The Hall of Mirrors Effect

     When people read or hear something from different sources, they are inclined to take more notice.  In particular, if a particular idea or observation is stated by multiple people, then people are more inclined to believe it or at least give it consideration.  One reason for this is perceived social consensus; if the idea is stated by more individuals then maybe it is becoming more important in the social sphere.  

    But there is another reason, which is that if more people notice something, then it is more likely to really be there, not just a mistake of one person.  Or, if multiple people ascribe to a particular belief then it is less likely to be the result of a single person's idionsyncracies.  

    The key assumption is that these observations and beliefs are independent.  For example, if every day during seven days, a different person tells you they encountered bigfoot, then you would take notice.  Because it is seven separate sightings.  On the other hand, if you found out that only one of these people claimed to actually see bigfoot, but the others were just in the area at the time, then it is not seven sightings but one.  And in that case, whether to believe it or not depends on how reliable the one person's testimony is.  

    Similarly, there are many sources of news or information which really all come from one source, just amplified many times.  Like a hall of mirrors that reflects the same image many times and creates the illusion that there are many objects, one source of unknown reliability is repeated multiple times, creating the illusion of many independent sources.

    Social media is particularly bad with regards to this.  Because it gives people the illusion that everyone they know believes something or knows something when in reality they are just repeating mass media narratives that they know nothing about and haven't thought about other than to give official sources the benfit of the doubt.  A feature of human psychology that is natural and helpful in normal situations is hijacked.   

    Sometimes, when I read unusual opinions or beliefs in multiple places and start to take them more seriously, I sometime wonder whether if I'm fooling myself and it's just the hall of mirrors effect.  It's worth taking into consideration, but I think it is definitely far less than with leftist content.  Bruce Charlton has a post which I haven't been able to find again where he writes that left-wing bloggers are pretty much interchangeable.  It's not about expressing their individual beliefs or knowledge, it's about advancing the narrative.  By constrast, non-leftists think about what they write for themselves.  So, even if an idea comes from a single source, different people will write about it with different analyses and may agree but via different lines of thought.  

    Before the invention and proliferation of mass media, the hall of mirrors effect was far less common.  But at this point, when so much of our information comes second hand, it's good to think about from where the information originated. 

A relevant story

    This is a story from an article about the Russian Orthodox Saint John Maximovitch.  It's somewhat long, but I would recommend reading the whole thing.  Here was a story from the article, (which was originally written in 2012).  The relevance to the present time is apparent:

    "Vladyka's [John Maximovitch] constant attention to self-mortification had its root in the fear of God, which he possessed in the tradition of the ancient Church and of Holy Russia.  The following incident, told by O. Skopichenko and confirmed by many from Shanghai, well illustrates his daring, unshakable faith in Christ.  'Mrs. Menshikova was bitten by a mad dog.  The injections against rabies she either refused to take or took carelessly ... And then she came down with this terrible disease.  Bishop John found out about it and came to the dying woman.  He gave her Holy Communion, but just then she began having one of the fits of this disease; she began to foam at the mouth, and at the same time she spit out the Holy Gifts which she had just received.  The Holy Sacrament cannot be thrown out.  So, Vladyka picked up and put in his mouth the Holy Gifts vomited by the sick woman.  Those who were with him exclaimed: 'Vladyka, what are you doing!  Rabies is terribly contagious!'  But Vladyka peacefully answered:  'Nothing will happen; these are the Holy Gifts.'  And indeed nothing did happen.' "

    This is an incredible story.  I do not have much to add except that Christians (including those who do not formally canonize saints or who are not Orthodox (for instance, I myself am a Roman Catholic)) should think seriously about the beliefs and actions of those who are exemplars of their faith.  Even if we are not at their level, we can learn from them.  For instance, not everyone needs to or can go out into the desert and become a hermit, but the fact that such people did exist and the nature of their actions gives us much food for thought.

Metaphysical Voting

    One of Bruce Charlton's classic posts is "The evils of voting."  In this post, Charlton argues that there is no reason that voting should be a "gold standard" of making decisions: 

    "Where did people get the idea that voting was an acceptable - let alone the best and only, way to make decisions?  

    There is no magic about majority voting, no 'wisdom of crowds', no place for the operation of divine or individual inspiration - neither the safety-first gut-feeling veto of requiring unanimous and full community assent to change, nor for the inspirational decisiveness of the gifted individual to lead the consenting (or acquiesing) group on the basis of superior wisdom, insight, foresight.


    To rely on majority voting is fundamentally unserious; it is to regard life as essentially soft and sustaining, to regard life as unreal and something not requiring of us correct decisions and right behavior."

    I agree with this post, that there is nothing intrinsically good about voting.  It is just one method among many of making decisions; in some situations it is good, in others it is not.  Voting works best when used among a relatively small number of well-informed and honest individuals to force decisions, where something needs to be decided, but the decisions are only of small or moderate importance.  
    In the post, Charlton also mentions that a two-thirds majority makes more sense than a simple numerical majority because in this case those who agree outnumber those who disagree by two to one.  One could also imagine this principle being applied to an organization such that nothing can be decided by voting unless there is a two-thirds majority.  

    It is also mentioned that voting can fool human beings:

    "We hoodwink human psychology by forcing pre-commitment to the unknown outcome of majority voting as intrinsically correct."

    Even though in actuality, voting is not the same as making a specific decision, psychologically, the act of voting causes people to feel invested in the process as if they did agree. 
    In addition to political voting, however, people also vote by their actions, which determines what kind of society one lives in.  And this is somewhat analogous to voting because these actions are aggregated to influence people's lives.  But unlike voting, it is not one vote per individual because the influence of some matters more than others, also, one can "vote" multiple times depending on one's choices.  In some respects they may even cancel out.  
    But even apart the material effects, I believe that our actions and thoughts are a kind of metaphysical voting.  If we really want something, and act according to that desire, then we are metaphysically voting for that which we desire.  But if we get it, it may be as the thing really is, not as we imagined it.  
    This also relates to prayer, prayer is a kind of metaphysical voting as well.  One might think of the natural question "God already knows what we need, so why do we have to ask?"  I believe one reason is that by asking, one is making an active investment of will.  

    Like voting by action, metaphysical voting is not "one man, one vote" either.  For example, the "vote" of a saintly hermit, i.e., his prayers and actions, has a far greater effect on his society than those of an ordinary person.  Not only because of his virtue, but also because such a hermit is more closely aligned with God and Creation, so he would know better what to vote for, so to speak.    
    This relates somewhat to the peck.  In an article from a Greek Orthodox hieromonk transcribed in this post by William James Tychonievich, there is a suggestion that there will eventually be seven pecks.  I can't say whether the number is literally true, but this goes along with the concept of metaphysical voting.  Many people have received the peck without fully thinking through what it means.  But the side of evil does not want that; they don't just want people to receive the peck, they want people to identify with it.  Their goal is that with each further dose, people will with increasing consciousness metaphysically vote for a worse world.   

    However, and this is the importance of metaphysical voting, one can always cast a vote for the side of good.  And things can always be better.  Consider the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:8-15: 

    "And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise at the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God, amidst the trees of paradise.  And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: 'Where art thou?'  And he said: ''I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.  

    And he said to him: 'And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?' And Adam said: 'The woman, whom thou gavest me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat.'  And the Lord God said to the woman: 'Why hast thou done this?'  And she answered: 'The serpent deceived me, and I did eat.'

    And the Lord God said to the serpent: 'Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and the beasts of the earth: upon thy breasts shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. 

    I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.'  "

    When God spoke to them, rather than acknowledging that they had done wrong and repenting, Adam and Eve each tried to deflect the blame from themselves.  And they could have even repented before that, if they had gone to meet God rather than hiding themselves.  Of course, the story does not say what would have happened then, but we can speculate that things would have been better.  There would still have been a great price to pay, but things would not have been so bad.  

    And there are many situations in this world where even if things are bad, even if much that is bad cannot be averted, the end result can be much better by making the right decision at the right time.  
    And for this reason I do not believe that there should be enmity between the pecked and the unpecked.  Certainly, one should interact as little as possible with those who believe in and enforce the current totalitarianism.  Discernment along these lines is always necessary.  By all means, let there be enmity between human beings and the serpent, between those of us on Earth and the "rulers of this present darkness."  But for one own family, or close friends, or even acquaintances who mean one no harm, there is no reason for such.  

    The more that cast a ballot for God and Creation (and there are many ways to do this), even if they supported this totalitarianism before, the better things will be spirituallly, and I believe, materially as well.

Some thoughts on the Fermi Paradox

    The Fermi Paradox is the idea that despite the large number of stars (and hence, presumably planets), we have so far not seen indications of life on another planet.  The linked encyclopedia article lists four points: 

    "There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are similar to the Sun, many of which are billions of years older than Earth.  

    With high probability, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets, and if the Earth is typical, some might develop intelligent life. 

    Some of these civilizations might develop interstellar travel, a step the Earth is investigating now. 

    Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the Milky Way galaxy could be completely traversed in a few million years."

    The first point is true and the second is reasonable.  In fact, with the Kepler telescope, it was found that there were indeed many planets orbiting stars.  But the third and fourth points are much more of a leap.  

    The article itself says: 

    "While the current understanding of physics rules out the possibility of faster-than-light travel, it appears that there are no major theoretical barriers to the construction of 'slow' interstellar ships, even though the engineering required is considerably beyond our present capabilities."

    To begin with, if one wanted to build an interstellar spaceship (even travelling slower than light), it would have to be completely self-sufficient, since there would be no resources to rely on.  (Unless someone figured out a way to collect and synthesize abient matter in space or to stop on another planet or asteroid with resources).  Nonetheless, the standards for self-sufficiency are much higher than the meaning of that phrase on Earth.  Furthermore, there must be some way to maintain and repair the vehicle over a period of hundreds or thousands (or even millions of years).  

    Even an unmanned interstellar probe would either have to be constructed so as to last for thousands upon thousands of years or be self-repairing in some way.  Even if a civilization made it its mission to send out vast numbers of probes, once the probes drift far enough away from the civilization and each other after millions of years, one might end up with widely separated, inert pieces of space debris, rather than probes that fill up the galaxy.      

    This is a similar situation to the use of models involving randomness and probability.  Probability is useful in modelling certain situations, but it is a huge leap to go from that to suggest that it can model everything.  Likewise, science and engineering have caused immense changes on Earth, yet there is no justification to go from "science can do a lot" to "science can do anything".  

    This is not to say that interstellar spacecraft are impossible, in fact, I do believe they are could be built.  One could perhaps classify the Voyager probes as such.  But in practice the task may be so difficult that it never occurs.  

    Beyond the practical issue, however, is the contrast between different worldviews concerning the purpose of life in the universe.    

    One view is that the universe is something like a bunch of blocks to be rearranged and that it's just a matter of figuring out how to do this.  Furthermore, according to this view, the natural and obvious purpose for a civilization is to use technology to colonize and spread throughout the galaxy. 

    The other view says that life is in this universe for a spiritual purpose and its ultimate destiny lies outside the material universe.  Technology is something that is possible and is allowed, but the constant advancement of technology is not the driving principle of the universe.  

    One way to illustrate the different ways of thinking is to consider two different ways of envisioning an intelligence beyond the human.  In the present day, this is frequently a computer or machine.  It exceeds human intelligence by speed and efficiency.  In the Middle Ages, the idea of a superhuman intelligence was an angel, which was viewed as exceeding human thinking in the opposite way.  Rather than processing faster than humans, there is no processing going on at all.  An angel was envisioned as having a purely intuitive mind, so while a human being might need to find the truth by laborious reasoning, an angel would jump directly to the truth by insight alone.

    From the first point of view, the Fermi paradox is indeed a paradox.  But according to the second, it is not at all.  Beings on each planet are incarnated for different reasons and the reason planets are far apart is so that there can be no interference between them.  In this case, the universe is constructed according to principles that at the most fundamental level bear more resemblance to what we would call the mental or the spiritual than to the physical.  In that case, technology is just one aspect, rather than being the be all and end all of a civilization's existence.

    Jacob dreamed of many angels going up and down a ladder, yet even in the Bible, appearances of angels are few and far between.  Might not some of them have been going to other planets?

    As far as my personal beliefs go, due to considerations about the vast number of stars and the plausible existence of many planets, I do believe that there are beings on other planets, some of whom we would call intelligent.  They might be very strange, however.  Tolkien has some interesting ideas in his Notion Club Papers, which envisions a planet of something like living metal, tended by some sort of incorporeal elves, a planet inhabited by living crystal, and a planet made as the realization of an act of contemplation.  (Some of these passages are quoted in this post).  

    However, I do not think that there will ever be widespread interstellar travel as envisioned in the Fermi paradox because I do not believe that is not what the universe is for.  Though I could certainly imagine solar systems with multiple inhabited planets and travel between those.  

The real AI agenda

    On a post  by Wm Briggs, about artificial intelligence, a commenter with the monniker "ItsAllBullshit" writes:           "...