Monday, 6 September 2010

The meaning of life

This was delivered as the second talk in the series. It introduces the key idea that underpins my understanding of the world: "the universe is an optimisation algorithm for robust structures". This is, in a way, my view on the 'meaning' of life, in as far as any meaning can be identified.

Now the concept of an optimisation has been around for a long time and many algorithms are available for performing it. Robustness (at least in the form that I describe in the talk) is not so clear and more work is needed to formalise it mathematically.

Even with only an informal understanding, the theory leads to a new perspective on both human behaviour and society, with greater emphasis on cooperative actions than the views of rational self interest and competition that come from the popular understanding of the theory of evolution.

Friday, 27 August 2010


As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the conventional route to value is some combination of believing what you are told and going with what you feel. However, if either of these routes has let you down (made you feel bad or confused about what to do) you may be motivated to search for an alternative. The stronger your investment with a community (and associated lifestyle) the more you have to lose by challenging it, in reality this means that these problems are mostly important to those who are excluded from their communities. In addition, for many, there is no strong link between what they reason and how they feel, other than a kind of intellectual satisfaction. For others, however, (possibly for genetic reasons) ideas themselves are enough to strongly shape their behaviour. This marks a clear difference between those who contemplate these ideas for entertainment and those who feel compelled to find answers. Unfortunately I suspect this final group is a small one.

But if you are one of those people what tools are available to you?

First and foremost, are our feelings and experiences. Most theories of value are concerned with something other than this. They form a carefully constructed maze of reasoning that so often leads to conclusions that, while clever (and often beautiful) may none the less be just as misguided as our own internal instincts.

In my experience, one of the most important feelings is fear. Whenever I think about ideas, particularly with others, it is fear that prevents us making progress and that leads us astray. The fear is a rational one, for those that feel strongly morally motivated, the fear is that we have done something wrong, that we are bad. More importantly we feel we should not even think about certain things. This feeling is not unreasonable, if our minds our shaped by the thoughts we have then we should be careful what we think. A closely related fear is the fear of being worthless, the fear that what we do and how we think is not important. This is less reasonable, it feels more like sticking your head in the sand. What if you find out that what you’re doing isn’t valuable, what if there was something else you could be doing that is, in some sense, better, even the ‘right’ thing to do? Wouldn’t this be the ultimate defence against feelings of worthlessness? But what if these thoughts undermine the few pleasures you have, that the occasional twinge of doubt is worth preserving this happy delusion? These views are reasonable but they are also paralysing. From the perspective of a person trying to understand the world, they lead to absurdities where each person tiptoes around one another’s values and where passion is directed anywhere else.

On the whole, fear is not a problem for me. I like to dwell on frightening thoughts and enjoy controlling my feelings over them. I enjoy lingering on the edge of the flight response until I’m comfortable with it. Being courageous (in that way) is a source of pride. That’s not to say that I don’t avoid practical fears like everyone else, I’m not an entrepreneur and I rarely go into bars on my own (because of the discomfort of being alone in a social setting, rather than any threat of violence). I’m certainly not fearless. But when it comes to ideas, I’m fascinated by fear. My fears are a valuable source of information, a key to what I truly care about and what my sense of self worth (and thus value) is actually built on. It leads to an interest in taboos and a tendency to see darker motives than others would be willing to contemplate. To others, this can make me a bit of an asshole sometimes, but if you’ve read this far you’re probably ok with that :) .


I love the word perspective, it nicely sums up my interests. From the literal “the way that objects appear to the eye”, to the personal “one’s point of view” and the wise “to look at things accurately from a distance”. These uses carry with them a beautiful symmetry. Our eyes have a powerful and direct connection to our brain, still images, or less than a second of video, can communicate so much emotion and meaning (music helps too of course). From a tiny snatch of information we can relate to another person, imagine their life, their values and their character. The personal human motives that these images reveal lie at the heart of our sense of value. The importance we place on religions and other moral systems are at heart an extension and manipulation of our desire for parental approval, community and status. However, in order to disentangle this mass of causes and effects, it is useful to try to reduce our feelings and step back, to view the totality of the system and to attempt to acquire an accurate understanding. An understanding that at its purist seems beautiful, like the sensory inputs it is ultimately based on.

The question is how to use perspective to determine what is valuable? Is there a rock of reason, feelings or sensory experience on which to build a sense of value?

For many who are religious this rock is a ‘personal relationship’ with god. I can relate to this feeling, when I was young I was a christian, however, unlike many who no longer believe, I don’t feel embarrassed or na├»ve about feeling this way. It is no more reasonable to unquestioningly believe teachers in science class that it is to believe those who speak in church, indeed the priorities of a religious environment often seem much more human and relevant than the information being poured into children at school. I still use that feeling of internal faith and guidance that I once called god. Only now I view it as a form of communication with a part of my mind that doesn’t speak. A part that is, on the whole, much smarter than the bit that does. But I’m also aware that this part of me doesn’t have all the facts, it can still be surprised and can change its mind as it experiences unexpected consequences and opportunities.

That is where reason can be so valuable, it provides a tool to escape the narrow range of information our intuition is building on. It enables us to imagine scenarios we have not previously experienced and to consider their consequences. Of course reason is not infallible. Many scientists and mathematicians have embraced the methods of their fields with the fervour of a fundamentalist. However, this is not sensible, specifying problems formally does not guarantee that there is no mistake in the formalisation (how many proofs or pieces of code have you read that seemed free from error but weren’t). More significantly there is a statistical tendency to believe that events are more likely if they are easy to imagine (this is known as the availability heuristic). This kind of bias leads us to fixate on what we can fixate on, to only examine the problems that our tools are good at solving. Our sense of value tends to be restricted to what we can easily do, and what we can easily think about.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The first talk

At the beginning of this year (2010) I gave a series of lectures covering my take on some of the problems in our society, their likely causes and a proposal for alternatives. Based on the feedback from the talks, I've decided to alter the order in which they are presented (and probably alter or drop some of them). This talk is pretty relevant to the current set of posts and I think it provides a refreshing shock to the system (if these opinions are new to you) and so acts as a good mind opener before thinking about some of the other ideas. The plan is to drop these talks in amongst the posts, alternating between the personal soul searching and the more manifesto-like presentations. The talks include a discussion section which I'll be adding soon.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


Apologies if the last post came across as a bit abrupt. It reflects a frustration I've felt for most of my life. The feeling of a huge difference in priorities between myself and others, the feeling that most people have adopted one or more of the shoulds of the last post and are busy working away at them, without any doubt that they are correct.
On the whole, I don't really mind what views other people hold as long as their influence is largely benign. In fact I can often feel more comfortable around people with less conventional opinions because they can at least relate to the feelings of isolation and threat that comes from being different.

The problem comes when you're forced to conform to other people's values.
School and employment have been difficult for me. Generally I can't get over the feeling that these institutions are engaged in a bizarre set of rituals strongly enforced by people who unquestioningly consider them valuable. A lot of the rituals, like enforced appearance, fixed schedules, restricted breaks and eating times, can be considered acts of submission, similar to the routines that many young children experience when they are being raised. I have never really respected these little psychological manipulations, but as a necessity of avoiding the conflict that breaking them entails, I tend to conform.
There are few things that I find more disturbing than the fanatical certainty in the eyes of authorities and peers when enforcing or supporting these rules, especially if people are suffering because of them.
Although, I should add I have had the occasional chuckle when the rules force authorities to act absurdly. I remember a time in school when an otherwise sensible teacher decided to clamp down on pupils wearing boots instead of shoes. The problem was that all the footwear looked alike because the trousers covered them. She came into class looking slightly crazed and started pulling up the trouser legs of boys she didn't like the look of. It was moments like that, that undermined many authorities in my eyes.
Of course it's not simply the conditioned obedience, from almost the very beginning of school, there is repeated ranking and assessment. Without explanation, each person is judged as being 'good' or 'bad' at arbitrary challenge after arbitrary challenge. It didn't take long for me to realise that these assessments are rarely a measurement of any practical or socially beneficial ability. However, it was not until I was older that I could understand their role as another form of motivation and manipulation. The sad thing is that so many people view the process of schooling as being for learning, the development of mental capabilities. Not a single lesson (at least not one that I attended) encourages the asking of questions and the creation of explanations, unless you have your own motivations, few people try to understand the purpose of education. It's a rare and wonderful surprise when you find people who do though.

Another worrying realisation, is that so many 'successful' people have been a little too brainwashed by this process. This was brought home to me when I saw the 2010 state of the union address, each side cheering or groaning depending on which team they played for, but it was when Barak Obama said 'I will not accept second place for America' and the whole room gave him a standing ovation, that I realised that they primarily cared about winning and probably didn't really care what is was they were winning at. Being a little too keen on winning can lead to some nasty consequences.

For Britain the emphasis seems to be less on winning and a bit more on striving for parental approval, trying to be 'good enough'. I met an Eton graduate recently, I liked him, he seemed miserable. We were at the bar and my dad came up and tapped me on the shoulder, he asked if I could order a drink for him. I'm very lucky that for the most part my dad and I have successfully transitioned from father and son to friends. The guy commented on how he wished his relationship with his father was more like mine. From the pain in his eyes I felt I had an insight into the frightning effect boarding school had on some people, how institutions can exploit the strange need (evolutionarily speaking) for most (boys in particular) to need the approval of their fathers. The Etonion in question was driven into a profession he didn't want (corporate law) because it was 'good' and led to lots of money. It's worrying to think how many professions are dominated by unhappy people searching for approval. Often from parents with the same unresolved needs.

With so much institutional manipulation ramping up our drives and with so little consideration of what we're actually driving towards, it's little wonder many people feel a desire to go back to a simpler life. It's unfortunate that such desires can lead to an enthusiastic luddite streak, fostered, I suspect, by the very institutions that drive this dysfunctional society (and who are threatened by technological innovation). Because, for me, the natural solution to this problem is technology.
Art may help you forget your problems (or at least feel less bad about them), government (when working well) may stop them getting worse, but if you really want to solve a problem, it's technology, and the rational scientific thinking that it's based on, that really gets the job done.
We live in an era of relentless technological progress, and it's fascinating to me that such a gulf exists between the progress in technology and that of other fields. Of course that's not to say that how these capabilities are being used is ultimately benefiting people, but it clearly has potential.
Despite this, most people involved in technology are generally mocked by everyone else. At heart, this mocking seems to be rooted in a disparity between our evolutionary status values and our educational ones. Being good at technology doesn't generally require that you get on with people or even understand them, in fact it's probably an advantage if you're a bit of a loner, giving you time to understand the complexities of whichever technology you're dealing with. Most people aren't thinking too far from what bubbles into their heads, so most reasoning on status doesn't go too far from "Is this person fertile?" "Is this person free from disease/weakness?" "Is this person likely to protect me/ensure I get resources?" and all the physical and behavioural traits associated with signaling this. And like any disparity between what we feel is important and what is formally acknowledged, people are driven to undermine and ridicule those who appear successful yet lack an appearance that they respect.

However, elaborating on technology and its virtues is probably best kept for another post. The real question is, what can these experiences teach me in terms of how I should act?
Now it would be preferable to build up a morality based on some strong rigorous principles, but the reality is that even when people do this, they are often just rationalising their own feelings. Feelings that have been formed from their experiences and their conditioning. So if I'm being honest, what are the shoulds that I've adopted.

I should control how I am manipulated.

I generally associate manipulation with suffering. In my childhood, the psychological techniques used to control behaviour tended to work against me, so I quickly learned if I was going to improve things for myself I'd have to understand this process and protect against it.
Although studying such effects has given me a lifelong fascination with how they work. I have very strong emotions and when the manipulation is positive, I love its effects. From films to national pride, I love to be engrossed in the sea of psychological triggers that shape mood and emotion.

I should be honest unless I do not respect the person I am lying to.

Understanding manipulation can get very lonely sometimes, you feel an enormous gulf between yourself and other people. And just like like a critic, just because you understand something doesn't mean you can use that knowledge yourself. My strong emotions tend to show on my face so being a manipulator is not really an option (even if it was a desired one). As a result I try to be straightforward with people, my hope is that they will be honest in return and ideally through this I can find people who have similar values.
I've added the exception because of the (depressing) realities of education, work and social interactions. Life often forces you into situations where complete disclosure will just lead to a conflict that achieves nothing. I hate being forced into these situations and resent the people who force me into them. I don't respect people who cannot interact in a genuine way or who choose to believe an easy lie rather than a difficult truth.

I should try to make others feel good (particularly if they do not feel they have value).

This is the one kind of manipulation that I generally agree with. Having experienced sadness myself, I feel it strongly in others. The difficulty comes when my desire to be honest conflicts with a desire to make others feel good. I know that a lot of these ideas would make an otherwise content person unhappy, unfortunately these people are a little lost for me. My hope is to find a perspective that is both honest and can lead to a good life. Ideally I can find (or create) a community where I can experience this, where people can be both wise and mutually supportive.

I should decide for myself what is valuable.

And finally, I feel I should work out what is valuable. Most manipulation is grounded in how we determine value. Protecting against those manipulations means understanding whether something is important or not. If I could determine what is valuable for myself, that knowledge would be a great defence against the negative views of others. It would also offer a basis for making me feel content with my choices and actions. Of course such a value system would have to be true, otherwise I would have to spend my time deliberately avoiding thinking about it. Which, because of my personality, is pretty much impossible. The ultimate satisfaction would be if these values were shared with others. Life can feel like being an undercover cop when you're in a community whose values you don't agree with, and escaping that feeling is (I think) what I'm really searching for.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


Should is a big word. It always gets my attention; but usually not in a good way. I flinch when I hear should.

I used to like it though, people would say should and it would trigger an excited bubbling of mental activity as I try to identify a reason why whatever is being shoulded, should not (or vice versa). I.e. "you should keep a tidy desk" makes me think "you should not keep a tidy desk". I imagine the feeling is similar to those of an athlete or free runner, a sense of power and comfort that comes from using a well honed talent. Unfortunately, I'm a bit too good at it. This tends to mean it's not much fun for other people as a game, and as you can imagine, no fun for anyone who takes the should in question seriously. Of course from my perspective I'm taking it very seriously, seriously enough to check that it is being used properly. You see while it's a fun activity it's also very important to me.
It is difficult, however, to tell whether I find it fun because it's important (i.e. I've got good at something that I felt I should focus on and now enjoy the pleasure of being good at it) or whether I've rationalised the importance of something I enjoy (i.e. it must be important because I'm good at it, making me important). Perhaps a bit of both.

It started out simple enough; most children have a bit of rebellion in them, when their desires and their parents (or some other authority) don't match. Everyone's got that survival instinct, a need for food and attention that manifests as a tug of war between parent and child. For my parents, guilt, obligation and self worth were their weapons in this battle. I believe, at heart, this is because, like myself, they feel a strong sense of moral motivation, a need to be good and to have value and because that's how they were raised. But I have to tell you, for a sensitive boy like myself, it's not pleasant. So as a defence against my own strong emotions and these parental manipulations I started to build my own framework for evaluating should.
I think it’s an interesting reaction, because it doesn’t seem to be a common one, although I’ve met the occasional person with a similar level of emotional and moral intensity, none of them have reacted in quite the same way.

For most, the modern parenting solution seems to be consistency. Form a home life that smoothly transitions a child through their daily routine, remaining at all times a calm but implacable front. Provide a reassuring framework that a child will come to accept and embrace. A framework that is as natural and unchanging as gravity. In theory, it seems, this approach is carried through (church?), school, university and employment, in the belief that it leads to an integrated and productive member of society.
This is where the problem of should arises. In an environment based on consistency, an authority saying should is really just a signal, a signal that a ‘well adjusted’ person has come to realise indicates that if the should in question is broken, a predictable negative effect will occur. This is a sensible reaction for a learning machine and leads to what, I suspect, is the majority view of morality:
You should do what anyone who appears like an existing authority tells you to do.
In cases where authorities conflict in what they are saying, the degree to which they are like an existing trusted authority determines who is correct. In this case, the length of time they have been an authority and the degree that other authorities trust them determines their validity.
This is what I would call the “daddy knows best” philosophy, because historically the authority would always be male, with the first authority being a father.
This psychology of influence lies at the heart of a great deal of our society and our entertainment. Power over others and, for many, relative worth, is achieved by manipulating this psychology. Appearing like a person with authority becomes a priority for those with ambition and the intelligence to manipulate.
This ambition can be seen as a rational reaction for a learning machine. This is because, from childhood on, the ability to influence carries with it the opportunity to increase the likelihood of survival, and at heart, we are survival machines.
Historically, however, this system of morality limits the influence of large sections of society (women, children and men who lack opportunities to appear as legitimate authorities). I think it is the reaction to this, the natural survival drive of those not benefiting from the status quo, which leads to the development of alternatives.
Two of the main ones are:
I should do what the rules tell me to do (A formal codified morality, like a religion, etiquette or legal system).
I should do what people like me do (A consensus morality, like most teenagers).
In each case there have been revolutionary social changes brought about when one of these systems gains dominance over the others, changing how influence is obtained and what genetic traits and childhood opportunities help to achieve such influence.
In modern secular society, many people, and a lot of entertainment, view these existing forms of morality as illegitimate. I.e. you should defy authority, break the rules and be an individual. The modern morality seems to be some combination of the following:
You should do what makes you money.
You should do what makes you sexually desirable.
And the slightly less predatory
You should do what makes you loved.
You should do what keeps you healthy.
You should do what keeps you safe.
These can all be explained as survival based values (get resources, have children, get looked after, don’t get ill, don’t get attacked/burgled/invaded). Sensible enough I suppose, but is that it?
Well I guess I should also mention the environment, which seems to be a big deal these days. A bit like religions, the environment is presented as a generic good that must be supported and maintained in its current state. If not we will all suffer one of a number of vaguely described apocalyptic events. Like the morality of sex appeal this is no doubt based on some fairly sensible survival motivations, but just like sex appeal, can become a sort of fetishised combination of consensus and rule based morality. (Edit - I’m sure I’ll get some heat for that one :) )
Ok so that serves as a kind of overview of some existing perspectives that seem to explain what most people actually do (unlike most introductions to morality which immediately delve into what some old guys have said, or get people debating things without any frame of reference). It would be much more rigorous if I could map this to some kind of measurable quantity, like the categorisation of news articles, major historical changes or the spending of disposable income, but short of that we’ll stick to my intuition for now. I’m not trying to prove anything at the moment; I’m just trying to communicate a perspective. Also I should mention that I’ve got another way of looking at all this based more directly on survival motivations but I’ll save that for later.
It took me a long time to put all that into perspective. It’s very difficult to understand something when you’re inside it. You may also have realised that the key to unravelling it all is in the terms: survival and learning machines (phrases that don’t come up much in most morality discussions). How to do the unravelling and why it’s a good idea is best left for another post. For now, getting back to the big question:
What should I do?
The question remains unanswered, but at least there are a few starting points to pick from and more importantly the statements of others can now be understood in some kind of context.
By understanding why people might be feeling strongly about something, it’s much easier to be able to neutralise their influence or manipulation. Even more importantly, it offers the chance to learn from people you disagree with and would otherwise be forced to consider crazy or stupid. A necessity as the alternative is to have your own values altered by the strength of their character or powers of manipulation.

To finish, I'll leave you with some very interesting questions (for me at least), which I think get to the heart of what is truely important:

Is there a better way to determine what should be done?
What would it mean to be perfectly good in a morality (a right answer)? Is such a thing possible?

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


I get the impression that most people on the web don't feel the need to rationalise what they say online, but for me what I say in a public way matters to me. Talking in person is much easier, there is so much more information to work with, you can judge the listener by their appearance, read their body language to see if you've got their attention and carefully pitch your material to suit their interests and tolerance for controversy. Also people forget easily, the internet, on the other hand does not. But lately I've been feeling that it would be nice to give the whole internet thing a go. I'd love to find some people who care about similar things and like a good debate. Also over the years I've accumulated a good number of ideas and perspectives that could do with a bit of analysis and hopefully some people might find them entertaining.

First off how about a quick introduction:
My name, as you have probably guessed, is John Bustard. As you can probably imagine, for most of my family losing the name Bustard has been a bit of goal, my wife in particular is not too keen on adopting it. However, I'm a fan myself. When you're growing up, with a name like Bustard kids don't have to be too creative when they're picking on you and it draws their attention from anything you might actually care about. Also it's pretty memorable which can be handy.

Now if this were a normal two way conversation I'd probably be shaking your hand and smiling. I have nice shiny white teeth (or so I've been told) and my smile varies from the warm to the slightly manic. When it comes to greetings I tend to be a little too intense and keen to please, so you may notice an initial intensity followed by a slightly forced calmness as I remember that lots of people judge the status of a person by how apathetic they appear (not a view I share I should add). The best meetings are when the intensity is reciprocated (but these are rare, I live in England :) ) however intense first meetings often fall at the next hurdle, which is that having established a warm bond there is a slight urgency to find a shared interest as our warm greeting leaves a lack of body language signals to indicate that we both like something, so on balance perhaps a more muted first response is preferable.
Usually I start with where I'm from, or what I do for a living, depending on context. I'm really just throwing out information so the other person can respond and we can start a slightly more personal discussion. I got derailed on this one recently at a wedding, where after describing how I was related to the bride I realised with horror that the conversation was turning to the weather. Frankly for me the weather is a solid conversation blocker, I've failed if we're on to the weather. We've looked at each other, got a bit of information and decided that we suspect that neither of us have any shared interests and fear that revealing anything more about ourselves will only lead to uncomfortable moments where our fundamentally incompatible world views will only upset one or both of us if we continue.

By this stage of course you will have seen me so you'll already have a lot to go on: Caucasian, male, 30ish, 6', glasses, pretty conservatively dressed (shirt, jeans, generic-looking converse like shoes), probably stubble (but not designer, just sloth) and slightly overweight but not so much you'd think it was a big deal (unless you're a bit of a fitness freak). In short, probably a bit uncool, but probably clever, conservative, not rich but not poor either, probably in IT. Although if I'm on a good day my confidence and playful side might shine through and any strong prejudices you have about my social worth might be put to one side, I've found with a good smile you can often get a positive response from a lot of people. Of course I do tend to find the whole experience of meeting new people a little exhausting unless I can get into a good discussion, which is really what I'm in it for.

For most, a good conversation is a form of mutual social grooming, with each person making some statements about their day, ideally with a little personal information to demonstrate trust and with the other person acknowledging what they're saying and validating their choices. Now don't get me wrong, that's a fine way to spend time and the feeling of human connection and the sense of bonding that comes from sharing and mutual validation can be extremely rewarding, only problem is, I need something more.

You see, I'm what you might call a natural born intellectual.
(Generally I don't use the word intellectual as it's often associated with a lifestyle I don't share (literary, snobbish etc.) but it's as good a description as any).
I'm natural born because I'm not an intellectual as a lifestyle choice, I didn't join an intellectual club, I just have a basic need to think about things and to discuss them.
It took me until I was 19 to realise that it was a need and not an interest. I started to realise how frustrated and moody I got during the holidays away from university. I realised I needed to discuss the ideas I'd had or at the very least download my thoughts into some (vaguely) willing acquaintance. I'd also found that having a good discussion or debate with someone was one of the most enjoyable things I could do. Unfortunately I soon realised that my tolerance for these kind of conversations was much greater than that of other people and worse still, was the fact that the topics that I cared most about were often the topics that others were uncomfortable even mentioning (religion, truth, virtue, value, status etc.). School taught me that this kind of talk was dangerous, on many occasions people who were not in conversation with me but within earshot would interrupt a conversation or discussion with a friend, usually quite angry at what I was saying (not to mention how I was saying it). Eventually I learnt to keep my thoughts to myself. The problem is that once you've thought about topics like value, truth and status, the disparity between your perspective and that of others can become difficult to reconcile particularly when dealing with authority or conventions and taboos. So it wasn't until I returned to university (PhD) as a mature-ish student that I started talking about these things again. The great advantage of university (and studying for a PhD in particular) is that a lot of people there view intellectual discussions as part of the experience and sort of feel that participating in them is a sort of proof of intelligence.
But like all junkies, these occasional hits aren't enough, especially when you start to care about what you're talking about. Of course like most people I medicate my mind with a healthy dose of brave new world entertainment. But even the enormous luxuries of modern society eventually run out. Once you've bought all the gadgets, read all the stories, eaten all the exotic food, looked at all the porn, you're back at the same old problem:

What should I do?

You see getting by, playing the game etc. just isn't enough when you're an intellectual. You're constantly distracted by the nagging thought: What if there is an answer to the question? What if a life of hedonistic normality isn't all there is to life, what if you could solve the problem?

And of course, understanding the problem is half the fun :)