who believes that reality is radically unlike what we perceive it to be (an argument he made in his book The Case Against Reality). This week we offer the second part of my conversation with Hoffman, in which things get, if anything, stranger. We pick up the conversation where we left off last week: Hoffman had argued, on Darwinian grounds, that reality isn’t what it seems, without yet giving us his theory about what reality is.

DONALD HOFFMAN: I do have a theory, and I can discuss it with you, but I should point out that that theory is separate from the evolutionary conclusion. 

The evolutionary conclusion is: we don't see reality as it is. The second step is: okay, now, as scientific theorists, what shall we propose as a new theory of that reality? And someone can buy my first proposal—that we don't see reality as it is—and not buy my proposal about the nature of reality...

ROBERT WRIGHT: And the proposal you have, there's an actual mathematical version of it, I think it has maybe seven variables or something like that. And we won't be able to get into that in any depth at all, but one interesting feature of it is I think you claim it's testable.


Before we get into that, I want to get a little more deeply into the question of, okay, if this is not the real world, what is the real world that this is a kind of reflection of?… And here's where  things get weirder, as if things weren't weird enough, at least by my reckoning...

The foundation of the theory: conscious experiences are real

As I understand it, the world is kind of co-created by conscious agents... You tell me—you refer in your theory to conscious agents—does "a conscious agent" correspond to what we would think of as a conscious agent? Like, I'm a conscious agent, you're a conscious agent, so right now we are two conscious agents interacting—is that the correct terminology in your theory? 

That's the first step, yes. But there's more to it. I'll unpack it just a little bit. So here's the motivation for the direction I've gone.

The idea is it may be the case that all of my beliefs are false. I may know nothing. And that's a serious possibility. As scientists, we have to acknowledge that possibility. 

But if there is anything that I believe that's true, it's that I do have conscious experiences. If my belief that I'm feeling pain, or smelling a rose, or tasting chocolate—if my belief that I'm having experiences is wrong, then I'm pretty much wrong about everything, and we might as well just eat, drink, and be merry, because there's really nothing else that we can do as scientists.

This is a little like what Descartes said. The minimalist assumption is that you are having this experience whether or not the experience is true. 

That's right. I don't want to therefore go to the "cogito ergo sum" kind of thing; I don't want to perhaps go where he goes in terms of trying to prove my own existence, but just merely that if I'm wrong that there are experiences, then pretty much there's not anything secure that I can go with.

So I decided to say, okay, let's go with that. If space and time and matter, which are just the format of my perceptual system, are not the right predicates to describe reality, and I can't let go of the idea that I have conscious experiences, let's just start with consciousness. 

Let's see if we can get a mathematical theory of consciousness and conscious experiences—but a new kind of theory. 

Using asymmetrical warfare against Trump

This week, in my periodic role as obnoxious Twitter scold, I intemperately reprimanded famous Never-Trumper and #Resistance personage Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom), who had tweeted to his 328K followers something to the effect that Trump supporters don’t “care about anything but spite and resentment.” 

Why the reprimand? In part for the same reason I reprimanded Nancy Pelosi in this newsletter two weeks ago, after she conspicuously tore up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union speech. As I put it then, “Maybe you should ask yourself not only whether lots of people in your tribe will love that gesture, but how the people who aren’t in your tribe will perceive it.” Pelosi’s gesture plays into Trump’s persecution narrative—and Nichols’s tweet plays into Trump’s narrative that snobby cosmopolitan elites hold his supporters in contempt. 

In both cases, I think, what we see is our tribe taking Trump’s bait. He wants to enrage his detractors—us—so that we’ll do things that energize his supporters (by nourishing his narrative), thus making them more likely to get out and vote. 

Which leads to a question so good that I wish I’d thought of it myself. 

The question was posed by NZN reader Cary W., who, after reading what I said about Pelosi, wrote in an email: “So why is it that enraging detractors and energizing supporters is a politically beneficial tactic for Trump but a politically detrimental tactic for Democrats?” If it makes sense for Trump to do it, why doesn’t it make sense for Pelosi and Nichols to do it?


In Tricycle, Karen Jensen critically assesses Breathe with Me Barbie, the new doll from Mattel that can assume the lotus position and give meditation guidance to kids, saying things like “Imagine your feelings are fluffy clouds.” Jensen isn’t too impressed but ends on a hopeful note: “How do we know that she isn’t capable of awakening?”

In Politico, David Siders explores Michael Bloomberg’s plan to emerge from an initially deadlocked Democratic convention with the nomination

Seventy five years after the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, Jules Evans, a scholar who as a teenager virtually deified Huxley, looks back on the book. Huxley said, as had “Perennialists” before him, that the world’s great spiritual traditions have a common core. For example: “Huxley suggests that the peak experience is the same in all traditions: a wordless, imageless encounter with the Pure Light of the divine.” I didn’t know, before reading this piece, that Huxley’s book was partly a response to World War II. “The reign of violence will never come to an end,” Huxley wrote, until more people recognize “the highest factor common to all the world religions.”

In an Atlantic piece on “authoritarian blindness,” Zeynep Tufekci argues that, however ironically, the Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus has impeded its view of the Coronavirus epidemic

If you’ve been wondering what it would be like to be a left-leaning woman at a mostly male, very right-wing gathering that, over a three-day weekend, prepares people for the impending collapse of civilization—well, your ship has come in. Lauren Groff, in a long Harpers essay, observes the denizens of “Prepper Camp” in North Carolina with the air of detached irony you’d expect. I spent much of the piece wishing she’d interact more earnestly with them, and get some insight into their motivation; and near the end of the piece she does summon some cognitive empathy, and some self-critical reflection.

In the Nation, David Klion profiles Sasha Baker, head of Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy team.

The US hasn’t properly accounted for $714 million worth of weapons and equipment it sent to Syrian proxy forces, according to a Defense Department inspector general report that is the subject of an article in the Military Times. These particular weapons were directed toward proxies fighting ISIS, and aren’t to be confused with the weapons sent to Syria as part of the secret $1 billion-plus CIA program to arm rebels in furtherance of Obama’s regime-change initiative. Some weapons from both programs wound up in the hands of ISIS and affiliates of al Qaeda.

A day before The Washington Post reported that US intelligence officials believe Russia aims to boost Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, Ben Judah and David Adler argued in the Guardian that a President Sanders would be no friend of Vladimir Putin’s

A judge has ruled that Happy the elephant, who lives alone on a one-acre plot at the Bronx Zoo, has not had her "personhood" violated, Sophia Chang reports in Gothamist. The ruling was a defeat for The Nonhuman Rights Project, which had sued the zoo in hopes of liberating Happy. The judge agreed that “Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property” and “should be treated with respect and dignity” and “may be entitled to liberty.” But, “we are constrained by the caselaw to find that Happy is not a ‘person’ and is not being illegally imprisoned."