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Is there truth in victory?

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Things change. Beliefs don’t. Facing change, belief clings to the agreeable and resists the disagreeable. Current fashion names this reflex “confirmation bias” and frames it as the enemy of truth. Closer truth names this reflex “concentration of force” and portrays it as the friend of victory.

The notion that discovery of truth is an individual effort persists. By this notion’s curiously resilient lights, the only truthful mind is a blank mind. Purge existing beliefs. Capture change free of entanglements. Embrace blindness to see clearly. Above all, lean neither one way nor the other. Only then, after much trial, with the last mental debris bulldozed away, will light come.

No one thinks like this. Despite the occasional brave try, everyone reflexively favors things that fortify belief over things that undermine belief. If truth is a self-help exercise, the existence of confirmation bias means the mind is inescapably flawed. If truth is trial by self-improvement, the only cure for mind flaws is constant reinforcement of what human history suggests is impossible. And if reinforcing the impossible only leads to more impossibility, at least it leads to an impossibility redeemed by its righteous aggression.

And so it would be, if leaving a vacuum and calling it truth is truth. But if truth comes from group contortion rather than individual self-flagellation, confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. Then the mind is not flawed, at least not in that way. If the mind was guilty of chronic confirmation bias, it would only be guilty of operating to spec.

Those who insist on convening a symposium for a full and frank exchange of views every time they come under fire rarely need a good retirement plan. Because of this, to enforce effectiveness under fire, Darwin decrees that the mind comes preloaded and then preloaded with live ammunition, not blanks. Beyond this, freedom to arbitrarily switch the caliber of mental ammunition mid-stream is sacrificed for clarity of supply: mind yields measured in thoughts per calorie rise when ideas are bought in bulk following spec, especially amid uncertainty in the field.

Because buying ideas in bulk creates economies of scale, if confirmation bias is bias confirmed then it is bias shared. At the tribal scale, where human routine plays out, bias shared is indistinguishable from agreement. It too is guilty of operating to spec: Agreement reduces friction. Reduced friction lets group efforts prioritize targets. Prioritized targets let group effort selectively focus. Selective focus creates opportunities for local asymmetries. Local asymmetries can be exploited to further the tribe.

This makes confirmation bias concentration of force. Concentration of force is biased, first in favor being very strong and then at the decisive point. But it is confirmed only when being very strong and then at the decisive point yields victory. Local superiority in strength at a decisive point is neither constant nor guaranteed: it is only guaranteed to not be constant. So the mind must stay on target: it earns its keep by concentrating for victory, not emptying for truth.

This explains why what humans experience as “me” is a social loop: it is a argument simulator for forging chatter into weapons through endless drill of imagined conversations. It’s a display device, not a thinking machine. The thinking machine lies deep in the mind: real thought emerges from offline processing, especially during sleep. Conscious “me” is suited to rehearsing if small variations in action lead to opportunity through asymmetry. These variations are what gets flung at others as weaponized chatter. Some variations stick, leading to victory. Some miss, leading to defeat. Some should only be flung if clearly labelled FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY.

Truth emerges from accumulations of such victories piled on mass burials of such defeats. It is an unintended byproduct, not an intended end product. But its emergence reaches back to shape its source. Generation by generation, the mind is doomed to more and more bias in favor of weaponized thought measured in victories confirmed, always subject to how well they fit, however haltingly, what is true.

So things change while beliefs don’t. Confirmed truth is biased toward victory and victory is biased toward agreements with friends to win something with something rather than lonely pursuit of nothing through nothing.

See the argumentative theory of reason for more background on this framework.

It’s a weird, wild world

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Omar Bakri Muhammad, al-Muhajiroun, Tom Jones and The Hour — also: hot-wiring the apocalypse, I think not ]

As we all know by now, it turns out that the primary Woolwich suspects were associated with al-Muhajiroun. Accordingly, a couple of days ago I watched John Ronson‘s recently reposted documentary about their sheikh, Omar Bakri Muhammad, titled Tottenham Ayatollah Revisited. Bakri is about as far from an ayatollah as two peas can get inside a single pod, but never mind, here’s the video:

At the 13.56 mark, Bakri is preparing to negotiate arrangements for a rally he hopes to hold in a venue that hosts a variety of events, and what I’d say is a majorly weird exchange between the director and Bakri is captured on film:

The rally is scheduled between a Tom Jones concert and a show called The wonderful World of Horses. Omar has never heard of Tom Jones, and he is shocked to discover that women throw their underwear onstage.

“Oh my God, is that a sign of the Hour, a sign of the Hour?”

Is it?

“Of course, people start take off their, you know, their own knickers and their underwear, that is sign of the Hours.”

Now, I happen to think Bakri is joshing about not knowing Tom Jones, but the form his joshing takes is interesting.

The Hour in question would be the Hour mentioned in the Quran:

They will question thee concerning the Hour, when it shall berth. What art thou about, to mention it? Unto thy Lord is the final end of it. Thou art only the warner of him who fears it. It shall be as if; on the day they see it, they have but tarried for an evening, or its forenoon. [Q 79.42-46]


They will question thee concerning the Hour, when it shall berth. Say: ‘The knowledge of it is only with my Lord; none shall reveal it at its proper time, but He. Heavy is it in the heavens and the earth; it will not come on you but suddenly!’ They will question thee, as though thou art well-informed of it. Say: ‘The knowledge of it is only with God, but most men know not.’ [Q 7.187]

and — perhaps most interestingly:

Those that believe not therein seek to hasten it; but those who believe in it go in fear of it, knowing that it is the truth. Why, surely those who are in doubt concerning the Hour are indeed in far error. [Q 42.18]


Hey. we’re in apocalyptic time again… Here’s my question:

We read quite often of the possibility that the Iranians — or Al-Qaida — might wish to “hot-wire the apocalypse” or “hasten the coming of the Mahdi”. I’d read that last verse as strongly suggestive that “hastening” might put one in the category of disbelief.

Is that an argument that has been offered against the idea, in either Sunni or Shi’a circles?

A Question for Hegghammer & Lacroix

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a single word in a very small book, and the world that hangs in the balance ]

I’ve just read Hegghammer & Lacroix on The Meccan Rebellion. At 78 pages and 5.3 x 8.3 inches, it’s a tiny book in hardback and quite a delight to hold — the electricity in my city block went out for a while the other day, and I took pleasure in reading it out under the sun — and it contains, in essence, the two authors’ paper, Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia (Int. J. Middle East Stud. 39 (2007), 103–122) and a companion piece by Lacroix titled Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albanai and his Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.

Blog posts tend to present a point of view – whether to preach to the choir, promote it to unbelievers, stir up trouble, or simply add detail or a fresh angle to an existing narrative. Seldom do they ask questions.

My own instincts — in line with Madhyamaka as I briefly encountered it in the teachings of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel — lead me to leave some kinds of questions open: I use my DoubleQuotes format to set the juices flowing, by providing nudges to thought rather than outright statements – but on this occasion I have a question to ask, and as it’s too long for Twitter I’ll post it here.


Here’s my question. Juhayman al-Utaybi believed one of his companions, Muhammad al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the awaited Coming One of Islam — and that, in our authors’ words, “consecrating him [al-Qahtani] in Mecca on the turn of the hijra century” would ”precipitate the end of the world”.

In my view, a great deal rests on that simple word, “precipitate”. Would “usher in” do as well? Or “mark the beginning of” perhaps? Or is the idea of forcing the hand of God present, as it is in Reuven Paz’ phrase, “hot-wiring the apocalypse”?

There’s a lot riding on that issue: whether or not it is possible to force the hand of God, to accelerate destiny, to hasten apocalypse.


Okay, let’s go light-footed into this issue. In The Question in the DC Comics universe, we have a character described thus:

During service in Vietnam Jeremiah Hatch got insane, he began to hear the voice that urged him to do the will of the Lord by serving the Devil. He thought that his mission was “to hasten the corruption, to nurture the foulness until the almighty has no choice but to rain down fire and brimstone and overthrow the cities and the plain and all the inhabitants of cities and all that grows on the ground…”


Hastening the apocalypse — it’s an idea you can find in the world of DC Comics, but it was Israeli analyst Dr Reuven Paz who presented it to us in canonical “national security” form in his paper, Hot-wiring the Apocalypse, where his actual words are:

The Jihadi and nationalist insurgency in Iraq, which feeds the motivations and enthusiasm of growing number of Islamist youth to search for Jihad, look for the “culture of death and sacrifice,” and self-radicalize themselves, is another factor in the growing sense of Jihadi pride, which also hotwires the sense of the apocalypse.

That’s a faily imprecise form of words (‘The sense of apocalypse”) from a careful scholar, and Paz applies the concept in a specifically Sunni context. This, however, doesn’t prevent a popular Christian writer such as Joel Rosenberg from applying the same idea to the Shi’ite rulers of Iran:

Only when we understand the eschatology currently driving Iranian foreign policy, can we truly begin to understand how dangerous the regime in Tehran is. Only then can we fully appreciate how events like the revolution underway in Egypt only encourages Twelvers like Khamenei to take still further provocative and perilous actions to hasten the coming of the Twelfth Imam.

So the idea is afloat that both Sunni jihadists in Iraq and the Shi’ite state of Iran ay be about the “hastening” business.


Blog-friend Dr. Timothy Furnish, as I’ve noted here before, rebuts the application of Paz’ concept by Rosenberg, Glenn Beck and others to the situation in Iran, saying of it:

It posits that there is a strain of Islamic eschatological thought which hopes to force Allah’s hand in sending the Mahdi, as it were, via sparking a major conflagration (nuclear, or otherwise) with the West (either the U.S. or Israel). This may be true of some of the Sunni jihadits with an apocalyptic bent, but there is very little evidence that such an idea is operative in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ayatollahs may be cut-throat, anti-Israeli and anti-American-but they are not stupid. They know full well that any nuclear attack on Israel of the U.S. would be met with a crushing retaliation. (Besides, what good would it do for the Mahdi to come and establish his global caliphate over smoking radioactive ruins?)”


And if I might ask a follow-up question — is the first of the Juhayman Letters, which is devoted to the theme of the coming of the Mahdi, available in English?

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