0612 – consider how the world works

“what is something i believe about how the world works, which i haven’t actually tested yet?”

The older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that I don’t really understand how the world works. I mean I have some rough basic ideas but I’m not sure how useful they are. From first principles of course we have basic physics – that the Earth goes around the sun, that entropy is always increasing, and so on. It’s fascinating stuff, but it doesn’t tell me a lot about how to live my life, apart from things like “don’t jump out of tall buildings”, “don’t stare into the sun” and so on. Maybe there are some implications down the line that I’m not thinking of.

But when someone says “how does the world work”, they usually mean the human world in particular. How do I fit in, how do I interface with it? How do I make a living? Once upon a time the world was simple – it was just the group of people that you lived with. You go hunting together, eat the food, groom one another, have sex, make babies, raise them together, and sleep under the stars. (Maybe.) But as settlements and civilization became a thing, “the world” got more complicated. Kingdoms emerged. Food surpluses. Specialized warfare. Conquest. Money. And then these groups coalesced and fought and traded and rubbed against each other in all sorts of ways. All sorts of things developed in parallel – technologies, philosophies, art, culture, humans trying to make sense of themselves and one another. Immensely complex system, extensive histories, all sorts of accidents and missteps, all kinds of madness, anger, hate, suffering, joy, happiness, discovery, oppression, slavery, control, power.

If we’re talking about civilization, we’re talking about power. We’re talking about militaries and technologists and financial services and legal systems, all populated, staffed, run and coordinated by people working as parts of superorganisms greater than themselves.

The concept of man as a solitary creature, as an individual – is a recent one. People didn’t start thinking of themselves as Individuals with a capital I until a few centuries ago, maybe a couple of millenia at most. For most of human history we lived in groups, and our lives depended on our groups. A lot of us in modern civilization aren’t so directly dependent on a core group of people the way our ancestors were, but even that depends on our reliance on broader systems. We can only develop the illusion of being self-made when we live in a place that has laws, that has law enforcement, rules, cultural norms of fairness, opportunities, etc – all of which are things that depend on other people doing their jobs. We live on the benevolence of strangers. This I think is self-evident to anybody who pays enough attention. Even if you live in a cabin in the woods that you built with your bare hands, you couldn’t have done it the moment you came into existence. You depended on your parents to nourish and nurture you when you were a weak little baby. For most of us, we needed to learn language – which is a massive collaborative effort happening in real time. People need other people, no matter how cool we pretend we are, or how much we love solitude.

In the real world, every product we buy is designed and assembled by countless others. Even a humble pencil comes from multiple origins – the graphite, the wood, the assembly, the delivery to the store. A massive, elaborate dance just to get you the pencil. And where did the money come from, the money in your pocket that you take out to pay for that pencil? It was printed by your government, which has a ministry of finance, perhaps a central bank, some elaborate monetary policy. And how did you get that money? You probably had to earn it, selling your labor to an employer for a wage. Or maybe you’re an entrepreneur – you still have to make stuff, and that probably involves getting raw materials from somewhere, hiring some people, so on and so forth.

The world works in an incredibly elaborate and intricate fashion, depending on the collaboration of billions of players. It’s amazing that it works as well as it does. IT does fail from time to time, sometimes over and over again in the same conflict zones. And yet it works most of the time, which is quite a miracle. I’m surprised it doesn’t break more. I suppose the reason for that is that most people are interested in having a good, happy life. Everybody wants a good time. Everybody wants to spend time with people they enjoy, eat good food, look attractive, pursue their curiosities and imaginations, so on.

All of this is true but I find myself still thinking that there’s something amiss. If I truly understood how the world truly, truly works, then I wouldn’t have any sort of stress or nervousness about it. But I do. There’s more that I’m missing.

One way of approaching it is that everything is fundamentally made up of cause and effect relationships. Every event has a cause or multiple causes. As humans we are all meatbags with neurons firing in our brain, awash in hormones and chemicals. Our brains are wired in certain ways (and everybody’s brains, while possessing similarities, is also unique). An important thing to do for a good life is to figure out what are your unique desired end-states. What is it that your brain enjoys doing? Now the first answer for most brains is probably heroin, and that’s a bad answer because heroin has some drastic, damaging effects on the body and you won’t enjoy it for very long. So you need to pick more sustainable desired end-states. For me I think it happens to be writing. I enjoy words, I like playing with words, I fantasize about reassembling words into superior configurations as I see fit. But that’s just part of what I care about. The brain has many different desires, many inconvenient, many conflicting. I also have to think about survival, how to put food on the table, and if I want to have kids and things like that. That’s a lot of cost-benefit analysis to be done. Sometimes I wonder if it’s actually worth it, or if it’s all just rationalization. I think there is definitely value in having a thinking, first-principles sort of attituide to life. After all, random improvisation will never get you to the top of a mountain, or an Olympics gold medal. Not all mountaineers or Olympians are happy, of course, especially if they fail, or if they felt pressured or coerced into it.

I guess here there’s an interesting point to be made about social pressures. Again, the modern world we live in is very different from the set of habits and impulses that our brains have. We have incredibly outdated software, and we’re using it in an environment that it wasn’t “designed” (selected, to be precise) for. So we find ourselves getting into angry internet arguments with total strangers. Why? Legacy issues. Vestigial remnants of whatever it is that helped our ancestors with their strifes and squabbles. We have minds designed for operating in scarcity, and we (at least those of us with internet connections and indoor plumbing) live in a world of abundance. Obesity is going to be more common than starvation before you know it (if it isn’t already).

Go back to the question. How does the world work? It’s a massive network of humans who are vaguely pursuing their desires and goals – but mostly just in a superficial way, just to keep up with their peers and neighbours. Mostly the world works according to peer approval, which is quite a sham because all the little emperors are naked and none of us really knows what we’re talking about.

I think the thing I haven’t tested enough is – if the world is so fundamentally colaborative and so fundamentally networked, it means that I should be spending more time talking to individuals, helping individuals. Yet here I am spending so much of my time writing in solitude. That’s gotta change, most probably.

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