Empire

As you muddle your way through life—I’m not talking about you personally, of course, just generalizing—you learn.

It is unfortunate, but often true, that by the time you learn what you need to know, you die. Then again, many people don’t learn at all, they’re happy to just muddle, whinge, and seem to miss the point that they’re on a time budget—for those folks, the vagaries of life are a constant surprise.

I’ve found that learning is far more important than teaching, so I learn. And when I occasionally share what I learn, I teach.

The most important aspect of learning is data processing. You are bombarded with data constantly, and our brains have a remarkable processing ability—you can’t even compare them to a computer—it would be like comparing your smartphone to a slide rule.

Your phone is able to hear, and to a very limited extent, it can see and speak. You, however, can recognize people and expressions, distinguish sounds and associate voices with individuals, like and dislike, touch, and smell.

Each of these ‘functions’, to use computer-speak, is hard-coded or soft-coded inside you, or even represented as a combination of both. Because we understand only the bare bones of this, we truly don’t know how it works.

Not only how it works collectively, which is a massive endeavor, but how the component parts work. To use a machine analogy, we can understand how a keyboard works, or a plasma screen, or even a logic gate, but that helps us only to grasp parts of a computer—it doesn’t give us the big picture.

You can make the same argument for a car, and possibly for a sentient being. This automatically brings in the context of religion, because when humans construct something, the typical thought process is organized from the top down—you don’t design a braking system if you don’t need to stop the car.

But all biological theory is based on bottom-up design, the notion that free-living single-celled creatures self-organized into tissues, and in the case of animals, built up those tissues into organs. The outcome? Sophisticated organisms that are supremely well-adapted to their environment—the wheel evolved into an airplane.

Our brains collect data from this remarkable set of input sensors, and convert the data into information. As you get older, the information itself can be further aggregated as knowledge, and that can be synthesized as wisdom.

In the context of the world population, the number of people who follow this four-step program is very small. You can verify this by considering how many people you consider to be truly wise.

There’s always a passive-active process at play: you read so you can write, you listen so you can talk. In the language of animal behavior, you imitate to achieve your goals.

One of the best weapons you have, in dealing with life, is commonality. The art of identifying similar patterns in widely different fields, and having the confidence to apply similar solutions, is rare indeed.

Generalization occurs when the information at your disposal, culled from this ‘big data’ which constantly hits you, starts to make sense in a broader context. When that happens, unfamiliar situations become much easier to understand, and therefore to deal with—life becomes more predictable.

Prediction is therefore another key learning step, and you soon learn whether your generalization was correct from the outcome of what it predicts.

When (not if) that outcome is totally unexpected, your prediction failed. That’s because generalization is often a false friend, leading you to make connections that are not there.

One particular danger is the generalization of scale: for instance the idea that you can scale individual behavior to societies. Or finding commonality in corporate structures and national government.

And yet humans do this again and again, without recognizing the nuances—a company can’t jail an employee, just as a nation can’t fire a citizen. And a free country will never have the hierarchy of a multi-national corporation.

The reason I’ve written a more reflective text today is, more than anything, to clear my own mind. You see, I’ve recognized and applied these principles for many years, and  they’ve often worked, but now I’m unsure. Perhaps like you, I struggle to comprehend the path ahead, to see the guiding light for America and Europe.

My life is just like yours. It contains things I do, is influenced by what others do to me, and has the obligatory element of randomness. It’s the combination of these three things, in varying proportions at different times, that makes up the word muddle.

If you think you’re able to govern your life, which implies that you can control what others do to you, and perhaps even curtail randomness, you’re a control freak. You’re also a fool.

People who think in those terms consider all unexpected items externalities. Put another way, their model was right, were it not for the cat that daintily stepped on the  keyboard and closed a rogue trade for eight billion dollars in worthless stock.

Externalities are the bread and butter of economists, who use them to explain why none of their models work—I’ll qualify that: many models do work well, as long as they’re not affected by uncontrollable factors—in societies, they always are.

You can generalize the ‘control-freak/externality’ model at a larger scale, for instance that of a national government. Dictatorships are a classic example of model application, and such regimes always end up the same way—in chaos.

The facts, and nothing but the facts.

The facts, and nothing but the facts.

This is why history is so critical—it’s the only blueprint we’ve got. A totally incomplete review of empires would give us: Rome and the barbarian hordes; China and the Mongols; the British empire and the partition of India, coupled with the Mid-East wars that endure to this day.

The effect of the United States on South and Central American totalitarianism is well-known, as is (once again) the outcome of policies in the Mid-East. In this case, the originator was not a dictatorship, but the outcomes were. The same applies to the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon.

From chaos comes order, and from order comes chaos.

And this is a generalization we can probably rely on. Sometimes the chaos-order-chaos cycle is swift, and chaos may well be the piggy-in-the-middle. That was so in Portugal: after 48 years of order (aka fascism), which included the obligatory nationalistic wars, the country went through about five years of chaos, and then settled into a middle ground. Membership of the European Union provided the buffer that society needed, stabilizing it with funding, infrastructure, and good governance.

Sometime in the mid-nineteen seventies, Kissinger recommended that the US should let Portugal experiment with hard-line communism, to ‘learn their lesson.’ That didn’t happen, but is there a certain familiar ring with the discourse coming out of the US at present?

The USSR lasted three generations, erupted into chaos over a few years, and was girdled to order by Putin—all this happened in my adult life—a huge ‘country’ with a quick turnaround.

Sometimes the chaos takes over, bringing with it wars that can last years or even decades—look to Africa, and South America—most importantly, look behind you, look to Europe.

Europe is now in perceived chaos, and there is a swamp of opportunity out there to breed the malcontents, the would-be leaders who generalized and failed. These are the purveyors of alternative facts, who hope their audiences will turn these into their new information.

If they do, we lose.

Alternate facts lead to alternate wisdom.  An Egyptian pharaoh summed it up in the year 1250 BC, over three millennia ago.

The wise man doubts often, and his views are changeable. The fool is constant in his opinions, and doubts nothing, because he knows everything, except his own ignorance.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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