Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Skyhooks, Cranes, and Anarchism (Part 1)

In conversations on statism I've recently had, I found that I had trouble empathizing with people's difficulties imagining how certain things in society could work out even if no violence is involved. I have tried thinking back on the time when I myself could not imagine society without a state. But the thing is that my transition from being pretty much clueless about politics and economics (or rather: baffled by the pomposity with which so many people express strong opinions about these things they only rarely seem to know much about) to being a market anarchist went very quickly. Unlike most anarchists I know, I didn't spend much time strolling around the minarchistic suburbs. Once I'd finally taken on the task of figuring out what my political views are, I was pretty quick to find the door to anarchism.

I think I have identified some biographical factors which might have played a role in this, a few of which I'd like to talk about today.

I've spent the last three years studying psychology, which has helped in many ways. For one thing, it has helped me realize that (as I remember somebody putting it at the Singularity Summit of 2007) you cannot trust your sense of how crazy something sounds. I have been presented ample evidence that the fact that almost everybody believes in a proposition is not much of an indication that it has any validity at all. I've learned a lot about cognitive biases and social pressure. But I won't dwell too much on these things in this post.

The most important idea regarding my views on statism that my studies through the last three years have instilled in me is, I think, the idea that everything, absolutely everything in the universe is ultimately built from the bottom up, never from the top down. I got this, essentially, from my studies of neuropsychology and of the theory of evolution (and the philosophy thereof). Another way of putting this principle is that Complex things are made out of simple things. To explain the presence of a complex thing is to explain how the simple things of which it is composed have organized into it. Insofar as this explanation involves another complex thing (e.g. an intelligent agent) that has caused this organization to occur, the presence of that other complex thing must be explained according to the same principle. Ultimately, all complex things involved must be traced back to nothing but simple things. Otherwise, nothing has been explained.

Daniel Dennett
has coined the terms Skyhook and Crane to describe ways people think, or ought to think, about the ways in which complex things come about.
In my claim that everything is ultimately built from the bottom up, the word "ultimately" is not unimportant. Top-down organization certainly does occur, but only locally. We would certainly not say that a Lego spaceship is built from the bottom up. It's put together by a child. This is top-down organization indeed, but there's a child involved in this explanation of how the Lego spaceship came about! How did the child come about, then? Well, the specific organization of the tiny parts which constitute the child is the result of roughly 4 billion years of genetic evolution by natural selection, a bottom-up process par excellence. And, of course, the primordial soup in which evolution began is not the beginning of the story either. The story reaches back at least another 9 billion years, and the amount of complexity in the universe decreases logarithmically as you journey back in time. If the child is able to build a complex spaceship out of Lego bricks in a top-down fashion, it is because a prior bottom-up process has brought about the far MORE complex top-down-Lego-assembler-computer in the child's skull, and all the appendages it comes with. The child is a Crane. A crane can pull things up from the bottom to a higher level because the crane itself is built from the bottom up and rests firmly on the ground. The fantasy of something that is up there from the beginning and can reach down to pull things up without being itself built from the bottom up is what Dennett calls a Skyhook. The skyhook is a fantasy that we humans have a very strong tendency to fall back on in order to fool ourselves and others into thinking that we have provided an explanation.

One obvious reason why this skyhook fantasy is so appealing to us it that we are cranes and are designed (by natural selection) to think as such. A crane needs to know how to reach down and pull things up. And indeed, we are extremely good at building Lego spaceships. However, there is absolutely no reason why a crane should be designed to understand how it was built, or to have any awareness that it rests on the ground at all. And indeed, it was not before 1859 that two humans came up with this understanding, at least 4 million years after some of our ancestors had come up with the first tools. "Reaching down and pulling things up" is something we intimately know, and that we therefore are prone to projecting onto just about anything. On the other hand, bottom-up organization is completely unfamiliar to us, it's even counter-intuitive. Why wouldn't it be? What evolutionary rationale could there have been to build the ability to think through bottom-up processes into our brains? It's not what we do. Top-down is what we do.

Dennett uses this metaphor to tackle the human tendency to "explain" the complexity of the world we encounter by postulating a creator who was not himself created, and who also hasn't evolved from the bottom up. This is the fantasy of the ultimate central planner, whose planning abilities largely outcompete those of a mere economic central planner (also a fantasy), since his planning actually reaches all the way down to the smallest subatomic particles.

Within the crane metaphor, in which altitude stands for level of complexity, it is perfectly obvious to us that in order to be able to lift something up to a certain altitude, the crane itself has to be taller than said altitude. This also works with complexity. As Richard Dawkins argues in The God Delusion, God, in order to be able to create the world, would have to be more complex than the world. Obviously, "explaining" the presence of something complex by postulating something even more complex is worse than a non-explanation.

If this understanding makes you suspicious of people's tendency to explain the existence of the universe in a top-down manner (as Dennett and Dawkins argue that it should), it seems to me that it should also make you suspicious of people's tendency to go about questions around how society should best be organized with this same top-down approach. We're cranes, that's how we go about things, so it shouldn't be surprising that people tend to have these ideas about politics. But clearly, no individual or set of individuals is more complex than society, the largest set of individuals there is. Cranes can't reach beyond themselves. The fantasy of a government efficiently regulating large (or even small) portions of all the lives of all the people in the country is about as plausible as the fantasy of lifting a truck to the top of the Eiffel tower using a little Lego crane.

And why should any of us go about "organizing society" anyway? Again, my studies of psychology have been helpful in recognizing that this is fundamentally a narcissistic fantasy (i.e. it reflects a desire to control other people), which is perpetuated through appeals to irrational fears instilled in people from their early childhood on ("The poor will starve on the street if we don't steal for them from those who are good at creating wealth and jobs!", "Mafias are going to keep popping up everywhere if we don't have one really BIG mafia to protect us!"...). And that those irrational fears, in turn, feed on our very well documented unshatterable preference for the status quo.

My studies of evolution and of neuropsychology have helped me both resist the tenacity of top-down thinking and appreciate the mind-boggling power of bottom-up organization. In the next part(s?), I will try and explore these notions as applied to more specific aspects of politics and economics. I'm off to bed now. I honestly wish for all of you out there that you live the liberty you have to the fullest, which is to say make best use of the resources you have and not waste any time "seeking greater freedom" through the fantasy of controlling resources you don't have. A crane is happiest when lifting things, not when shaking its hook at the sky to make the Great Skyhook do all the work for it. Good night!

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