Month: January 2019

Thoughts on the Wired article on Karl Friston

There’s a lengthy article at Wired about professor Karl Friston, one of the more recent superstars in the popular-science pantheon. Interestingly, the article is far more interesting for its psychological or philosophical aspects, for its striking window on the motivations behind Friston’s general worldview—and that of a great many scientists working today—than it is for evaluating the actual meaning, utility, or novelty of Friston’s theories. (We may flatter ourselves to imagine that Friston, himself a psychiatrist by training, would not begrudge our focusing on inner motives.)

Perhaps the most striking tendency in Professor Friston, far more pronounced even than in most other scientific reductionists, is his predisposition to a kind of overpowering univocality: everything that exists must be the absolutely deterministic unfolding of a simple, completely unambiguous code, which cannot be seen as in any way provisional or open to growth or disagreement. While Professor Friston himself is undoubtedly a charming and brilliant individual, this urge to univocality, at times, attains to such intensity and such unreflectiveness that the effect seems even monstrous.

We are introduced, for instance, to Friston’s “obsession, dating back to childhood, with finding ways to integrate, unify, and make simple the apparent noise of the world.” As a tangible example, we are given a recounting of one of Friston’s most cherished moments—his childhood conclusion that wood-lice on a suddenly-upturned log do not move faster in order to seek the shade, but simply run faster when they feel the sun. Friston deems this

“…his first scientific insight, a moment when ‘all these contrived, anthropomorphized explanations of purpose and survival and the like all seemed to just peel away,’ he says. ‘And the thing you were observing just was. In the sense that it could be no other way.'”

Yet there is something odd here, a sort of ghost at the feast. For although we are meant to see this as an object-lesson in young genius triumphant, the article actually quietly mentions that Friston’s conclusion is, in fact, still unproven. It may well, in fact, be untrue—yet this simply does not matter, because it must first be weighed to satisfy the pre-existing demand for absolute simplicity and absolute determinacy. “It could be no other way“—that, one senses, is the true motive from which all the rest flows, not from the actual world or even from data about that world. This is an emotional kernel—a psychological preference of Friston’s, not a deduction. Here is another example:

“When Friston was in his mid-teens, he had another wood-lice moment. He had just come up to his bedroom from watching TV and noticed the cherry trees in bloom outside the window. He suddenly became possessed by a thought that has never let go of him since. ‘There must be a way of understanding everything by starting from nothing,’ he thought. ‘If I’m only allowed to start off with one point in the entire universe, can I derive everything else I need from that?'”

In a way, there is nothing new at all here. We have the solipsistic dream, quite common in physics and science generally, of “deriving” everything about life and reality from a single principle (or in Friston’s case, from nothing at all)—what Nietzsche pinpointed as the Socratic urge to “correct existence”.

Yet there is something especially chilly in this moment, in the way that Friston, possessed by his univocality daemon, completely disregards the cherry trees for themselves and simply subordinates them—along with the whole universe—under a matrix of assumed, abstract formalisms, to be created by himself alone. It is at this point that one feels one is in the presence not just of a need to simplify (or perhaps oversimplify) reality, nor yet to “correct” it, but of a kind of all-consuming demand that seeks to crush reality down to whatever level of simplicity will allow it to be controlled or contained.

This is where we sense the monstrous element in Friston’s psychology—the realm that William Blake called “Single vision, and Newton’s sleep“, and also the realm of the totalitarian, for whom there simply must be a framework, a simplification, that eliminates all things that are ambiguous, changing, that cannot be formulated or controlled.

* * *

In light of all this, it gives one special pause to consider that Friston first made his mark in the refinement of brain imaging—a suite of techniques that, it now turns out, have unleashed a deluge of underpowered, irreproducible, or simply misleading but highly fashionable “findings” and theories-du-jour about the brain, which are often treated as if practically dispositive. It is as if we here see, in actual research practice, the proliferation (and fruits) of that compulsion so exemplified in Friston: make the theory, then jam everything else in the world into it. Indeed, nothing better sums up this mentality than Friston’s own words:

‘“We sample the world […] to ensure our predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”’

Self-fulfilling prophecy, as the basis for a new science of mind! Again it seems undeniable that an inward, psychological drive or need has been projected on the outside world, something like: “since self-fulfilling prophecies are all we produce or care to see, they must form the entire world of thinking in general”. We also here see the sway of unreflectiveness—hardly Friston’s alone but pronounced in every quarter—in that what is set up as “genius” increasingly is codified as the exclusion of contradicting possibilities from consciousness. We shoehorn Nature into the theories that give us the most thrill or prestige, and jam our fists in our ears to keep out the rest. To which one can only say: if such a mindset really is the great new hope of neuroscience, then neuroscience is yet due for a great deal more meandering and mishap—however fashionable.

(Incidentally, one sees similar tendencies even farther advanced in physics, specifically with string theory, where theorists now rather blatantly choose tribal loyalty, and loyalty to a project of univocal “unification”, even in the face of empirical disconfirmation.)

This is the territory of dueling university press-releases, of the thrilling, jargon-y sound-bites of science journalism and popular physics bestsellers, of that nihilistic awe where, without knowing what we are being asked to believe in, we are nonetheless enjoined to marvel in it. It is the territory that John Horgan, in his ever more prophetic-seeming 1996 work The End of Science, called ironic science: scientific-sounding theorizing that furnishes a sense of mystery, beauty, and grandeur, while lacking in testability, sublimity, or often even minimal comprehensibility. We have uneventfully slipped into the era of science according to the Three Wise Monkeys.

* * *

Friston’s rise to wider scientific stardom over recent years stems, however, not from his contributions to brain-imaging methods, but from his ostensible magnum opus, the Free-Energy Principle, which proposes to reduce all life and cognition to a minimization of free-energy—essentially analogous to “surprise”, or entropy. Again, much like string theory, in every quarter where it is discussed, the Free-Energy Principle is not so much simply noted for its difficulty and abstruseness, as it is renowned for it. For example, the article in question recounts, with a kind of admiration, how whole workshops of high-end physicists and engineers have failed to come to grips with the idea.

Faced with such accounts, which all seem to take great pains to establish the gorgeously incomprehensible profundity of Friston’s Principle, a mischievous thought occurs. Might the reality be the exact opposite—that the Free-Energy Principle is actually too simple, so that the “thought-leaders” and such who extol it and so valiantly pursue it must convince themselves of its awe-inspiring difficulty and depth in order to get the required narcissistic reward from pursuing it? After all, no one in a cognitive elite worthy of the name could truly pride themselves on understanding something that was merely simple or intuitive. And yet, on the face of it, the idea of “minimizing quantity X, in a system separated by boundary B, using gradient descent of an information measure Y” seems extraordinarily unoriginal; it is, rather, a trope, emblematic of that computational flavor of reductionism that is so favored in today’s most widely-disseminated “explanations” of the nature of reality—the “holographic universe”, the “universe-as-simulation”, and so forth.

There is a risk in critiquing, even in broad outline, a theory one does not understand in every detail (though in this incomplete understanding, it appears I am joined by nearly everyone in the world, possibly including Friston himself). At any rate, given the many unsettlingly totalizing and circular tendencies implied in so many of Friston’s remarks, motives, and experiences, and the strange celebration of abstruseness and evasion of simple testability that beshroud his Free-Energy Principle (which surely make it a prime candidate for “ironic science”), it may be no great surprise that equally disturbing questions come to mind when we contemplate the Free-Energy Principle’s implications.

For instance: does not the idea of explaining life as seeking an ultimate minimum of anything, free energy or otherwise, imply also a tendency towards eventual convergence and stoppage at that minimum? What happens if, somehow, that goal is achieved?

If the quantity being minimized is surprise, in particular, then the Free-Energy Principle suddenly stands forth as an uber-totalizing kind of intellectual heat-death, as all minds eventually coalesce into a trap of their own perpetually self-fulfilling expectations. But a war against Surprise is a war against wonder, against renewal—both things we all know living things, at their healthiest, actively seek. In other words: Friston’s Principle is the exact embodiment of the viewpoints indicated above in his own remarks—of the overpowering urge to simplify down to a simple, absolute, final state of belief, beginning from a single and invariable point of view, after which all further thought and experience becomes unnecessary. It is hardly neutral or objective at all.

If this is so, we should beware that the Free Energy Principle may be far less a theory of life, or thought, than its exact opposite—a theory of how to make these things dead.

Fascist Intimations–in the Deep Mainstream

At a party over the holidays, I was treated to a round of a new parlor-game that’s sweeping the nation, winning awards for thoughtful game design, bringing innocent delight to households great and small: “Secret Hitler“!

As the name suggests, one player is designated secretly to be “Hitler”, and three others secretly to be “fascists”. The remaining “liberals” must try to figure out the latter’s identities before it’s too late. As the gameplay unfolds, paranoia abounds and accusations fly ever faster, but calm deduction will avail you precious little.

I took away four key impressions from this experience:

1) Americans, more than ever, can be relied on to mindlessly “gameify” (or inane-ify) simply anything. This process is almost a reflex at this point, providing almost our sole foil to that other, much-loved, but more strenuous coping-mechanism, the Moral Outrage Sweepstakes.

Interestingly, just as Moral Outrage in our day seems to subsist on incidents of an increasingly minuscule sort—the occasional wrong pronoun, say, or culturally-appropriative sombreros at Halloween, or even someone failing to completely agree on a crucial fine point of your post-Marxist critical narrative theory of heteronormative subtexts in bonobo enclaves—so, inversely, this trivializing impulse of gameification seems increasingly to rejoice in refashioning into banal amusements topics that really, really should be kept serious (such as, well, Hitler).

Incidentally, this pattern—this loss of solemnity and proportion over every scale of life—is a further sign of the now-overwhelming predominance of the Last-Men, those glib “discoverers of happiness” out of Zarathustra, who “make everything small”. For the Last-Man, real seriousness is foreign and unbearable (carrying, as it does, the potential confronting of tragedy); whereas fake outrage and light amusement are both always-welcome salves to his gnawing inner emptiness.

2) The USA’s morbid fascination with fascism—a political system that to all outward appearances has been buried for nearly 80 years—has now extended into the pastimes of those very bien-pensant Last-Men who now, in the age of Trump, so excitedly style themselves as guardians (albeit mostly gameified ones) against fascism. (Also, yes, that this post is itself discussing fascism does play into my point–if you noticed that, give yourself a star!)

As living memory of it has dwindled, World War II has gotten less and less real and more and more fantastical, more virtual. It now serves almost as modern-day Americans’ creation myth, a grand adventure-epic in which, out of the ashes of Europe’s final, comic-book-like Götterdammerung, our nation swept in just in time to save the West, establish the Free World, and glean unending superpowerdom and moral supremacy in the process; it is often the farthest back in history we bother knowing about, even in popularized form, because the universe did not exist before then, at least as far as we care.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the nigh-cosmogonic importance of the War he launched, Hitler seems to have stealthily risen in the everyday American (and Western) imagination to a new office as our de facto god of the underworld, which, in an essentially post-moral society that prides itself on having done away with the silliness of most moral absolutes, has made him a quasi-Mephistophelian locus of boundlessly titillating horror and hypnotic fascinations. The mass-popular re-imaginings just keep coming, and seem to plumb ever-new depths of flippancy: from “Hunting Hitler”, “Iron Sky”, and “Look Who’s Back”, to the endless “Downfall” parodies that form virtually a whole separate genre on Youtube. In the publishing business, meanwhile, there are few more sure-fire recipes for a best-seller than accounts of the Nazi era and its leader; in the marketplace, as well as popular imagination, the Hitler vortex deepens apace.

This complex fascination, which seems only to grow the further we get from the days of actually-existing fascism, tells of something deeper and possibly more dire going on, though it has been going on for a long time, and goes well beyond pop-culture. In The Closing of the American Mind—now over 30 years ago—Allan Bloom in fact warned of certain striking parallels between the state of the US intelligentsia and that of the Weimar Republic.

In particular, he noted, the USA’s intelligentsia and subsequently popular culture had imbibed, with a stunning gusto and equally stunning obliviousness, the same fateful brew of German philosophy as had captivated the doomed Republic in the 1920s: Weber, Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger, principally. In America, this philosophical invasion was disguised by the national instinct to cheerfully trivialize everything serious, to ignore deeper currents—to gameify, in short. As Bloom nicely puts it,

“…the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.” (147)

Surely the concept of “Hidden Hitler”, though a small addition to the heap, fits with this overall mood most uncannily.

The irony, naturally, is that the very fascination with fascism helps pattern an actual resurgence: it is a prefiguration, ideation, suggestive of a mental pregnancy, or a subconscious planning-in-advance. One good economic shove (or a well-coaxed national security threat), one senses, combined with the right sort of demagogue, is all it could take.

3) Another interesting detail: on the cards used to play “Secret Hitler”, the fascists are depicted never as people, but as ugly, reptile-like creatures. Now—depicting members of a disliked political group purely as inhuman monster-caricatures: is this not itself a rather fascist habit? And inversely, perhaps a tad complacent as well?

4) The game was not very fun to play, since there is no way to guess what is really going on—one simply yells, and points, and makes shot-in-the-dark accusations. But I suppose this, too, is a match for our time and place.

***

The intellectual and foreign-policy elite, meanwhile, of “adults-in-the-room” fame, seems to offer anything but a clear-sighted bastion amid the general fascist-fascination. For example, notice the careful terminological tip-toeing in this recent, much-discussed essay: (https://www.cato-unbound.org/2018/12/10/stephen-davies/great-realignment-understanding-politics-today)

Stunningly, the author, Mr. Davies, discerns a “realignment” underway in Western politics, where one newly emergent pole of the political spectrum will be what he awkwardly terms “national collectivists“. What does this term remind us of?

Of course, the more natural and well-worn term to use here would actually be not “collectivists”, but “socialists“. For obvious historical reasons, however, to use that term would be too impossibly fraught, especially for the august annals of the Cato Institute—even though the resulting compound, “national socialists“, indeed sheds much more light on the true structure and urgency of our situation.

But were this term “national-socialist” to be substituted anyway in Mr. Davies’ argument—as a thought-experiment, let us say, by some utterly tasteless individual who knows nothing of the finer mores of discourse—it would begin to usefully expose the frightening naïvety inherent in several of Mr. Davies’ positions: firstly, in his assertion that the “realignment” now underway is indeed “normal”; and secondly, in his thinking this realignment will duly lead to some new “stable equilibrium” between whatever two major blocs that eventually coalesce out.

The absurdity of the latter expectation—stability—becomes even more plain when we consider what Mr. Davies posits as the likeliest main opposition to these ravening national collecto-socialists: none other than “radical leftists“!

So we are then supposed to have, in effect, national socialism versus radical leftism as the newly-dominant axis of political ideology in the Western world—and stability is to follow from this! Through what illimitable genius of self-delusion can one seriously imagine such a configuration as either “normal” or “stable”? Can anyone bother to recall how this arrangement played out the last few times it was tried? (For a hint, think back to Bloom.) “Sanguine” hardly begins to sum up Mr. Davies’ attitude here; “somnambulistic” may be nearer the truth.

***

This kind of severe misperception likely stems from one of the gravest blindnesses of received political wisdom in the postwar period, one that, like the gameifying tendency, has only deepened with time—namely, that Germany’s national socialist episode was purely a mad fluke, essentially limited in spread by certain repressed, insular, grim-minded peculiarities unique to the German psyche–and also, implicitly, that Hitler was purely a moronic, one-time madman whose like we need not really worry about encountering again (except, that is, when mining the Internet for comedic gold).

In fact, as Davies has just unintentionally demonstrated, the basic complexation of nationalism with socialism (or collectivism) is in itself not some moon-shot Teutonic lunacy, but an extremely general political possibility, translatable to a wide variety of societies given certain combinations of popular mood and stress. This generality comes from the way in which nationalism and socialism can represent, concisely, the two main sides of tribalism, that red-in-tooth vade mecum of virtually all geopolitical organization up to the present day. We may call these two aspects of tribalism the “outward-looking”, and the “inward-looking”, respectively. In sum:

Nationalism represents outward-looking tribalism: “we define ourselves as a single empowered entity, as a People, the Nation-tribe, in distinction from, even opposition to, all other nation-tribes”;

Socialism represents inward-looking tribalism: “we take very good care of each other within the tribe, because each tribe member is a precious part of the Nation”.

Put together, these two amount to possibly the most brazen, direct, bread-and-circuses, red-meat rabble-rousing political strategy in the book, and also one of the most seductive: its offerings include group pride and glory; cooperatively assured security; crisply- yet generously-delineated enemies, ready for your hating pleasure; and of course, loads of goodies from the government.

Now, can anyone name at least one country that currently seems to be experiencing (albeit by seemingly separate factions) a profound upsurge in both aspects of tribalism just now? It so happens that here in the USA we currently have a rather unusually jingoist, proudly nationalist” chief of state who is proposing to declare an open-ended “national emergency” over a perceived threat to tribal organization of the country (in the form of a string of overhyped but not wholly imaginary disasters along the southern border). We also have, simultaneously, an equally unusual formation of Morally Outraged cultural collectivists/socialists, who seem to have an intense interest in enlisting the state to guarantee every aspect of personal well-being, down to the level of policing any language even imagined to be offensive.

What baleful hybrids may yet come of this; what rough beast slouches towards Washington to be born? Remember, the Left and Right are not opposites, so much as two parts of a process; as Bloom recounts, summarizing Nietzsche:

“the Left, socialism, is not the opposite of the special kind of Right that is capitalism, but is its fulfillment.” (143, my emphasis)

So finally here is a warning—to the country; to erudite quietist fools such as Mr. Davies; to the blackshirt-bewitched game designers happy to turn a buck regardless of meaning or message; to the moiling millions of bien-pensants who, from the safety of their spacious suburban foyers, vaguely thrill at imagining “secret fascists” all around them; and to the legions of rheumy-eyed, Weltschmertz-drenched Youtubers who find re-enacted tantrums of Der Führer a delightfully edgy diversion from their 21st-century mal du siecle—to all of these and more I say, if you do not wake up to the real ramifications of what you are normalizing, and fetishizing, and gameifying, we will eventually see far more of “stable realignments” than any of us know what to do with!