Towers of Hanoi

Towers of Hanoi

This Modicum is an expansive one that attempts to close out a number of recent Modicums.

Context is everything when it comes to understanding a mindset, just like the above sentence helps prepare you for this Modicum. We are so subjective to the world view at any given moment, that it is almost humorous to think we can be anything but a mere byproduct of social thinking. In fact, this whole exercise of a Modicum of Thought is questionable: “Really? a modicum of thought that you hope might be original? Join the masses on the internet, for everyone is writing about the same thing.” Is it just coincidence that this post on the inner voice just went viral just a few weeks after dominating my own thoughts? Doubtful. And yet, I can’t point explicitly at any single common source that is the common instigation; it is the contextual upswell of thought in the world we live in; it is Heideggerian In-der-Welt-sein.

So context is everything, and our context is the world revealed after behavioral economists have destroyed the concept of the higher mind. In typical American style, we all view humanity as marching up a staircase, each generation building on the previous. But in a part II follow up to last week’s Modicum, I am beginning to view it in a different light that has been fascinating to see its consistency as I dive into the idea. Ultimately, it has given me a nice pretty ribbon and bow to wrap around three months of thinking. But… it is not what you may think, and to get there I need some visuals and a whole lot of patience from you, dear reader.

The Staircase

OK, any lover of history or philosophy have the analogy of a staircase of advancement drilled into our worldview. Western History books start with Mesopotamia, advanced through the greeks, skip over the middle ages (a good time to bypass to the East), and then really start climbing stairs with the Enlightenment on to present day.

But I want to do something different: instead of starting with Aristotle and ending in present day, I want to start with homo sapiens and end at Aristotle:

OK, so bear with me, because it is easy to just run through this staircase as obvious. But it is absolutely important to climb this stair case slowly, as this is 100,000 years of evolved thinking patterns, dwarfing our mere 300 years since the Enlightenment. The point of this week’s Modicum is the deconstruction of our world view, and thus I need to emphasize the subtleties that we all take for granted and the mileposts/stairsteps on this staircase.

So in more detail, these mileposts along the way are:

  • First we have Consciousness, which arguably is pre-human – see the previous post on Do Dogs Think? This is foundational, so I can’t elaborate too much on this rung, as it just is.
  • Next is Language. Language is the key to evolutionary growth for the human animal, and it is the foundation on which thought and sharing of thought is necessary. It is hard to imagine a model in which language is not the first thing that really forms for homo sapiens as they begin their runaway intelligence spark.
  • Pure supposition, but I believe that the concept of “I” and “you” pronouns evolved later in language development which I suspect was more affordance (and thus noun, verb) based. These pronouns mark a huge step forward, as it forms concepts of being that are built into a societal structure. A dog with strictly affordances as their worldview does not quite have the concept of I and You as a pronoun. In fact the word pronoun captures this idea – it is an abstraction of a noun (which as language, it too is an abstraction of the actual item). This double abstraction marked a significant jump in thinking that allowed the mind to expand to support much larger abstract concepts.
  • Once you have “I” and “you”, God invariably will evolve. Abstractions force meaning, and God is a convenient catch-all bucket to gather all that is not explainable once abstractions take over the mind and its language – building on the previous two stages.

So pause for a moment. You can see these are all pretty heavy philosophical concepts that mankind was embracing before Aristotle. They evolved en masse in society, growing alongside it. And they are each building on the previous concepts as a launching point, staircase style. OK, let’s continue in the climb:

  • With God in place, we then build out societies and embrace agrarianism. Here, humanity embraced belief structures on society – the God King, serfdom and authority.
  • Eventually, societies that raised the collective power of humanity (Greeks) over the God King model (Egyptian). You could see this as the power moved from the Gods to demigods, like Achilles and Odysseus.
  • Finally Socrates, Aristotle and Plato enter into the fold and at last raise the individual to full authority. They embrace analytical and abstract reasoning and in so doing they realize that their world view is deeply steeped in flawed thinking.

Stop there.

This is where we usually begin in our western thought, but the staircase actually goes in the opposite direction. The moment Socrates declared “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing“, is the moment when we stopped climbing. Let me explain why…

Getting Back to Ground Floor

So first back on to the importance of context , as I opened this modicum with. Each philosopher is stuck with (or enabled by) with the context that they were born into. In this staircase thus far, humanity has been building stairs without the aid of the philosopher. But now we had enough stair climbing that the first real philosopher was born in Aristotle.

It is like a tradition among the great philosophers main treatises that they start out proclaiming that everybody has it all wrong, and they are going to rewrite the book. Arisitotle’s claim on wisdom does this. Descartes said he needs to write “as if no one had written on these matters before”. Heidegger creates his own word, Destruktion, to get us to throw away our Cartesian assumptions. Wittgenstein insists that he is writing for a new man who wishes to a breathe a different air of life.

This consistency of Destruktion in philosophy clued me into the fact that we are actually undoing all of the work / assumptions humanity has embraced. And amazingly it is in the opposite order as to how we gained it – hence why I spent the time traveling with you up those stairs in the previous section.

So let’s go back down the stairs, reversing our progress:

  • We start with the plateau of Aristotlean thinking. In comes Augustine and the Visigoths, and we reach a status quo. Is it coincidence that the dark ages ensued? We were stuck philosophically just as we were stuck politically and technological. We were at the plateau at the top of the stairs, realizing that we knew nothing. Everything was amiss.
  • Then came Descartes, who just destroyed the world of the visible, reducing everything to the Cogito. Rationalism and Scientific Method blasted through the barriers in thinking and allowed mankind’s engine to be started anew. We could then start walking back down the stairs.
  • Soon followed was the death of anthropomorphism and geocentrism (quite literally). We were no longer the center of the universe. An strangely, this is directly analogous to the individuality that we gained from the Greeks.
  • Next to fall was the Divine Right of Kings, with the philosophy of John Locke and David Hume. They undid the assumptions that evolved in humanity on societal structures and had persisted for thousands of years.
  • Next up was the next rung – God. Is it a coincidence that existentialism was next in our expansion of philosophy? I think not. We needed to step through the previous rungs in order to clear away the previous.
  • Enter nihilism which takes over where Existentialism left off and assaults the concept of the pronoun I. Heidegger directly confronts tools with his Zuhandenheit, like he finally made it to the 2001 image of the ape raising the femur in triumph.
  • On to language, Heidegger had to invent his own language just to attempt to redefine the “I” in a nihilistic world. Is it a coincidence that Wittgenstein became famous for his work on languages? I think not, as this was the next step on the staircase downwards.
  • Now consciousness comes in, and so enters Kahneman and The Social Animal, and you see that higher thought is questionable at best – as is the topic of all my recent writings.
  • And finally, that leads to present day and the specter of Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, which finally may be digested without knee jerk reactions.

So in theory, and assuming I am not also subject to the current step on the staircase in thinking (which I am), we should at last in the year 2020 be pretty darn close to getting back down to the very bottom of the staircase. We should be finally at the point where we can start rebuilding society without the false world beliefs that we evolved en masse as humanity blossomed over hundreds of thousands of years.

Enter the Tower of Hanoi

Remember the Modicum title? I know, it was a while ago… but there is meaning there.

The coming back down the stair case is not a linear progression. As each philosopher tears down, they also rebuild the stairs back up to everyday living to make it tolerable, believable and actionable. Descartes doesn’t stop with the Cogito, he immediately sets about proving the existence of God in order to keep the rungs below him in place. Heidegger rebuilds the concept of being, once embracing a level of realism in reaching that lower staircase. Philosophers travel all the way back up to Aristotlean questions, armed now with new answers from the newly uncovered stairstep.

And once they get to this new (well, technically, revisited) stairstep, this becomes the new baseline for society. We hang out on this step for a hundred years with this new worldview until the overwhelming weight of evidence accumulates (usually in science) that forces us to get out the shovel and unearth another stair step below.

In the end, you get this weird state of going down and up the stair case, like digging a tunnel. The detritus of society assumptive thinking needs to be cleared and new support scaffolding built before the next layer can be dug.

Of irony, all this rebuilding is still based on false premises (they aren’t at the bottom of the staircase yet), so the scaffolding is all sorts of work that needs to get undone by the next guy in the line.

With this realization, the visual analogy of the staircase and mining tunnel actually needs to graduate to the Towers of Hanoi (linking to wikipedia to explain it). Those aren’t stairsteps, but rather concentric disks of thought.

Each generation of philosophers go through their own reordering of disks in compliance with the Hanoi algorithm, maintaining the maxim that derivative thoughts can only be placed on lower level thoughts.

Two fun coincidences with the Towers of Hanoi to this Modicum that makes me really like the analogy:

  • Towers of Hanoi is a classic computer science problem most elegantly solved with recursion. And is there any better example of Hofstadler’s GEB Strange Loop than such a recursion?
  • Is it not destiny that the underlying myth behind the puzzle states that when the Tower is fully rebuilt from the ground up, the world as we know it will end? That is a prophecy too dead on the mark for comfort.

Necessary Expedience

And at last, we have done enough stair climbing and disk shuffling that we can get back to the previous Modicum. Remember how this was a part II Modicum?

It is part II because every time a historical thinker begins an iteration of the Tower of Hanoi algorithm, they are applying a necessary expedience.

You can see this most clearly with the very first one that Descartes did with the Cogito. He stripped away all observables as unreliable until he was left with “I think, therefore I am“. He then set about rebuilding a new world view (a new staircase step) from there.

But we know now (as Heidegger exhaustively details), that he did not go far enough. Nor did Heidegger go far enough, for that matter. Descartes’ Cogito presupposes the “I” as being a trustworthy undeniable concept. The decision of some ancient homo sapien to abstract the being into a pronoun was built into Descartes thinking unquestioned by him – and unquestioned by society until Heidegger finally hit that stairstep with his shovel and called out the extent to which “Cartesian assumptions” were rampant in our thinking.

But now dose yourself with a heavy dose of The Social Animal and Daniel Kahneman, and embrace the Bayesian Estimator (arguably Decision Theory), and the Cogito looks humorous in it’s naivete. “Thinking” is the least trustworthy concept, and the concept of “I” is not far behind at best. This is all of which I have been writing about of late.

And this is where necessary expedience comes in. Those concepts such as the Cogito, or even the concept of thinking or “I” and identity, are all necessary expedients that we have built up to be able to make life tolerable. Lord knows that religion is a necessary expedience, designed to hold all those things unexplainable. Heidegger’s rants on “Cartesian Assumptions” is the same as my rant on Necessary Expedients.

Identity has the distinctive Stink of being a necessary expedience.

And there it is – the main point – Necessary Expedients are the stairsteps.

We use these necessary expedients to build a platform of stability upon which we can coexist. This platform evolved collectively and unintentionally on the way up the stairs, and the philosopher rebuilt it with structure but still false premises in their Hanoi algorithm on the way back down to bare earth.

Hence, now, why I ended the last Modicum with the statement: “Everything that is holding us back is a necessary expedience.”

And so we can run free and wild seeking out those necessary expedients and making damn well sure they they have all been identified to ensure that humanity has reached virgin earth.

Are We Done With the Shovels?

OK, where does that leave us?

Well, we now have modern science at our disposal. We are long past religion. The mind body problem is solved as not a problem at all. The unconscious mind is far greater than the conscious mind. Rationality is highly questionable. Even quantumly, all of matter is popping in and out of existence and we realize that the Simulation Argument actually is real. Yeah, science continues to run ahead of philosophy in digging out stairs.

In this light, the loss of the Driver’s Seat feels not only necessary and obvious, but ah… at long last, comfortable. Did we finally reach bare, virgin earth and can stop digging up the detritus of 100’s of thousands of years of thinking?


So conclusion time.

I believe (channeling the GUT) that culture and society is a whole series of beliefs based on necessary expedience. Those expediencies were accumulated over 1,000,000’s of years of evolution and 10,000’s of years of society unfolding. In the past 400 years, philosophy has been working hard to roll back these expediencies.

And so the uplifting realizations I had this week was:

  1. Necessary Expedients (Pascal’s Wager) are rampant in our belief structures
  2. Necessary Expedients are a big flag saying “look here” for anything of depth.
  3. Our job is to root out all of the expediencies, and recognize them for what they are: wagers we must take to coexist, but equally we must recognize them as wagers that are fundamentally flawed. While we endeavor to convince ourselves, we must preserve some part of our mind to remind ourselves that we are agreeing to a false assumption out of necessity
  4. Necessary Expedients are tools that society uses to coexist and build thought upon, but they must be redone.
  5. Consciousness and Identity are necessary expedients, as are all of the previous expedients that have been tossed away in philosophy.
  6. By recognizing Consciousness and Identity as necessary expedients, I can finally at last chuck it out the window. In so doing, 95% of the philosophical conundrums go out the window along with it. (Didn’t really go into this)
  7. I am at last comfortable with having no discernible identity and that the Simulation Argument may be true.

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