Saturday, June 8, 2024

Belief and Reality


Belief is ultimately based on reality: the believers’ experiences, how they explain those experiences, and how much they trust their explanations. The experiences can be direct or shared by someone else. Explanations can be created by the believer or provided by others. Trust is based on how well explanations match with experience, and how well other explanations from the sources have matched with experience.

Explanations are used to craft expectations of what exists and what is likely to exist as a result of certain actions by oneself and others. Treating those expectations as reality is a fundamental outcome of belief, enabling action unhindered by doubt that could trigger diversion of resources into investigating the validity of the reasons for it. Belief thus increases the efficiency of attaining goals that depend on actions, with a maximum that is limited by how closely its basis matches reality.

Another outcome of belief is reduction of stress triggered by uncertainty, especially about what affects one’s survival. Belief masks the unknown with a fictional alternative that feels known, or at least knowable, often with a narrative that provides prescriptions for interpreting and dealing with its experiential manifestations. People have different tolerances for this kind of stress, and so will prefer to rely on belief to varying degrees and in different ways. 

Social pressure, partly due to dependence on others for surviving and thriving, can enforce a set of beliefs that supersedes personal preference in order to maintain group coherence that sustains that dependence, experienced by its members as part of a shared identity. In an increasingly unpredictable environment, where explanations underlying current beliefs cease to match current experience to an extent necessary for survival (and maintain tolerable stress), trust in the beliefs will necessarily erode; and for a group whose identity is strongly tied to its beliefs, that environment will be perceived as a threat to its existence.

Threats can be tolerated, escaped, or confronted. Changing beliefs is an approach to toleration. Changing location is a way to escape with beliefs intact. Confronting a threat might be successful with current beliefs; but if it isn’t, then developing new understanding of the threat is a critical first step that might require changing beliefs, especially if actions taken based on those beliefs are found to have contributed to the threat or could in the future.

Constant development and test of explanations based on growing collection of experience is an alternative to belief that attacks uncertainty directly and reduces stress by providing a realistic basis for identifying and managing both opportunities and threats. The consequences of actions can be better understood and predicted, increasing their efficiency in pursuit of goals that themselves can be better chosen in the pursuit of surviving and thriving, if that is what people want to do. This approach, in its most organized form known as science, treats alternate descriptions and explanations as means toward ultimately achieving a common set that accounts for all of experience: past, present, and future. Identity based on favored descriptions and explanations is considered counterproductive except to the extent that it promotes competition that can help in the process.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Value Statement

“Exploring new ways of thinking, for fun and optimization of the amount, longevity, and quality of life.” – Bradley Jarvis profile, X (formerly Twitter) @bradjarvis

That introduction is a succinct statement of my values and how I most prefer to serve them. The term “life” is more general than I’ve typically used it elsewhere, applying to both humanity and other species. 

By my calculations, collapse of both populations is avoided where natural habitat that includes other species accounts for more than 63% of the sum of habitat and what people are consuming to survive. Put another way: The habitat that supports humans requires about the same amount of additional habitat to support it; less than that and it decreases, unable to support as many of us. If we were like other species and did not generate waste, our population would decrease to a level that could be supported by the remaining habitat which is supported by what it needs that grows back; but with increasing waste, that can’t happen, and we all die together.

What I just described accounts for the amount of life. How long both populations can survive is the longevity. Quality of life is how well members are matched to their environments, receiving benefits commensurate with what they contribute to the health of others. Humanity’s creation of waste, whose function as the essence of artificial environments is to provide benefits without requiring the giving of benefits, has enabled increasing quality of life for some at the expense of life itself for others – nonhuman and human.

One of my “new ways of thinking” is to tie amount, longevity, and quality as aspects of life to the values of people, habitat, and waste that I’ve identified in my other writing and described briefly above. How the aspects of life are to be optimized depends on the relative priorities of the values; and those priorities will be different for different people. For that reason, my recent research has been focused on deriving what those priorities might be (and how they might change) within given populations of people; and presenting the results as aspects of life within simulated “worlds” with similar pasts and different futures – one of which might be our own.

My greatest interest has been how to increase human longevity since our extinction would be the end of all our lives and our values along with them. The dependency of longevity on the amount of available habitat over time and the number of people consuming it to meet basic needs is a good reason to give habitat at least as high a priority as people. Waste would be the lowest priority, though it can serve longevity if a fixed amount of it is used as protection from threats to it that can’t be dealt with otherwise. Waste also can be, and has been, used to access more habitat if habitat is diminishing or population is growing beyond what existing habitat can support.

 From the perspective of other species, my guess based on extensive reading about biology and specifically ecology is that, for many, the value of population size (as procreation) would be the highest priority. Habitat (food supply and shelter) would be second. Waste wouldn’t even occur to them unless it was mistaken to be part of their habitat. Generally speaking, enabling development and maintenance of healthy, diverse ecosystems is the best way to optimize non-human life. This would, as a minimum, involve getting rid of waste and making the rest as harmless as possible.

As for the fun part of creative thinking, it’s a natural reward that draws me to do more of it no matter what circumstances I’m in.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Interactions of Value

Interactions between groups can be used as a measure of people’s values. We can use changes in the amounts of people, habitat, and waste resulting from an interaction as measures of how much they are valued by the people involved in the interaction. 

Globally over history, the amounts of people and waste have grown at the expense of habitat such that the amount of waste exceeded the amount of people, and then waste exceeded the amount of habitat. Humanity will become effectively extinct soon after the amount of people exceeds the amount of habitat. 

In simulated world called “Green” that is based on historical data, waste exceeded people by 1940. Waste began exceeding habitat in 2015. By 2018, some members of the world population needed more resources for survival than there was habitat in their accessible environment. By 2025 as many people will be dying as are being born (the population will peak) and half the world’s total resources will be waste, after which there will be net death as increasing waste replaces more habitat. Overall, people will exceed habitat by 2037; and extinction will occur by 2041.

ABOVE: Amounts of resources over time.

People, habitat, and waste are not distributed equally within the world’s population. If they were, then there would be effectively one group of people cooperating to live the same way. In the simulation, a simplified version of reality based on measurable behavior such as economic activity, resources are moved and stored by people throughout the population based on available habitat and produced waste. The world is divided into thousands of environments, each a group with its total resources (“capacity” or size) composed of people (represented by the habitat they consume for survival), habitat (other species and what they produce and can consume), and waste (resources not consumable by people or other species). Changes in the distributions of resources within these environments are indicative of the interactions between them.

If we look at the world’s resources as environments with their capacities adding up (accumulating) based on increasing ratio of people to habitat (habitat ratio), we can see how their distributions compare with each other as a function of their size. This order is chosen because groups with close habitat ratios are similar enough to naturally interact with each other, as found in statistical analysis of economic activity (which, by definition, involves movement of resources) and correlations of life satisfaction. 

Environments with the most waste as a fraction of their capacity have the fewest people as a fraction of their capacity. As the total amount of waste increases, waste occupies more environments, and those environments have larger fractions of people in them. Another way of looking at this is that the groups with fewer people are at war with the groups that have more people (who are consuming), forcing them to move and grow into other environments by flooding them with waste and thereby depriving them of habitat until the habitat can’t support them (domination). Continuing growth of waste (exploitation) results in collapse, with the entire population having too little habitat to survive in environments that are essentially the same (except for one in the simulation, where one person has no waste and too little habitat to survive).

ABOVE: Stacked fractions of resources in each environment as a function of cumulative capacity shown for each decade since 1900 and projected through 2040 in simulated world Green.

In terms of value, interactions tend to favor waste more than people, and habitat only to the extent that it contributes to increasing people and waste by decreasing until it becomes critically low, which is too late to salvage it.


Saturday, February 10, 2024


 The people in two groups can avoid interacting with each other, remaining in isolation. They each have an amount of habitat (resources that meet the needs of people and other species), and waste (resources that displace habitat).

People in each group can interact with each other, with several results based on the rates of change of people, habitat, and waste. 


Domination – One group dominates the other by killing its members.

War – The groups fight each other, replacing people with waste. 


Sum – The groups live together, meeting their basic needs and not changing the amount of people or waste.

Restoration – The groups live together, increasing habitat by having less people and less waste. 

Cleanup – The groups live together, increasing habitat and reducing waste. 


Consumption – The groups reduce habitat by converting it into people and waste.

Collapse – Habitat is reduced to less than what is needed for people to survive, resulting in mass die-off.

If one group is the global population and the other is the next year’s global population, then mostly consumption has occurred, with very few years of cleanup. Collapse is likely soon.

ABOVE: Example of two groups and results of interaction. Area is proportional to the amount of resources. The amount of people is equal to the needs they consume.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Troubleshooting and Understanding

For more than two decades I have known that civilization and possibly the life of our entire species might end before I would naturally be expected to die. The past year brought ample evidence that it was likely. Most significantly, there was a growing lack of interest and will on the part of millions to help protect other people and other species from increasingly catastrophic consequences of their behavior. From the spread of disease and misinformation to the destruction of ecosystems by creation and distribution of waste, the ability of life to support life has been degraded to the point where a cascade of death like the collapse of a house of cards is virtually certain to be unstoppable.

A big part of my personal effort to forestall this catastrophe has been to use imaginative thinking coupled with communication and troubleshooting skills to identify and motivate actions that a critical fraction of the population can take physically and socially to achieve the best possible outcome. I have been both heartened and dismayed that others far more knowledgeable and skilled than me have made a lot of progress along similar lines, but with nowhere near the success that’s needed. This has been a variation of a lesson learned and relearned at various times and scales: if you’re not going where you want to go, try going somewhere else that’s as good or better.

An effective approach to testing and troubleshooting in both my professional personal experience has been to observe the behavior of something and attempt to identify basic variables in its makeup and its environment that can help to predict that behavior. Changing conditions to establish how values of those variables are associated with behavior of interest is then done creatively so that the relationships between the variables along with the behavior can be represented in a conceptual or quantitative model. The model is then tested for its correspondence with reality while being used to converge on a solution to a problem at hand, which is essentially a question that needs answering and can lead to other questions whose answers deepen understanding of the system and help identify other behaviors that might be of interest.

Arguably the most wanted result of troubleshooting is a simple summary of a problem’s cause and a single, easily implemented solution. The least wanted result includes a detailed description of what was learned and could be learned, along with a list of potential new problems. As a scientist by personality and training, I tend to favor the least wanted result, which is also the least conducive to convincing people to act, no matter how well it is communicated. I’ve found that communicating the most wanted result is easy and effective, but only if the problem completely disappears after the solution is implemented and nothing obviously related to it takes its place.

In the case of the multiple threats facing humanity’s survival, the complexity of the involved systems and their behaviors makes it highly unlikely that simple and practical solutions can be found and acted upon. Essentially, we all must become experts in understanding at least some of the systems and both their healthy and unhealthy behaviors. Scientists and engineers who have studied and worked with many of the systems out of curiosity or affinity can provide some guidance to the rest of us, but they cannot impart the understanding needed by us to manipulate the required variables on an ongoing basis; we must get it for ourselves and become effective troubleshooters.