Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Infinite Number of Monkeys vs. A Finite Number Of Brain Cells

The limits of materialism are evident, at least to me. For example, in the materialist view, there must be a maximum amount of memories one can have, else where are they stored? (This has been calculated at various times, with current models now approaching near infinity for practical purposes.) Then there's the issue of causality. (You can't logically have causality and responsibility if everything is the result of physical laws that dictate behavior.)

And then there's this crap. According to this, the human being can't really care about more than 150 people at a time. (This is an interesting parallel to Aristotle's famous essay on how many friends one can have, I'll grant.) The brain, it is argued, can't handle it. (O! thou organ of limitless and limited power!) He calls this limit the monkeysphere.

It's fun the play spot the assumptions:

People toss half-full bottles of drain cleaner right into the barrel, without a second thought of what would happen if the trash man got it splattered into his eyes. Why? Because the trash guy exists outside the Monkeysphere.

Sure, some people don't think about service guys. But the fact that trash men aren't running around blinded tells you something as well. For example, it might tell you that people sort of figure that the trash guy knows what he's doing and takes reasonable precautions, and that they're right.

The simple fact is it's impossible to act if you weight every person equally in your life. Not only would that not be a commendable thing, it would be downright stupid. Your attention should be on the people who most directly affect your life, like the jerk who pulls out into traffic in front of you without signally, or whose lives you can affect, like the Ethernopian kid you send money to every month.

This next bit is spectacularly off:

Remember the first time, as a kid, you met one of your school teachers outside the classroom? Maybe you saw old Miss Puckerson at Taco Bell eating refried beans through a straw, or saw your principal walking out of a dildo shop. Do you remember that surreal feeling you had when you saw these people actually had lives outside the classroom?

I mean, they're not people. They're teachers.

Of course I've had that experience. But not because I didn't think of my teachers as people--and certainly not because they were outside my alleged monkeysphere. It was because teachers used to have a distance--a kind of altitude--that allowed them to maintain order and teach. It's not that they weren't people. It's that they weren't children.

I adored my grade school and earlier teachers. I had to get to Junior High school before I started getting teachers I didn't like (with a big caveat for my nursery school teachers who scared the bejeezus out of me).

But Mr. Wong has a theory, and he's going to fit all kinds of experiences into that theory whether they belong or not. I can't relate, for example, to this:

That's why you get that weird feeling of anonymous invincibility when you're sitting in a large crowd, screaming curses at a football player you'd never dare say to his face.

I'm not big on attending sporting events but I don't scream curses at the athletes. I root for the winning team and sometimes boo the opposing team because that's what you do. I don't have any real animosity for the opposing side at all. (Sure, some people get into it to that degree, but how many take it personally? Probably about the same percentage of crazies, or maybe slightly fewer, than make the political personal.)
Sure, you probably don't go out of your way to be mean to strangers. You don't go out of your way to be mean to stray dogs, either.
But you're the one making the equivalency, not me.
The problem is that eventually, the needs of you or those within your Monkeysphere will require screwing someone outside it (even if that need is just venting some tension and anger via exaggerated insults).
This just plain isn't true: Except for a statistically insignificant portion, civilization was built by those I've never met and am only vaguely aware of at best. I will be one of those anonymous many for the future. Survival is the exact opposite of a zero-sum game.

This paragraph essentially refutes the entire premise of the essay. Yes, life is in competition with other life. That, much like the sports event, is the game. But the vast majority of the people outside your circle are what make your existence possible, and a great deal of what you do, provided you are not a leech, is what makes others' existences possible.

And, what the hell? Since when is "venting anger via exaggerated insults" screwing someone? How big a pussy do you have to be to believe that?
This is why most of us wouldn't dream of stealing money from the pocket of the old lady next door, but don't mind stealing cable, adding a shady exemption on our tax return, or quietly celebrating when they forget to charge us for something at the restaurant.
Am I a Martian? I've only ever sent checks back for being in my favor. (I also used to tell my teachers when they missed marking me down in school.) And what's with the broad equivalencies?

It just gets worse from there. Check out this gem:
Talk radio's Rush Limbaugh is known to tip 50% at restaurants, but flies into a broadcast tirade if even half that dollar amount is deducted from his paycheck by "The Government." That's despite the fact that the money helps that very same single mom he had no problem tipping in her capacity as a waitress.
See what happens when you reduce everything to the material? A man wanting to decide the fate of his own money is being irrational if he objects to the government taking it from him to perform approximately the same task (at a greatly reduced efficiency, and of course less actual personal freedom).

There's no sense of right or wrong anywhere in this essay. Everyone just gets away with what they can, and they do so because of their brain. But this guy has the answer: Everything is more complicated than it seems, and we're all just primates flinging feces at each other.

There's also no good or evil. You and I are just Osama Bin Laden without the crazy-ass followers. His belief that we're oppressing him is just as valid as our belief that he killed 3,000+ of our citizens.

I tend to think that civilization depends on billions of us acting within a fairly narrow set of parameters suggests that the whole 150 limit is absurd on the face of it. If we were really and truly limited, civilization as we know it never would have emerged. Having SUVs and TVs didn't create the need for civilization, civilization created the possibility of having SUVs and TVs. But that's the typical reversal of a materialist.

I read this years ago and it disgusted me enough that I ignored it, but Ace just linked to another piece by this guy on how the Internet is going to be regulated so that there's no more anonymity, because anonymity empowers trolls and trolls hurt business.

Meh. Possibly. But so far the 'net has resisted a lot of obvious regulation, and things don't have to always get worse.


  1. You're right, that essay is idiotic. His ability to take things that don't prove his point and insist that they do is Chomsky-esque.

  2. Heh. You know Chomsky was an interesting linguist before he went into full-bore "illuminati" mode.

  3. But was he a cunning linguist, that's the question.

  4. He was, in fact, a cunning linguist!

    But, rumor has it, bad in bed. He kept talking about how certain positions favored particular narratives about how sex should be conducted.


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