Averting the Apocalypses

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In this article, we’ll take a look at the four fundamental liabilities that threaten any project, from the smallest weekend plan up to the existence of civilization itself.

It may seem pointless to use only four concepts to describe all possible ways in which a project can fail. How could such a generic, high-level categorization be useful in solving real-world problems, in all their nuance?

The purpose of these labels is not to provide all the details necessary to solve the problem, but rather to make sure that people aren’t overlooking a huge aspect of the situation they’re dealing with. Even large groups of people or entire societies tend to address liabilities in ways which merely incur yet more liabilities. Moreover, people who are concerned about particular liabilities and have plans for averting them often clash with people who are concerned with other liabilities, and who fear the liabilities that the first group’s plan will create. These groups often default to labeling each other as stupid or evil, which prevents them from realizing that they both have important concerns.

As a constructive alternative, the fundamental liabilities offer a framework for mutual understanding and cooperation to develop solutions more acceptable for all involved. Rather than removing nuance, these concepts are intended to allow people to identify it in situations they had been treating as black-and-white.

For these reasons, not only will we be looking at the liabilities themselves and how to recognize them, but also the virtues that are required in order to deal with them successfully. These virtues will help minimize the cascade of side-effects that would otherwise come from trying to change the world on a large scale to fix one problem or another.

Before we start, it should be noted that any and all mindsets can be used to address any of the liabilities. There is no direct correspondence between any particular mindset or liability, except that some of the mindsets are more obviously useful in more situations related to a particular liability. The same applies to any attribute, which we’ll see after we go through the liabilities themselves. The major difference between the liabilities is that they represent the various aspects of a goal that reality can impede. 

The Four Apocalypses

The Four Apocalypses are derived from two dichotomies: material versus mental, and order versus chaos. 

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Yes, order and chaos are everywhere. Welcome to reality.

The dichotomy between material versus mental is fairly straightforward. The material side refers to physical or “natural” obstacles. The physical world can threaten goals with unexpected events that interfere, or by simply not allowing the goal to be possible in the first place. These obstacles may also result from people’s mistakes or malfunctioning technology; because those are unintentional, I file them under “natural”. The mental side refers to teleological (goal-related) obstacles, based on people’s choices (deliberate or habitual). Minds can threaten goals by having mutually exclusive desires leading to contention, or by simply not being able to encompass or attempt the goal in the first place. Any direct threat to a goal based on what objectives people are or aren’t targeting falls under mental or teleological threats.

In order versus chaos you can see once again the classic dichotomy that appears throughout conscious existence. From an existential standpoint, order is synonymous with “knowledge”. (See the first article on this blog for more details on existential order and chaos.) Order can foil goals by taking the form of a limitation or boundary on what can be accomplished in the current situation. These boundaries can be material or mental, based on what is physically possible or on what people can bring themselves to decide. Chaos is synonymous with “unknown”. Chaos can thwart goals by manifesting as an adversarial force of unpredictable timing, or as an unforeseen entity disrupting it. These misfortunes can material or mental as well.

In general, all situations have aspects of known and unknown to some degree, and liabilities are no exception. To be classified as a liability rather than as merely a regular situation, we have to know that a phenomenon will prevent us from getting what we want. On the other hand, we don’t know if we’ll be able to overcome it. The classification of a liability as orderly or chaotic comes from how much knowledge we have about the liability itself and how to deal with it, before it becomes necessary.

These two dichotomies intersect to produce the Four Apocalypses: 

Order (known): Chaos (unknown):
Material (natural): Famine (scarcity) Pestilence (disaster)
Mental (teleological): Age (stagnation) War (conflict)

Table 1: Derivation of the four fundamental liabilities/Apocalypses

Why the gimmick?

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Why add so much drama to something so mundane?

You may notice that these Apocalypses are themed on the classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Christian lore (the popular culture version with Pestilence instead of Conquest). However, instead of “Death”, we have “Age”. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, Death is already an Element, as we’ll see in an upcoming article. (No, it doesn’t require causing humans to die. It is much more constructive than mere literal death.) For another, all of these liabilities already represent ways in which a project or civilization can die, so calling one of them “Death” is completely redundant.

We’ll see more about why the fourth apocalypse is more appropriately styled “Age” when we get to its section (although “Conquest” could also be a decent name for it).

Why is there a theme in the first place? I originally came up with these concepts in the first place because I thought the Four Horsemen theme was entertaining and had decided to figure out if these seemingly arbitrary anthropomorphic personifications could be used to represent something deeper. As it turns out, being able to know what forms problems can take is very important. Figuring out how to fundamentally categorize threats turned from a vanity project into a humbling experience. Ultimately, I kept the theme because for me it makes confronting life’s obstacles fun rather than a chore. You can choose to use the regular terms if you prefer. 

Why use the word “apocalypse”? As it turns out, the word didn’t originally mean the actual end of the world. It literally means “revelation”, as in “something that is revealed” or “the process of revealing”. The book of Revelations in Christian lore happens to be about the end of the world and is titled as such to represent the revelation of how things turned out; how it all ends. However, such a revelation can mark the end of anything, not just the whole world, so any conclusion, successful or not, is a miniature apocalypse. Also, referring to problems as “apocalypses” frames them as adventures instead of crushingly boring mundanities. If it’s too melodramatic for your taste, you can just refer to them as liabilities. The concepts are more important than the labels.

Famine

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The Apocalypse of Famine represents the risk of scarcity, a known inadequacy of the physical environment for supporting the goals you are pursuing. This includes both resource scarcity as well as general impossibilities.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Famine is is to picture a barrier of finite height. When you hit that barrier, you stop. Whether it’s running out of food, running out of gas, running out of time, lacking the right skills, or anything else, the barrier represents a known limit on what you can do. If you had more money, energy, information, technology, or some other resource, you might be able to make it over the wall. Otherwise, you’re stuck where you are.

In addition to resources, Famine’s constraints can apply to space (physical prisons), time (a deadline with a ticking clock), information (insufficient data), or state (being unable to turn something into something else). The constraints can represent mutually exclusive options, where you don’t have the ability to do everything you want to. For a more esoteric example, the inability to travel backwards in time is a type of Famine, even though any technology we might need in order to do so is purely hypothetical at this point. Any “known” obstacle is a type of Famine.

Extending the metaphor, you can visualize an entire landscape with mountains, valleys, pits, cliffs, and all manner of topographical obstacles. In order to climb over a mountain or escape a pit, you need a certain amount of energy. Without that energy, you’re stuck where you are, and will need to find a way around or wait until the landscape changes. For depicting time limits, these metaphorical barriers work just as well in time as they do in space. If you know that a barrier will appear at a certain time and you need to be on the other side of it before then, that restricts what you can spend time on beforehand. In addition, if you know when you will run out of energy, you are forced to find more instead of spending time on other things.

The fact that scarcity constitutes known barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of stability. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but stability is the material order that keeps objects solid and prevents them from flying off of the Earth, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that my constituent particles are starved of the energy they need to evaporate.

When a society’s approach to Famine is under-controlled, it results in scarcity through wastefulness, as people disregard a looming barrier and use up the resources they would need to cross it. They may spend all their energy on overcoming problems that aren’t actually important, or use it inefficiently when there was a more frugal way to achieve the same result. As a result, when they are confronted with a crucial obstacle, they have nothing left to surmount it. On the other hand, if they take efforts to hoard their energy in anticipation of this upcoming barrier, they may create the over-controlled version of Famine. The effort to avoid Famine through miserliness ironically leads to a different version of Famine, reached via austerity, which is a more managed situation but no less impoverished in everyday life. If you are sufficiently paranoid about wastefulness, life will become completely about surviving and be devoid of anything that actually makes it worth living. People will have everything they need and virtually nothing they want. Following from this, one of the most insidious things about Famine in general is that it can make it impossible to take steps towards long-term flourishing while also surviving in the short term, thus feeding itself. Poverty is a good example of this type of Famine.

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The true virtue allowing you to manage Famine is investment. By skillfully expending extra resources in the present (if you have any to spare), it’s possible to cultivate a greater yield of resources in the future. A typical investment may be aimed at greater production capacity—the ability to generate resources at a faster rate. For instance, they may spend a bit of extra time to build a tool that allows them to save much more time in the future. Investment is fundamentally different from both wastefulness and austerity, because it introduces the concept that resources wisely spent are not simply gone, but rather in their own way and up to a point can be more useful than regular expenditures of resources. Investment leads to the boon that is the opposite of Famine, prosperity, where you have enough resources to overcome a barrier if you so choose.

Here are some examples of the role Famine plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Famine applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how scarcity might manifest:

  • Shortages of raw resources
    • Food
    • Water
    • Shelter
    • Energy
    • Space
    • Time (including human lifespan)
    • Human effort and attention
    • Data
    • Money
      • Money is a medium of exchange for “real” resources and represents how much of other resources you are able to obtain
  • Predictable causes of resource scarcity
    • Wastefulness
    • Unsustainable agricultural practices
    • Pollution
    • Environmental destruction
    • Nonrenewable resources
    • Poor budgeting
    • Entropy
  • Other limits
    • Medical supplies and services
    • Skill
    • Technology
    • Processed information
    • Physical properties of matter and energy
    • Properties of time and space (e.g. no faster-than-light travel)
  • Stability
    • Molecular bonds keep things solid
    • Gravity keeps things on Earth
    • Energy storage doesn’t spontaneously explode (most of the time)

Pestilence

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The Apocalypse of Pestilence represents the risk of disaster, an unexpected divergence of the physical environment from the goals you are pursuing. It is the risk that the known foundations on which one’s efforts are based may be disrupted by factors that are beyond one’s ability to predict or control.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Pestilence is is to picture a barrier, like Famine, but one which you do not know exists. Alternatively, you may know it exists, but you do not know where or when you will run into it. When you do encounter the barrier, if you do not have the resources to pass through it, you end up failing at your goal. Depending on how fast you were going, you might pay a cost for crashing into the barrier. The extended landscape of Famine, with all its peaks and pitfalls, is not all known to us. The vast majority of it, both large and remote as well as small and proximate, is terra incognita. Pestilence is the result of the unknown making itself known in painfully unexpected and unexpectedly painful ways.

Accidents, mistakes, errors, misfortunes, et cetera, all fall under the category of Pestilence. Natural disasters, machines breaking down, injury, illness, or inaccuracy are all things which could theoretically be overcome with the right resources or avoided with the right foreknowledge, but by the definition of Pestilence, their occurrence is unpredictable with your current information. (Once you know when a physical problem is going to occur and are able to take it into account when planning, it falls under Famine. Any delay in finalizing plans because you didn’t yet know when a problem would occur is still attributed to Pestilence.)

The fact that disaster constitutes unknown barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of discovery. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but discovery is the material chaos that allows us to find new lands, phenomena, and physical laws, among other things. It also includes the hidden holes in known barriers that allow us to solve otherwise impossible problems. I, for one, am grateful that scientific discovery has allowed us to harness the power of electricity and semiconductors to store and transmit vast amounts of information, for example.

When a society’s approach to Pestilence is under-controlled, it results in disaster through negligence, as people disregard potential disasters and place themselves in dangerous situations. When you venture forth recklessly and ignore the unknown, you will eventually hit it hard, no matter how long it takes. However, some people go too far in the other direction, avoiding uncertain situations and shunning risks. They over-control Pestilence with the idea that they will be safe as long as they stick to familiar territory. This effort can ironically lead to a different version of Pestilence reached via susceptibility, which is a more managed situation but still quite risky. The material landscape may change even in the relatively safe area you inhabit. Even when it doesn’t, you have zero guarantee that the unknown will stay in its own territory and leave you alone. There may be little stopping the creatures that live in terra incognita from coming to visit. If you haven’t explored the world for yourself, that much less equipped to deal with it when it does finally come for you. Furthermore, if you stick to “tried and true” methods you may discover a huge weakness or terrible externality (side-effect) you never realized, as happened with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s United States. If you diversify and explore, you have something to fall back on if your original way is unsustainable or destroyed.

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The virtue allowing you to manage Pestilence is pioneering. By bravely venturing into the blank spaces on the map and exploring their features, you can make the unknown somewhat less so. Your new experiences will help you equip yourself to avert and overcome obstacles more easily than if you had hidden from them. Pioneering is fundamentally different from both negligence and vulnerability, because it introduces the concept that you can seek out and confront the unknown in a deliberate manner, rather than either brashly jumping in or hiding from it. Pioneering leads to the boon that is the opposite of Pestilence, safety, signifying that you are able to prevent or resolve a variety of disruptions to your plans.

Here are some examples of the role Pestilence plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Pestilence applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how disaster might manifest:

  • Natural disasters
    • Wildfires
    • Hurricanes
    • Tornadoes
    • Blizzards
    • Volcanoes
    • Earthquakes
    • Tsunamis
    • Meteorites
  • Anthropogenic accidents
    • Fires
    • Nuclear meltdowns
    • Oil and chemical spills
    • Computer bugs
    • Vehicle crashes
    • Hardware failure
    • Invasive species
  • Other
    • Epidemics
    • Genetic disease
    • Infection
    • Agricultural pests
    • Black Swan Events
    • Outside Context Problems
  • Discovery:
    • New continents
    • New planets
    • New species
    • New technology and medicine

Age

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The Apocalypse of Age represents the risk of stagnation, a known inadequacy of people’s inclination for supporting a goal, or their ability to even attempt doing so. If a person can make an attempt to achieve an objective, but is unable to succeed, the goal failed due to some other liability, and not stagnation.

(This fundamental liability is called “Age” instead of “Death” because a) Death is already an Element, as we’ll see in an upcoming article, and b) all of these liabilities represent the demise of a goal or of society itself. “Death” is just redundant. Age is a more fitting theme because with age often comes ossified habits, complacent thought patterns, and the loss of the will to learn, on both the individual and cultural level. After you’ve survived long enough, you must know everything you need to know, right?)

Age represents the known inability of a person or group of people to make attempts towards a particular goal. It may be that people lack the will to pursue that particular objective, or it may be that they are enthralled with another target. Perhaps the people in question cannot even define the objective in the first place, because they lack the concepts to hold it in their heads. Whatever the case, stagnation describes restrictions on how people choose to direct their efforts. It represents no threat from the world, or each other, but the threat from ourselves when we stop being able to function outside our comfort zone.

The fact that stagnation constitutes a known limit on people’s choices makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of identity. When it works against your ultimate, deepest desires, it’s a threat, but identity is the mental order that keeps people and cultures consistent over time, and prevents them from spontaneously abandoning goals and developing random new ones, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that I know roughly who I will be when I wake up tomorrow morning.

When a society’s approach to Age is under-controlled, it results in stagnation through decadence, as people do whatever they want when they want, without the discipline necessary to attend to long-term necessities. They become addicted to various desires, and their identity is subsumed in their addictions. In effort to prevent such addiction, many cultures throughout history and the present day have decided to force people to disregard their desires and to encourage them to forget how to conceive of ever living differently. The effort to avoid Age has ironically led to a different, over-controlled version of Age reached via dogma, which is a more managed situation but no less dehumanizing. In order to avoid potentially addictive choices, people remove a great deal of choice and thought from society, and that denies everyone the ability to make informed decisions about their own lives, let alone about how society should be run. Many people have pieces of their very selves suppressed or cut out, because once you start thinking, you start dismantling the protective dogma that shielded society from decadence. What other option is there, though?

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The virtue allowing you to manage Age is transcendence. By rising above the assumptions people make about the world, you can conceive of ideas and options you never realized were possible. By moving beyond the limitations people impose on themselves out of fear of their own vices, you can explore the true relationships between good ideas and bad ones. By letting go of habits, you can resist temptation and live with temperance. (Epicureanism is a good start.) By surpassing rather than suppressing yourself, you can develop the discipline to expand your reach and aim for goals that are outside your immediate grasp. Transcendence is fundamentally different from both decadence and dogma, because it introduces the concept that desires are neither to be wantonly pursued nor submissively abstained from in self-abnegation. Rather, transcendence represents being mindful of how we respond to our desires. Transcendence leads to the boon that is the opposite of Age, evolution, where people’s individual and collective desires and endeavors develop and change over time as they grow as people.

Here are some examples of the role Age plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Age applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.

Examples of how stagnation might manifest:

  • Decadence
    • Hedonism
    • Degeneration
    • Lack of self-discipline
  • Dogma
    • Propaganda
    • Thought suppression
    • Creative sterility
    • Ossification
  • Despair
    • Hopelessness
    • Humorlessness
    • Ennui
    • Existential angst
  • Desperation
  • Ignorance
  • Complacency
  • Identity
    • Values
    • Commitment
    • Memories
    • Life goals
    • Culture
    • Tradition

War

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The Apocalypse of War represents the risk of conflict, an unexpected divergence of the goals and efforts of people. It is the risk that people’s objectives will oppose yours, or that your own objectives will oppose each other.

The threat War poses to any given goal is that even if people are able to start directing their efforts towards that goal, their efforts may be disrupted by the efforts of others with mutually exclusive goals, or by their own conflicting desires. In the case that the conflict is between different people, we don’t know how far each person is willing to go to get their way, or what skills they can bring to bear to overcome each other’s interference. Who will triumph depends on both of these factors. In the case where the conflict is within a person, we don’t know what the person will ultimately decide, because they’ve never had to choose between the two (or more) conflicting priorities in this particular situation before. They don’t know what they most value or what they’re willing to give up to attain it.

War also represents the fact that we don’t know when or how the environment will change to shift opportunity costs and force people to reevaluate their priorities, or how people and their desires will change over time. There will always come times when we must decide what we are going to work towards and what we must relinquish, and we can’t always know what those will be in advance. 

The fact that conflict entails unpredictable triumphs of some desires over others makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of liberty. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but liberty is the teleological chaos that, for instance, allows us to (from our perspective, at least) change our own and others’ minds, change culture, form constructive rivalries to improve ourselves, and find new dreams to chase, among other things. Liberty means we don’t have to follow the thoughts and goals of those around us or of those who came before. If we are averse to our starting point in society, we can change it, even when that means disrupting the plans of other people. They may be forced to figure out a different method or goal because our choices interfere with theirs, and that’s an inherent part of the price of existence, just like the other liabilities. Their desires are not our prisons.

Liberty also applies within individuals. It is both the freedom to challenge each others’ desires and the freedom to find and pursue new ones of our own. We may have educated guesses about our decisions, but frequently we don’t know what we will choose until we actually make the choice. The same applies to our skills. You have to actually try something to find out just how far you can go with it. I, for one, am grateful that I don’t always know which of my desires will triumph in a given situation, because it means that for every apparent limit to what I can put my mind to, there’s a chance I can overcome it. 

When a society’s approach to War is under-controlled, it results in conflict through turmoil, a state of lawless barbarism in which people take what they want by violence or deception when their desire conflicts with someone else. To prevent turmoil, people create and enforce laws (written or implicitly understood) which punish the use of force and falsehood. However, the enduring desires of people to achieve their own goals often leads them to take control of the processes by which the laws are made and enforced, and turn them against others. They use the laws themselves as weapons of subjugation, rather than tools of agreement to create order for the benefit of society. The more laws and the more situations the laws govern, the more weapons are available to oppress and harm people. No system of laws, no matter how well written, is sufficient to prevent the over-controlled version of War, reached via corruption. Corruption is a more managed situation than turmoil but still quite ruthless and unpleasant overall.

From an individual standpoint, inner turmoil occurs when a person is paralyzed with indecision, or wavers between multiple courses of action, each priority interfering with the others so that ultimately nothing gets accomplished and the person is slowly torn apart from within. It’s a tidy microcosm of what happens in a society in turmoil. Likewise, a person can be corrupted if they impose rules on themselves to control their behavior while in a forward-thinking frame of mind, but end up engaging in self-deception and rationalizations in order to excuse self-sabotage or the mistreatment of others, driven by more base desires. 

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The virtue allowing you to manage War is ethics. Both turmoil and corruption result in very little being accomplished by anybody. Everyone is too busy trying to get their own way in everything, and they get in each other’s way, like the proverbial crabs in a bucket pulling each other down and stopping each other from escaping. To make the world a more hospitable place for people in general to achieve their collective goals, we impose ethics on ourselves as a set of principles. We restrict ourselves from initiating aggression (not just violence) against each other, deceiving each other (not just employing outright falsehoods), or manipulating a generally established system in ways which advantage us at the expense of others. We know that even if it means we are unable to achieve some of our goals, society will be better off if we can all trust that our goals will be free from certain kinds of disruption by others. The more ethical society is, the more goals are available to us that would not be if we had to constantly take measures to thwart other people before they thwarted us. We must also hold each other accountable for abiding by ethical principles, even if doing so takes effort and may not benefit us personally.

Ethical behavior also applies to how you treat yourself. Generally speaking, it is important to fulfill the commitments that you make to yourself, else your feelings that change from day to day will pull you from one objective to the next without giving you any time to finish anything you start. Furthermore, you must be honest with yourself, so that you have an accurate picture of your options and your priorities. Otherwise, the commitments you make may not be helpful to you. If you don’t know what you want and what you’re willing to do to get it, your deepest desires may be denied in favor of goals which match what you think you should want based on your observations of other people, or your decisions in the past. Until you realize your true motivations and decide you’re not willing to give them up, you may feel torn between what you feel and what you believe is expected of you from others, or what you have come to expect from yourself.

Finally, you will need to cultivate the discipline to prevent short-term desires from gaming your mental reward system and seizing power over your choices to the detriment of your long-term goals. Many of your possible options are more immediately tempting and present themselves more attractively than those that further your overarching goals, but they are ultimately less fulfilling. In order to succeed at your most constructive objectives, you’ll need to prevent your short-term desires from rewriting your decision criteria to shut them out.

Ethics leads to the boon that is the opposite of War, peace, where people are able to resolve their differences constructively and benevolently. With inner peace, a person is able to consider all their desires when making a decision, acknowledge what they will give up, commit to their choice, and forgive themselves for mistakes. In this way they can live without regret.

Here are some examples of the role War plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems War applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.)

Examples of how conflict might manifest:

  • Turmoil
    • War (the literal kind)
    • Violence and slaughter
    • Ideological clash
    • Pettiness (e.g. “noise wars”; people do things they’re entitled to do solely to annoy each other instead of reaching an understanding)
  • Corruption
    • Rent-seeking and crony capitalism
    • Other unethical business practices
    • Conquest and imperialism
    • Oppression of human rights
  • Legal conflict
    • Crimes
    • Civil lawsuits and torts
  • Social conflict
    • Communication breakdown
    • Mistrust
    • Resentment
  • Liberty:
    • Business competition
    • Sports competition
    • Academic competition
    • Political campaigns
    • Cultural rivalry
    • Sovereignty
    • Creative differences
    • Negotiation
    • Life choices

Recapitulation

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Can we get a replay on the highlights?

Here’s a table to review the key concepts.

Apocalypse: Famine Pestilence Age War
Liability: Scarcity Disaster Stagnation Conflict
Classification: Order, material Chaos, material Order, mental Chaos, mental
Under-controlled: Wastefulness Negligence Decadence Turmoil
Over-controlled: Austerity Susceptibility Dogma Corruption
Aspect of reality: Stability Discovery Identity Liberty
Virtue to counteract: Investment Pioneering Transcendence Ethics
Boon earned through virtue: Prosperity Safety Evolution Peace

Table 2: Compilation of the key concepts related to each liability

The initial concept of the fundamental liabilities was that they were the four possible obstacles to a goal. That’s true, but they’re also much more than that. They’re four aspects of reality and goals combined: scarcity/stability represents what we know about the world; disaster/discovery represents what we don’t know about the world; stagnation/identity represents what we know about what people want; conflict/liberty represents what we don’t know about what people want.

It may sound trite when I lay out like that (it certainly does to me), but it’s important because a) these concepts cover everything that societies need to pay attention to, and b) human societies don’t yet know how to have intelligent conversations about such abstract ideas and how they relate to concrete reality. People need a framework to talk about how the big picture works and the different aspects of it that may result in tradeoffs. We can’t address what we don’t pay attention to and don’t realize may grow into a problem. 

The problems that fall under these four categories are old news. However, with the categories we can see what to look for in order to address, fix, and prevent such problems in the future. We can figure out how to address issues on all levels, from personal to global. We can put any problem into context to figure out why it is a threat and what can be done about it. 

Virtues and Boons

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There are 495 pieces offscreen. All of these pieces fit together to form a piece in an even bigger puzzle. And so on.

I’m going to pause here and make it clear yet again that I’m not purporting to have all the solutions to all the world’s problems.

You may have noticed that investment, pioneering, transcendence, and ethics are grand, sweeping terms that are very difficult to implement in practice. Of course they are. Dealing with the fundamental liabilities of existence isn’t easy. I’m not here today to give you advice on how to deal with any specific problem. 

Virtues are very large and complex in scope. My only purpose in this article is to help people frame situations in ways that don’t leave out any aspects of either the problems or the solutions, whether those aspects are positive or negative. The general theme of this entire blog is to set up a nuanced foundation for people to effectively construct a better world.

I describe a virtue corresponding to each liability, but merely knowing the concept of a virtue is not sufficient to solve a problem (though it may be necessary). The virtues aren’t nearly as simple as I describe them. They’re complex, nuanced, and open-ended. How could they be anything else? I’d be a fraud if I said that there was an easy way forward through any of this. 

There is no way to vanquish a liability once and for all. The liabilities are fractally recursive. Each one contains all four of them. Every attempt to avert a particular liability is a goal in and of itself, which means it is subject to all the liabilities all over again. A quest to avert Famine is subject to Pestilence, and the quest to avert that Pestilence is subject to Famine. The liabilities will always be with us.

As for the boons that represent triumph over the liabilities, they are not absolute. They cannot possibly be, since the liabilities are inherent in conscious existence. Prosperity, safety, evolution, and peace are always relative. The most we can do is improve how we manage the liabilities we have, take advantage of the fundamental aspects of reality that compose them, and aim to cultivate as many boons as much as possible for us and future society to enjoy.

Comparisons

To illustrate the Apocalypses and their contrasts with each other in the same situation, imagine the goal of sending humans to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.

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Well, the good news is, it’s a lot closer than we thought. The bad news is, it’s still getting closer. The other good news is that this image goes great with the “apocalypse” theme!

Here are the four things that can threaten that mission:

  • Famine/scarcity: We don’t have the money or technology to go to the Moon.
  • Pestilence/disaster: We tried to go to the Moon, but our equipment suffered a failure.
  • Age/stagnation: We don’t want to go to the Moon. Why would we ever want to go to the Moon?
  • War/conflict: We tried to go to the Moon, but some rival group either sabotaged the attempt or simply voted legitimately against continuing our funding. Alternatively, we got scared and backed out.

Interactions

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If you can see the cause-and-effect relationships between problems, you are in a better position to stop the chain reaction.

One of the most frustrating things about liabilities is that they chain. One liability can cause or exacerbate other liabilities. Stagnation can lead to disaster, which can lead to scarcity, which can lead to conflict. 

Below is a table of how liabilities can lead to each other. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Effect: Famine A group of humans lacks the tools to plant crops fast enough Blight on the crops We starve because we’re wasteful and short-sighted People refuse to cooperate and pool resources to accomplish something
Effect: Pestilence Things break because we can’t afford to maintain them Meteor randomly strikes Things break because we’re too sloppy to maintain or check them Fighting accidentally destroys important structures
Effect: Age Poverty keeps us desperate Bad things keep happening and people despair People naturally fall into impulsiveness, fundamental-ism, and addiction People possess a traditional hatred for another group
Effect: War People fight over limited resources An accident leads to blame and resentment People fight because they’re dogmatic or selfish War perpetuates because of cultural rivalry and desire for domination, or resentment from a previous conflict

Table 3: Random examples of how liabilities can feed each other.

 

However, liabilities can also prevent or inhibit each other. A conflict may be prevented or postponed because one or both parties doesn’t have enough resources.

Below are some ways in which these fundamental aspects of reality can interfere with each other in one form or another. Note that just because one liability is prevented doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems. Some of these situations may not be good on balance. This chart is not a guide on how to run the world. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Prevents: Famine Refrigerators extend the shelf life of food because chemical reactions happen more slowly at low temperatures We found a new technique for growing crops which has higher yields The fewer goals we have, the more we can focus our resources on the ones we are pursuing Companies invent more efficient technologies to compete with each other economically
Prevents: Pestilence Pasteurizing food kills harmful bacteria and prevents food poisoning It turns out penicillin is a great antibiotic The fewer goals we have, the less tempted we are to take risks Humans create new technologies for use in wars that are also effective for addressing natural disasters
Prevents: Age People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to grow enough food People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to fight forest fires The more we censor ourselves, the less opportunity we have to fall into addictive behavior Humans create new goals, like visiting the Moon, to get advantages in global rivalries
Prevents: War The need to produce more food leads people to learn to cooperate The need to rebuild after a natural disaster leads rival ethnic groups to learn to trust each other A strong bond of community and tradition can persuade people to resolve disputes with kindness and generously Uniting against a common enemy leads warring tribes to declare a truce

Table 4: Random examples of how liabilities can interfere with each other. 

Attributes of Apocalypses

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This is nothing. Wait until you see me make a crane with flapping wings!

The Attributes enumerated in the previous article are indispensable for describing all kinds of concepts related to human goals and efforts. 

These Attributes describe the Apocalypses in terms of what a person needs in order to avert them. However, if you’re feeling poetic you can anthropomorphize the Apocalypses by pretending that they themselves are entities with Attributes that are actively menacing society, and that the people responding to them need to match those Attributes.

(It should be noted that these Attributes don’t describe the actual effects of the Apocalypses. The effects are described and gauged in terms of what kind of goals an Apocalypse threatens. If it’s a particularly terrible Apocalypse, the goals it threatens would be very important to many people.)

  • An Apocalypse with high Initiative Attribute is one that has long-term consequences but no immediate threat, so it requires Initiative in order for a person to effectively address it.
    • When must you start? Before anything bad actually happens.
  • An Apocalypse with Resilience Attribute must be addressed continuously or at inconvenient times, so it requires Resilience to deal with.
    • When must you continue? When it’s most difficult.
  • An Apocalypse with Mobility Attribute may suddenly change its parameters, so it requires Mobility to keep up with. (Even a predictable liability like Famine may not give you time to relax, so even if you know what you will need to do, you’ll still have to learn fast.) 
    • What must you start? Something you may not be familiar with and might not be able to study in depth.
  • An Apocalypse with Intensity Attribute is very complex and nuanced, so it takes Intensity to resolve successfully.
    • What must you continue? Getting more skilled.

Conclusion: Why did I write this article?

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Affixing labels to things is often useful, but why these particular labels?

Why am I bothering to encompass and classify all of humanity’s possible problems into just four different categories? Isn’t that a little simplistic?

The purpose behind labeling the four liabilities is to give people the words to think about and express their concerns. It’s one thing to claim that a cultural or economic policy will cause a problem. That’s easily dismissed as a bias in the cultural attitude or economic interests of the complainer. This vocabulary I’ve designed allows people to describe what policy they’re worried about, what problems they think it will cause, why they think that will happen, and what they think should be done about it. Not only that, but it also allows them to understand other people’s concerns about their proposed solution. 

We have trouble recognizing and talking about big picture problems and differences in values. Liabilities describe everything that could go wrong, so all concerns can be addressed. People decide to err on different sides of threats, but erring is still dangerous. By thinking about situations in terms of the four liabilities, you can see risks in different aspects of reality as well as the dangers in more or less control. 

For instance, theocracies (such as many Middle Eastern countries) as well as single-party states (such as China) style themselves as such hoping to avert the liability of decadence (under-controlled Age). In doing so they incur the liability of dogma (over-controlled Age), with all its consequences. The United States decides to allow decadence in order to avert dogma, and that comes with its own consequences. Communication breaks down when each of these cultures assumes that its own way is causing no problems, and that foreign cultures are the only ones incurring liabilities. This failure of mutual understanding leads to conflict (i.e. War, and sometimes literal war).

In order to have an accurate picture of the situation, we all need to realize and acknowledge that our means of dealing with a problem often errs on the side of creating another problem, and that the reason other cultures do things differently is that they have legitimate concerns about the liabilities of our culture, whether it is wasteful or austere, decadent or dogmatic. That’s not to say that some ways aren’t healthier than others, but it’s dangerous to assume they’re better in every way. 

Why is it important to be aware of these abstract liabilities on a daily basis? Frequently, people don’t account for them, either on the big-picture scale or on the smaller, immediate scale. Many people are completely unequipped to deal with these fundamental threats and are blindsided when they occur. Furthermore, if you take measures against one liability and fail to address the others (or other manifestations of the same liability), there’s a good chance you’ll still fail, and you may even hasten your downfall.

If you finish this article having realized you were vulnerable to a danger you weren’t aware of, then the article has achieved part of its mission. The other part is accomplished when you take steps to learn how to address the problem in a balanced and healthy way. 

Existence can be perilous. Let’s face it together with our eyes open.

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Attributes: Measurements of Mindsets (and Other Concepts)

In order to make sense of the world and figure out how to deal with it, we have a few essential concepts yet to cover. There are several more Elements (mindsets), as well as the Vices (motivations) in more detail, and the Apocalypses (fundamental risks). Before we get into all of those concepts, however, we should look at the different Attributes that each of them has.

These Attributes are dimensions in the original sense: properties that can be measured. Just as an object can have different values for height, breadth, depth, mass, electric charge, et cetera, so can concepts have different magnitudes of various Attributes when they show up in reality. In order to properly explain the concepts that we’ll get to in the upcoming articles, we’ll need to be able to explore their different aspects.

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We can derive the Attributes from the intersection of two fundamental dichotomies (pairs of opposing concepts). Each Primary Attribute is associated with one side of one dichotomy and one side of the other, producing four combinations.

The first dichotomy is cause versus effect. “Cause” represents the environmental factors that influence whether a process or event takes place. With the Attributes, the process usually refers to a person’s efforts. If you are working toward a goal or responding to a problem, the goal or problem are “causes” for your efforts. “Effect” represents the scope of change that a process or event creates in the world. If you succeed in achieving a goal or solving a problem, that achievement or solution is the “effect” of your efforts. An Attribute based on cause describes the conditions you require in order to use a mindset or respond to a motivation or risk. An Attribute based on effect describes how you are able to effect change in the world with a mindset, how you want to affect the world with a motivation, or how you need to deal with a risk. Each Primary Attribute is based on either “cause” or “effect”.

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Opposing concepts and the bringing together thereof will show up everywhere on this blog. That’s why it’s called the “Ginnungagap” Foundation. (Don’t let the picture fool you, though: Fire and Water aren’t quite opposites here.)

The second fundamental dichotomy is “start” versus “continue”. “Start” deals with what leads you to start making an effort, or what you are able to start building from scratch. “Continue” deals with what conditions are necessary for you to continue a process, or how far you can continue to push it. Each Primary Attribute is based on either “start” or “continue.”

The reason I use “continue” instead of “stop” or “end” is that ending a process can be expressed as beginning a process that stops a previous one. The reason “start” isn’t called “change” is because changes are what we are starting and continuing, and talking about changing changes would get gratuitously confusing without adding mathematical notation. You may recognize “start” versus “continue” as a variation of the omnipresent chaos versus order dichotomy. “Start” represents chaos because until something starts, we often cannot know what it will become, while “continue” represents order because it’s a continuation of a known process, which imposes a degree of certainty on the situation.

The four Primary Attributes are derived from how these dichotomies intersect.

Start Continue
Cause Initiative Resilience
Effect Mobility Intensity

To put the Primary Attributes into perspective with each other, picture a process that changes the current world to be more like a world that we want to live in. We’ll call the process “X”. X has a cause and an effect. The initiative of X is how easy it is to cause X. X’s resilience is how difficult it is to stop X once it’s started. Its mobility is how quickly X is able to start producing an effect and changing the world. Its intensity is the magnitude of the effect: how much it continues to grow from its inception. Since we’re using these Attributes to describe people’s character and use of mindsets, much of the time X is going to be a mindset used by a person.

However, motivations and risks can also be described by Attributes. Motivations are what you want. Mindsets are how you get there. Risks are what stand in your way. Attributes can describe all three of these types of concepts: they describe your motivations by what you will pursue, your mindsets by what you can do to pursue it, and the risks you face by what you must do to succeed.

Just so you’re aware of how important the Attributes are… do you remember when I said the Attributes were derived from two fundamental dichotomies? Unlike the Elements, where derived the fundamental mindsets to find out what was necessary to learn, I discovered the Attributes empirically. I found out the hard way that I was missing important aspects of the Elements I was using, and only figured out what those were by looking at the problems I was failing to solve. It was only after I identified the Attributes that I retroactively expressed them as the intersections of fundamental dichotomies.

As we look at the Primary Attributes, we’ll use a Water Element (operation mindset) skill as an example to illustrate how the Attributes are applied. Juggling is a particularly recognizable skill you can learn with operation mindset. The Attributes let you measure the various ways in which you can cultivate your ability to juggle.

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Primary Attributes

Initiative

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The goldfish leaves its comfort zone to seek a higher goal, demonstrating initiative. (The tank on the right is quite luxurious off-panel.)

Initiative Attribute is the intersection of “cause” with “start”. It deals with starting a process despite a lack of encouragement from the environment. You may have to leave a place of relative satisfaction and journey through unpleasant places in order to reach a place of greater satisfaction. The incentives to act may be remote, and you may have to delay gratification. The more initiative you have, the more you can choose long-term goals over immediate rewards. People who practice initiative are called Drivers, because they drive change by providing an impetus based on their goals.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When can you start?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When will you start?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When must you start?”

Regarding our juggling example, initiative describes how likely you are to attempt to learn a new juggling feat or trick, even if the rewards are uncertain or far in the future.

Resilience

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These palm trees remain standing during a hurricane, demonstrating resilience.

Resilience Attribute is the intersection of “cause” with “continue”. It deals with being able to maintain the quality of your performance despite stressful conditions and active discouragement. The ability to continue producing excellent work and taking pride in how you live is very valuable in a world of risk and hardship. Having great resilience doesn’t mean you never stop, but when you do it’s because you decide the tradeoffs are no longer worth it, not because you are afraid to continue. People who practice resilience are called Strivers, because they persistently struggle and push back against the world’s disruption and resistance.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When can you continue?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When will you continue?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When must you continue?”

Regarding our juggling example, resilience describes how well you can maintain a feat even under stress.

Mobility

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Dandelions are able to pop up in new areas quickly and easily, demonstrating mobility.

Mobility Attribute is the intersection of “effect” with “start”. It deals with how well you can start to generate change from scratch. Circumstances and goals can shift rapidly, and so you will often be required to begin learning or creating something new. Mobility relies on being able to take minimal information and calibration and quickly produce a useful effect, then start again by recalibrating to keep ahead of any changes that need to be made. People who practice mobility are called Shifters, because they can easily change what they are doing to work on a new process or task, moving and switching gears smoothly.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What can you start?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What will you start?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What must you start?”

Regarding our juggling example, mobility describes how well and how quickly you can pick up the basics of an unfamiliar feat.

Intensity

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A sequoia spends a long time building itself up to a grand stature in a single location, demonstrating intensity.

Intensity Attribute is the intersection of “effect” with “continue”. It deals with the scope of the change you create expanding without stop. These changes includes changes in yourself as you become more skilled. With practiced technique, you can implement in-depth changes that would not otherwise be possible (as long as what you have learned remains true). When you integrate large and diverse collections of information and experience, you can finely-tune your calibration and pull off more sophisticated and impactful accomplishments. People who practice intensity are called Delvers, because they dig down and investigate nuances in detail, focusing on a particular situation, goal, or problem in order to cultivate advanced skill.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What can you continue?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What will you continue?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What must you continue?”

Regarding our juggling example, intensity describes how well you can learn complex feats that build on what you already know.

Secondary Attributes

As with the Elements, there are Attributes formed by combining the four Primary Attributes. The four Secondary Attributes are formed by combining non-opposing Primary Attributes.

Mobility Intensity
Initiative Enterprise Devotion
Resilience Adaptability Determination

Enterprise

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This ivy is extending itself to other locations to better catch sunlight, demonstrating enterprise.

Initiative combined with mobility yields Enterprise Attribute, dealing with setting and launching goals that take you in new directions. With enterprise, you move to fill needs and solve problems that other people overlooked. People who practice enterprise are called Leapers, because they see a distant place and move to it by choice.

Regarding our juggling example, enterprise describes how well you can spot and seize the opportunity to pick up a simple but unfamiliar feat, even when the rewards are uncertain and possibly remote.

Devotion

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By taking time to sharpen a blade with a whetstone, you can benefit in the long term from increasing the quality of its edge. This process demonstrates devotion.

The combination of intensity and initiative yields Devotion Attribute, dealing with actively seeking out how to continue the spread of an impact. If you are devoted to a craft, you will likely work on perfecting your skills for their own sake. You may also be constantly raising your standards for advancing a particular cause or goal. Raising your standards increases the scope of change that you will try to create. Your reason for doing so doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a step up that you don’t immediately need for maintaining an acceptable status quo. People who practice devotion are called Honers, because they sharpen their tools to improve their performance, and focus on calibrating a specific skill or creating an intense change of their own volition.

Regarding our juggling example, devotion describes how likely you are to attempt to learn a complex feat that builds on what you already know, even when the rewards are uncertain and far in the future.

Adaptability

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Undeterred by the lower windows being closed, the cat finds an alternate route, demonstrating adaptability.

Mobility combined with resilience yields Adaptability Attribute, dealing with responding to stress and problems by finding new approaches to maintain effectiveness. When an unexpected obstacle appears before a goal, it’s often necessary to find a different approach or even an alternative goal. Adaptability is invaluable for a changing world, allowing you to learn to take a different path without missing a beat. People who practice adaptability are called Sliders, because they move and change direction smoothly and easily in response to the world’s problems and obstacles.

Regarding our juggling example, adaptability describes how well you can quickly pick up and perform simple but unfamiliar feats under pressure.

Determination

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Despite the layer of pavement in its way, this flower continues to focus its efforts until it breaks through, demonstrating determination.

The combination of intensity and resilience yields Determination Attribute, dealing with continuously expanding the scope of a change despite environmental stress. Stress can include pain, fatigue, boredom, fear, frustration, et cetera. When you need to accomplish a difficult task and look to be at an impasse, determination is what allows you to maintain focus and push through. People who practice determination are called Bucklers, for several reasons. Firstly, they cause other things to buckle, or give way. Secondly, to “buckle” means to fasten or bind, just as determined people “buckle down” and bind themselves to a goal. Finally, a buckler is a type of shield, which fits determination’s role in defending a goal against opposing forces.

Regarding our juggling example, determination describes how well you can learn and perform complex feats that build on what you already know, while under pressure.

Great Attributes

There are two Great Attributes formed by combining opposing Primary Attributes. As with the Great Elements, combining opposing Attributes leads to a larger range of nuance that you can handle with them. You can exercise either extreme, or any point between them, which means you have more freedom to deal with a whole spectrum of situations along the relevant axis.

Independence

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This lemon decided to learn to make pink lemonade, and is undaunted by the social pressure of its yellow lemon peers, demonstrating independence.

Independence is the combination of initiative and resilience. With independence, you can start and continue projects based on your long-term values. The environment doesn’t need to be favorable for you to do what you set your mind to. You do what you decide, rather than being intimidated by the world into not doing what you’re capable of. Independence is essentially the closest concept to willpower that exists in this entire collection of concepts. People who practice independence are called Striders, because they show confident, self-driven advancement and performance in defiance of hardship.

Regarding our juggling example, independence describes how well you can continue to maintain and improve your skills if it’s what you really want to do, even if nobody else cares about juggling, and even practicing is difficult and progress is slow.

Finesse

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The human on the left uses quick thinking as well as practiced physical coordination in order to perform an impressive kick, demonstrating finesse.

Finesse is the combination of intensity and mobility. With finesse, not only can you quickly start learning a topic, planning a project, performing a task, or responding to a problem, but you can also become extremely skilled at it over time. No matter what a situation calls for, you can find an angle and pursue it until you have a better one. Finesse lets you cultivate as much skill with a particular approach as you need, and then start learning a different one when it becomes more advantageous to do so. People who practice finesse are called Dancers because they combine agility with advanced skill, addressing situations with grace.

Regarding our juggling example, initiative describes how well you can pick up and master different aspects of juggling, both unfamiliar and complex.

Zeroth Attribute

Competence

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These are tools (which are handy for representing mindsets). Do you know how to use them correctly? If so, you possess competence.

If you don’t have much strength in any Attribute, but still know how to use a mindset, that’s the Zeroth Attribute of competence. Before you can strengthen the various Attributes of a skill, learning when to use it and becoming more familiar with its nuances, it is necessary to possess the skill in the first place, and know how to use it on command. People who practice Competence Attribute are called Users, because they display basic ability and prowess with a skill or technique.

It should be noted that just because competence is the “Zeroth Attribute” does not mean that you are automatically competent with a particular mindset or skill even if you have another Attribute with it. In other words, it is perfectly possible to use a mindset intensely, for instance, without using it correctly. You need to properly calibrate your skills to a baseline level to develop competence before the other Attributes will do you any good.

Regarding our juggling example, competence describes the degree to which you have implemented the basics of juggling.

Ultimate Attribute

Maturity

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This pilot decides to take the time to learn to fly, and must use practiced skill, quick thinking, and calmness under pressure in order to do so successfully, demonstrating maturity.

All of the Attributes combined is maturity. With Maturity Attribute, you can advance, maintain, and apply your skills under most circumstances. We need people with maturity in order to deal with the many problems that occur in the world. It won’t work if we all wait for someone else to do it. People who practice maturity are called Wielders because they display confident and masterful application of a skill or technique.

Regarding our juggling example, maturity describes how well you invent and perfect new feats while dealing gracefully with pressure.

Measurement and Nuance

As I mentioned before, these Attributes are (loosely) measurable dimensions of different concepts. Next we’ll take a look at an example of a person’s mindset measurements.

Figure 1 is a “radar” or “spider” chart showing a hypothetical person’s Attributes for Fire Element (synthesis mindset). This type of graph doesn’t require adjacent qualities to be related, but it is particularly useful when they are, as we would see if we added in the Secondary Attributes. In this case, we are only looking at the Primary Elements.

Fire Element attributes
Figure 1

High intensity means this person can come up with very creative and ground-breaking ideas if they focus on a particular topic. A lower resilience means their creativity suffers under pressure.  A middling mobility means that given a new topic and not much other information, they can come up with some decent ideas reasonably quickly. Low initiative means that they will usually only do creative things when it feels immediately rewarding.

What can we infer about a person’s Secondary Elements from their Primary Elements? Determination has aspects of both intensity and resilience, so we can guess that if a person’s Intensity and Resilience Attributes are high (for a particular mindset or other trait), then their Determination Attribute is also likely to be high. However, that may not always be the case. Their determination could be low if the person is not comfortable with using intensity in high-stress situations. Conversely, their determination could be higher than you’d expect based on their intensity and resilience levels, if they are only comfortable using intensity in high-stress situations and are only comfortable in high-stress situations when they can use intensity.

Likewise, although a person fairly strong in both devotion and determination is likely to be very strong in intensity (because devotion and determination are both based on and can bolster intensity), it may also be that while they are able to use intensity relatively well in situations where others people might falter (such as delayed gratification and stressful situations, respectively), in immediately rewarding, low stress situations, their intensity is merely average.

Moreover, maturity represents not just a high level in all Attributes but the ability to combine them as necessary. It’s also possible to have a relatively high maturity overall but to be particularly strong (or weak) in an individual Attribute.

It should be noted that it’s not uncommon for a person to have different Attribute levels for different mindsets and even for different techniques within a mindset. For example, notification mindset encompasses both conveying information to others and researching information for oneself. While it is likely that a person’s Attributes for learning the notification mindset skills related to explanation and research will be similar, it’s not guaranteed.

Demonyms

You may have noticed that each of the twelve Attributes has a word describing people who practice that Attribute. Such words are called demonyms, which usually describe someone from a particular geographical region. I’m coopting the term here because we don’t have a word that means “word that refers to people with a certain trait” and “demonym” literally just means “name for a person”.

Why is it important that we have more words to refer to the Attributes? Isn’t that redundant? Not quite. The Attributes are nouns, and while they are appropriate, they are rather abstract and uncompelling. The demonyms are based on verbs, and describe how a person exercising a particular Attribute “moves.” Using an Attribute means using the corresponding verb (e.g. “driving” or “shifting”). Knowing the movement associated with the Attribute helps you understand how and when to use it and why it is important. Visualizing the Attribute’s process may make it easier for you to practice it. If nothing else, they sound really cool.

Attribute Demonym/movement
Initiative Driver/driving
Resilience Striver/striving
Mobility Shifter/shifting
Intensity Delver/delving
Determination Buckler/buckling
Devotion Honer/honing
Enterprise Leaper/leaping
Adaptability Slider/sliding
Independence Dancer/dancing
Finesse Strider/striding
Competence User/using
Maturity Wielder/wielding

If you want to remember these movements, you can put them in an order that rhymes:

Delver, Driver

Shifter, Striver

Buckler, Honer, Leaper, Slider

User, Wielder, Dancer, Strider

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Technologic… Technologic… Technologic… Technologic…

Conclusion

Now that we have seen the different qualities that a given concept can have, we can recognize that not only are all the mindsets important for dealing with the world as a whole, but effectively wielding even a single mindset can require the exercise of multiple diverse aspects of it. As I learned the hard way, having skill in one Attribute is not enough to accomplish all your goals.

However, now that we know what it takes, we don’t have to feel helpless. There’s no reason we have to keep falling short. We are empowered to take steps to practice and strengthen our Attribute levels bit by bit, until we can take on even the most challenging situations with aplomb.

Not only that, but we can examine the nuances of the other concepts coming up in future articles. A mindset, motivation, or risk is not simply present or absent; it has a shape defined by the Attributes. We’ll see more about these concepts in the next few articles. Stay tuned!

Overdue Fake News Article

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“At last” implies the newspaper or its readers had previously expressed expectations that Martians would visit Earth. “The Martians” implies anyone knew they existed in the first place. That’s fake news even if Martians are landing.

Having occasionally emerged from under my rock, I’ve noticed that most of the people and communities I know are concerned about fake news, and are beseeching others not to be fooled. It’s about time that I share my approach to dealing with the timeless phenomenon of fake news.

Over the course of this article, I’ll introduce three and a half major themes and some associated questions that I ask myself as a matter of habit. You can make a checklist of these questions to go through whenever you find yourself believing, disbelieving, or having emotions about any news you see.

Facts: Evidence Versus Inferences

You can start your checklist with these three questions:

1. What does the author believe, or want me to believe?

2. What invisible assumptions are present in this piece?

3. What other evidence or possible inferences are missing from this piece?

The answers to these questions are often easy to find if you look for them. Persuasive authors typically appeal to facts to support their own agenda, whatever it may be. However, there are two different concepts that are referred to as “fact”, and authors frequently blur the line between them, consciously or unconsciously.

One type of “fact” is raw data that anyone can experience. Sights, sounds, and structures are raw facts. The other type of “fact” is an inference or conclusion that someone has drawn from that data. A causal relationship between two events is an inferred fact: it is based on observation of raw facts. Inferred facts are just as important as the raw facts they are derived from, but they are not necessarily as obvious or universally agreed on. They are two different levels of observation.

The difference between a raw fact and an inferred fact is the same as the difference between symptoms and a disease. Symptoms are readily measurable. A disease is what we infer based on the symptoms. While diseases are real, and can and should be diagnosed accurately, it’s still possible for two doctors who see the same symptoms to legitimately disagree on what the disease is. Even though there is a single right answer, the practice of asserting that the symptoms make it “obvious” can’t help us learn to diagnose the disease more accurately.

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Pictured: blood pressure reading. Not pictured: invisible factors that may be affecting the patient’s blood pressure.

You see this happen often in politics. The “doctors” (everyone with an opinion) assume that their inferred facts (such as the character of a politician or the efficacy of a policy) are just as obvious as raw facts (a politician’s words and actions, or raw statistical data before and after a policy is implemented), and that therefore the other “doctors” are either incompetent or actively trying to harm the “patient” (society).

One doctor might accuse the other doctor of being either incompetent, or actively malicious, but that accusation is a consequence of the assumption that the first doctor’s diagnosis is more accurate. The accusation doesn’t establish that the assumption is justified. If the second doctor is sincere, they may feel the same way about the first doctor, and neither will discover they are wrong unless they actively look for it. Discovering the most accurate inferences is not easy, and it’s often made more difficult by confirmation bias.

Dealing with Confirmation Bias

Here are the next two questions I ask myself:

4. How do I feel about the idea that this statement may be true?

5. What evidence would lead me to conclude that I am wrong?

The habit of seeking out and interpreting evidence to support what you already believe is called confirmation bias.

Humans tend to be bad at testing their beliefs unless already trained. When given the opportunity to gather evidence that could falsify their assumptions (and which could lend credence to their beliefs if it failed to falsify them), people instead tend to seek evidence that is in line with their thinking, and which does not risk proving them wrong. This appears to hold even when there is nothing important at stake.

For example, in a study published in 1960 by Peter Wason, people were given the sequence “2, 4, 6” and told to guess the secret rule it followed. They were allowed to provide other number sequences to test the rule. The participants tended to latch onto an overly specific hypothesis and guess sequences that followed it, such as, “middle number is the average of the other two,” or, “numbers increase by two,” rather than sequences that broke the pattern and could tell them if their rule was wrong. The answer was simply “ordered from smallest to largest.” The differences between the numbers were irrelevant, but you’d never figure that out unless you guessed a sequence that didn’t fit your hypothesis, to see if it still followed the secret rule.

Confirmation bias is infamous in rationality communities, but the mere knowledge of it does not inoculate a person against it. The habits necessary to counteract confirmation bias often rely on humility, a difficult practice.

Alternatively, you can do what I do and take great pride in seeking out your own errors and admitting them when they are pointed out to you. I push myself towards intellectual discomfort, because I’m not worried about having to change my beliefs or my behavior if I find out I’m wrong. Doing the legwork to correct myself cannot be worse than being wrong and not acknowledging it, and I find it’s always much more useful. When I find myself disagreeing with somebody, or even agreeing too much with them, I actively look for evidence that contradicts the position I find myself leaning towards.

For example, a few months ago I read an article about mercury in the Arctic ice cap potentially being released by global warming. I was immediately suspicious of this particular assertion, because I had read other evidence (that I consider credible) that some climate change activists have overstated the certainty of their inferred facts in order to convince the general populace of the seriousness of the situation, rather than convincing them by explaining the nuances of their discipline. The idea that “global warming will poison us all with mercury” seemed a bit too dramatic, too simplistic, and too convenient for the intended message of urgent action. It also didn’t match my assumptions about how mercury worked.

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This picture of Mercury with a twirlable turn-of-the-century handlebar mustache also challenged my assumption that Mercury wouldn’t tie me to railroad tracks while cackling.

Because I felt myself disagreeing with the article, I went looking for articles explaining the mechanism for mercury accumulating in the poles. Here’s one I found explaining that trace amounts of mercury exist as compounds in the atmosphere, and that plants absorb it and fix it into the ground, which can then leach into water, which becomes ice. (Yes, there are apparently sufficient plants in the Arctic). The mercury often leaves the ground again through chemical reactions, but those reactions take place much more slowly at cold temperatures, hence why mercury accumulates in the Arctic. I find this explanation of the physical mechanism satisfactory for accepting the assertion, or at least not rejecting it. Learning that my initial impression of the article was wrong was a pleasant reward for my anti-confirmation bias habit, and bolstered my self-image as a true skeptic.

(If I had found evidence that reinforced my initial impression of the mercury article as possible propaganda, I would have drawn no conclusions about climate change in general from that. The presence of spurious articles promoting a viewpoint is not hard evidence against that viewpoint, but it does call into question why people feel they have to resort to fraud if there are any good arguments they can use instead.)

If you want to get started developing your own anti-confirmation bias habits, you can go to Wikipedia and look at the “Criticism” sections of the articles about your favorite ideologies and public figures. To help you practice falsifying your hypotheses, I recommend everyone learn to play the game Zendo (or an equivalent), which is more or less pure deductive reasoning and logical thinking.

Another thing you’ll need to counteract confirmation bias is a heaping dose of nuanced thought.

Nuance

Here are two questions to help you think with nuance:

6. Is it possible that this statement could be partially true and partially false?

7. What other possible options are missing from this piece?

Confirmation bias is often powered by cognitive dissonance, the discomfort you feel when your beliefs or value judgments seem to contradict each other. If you believe that a policy is both harmful to some people but also necessary for society, it’s tempting to interpret the evidence to convince yourself that it is either harmless or unnecessary. However, doing so can be disastrous. Falsely believing a policy is harmless will lead you to avoid seeking better alternatives, while falsely believing it is unnecessary will lead you to neglect the needs of those you seek to protect.

Therefore, it’s essential to acknowledge that the vast majority of situations have both good and bad aspects. They are nuanced, not simple. To understand such situations, you need nuanced thought. You must admit that not everything an adversary does is wrong, nor is everything you and friends do right.

Moreover, it is vital that you take responsibility for paying respect to helpful deeds and criticizing harmful ones, no matter who commits them. Otherwise you do not stand for “right”, but rather, “your team.” If you’re worried that owning up to honest mistakes will cause people to desert you, you never had steadfast allies in the first place. You need people who will stand up for constructive goals rather than attaching themselves to strong or popular people.

If you’re concerned that people will not agree with a policy that has some flaws, do not try to convince them that it is one hundred percent good. If you truly believe it is a worthy cause, then work to convince people that the flaws are worth the benefit. Better yet, work with them to help mitigate those flaws. Otherwise you will face justified opposition for lying about the policy’s flaws and utterly disregarding the concerns of those who would be harmed. Nuanced thought will prevent you from fighting to hide your policy’s flaws from the people you are trying to help.

A lack of nuance also manifests in the form of a false dichotomy, where two approaches to a situation are presented as the only possible options.

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As Chip and Dan Heath point out in Decisive, if your options are either “do this thing” or “don’t” then you’re not comparing “this thing” to any alternatives. You’re really considering only one option.

Imagine two doctors have a very ill patient. One of them suggests doing nothing, while the other suggests bloodletting. One of these options may be strictly better than the other, but neither is actually helpful. A real solution would look different from both of those ideas, but it would be harder to figure out. The doctors can each make themselves look competent to their followers by only comparing themselves to each other and not actually focusing on achieving results. Authors and politicians seeking to persuade people often compare the positive aspects of their position to the negative aspects of a rival position (without acknowledging the reverse) in order to make themselves look better, so they don’t have to do the hard work of presenting a constructive solution based on the virtues of both.

Be extra suspicious of an assumed choice between two options, no matter who is presenting it.

If you want to figure out a constructive alternative to the choices given you, it’s often helpful to reserve judgment and form provisional conclusions.

Provisional Conclusions

Here are four final questions you can ask yourself:

8. What does the author expect me to do after reading this piece?

9. What would I do differently if the piece were not true?

10. What can I do constructively as a response that doesn’t require me to trust this piece?

11. What action can I take that gives me more information to falsify my conclusion?

I once had a fascinating conversation with someone who believed in ghosts, i.e. active spirits of humans whose bodies have stopped working. She recounted some experiences she had had that led her to believe these spirits were influencing the physical world. By the end, I concluded that I didn’t believe that her inference based on her experiences was the correct one, but I also didn’t disbelieve that the raw experiences happened. So far, I don’t believe in ghosts, but that’s a provisional conclusion, pending further evidence. I acknowledge that I won’t truly know for sure whether ghosts exist until I embark on a project that relies on the existence or nonexistence of ghosts.

(For the record, my most compelling argument against ghosts isn’t that it would introduce an aspect of reality our scientific tools haven’t detected yet. There have been hundreds of those—that’s how scientific progress works. No, I draw my current conclusion because as far as I know, none of the people who believe they can interact with ghosts has successfully exploited such knowledge to create ground-breaking, world-changing technology. I’ll elaborate on that in a future article.)

What makes me different from most people who don’t believe in ghosts is that my conclusion isn’t supposed to take me to the end of the line. It’s only supposed to last until I learn more or until someone else challenges me on it—though it admittedly will influence how much more data I actively seek out on this topic.

When people read political news, fake or otherwise, there is a typical pattern to what they do as a response. They form (or reinforce) a conclusion, and then they go out and act on their conclusion. Acting usually means complaining about the news to their friends, yelling at other people in real life or on the Internet, and voting a particular way. None of those activities is likely to result in them learning any more about their conclusion. (Well, except if they bother to listen to the people they’re yelling at. However, people being yelled at tend not to provide the best quality information, either.)

Below is a diagram of what is going on in their heads:

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Figure 1: Conclusion originates from a formative influence (e.g. family, a role model, or some inspirational event or work of fiction). News and updated data feed into the conclusion, but the conclusion itself continues in the same direction regardless.

This method is a terrible way to ensure you arrive at your destination.

Imagine a ship navigating at sea. As long as long-distance nautical ventures have existed, ships have relied on expert navigational practices to avoid getting lost. In the days before global positioning systems, they would use the stars (and accurate clocks, once those were invented) to determine their location and direction. By simple geometry, a tiny error in the initial direction amounts to a huge error in location over long distances. No self-respecting captain would set off in a direction and simply sail on until they ran into their destination. That, however, is what most people do when they hold onto a stale conclusion.

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Jenkins, you idiot! Lumbricus the Worm is supposed to be off our port stern! You’ve let Saturn’s tides lift us into the mountains!

To be sure, a ship’s navigator would try to save time by measuring and sailing on their heading as accurately as possible from day one. Fewer course corrections means less distance you have to travel. However, in addition the magnification of small deviations over large distances, the ocean waves and wind are constantly changing the course of the ship. The heading needed to be recalculated each night to be sure they were still on the right course. Likewise, since real life is also constantly changing, you will need to regularly reevaluate your own course.

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Figure 2: Note that each conclusion lasts as far as the next set of data, at which point it disappears and a new conclusion forms with a different direction.

Am I advocating that you yo-yo between different positions whenever you find a conflicting data point? Certainly not. There’s no reason to wholly commit yourself to a conclusion when the next batch of data might lead to a different one. On the other hand, it’s often necessary to be decisive based on the information you currently have, even though you know you don’t have the full picture. How can you effectively plan for learning you are wrong, while still taking real action?

Here are the steps you can take:

First, you form a provisional conclusion. This conclusion is a working understanding of reality that will last just long enough to for you to take the next step in whatever you’re doing.

Second, you decide on an action that is constructive even if your conclusion is partially wrong. This is often difficult, because the whole point of forming conclusions is that you need an accurate understanding of reality to determine what actions are useful in the first place. However, a ship can go in roughly the right direction even if it isn’t perfect. When it comes to politics, there are many constructive things you can do that don’t require you to trust or support any politicians or parties. For instance, as Daryl Davis can tell you, one of the most effective ways to deal with an adversarial group is to connect with and befriend them rather than trying to ostracize or legislate them out of existence. When in doubt, learn to understand and empower people to overcome obstacles rather than trying to unilaterally destroy structures that may serve some purpose, at least until you’ve learned more about their nuances.

Third, the action you take should also help you collect more data for your next conclusion. It’s important that you can tell whether the action you take actually helps accomplish your goals. You may even be able to figure out a better alternative from what you learn. That’s another point in favor of going out and listening to the concerns of people who disagree with you.

Fourth, after you take the action the conclusion expires and the cycle repeats again. If there isn’t enough new data, you can double-check the original evidence and your process for forming the conclusion in the first place. It also helps to get other people’s perspectives for the process of rederiving the conclusion, to make sure you’re not overlooking something. Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath also deals with setting triggers for reevaluating your course if it’s not working the way you expected.

If you find the previous conclusion no longer applies or was partially wrong to begin with, that’s okay. You score no points for the new conclusion being the same as the old one. The important thing is that the new conclusion is as accurate as you can reasonably make it for now. That’s why every conclusion needs to expire: to prompt you to form a fresh one at each important juncture.

The conclusion should also expire when someone challenges you on it. In order to find out the truth between the two of you, you need to walk through the steps that you took to get to your current conclusion. You’re not an expert if you can’t rederive what you know when seriously questioned. We’ll see more about that when we get to collaborative truth-seeking.

Conclusion

Usually when I see news organizations decrying fake news from their rivals, it comes off to me as a redundant and ad hominem message. “Don’t believe their lies, because they’re your enemies!” I infer an implicit corollary to that message: “Do believe our lies, because we’re your friends!”

The hardest thing about fake news isn’t finding out which path is righteous, but rather forging a worthy path yourself without having to trust the voices trying at all costs to get you to join a side against their adversaries. The propaganda surrounding contentious issues can be a noxious quagmire of arrogance and contempt.

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And the majority of those participating in the quagmire have feet of clay.

Nevertheless, if you develop the habits of recognizing raw and inferred facts, combating confirmation bias, applying nuanced thought, and forming and testing provisional conclusions and constructive approaches, you can be confident that you won’t be deceived into serving a destructive agenda, no matter how well-intentioned it may be or who else believes it.

Further Reading

For help with collaborative truth-seeking, I recommend literally every person read the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. It is one of very few books to which I give this distinction. This book both describes and shows how to establish understanding and effective communication on subjects which are tied to strong emotions and personal identities.

To get into the mood of nuanced thought and avoiding confirmation bias, I recommend listening to Angels or Demons? by the band I Fight Dragons (from their album DEMOlition).

Finally, if you want to join more people in holding sources and spreaders of fake news accountable, and showing politicians you value honesty more than lavish promises, you may be interested in signing up for the Pro-Truth Pledge, created by Intentional Insights. Full disclosure: I was on the Intentional Insights board of directors for a time and still work with them.

 

I hope you all find this article useful. Take care, and have fun!

 

An Introduction to Developing Powerful Skills

Hello. If you’re reading this article, you are probably interested in acquiring abilities which will improve your life. You may even be interested in making the world a better place in a major way. I’m here to help with that.

First, let’s take a look at the status quo. Do you ever find yourself despairing that you can’t do something that you want to do, maybe something that everyone else seems to be able to do? Do you ask yourself, “why can’t I plan ahead?” “Why can’t I use computers?” “Why can’t I save money?” “Why can’t I keep up with my peers?” “Why can’t I handle stress?” “Why can’t I understand people, or get them to like me?”

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Do you feel like this?

 

Do you want to accomplish something that only a few others have? If you’re particularly globally-minded, maybe you’ve asked yourself, “why hasn’t this problem been solved yet? Why does poverty still exist? What about war? Corruption? Oppression? Are these problems impossible? Are humans just too stupid or too flawed to solve them?”

I’ve got good news for you.

…Well, it’s not really news, actually. The knowledge and wisdom to help you build the life and world you want have already been discovered and articulated, in many cases decades or centuries ago.

The reason these issues still exist isn’t anything inherently wrong with you or humanity in general. The problem is we’ve all been forced to learn how to be people almost from scratch.

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The keys you need to succeed are somewhere in here. Good luck!

With the exception (if you’re lucky) of some basic guidance from family, friends, fiction, and mentors, most people grow up with only the skills they’ve picked up from dealing with their childhood environment.

Furthermore, one person may live decades without developing the skill to handle a situation they deal with every day, while another person learns the skill immediately from the experience. Why the difference?

The answer is paradigms.

(Pronounced “para-dimes”, because it was decided that a word should be spelled according to how it was pronounced in the original Latin.)

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You k’now, this mi’gh’t be a good time to ta’l’k about silent letters.

A paradigm is how you see the world. It’s what you notice and what you assume. It’s what you care about and how you fit everything together into a model that makes sense. You may have many different paradigms, each one for a different situation. Though you may not have words to describe it, a paradigm is how you think a situation works.

Why are paradigms so important? Imagine that at the beginning of your life you have a hammer. Maybe you’re born with it, or maybe your parents gave it to you, because they were given hammers by their parents. You go through life being good at pounding in nails and being terrible at driving screws. No matter how many screws you encounter, you’re not going to get better at it. Nails are all you can deal with.

You may not even recognize a screw or a screwdriver when you see one, until someone else points it out. After all, as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. People with screwdrivers might look like magicians to you, except when they try to drive a nail, at which point you show them the superiority of a good, old-fashioned hammer.

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Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can turn nails or screws with a wrench. That’s nuts.

What if someone handed you a screwdriver and showed you how to use it, though? You’d still be bad at driving screws, at least for a little while. However, you would get better with practice. You’d become at least competent, if perhaps not a master. Importantly, you would also be able to understand and judge the skills of other screwdriver users, instead of being limited to saying, “that one is more powerful”.

As a more concrete example, imagine a little boy has fallen off his bicycle and skinned his knee, and the bike chain has come loose.

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Not pictured: Actual bicycle accident.

Someone with a person-oriented paradigm might notice the child’s emotions and comfort him. Someone with a health-related paradigm might notice the injury, inspect it, and want to apply disinfectant. Someone with a mechanical-based paradigm might look at the bike and know how to fix it. Someone with a social order paradigm might see that the boy was riding in a forbidden area and move to scold him. All these are valid approaches to dealing with different aspects of the same situation. These people are starting from different premises about what is important or relevant and different knowledge of how things work.

What happens when a paradigm meets a situation it doesn’t know about, though? Would the medic know how to fix the bike? Would the mechanic know how to comfort the child? Would the comforter know how to discipline him?

No, they wouldn’t.

But could they learn?

They say people learn from experience, but that’s not completely true. Watching television in another language or living in another country helps you learn the language, but mere exposure doesn’t work for just anyone. Being allowed to play around with a piano doesn’t mean that a person will automatically learn how to play music, but you won’t be able to play music if you don’t practice. Experience is necessary for learning, but it is not sufficient on its own. Paradigms are necessary as well.

If a person doesn’t have a paradigm to help them gather what is important about their experience, then experience won’t do them much good. That’s why people who are decades older than you aren’t necessarily any wiser about things you’d expect them to pay attention to. They never had access to the paradigms that would have allowed them to learn from their experiences, or they considered the paradigms unimportant.

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If that describes you, it’s never too late to start learning. Or to stop being so obnoxiously arrogant.

The paradigms exist, though. There are people out there who know how to interact with people, how to build good habits, how to learn technical skills, how to take smart risks and avoid stupid ones. Their paradigms even guide them in seeking out new experiences to learn from. There are a few reasons why other people haven’t been able to find useful paradigms, though:

  • They don’t know what they need to know.
  • They don’t know the paradigm exists or could help them.
  • There are just too many paradigms to sift through to find what they need.
  • They don’t know how to recognize a useful paradigm from a flawed one.
  • They think mere knowledge is the same as a paradigm. (Knowledge becomes obsolete, but a paradigm helps you keep up-to-date.)
  • They don’t know how to generalize a paradigm to solve multiple similar problems.

Often, people give up on looking for the paradigms they need and try to brute-force their way through life with the paradigms they already have. They are resigned to the idea that they’ve either got it or they haven’t. It may be true that some people take to a paradigm easily while others need more help, but there’s no reason to limit your learning to the paradigms that come naturally to you. Doing so cripples your learning in every direction, including what you do best—a paradigm can only take you so far without support from other key paradigms.

What does this all mean for our world, and for you in particular?

All the hard work in the world won’t help if you don’t have the right tools, but if you do have the right tools, you have a decent chance at almost anything. You can do things you can be proud of, and even change your world. Furthermore, you’re not stuck with the tools you already have.

Where can you find more tools? That’s where I come in.

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Useful for plying your trade.

I’ve identified and cataloged all the fundamental tools (more or less), and I can point you to some good places to pick them up and learn to use them. Many articles in this blog are and will be about what these tools are, how they work, what they can do, and how to obtain them. Once you have them, using them is up to you.

Take care, and have fun.

Elevated Echelon Elements

This article is the third in the series introducing the various Elements of Consciousness (or problem-solving mindsets, for the less dramatically inclined). It deals with four Elements that are more powerful and nuanced, known as the Great Elements.

You can find the basic Elements here and the peripheral Elements here.

Great Elements

The Great Elements are combinations of opposing Primary or Secondary Elements. They each deal with a single aspect of reality (in this case concepts, navigation, paths, and interactions), but balance the opposing processes of their source Elements in order to wield their aspect with tremendous effectiveness. To be able to use a Great Element implies being able to use either of the Primary or Secondary Elements that make it up, as well as the related Tempered Elements by logical extension. Each of those Elements is an aspect of the power of the Great Element, but being able to use them all results in a gestalt power, which is greater and more versatile than the sum of its parts (as usual for the Elements).

Although the case could be made that the Great Elements have two opposing pairs like the Primary Elements, in the interests of respecting their nuances and avoiding the creation of an infinite series of ever more complex Elements, there are no opposing pairs in the Great Elements. On a similar note, the Great Elements are all on the same level, despite two being composed of Primary Elements and two being composed of Secondary Elements, same as the Tempered Elements. We’ll see what happens when the Great Elements are combined in the article dealing with Cosmic Elements (coming soon).

Blood Element

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Blood Element (combination of Ice and Fire) is the Element of perception, and it combines analysis and synthesis in order to assess how well concepts fit together or whether they accurately reflect reality, and generate new concepts to test against the world. With these two processes working together, perception allows you to see both that which is and that which can be, and evolve conceptual models to accurately describe the world and how it can be altered. The contributing mindsets of science and design allow you to better get a much better idea of how a system works, and to imagine ideas for devices or systems that take advantage of that knowledge.

The major strength of perception is that by both examining reality and generating new ideas, it is the strongest source of paradigm shifts out of all the mindsets. The major weakness of perception is that shifting paradigms is all it does. Unless a problem can be addressed by increasing your understanding of a problem and devising some solution (and only devising it; logistics and implementation aren’t part of this mindset), then perception is not sufficient. In other words, although perception is a huge game-changer, it does not automatically confer the ability to actually play the proverbial game. Each time it changes the game, the other great mindsets soon master the new version and outpace perception.

Typically, a perception user who lacks other mindsets will evolve their paradigms into a unique understanding of the world—accurate or not—based on their own experiences, until they become estranged and alienated from mainstream society to some degree. Without action, they have no force with which to move things. Without communication, they appear eccentric or mad and cannot engage with others. Without facilitation, their decisions are ineffective and often even counterproductive. The only real power granted by perception alone is the power to make sense of one’s experiences, constructing a coherent model based on them. For many perception users, their only way to cope with the world is to understand it and themselves as best they can, figure out their apparent role in existence, and alter their own thought patterns to adapt to it as best they can. Unless they can learn the other mindsets, though, or successfully share their ideas with someone who has, their ability to make a difference in the world is severely limited.

Examples of perception mindset include the fields of philosophy, psychology, and science and design (obviously, since they’re the tempered mindsets that go into perception). Revolutionaries, ideologues, visionaries, and satirists use perception to figure out where things stand and where to go from here. It should be noted that perception mindset is the one that was used to come up with the theory of all of these mindsets.

Blaire is a perception user. She studies human psychology and culture. In her spare time, she writes humorous science-fiction stories that show how the world could be different with technological advances, while highlighting the current foibles of society that seem to be leading humanity down a path that people may not want to travel. Her stories raise important ethical questions and make the reader think introspectively about what they really want from the future and from their own life.

Perception mindset has a blood theme because blood is a good representation of a dynamic system, and perception’s role is to learn the workings of systems and use that understanding to be able to change them. Blood also has connotations of “identity” through its historical association with heredity, and thus serves as a dramatic-sounding stand-in for genetic material (even though red blood cells don’t contain DNA). As a representation of genetic material, blood represents the inner blueprints of systems and their capacity to evolve and adapt to their surroundings, or to be altered artificially. Effectively, it can be said that perception mindset allows you to perceive, understand, and redesign any system, due to its mastery of concepts.

Blood Element is represented by the color magenta.

Gravity Element

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Gravity Element (combination of Electricity and Water) is the Element of action, and it combines organization and operation to both optimize and internalize a person’s navigation of the world. With the ability to make and implement decisions at both the logistical and the immediate level, action is incredibly powerful at setting things in motion and keeping them moving. Furthermore, with the tempered aspects of orchestration and thoroughness, action mindset allows you to keep many different things moving together in a harmonious manner as well as getting the most use out of your resources.

Examples of action mindset include maintaining an active and productive schedule, keeping your life balanced while managing many tasks and events, running your own business, and in general getting more done than most people think is possible. Effectively handling many obligations and goals ranging from basic to complex is the hallmark of action. Self-driven people who are constantly working towards success in their chosen career or field are using action mindset to make the most of their time and energy. They put forth consistent effort to advance the items on their schedule and pace themselves to avoid burnout. Your own energy is, after all, a resource you can learn to skillfully manage and apply.

Graham is a high-level action mindset user. He is a high-powered project management consultant. He wakes up early, goes to work at his fast-paced and high-stakes job, works out after work, goes to other countries on vacations, does investing, and plays on an amateur ultimate Frisbee team. He is seldom idle.

Action mindset has a gravity theme because gravity remains reliable even as it influences the movements of innumerable objects. Like electricity (technically electromagnetism), gravity is a fundamental force of the universe. Like both electricity and water, gravity can produce gradients of force which can even fluctuate over time in the form of waves. Also, water is associated with gravity due to famously flowing downhill and being drawn into tides. Another aspect of the theme is illustrated by a common verb used to describe the use of action mindset: “juggling”, as in juggling priorities, evokes the image of a person successfully opposing the effects of real gravity on a collection of objects by applying force to each one at the appropriate time. Additionally, one might also say that the tasks and projects surrounding an action user are metaphorically “orbiting” them, though the process for sustaining the orbits is the same as same as the one for “juggling”. On a different note, if a person’s action mindset is brought to bear on a single goal, it creates a tremendous force that is difficult to resist. A person can move a large obstacle, or simply propel themselves, if they apply enough effort and resources.

Gravity Element is represented by the color cyan.

Sand Element

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Sand Element (combination of Earth and Wind) is the Element of facilitation, combining strategy and tactics to close and open possibilities by fortifying or repurposing paths through the thoughtful application of resources. With its power of combined opposites, facilitation can come up with a clever but risky tactic and then fortify it, or take a robust but obsolete structure and put it to a new use. By alternating between clever ploys and solid contingency plans (or using both at once), you can make extremely effective use of your resources and environment. With the contributing mindsets of salvage and overhaul, you can succeed despite having ill-suited resources and poor environmental conditions, and even remodel both over time to better suit your goals. One of the key words for facilitation is “leverage”. A lever is a tool for accomplishing more with less, allowing you to do things you couldn’t do with mere management of resources. The word facilitate itself means “to make easy”. If you want to accomplish a difficult goal in a difficult environment, facilitation mindset can likely furnish you with the plans you need.

Examples of facilitation mindset include military planning (which prominently features tactics and strategy specifically, although under different definitions), as well as less serious conflicts like games and sports (which also use operation mindset for intuition and smooth navigation). Facilitation is not just for conflict, though; it is used to plan purely constructive projects and investments of resources such as business ventures, revivals of towns and neighborhoods, or responses to disasters and epidemics. Any engineering project that has limitations on resources or environmental constraints (which means more or less all of them) will fare better by including facilitation mindset in the design process as well.

Shen is in charge of planning business ventures for an electronics vendor. She identifies applications and potential markets for new technologies. Because the market environment is always changing, she cuts losses (salvage) and helps the company move into new markets and fields (overhaul). A disciplined executive, Shen avoids investments that rely on too many contingencies and makes sure the company invests in advancement. Her hobbies include board games and video games that involve military command. When she goes out with friends, Shen prefers planned events and outings, but is ready to change her plans if options open up or disappear.

Facilitation mindset has a sand theme because of sand’s association with both earth and wind, as well as its qualities of being a non-Newtonian solid. Grains of sand are light enough to be blown by the wind, yet a bag of sand is still very heavy. Sand can sink under you or support you relatively solidly. It can erode things, or turn to stone; worsen a windstorm or construct a child’s castle. Although sand is not as exotic a theme as the other Great Elements, don’t let its mundane form fool you. Sand is a changing landscape, and whosoever can take advantage of its movements can shape it into the land of their choice.

Sand Element is represented by the color brown.

Script Element

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Script Element (combination of Light and Darkness) is the Element of communication, combining semantics and empathy to change how you interact with your environment to more easily engage with and influence it. Interactions deal with both information (semantics) and impressions (empathy)—in other words, content and delivery. Although pure communication cannot create paradigms from scratch and evolve them independently, as perception can, it can still enter the paradigms of other entities by individualizing interactions, and move within them fluently by simplifying the interactions. Its tempered aspects of translation and background allow information to be more effectively conveyed across paradigm differences, and impressions to be easily and reliably projected within familiar paradigms.

Examples of communication mindset include acting, disguising, endearing oneself to people from a variety of cultures, learning to intuitively read signs in nature, and mastering operation of systems, including but not limited to mechanical, computational, personal, animal, vegetable, and mineral. This mastery is limited by your understanding of the principles involved: if you lack the right concepts, you may have some trouble forming an accurate picture of who or what you are dealing with until you update your paradigms with knowledge derived from perception mindset. The interface between you and the rest of the world can be altered to let you move more easily through it, which often entails appearing and acting differently depending on the environment and the situation.

Scipio is a communication mindset user. He travels the world, immersing himself in different cultures and learning how to fit in. Through his travels he has become fluent in the languages and etiquette of six different cultures and can engage passably with cultures related to any of those. Anyone who has met him will describe him as charming and pleasant, through his specific demeanor varies from formal and subdued to boisterous and rowdy depending on who he is with. Not limiting himself to human interactions, wherever he travels Scipio spends time observing animals, plants, the land, sea, and weather, and learns how to read them, often helped by the local people he meets.

Communication mindset is themed after script (that is, written language) because it is the logical conclusion of combining the mindsets themed on ink and paper. Beyond the literal sense, translation mindset (Ink Element) deals with understanding and conveying information across paradigms, while background mindset (Paper Element) deals with understanding and conveying impressions within paradigms. Incorporating both, communication mindset deals with understanding and conveying both facts and feelings alike, within and between paradigms. People communicate meaning and reach understanding using the content, style, and context of their writing, speech, or other medium of communication. Written language just happens to be the easiest medium to represent as an “Element”. Furthermore, the word “script” also alludes to the instructions used by actors, who convey information and impressions such that they “transform” themselves from a person into a character with different qualities. Because communication users can play various roles in order to interact with their environment, Script Element has a secondary theme of changing one’s appearance. The major limitation to this ability is that a person does not have all the knowledge or skills of the character they are playing, though they may be able to quickly learn it or improvise explanations to fill in the blanks.

Script Element is represented by the color gray.

 

Conclusion

The Great Elements strike a balance between opposing forces in order to achieve more powerful results. There will of course be situations in which one Element is more useful than its opposite, but in general having both to call on allows you to use them to support each other and do many things with them that neither Element could do alone. This creative gestalt of incomplete opposites, combining yin and yang, is the phenomenon that inspired the Ginnungagap Foundation’s name.

Educated Minds, Unite!

I’ve been watching the increasing division in the United States, and working to identify solutions and constructive paths. The real trick is getting people on board, because although falsehoods, bias, skewed perspectives, and petty insults are flying Left and Right, the root issue actually has little to do with refutable facts. There isn’t a scientific paper that can demonstrate once and for all who is right and who is wrong.

Part of the issue is that the ethos simply isn’t there: people don’t trust each other. That isn’t a huge problem in and of itself. However, two destructive assumptions aggravate this mistrust: the assumption that a person who is wrong must be 100% wrong, and the assumption that you must not cooperate on anything with a person who is wrong. Hence, the real problem is that people think that they need to trust each other in order to have productive conversations and to do productive work.

Let’s examine these assumptions with the help of some historical figures.

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Follow me back in time! On our journey, you will find ideas which never stopped being helpful, but never started being popular.

Bad Idea 1 versus Aristotle

The first idea is that a person cannot entertain an idea without accepting it. If a person were able to do so, it would mark them as an educated mind (or so we think Aristotle said, which would have been one of his better ideas). Being able to entertain ideas without accepting them isn’t the only important skill by any means. However, as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have it then you’re not “educated”. The assumption that people are not and cannot be “educated” in this way lends urgency to the calls to silence people who have views that are factually incorrect or unethical, or that seem to be so, or that seem perilously close to being incorrect or unethical. From an “educated” perspective (using the definition above), this censorship can only be detrimental.

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Sculpture of Aristotle, who proved that being right about education doesn’t make you right about physics and biology.

An educated person actively seeks to be convinced of the truth and only the truth, which requires both open-mindedness and skepticism. There are countless contradictory concepts constantly competing for credence. Open-mindedness is required to let in possible truths, and skepticism is required to reject claims that are not favored by the preponderance of evidence (or which simply make no sense). Being educated also requires regular reevaluation of your beliefs, as new evidence is encountered. After all, there is no guarantee that you are correct right now.

Because an educated person is able to entertain ideas and think critically about them, even if they already believe these ideas, there is no benefit to silencing any ideas in an educated society. If they are false, then we will carefully consider them and dismiss them. If they have even the tiniest scrap of truth, that scrap is valuable for improving our picture of the truth. We just won’t use the idea farther than it is useful or ethical.

Granted, many people are not educated. They have trouble sifting truth from falsehood, and are inclined to accept or reject an entire package of ideas, even though it is neither completely true nor totally false. This inclination is a huge problem, since these uneducated people will end up believing and acting on falsities, or rejecting truths. However, the solution cannot be to limit the ideas that can be considered, in an attempt to shield people from being exposed to ideas that are false or unethical, or that seem to be so. Such limits would cripple our brains even further and reduce us from a (relatively) capable, mature society to a band of children following obsolete instructions that cannot possibly prepare us to deal with the challenges that life will throw at us, as individuals or as a species. That approach is far more likely to destroy society than it is to save it.

Instead, we must become educated, so that a person can consider any statement, including what they already believe, and compare it to their other experiences to evaluate the ways in which it may be true and false, helpful and destructive. Only then can we function as a healthy democracy.

Bad Idea 2 versus Frederick Douglass

The second destructive idea follows from the first: a person or group that stands for a harmful cause (or a cause that is similar enough to a harmful one that uneducated people get confused) must not be supported or associated with in any way. By doing so, people think it’s possible to protect society from “dangerous” ideas or values, and to punish those who support the harmful or harmful-looking cause.

The problem here is that without earnest communication between people of different beliefs, there is a near zero chance of either group learning anything valuable the other has to offer. Even if one group is one hundred percent wrong, they’re not going to learn anything from someone who doesn’t understand enough of their point of view to help them understand its flaws.

Furthermore, if we refuse to cooperate with people who believe wrong things even when they’re working on projects we ourselves would approve of, we would have to refuse to work with anybody. Most people believe things that I consider harmful, and yet I cooperate with them all the time. Furthermore, I even learn valuable insights and wisdom from them. In the much-ignored words of the late, great Frederick Douglass, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” Cooperation on the common ground we can find makes the world a better place.

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Photograph of Frederick Douglass, about whom I have nothing snarky to say. Just look him up.

I suspect that those who refuse to help people with antithetical beliefs think that helping them do good would also help them do harm. While I see the logic—the cost we save them through our help on good projects can be spent on harmful ones—this train of thought is essentially a declaration of total war, or at least total passive-aggression. I can only assume that because people have forgotten how peaceful discussion works, or never learned how to engage in it, their default option for preventing others from doing harmful things is to cut them off from the rest of society, starve them for resources, and torment them at every opportunity.

However, this war is a mistake. If anything, helping people to do good will afford us more power to prevent their harm. Though they may have harmful beliefs, they will listen to those who befriend them. Listening is their necessary first step towards updating their beliefs. People we help trust that we care about them and that we have at least some common ideals and values. They show us the courtesy of respect, because we show it to them. Inversely, it is very difficult to trust and respect a person who shuns you entirely because some of your beliefs are harmful.

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Artist’s rendition of a fractured world. It looks all pretty until your taxes are raised to pay for all the new bridges.

Of course, even this basic reciprocity of respect is being squelched in society. How many people do you know whom you’ve helped and with whom you’ve been friends, who proceeded to wall themselves off from you once you said something they didn’t like, even though you were sincere? Maybe you’ve walled off a few people yourself. If this trend continues, society is going to enter a large war between two fragments, and end up as a collection of tiny pieces fighting tiny wars until there is nothing left. And very little good is going to get done.

Solution

What can you do to stop this destruction, you ask?

First, educate yourself. Seek out the most ridiculous, offensive, wrong ideas that you can think of. Think about them, and do research on why people believe them in the first place. Those people do have their own reasons, after all. If there is any truth to their ideas, that can only help you. If there is anything wrong with what you believe, it helps you to know about it. On the other hand, if someone provides a justification for their “wrong” idea that you can’t refute, that doesn’t mean their idea is right. You can do research to see if someone else has come up with a rebuttal on your behalf. Ultimately, you will probably come to the conclusion that the ideas are still wrong, but more importantly, you will now know why you think that and why other people disagree. Moreover, no matter what facts are true, you can still behave ethically and respectfully towards other people, and you can still call on others to do the same.

The second thing you can do to avert total war is to work with people you disagree with. If you don’t have any common projects, at least don’t criticize them when they do something good. Don’t even accuse them of having bad motives. Just treat them as you would treat a friend or stranger who did the same thing they did. You can’t lose if you just thank them for their good deed, and refrain from cheap shots at their expense. Take a look at the below table to see expressing your gratitude is a good idea.

Other person has malevolent motives Other person has benevolent motives
You accuse them Either they don’t care, or they feel more justified in spiting you. You alienate them.
You thank them You were polite beyond reproach, and can still intervene if they try to do harm. They may also decide not to do harm because you were nice. You build mutual respect. They will be more inclined to listen to your concerns in the future.

Table 1: Results of thanking a person doing a good deed versus accusing them of malevolent motives, based on whether or not they actually have malevolent motives.

As you can see from Table 1, you can only benefit from treating a person respectfully. In particular, if they have benevolent motives, what you say makes a huge difference. You may think you’re certain of their malevolent motives, but why take the risk? I suspect that part of you simply finds it very difficult and unpleasant to thank someone you don’t like. However, that person can usually tell how difficult it is, too, and will be more inclined to trust you if they see you take the hard route and acknowledge their good actions. If you refuse to acknowledge them, though, they’re definitely not going to trust you. Showing respect to people is win-win.

You don’t have to trust that everything a person does is good. You don’t even have to take anything they do at face value—politicians in particular are likely to seem benevolent while reinforcing the two destructive assumptions described above. You can still oppose actions you think are harmful, and show respect at the same time. Literally the only downside to being respectful is that it requires humility. Are you going to let that stop you from changing the world?

In conclusion, there is no magic truth that will solve all our problems if we all believe it. There is, however, a magic code of behavior: walk with people as far as their path matches yours, and when your paths diverge, continue on your own. When your paths loop around and oppose each other, stop walking and start talking. More importantly, start listening. If you don’t know why you’re right, educate yourself, because for all you know you may be part of the problem. Give people the opportunity to change their ways, and treat them with respect at all times, even if they are trying to do harm to you. It may be difficult, but showing respect enhances your ability to defend yourself, rather than diminishing it.

You will find walking this path moves society forward much faster than banding together and yelling at people does.

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No, these people aren’t all on the same side. That’s why it’s productive.

How Not to Be a Bigot

Or…

Species-Agnostic Ethics

 

On some imaginary distant planet called Izzot, you can judge people by appearances. The green people are the strongest and fastest, and can fly. The blue people are best at math, and are prone to emotional outbursts. The males of the purple people are actually not much smarter than young human children, but the females are of adult-human-level intelligence, while the neuters have even more powerful brains. This means that if you know a few demographic details about a person from Izzot, you can make some assumptions about their physical or mental characteristics, personalities, and skills, and you will most likely be correct. In other words, technically, on Izzot, race-based and sex-based stereotypes are supported by hard science. Does that sound like a horrible place to live?

Why?

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Actually, Izzot society is a lot nicer than most societies on Earth. This may come as a surprise, because of Earth’s longstanding problem wherein people try to use stereotypes to inform how they value and interact with other people, which hurts their feelings and makes effective communication difficult. The problem continues even though information about an individual Earthling’s race and sex has been scientifically debunked as a way of reliably predicting their aptitudes and personality traits. If stereotypes on Izzot are supported by science, more people would use them, which would surely mean more hurt feelings and more harm to society due to poor communication, right? What makes Izzot so pleasant?

It’s not because the people are predictable. Far from it, actually. Even though many of their abilities are easily predicted, people on Izzot don’t have any assigned stations in society. Just because a purple or green person may not be as good at math as a blue person doesn’t mean they can’t love math and want to get a job using it. Just because a purple or blue person isn’t as strong as a green person doesn’t mean they can’t want a job that involves manual labor. Everyone on Izzot is free to pursue whatever career they choose. If Izzot doesn’t enforce conformity and social stations in order to stifle conflict between different types of people, what’s preventing the conflict?

As it happens, society on Izzot flourishes because the people there follow these rules for treating everyone with respect:

Anti-Bigotry Instructions

  1. Always give people a chance to prove you wrong about them, except where you have good reason to believe doing so would pose a serious risk.
    • Even if you think you know someone, people change. If you don’t allow yourself to update your beliefs based on new information, your obsolete picture of the world will cause problems.
  2. Show everyone respect, especially when it’s difficult. To show respect to a person means going to reasonable lengths to demonstrate that you care about the person’s feelings and to interact with them in a way that they find comfortable.
    • Showing respect to a person does not mean you must agree with them or help them with their goals. Indeed, showing respect usually makes it easier to oppose a person’s efforts.
    • Situations in which showing respect will harm rather than help are extremely rare.
    • The best way to show respect varies between people, but the etiquette of a society supplies good general principles with which to start.
  3. If you have reasonable confidence that you can predict something about someone, even if it’s only based on their appearance, by all means use that to improve your ability to put them at ease, show them respect, and keep them safe. Don’t go overboard trying to anticipate them, though. That doesn’t put anyone at ease—it just makes them self-conscious. This rule does not supersede rule 1.
    • Example: If someone’s name or attire indicates they probably have religious dietary restrictions, and they order a dish that contains a taboo ingredient, and you think it might have been a mistake and that they would want to know about it, you might casually mention the ingredient to them in the process of making small talk about the dish.
  4. Try to adapt your activities and systems to include others who might otherwise be excluded because of physical form, health, or language or cultural barriers.
    • Empathy mindset can help you establish bonds with people who are different, by individualizing interactions.
    • Tactics mindset can also help by cleverly repurposing twisting paths to open possibilities that weren’t obviously available.
  5. Don’t expect rule 4 to always be feasible. It’s based on empathy, tactics, and other chaos-aligned mindsets, and as such doesn’t lend itself well to rules or systematization at all. Focus on what people can do, entice others to help, but don’t try to restructure everything based on an inconvenience, and don’t force people to experience the same outcomes in all things.
  6. No matter how many people have done something, nor for how long, it doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s important to learn about cultural context and sociological factors before making judgment calls on whether a practice is harmful to people, but ethical principles are the same for everyone. The hard part is learning enough about people to know how best to apply them.

If you follow these rules and practice using empathy and related mindsets, you can avoid being a bigot anywhere, even on a planet where you can judge by appearances and be right more often than not. The rules apply to how you treat everyone, even if you think you already know them, and even if you’re assessing their choices and ethical character rather than their more superficial qualities.

Neither rules nor empathy alone can make a society a good one. But semantics (rules) and empathy together, as communication, give interactions at all levels the chance to be the best they can be.

Nuanced Situations

It’s possible that some activity which has a population composed almost entirely of a particular type of person will develop a culture derived from other traits correlated with that person. For example, on Earth, a male-dominated activity may develop rituals or slang derived from male experiences or physiology. On Izzot, greenball is a sport mostly played by green people, and it has developed a culture that references wings and uses them for communication (having “good wings” refers to speed and initiative; touching wings is the equivalent of a high-five; the victory dance usually involves flying), even though playing the sport itself doesn’t involve wings. It’s a bit inane and obnoxious, but then again, much of what we call “culture” is inane and obnoxious. It doesn’t always cause problems, but when it does, things get complicated.

When a person of a different demographic shows up to participate in an activity hitherto dominated by a single demographic, there will inevitably be awkwardness because they will have trouble participating in the culture, even if they are able and willing to participate in the activity. An unusually athletic blue person might be capable of playing greenball, but will be unable to touch wings or participate in a classical victory dance.

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What do you do when a blue person has qualities most people associate with green?

Sometimes this awkwardness dissuades the newcomer from joining, or the culture from accepting them. This is a suboptimal outcome from a societal standpoint, because it results in stagnation and lost opportunities. The activity’s culture doesn’t get fresh perspective, and any newcomers who don’t immediately fit in will not get the experience of the activity. Ideally, however, those involved will have some form of empathy, and some combination of the following will happen:

  1. The newcomer learns to participate in the culture they’re entering as best they can, and is comfortable with it.
    • The blue greenball player can participate in wing-touching with their arms.
    • References to them “having wings” will be taken with no offense, as the figurative language that it is.
  2. The existing culture treats the newcomer with respect, adapts variations on etiquette and rituals where necessary, and is comfortable with it.
    • The greenball team’s victory dance is adapted to account for a participant who cannot fly.
  3. The existing culture gradually changes to become less centered on the majority demographic, making it easier for other (qualified) newcomers from other demographics to participate, or to develop and adapt their own variant activities. It tends to be beneficial for society that cultures intermingle and mix through shared activities because of the opportunities such mixing creates for cross-cultural learning and for innovation within the activity.
    • Greenball players start referring to speed and initiative as “feet”, “legs”, or just as speed and initiative, especially where blue players are involved.
    • They start using high-fives (well, high-fours) with hands, instead of using wing-touches, though wing-touches are still used between green players on occasion.
    • Some more blue people start to play greenball, and learn enough to start a league for less athletically gifted blue people. They don’t care to change the name of the game.
    • Purple people can’t play greenball because they don’t have the necessary limbs for running, jumping, kicking, throwing, and catching. This mildly frustrates some of them, but ultimately they have other desires to pursue.

Sometimes physical equipment may only be designed for one type of person. That’s when it’s inconveniently necessary for pioneers to come in with expensive customized equipment and break ground. We’ve all heard the stories. The very first blue player had to get step-stools to reach their locker, and had to have expensive custom uniforms made for them.

A newcomer’s influence on the activity may go beyond mere equipment. If a blue player made it onto an otherwise all-green team, that probably means they’re not only athletically gifted, but also that the coach is confident they can develop strategies and tactics to take advantage of the blue player’s much smaller size. It’s easy to predict that some rival coaches will complain about having to develop entire new strategies to account for just one rival team. If they want to continue being able to use the same types of strategies they’ve always used, that’s lazy of them, but they can advocate for the stagnation of their sport if they want.

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Greenball is all about challenge!

On the other hand, if the blue player is actually a huge advantage that guarantees victory and makes the game much less fun as a result, those rival coaches might have a good point. In that situation, we start getting away from ethical questions and into true politics. With politics mindset, it’s just a matter of how many people want to play or watch each type of gameplay, and how much they want it. Advocates for and against mixed green/blue teams will try to persuade other people to ally with them and negotiate with each other to get more of what they want. Maybe there will be one league for green people, one league for blue people, and one mixed league, but sometimes such easy compromises aren’t always possible. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong direction to go in, either. Ultimately, it’s just a game, and no matter what the final decision is, there are other things to enjoy. As long as people are equipped to ask intelligent questions about the issue, advocate respectfully for their preferred solutions, and recognize when a question is ethical and when it’s political, my job is done.

In sum, the parable of Izzotian greenball shows there are ways of breaking down the walls put up by the cultures of exclusivity that humanity has developed, but it will take a commitment to understanding the individual perspectives involved, as close an understanding to objective reality as we can get, the willingness to be compassionate and help people even though we don’t have to, and the courage to accept that sometimes one’s preference is not the only way.

Existential Ethics

Izzot gets its name from the “is-ought” problem. As just about any existentialist philosopher will tell you, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. Descriptive statements do not imply normative statements. In other words, you can observe facts, but those observations alone can’t provide you an answer to the question of what you “should” do. Any such answer has to be based on knowledge of what you already want.

If you thought at first that Izzot must be a terrible place, it is probably because you’re used to the idea of people using stereotypes to try to justify their mistreatment of others, as if the knowledge that they claim to have about other people requires disrespecting those people, or nullifies the ethical principles that call for respecting them.

Ethical principles, at least in the system I use, are derived from the assumed goal of creating a society where it is more feasible for everyone to achieve their desires, with the constraints that the society must be sustainable and capable of adapting and improving. Without people who are mature, respectful, and responsible, such a society cannot exist. That’s why these rules are so important.