"But the real universe is always one step beyond logic."

April 21, 2020 by Lucian Mogosanu

Let's quote the whole thing, as once before, as quoted in a quote in the great book of Dune:

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.

The saying is deeper than it would appear on a first glance (owing most likely to Frank Herbert's superb analytical view of systems) so then let's dissect it! But first, let's digress a bit!

I said somewhere in a previous article that I have somewhere a draft where I philosophize on... well, the world, at least as much as my feeble mind can encompass of it so far. Meanwhile, however, I've stumbled upon some old pieces, among which the quote above, plus a few other texts, which together started clicking in my head, leading me to the very thing I was trying to put together in said draft. Quite neat, huh?

So, we could begin many places, but instead of this "many-places", whatever it may be, I propose first to take an airplane view at the evolution of the human race. From its beginnings and until this very day, humans manage to be, indistinctly from any other animal, oriented towards, of all things, survival, that is, not dying in an environment with limited resources. If nothing else, I hope we can at least agree that some caveman and Georgie boy the government worker have that in common, entirely irrespective of the fact that the latter is kept on life support.

Since this behaviour is at least partly genetically-induced, we thereby deduce that our metaphorical caveman has some instincts to help him stay alive, and furthermore, given the harsh environment outside, predators and whatnot, the creature in question also ends up sharpening said instincts, otherwise it'll die and we can move on to another spherical caveman. Still, one can't help but wonder, what's the distinction between the dead caveman and its surviving counterpart? It could be that one of them came from a weaker father than the other, or whatever, sure, this is a perfectly valid explanation and I'm sure there are plenty of others. Then again, whatever handicaps nature may have cursed the dead caveman with, other cavemen, the ones who survived, did so mainly because they had this characteristic of adapting to constantly changing environmental factors. This characteristic we shall call intelligence, for the lack of a better name.

I won't bother to dissect the so-called intelligence here, but I think it's worth looking at one of its particularities... in particular, because it sort of shapes this evolution, through the way it interacts both with itself, itself (yes, again!) and the environment. This particularity of intelligence is called learning, i.e. the mechanism through which an individual can adapt to environmental changes. In systems terms, this learning is but a feedback loop, having the mind rewriting its internal components (whatever particular organization they may have at a given time), allowing it, yes, only ensuring the possibility for it to make sense of what the fuck's going on around. And well, there's some physiological limitations there, the young individuals being more malleable than the older ones, but other than that yes, this is where the human mind does that recursive thing where it begins understanding problems on multiple levels and language starts to form and so on and so forth. In any case, this is where we start distinguishing humans from other animals.

So, to restate this: the entire scaffolding, language, societies, traditions, nurture, culture and so on, rests on the need for self-preservation; and during their evolution, humans have come one way or another to solve this problem through intelligence, in particular through learning, i.e. tying in the "making sense of reality" part of that feedback loop on multiple levels.

And, in the last few millenia at least, they've done that by abstracting reality, whether we're talking about circles in the sand, differential equations or political-economical systems. However, this understanding is necessarily incomplete, for multiple reasons, e.g. said humans are too stupid to comprehend the contexts they live in1; or a catastrophic earthquake just hit; or whatever, there's a host of explanations that may seem or even be plausible in some given context, if only reality weren't fuzzy at the corners, always running away when someone catches a glimpse of it.

... because sometimes, by virtue of both the environment and the bipedals inhabiting it, someone recursively figures out how to use this "learning" tool correctly and in the process catches a glimpse of reality -- or should I say, Reality. Say, do you remember when they discovered the wheel? or when that dude said eureka? or when those dudes conquered the world? Or do you remember when the Chinese discovered exploding powder, only for the westerners to steal the recipe and perfect it? so that the Chinese would still grab the world by the balls sometime later?

So at particular points in history, humans just figure it out, on all levels known to them at the time. These points of convergence are generally beneficial for the societies inhabiting them; the problem being that, although they lead to abundance, or rather because they do it, abundance leads to a general weakening in society's mechanisms, i.e. the abstract representations discussed above. In other words, the environment changes and so do the qualities of the individual; reality becomes, at least apparently, more complex than can be managed by the average, while the average is lowered constantly under the pressures of abundance. In terms of systems, humans' view of reality builds up hidden spots, and increasingly so, until the whole thing breaks into tiny pieces.

I guess that at the moment I'm just looking at that old cyclical nature of history. Roata lumii se-nvârtește, țac, țac, țac...

The deeper cause for this phenomenon can be described with some effort in terms of evolution versus engineering2; or in terms of perfect knowledge (and thus pure logic) versus reasoning in its absence, i.e. probability and statistics; or in purely economic terms; or whatever, I'll leave the intricate details for another time. The point is, these points of... divergence, I guess, are themselves there to be enjoyed, as they help one (who is sufficiently intelligent) draw a much clearer line between reality and empty words.

Which brings me to the point of that basement-philosophical draft I wrote a while ago: it should be pretty clear by now where the wheel points on the scale of history; the amusing part being that, I don't know about that last time, it might have been the misalignment of the planets... but this time it's clear, it's humans who are inflicting upon themselves the chthonic pain of living together in an ocean of junk. Which is counterproductive to say the very least, given that living was the prime cause of this whole thing; and clearly, not just in the biological sense. This sad state of affairs won't last forever either, as reality starts creeping in, quite the other way around, yes. It'll very likely be a big mess too, I s'ppose we'll see.

Either way, the wheel keeps on turning indeed, and no matter how many of those precious glimpses all those heroes may see, pieces of hidden reality always seem to have the upper hand in the end, bringing us back full circle to Herbert's quote. By the way, I guess the guy didn't have to write six books on the subject in order to explain this. Okay, maybe an article provides too little space, but one, say two books would have sufficed.

Anyway, I guess this sums up the generalized abstraction hell series for now.

  1. Even (or should I say, especially?) when said contexts were created by humans themselves! Just look at the computing shitfest.

    My very few (possibly soon to be ex) readers decry my so-called dishonesty, on the basis of my not knowing what I'm talking about, or because I've supposedly attempted (when the fuck?) to put a professional's hat on a dilettante, or... yeah, I know, I'm supposed to know what I'm talking about, otherwise there's not much talk going on there, and I'm aware that there's a price to pay for this sin too.

    Meanwhile, humans lack a, or the language which would allow them to properly express the boundaries of computing -- I know this, I was invested in it for way more than the proverbial "trei ani de experiență". This in itself isn't much of a problem, except "everyone" is using computers nowadays, and not only do they use a bunch of machines built on not just imperfect, but insufficient knowledge, but the very concrete items they use were implemented by amateurs, since it was all "just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu", remember? So I'm here adding my own centimeters of duct tape to hold all of this silly computing shit together, while y'all are using it to tell me... what? that I lack the proper language required for thinking?

    I truly appreciate your concern, but what can I do. Here I am, here's my blog, for however much this is going to last. Hang around for a bit, or don't, for all it is or isn't worth. It's all the same either way. 

  2. "Evolved" systems (in this case societies/civilizations, or artefacts built by them) are more chaotic in nature, and thus harder to control; the typical example here would be, I guess, feudalism, which permits many degrees of liberty for independent agents, but it otherwise doesn't provide any hard guarantees. As far as overall stability goes, I guess you can't beat it; in fact the feudal roots are still there a millenium later; if you don't see them, it's most likely because you've been educated not to.

    On the other hand, "engineered" or "designer" systems, such as the various socialisms, are robust within some linear part of the graph of their parameters, which on the other hand makes them more prone to systemic failure when a few of the values run out of the linear zone.

    In other words: in one of them you die so that society gets to live; in the other, society dies by your hand, among many others'. Pick your poison, plus the various mixes of the two, one more perverse than the other. 

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4 Responses to “"But the real universe is always one step beyond logic."”

  1. #1:
    spyked says:

    Unknowingly to me at the time when I wrote this piece, it also responds to the question of why exactly civilizations reach degeneration: due to a (temporary, for sure) halt in their survival instincts. In other words, my dear reader: pentru că ni s-a urât cu binele.

    Ți-e frică c-ai trăit mult prea multe zile-acidulate -- n-ai să mori; din viață scapă cine poate.

  2. [...] curve; they are made out of principled, systematic, systematically-applied knowledge, leading to that glimpse into nature itself; they are, simply put, [...]

  3. [...] This problem stems from some of the most trivial observations7 in life. Say, for example you are doing some work, whether watering some plants, writing some code, jogging, or whatever. This causes something, such as the completion of a task, or the increase of humidity in some place or whatever. This, in purely physical terms, changes the state of your environment from a p1 to a p2, where p is some particular measure that may be used to compute entropy. More importantly yet, that so-called "physical" environment includes you, from which emerges the trivial observation that whatever action you apply upon your external world, "it" isn't changed by your action more than "it changes" you8. The arrow of causation, however consistent in a purely Platonic sense, suddenly becomes muddy when it hits the real world. [...]

  4. [...] The problem with abstract objects is that they are... for the lack of a better word, we shall call them lies. The more sophisticated among the readers may be inclined to point out the "nuanced" distinction between lie and approximation, supposing to say that the abstract object as represented in the human mind is slightly different in form as well as in substance to the "real" one, but that the former is "good enough" to be confused with the latter in speech as well as in thought. This argument is pure sophistry firstly because using plain English one cannot possibly call an ideal abstract "an approximation" of a concrete object -- for example you'd never say that the sphere is an approximation of planet Earth, would you? a model, sure, but approximation? While secondly, any object arising in the mind is in some sense "an approximation", including for (Aristotle's opening) example those directly perceived through a narrow field of view processing a very narrow subset of the electromagnetic spectrum. At which point we might as well say that in spite of all its valliant efforts, for the most part the archetypal human lives in a perpetual state of lie. [...]

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