This is the second publication in my “Worldview Interviews” series. Each post is an edited transcript of a verbal interview, polished into a tidy, readable Q&A. You can read the first interview here. My goal is to meet and chat with interesting people, while gaining a greater understanding of the experience of others and the way they see the world.
The project originated with this tweet.
This interview is with deepfates (@deepfates on Twitter). I asked my standard set of very broad questions, and then pulled the threads that seemed most intriguing to follow up. As always, no effort was made to argue, cross-examine, prove, or disprove. The contents of this interview are presented “as-is,” and I neither condemn nor endorse any of the perspectives contained within.
Ben: Let’s start with a very basic and very broad question: who and/or what are you? And how did you get here?
deepfates: I woke up here, because this is my house. And you are getting here by being piped through the Internet to me. I am deepfates in this conversation, representing the Twitter user “deepfates,” not necessarily my entire existence. Deepfates is a subsidiary character of myself.
Ben: You’re using words like “I am” and “me” and “myself” and “you.” What do those words mean? What kind of entities are they referring to?
deepfates: That’s a very good question; you’re digging into the real specific abstracts here.
When I refer to “you,” I’m referring to the collection of matter and energy that is currently self-perpetuating in a region — wherever you live in your location. It’s your atoms, but not only those you can operate directly with your neurons; also your exo-cortex that surrounds you — your bookshelves and such.
That’s who I’m referring to as “you” — as the general swirling pattern of matter that seems to follow you around.
And when I say “me,” I’m referring either to me, Max, a person who is a swirling pattern in a similar way; or I’m referring to “me” as deepfates — a subsidiary mental character who is one of my swirling patterns around me. I use that character to distance my Twitter interactions from myself a little bit.
Ben: Okay, so we’ve got things like “you” and “I.” Then, maybe there’s also other things that are neither you nor I? What is the world around us? What is this universe that we find ourselves in?
deepfates: That’s an important distinction. I would say that the world is one thing and the universe is another thing.
Ben: Okay. Tell me more about that.
deepfates: The universe is a sort of mathematical unfolding that is happening, and possibly has up to four levels of multiverses (according to the last physics book I read, a few years ago).
There are many different possible universes that could exist. And “the world” does not necessarily exist in all of them.
The world is the thing that we are on, the thing that we are of — the world is the life thing. And it can only exist in some universes.
(I don’t have strong definitions for all of this, although I have weirdly specific concepts of it. I’m just trying to taboo myself a little bit from saying words that are too easy to reach for.)
The world is not the planet; the planet is part of the universe. It’s just a rock spinning through space. The world is the little green skin that lives on the outside of it.
Ben: Do you have some sense of how this world got here? How did it come to be?
deepfates: I don’t have a strong, logical understanding of this through any systematic way. But the sense I do have is that the whole thing is sort of a fractal pattern with emergent attractors. Do you know what I mean by that?
Ben: Let’s expand a little bit. I think I do, but I want to hear it in your words. You don’t have to go deep into physics or anything.
deepfates: I don’t know much physics, so I couldn’t anyways.
Let’s say that you’re in the bathtub, and when you drain the bath, you get a whirlpool: a little emergent vortex. That little swirling thing isn’t like a noun; you can’t grab it. If you have a hole in some Swiss cheese, there’s nothing there that you can actually touch. The hole only exists in the context of this other scenario where it has emerged.
And so this emergent property, the whirlpool — it doesn’t always show up. Not all bathtubs have one every single time they drain. Not all universes have life; but in some of them, there are enough mechanical factors at play that they can start clicking into something and doing evolution. Then you start getting a world, and then that evolutionary process also happens on a fractal level.
So each of us is kind of like a little whirlpool, in a similar way — an emergent part of the larger spin. A little whirlpool next to the bigger whirlpool.
Ben: So, in this world that we find ourselves in, is there such a thing as “true” and “false?” And if so, how do you differentiate them?
deepfates: Sure, there’s things that are true and false, and you can differentiate them.
There’s a difference between going hungry and getting food, as one example. We exist within this evolutionary system that functions by constantly checking itself against True and False. So, if you’re out there looking for food in the desert, you might just keep walking and find nothing but cactuses. If you’re unable to eat cactuses, then you’re gonna die.
But first, you’re going to be hungry. You get a little gradient descent before you get the final loss factor, which is: did you Die or did you Not Die? You can’t fake your way out of it.
I don’t know whether there are people out there who really believe that there’s no such thing as True and False; but if there are, I bet they don’t go hungry very often.
Ben: I’ve heard of such a thing as people who aspire to live on just breathing and not taking in food at all.
deepfates: I’ve met some of those people.
Ben: Have you? Interesting. It seems like you’ve met a lot of interesting people.
deepfates: I have. That’s one of the ways I got to where I am now.
I have met people who claim to be learning breatharianism; I have never met a successful breatharian. But I have met fruitarians who are working on their breatharianism, and who have gurus who are teaching them.
Ben: To briefly recap: We live in the world. There is true and there is false. There are literally inviolable principles in this world: like it or not, you need food to survive. That principle is real and true, whether or not you believe it.
So then, in this world, is there such a thing as a “should?” Or an “ought?”
deepfates: Like a moral judgment?
Ben: Some people would interpret it that way. Some people have very strong feelings that there are certain things you should and shouldn’t do.
deepfates: Yeah, people do have strong opinions about that.
When people say that you should or shouldn’t do things, I interpret that as a moral judgment. And I think the reasons that people make moral judgments are so various, and I don’t agree with all of them.
I have some strong feelings about what I should do. And I have preferences about what other people do. But I don’t feel like I have a moral standing to be able to tell other people what they should do.
Ben: You don’t have an urge to proselytize.
deepfates: Sure, yeah.
Ben: You mentioned that you do have strong feelings that there are things that you should do. Where is that coming from? What’s the source for that?
deepfates: That’s a good question. I have two answers; I’m in between philosophies, and I don’t know where to stand on this. It’s something I’ve been struggling with over the last few years, as I have opened my mind and tried to learn a lot of new stuff about how the world could work. I’ve tried to change my mind about things that I think I was wrong about.
I used to have a very strong standpoint – an almost religious standpoint – on it; now I’ve come to accept that perhaps there are some problems with the basis of that standpoint, even though I think it’s still a good, desirable moral goal.
I used to have a strong conviction that the best way to behave was… I think the philosophers call it the Categorical Imperative. Is that the term for the philosophy where you do the thing that you think everyone should also do? Because it would result in a better outcome for everyone, if everyone did that?
Ben: I’m sort of familiar with that term. It’s from Kant, I believe? It basically goes like: can this “should” or this “ought” be universalized? Would that result in a better world, if this particular “should” were to be universally applied to everyone?
deepfates: Yeah, that’s it. That was my ethos. It wasn’t really based on having studied any philosophy, but just… living through some heavy shit.
Now, the other side of things is this: I now recognize that there are different types of people in the world. And the emergent properties of treating them differently than you would treat yourself can be either better or worse. That creates different equilibria.
For instance, I’m a high decoupler. I’m learning to accept that there are people who feel way more strongly that everybody has to care about everybody else, and get caught up in their business. Meanwhile, I’m just like… that’s some problems that y’all created between yourselves, and it’s none of my business and I don’t participate in it.
That’s not some sort of evidence of a moral failure on my part, or on the part of high-coupling people. There’s just a totally different set of motivations going on.
And human motivations are so complex and emergent that I can’t predict them, or base my behavior off of what I think that other people will think they want. I can’t predict them that well.
So, now I don’t really know where to stand on it. I’m just trying to maintain an open mind. I’m stuck between multiple value systems.
Ben: What are some of the sources or influences that have led you to where you are right now? Is it mostly an internal exploration and introspection, or are there external factors that you feel are pushing you or influencing you?
deepfates: To zoom way down into the specifics rather than the abstracts: I spent a good deal of my life in radical circles of political activists and hippies. I was a traveling musician for several years, and hitchhiked around the United States. I saw a lot of different types of people, and I have lived really intensely with people who were trying very hard to do the right things for the right reasons.
Because of this, I got to see a “sped up” or small-scale experimental version of something that’s happening at a larger scale in the country right now. There’s an ideology of very strong emotional processing, and all of these ritualistic behaviors that have been labeled as “woke.”
All of that shit was something that I saw hitting the communities I was a part of on the west coast, which were connected to the generative areas of that culture shift. It is a very interesting thing. I spent some time really meditating on the idea of the patriarchy, and trying to open my mind and learn a lot of stuff, and it really changed my mind about a lot of things during that time.
I also identified as an anarchist communist, and I was able to get my mind into a place where I embraced all these ideas like… we’re all going to care about each other (high coupling), people should have genuine relations with each other and care about each other, we should grow our own food, we should build our own DIY technologies, and we should have a range of villages across the United States.
I wrote about all this shit; I went into it as a post-”Occupy,” wanna-be intellectual. But I also did not like college or any of the activism scenes; when I tried to build things in the activism scenes in cities, I found that it was all these people that actually don’t care about any of this. They just want to go do their job, and then go home and watch TV, while feeling like they’re involved with activism.
But I really cared about it. So I went and lived in the woods, and tried to practice real off-grid communism at a hippie commune that had been there since the 60s, doing the same shit.
At that time, I tried really hard to live out this ethos with principles like “everyone should treat each other like equals” and “we should have an egalitarian society” and “everyone should learn to do a little bit of everything” and “everyone should share their boyfriends and girlfriends with each other.”
And, well, I still think that is basically a good ethos; however, the implementation details are pretty contingent on humans behaving in ways that humans don’t like to behave.
There’s this “Golden Buddha nature” – all this desirable shit – but it’s wrapped up within human bodies that have human desires. As the course of history shows, it’s very hard to get any number of people to maintain that kind of strong, conscious bond of equality.
So nowadays, I’m in more of a place where I’m asking questions like, “How do you hack the systems to create a good society, when you have no choice but to work with these flawed, biased computing machines that run the system?”
And I don’t know the answer to that.
Ben: I have a couple of things I want to follow up on. You’ve mentioned “equilibria” and “gradient descent,” and referred to humans as “computing machines.” Could you say a little bit more about the model you’re using here, and explain that way of thinking?
deepfates: Yeah, I’d love to.
I don’t have a strong background in machine learning, but I do have a strong background in gradient descent because I used to live in the mountains. So that particular concept in machine learning makes a lot of sense to me, because it was a thing that I already did, in practice.
In machine learning, “gradient descent” refers to a specific operation that allows you to find an approximate function that matches a set of data.
I lived out in the woods in the mountains of California, in a county which supposedly has the same surface area as Kansas, because the terrain is so hilly. It’s very hard to get anywhere in there, because it’s so dense with douglas firs and cedar trees.
There are little rivers that run through the hills, collecting water from the steep, loose shale mountainsides. When you go walking in the woods, ideally you want to go uphill or upstream away from where you live, if you’re just going out for a stroll. That’s because whenever you get lost in the woods (which happens very often in these reticulated valleys), you go downhill to find water, and then you follow the water downstream.
If you were to continue doing that, you would eventually end up at the ocean.
That’s a literal gradient descent algorithm, which I have used several times to become un-lost in the woods.
Ben: I’ve found gradient descent to be a really versatile conceptual model. It seems to apply to various things all over the place.
Now, you mentioned that if you just keep going downstream, then you eventually reach the ocean, which would be the global minimum. But there’s also another possible outcome in which you could end up at a local minimum, where you’re at some kind of pond in the mountains. In that case, the only way to get out is by going uphill for a little while to escape that local minimum. And this problem also happens in machine learning.
deepfates: Absolutely, yeah.
Although, if you’re following water downstream in the mountains and you reach an actual pond, you may find that you have an outlet to continue following the stream, because the water will do the rising for you. It will collect and rise until it finds the lowest path out of the local minimum. You’ll find that ponds are almost always naturally-occurring dams where water pools and rises until it spills over the edges and finds a way to continue downhill toward the ocean.
Ben: Now that we have this model and this way of thinking established, do you think you can tie this back into the topics you were discussing earlier? How do these ideas connect to the problem of trying to build an aspirational good society while struggling with the constraints of the flawed computing substrate that is human nature?
deepfates: Yeah, I like that; that’s a very good question.
It makes me think of the governing system as an attempt to approximate a function of how people would interact if they were all good, and if they all thought of each other as equals. You could look at human history as the loss curve of this algorithm as society develops.
Ben: Could you explain what that means?
deepfates: The loss curve usually goes down slowly, along a reverse-hockey-stick path, eventually flattening out at some point. But sometimes there are breakthroughs.
I’m imagining the European middle ages through the feudal period, after the Roman collapse – representing this long, very shallow curve which isn’t making much progress. There are no major insights in society or governance that approximate a better form of human.
But then at a certain point, you get the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and capitalism. Then you would start seeing massive drops in the loss curve, as people are suddenly getting a little bit better at treating each other like equals and not murdering each other for weird religious reasons.
You could also imagine that the ideas of various forms of government, like democracy or communism or anarchism, are attempts by the algorithm to perform experimentation over time through different training runs in different bounded societies. Maybe?
Ben: Sure, I see what you’re saying. We could think of the history of humanity as an algorithm that’s trying to approximate the function of a good society by training different models within various societies with different laws and other parameters.
Ben: So, with all of that in mind, what does the near future and the far future look like for the world? You can be as specific or as abstract as you like.
deepfates: The expectations that I have for the future have changed a lot over the last couple of years.
I previously held the position that we’re in late-stage capitalism, and that’s because I was running with communist anarchists. The understanding was that capitalism is a fragile and bloated system, which doesn’t do anybody any good; nobody likes it. And the governmental processes of America are completely fucked and ineffective and totalitarian. We’re in a society that’s controlled by completely tyrannical despotic forces.
That was the narrative within that subculture. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had expectations that the stock market would crash, stuff would stop getting delivered to the stores, and there would be widespread food riots. Since Americans have tons of guns, there would be a literal civil war. We would essentially devolve into something like Afghanistan – a failed state.
But it certainly didn’t go the way I expected, and that has made me update heavily. Everybody suddenly thought it was the apocalypse, but then it turned out that the apocalypse was actually not that bad.
I mean… I had a great pandemic, so it’s unfair of me to say this. Most of my people didn’t die; I didn’t get too sick. I moved in with my girlfriend who I really like, so that we could weather the pandemic together. I was very privileged in this way.
But what I mean is that the overall apocalyptic-ness of it all was really not so bad, compared to the possibility of complete infrastructure failure.
And I’ve experienced total infrastructure collapse on a smaller scale, at the commune. For example, something happens and the clean water doesn’t work anymore; there’s no drinking water. Everyone starts panicking and trying to filter water using whatever materials they have on hand. I’ve seen societal breakdown and infrastructure failure, and I’m still a little bit afraid of it happening for America as a whole.
Ben: Total collapse on a more localized level is something that you’ve seen before. So you can imagine what it would look like if it happened at the larger level.
deepfates: Yeah. Imagine that there’s just one truck that can drive you into town. It’s 60 miles to the nearest gas station or grocery store, and out of the 35 people at the commune, 33 of them are violently ill. The remaining two people are just trying to keep away from them and stay healthy, and also take care of the 33 sick people the whole time. You can’t spare anyone to go drive into town, and the illness is literally in the water, so you pretty much can’t even avoid getting sick.
That’s a terrible story that I do not want to re-live, but it wasn’t truly apocalyptic. Many cultures have experienced their apocalypse already, as their cultures have been liquidated in the process of modernizing. I’ve seen this in rural communities throughout the US, which are kind of in ruins now. And I’ve read about the experiences of people who come from traditional villages one or two generations ago in India or in China, who are now loving the idea of living in a city and having a weird modern job and living in a small apartment, while having a slightly better quality of life and being able to send some money back home.
I think there is something inherently appealing about modernization – about the idea of a global techno-industrial society. It just appeals to the individual desire to be super – to be more than you already are. I think it’s a way of hacking the basic human desires; it gets people to work together on something insane. It gets people cooperating by doing specialized jobs that are fucking boring as shit, but have to be done in order to accomplish large-scale things.
People go along with it because they’re like, “well, I can buy a jet-ski and that makes me into a super-fucking-human who can fly across water, and I like that.” I don’t know whether everybody desires to become a superhero. But I do think that everyone desires to transcend their current state of being.
Ben: Wow, that’s a very different perspective than the communist-anarchist viewpoint.
Ben: So, there’s this collection of memes that are driving us towards a techno-capitalist future. Do you see that as the dominant societal meme going forward? Is that going to steer the future direction of history?
deepfates: No, I just think that it has steered the direction of history. I think that it has been very successful at getting people to do some crazy fucking things.
It has also been running on cheap energy, like fossil fuels. “Cheap” in the sense that we haven’t had to pay for the externalities yet.
This meme is not going to be able to take the 20th-century model of capitalism and keep running with that; we’re going to see different things in the future. It might eventually be “over” in some sense, but it’s not going to just go away, or be dissolved in an apocalypse or a glorious revolution.
It’s clearly far more resilient than that. It will adapt; it will sell you a vaccine.
Capitalism is very good at surviving by capturing and re-selling anything that gets in its way. I don’t like that, but I do admire it.
Ben: So in light of that potential future, what kind of goals are worth pursuing? What things are worth working towards? And how should those goals be pursued?
deepfates: If you imagine that we have been gradually wheeling our way towards some sort of better society via gradient descent, then I think we have reached a pond – a local minimum. We have been stuck there for a while: maybe for fifty years or so – since the 70s.
Or rather, the system of capitalism that we’ve been using has been just wiggling and flailing around trying to maintain itself, but not updating to face new problems fast enough – for example, problems arising from climate change.
We need some rapid technological breakthroughs to deal with the climate crisis within the timeline that we have – keeping things under two degrees of warming.
I think this is actually the purpose of humans at this point. We don’t want to be forced into the role of climate managers, but we already are climate managers. We turned up the thermostat on Earth by pumping out a bunch of fossil fuels, so we have to become better climate managers to turn the thermostat down. But in order to do that without reducing the power of our society, we need some technological breakthroughs.
Ben: It’s interesting to hear you say that this is the purpose of humans right now. What does it mean for something to be the purpose of humanity?
deepfates: The whole world is one organism. That’s a fundamental belief that I think is basically true, as well as being scientifically founded and also pretty self-evident.
We are a part of that organism. We are the part that thinks and talks about the organism itself. We are the part that self-regulates.
If crows were the most intelligent species on the planet, I would leave it to them. But there’s no other species on the planet that is changing the global atmosphere. So we are already the planetary stewards, and we’re doing it very poorly right now because of an ethos that doesn’t recognize the interconnected-ness of all of us.
We’ve actually just recently undergone a planetary spiritual crisis, realizing that we are all interconnected in a literal sense – you can’t get away from the people that are breathing on you. You can’t just not be a part of a global pandemic; you can’t just opt out.
Prior to this, we have never before had a unified global purpose. But now we have had one, and I don’t think it will ever stop. The global purpose will just shift, and we will have to steward the Earth.
We have to take care of ourselves and each other. If we can’t, then we will die out, along with so much of the life on this planet.
So essentially, we just don’t have any other choice. It is our purpose.
Ben: The way you’re talking about climate change, I think it would probably be fair to describe it as an existential risk (although I don’t know how you feel about that particular phrase). Are there other things that you see as potential existential risks? And should we collectively be concerned about those?
deepfates: Yes, there are several, and I think we should be investing in them. But, because the existential risk of climate change is already facing us dead-on, I think it makes a convenient focal point for our efforts. It sort of obviates the arguments around existential risk from AI, or existential risk from geoengineering, or existential risk from bio-engineering and synthetic biology.
I’m into all of those things, theoretically, although it seems likely that in practice they will turn out to be fucked up and bad. I think they are potential tools which will give us increased ability to break through towards a better approximation of treating each other like equals. Maybe even a breakthrough to things like a new form of consciousness, or a new awareness of what we are and how we exist. I do think that scientific facts change consciousness; the knowledge that we have in this era changes the way that we think about things.
But if we fuck it up, it might be forever. Life on this planet is not going to regenerate. The sun is too hot for there to be another start of life.
Ben: Let me try to summarize very broadly: We’ve been more or less stuck in a local minimum for the past 30 to 50 years or so. But things are accelerating, and we’re getting close to the pond overflowing. And when that happens, shit’s gonna go down, and it might be messy. But hopefully, it turns out to be the gateway to better things in the future.
Is that a fair summary?
deepfates: Yeah. We’re already experiencing that evolutionary bottleneck. Like, literally – what’s happening right now will be recorded in the fossil record.
Ben: Tell me more about that. What do you mean?
deepfates: So many species are currently dying out because of the past hundred years of massive ecological change. And there are storms and fearful weather that we will all be experiencing for the rest of our lives. The wildfire season and the storm season are going to continue to fuck up a lot of animal habitats. The migration of hotter climates is going to kill a ton of plants that can’t survive in a hotter climate, and can’t move north or south fast enough to get away from the tropics and the desert zones.
We’re experiencing an evolutionary bottleneck; we are like the fucking asteroid that killed the dinosaurs right now. No matter what, we have already become the managers and the destroyers of Earth.
We are going to go through sort of an evolutionary bottleneck with technologies and societies – not everything is going to work out. There are several types of societies that I don’t think will make it into the future.
We should save whatever we can and move forward as fast as possible to a better equilibrium. Then we can find a stable zone and start fixing the things that we fucked up.
If you’d like to discuss this, or just share your own thoughts on the topics,
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