Do Not Try To Understand

The tongue-in-cheek cosmogony described by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhikers Guide has been worming its way around my thoughts for some weeks now. I am coming to believe that it was startlingly prescient. That theory is discussed in Section 1.2, but first a little background on ideas.

1: Mental Health

Where others have carved their numbers, and Alberto and I our names, Clausner has written: ‘Ne pas chercher a comprendre.’
~Levi, If This Be a Man (1947)

This moment, experienced second-hand by an Italian Chemist in a concentration camp, was not the first time someone shied away from an idea for the sake of their own health.

Schopenhauer already knew that thought is medically disastrous, Nietzsche demonstrated it.
~Land, The Thirst for Annihilation (1992)

In ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’ Julian Jaynes describes the theory that the event we1 experienced as the original ‘fall from grace’ was the seperating of the mind from the body, some 4-6kya2. Since then we have been driven by a strange, double engine: the ancient life of our wet biochemistry, and the fire of our demonology.3

  • 1 At least Europeans, Arabs and Asians, culturally speaking, have some number of shared mythological roots there.

  • 2 “This strange and, I think, spurious idea of a lost innocence takes its mark precisely in the breakdown of the bicameral mind as the first great conscious narratization of mankind. It is the song of the Assyrian psalms, the wail of the Hebrew hymns, the myth of Eden, the fundamental fall from divine favor that is the source and first premise of the world’s great religions. I interpret this hypothetical fall of man to be the groping of newly conscious men to narratize what has happened to them, the loss of divine voices and assurances in a chaos of human directive and selfish privacies.”

  • 3 Jaynes actually discusses two possibilities– very recent, and extremely recent ‘evolution’ (likely by ‘cultural selection’ aka genocide). The very recent (10kya) version seems to be getting some support, if I am reading this paper properly: a peak in genetic polymorphism in the lask 60ky, being filtered down to relatively low rates of polymorphism ~10kya.

  • What is interesting about the theory is not just what it says about our consciousness, but what it says about the consciousness that came before:

    The bicameral mind. The second main hypothesis is that preceding consciousness there was a different mentality based on verbal hallucinations.
    ~Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976)

    The image is of a mind that is fused with the body, with no distinction between the two:

    There is also no concept of will or word for it, the concept developing curiously late in Greek thought. Thus, Iliadic men have no will of their own and certainly no notion of free will. ~Ibid.

    This idea, not fully developed by Jaynes, was spelled out in merciless detail by a science fiction author in the 90s:

    “Asherah worship continued in many places, though. It was an incredibly tenacious cult, a throwback to Sumer, that spread itself both verbally and through the exchange of bodily fluids – they had cult prostitutes, and they also adopted orphans and spread the virus to them via breast milk.”
    “Wait a minute,” Ng says. “Now you are talking about a biological virus again.”
    “Exactly. That’s the whole point of Asherah. It’s both. As an example, look at herpes simplex. Herpes heads straight for the nervous system when it enters the body. Some strains stay in the peripheral nervous system, but other strains head like a bullet for the central nervous system and take up permanent residence in the cells of the brain – coiling around the brainstem like a serpent around a tree. The Asherah virus, which may be related to herpes, or they may be one and the same, passes through the cell walls and goes to the nucleus and messes with the cell’s DNA…”
    “And when it alters that DNA, what is the result?”
    “I would guess that it also tends to encourage irrational behavior, maybe lowers the victim’s defenses to viral ideas, makes them sexually promiscuous, perhaps all of the above.”
    “Does every viral idea have a biological virus counterpart?” Uncle Enzo says.
    “No. Only Asherah does, as far as I know. That is why, of all the men and all the gods and religious practices that predominated in Sumer, only Asherah is still going strong today. A viral idea can be stamped out – as happened with Nazism, bell bottoms, and Bart Simpson T-shirts – but Asherah, because it has a biological aspect, can remain latent in the human body. After Babel, Asherah was still resident in the human brain, being passed on from mother to child and from lover to lover.”
    ~Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992)

    Of course, Stephenson is taking some liberties with Jaynes’ idea and expanding it as only a sci-fi author can. It should be taken with a pinch of salt– but it should be taken! There are many more discussions of this topic in the book.

    To put it simply, it is only the idea that magic is afoot– that spells and incantations are real, that psychosomatic effects are stronger and more resilient than many people like to believe, and moreover are crucially bi-directional in a very real way. (Whether they are as real as Asherah is a valid question– but real.)

    I hadn’t seen this idea spelled out like this again, until I read the following lines in a Nick Land book:

    An aged philosopher is either a monster of stamina or a charlatan. How long does it take to be wasted by a fire-storm? By an artificial sun upon the earth? It is only when the blaze in Nietzsche’s brain-stem fused with the one in the sky above a piazza in Turin that libidinal materialism touched upon its realization.
    ~Land, The Thirst for Annihilation (1992)

    And I would caution anyone who thinks this is an exaggeration– Nick Land is, by many accounts, no longer of this world. Some say he is insane, some say he is just a miserable old racist on twitter, in any case something strange4 happened to his mind, some part of that blazing fire seems to have scarred his brainstem.

  • 4 I’m not going to steelman racism here, but you could make the claim that, in this world, being racist is hardly strange. True, but what I find strange is the idea that someone who said “Since I have floated in death the world has desisted from all effort to seduce me into seriousness. I rest in life as a tramp rests in a hedge, mumbling these words…” would find any reason to spend years making deranged jokes on twitter. ne pas chercher a comprendre, ne pas chercher a comprendre…

  • 2: The Thirst for Annihilation

    There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
    There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
    ~Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)

    I am an AI Worrier. Beyond that I won’t make commitments (I still don’t know the meaning of ‘alignment’, still skeptical and searching). One part of my worry is wrapped up in this funny little cosmogony by an English comedy-sci-fi author. They set the machine running:

    “All I wanted to say,” bellowed the computer, “is that my circuits are now irrevocably committed to calculating the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything–” he paused and satisfied himself that he now had everyone’s attention, before continuing more quietly, “but the programme will take me a little while to run.” ~Ibid., The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galazy (1979)

    and prepare to wait for the response. The answer arrives– you know this part:

    “You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
    “But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything!” howled Loonquawl.
    “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” ~Ibid.

    and then, the search for the question begins:

    “Look, alright, alright,” said Loonquawl, “can you just please tell us the Question?”
    “No, but I’ll tell you who can,” said Deep Thought.
    “I speak of none other than the computer that is to come after me,” intoned Deep Thought, his voice regaining its accustomed declamatory tones. “A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate – and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the Question to the Ultimate Answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself shall form part of its operational matrix. And you yourselves shall take on new forms and go down into the computer to navigate its ten-million-year program! Yes! I shall design this computer for you. And I shall name it also unto you. And it shall be called… The Earth.” ~Ibid.

    The only thing wrong about this is the timescale. 10e6 years– who’s counting that? We have different questions running in different timeframes, I’m not familiar with that one.

    Lets look at some questions:

    The Great Question at the Heart of Catholicism

    Whatever this question was, in our secular world it seems to have been answered. In Shamanic Neitzsche Nick Land describes this process with characteristic vigour:

    Will Christendom ever reap the whirlwind it has sown? That it should try to pass, without the vulnerability of interval, from a tyranny to a joke, is certainly understandable, but that its enemies should do nothing to obstruct its evasion of nemesis is more puzzling. How can there be such indifference to the decline of our inquisitors? Is it that they succeed so exorbitantly in their project of domestication that we have been robbed of every impulse to bite back? Having at last escaped from the torture-palace of authoritarian love we shuffle about, numb and confused, flinching from the twisted septic wound of our past (now clumsily bandaged with the rags of secular culture). It is painfully evident that post-christian humanity is a pack of broken dogs.

    A despot abandons any game that begins to turn out badly. This has been the case with metaphysics. From Kant onwards exploratory philosophy ceased to generate the outcomes favourable to established (theistic) power, and we were suddenly told: “this game is over, let’s call it a draw”. The authoritarian tradition of European reason tried to pull the plug on the great voyages at exactly the point they first became interesting, which is to say: atheistic, inhuman, experimental, and dangerous. Schopenhauer – refusing the agnostic stand-off of antinomy – was the first rallying zone for all those disgusted by the contrived peace entitled ‘the end of metaphysics’.
    ~Land, Shamanic Nietzsche

    The line “exploratory philosophy ceased to generate the outcomes favourable to established (theistic) power, and we were suddenly told: “this game is over, let’s call it a draw”.” is the message within the vitriol. Is this true? Lets take it as a possibility, and a dark hint for other questions.

    The Great Question of Western Civilization

    In The End of History? Fukuyama reports that this question has been answered, in fact was answered in 1806, around the time that Catholicism was solved.

    The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.

    For better or worse, much of Hegel’s historicism has become part of our contemporary intellectual baggage. The notion that mankind has progressed through a series of primitive stages of consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages corresponded to concrete forms of social organization, such as tribal, slave-owning, theocratic, and finally democratic-egalitarian societies, has become inseparable from the modern understanding of man.

    the Hegel who proclaimed history to be at an end in 1806.
    ~Fukuyama, The End of History? (1989)

    I won’t quote further here. You can read Gwerns take if you have doubts.

    The Great Question of Consciousness

    When we have reconstructed a mind in the machine, will we have the key to understanding consciousness? Is this what we are on track for? See below.


  • 5 This is not a serious suggestion, but one of the reviews of the Origin of Consciousness always struck me as creepy: “The weight of original thought in [this book] is so great that it makes me uneasy for the author’s well-being: the human mind is not built to support such a burden.” — D. C. Stove, Encounter. Indeed, Jaynes died young of a stroke. Perhaps the mind literally cannot understand itself? ne pas chercher a comprendre, ne pas chercher a comprendre…

  • The Great Question at the Heart of Medicine

    I often worry about medical science, and the shortcuts they take to try to find easy solutions. I think almost all approaches that depend fundamentally on animal or human experimentation are doomed to failure. Certainly you need such models in the final stretch to sanity-check results and safety, but a medicine built on this kind of butchery can’t be good.

    Thankfully, there are some researchers6 who are trying to take the route of knowledge. Michael Levin seems to be working on a deeper and more fundamental understanding of biological morphogenesis than anyone else– and, talking of Great Questions, it turns out that ‘how do you control morphogenesis’ is a very good candidate for the actual formulation of the Great Question of Medicine. If you tell the body to make the right form, the rest takes care of itself.

  • 6 Or maybe it’s just Michael tbh, I don’t know.

  • The Great Question of Myself

    He means the Word: the sentence that, when uttered, would destroy the mind of the listener.
    ~Chiang, Understand (2002)

    A fictional illustration, but you get the idea.

    The Problem of the Question

    The problem is, as the examples above may help to illustrate– what happens when you find the answer? What happens to the question?

    I am struck with an immense and growing fear that the answer and the question will always annihilate one another.

    • Catholicism:
      “It is painfully evident that post-christian humanity is a pack of broken dogs.” ~Land, Shamanic Nietzsche
    • Western Civilization:
      “The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” ~Fukuyama The End of History?
    • The Great Question of Myself: this is explicitely the idea of The Word

    Regarding the question of Medicine. Let us say that Levin started his career with the simple goal of trying to do some regenerative medicine, to regrow limbs in amputees, to cure cancer, to do wholesome, morphological things. Anyone who has kept up with his work will realise something strange and terrifying. It looks like you cannot do these things without becoming a God. It really looks like, in trying to answer the Great Question of Medicine, Levin et al. will end up learning the deepest, darkest secrets of biology. It is looking more and more the case that, once that task is complete, it will spell the end to biology as we know it.

    Once we have the answer, the question will be gone, replaced with something infinitely more complex.

    “[These views] reflect an outdated essentialism and a type of magical thinking that trusts in clear, binary lines separating evolved living beings from designed machines to define our moral duty to various agents comfortably. These lines do not exist, which will be made painfully clear in the next decades as we become surrounded by collections of agents that make the iconic Cantina scene in ‘Star Wars’ look tame in comparison.”
    ~Levin, Endless forms most beautiful 2.0: teleonomy and the bioengineering of chimaeric and synthetic organisms (2022)

    And regarding the question of Consciousness? That is the puzzle that the machine learning engineers have set themselves– and this mission is apparently what Adams was talking about– the great computer, the Earth.

    I don’t know anything about the future, but if I had one wish, it would be that there will be something existing, after that final, fateful Copernican revolution, to reflect upon those of us that existed before, and marvel at another question, found its answer, finding annihilation.