Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The totalitarian within us

A recent Sunday found us walking the hills above Matlock. For some reason lost in the mists of time, Matlock attracts hordes of motorcyclists, especially on a fine day and especially on a Sunday.

The rumble of exhausts seems continuous. Even high up on the hill it was loud. Low frequency sound carries and motorcyclists seem to love it. At street level it can drown out a conversation. Looking down on yet another stream of big blokes on big machines it momentarily seemed ridiculous, excessive in the something should be done sense...

...but not for long. I was once a motorcyclist myself and even now I fancy a ride on a big beast of a bike. Not through Matlock though. Yet the worm of intolerance was there right enough, poking a scowling head out of its little hole when the rumble became particularly loud.

All of us seem to have these worms of intolerance, the inner totalitarian who would ban even the most innocuous activity. Politics thrives on it, but where does it come from, this totalitarian worm? Why has it become such an integral feature of modern life?

A fundamental aspect of human behaviour is the way we follow whatever path seems to lead to the minimum number of surprises. It’s a survival trait. When confronted with a range of possibilities we seem to be programmed to seek the safest and that is the one with the lowest likelihood of springing surprises. We minimise the number of situations where we may have to adapt in unexpected ways.

It’s why our ancestors formed tribes, worshipped gods, built castles, made laws, formed treaties, developed medicines and generally tried to insure themselves against all manner of eventualities. It’s why we are suckers for an infinite number of promised lands where punters supposedly live in a state of bliss and perfect safety.

The sinister link with totalitarian government is obvious. Totalitarian madness  is what we get when ruling castes rigorously root out potential surprises as a key element of their political schema and their own survival. That’s the problem, when our leaders and their senior functionaries aim to minimise surprises – all surprises - everywhere.

Doesn’t work forever of course. With totalitarian government we lose the ability to adapt and surprises become more dangerous to the rigid structures built to keep them out. Eventually a fatal combination of surprises leads to collapse, we have to adapt all over again and in so doing we pave the way for another bout of totalitarian control.

If so, then the most interesting question is where are we in the eternal totalitarian cycle? Pretty obvious I’d say.

We are on the that part of the cycle where totalitarian plans, schemes and laws are spewing all over us until we don’t know if we can get through a whole day without breaking some law. It may be a long climb to the peak though. That pesky adaptability keeps us going for a long time.

The key point seems to be that we can do nothing about it, nothing whatsoever. The ebb and flow of totalitarian rule is a feature of our mental biochemistry. We may have big brains with amazing capabilities, but the inexorable logic of personal safety always seems to screw us up.

It appears that we are unable to choose a path which is likely to lead us to more surprises than the alternative. Our biochemistry just doesn’t allow it. How could it? This is the totalitarian within us and until we untangle it, understand it and learn how to veto its imperatives, until we learn not to seek safety at any cost then the cycle is bound to continue.

In short, we sample the world to ensure our predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy and surprises are avoided. In this view, perception is enslaved by action to provide veridical predictions (more formally, to make the freeenergy a tight bound on surprise) that guides active sampling of the sensorium. 
Karl Friston


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Sackerson said...

So how do you explain the carving for new experience?

BTW, I find motorcyclists generally a friendly, family-oriented lot; it's cyclists who are the p-in-the-a Protestant holier-than-thou type, that get my goat. Lycra and water-bottles? Pah! Leather and beer, every time.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - craving for genuinely new experiences seems uncommon to me but probably important to our adaptability, or lack of it.

Behind the craving there is presumably some kind of expectation, some attractive outcome which is not surprising because it is already envisaged. It's the power of imagination.

So some people promote thorium as an attractive energy source, they crave the new experience of building a new energy source. Once developed they see thorium providing a secure energy supply, offering fewer surprises than the current mess. I'm sure many have the imagination to see this one, but presumably many don't.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - and yes, cyclists are far worse than motorcyclists.