Hallucinated Implications Creep (HIC): A bane of our time


Let me invite you to a thought experiment that you can conduct in the privacy of your own mind. Carefully observe your own inner reaction to the following statement of mine, which truthfully reflects my opinion on the matter: 

Donald Trump is a pathologically narcissistic, dangerously manipulative, clinically psychopathic and conspicuously unintelligent individual whose sole priority is himself, and who has no scruples about lying through his teeth so to deceive and use millions of people for the sole sake of his own personal agenda.

I've chosen my words so to deliberately evoke a strong emotional response in you. Now that you are aware of my opinion, you can conduct the thought experiment—whose results only you will ever know—by checking which of the statements below you now think apply to me:

  1. Bernardo would have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  2. Bernardo is a liberal/lefty/democrat.
  3. Bernardo likes Joe Biden.
  4. Bernardo doesn't espouse conservative values.
  5. Bernardo is a manipulative elitist.
Make a mental note of how many of the 5 statements above you are inclined to think are applicable to me, because of my opinion about Trump. Now let's try another sincere opinion of mine:

Consuming red meat regularly is something that we, at an individual level, should stop doing for our collective sake.

Don't overanalyse it, just check which of the following statements you feel apply to me, given my sincere opinion above:

  1. Bernardo is ignorant of the nutritional value of red meat.
  2. Bernardo doesn't understand that meat consumption is entirely natural for predatory primates such as ourselves.
  3. Bernardo is too romantic and naive about animal suffering, for nature is ruthless anyway.
  4. Bernardo is trying to take away my personal right to choose my own diet and life style.
  5. Bernardo is not sympathetic to the economic needs of animal farmers.
You, of course, know where I am going with this, given the title of this essay. Therefore, you are more-than-likely analysing all this with much more attention than usual, so to find whatever trap I might be laying for you. That's fine, but keep in mind that, under normal circumstances, you would be judging my opinions much more spontaneously and unthinkingly than in the context of this essay, and that is what I am trying to get at.

In this spirit, here is another sincere opinion of mine:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is unjustified, criminal and completely unacceptable. It should be opposed economically, politically and militarily by the West.

Now, what do you think applies to me, given my opinion above?

  1. Bernardo doesn't understand that NATO's eastwards expansion was provocative towards Russia.
  2. Bernardo is ignorant of the plight of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas and Crimea.
  3. Bernardo is a hypocrite, for Western powers have carried out criminal military interventions in other countries.
  4. Bernardo is a hypocrite, for the West supports authoritarian regimes in the middle east.
  5. Bernardo wants World War 3 and nuclear apocalypse.
Now go back and look more carefully at each of these three opinions of mine. This time, avoid the emotional knee-jerk reaction and analyse objectively what follows from my opinions and what doesn't; what I did say and what I didn't. If you do it carefully, you will see that none of the five seeming implications listed below each opinion is actually entailed or implied by the respective opinion. If you think any of them is, you are suffering from what I shall call 'Hallucinated Implications Creep,' or HIC, a very common bane of these troubled times.

Let us now review all this together, starting from my third opinion expressed above: it is perfectly coherent to both agree that NATO's expansion was a needlessly provocative step and believe that such a provocation doesn't justify—not even remotely—the barbaric invasion of another country. It is perfectly coherent to both think that the Ukrainian government has neglected the needs and rights of its Russian-speaking citizens—which it probably did—and believe that a barbaric invasion that indiscriminately kills and maims all Ukrainians, Russian-speaking and otherwise, is not the way to address the issue. To acknowledge that the West is guilty of criminal military actions does not mean that it is OK for Russia to do so now, let alone at a much greater scale; two wrongs don't make a right. The regretful Western support for totalitarian regimes elsewhere in the world doesn't mean that the West should overlook Russia's ravaging of another country in Europe; compounding a problem doesn't solve it. And finally, it doesn't follow from any of the above that I want a nuclear apocalypse; I just think that we shouldn't surrender to criminal totalitarian regimes such as Russia's because of a remote risk of wider confrontation. Otherwise, we might as well hand over everything we have to North Korea tomorrow. If the risk of nuclear confrontation justifies cowardly surrender, where does the surrendering then stop?

Notice that the key error here has to do with creating false dichotomies.

Now let's shift our attention to my perceived need for dramatically reducing our consumption of red meat. It doesn't occur to many—perhaps not to you either—that such an opinion may be motivated by, and based on, reasons other than the ones you would ordinarily expect. As a matter of fact, my key motivation for urging a reduction of red meat consumption has to do with the extremely inefficient, wasteful use of resources—think of land, energy, water, etc—required by intensive, industrial-scale red meat production (on a side note, only intensive red meat production can satisfy current demand levels, let alone the expected future demand as countries in Asia become more affluent). With the same resources, much more food—calories, proteins, vitamins—can be produced with much less detrimental environmental impact, feeding a lot more people more affordably. To mention only one example, red meat production is driving the destruction of the amazon, both directly—i.e. land clearances for pasture—and indirectly—i.e. land area used for the production of animal feed. As such, my opinion has little to do with the health value of red meat, the naturalness of predation, your personal dietary rights, etc. You may just have projected all that on me, but if so, that was your own hallucination, not anything I said.

Indeed, the error here has to do with assuming certain motivations or justifications for my opinion. In other words, the error is attributing to me something I did not say.

Now on to Trump. My opinion about his character is an opinion about, well, his character; not a global statement of general political positions or sympathies. As a matter of fact, I am largely a conservative, in the sense that I live my life rooted in certain traditions, have a strong sense of historical continuity and context, a relationship with the very land under my feet, have respect—even a feeling of responsibility—towards my ancestors, and a profound appreciation for a truly religious life. I have a deep anti-elitist mentality—which is rather obvious in both my work and interviews—and generally do not sympathise at all with Hillary Clinton. Were I an American citizen, I would have nullified my vote in 2016, as a protest against what I perceive as a profoundly dysfunctional two-party system.

The error here is trying to bin every political opinion in one of only two baskets. So if I am against Trump, I can only be pro Biden, right? If I detest Trump, I can only be a liberal and not a conservative, right? And so on: everything is either black or white—or rather, blue or red. This is, of course, silly. Indeed, it is entirely arbitrary and extraordinarily implausible to imagine that society is so simple as to allow for a binary classification of every position.

Hallucinated Implications Creep (HIC) is characterised by false dichotomies, unjustified assumptions, projections, implausibly simplistic categorisations, failures to recognise what was said and, perhaps even more importantly, what was not said. It renders us blind to every nuance and subtlety, thereby being literally stupefying.

The projections and hallucinations underpinning HIC spread like a web of false inferences and unjustified conclusions, creeping through the entire social dialogue like a virus. Indeed, it has come to characterise what passes for the present social dialogue. It causes us to talk past one another, fail to see what is being said, fail to understand what is and isn't entailed or implied by what is said, and generally make a mess of everything. It makes us argue against mere hallucinations—ghosts, fantasies—like deranged zealots, seeing enemies everywhere. It renders it impossible to find consensus.

HIC is a cognitive plague that social media has amplified to a level never before seen. And it may be our demise.

PS: You probably noticed that I've switched to British spelling. It's just that I have a newly-developed aversion for the letter 'Z' and what it has come to represent in 2022.

Dear Russians: An open letter

Dear Russians, 

On this day of remembrance, I want to share some thoughts with you as someone who has always not only respected and admired you as a people and a culture, but also loved you. Russia has been an enormous part of my life since I was 23 years-old. I know you more intimately than most of my peers in the West. You are very dear to me, and very close to my heart.

There is little doubt in my mind, as a Westerner, that NATO's expansion towards the borders of your country, over the past couple of decades, has been unnecessary—given the examples of Sweden and Finland, who are safe, prosperous countries without being members of NATO—and could legitimately be construed as geopolitical provocation; I did not support such expansion. I also acknowledge that there was a case to be made about the basic rights and interests of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine not having been safeguarded enough—perhaps even criminally ignored—by the Ukrainian government. Finally, I do not blame you, as a people, for the downing of an airliner, a few years ago, in which I've personally lost a friend and colleague, alongside his entire family and dozens of other compatriots. Even in my professional live I've attempted to bring you and the West closer together, for it is my firm conviction that we share common values and are members of the same family. I dream of a time when Russia will be a member of the European Union, not as its ruler, but as an equal partner. For, again, there is much, much more that unites us than what divides us.

None of the above, however, justifies invading a sovereign country, systematically bombing their civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure as a deliberate war strategy (namely, depopulation), raping their women as a matter of course, promoting falsehoods about their government's actions and motivations that encourage (war) crimes, and using the lives of Russian soldiers as expendable cannon fodder. Whatever provocations you have suffered at the hands of NATO and the West, you must keep in mind that NATO did not invade you, bombed you, or committed any factual act of aggression towards you. It is not legitimate to answer potential, abstract threats with actual, concrete violence; let alone atrocities. Your government is criminal not only in its intentions, but in its acts on the ground. Unlike your government's paranoia about the West, there is no question about the worst it—i.e. your government—could do; for it has done it already. And no, manipulated as we in the West may also be by our media, we know enough with sufficient certainty about what is going on, because biased as our media is, it is not fully controlled by the state, as yours is.

Let me be frank: your leader is a paranoid psychopath who controls and manipulates you through holding a monopoly of your media and systematically assassinating his critics. To protect his power—and therefore himself, for a dictator's only way to physically survive is to remain in power—your leader uses your lives and the lives of your sons on the battle field as currency. He is not acting out of your interests, but out of his own, as well as his paranoid, pathological geopolitical abstractions. Regrettably, as far as actions on the ground are concerned, you are now the Nazi state you so abhor. And none of this serves you; on the contrary. As I write this, a dear loved one of mine cannot get cancer treatment in Russia because of the criminal mess your government has started.

The West, by the very greedy character of its capitalist system, has no interest in destroying you; it has never had. Cynical as this may sound, the West wants you as a vibrant, prosperous, healthy market for its products. Ironically, it is precisely the shadowy side of the 21st-century West that prevents it from being a committed mortal foe of any country. Even aggressive, expansionist enemies of Western democracies, such as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, have been quickly helped into becoming rich, prosperous countries by their conquerors shortly after being defeated. You must recognize the unambiguous truth of this fact.

You must also recognize another undeniable fact: the Western world has expanded because its new members have chosen to be part of it. No member of the European Union or NATO has been forced to join. Their joining has, invariably, been the result of an open social debate and, directly or indirectly, of a popular vote. And many of the newest NATO members have had very good historical motivations for joining, for they have been victims of Russian expansionism and oppression not so long ago. Think of the Prague Spring, the invasion of Finland in 1939, the oppression of the Baltic states, and so on. Unlike the West, the Russian sphere of influence has grown not because of voluntary support from the countries in it, but because of the use of (the threat of) force by Russia. Your government's friends in Belarus and Kazakstan are themselves dictators who have a leash tied around the necks of their people. There is no equivalence between the West and your expansionist past, despite the self-serving rhetoric of your government.

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, many in the West have gone out of their way to embrace you, despite your government's history. Germany, for instance, ignoring constant protests by the USA, has believed for thirty years that engaging with you as a friend was the way forward. Many of the citizens of the Western world, myself included, have always played down the threats some believed your government posed to our way of life. But your government has now proven the hawks right and I wrong; it has now made clear that it, indeed, is capable of the unthinkable.

Your government has proven that Russia does pose a very real, physical, present danger to us. It has singlehandedly created the very reality it claims to have wanted to prevent: the invasion of Ukraine has revitalized NATO, given it an obvious reason to exist and expand, given Sweden and Finland reasons to abandon decades of neutrality, Germany reason to dramatically increase their military spending and abandon their pacifist policies, and the whole of Europe reason to gravitate more towards the USA and away from you, after years of the opposite process having taken place. It has also solidified, beyond anything anyone thought possible, the national character of Ukraine as a state, culture and people distinct from you. None of this is happening because of paranoid speculations or geopolitical abstractions; it is happening because of the concrete acts of your government and military in Ukraine. Your government is doing all this, not our leaders; the latter were powerless to do any of this up until the 24th of February of 2022, and would still be powerless to do so now, had your government not embraced barbarity in our shared continent. The speed and success of your government in shooting Russia in the foot is nothing short of fantastic.

It's you who will pay the price for the barbarism and sabre-rattling of the Kremlin; and you already are. I live this reality in my little microcosm: I can't send money to pay for my niece's university education anymore, or to help pay for the cancer treatment of her grandfather. I, as a Western citizen, now take very seriously the threat of nuclear attack your government constantly suggests and implies. I care about my and my loved ones' lives here as much as I care about you. And for this reason, someone like me is now an ardent supporter of sanctions against you, ache as my heart does for the effects these sanctions have on you. For all of your advanced military hardware, your airplanes, your missiles, which are now trained at my backyard (quite literally, for I live just outside a major military air base), depend on Western technology, parts and the money the West spends buying your natural resources. Why would we continue to do this if what your government does with those resources is not only to threaten our lives, but to actually kill us, as is now happening in Ukraine? Nobody here is suicidal, despite our political idealism and occasional naiveness. Regrettably, therefore, the price for our security will be to strangle your economy into an unprecedented era of de-industrialization that will mean—whatever your government is claiming through its disinformation machine—great hardship and pain for almost all of you; and us too. What a tragedy this is. Yet, the responsibility lies squarely with a government that claims to act in your name.

Ultimately, you, too, carry responsibility for what your government does in your name, with the resources you generate as working citizens.

With love and sincerity,

Bernardo Kastrup


Fake News and all, the West isn't Russia (or China)

There is a pernicious and false kind of equivalence I often hear some people try to establish: that democracies are no better than totalitarian regimes and their propaganda, for in the West, too, people are manipulated by the media through fake news and the like. These same people also often claim that journalism is dead and, therefore, social media and amateur citizen journalism are as legitimate a source of news as professional news channels.

In making these assertions, people start from true and concerning observations, but then proceed to insufficiently justified generalizations (the "Hasty Generalization Fallacy") and evidence cherry-picking (the "Texas Sharp Shooter Fallacy"). It is certainly true that Western professional media, in an effort to remain relevant (read economically viable) in the age of Facebook and Twitter, has often descended to tabloid level. A quick look at the likes of Chris Cillizza on CNN or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, to speak only of the American left, reveals a degree of puerility, superficially, over simplification, silliness and immaturity that almost offends. Matters are arguably worse in some channels of the American right, where any semblance of journalism has fallen into a sinkhole and conservatism has become equated with stupidity. And Europe doesn't escape unscathed from this nightmare either.

But none of this entails or implies that all journalism is now unreliable and manipulative in character. There is still good, professional, well-meaning journalism, and it remains one of the key cornerstones of democracy. There are many professionals out there risking their lives because their calling to chronicle what's happening in the world, as honestly as they possibly can, is irresistible. They give expression to a fundamental archetype of the human psyche, whose very existence ensures that there will always be reliable news sources.

I will not name what I consider to be reliable news sources here, since I believe that figuring this out is a matter of personal responsibility. After all, even to trust my own opinions on this matter you would have first to decide that I am a reliable source of opinions myself. But these reliable sources still do exist, even if you have to switch to different sources depending on specific circumstances. And the way to find them is to look at their track record, particularly at how they've reacted to their own mistakes in the past. Not all is lost.

Be that as it may, the most important point here is the following: in the West, we can choose our trusted news sources, for we have options; and we can criticize views and sources publicly, thereby participating actively in the cultural dialogue; we can debate and divulge our opinions. As a matter of fact, it is precisely these freedoms that impress upon us the very realization that our own media has largely gone awry; it is precisely these freedoms that have made our problem visible, recognizable, so something can be done about it.

If I were an American in the US in, say, 2020, I would have been able to say publicly that Donald Trump is a dangerous narcissistic psychopath, with a disastrous track record and an obviously low IQ, liable to destroying the country and the world with it; and I wouldn't have been arrested for saying this (I'd just have gotten a lot of flak on my social media timelines). But were I—a modestly well-known public figure—to say something like this about Xi, in China, in public, I'm not sure what would happen to me. Were I a Russian who states in public, on Red Square, that Russian actions in Ukraine are abhorrent and criminal, I would most certainly be arrested, for that is what the law calls for in Russia.

We cannot allow these enormous differences to be lost on us. There are no independent news sources in Russia and China; the government controls it all. Dissension and protest are punishable by law. There is very little freedom of expression. And that is precisely the reason why, at first sight, their news media may sound more professional and dignified: it is forbidden to bring the manipulation and charades—even the sheer stupidity—of their governments' actions into the open, in the interest of public debate.

What may at first look most unprofessional and disgusting in Western news media—the adolescent tone, the bias, the bile, the outrage, etc.—is part of what enables the checks and balances that give us alternatives and protects our individual dignity. We have many problems as a culture and a society, materialism being just one of them, but let us not allow these problems to prevent us from recognizing what we do get right. Our system is, by nature, one that brings its own problems quickly into the light of public debate. For this reason, it will always look bad when contrasted to the sanitized and glossy veneer of a Russia or a China. But unlike totalitarian regimes, ours is less prone to rotting from the inside, out of sight until it's too late to do anything about it.


Evil abstraction: the psychology of totalitarianism

How do we begin to make sense of the mentality of a person, even an entire political regime, that equates complete annihilation with 'liberation'? How do we make sense of an attempt to save and protect a people by raping, torturing, massacring and utterly destroying this people? Are these claims to 'liberation' and 'protection' just cynical public relations messaging meant to mask good-old economic interests, or is the essence of the situation a lot more complex, involved and nuanced than that? And what do these claims reveal about totalitarianism as a form of government?

Many philosophers have had sympathies for, flirted with, or even flat-out subscribed to, totalitarian regimes. Nazi party member Martin Heidegger was just a particularly prominent and relatively recent example. This isn't too hard to understand: democracy is messy, slow to come to solutions, and equates the self-perceived intellectual elite with the masses when it comes to political power, for every vote counts the same. Many philosophers may see this as a kind of levelling at the bottom, which wastes human potential.

And here I must humbly make a confession; a confession mostly to myself, made in the form of a public acknowledgment: I, too, have had limited sympathies for certain forms of totalitarianism. If you continue to read this essay from this point on, please read it through to the end, otherwise you will be left with the impression that the point I am trying to make is the opposite of what I intend.

For 15 years I was married to a Russian originally from the Donbas (we've been divorced for a decade now, but are still friends and I still consider her family—some of whom are still in the Donbas—my family). As such, I've had the opportunity to share in the lives of a typical Russian family from the late 90s up until deep into the Putin era. And it is a fact that the lives of average Russians (except, of course, those in Chechnya) significantly improved in the first years of Putin's rule. He brought back a degree of stability, limited economic security and a healthy sense of pride in being Russian. Compared to the drunken Yeltsin years, those were welcome changes.

And so I was willing, for a long time, to overlook the obvious shortcomings of Putin's government: the cynical assassination of dozens of political opponents, growing corruption that increasingly reminded me of the plundering of Russian wealth by the original Yeltsin oligarchs, press censorship, etc.; all the hallmarks of totalitarianism. Perhaps because of its history—or so I reasoned in my own internal apologetics—Russian society needs a strong hand to be stable; maybe it's just part of the national character and psychology, and we shouldn't be arrogant to the point of thinking that our chosen form of government in the West should apply to everybody.

I've worked in the high-tech industry for well over two decades. During that time, I've had the opportunity to visit China repeatedly, and to work with Chinese both inside and outside China. Indeed, some of the Chinese I know are the smartest people I've ever met (you know who you are, if you are reading this). And it is undeniable that the lives of the average Chinese have improved markedly over the past two decades. Perhaps—I thought—a strong hand is what the Chinese culture and society, given their history, need to be stable and foment economic progress. For even though I am a philosopher, I am very keenly aware that philosophy is irrelevant if one doesn't have a roof over one's head, food on the plate, security for one's family, and healthcare. And many more Chinese have those things today than did in the late 1990s.

Then came COVID, which laid bare the shortcomings of consensus-seeking democracies: while China reacted promptly and took all necessary (and hard) measures, we, in the West, were initially paralysed by discord, marred in nonsensical conspiracy theories and entertaining hysterical fake news on social media; what a circus that was. That caused me to have doubts about the long-term viability of Western democracy: if the vote of a thoughtful and responsible citizen counts the same as those of hysterical idiots out to create havoc just for the heck of it (yes, these people exist), where are we going to end up? If fringe nonsense amasses popular support comparable to that of hard science, what are we to expect of our future?

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sobered me up and brought into sharp focus the fundamental difference between the admittedly semi-dysfunctional Western democracies and totalitarian regimes: the latter create an environment extraordinarily conducive to the replacement of human empathy and compassion with ego-inflated geopolitical abstraction; an environment liable to losing touch with human reality and, thereby, turning into an instrument of great suffering.

Some pundits say that Putin does what he does just so he can steal more money. I don't think this holds water. I think Putin, who is now turning 70, is in a desperate search for meaning in his life. He has bought into certain historical, sociological and geopolitical abstractions about Russianness, about the glory and role of the Russian Empire, fantasies about land powers like Russia—in contrast to maritime powers such as the UK—being the guarantors of family values and traditions. As someone deeply anchored in the so-called maritime powers (Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands are all maritime powers), I know from empirical experience that family and traditional values are as much a part of maritime cultures as they are of land powers. But as nonsensical a fantasy as this stuff may be, I do believe Putin has bought into it, so to place the meaning and purpose of his existence in a greater historical context. His desperate attempt to cement the meaning of his life before his personal death is as intrinsically human as it is dangerous, when it unfolds within a totalitarian context.

Under totalitarianism, the head of state begins to identify with the nation, including its historical past and its fantasized future. This is an exacerbated form of ego inflation that robs one of one's own humanity: after all, one is now a historical figure larger than life, an abstract immortal, something more akin to a slick marble statue than a mere human who must sit on the toilette bowl, every day, to do the stinky business of moist, warm biology.

The problem is that, if one loses one's anchor in humanity, one becomes a great danger to humanity. For human life is now expendable, a means to an end. The warm and moist character of life becomes insignificant before the abstract, slick, sanitized, mythological greatness of Mother Russia, its historical significance and role in the geopolitics of the planet.

This way, the state acquires a standalone ontological status that, in reality, it can't possibly have: after all, there is nothing to the state but the warm, moist, suffering lives of its citizens. There is nothing to the state but the lives of its citizens. Warm, moist, conscious human life is the only carrier of reality any state can ever have. But in the mind of an ego-inflated totalitarian ruler, the state becomes a thing unto itself, its people being merely its servants, means to an end. Not only that, the ruler becomes the very embodiment of the state, no longer a mere mortal. In this grandiose mythological narrative, the suffering of the people is an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice for the glory and transcendence of the state.

At this point, pure abstraction—groundless fantasy, story, made-up nonsense—replaces a faculty almost every person is born with: the ability to empathize with another human being, to feel compassion for people's suffering, to recognize the conscious inner lives of people as the only human reality that there can ever be. Totalitarian rulers lose their humanity—their humanness—and become an instrument for the destruction of the very thing they swore to defend: their own people, who are the nation. And so Putin, by annihilating Mariupol, has 'liberated' the Slavic nation: a fantasy of his pathological mind is liberated within the confines of his pathological mind, while the reality of human life is barbarized. In his mind, Putin is 'saving' an entirely abstract Ukraine by turning the real thing to rubble, raping its women, killing its children. Contact with reality—the reality of conscious suffering—is lost in the name of de-humanized, ego-inflated fantasies of grandeur. This is what evil is.

Indeed, many of us seem to have a very naive understanding of evil: we think evil is deliberate sadism, the felt delight of inflicting pain. This is not what real evil is, for sadism loses its appeal when the suffering of another becomes a statistic, as opposed to a very personal, very intimate experience one-on-one. Sadism doesn't thrive on large numbers, on industrial scales, but real evil does, for it is precisely the de-personalization entailed by large numbers that foments a departure from reality and into fantasized abstraction. The greatest evil-doers are precisely those who believe, sincerely, that they are the ones with the guts to do what is necessary for the greater (totally abstract) good, despite the costs. Hitler did. Stalin did. Putin undoubtedly does.

Make no mistake, it is now patently clear that Putin is evil. He is destroying not only the real Ukraine, but also the real Russia. He is bringing devastating, incomprehensible suffering into the only reality of any people, any state: the experienced reality of its individuals. For the sake of impersonal geopolitical abstractions, he has lost sight of the fact that individual experience is the only carrier of reality we can ever have.

Now, as dysfunctional and slow to act as democracies may be, they do not offer fertile ground for this extraordinarily dangerous form of madness. Democratic leaders are, by and large, not given the (psychological) chance to identify with the state. Whatever ego-inflation they may be predisposed to, the system's checks and balances... well, check and balance the leader's view of themselves. The rotation of power and the social scope of debate prevents the type of myopia and limited view of reality that leads autocratic rulers to take their mere opinions for 'The Truth.' The shadow we all carry inside gets less chance to dominate a democratic system.

The simple truth is almost cliché: unchecked power corrupts. Democracies are less conducive to this kind of moral corruption, for democratic leaders are constantly being confronted by the opposition, the press and the people. Inefficient as it may be, this factor alone renders democracy the form of government least prone to the catastrophic effects of grandiose geopolitical abstraction—that is, to real evil.

In hindsight, the ostensive inefficiency and dysfunction of democratic governments turns out not to be as bad as I originally thought: ultimately, the West did do what was necessary to curtail the pandemic, despite all the hysteria and nonsense. Who would have guessed, prior to 2020, that we could adapt our way of life so dramatically, and so quickly, to address the problem? Working productively from home became our normal modus operandi within mere weeks; not traveling didn't prevent us from doing business and carrying on with life; effective vaccines were developed, tested and deployed to entire populations within months; the wearing of face masks in public became very matter-of-fact in our culture within weeks. It is almost incredible that we could adapt so much so quickly, and to consider these enormous changes all pretty normal in almost no time at all. Prior to the pandemic, these adaptations would have seemed unthinkable. Yet, here we are, with the pandemic more or less under control, while Shanghai is in total lockdown. The dysfunction of democracies may be more superficial than I, and other philosophers before me, thought.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think the West should become some kind of police of the world, and impose our own preferred form of government on peoples with different values and history. The more distinct from ours the history and values of a culture or society are, the more unreliable are our value judgments about how they should live and organize themselves. But when a totalitarian regime gains ground in the midst of our own world, our own culture and value systems, I believe we have the moral and practical obligation to defend our way of life. In this context, the Western reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine is inappropriate only in the sense that it may be more restrained than it should have been. Once compassion is replaced with abstraction in a well-armed government, our way of life is threatened and we need to defend it, should we want to continue to live as we have thus far.

In Europe—if not everywhere—totalitarianism is a committal step towards evil. History has shown this again and again, and I feel embarrassed for having overlooked and relativized such a fact. While I admire the nonviolent approaches of a Gandhi or a Luther King, if they are coming to rape my partner, torture my cats, destroy my house and kill me, I will do whatever is necessary to defend myself, my loved ones, and my hard-earned property.

I am surprised when I see some of my readers concluding that such a forceful approach contradicts the oneness of a universal mind. Analytic idealism isn't romantic; in my mind, it isn't at all contradictory with the recognition that, although evil is intrinsic to nature and, as such, to universal consciousness itself, it is still not okay or tolerable; that humans have the moral obligation to pass value judgments and act accordingly, so to deter evil; and that sometimes only force stops it. You will never hear me say that, since the rapist, too, is an aspect of universal consciousness, we should in some sense—any sense at all—tolerate the rape; absolutely not.

My views here should not be taken for naïveté about geopolitics in the West. I am keenly aware that Western powers prop up, finance and protect totalitarian regimes across the world because of economic interests. I am keenly aware that Western militaries have treated some places in the world in ways comparable to how the Russian military is treating Ukraine today. And I am keenly aware that the country that passes for the greatest defender of democracy in the world today operates according to a political and economic system that, technically, doesn't even qualify as democratic. Our hypocrisy is far reaching and abominable.

Yet, the principles I have tried to outline above do not become invalid because of that hypocrisy. We may have a long way to go, but to progress we must have mature clarity about which path to take. Despite my past misgivings, it is clear to me, today, that the path to pursue is one of democracy, press freedom, open political debate, and the protection of individual freedoms and human rights. Totalitarianism, even when it starts well, invariably leads to catastrophe, with unfathomable costs not only for its own people, but its neighbors too.

My vote shall thus never go to anyone who, more or less like a past version of me, engages in apologetics towards totalitarianism, cosies up and schmoozes with autocratic rulers beyond the demands of diplomatic courtesy, offers admiring remarks to criminal governments, or betrays ambitions towards totalitarianism themselves. Alluring as the efficiency and speed of autocracies may be, they are a slippery slope towards geopolitical abstraction, ego inflation, the devaluing of human life, and therefore flat-out evil. And I shall never collaborate with, offer justifications for, or even tolerate, evil.

Hossenfelder digs herself into a deeper hole

YouTubing physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has now replied to my criticism of her debate performance against me, published yesterday on this blog. Her reply can be found here. As you read it, try to keep in mind the context. Namely, in my criticism I focused on the following statement that Hossenfelder made during the debate: 

I argued that this was simply not true: in the papers she referred to as substantiation for her statement, hidden variables are not defined. This is important, for this false statement has set the ethos of the entire debate, and made me look like I was fatally uninformed about her output. I had just "looked at the wrong paper," poor silly me:

Never mind the fact that the very paper she is referring to in the clip above does not define tenable hidden variables; it's just a toy model, as discussed in my previous post.

Her reply now is, one would assume, meant to argue that her statement that she did define the hidden variables somewhere is, in fact, correct. Now go ahead and read her reply with this in mind, before I influence you with my commentary below.

Notice first that the first 14 paragraphs of her reply have absolutely nothing to do with the points in contention. They broaden the scope of the discussion not only beyond physics, but beyond anything of any technical relevance to the discussion. This is particularly peculiar since Hossenfelder had insisted, as a precondition for her participation in the debate, that the scope be limited to her superdeterministic views alone, and not encompass anything beyond, especially philosophy. I had to agree to that. But now she voluntarily broadens the scope way beyond my wildest dreams. One must wonder what motivated her to do so, instead of staying focused on the very specific issues in contention. Be that as it may, right now the roles seem to be inverted, for I am much more interested in staying very sharply focused on the issues in contention.

I leave it to you to interpret the 14 initial paragraphs of her reply and extract conclusions from them. I think what they reveal is clear enough (and interesting, too) to obviate further commentary from me.

Now, notice that in the rest of her reply, instead of trying to argue that, as per the video clip above, she did define the hidden variables, she tries instead to justify why she didn't. As such, her reply is a rather explicit admission that her categorical statement during the debate was indeed false: she did not specify the hidden variables in those earlier papers. I will quote the salient passages of her reply below just for an abundance of clarity; but basically the entire reply, after the weird initial paragraphs, is an admission. I use snapshots below to preclude any chance of misquoting her.

The above is pretty clear: she is justifying why she did not define the hidden variables; after all, it's a "waste of time" to do so and she is very busy. Be that as it may, this unambiguously confirms my criticism: Hossenfelder misrepresented her own work during the debate, in order to save face and try to make me look like someone fatally ignorant of her output. And as an aside, the reason why "there are too many ways [the hidden variables] could be [defined]" is that they are entirely arbitrary figments of the imagination, ungrounded in empirical observation, so anything goes.

Now a very strange passage:

Indeed she said that at a later passage of the debate, but that isn't the point. The point is that she is suggesting here that it was me who incorrectly said that she claimed to have defined the hidden variables; she has always maintained that she never did it! To this, I can only offer the following, once again:

I am not doing this just to gratuitously and repeatedly stick my finger in the wound; I'm not trying to do character assassination. But during the debate Hossenfelder attempted (and probably succeeded, in the eyes of many viewers) to make me look like an ignorant fool by flat-out misrepresenting her own output. I ought to defend myself against that overt suggestion, which I consider to have been rhetorical and dishonest, violating all basic debate ethics. Just consider the vibe in this segment again, and pretend that you don't know what you now know, having read my posts and, above all, her admission:

Now, if at this point you feel like ignoring this whole thing because it's becoming too personal and ugly, and not about content anymore, I urge you to stay the course, because it's integral to understanding what's going on in our culture. The problem is largely about trust and character. The accumulated human knowledge at our disposal today makes it impossible for any one person to know enough about everything of relevance without having to trust some authority figure. Therefore, we must trust someone, and choosing who to trust is critical.

What this ugly engagement shows is that it is entirely possible for someone who sincerely considers themselves honest to arbitrarily dismiss substantive points, deflect and mislead to a level that flirts with lying, just to save face and avoid being pinned down during a debate, thereby protecting their public image at the cost of someone else's. How many of Hossenfelder's YouTube subscribers have the knowledge of particle physics required to objectively and critically evaluate her countless bold claims? How many even want to do so, as opposed to taking her on her word, insofar as it confirms their own views and provides reassurance?

This is the cultural game today. If you want to really understand what's happening, an engagement like this one is quite revealing, even if ugly.

Now a slightly more technical point, for the sake of completeness, if you still have the energy to stay with me on this. The point of her reply where Hossenfelder suggests some possible definition of the hidden variables is this:

Of course, to just say that the hidden variables are "the degrees of freedom of the detector" is just a linguistic definition, and a very loose one at that, not a scientific one. For comparison, imagine a neuroscientist saying: "consciousness is the involuntary wiggling of the left big toe." This, too, is a linguistic definition, but not a scientific one. For scientific definitions entail characterizing the thing defined in a way that is explicit and coherent with the role the thing is supposed to play within a theory. In the case of consciousness, the neuroscientist would have to justify their definition by explicitly and coherently hypothesizing a link between left-big-toe-wiggling and the felt qualities of experience.

For instance, not that long ago the Higgs boson was just an imaginary theoretical entity: it had never been observed (well, actually it had been, but we didn't have enough statistics to claim a discovery). Nonetheless, imaginary as it was at the time, it was still scientifically defined: Peter Higgs had given us a fairly complete, explicit and coherent characterization of the Higgs boson, and its role within the standard model. We knew the energy ranges in which we expected to find it; we knew which particles it likely decayed into and why it did so; importantly, we also knew how it played its role within the standard model: namely, by accounting for inertia (i.e. making sense of why not everything is moving at the speed of light all the time) through its associated Higgs field. Now that was a scientific definition of an imaginary theoretical entity. Hossenfelder provides no such a thing; not even remotely (and no, her 'toy model' obviously doesn't count, because, as the first author of her own paper admits explicitly and as discussed in my previous post, that model is not applicable to... well, reality).

As a matter of fact, Hossenfelder seems to have acknowledged, during the tweet exchange between us upon the publication of her reply, that she adopts a merely linguistic understanding of what a 'definition' entails:

Of course, what Kermit the frog can do is an arbitrary, merely linguistic definition of the hidden variables, such as 'hidden variables are the blueness of the sky,' or something to that effect. But that is not what I could have possibly meant when I confronted her with her lack of theoretical definition; and Hossenfelder, of course, knows it. But just as she did in the debate, she is willing to use dismissiveness, deflection, dissimulated confusion and misleading statements, all for purely rhetorical purposes.

Anticipating a question that is probably coming, I will never say 'no' to a debate against a person whose positions I have taken the initiative to criticize harshly in public. So if Hossenfelder wants to debate again, I am game. That said, I don't think another debate would be any more productive than the first, or take this discussion any further; for I am now convinced, to my own satisfaction, that Hossenfelder does not engage according to what I consider to be the minimum level of intellectual honesty required to render the debate fruitful.

Sabine Hossenfelder's bluf called

My debate with YouTuber physicist Sabine Hossenfelder is now available in video format: 

This was originally motivated by an essay I wrote a couple of weeks ago criticizing Hossenfelder's 'hidden variables' theory as fantasy. Since then, I offered further criticism in parts of a more recent essay. 

As such, the point of the present post is not to rehash arguments already presented, but to tackle one specific part of the debate: at one point, I claim that Hossenfelder has never precisely specified what the 'hidden variables' are supposed to be. I was referring to a 2019 draft paper in which Hossenfelder makes an experiment proposal to substantiate hidden variables, even without specifying what they're supposed to be. The reason the proposed experiment is so vague and cumbersome is precisely because it tries to control for the initial state of undefined hidden variables.

But during the debate, as you can see in the video above, Hossenfelder claimed unambiguously that she had in fact defined what the hidden variables are supposed to be (see the video from this point, where she says, "you are asking, did I define the variables? I've defined them"); and that she had done that all the way back in 2011. This would be a case in which her earlier literature would have been more complete than her output of ten years later, which was confusing to me. Why propose an experiment, in 2019, that is so cumbersome precisely because Hossenfelder didn't know what she was supposed to control for, if she actually had this knowledge ten years earlier?

After the debate, I received a number of links from her by email. Two were meant to address the point mentioned abovenamely, the specification of what the hidden variables are supposed to be: this and this paper. The former is a small subset of the latter, so I'll limit my commentary to this latter one.

The paper is an experiment proposal largely identical to the 2019 one, just with some more introductory discussion. But it, too, explicitly acknowledges lack of knowledge of what the hidden variables are supposed to be. Indeed, the thrust of the paper is precisely to propose an experiment that is somehow meaningful while not specifying the hidden variables. Consider this passage, for instance, in which the experimental conditions are discussed step by step:

1. Instead of measuring a sequence of individually prepared states, chose a setting in which the state (at least with some probability) is returned into the initial state and repeated measurements on the same state can be performed.

2. The experimental setup itself and the detector should be as small as possible to minimize the number of hidden variables (i.e. N should be small).

3. The repetition of measurements should be as fast as possible so any changes to the hidden variables of the detector in between measurements are minimized (i.e. κ < τ).

These proposals are meant precisely to circumvent lack of understanding of what the hidden variables are supposed to be. It is for this reason that one needs to avoid "a sequence of individually prepared states" (so not to reset the hidden variables, whatever they may be), make the detector "as small as possible to minimize the number of hidden variables" (whatever they may be), and repeat the measurements "as fast as possible so any changes to the hidden variables [whatever they may be] in between measurements are minimized." Throughout the text, the paper implicitly acknowledges that the authors do not know what the hidden variables are supposed to be; they just make assumptions about some boundary constraints. For instance, in this passage:

Most crucially, we have made the minimalist assumption that the hidden variables stem from the correlation with the detector and possibly other parts of the experimental setup. (emphasis added)

If they knew what the hidden variables were supposed to be, there would have been no need for such an assumption; they would know, not assume.

I am not sure, therefore, why Hossenfelder felt that this, in any way, addresses my point of criticism; if anything, it seems to reconfirm it. Perhaps she felt that the extended introductory discussion provides some more definition. She talks, for instance, of "Corr(ν, κ)," the correlation that one expects to observe if hidden variables are true. But this just formalizes, mathematically, what the 2019 paper proposed; it doesn't provide any additional clarity about what the hidden variables are supposed to be. It is also true that this earlier paper provides some more discussion about some boundary conditions of the experiment, but that doesn't entail or imply any precise definition of the supposed hidden variables.

In the spirit of being as charitable as possible towards her position, I perused the other links she sent. The paper that seems to come the closest to defining what the hidden variables are supposed to be is this one, seemingly yet to be peer-reviewed and published, from 2020.

While this later paper makes an attempt to be more specific about the nature of the hidden variables, it is based on a toy model. As a matter of fact, the title of the paper is 'A Toy Model for Local and Deterministic Wave-function Collapse.' The model is not meant to be realistic at all; it's just an exercise in imagination to make some abstract mathematical points; it's not applicable to reality, but just to a much simplified, imaginary universe based on arbitrary assumptions known to be untrue in the real universe. It's a valid exercise, but it doesn't do anything about providing clarity regarding what real hidden variables are supposed to be. And this is not just my interpretation, it is acknowledged in the paper itself:

One should not think of this model as a viable description of nature because the way that the random variables enter the dynamics has no good motivation. ... This toy model avoids non-local interactions by hard-coding the dependence on the detector settings into the evolution law. This is another reason why one should not take this model too seriously: A good, fundamental, model should allow us to derive that the effective law for the prepared state depends on the detector settings. (original emphasis)

In conclusion, the papers referenced as answers to my criticism during the debate not only fail to refute my criticism, they appear to validate it. Hossenfelder's citation of these papers during the debate was a misleading—even flat-out falserhetorical tool of deflection: it sought to convey the impression that I was fatally ignorant of her work (an impression casual viewers are bound to walk away with) while my points were spot-on. This kind of misleading, hollow, but self-confident, assertive rhetoric seems, unfortunately, to be characteristic of Hossenfelder's videos andas I now know from experienceher defence of criticisms. Her rhetorical assertiveness is, at least sometimes, a facade that hides a surprising lack of actual substance. She doesn't debate, she deflects. These are very different things.

(Since publication, Hossenfelder has replied to this post and I offered a rejoinder here)


Thou Shall Deceive Thyself: On cognitive hallucinations and mind's prime directive

I am often asked if psychedelic or meditative insights have inspired my philosophical views, or at least confirmed them in some way. They did, but not in the way—or for the reasons—that most people would imagine. Indeed, I have a very ambiguous, dubious relationship with first-person revelations. I think they are very useful in a certain way, but should seldom be taken on face-value. This is what I want to talk about today.

I have often come across people who developed intricate metaphysical views after returning from rich trance states, be them induced by psychedelics, intense prayer or other meditative techniques. They regard their experiences in those states as revelations of 'The Truth' that underlies the illusion they then consider our ordinary lives to be. Complex mythologies emerge, involving demiurges, aliens from the Pleiades, transcendent entities with intense interest in humanity and intricate plans for our future, invisible backstage activity that allegedly maintains the veneer of the physical world, and so on.

I sympathize with these, for I know, from personal experience, how compelling—vivid, internally consistent, structured, familiar as childhood memories—those insights can be. They come accompanied by a sense of hyper-reality that is difficult to describe or shake off. It is as if they constituted a deeper, more original, primordial and authentic layer of experience than our ordinary lives. Therefore, I am not surprised at all that many buy into those insights wholesale. They do feel like something you once knew, then forgot, and now remember again. You say to yourself, "Of course! How could I have forgotten this? This is what is actually going on, I know it." These are powerful experiences that do convey important and true insights; just—perhaps—not the insights one initially thinks they do. Indeed, the disposition and power of mind to deceive itself is unfathomable, something a recent series of dreams has reminded me of.

As many of you know, I was born in Rio de Janeiro and spent my childhood there, before returning to the ancestral lands of Europe, the "mother of all demons," as Jung once put it. I've had what can only be described as an idyllic childhood, in contact with the extraordinarily rich nature that surrounds the city. Yet, I haven't been back there for about 25 years now—and even then, last time I visited I spent only a few days there.

The death of my father, when I was still quite young, sliced my life into two seemingly irreconcilable parts, completely alien to one another. My child self not only lived in a different place, but also thought different thoughts in different languages. As such, from the point of view of my adult self, my childhood has acquired the quality of a fairytale, a numinous myth that unfolded in an exotic land of dreams. It feels so unreal that sometimes I catch myself wondering if it actually happened; if it wasn't all just a familiar dream I grew so used to that I now take for granted.

Strangely, given enough time, reality can feel just as much like a dream as a dream can feel like reality. But I digress.

Recently, something—I no longer remember what—prompted me to reminisce about my strange, alien, yet wonderful childhood and the places where it unfolded. I suddenly realized how disconnected I have become from it, how long it has been since I re-visited those places, how estranged from an early part of myself I have become. And so I started wondering whether I shouldn't just hop into a plane—something I've done so regularly throughout my professional life—and go back there for a week. This may sound easy and trivial, but for me it isn't: I am an alien in my birth country; literally indeed but, most importantly, figuratively. I never really fit in, which was OK when I was a child but, as an adult, it can be confrontational, especially because Brazilians expect me to be and act Brazilian. And so I was struggling with the emotionally-charged question of whether to visit the city once again or not.

It was then that my 'obfuscated mind'—my preferred term for what Jung and Freud called 'the unconscious,' the matrix of dreams—responded to my emotional ambiguity and stress with a remarkable series of dreams.

In the first dream, I was back in Rio de Janeiro, as the adult I am today, walking around the city and wondering whether I might be just dreaming. "No," I said to myself; "this is real, I am really here at last; it's happened!" Soon enough, however, I woke up and realized it was indeed just a dream.

A couple of days later, another dream: again I was in Rio, ridding a bus this time, looking out the window and watching the people and buildings go by. While in the second dream, I remembered the first dream, as well as the fact that the first dream had been... well, just a dream. And so I wondered: "Some time ago I had this very realistic dream that I was back in Rio, and so maybe this, right now, is also just a dream; maybe I am not back at all." But after looking around more carefully, feeling the seat and the inner walls of the bus with my hands, I convinced myself that now, this second time, it wasn't a dream; that I was really there, in Rio, after all these years; that it had finally happened! And then, I woke up.

Another few days go by and I have a third dream, during which I remembered the first and second dreams, as well as the fact that the first and second dreams had been just... well, dreams. And so I wondered, "Could it be just another dream now as well? No, this time it is real. The very fact that I remember the previous dreams as dreams proves that I am lucidly awake right now..." And so on. You get the picture. This happened no less than five times during a period of perhaps two weeks. Each time I remembered all the previous ones, and knew that they had been just dreams. Yet, each time I convinced myself anew, without a shadow of a doubt, that that time it wasn't a dream; that that time it was for real.

There are two things my obfuscated mind was trying to tell me in its own more-than-allegorical language—the only language it can speak—with these dreams. The first is this: I am always in my Rio, for my Rio exists in me. I never left, for I carry it with me wherever I go. I really am in my Rio already right now, so why struggle with the question of whether I should fly there or not? The question misses the point entirely and arises from a misunderstanding of what is actually going on. My Rio is not a point in space; not even a point in spacetime; it's a state of mind. The series of dreams was the insistence of my obfuscated mind that I really am in Rio. Each time I dismissed this conclusion the obfuscated mind conjured up another dream, very explicitly addressing my specific doubt and taking the whole thing one meta-level up. It's amazing: the dreams were brilliantly designed to deal precisely with my ego's tendency to dismiss dreams! After so much insistence, how could I ignore the message? Only when I understood it, did the dream series stop.

The second message is a mirror image of the first: in insisting that the dreams were true, the obfuscated mind was indirectly insisting that the truth is dream-like; that our sense of reality, right now, is as much internally conjured up by mind as my sense of reality was during the dreams. In other words, our sense of reality isn't derived from objective observations, but arises endogenously instead; it's a phenomenon of mind, in mind.

And this, I think, is the take-home message from hyper-real trance states: that we so strongly believe them to be literally real during the trance—whereas we know, afterwards, that they couldn't have been so—tells us something crucial about our impression, right now, that our ordinary lives are literally what they seem to be. If mind can conjure up that kind of robust certainty during a purely mental event—even when explicitly and repeatedly confronted with sceptical questions about the reality of the event—how can we be sure that it isn't doing precisely the same right now? If it is, then this ordinary reality, too, is mind-made; this, too, is real in the same sense that my glorious return to Rio was real five times: it is mentally real, and that's all there is to it and anything else.

As such, the message from trance states is not that the demiurges and aliens from the Pleiades are realities outside mind; to conclude that is to invert the meaning of the metaphor, to get things backwards. The message is, instead, that this waking reality, too, is not outside mind; for in both cases our sense of reality is endogenous—a cognitive hallucination, or a hallucination of beliefs and reasoning, as opposed to perceptions—not an external, objective fact.

Nonetheless, our sense of hyper-reality during trance states is justifiable: yes, the aliens and demiurges are indeed true. And our subsequent skepticism is also justifiable: yes, the demiurges and aliens are indeed just mental creations of mind. Do you see the point? Common and tempting as it may be, the dichotomy between the qualifiers 'mental' and 'real' is a false and unhelpful one, a culture-bound logical fallacy. It is precisely in their hallucinatory nature that the aliens and demiurges are as true as our ordinary lives (notice that I'm leaving aside the question of how consensual these hallucinations may be, which is an important question I've addressed in my books, but which is outside the scope of this essay). Both embody the metaphorical language of the deeper, transpersonal layers of the obfuscated mind, forever busy talking to itself through self-deception. Just as my series of dreams, it will only stop when it gets itself.

Self-deception is mind's way to talk to, and make sense of, itself; for it can only express itself to itself through the production of inner imagery.

Stronger yet, mind's prime directive is to deceive itself, for only through self-deception can reality—any reality—be conjured up into existence and thereby evoke enough affection. Parmenides already hinted at this at the very birth of the Western mind. Peeling the layers of self-deception is like peeling an onion: at the end, nothing is left other than the mere potential for experience. The demiurges and aliens are all, indeed, just mind-made hallucinations; but so is this, right now. If you can wrap your mind around that, you will see the world with very different eyes.