Feb 132005

After months of diligent study I have finally become the person you edge away from at parties. At the last one I attended I began, after a few drinks, to dilate on alpha theory as usual. One of the guests suggested that I become a prophet for a new cult, which was certainly a lucky thing, and I want to thank him, because that joke would never have occurred to me on my own.

As with party-goers, so with blog-readers. The vast majority of my (former) readership has greeted alpha theory with some hostility but mostly indifference, and for excellent reason. It is a general theory, and humans have high sales resistance to general theories.

Generality offends in itself. Theories of human behavior apply to all humans, and that means you. If you’re anything like me, and you are, when you look at a graphed distribution of some human characteristic, no matter what it is, you harbor a secret hope that you fall at a tail, or better still, outside the distribution altogether. It is not that we are all above average, like the children of Lake Woebegon. Oh no: we are all extraordinary. Surely the statistician has somehow failed to account for me and my precious unique inviolable self. Nobody wants to be a data point. General theories, including alpha theory, often involve equations, and nobody likes an equation either.

General theories are also susceptible to error, the more susceptible the more general they are. An old academic joke about general surveys applies to general theories as well. I first heard it about Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, a once-common college text, but it has made the rounds in many forms. Whichever English professor you asked about Parrington, he would praise the book, adding parenthetically, “Of course he knows nothing about my particular subject.”

Someone seeking to explain a wide range of apparently disparate phenomena usually overlooks a few facts. By the time these are brought to his attention he is too heavily invested in the theory to give it up. He hides or explains away the offending facts and publishes his theory anyway, to world-wide yawns.

The gravest danger of a general theory is that it might be true — more precisely, that you may come to believe it. Believing a new general theory is a mighty expensive proposition. You’ve built up a whole complicated web of rules that have worked for you in the past, and now you have to go back and reevaluate them all in light of this new theory. This is annoying, and a gigantic energy sink besides. General theories, including alpha theory, tend to attract adherents from among the young, who have less to throw away — lower sunk costs, as the economists say. For most of us dismissing a new theory out of hand is, probabilistically, a winning strategy. Some might call this anti-intellectualism: I call it self-preservation.

(I will not go so far as to claim that alpha theory predicts its own resistance. Down that road lies madness. “You don’t believe in Scientology? Of course you don’t. Scientology can explain that! Wait! Where are you going?”)

General theorists often insist that anyone who disagrees with their theory find a flaw in its derivation. I have been known to take this line myself, and it is utterly unreasonable. If someone showed up at my door with a complicated theory purporting to demonstrate some grotesque proposition, say, that cannibalism conduces to human survival, and demanded that I show where he went wrong, I’d kick him downstairs. Yes, they laughed at Edison, they laughed at Fulton. They also laughed at a hundred thousand crackpot megalomaniacs while they were at it.

So if you still want alpha theory to dry up and blow away, I understand. No hard feelings. And if you’ve written me off as some kind of nut, well, could be. The thought has crossed my mind. I can assure you only that I ardently desire to be delivered from my dementia. It would do wonders for my social life.

(Addendum: I want to make it perfectly clear that, although I have written about alpha theory for several months now, I did not invent it. I am not nearly intelligent enough to have invented it. That honor belongs to “Bourbaki,” well-known to the readers of the comments. Me, I’m a sort of combination PR man and applied alpha engineer. Oh wait — there aren’t any applications yet. Don’t worry, there will be.)

  73 Responses to “Prolegomena to Any Future General Theory of Anything”

  1. As to the verbal trickery: it is for YOU, Bourbaki, to show that a prohibition against slavery is not a "universal strong solution," since you say that there is no such thing, especially when your opponent denies this very point. It was Bill who started by saying that slavery is always wrong. You cannot then demand that HE prove YOUR assertion. Until YOU can show some exceptions to the "no slavery" rule, universal strong solutions appear to exist.

  2. In any event, the specific factual context is what defines the "universe" for our "universal strong solutions."

    Nope. "universal strong solution" has a precise meaning. It’s all openly derived. Re-read Part 5:

    A strong solution is any specified trajectory for a random process. […]
    Sooner rather than later, he must risk a strong solution. He must chart a course: he must act. […] To succeed he must eliminate paths that violate known constraints; a path to riches, for instance, that requires the casino to offer an unlimited line of credit is more likely a path to the poorhouse.

    Eliminating deletrious trajectories does not itself yield a strong solution. But it will certainly improve the odds.

  3. To begin with, I hope by now that everyone can understand the fundamental difference between "Never do x" and "Always do x." "Don’t enslave people" is not a strong solution of any kind.

    That said, I am enjoying this belated outburst of natural rights reasoning. No inputs! 100% fact-free! Bill Kaplan may find, upon reflection, that he considers a great many more inputs than he thinks, besides the obvious one that Jim mentioned. Slavery, I suspect, is just fine by him, provided:

    1. The enslaved party hasn’t reached his majority.
    2. The enslaved party is "capable of making his own decisions," as determined by a court. I’m guessing that hopeless mental defectives don’t count.
    3. The enslaved party isn’t carrying some deadly contagious disease. Or perhaps he would prefer not to quarantine Typhoid Mary.

    There may be other exceptions; that’s off the top of my head. One could counter by saying that these cases aren’t slavery; I have discussed this line of reasoning before. How do we know they aren’t slavery? Because they aren’t wrong, and slavery is always wrong! This gets you nowhere.

    Ludwig von Mises, in Human Action, had the last word about anti-consequentialist ethics: "The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation. It consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism. It substituted an autonomous rational morality for the heteronomous and intuitionist ethics of older days. Law and legality, the moral code and social institutions are no longer revered as unfathomable decrees of Heaven. They are of human origin, and the only yardstick that must be applied to them is that of expediency with regard to human welfare. The utilitarian economist does not say: Fiat justitia, pereat mundus. He says: Fiat justitia, ne pereat mundus."

    Not "Let justice be done though the sky may fall" but "Let justice be done so the sky doesn’t fall.” Me, I’m for the sky not falling.

  4. It’s always so charming to see the forehead veins burst right on cue…maybe that’s why I do this, after all!


    Your silly "correction" is just another round of B.S., isn’t it? What on earth made you think I was talking about alpha? I was clearly leaving THAT context–there is other knowledge outside of alpha, right? Alpha is NOT ethics, you see, and I must repair to other knowledge to even get a grip on it. Keep thinking, you’ll get it one day. But to do so you must abandon the need to play verbal games. Universal strong solutions are not possible within alpha… o.k., we get it. Thus, MY universal strong solutions will step outside of your silly "definitions." Get it? Now, think about what I said. You started using MY language, dude, e.g. "context." By using it, you are entering the domain of something other than alpha. It’s o.k., you can do it. Just stay calm. No need to import foreign matter, though. In that "context," it’s pollution.


    What "gets you somewhere" is to see that the "no slavery" dictum is a only the negative form of a rather positive prescription. It is this negative/positive dualism that you need to abandon. No "avoidance" of something–a negative rule–can be understood outside of the context of what I seek to obtain–the positive rule. Guardianship is NOT slavery, and the difference in the law makes this painfully obvious to all except those who did not grasp the prohibition against slavery in the first instance. Indeed, we HAVE guardianships and the legal status of minority for precisely the SAME reason that we forbid slavery. Parents and guardians are strictly forbidden from treating their wards as slaves. They canot be simply commanded, except in delimited circumstances designed for the benefit of the ward (!!), they cannot be sold or bought, they canot be killed, they have legal rights, the court can intervene in order to end any slave-like treatment of these wards, etc., etc. Indeed, to confuse these two states is to destroy the very meaning of "guardianship" in a free society. "Some slavery" is intolerable–always and forever–when it’s people we are talking about.

    To the positive: Freedom is a condition for the operation of reason. Reason is the tool of survival for human beings. You can start getting the rest from there, I am confident…

    "Avoid poison" is the negative form of a positive moral truth about proper nutrition. It cannot be understood–in context–until the positive side is reached. My patience wears thin with repeated repititions. But isn’t ALL of this a giant retreading?

    To attack more staw-men is not to provide a very convincing response.

  5. Now consider Mr. Valliant’s claim:

    Or, put the other way, freedom maximizes the use of human intelligence.

    Freedom and intelligence are hardly well-defined terms.

    Loan Shark: Hey, Bourbaki, how do you plan to pay me back?

    Bourbaki: I’m going to Vegas and I’m not going to use a Martingale betting strategy! And I’m not going to pay a lot for this muffler!

    Loan Shark: That’s your solution to our little problem?

    Bourbaki: Yes’m. I figured it out by reading all these math books.

    (Loan Shark breaks Bourbaki’s legs)

    What is POW labor when it is forcibly used to repair infrastructure and to provide assistance to the local civilian population?

    Since the war had drawn most of the nation’s young men overseas, the War Department authorized a major program to allow labor-starved farmers to utilize the POWs.

    American soldiers were mustered out of the military quickly and efficiently, but President Harry Truman decided that a labor shortage existed in the United States and that the POWs should remain in this country until the labor shortage was over. Some POWs did not get home to Germany until mid-1946. They had been in the Mississippi camps almost three years.

    In a strange way the camps saved their lives. Unlike many other German soldiers who were killed in the war, these POWs survived. When they entered the Mississippi camps, their war was over.

    What if the war lasted longer? The local population should starve rather than force the POWs to till their fields?

  6. Oh for crying out loud. Bill, flatly asserting that slavery is evil is all well and good if you’re delivering a political speech for popular consumption, but doesn’t quite cut it in serious moral reasoning. You have to explain why the consequences of slavery are undesirable. Here, let me do it for you: slavery is bad because it’s a grossly inefficient (high epsilon) form of the division of labour; it’s a poor strategy for alpha maximization because we tend to get greater efficiency when people are free to make their own decisions based on their own knowledge and the resources at hand.

    This is all within the context of a society of (mostly) rational actors who (mostly) play by a common set of rules of conduct, of course. One could certainly dream up hypothetical contexts where some form of coercion/slavery could be alphatropic — like the everyday examples Aaron listed off, or perhaps something more outlandish like being stranded on an island with cannibals who would like to enjoy my liver with some fava beans, where I use a gun to force them to build me a raft so I can escape and not be eaten. So no, slavery/coercion is only wrong (or right) dependent on the context. (Unless of course you define "slavery" so narrowly as to pack the context into the term, in which case you’re just playing word games.)

    I think Jim is right that any negative universal rule can also be expressed as a positive rule (e.g. "never murder" is isomorphic with "always act in such a way that others will not be killed by you"). This is analogous to the laws of physics: the second law of thermodynamics can be stated as "energy spontaneously tends to flow only from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused or dispersed" (positive form) or it can be stated as "you cannot create a perpetual motion machine" (negative form).

    But I don’t think this matters, because this isn’t what Aaron is talking about. Postive vs. negative is misleading; he’s talking about strong vs. weak solutions. Strong solutions are courses of action that aim at a specific result, such as "drive to the store to buy milk". Weak solutions simply eliminate a course of action without any specific end result in mind, like "don’t turn left on a red light". Is that a little clearer?

  7. Matt,

    You always bring good sense to these discussions, but my reasons for opposing slavery are different. My view of ethics as such is still outside of alpha. But I will not flog that dead horse any more…


    I expected a better grasp of Rand from you. What are you claiming that Rand said? Most folks are miserable because they lack a rational ethics? I have never read that in Rand… indeed, she said something quite different, did she not? You’re almost as bad as Aaron in this regard. Geesh!!

    Since one apparently cannot use terms Bourbaki thinks have been poorly defined–however limited his experience with the definitions in question, or however ignorant of MY (or Rand’s, of which he obviously has no clue) definitions, he is, it seems once again that rational discourse is not possible in this forum, outside of his narrow information set. In any event, enjoy your trip.

  8. Jim,

    Thank you. If I may flog the horse a bit myself: you don’t justify your ethics using alpha, which is fine. But that doesn’t mean that your ethics is "outside alpha" because alpha describes everything a living entity can do. It’s possible to have multiple justifications for the same ethical rule, but they both accomplish the same thing. We just have to keep the difference between

  9. Matt,

    I stand corrected and my comments so qualified. I concede that in an important sense, all ethics is alpha–especially mine. (See how much good sense you always bring!)

  10. Exactly.

  11. Thanks again Jim, you flatter me. Few things frustrate me more than watching smart people talk past one another, so I’m happy to be of service in getting everyone on more or less the same page.

    Now we just need to light a fire under Aaron… 🙂

  12. Slavery lead to the pyramids. I love it.

  13. I’ll construct my own–much smaller, but more personally satisying–pyramids of my own, thanks.

  14. All,

    I take a brief leave and there’s a breakout of posts.



    Venn Diagrams!

    I love them!


    One of my favorite teaching slides is a Venn Diagram (The Universe of Suffering).

    Also, I am pleased to read that you are working on the Edelman. I am thinking of paying a visit to La Jolla, CA to see if they need an unpaid research assistant.

    As an aside, I finished the Hayek and am now on to this: We Hold These Truths, by Mortimer J. Adler. I am finding this to be a very interesting and worthwhile book (hell, you can get a copy for a dollar!).

    There is much alpha theory out there.


    Learning the calculus on your own is hard. I can’t remember any of my 13 hours of college calculus.

    I just read this, Five Equations that Changed the World. You might like it. Or not.

    BTW, confession. I never really learned geometry.

    Does anyone have a recommendation for a geometry text?

  15. MeTooThen,

    Apologies for the slow reply. I’ve been reading Edelman alongside Kandel. In addition to brushing up on molecular biology, I need to acquaint myself with brain physiology. I didn’t see too much of it while working in artificial organs.

    There are reassuring parallels between alpha theory and Edelman’s approach:

    "The difference between the sum of the entropies of all individual components (x_i) considered independently and the entropy of the system X considered as a whole is called the integration I(X) of the system X:

    I(X) = EH(x_i) – H(X)

    where E = Sum (Sigma)

    Thus, integration measures the loss of entropy that is due to the interactions among its elements. The stronger the interactions among the elements of an isolated system, the greater their overall statistical dependence and the higher their integration.

    Note that the integration can be calculated not just for the entire system, but for any of its subsets."

    Edelman, "A Universe of Consciousness", pp 121-122

    But I’m wary of assuming too much until I’m more comfortable with the material in Kandel.

    Edelman was an excellent recommendation. Thanks, again.

    In the meantime, you should check out Dunham’s "A Journey Through Genius" for an introduction to geometry. Although geometry is covered in only five chapters, Dunham presents an engaging story with good bibliographic references that you can use to continue your studies.

    Dover Publishing has a reasonably priced collection of Euclid’s work.

  16. Bourbaki,

    Thank you for the kind reply.

    I thought you would like the Edelman.

    The chapters on integration and entropy (leading to an explanation of the "dynamic core") are helped with the useful diagrams.

    Speaking of diagrams, I have started the short, but colorful Cogwheels of the Mind: The Story of Venn Diagrams. So far, it is an interesting and enjoyable monograph.

    As noted before, after the Hayek, I read Adler’s We Hold These Truths, and now I am reading Richard B. Morris’ Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. It’s about the authors of The Federalist and their work toward the ratification of the Constitution. It’s worth a look.

    And lastly this, more with regard to Hayek and Edelman.

    Funny, this.


  17. More interesting than MeTooThen hehe:

    "The entropy is the measure of the number of internal states (ways it could be configured on the inside) that the black hole could have without looking any different to an outside observer, who can only observe its mass, rotation, and charge. The black hole entropy… equals the area of the horizon of the black hole: there is one bit of information about the internal state of the black hole for each fundamental unit of area of the horizon. This shows that there is a deep connection between quantum gravity and thermodynamics" which is the science of heat (and includes, obviously, the study of entropy).

    "The realization that the surface area of the horizon surrounding a black hole measures the black hole’s entropy has lead people to advocate that the maximum entropy of any closed region of space can never exceed a quarter of the area of the circumscribing surface. Since entropy is nothing more than the measure of the total information contained in a system, this suggests that the information associated with all phenomena in the three dimensional world can be stored on its two dimensional boundary, like a holographic image. In a certain sense the world would be two dimensional."

    Also: "A scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will explain a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested."

    I donate a dollar on the new lab. Anyone know any Harvard profs? You guys are all ivy grads, what are you doing to get this thing movin?

  18. This is a quote from Aaron at the start. If we cannot reconcile this then all else that follows is to some degree undermined.

    All events are measurable, at least in theory. We need only to be able to measure each thermodynamic consequence, and add them all up… Vast quantities of ink have been spilled in attempts to explain entropy, but really it is nothing more than the measure of this tendency of energy to disperse.

    It blew my mind to find that entropy was not only "a measure of the disorder of a physical system" but also "the number of different microscopic configurations of a system that leave its macroscopic appearance unchanged". Damn.

    Also, I found a great definition for all thermodynamics: the study of the relationship between energy, work, heat, and entropy in a dynamical physical system.

    Where dynamics mean "a branch of mechanics that deals with forces and their relation primarily to the motion but sometimes also to the equilibrium of bodies"

    Where mechanics means "a branch of physical science that deals with energy and forces and their effect on bodies"

    And force means "an agency or influence that if applied to a free body results chiefly in an acceleration of the body and sometimes in elastic deformation and other effects b : any of the natural influences (as electromagnetism, gravity, the strong force, and the weak force) that exist especially between particles and determine the structure of the universe"

    So is alpha theory a theory that measures heat’s relationship to force as it relates to motion and equilibrium in physical systems that therefore determines the degree of emergence of complexity? Does Alpha Theory then state that such emergence is positive, because a higher complexity and rate of information exchange increases or benefits the life of man? Is this absolute?

    Does Alpha Theory assert that framing our actions in such a fashion as to benefit the incremental increase in emergence is the commensurate consequence of action that links all forms of life by stating that all life should be striving to do this?

    And, if that is so, doesn’t this actually bias life to the standards of humans because of our increased consciousness? And is it true that increased complexity ALWAYS yields greater consciousness and awareness in lifeforms, or that it simply has a tendency to over a period of evolutionary years?

    And if that is the case, isn’t this actually simply all about language, about a lifeforms ability to make language? Does not both language contain the consciousness and consciousness contain the language.

    And, lastly, since I am clearly smarter than almost everyone ever (hehe) and can rely on the benefit of all the consciousness that has recorded its observations and impressions and beliefs and dreams and hopes and fears before me, does this mean that I have a greater complexity than a child that is not as conscious as me, or that I am more complex than them because I am more conscious?

    If that is not the case, then what benefit is actually gleaned from understanding alpha theory?

    Also, I was under the impression that children were actually more complex neurally (and metabolically?) than adults, but I never had an education past 10th grade so I never learned biology, let alone Neuroscience. And wouldn’t it actually be measured via molecular biology, or is that not where the complexity of life is first witnessed?

    I have read 4.5 books in 6 days and I just needed to kind of reboot my brain and get some thoughts out. If anyone can offer me answers to each question, or can answer one that came first in such a way that it makes it clear how it relates to the ones after, I would really appreciate it. Clearly, I have fallen a few steps behind.

  19. Sorry, one more question, this one for Jim. Does the increase in complexity that yeilds greater consciousness actually increase the moral imperitive? Does the increase in consciousness actually simplify one’s ethical relaionships, if for no other reason than that our abilities to be aware of more people and types of people (and animals) would be greater? Does this increase in consciousness actually make you LESS LIKELY to develop a system of ethics that will appeal to most people, because they will surely, in a strictly mathematical sense, lack the consciousness that you have (having already established that you had a greater consciousness)?

    And lastly, is intelligence simply bounded by our consciousness, or is intelligence bounded by our language and language bounded by consciousness? Or is it none of that?

  20. Bourbaki,

    Hey, I’m learning Geometry!

    Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics


    While I was waiting for the book to arrive, I started this:

    The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

    The book received mixed reviews at Amazon, but I am really enjoying it.

    It’s a history of, well, everything, from Newton, to Einstein, to Boltzmann, and then string theory and beyond. It is the best book I’ve read at explaining special and general relativity, spacetime, gravity, entangled space, the Big Bang, and the failure to find a unifying theory.

    Lastly, I also started this:

    The Philosophy of Set Theory : An Historical Introduction to Cantor’s Paradise

    Different, and interesting. The author explores the question as to whether Cantor "invented" transfinite numbers or "discovered" them. Different.

  21. Thanks for the answers.

  22. The end of the posting says "I want to make it perfectly clear that, although I have written about alpha theory for several months now, I did not invent it. I am not nearly intelligent enough to have invented it." But in a number of places it looks as though Aaron is referring to alpha theory as his own. I’d like to suggest that these passages be rewritten so as not to confuse readers.

  23. dpb:

    If you were Bourbaki’s intellectual property lawyer, you would know that every post on alpha theory was extensively revised by both of us and meets with his complete approval. But you’re not. So what’s eating you anyway?

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>