Archives for category: Semiotics

Increasing numbers of people look upon our world as dominated by “curated reality” — not reality itself. So much of what we think of as true is determined not by our stable appraisals, but by our acceptance of frameworks established by others, by factoids paraded as facts, fantasies doing all the heavy lifting, and narratives told by the gifted storytellers, and perhaps also by conspiracies among some or all of these players.

There is something to this perspective, and the big questions regarding it would seem to be

  1. how much of reality curation is individuals “competing in the marketplace for memes”;
  2. how much is orchestrated meme production and distribution out in the open and
  3. in secret; and
  4. how much is “rational” or “irrational”?

The scare quotes because rationality is a contested concept.

Ray Scott Percival’s essay in Scott Adams and Philosophy: A Hole in the Fabric of Reality (Open Court, 2018), along with several essays by David Ramsay Steele, addresses some of these issues. Scott Adams is one of the most important current advocates of the curated-reality concept, promoting the notion that hypnotism defines much of our human experience, where “the facts don’t matter” (just like on Whose Line Is It, Anyway?). Though I have only just begun reading it, Percival’s essay “Biases Are Rational!” provokes thought — and reminds me of notions I mulled over years ago. A trouble with the Daniel Kahneman/Amos Tversky approach to biases is that by focusing on neoclassical economics’ rather narrow definition of rationality, it suggests that people are error-prone at a very fundamental level, and thus scuttles a more “invisible hand” (emergentist) understanding of human action. Percival takes this on directly:

“Biases,” Percival writes, “can be adaptive to our circumstances.” This view of the cognitive biases Gerd Gigerenzer calls “ecological rationality.” It strikes me as familiar. Did not Armen Alchian advance similar ideas? In any case, Percival argues that we are rational in how we manage our biases — adapt them in light of experience. Here I am reminded of Herbert Spencer’s version of praxeology, human choice and action being defined as “actions adjusted to ends.” But we have to extend the adjustment process to “ends adjusted to means” by trial and error, and standards and routines adjusted in due course.

One of the things I encountered years ago reading F.A. Hayek is the notion that rationality in the French sense, constructivist and very clean and sterile — “Spockian,” you might say, referencing Mr. Green-blooded Pointy Ears — is not a very useful guide to actual human acts and interactions. One of Hayek’s distinctions in this regard was to distinguish teleocratic from nomocratic behavior — that is, purposive from rule-following. While to many theorists teleocratic explanations tend to boil down to a simple ends-means matrix, capable of simple mathematical formulation and calculable in Thorstein Veblen’s parody as “lightning-swift,” actual human action has competing goals as well as scarce means, often radically insufficient information to make any sure calculation, and an almost kaleidic shifting of all these elements (divergent ends, competing scarce means, uncertain knowledge and even a vast scope of nescience); pretending otherwise is foolish. Hayek believed that people use rules of thumb to make manageable the complexity of our actions. No matter how goal-oriented we are, we use rule-following habits to navigate the sheer booming, buzzing confusion of life.

My rap, back then, was that every purposive being did not just ration scarce means towards his ends, but also had to ration rationality itself. That is, the technical proficiency of ends-means calculations is always circumscribed by habits of thought and action that are learned behavior, and pertain to a tacit dimension of our reality. (I confess, I got this view from Julian Jaynes, whom I read long before Herbert Spencer, whose view of the human mind was also a matter of modularity and learning over vast spans of time, by natural selection, or “survival of the fittest”; you may note a tip of the hat to Michael Polanyi as well.)

What does all this have to do with a possibly curated reality? Well, we cannot conceive of reality without curation, or at least mediation by more than just pristine symbols. We are not robotic inquirers proceeding to adjust our mental maps of the world in a one-to-one, crisp-and-nifty rationalism. We human beings use a number of tools that are not just thinking with a limited set of concepts and fact/non-fact propositions, tested and perfected. Among those tools include myth and metaphor. These are crucial to our ecological rationality.

And because our complex of routines is so complex, it is quite possible to manipulate ourselves and others to scuttle the best use of those routines. Indeed, one way to curate another person’s sense of reality is to use rhetoric and mythic thinking but not acknowledge it, keeping the methods sub rosa. Thus we witness, in our time, people who pretend that they are Just The Facts, Ma’am thinkers, while they are almost wholly controlled by ideologies that gain their power from fantasy and myth more than from any careful calculation.

The notion of curated reality undermines simple appeals to “the facts.” Nietzsche’s challenge is pertinent here: There are no facts, only interpretations. But even more basic than that is the idea that we act and judge actions by conjectures often so outlandish that they might as well be called fantasy, and that our understanding of choice depends upon hypothesized counter-factuals, the “roads not taken” with every choice we make. Those are the costs of our actions. And they are necessarily “metaphysical” and not simply factual.

The complexity of the phenomenology of human choice lands us in a realm that simple accounts of rationality — especially low-brow materialist accounts, the kind you tend to encounter among engineers and science-fiction readers and stand-up comedians — simply cannot comprehend. Because of this, the very model of rationality as a Spock-like discipline leaves its proponents open to manipulation by people who understand that this model is necessarily insufficient. As James Randi was fond of saying, the easiest people to fool by stage magic are scientists. There is a reason for that.

Thus the curated reality of our time finds its biggest marks amongst those I call “the moderate brights,” who — unknowingly committed to grave error — repeat stock memes and thereby reinforce our present irreality.

twv

N.B. I hope to report back on these issues after I finish Ray Scott Percival’s contribution to Scott Adams and Philosophy, and perhaps the great David Ramsay Steele’s several essays as well. This post is merely my rehearsal of old ideas dimly recalled from back when I read economics and choice theory in a near-scholarly manner. Oh, and also: facts do matter. They just do not amount to “all that is the case.”

Caution: wearing a black mask is like putting on devil’s horns and scrawling “666” on your forehead. Don’t do it, my friends.

Getting out of the coming crisis with your soul (conscience, if you will; your humanity, if you must) intact will be difficult. I do not know how deep into the warp and woof of our personhoods symbology runs, but my guess is that if you frequent the wearing of a black mask, and pretend that in doing this you are being both dignified and “moral,” you will end up complicit in genocide and glorying in horrors that will make Nazis look like pikers.

If you must mask, don’t replace your face with a representation of The Nothing, with a nihilistic Abyss, a black hole into Death.

Burn your black masks.

twv

Chanting “follow the science” is such a coward’s move, and so unscientific. In science, leadership and oppositionalism count. Followers are insignificant.

Not true of scientism, though. There, the science groupies really do provide extra oomph — the extra oomph needed to send people to involuntary vaccination lines, re-education centers, concentration camps, and gas chambers.

Technocracy is the political expression of scientism, and perhaps its raison d’être.

It pretends to be a logocentric endeavor, “logical” and “scientific” and all very Spockish, but that is belied by its required extremes of coercion and the always-present love of coercion.

But that violent streak needs its halo, some mythic power. In a word, “science.”

Repeat the word for its special magic, acolytes.

twv

States without lockdown orders, or mask mandates, are not doing spectacularly worse than those with them. Indeed, it ranges from “better” to a wash.

Which makes the policies inexcusable.

So why are these edicts being promoted and followed?

For the same reason politicians send us to war and we go. For the same reason there is war fervor and excitement. For the same reason crowds shout in triumph upon the death of millions elsewhere.

The State with its claim of sovereign authority tempts everyone, and it encourages us to be reckless, bloodthirsty, moralistic, self-righteous, and worse . . . out of fear, first, and some imagined advantage, second.

This similarity between war and the lockdown orders is fairly clear, is it not?

The “moral equivalent of war” is immoral, and we, like sheep, almost always go astray to the bad shepherd that is the State.

The State’s a mind-trap. It messes with your heads. It takes your fear and makes you do crazy things, like think prohibiting people from engaging in commerce and normal human interaction because some even peaceful interactions play against what is said to be the general welfare. But obviously, in the case of the threats that start most wars and the menace that is this pandemic, the “cures” are worse than the disease — in part because our benighted species has been infected by a far worse virus than SARS-CoV-2: that worse infection is statism. Political messianism, in other words.

Thinking that salvation comes from authoritarian force.

It is amusing how rarely anyone brings up the First Amendment; the freedom to peaceably assemble, one of would have thought, was something to be protected, not squelched. But oh, how politicians lust to squelch freedom in any form! It’s in their memes and maybe their genes.

And give them an excuse . . . well, don’t.

The proper response to a pandemic is caution, courage, curiosity and conscientiousness — all within the field of persuasion and property rights. Not state edict.

And by the way, “edicts” are not laws, in some jurisprudential theory, and the distinction is understandable. I won’t go to one local store that put up a sign mandating masks because of “Inslee Law.” Inslee’s our idiot governor. He cannot make law. Ascribing law to him is a kind of heresy to republicanism. I’d rather play anarch than subservient swine to Inslee’s edicts.

But maybe we can avoid accelerating our grimace. When I hear a person chide Trump and Trumpians for breaching the “rule of law” but in the next breath insist upon the need for lockdowns, I do indeed laugh.

Yet, should jackbooted thugs with badges come to take me off to the gulags my leftist friends seem itching to create in their drooled-about “Truth and Reconciliation” re-education camps, from my mouth may come bitter, not mirthful, laughter.

But of course the peace-lovers will no doubt gun me down instead. You know, “for the public good.”

Which they cannot explain on rational grounds. For this epidemic does not justify tyrannical proclamations and a general totalitarian response. Not even plausibly.

But add in fear and subtract sound judgment, and of course: anything goes.

As long as it is statist. That parasite meme is firmly running people’s brains now.

twv

You’re on, Costanza!

It seems like a nifty analogy to me. But the big differences between the two situations are several:

  1. if bombed, survival was, shall we say, not likely, but most people who catch the coronavirus weather through just fine;
  2. the more people who survive the virus, the less of an epidemic it is, since we reach the herd immunity threshold — but the more people bombed and survived had no similar salutary effect for the non-bombed;
  3. what if masks are more like venetian blinds at full open, and they would only diminish the risk by a little, thus giving people false confidence so they would be less likely to go into a shelter when the sirens skirl?
  4. while lights-out was good for manned bombing runs, it made no difference with V-2s — so what if SARS-CoV-2 is more like a V-2 than a bomber run?

There are probably many more, but I think this meets Mr. Alexander’s request for debate.

twv

It is not “privilege” to possess “justice.” If some people are treated justly and others aren’t, calling the former “privileged” corrupts the meaning of the terms.

And when the language becomes corrupt, the corrupt triumph while the innocent are abused — or are themselves corrupted.

Master Kung was right. Words matter. Whether through slovenliness or guile, when the meanings change of key words, we are endangered.

Semantic drift is like inflation: meaning shifts are like newly created money, the new meanings benefit early adopters at the expense of those late to the change.

If some are not treated justly, the proper response is not to attack the just as “privileged.” The proper response is to extend the reach of justice.

Word of caution, though: justice in society depends upon reciprocity.

Now, those who are indeed privileged at the expense of innocent victims, the abused, they should be subject to criticism, and their privileges taken away. Just do not pretend that privileges are justice. That is an excuse for injustice.

twv

Each new day I hear yet another call for “opening up the economy,” and my annoyance level rises.

Not because I do not want the lockdown orders removed, however. I am annoyed because “the economy” seems unexceptionable but is not. It is an extremely deceptive term. It induces people to think of a Thing that can be shut off and on like a light switch. It suggests that it’s about money and organization and is generally ancillary to our lives. But it isn’t an existent “it” in the singular, much less in a mechanistic manner, it is an emergent order of people producing and trading. “The economy” is people doing the things that allow us to live. It is, in a sense, living.

It is “making a living.” Shut it down and you make death.
When you prohibit people from commerce, from producing and exchanging, you are cutting off the life blood of the civizilization. When we worry that “the economy will suffer” we mean “people will suffer.” And some will die.

twv

What is liberty?

as answered on Quora….

Liberty is the freedom that can be had by all, provided each reciprocally abandons predation and parasitism (initiated force) and does not arrogate self over others, or allow others to tyrannize self.

Liberty — depending, as it does, upon the civilized stance, which is the cautious attitude of curiosity and the reserved expectation of peacefulness on the part of individuals, and which moderates the polarizing natural instincts of fight or flight — is the ideal compromise between dominance and submission, between tyranny and servility.

Or, to switch to the group level:

Liberty is a regulatory solution to the problems caused by in-group/out-group (inclusionary/exclusionary) antagonisms. It does this by regulating the ill treatment of the outsider, requiring a public test for applying coercion, based on the notions of rights/obligations and the suppression of crime and trespass. It applies the same sort of basic rule to all people, as individuals — regardless of group affiliation or institutional alliance.

Further formulations from alternative contexts:

Liberty is the replacement of militant coöperation with voluntary coöperation, understanding that peaceful non-coöperation is not a threat.

Liberty is the honing of threat systems down to a bare minimum by

  1. focusing on the prohibition of the initiation of force as well as by
  2. regarding as bedrock to social order self-defense, and by
  3. regulating retaliation by a rule of law —

all of which allows the flourishing of “enticement systems” (and the spontaneous systemization of flourishing).

Liberty, wrote Voltaire, is “independence backed by force.” While freedom is the absence of initiated opposing force, liberty is that absence grounded throughout society upon the justice of limiting “opposing force” to the defensive.

Liberty is reciprocity universalized, the Silver Rule scaled to all levels of organized society.

Liberty is a limit to government — with government understood in the broadest of social terms.

Liberty is a widespread and baseline personal freedom understood in the context of a distributed division of responsibility.


Dennis Pratt broke down the key concepts, above, into a nifty bullet-point list:

  • universal (for all)
  • civility
  • voluntary cooperation
  • reduced threats
  • defensive force
  • reciprocity
  • limited government
  • distributed responsibility

George Henry Lewes Painting; George Henry Lewes Art Print for sale
G. H. Lewes, The Study of Psychology: Its Object, Scope, and Method.

I often quote the highlighted sentence:

“Ideas are forces: the existence of one determines our reception of others.”

Do socialism and communism go hand to hand in relation?

as answered on Quora….

Defining political terms is itself a political act. So people are always redefining labels, to gain some advantage. This should not be hard to understand: a bootlicker prefers to be known as a Footwear Moisturizing Professional, but after the word “moist” has garnered an unpleasant connotation, another term will emerge — Fine Leather Sanforizer, perhaps.

This process has happened to these and related words. My favorite discussion of this can be found in Yves Guyot’s Socialistic Fallacies:

Socialists who range themselves under Karl Marx say: Plato, Campanella, More, Morelly, Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet, Considérant, and Louis Blanc, forsooth! Why tell us of all these socialists, utopians, dreamers, and more or less enlightened makers of literature, all so far removed from all reality? Neither Owen nor Pierre Leroux were worthy to invent the word “socialism.” As for Proudhon, who said, “Every man is a socialist who concerns himself with social reform,” he proved that despite his pretension, he belonged to those socialists of the clubs, the salons, and the vestries who indulged in elegiac, declamatory, and sentimental socialism in and about 1848.

Proudhon was nothing but a “petit bourgeois,” as Karl Marx said. There is but one true socialism, the socialism of Germany, whose formula was propounded by Karl Marx and Engels in the Communistic Manifesto of 1848.

They chose “communism” because the word “socialism” had been too much discredited at the time, but they subsequently resumed it, for the logical conclusion of all socialism is communism. The word “collectivism,” says Paul Lafargue, was only invented in order to spare the susceptibilities of some of the more timorous. It is synonymous with the word “communism.” Every socialistic program, be it the program of St. Mandé, published in 1896 by Mr. Millerand, which lays down that “collectivism is the secretion of the capitalist régime,” or that of the Havre Congress, drawn up by Karl Marx, and carried on the motion of Jules Guesde, concludes with “the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist class and the return to collective ownership of all the means of production.

Guyot was writing at the end of the 19th century (in 1894’s The Tyranny of Socialism) and at the beginning of the 20th (1910’s Socialistic Fallacies and 1914’s Where and Why Public Ownership Has Failed), before the Bolsheviks failed with War Communism, Lenin struggled to reintroduce markets into socialism with the New Economic Policy, and before Stalin cooked up his Five Year Plans — and Oskar Lange invented the pathetic “market socialism.” All that the earlier French politician and economist had before him was a long history of utopian reactions against markets and private property and some ominous increases in government power at the behest of self-proclaimed socialists, communists, anarchists (!) and other confused reformers and revolutionaries.

Note the general tenor of the quoted passage: yes, the terms socialism, communism, and collectivism had been used as synonyms as well as refined terms of art and rhetoric during the early heyday of red* agitation; but it was also the case that Communism was generally used as the most extreme version of the doctrines — the complete eradication of the private ownership of the means of production — and most people saw the trend of all this thought as towards the extreme. “The logical conclusion of all socialism is communism.”

The reasons for this extremist trend line to total State ownership are several, but I think it can be seen in basic orientation: what distinguishes all these groups from other ideologies is their hatred for private property, free markets, capital and interest, and even money. For people who nurture this hatred, the answer just “has” to be in these institutions’ opposites: public property, controlled markets, and the abolition of money and finance.

But why would they be driven so far to the extreme? Most people who have a distaste for these ‘capitalistic’ institutions don’t spend all their time and attenton on eradication. They have lives, jobs to do, families to feed. But the intellectual classes, they tend to have easier jobs, even sinecures — if jobs at all — are less likely to have families, and pride themselves on their political opinions. So they can take the ideas furthest.

There is something else at work, of course: halfway measures and piecemeal interventions never work as advertised, ending up causing more problems. But people who have given themselves over to the anti-capitalist memeplex cannot concede that their ideas are bad. So they always blame failures on not going far enough. Whatever ill becomes of a mixed economy program, the market and freedom side of the mix must always be judged the culprit.

So, the general trend among those who oppose capitalism is all the way to totalitarian statism.

Thankfully, most people who lean away from liberal capitalism do have lives, so the inertia of everyday life presents a check. But students and professors, often unbounded from normal social reality, can easily become unhinged from everyday reality, and eagerly take on the role of chief drivers of revolution.


* “Left” and “right” were not terms of political art in those days. A color scheme was in vogue: Whites were for republican capitalism, Reds for socialism and communism and revolution, and the Black Flag was flown by anarchists. In the late 20th century, Tim Russert, a Democrat television commentator, confused everything by affixing Blue to the Democratic Party and Red to the Republican Party in America, presumably to wash out from collective memory the older association of Red with “the left” and Pink with the communist sympathizers in the Democratic Party. Nowadays, Democrats are associating themselves openly with socialism, and I think the Pink should be brought back into usage.