Thursday, 1 December 2016

Feminine Solipsism and Masculine Empathy

I haven’t Sphered for a while, for various reasons, one of which is that I’ve really said all I need to. I do have one thing left. One of the commentators on Rollo’s War Brides post said this:
Simply put, feminine solipsism has a nasty tendency to sap masculine empathy. Sadly, when the pattern repeats itself enough, men lose the ability to connect to women on an emotional, trusting level. When emotional connection and trust is gone, what remains is the the conception of women as objects.
It has haunted me since I read it. There’s something in there I identify with, and something I think is wrong.

I’ve said before, but not clearly enough, that well-balanced adults do not need to make "emotional connections” with other adults. As children, they had their need for connection met by their parents, and as adults they are going to connect in the same way with their children. It’s the children who had bad or missing parents who become adults with un-met needs for connection. Since healthy adults are equipped to meet the emotional needs of children, the un-fulfilled people wind up trying to find comfort with other un-fuliflled people. Which does not work out well.

Well-balanced adults do not treat each other, or think of each other as objects. They have relationships of varying degrees of trust and sharing: from the purely instrumental relationship with a shop assistant, to the high-trust, high-sharing but non-domestic relationship needed for one’s attorney, to the medium-trust, cautious sharing of a domestic relationship. A well-balanced husband and wife know they are going to keep secrets from each other, and they know that the trust they have in each other is negotiable and circumstantial. A well-balanced wife / girlfriend doesn’t ask or insist her well-balanced man “shares” with her, she knows that he will tell her if it helps for her to know, and won’t burden her otherwise. A sensible man shares only as much as is needed to keep the relationship warm and functional. (If none of that makes sense, read Esther Perel.)

Pragmatic, moderated relationships like that can’t work for people with un-met childhood needs for connection. For them, relationships must be high-connection and high-trust, or purely instrumental. She’s his soulmate or she’s a waitress in a restaurant in a town he's never going to stop in again. And once he’s given up on the idea that she could be a soulmate, since he wants sex, he’s going to be having it with women with whom he has an instrumental relationship. That feels like ‘objectifying’ women to him. Well-balanced couples have sex with each other quote happily without having to believe they are each others’ soulmate. They treat sex as a shared experience that enhances them individually and hence confirms that their relationship provides value to each of them. It’s a glitch in the commentator’s thinking that sex without soulmate is objectification.

Let’s turn to the first sentence: that female solipsism has a nasty tendency to sap masculine empathy. I need to riff about empathy for a while.

“Empathy” is one of two things. One is an heuristic for anthropologists and negotiators: attempting to see the world through the eyes of the population they are studying, or of the people on the other side of the table they are dealing with. To do this, one learns what the other side values, what it believes about the physical and social world (or as much about that as needed for the purpose), how its legal and commercial systems work, and so on. One does not regard the other side’s ideas as true or false, better or worse, but as objects of study, much as one can learn Arabic and translate the Koran without becoming a Muslim. The ability to think like the other side without becoming one of them is empathy.

This is not the same as the ability to recognise when other people or animals are having emotions, and what the likely consequences and causes of those emotions. This is a standard-issue survival skill, possessed, along with a conceptual framework of varying sophistication, by pretty much anything that can move and has teeth. African lions recognise “angry bull elephant” and leave before the trouble starts.

In people, emotions caused by life-events, as opposed to stubbed toes or snubbed advances, are accompanied by a mass of thoughts about life, friends, the children, whether you need to take time off from work and what will that mean for your bonus, and a bunch of other stuff that might not be considered wholly appropriate to the event. These thoughts don’t arise from the nature of the life-event, but from the particular pre-occupations of the person. It is these thoughts that women need men to divine, since some of them can’t be said out loud without sounding gauche, tone-deaf or self-centered. No-one, of course, can say that out loud, so it gets covered up under “feelings”, and a feminised, therapeutic idea of empathy-as-the-ability-to-feel-what-the-other-person-is-feeling appears. These “feelings” are not physiological changes accompanied by behaviours, but needs, wants and desires for all sorts of things, that she “feels” she needs, because there is nothing in the circumstances that make those things actual requirements. That’s what men are “lacking empathy” for not intuiting.

And this is ambiguity that’s been nagging at me to be resolved. One the one hand, exposure to female solipsism does not reduce a man’s empathy. Empathy is an ability that most of us have and some of us consciously improve. Like sprinting or anything else. Once gotten, it’s hard to lose. He still has it, in fact, it’s what is telling him about her solipsism. It’s that empathy that will make him a good PUA if he chooses to go down that route.

What does get worn down is his willingness to divine her can’t- / won’t-be-said-out-loud “feelings” about what she thinks she deserves and needs. To guess well at these, he needs to know a lot about her, and unlike his male friends, who are one-and-done as regards insight, his knowledge of her ever-changing state of mind needs constant updating. That’s a serious drain on his residual energy and it’s one he is less likely to make as he gets more doses of her solipsism. And rightly, he feels that the less updating he does, the more he may feel he is treating her as taken-for-granted and maybe object-like.

But in fact, it’s exactly the right attitude towards a woman who is that emotionally unstable. She is not a good long-term partner, though she may be a fun short-term one. No-one is supposed to keep up with the twists and flips of unstable emotions.

So now I have to riff a little on solipsism. This seems to be a nineteenth-century coinage for the epistemological idea that while we can be sure of the existence of ourselves as a thinking mind, we cannot be sure that other people have minds. At least is our theory of knowledge that starts with the premise that all we can know is what we perceive with our senses. But then, the same premise leads us to taking seriously the idea that we’re all batteries in the Matrix as well. This isn’t the kind of solipsism we’re talking about.

The idea as used in the Sphere has two strands: the first is when experience and facts are interpreted through the filters of her feelings, needs and purposes; the second is when she clearly puts the indulgence of her wants, desires and feelings ahead of anyone else’s needs. Add to this some deliberate whimsy and tactical misdirection and you have something most men will recognise from at least one of their female acquaintances. This is not so much about women, as about anyone who has few or no resources of their own and must hi-jack other people’s time, skill and money, which is a lot of corporate types, government officials and politicians.

There’s some plain English for these traits: ‘selfish’, ‘manipulative’, ‘strategic’, ‘self-centered’: to name but a few. We don’t need to abuse a technical term from philosophy. Except we do. Because try reading the original comment as translated:
Simply put, women's selfishness, manipulation and utter whimsy has a nasty tendency to sap masculine patience. Sadly, when the pattern repeats itself enough, men lose the motivation to pay any attention to the whimsical and strategic changes and purposes of women’s “feelings". When that happens to man he stops caring about a woman’s wants and needs, and focuses on how she can satisfy his.
Really harsh. Best dress it up a bit. And round off the edges. By contrast “female solipsism” sounds almost cute: they can’t help it, the poor dears, it’s the oestrogen, or too much junk culture. It’s not subject to nasty moral words like “selfish’ and ‘manipulative’.

(This brings me to the heart of my reservations about the universality of the insights in the Sphere. Well-adjusted women are very rarely solipsist in this sense. A bad day here and an hour there, perhaps. Not every week, let alone every hour of every day. The women who are more frequently solipsist will be identified quickly by well-balanced men and other men with good radar, and will wind up with men who are themselves flawed in one way or another. And that’s who’s in the Sphere - and yes, that includes me. The Sphere describes the experiences of men who wound up with the less stable, less desirable women who make less co-operative and less supportive partners. As ever, misery seeks advice and solace while happiness stays silent.)

Let’s assume a man with hung-over needs for emotional connection and (unconditional) trust and examine that idea that he should focus on how the woman can satisfy his needs. A well-adjusted adult woman cannot and would not expect to satisfy those needs: a badly-adjusted woman might think she could, but of course she cannot. This leaves the man in the position of knowing that no woman can satisfy this unsatisfiable need, and that therefore he is always going to find that his relationships with women will leave him wanting more, and this is not always their fault, but arises because he cannot have the limited-trust-limited-connection relationships that well-adjusted people have. So there is a chance that he may not bother with relationships, for the same reason that he doesn’t bother with, say, polo ponies or concert violins.

What this man has to learn to do is to have relationships that meet other needs: for sex, entertainment and company. For some men, the same upbringing that left him with unmet needs for connection and trust will also have made him develop a life that is based around solitude and cultural consumption rather than the company of people, and these men are left with relationships with women that are mostly about sex, though there may be some entertainment as well. Whether he is one of those or not, he should consider a series of short-term (up to six months or so) relationships. There are plenty of sane women who, for one or more of over a hundred reasons, need a short affair. There is no reason for him to get involved with crazy people, though he may through sheer demographics find himself involved with other men’s wives or ex-wives. The mistake our original commentator made was to suppose relationships had to be long-term. He should focus on the realities: men want sex, women want attention. Short-term relationships provide both really effectively. In a short-term relationship, you can pretend to give a damn about the ever-changing weather in her head, because you’re going to split when you get tired of it.

I think the commentator is mis-lead by his own vocabulary, and by the need to avoid accepting that he’s a flawed case himself. The behaviour of un-balanced and damaged women doesn’t affect his empathy, but it does affect his willingness to pay much attention to them after the initial excitement of meeting has faded. Because he is flawed, he’s only going to meet women who don’t deserve much trust and with whom emotional connection would be ill-advised. That’s not exasperated by her behaviour, it’s right there in her damage. Sure, he’s stuck with women he can’t really trust and should not connect with, but if he could experience what a well-balanced relationship was, he would not find that met his needs either. He’s blaming the sadness he feels about his unsatisfying relationships on the crazy women he meets, but really he should blame the fact he only meets crazy women on the fact that he came into adulthood without experiencing connection and trust with his parents.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Newcomb's Problem

This appeared in the Guardian recently.
The problem: two closed boxes, A and B, are on a table in front of you. A contains £1,000. B contains either nothing or £1 million. You don’t know which. You have two options: Take both boxes, Take box B only. You keep the contents of the box/boxes you take, and your aim is to get the most money.

But here’s the thing. The test was set by a Super-Intelligent Being, who has already made a prediction about what you will do. If Her prediction was that you would take both boxes, She left B empty. If Her prediction was that you would take B only, She put a ₤1 million cheque in it.

Before making your decision, you do your due diligence, and discover that the Super-Intelligent Being has never made a bad prediction. She predicted Leicester would win the Premier League, the victories of Brexit and Trump, and that Ed Balls would be eliminated from Strictly Come Dancing. She has correctly predicted things you and others have done, including in situations just like this one, never once getting it wrong. It’s a remarkable track-record. So, what do you choose? Both boxes or just box B?
This is supposed to puzzle people. And puzzles that don’t seem to have a decent answer usually arise because they aren’t a decent question. Anyway, it originated with a physicist - a descendent of the brother of the famous Newcomb - and was popularised by Robert Nozick, and then Martin Gardener at the Scientific American. See where I’m going with this?

Suppose I say to a bookie: if I think Fancy Girl will win the 2:30, I will bet £100, and if I think Blue Boy will win, I will bet £50. His reply would be: all right which is it? I can’t place a bet that’s conditional on what I think will happen: the whole point of a bet is to pick one of the outcomes. The closest I can get to making a conditional bet is to put money on each outcome, and if the bookies are doing their job well, I will lose doing that.

What you want to do is this:
If I chose Box B alone, she will have predicted that and put the cheque in it. But if I chose both boxes, she will have predicted that and not put the cheque in. So I should choose Box B.
This assumes what the Special Theory of Relativity tells us cannot happen, that a future event can cause a past one. So let’s try this:
If she predicted that I would chose Box B alone, then she put the cheque there, and I should choose it. If she predicted I would choose both boxes, then she wouldn’t have put the cheque in Box B, so I should choose both boxes, because at least I’ll get £1,000.
The catch is that doesn’t tell you what to do, since you don’t know what she predicted and so can’t detach the consequents from the conditionals. The next one is silly...
If she predicted that I would chose Box B, then she put the cheque there and I should choose it. If she predicted I would choose both boxes, then she wouldn’t have put the cheque in Box B, so I should not choose both boxes, only Box B
That sounds good, but since there’s no cheque in Box B, you get nothing. But what you were going to do was this:
Suppose I choose Box B. Since her predictions are perfect, she predicted that and the cheque is there. But if I choose both boxes, again since her predictions are perfect, the acheque isn’t there. So I choose Box B.
This doesn’t require backwards-causality, but it does require someone to ensure the predictions are perfect. Russian hackers, presumably.(*) What we’re told is that she’s good, not that the game is rigged.(**) Now try this:
If she predicts Box B and I choose Both, I get the cheque. If she predicts Both and I choose B, I get nothing. If she predicts Both and I choose Both, I get £1,000. If she predicts B and I choose B, I get the cheque. So if she predicts B, I get the cheque no matter what I do, and if she predicts Both I lose if I choose B. So I take Both Boxes.
Those are the actual options assuming free will and imperfect predictions. The only way you get confused is to assume a) that her predictions are causal, or b) that your actions are temporally-backwards causal, or c) that someone is rigging the co-incidence between her predictions and your actions.

So how seriously you take her past performance on predictions? This starts to make it sound like we might want to use Bayesian Inference, and indeed the Wikipedia entry for this problem lists David Wolpert and Gregory Benford as having a Bayesian analysis that shows that the different arguments arise from different models of the assumptions, so that there isn’t a real paradox, just an old-fashioned ambiguity.

The real reason you choose both boxes In the Guardian’s example is this: it’s the only way you get anything. She’s a woman: the point was to get you to choose Box B, and now you have, by Briffault’s Second Corollary, she doesn’t have to give you the money, so she cancelled the cheque (***).

(*) Topical political joke.
(**) Another topical political joke.
(***) Robert Briffault

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thursday, 17 November 2016

A Mathematical Joke

Why doesn't the Hamiltonian (operator) live in the suburbs?

Because it doesn't like to commute!


We're here all week folks!

(This was told me by a colleague at work, who says he made it up at university.)

Monday, 14 November 2016

The Sadness of Sixties Songs

I barely listen to the charts now, but the last time I did, most of the songs seemed to be about a) getting laid, b) getting high, c) how wonderful the singer thought his unstable, overweight girlfriend was. Or maybe I just heard too many songs written by Keisha and James Blunt.

Because we had real songs back when I was a lad at school. Oh yes. Like the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Suzy, in which the singer tells his girlfriend that they've overslept and their reputations are shot. Or Gary Puckett singing, on family US TV, about nearly getting tricked by some jail-bait into a statutory story.

Like that would get past the legal department now.

But mostly the songs were about unrequited love, loneliness, heartbreak and death. Ode to Billy Joe was a chart song and Bobby Gentry is loved for it. It's about the suicide of the singer's boyfriend and the callous reactions of her family.

Real family entertainment. These weren't indie cult songs. These were concert-hall filling acts whose records sold in the hundreds of thousands. This was what played on the radio and the juke-box. Mainstream.

The Seekers, a hugely popular Australian band, and as apple-pie as you could wish. Island of Dreams is about someone trying to forget a love affair on “the island of dreams”, and life in the real world cannot compare to the life there.

And as for the boppy escapism of A World of Our Own?

Traffic’s first hit single was Paper Sun in May 1967.

It’s the story of a young girl who winds up abandoned on the beach after a summer affair with a young man who spends all her money. That’s almost as upbeat as John Boorman’s 1965 masterpiece Catch Us If You Can, written by Peter Nichols (who went on to write other upbeat movies such as Five Easy Pieces), and is nowhere near as much fun as the song. Except that song isn’t really about fun, since the second verse says
Now we gotta run, mmmm-mm-mm
No more time for fun, mmmm-mm-mm
When we're gettin' angry, mmmm-mm-mm
We will yell with all of our might
Despite that, it reached number 5 in the UK and number 4 in the US in 1965.

One of the brightest, shiniest songs there is, The Happening, sung by The Supremes, was actually about the moment you find out that life is not a fairy tale, but is a little bit of a disappointment. That’s “the happening”. Check the lyrics.

Exhibt Two: The Hollies’ Bus Stop for one. They balanced that with the breezy Carrie Anne, who only went out with the older boys, had no time for the pining singer and has the immortal lines: “you lost your charm as you were ageing / where is your magic? Disappearing”. As for Stop Stop Stop, it’s about a man over-reacting to a stripper and being thrown out of the club. And in case you think Look Through Any Window is an upbeat celebration of everyday life, remember that the singer is inviting us to look through the window, so that we are on the inside looking out, and the singer is asking "Where do they go? / Moving on their way / Walking down the highway / And the by-way". Real life is out there, and we're behind the window.

What they hey was going on?

Regret, loss, sadness, emotionally distant, compromised lives lived far from an island of dreams are adult experiences. Don’t Sleep In The Subway is about a reasonably stable grown-up telling a more volatile one that whatever the row was over isn’t worth sleeping in the subway or standing in the pouring rain.

These were songs for adults dressed up with bright tunes and some sparkling misleading imagery. Films, songs and novels were still aimed at adults, since they made up the largest market. I grew up then, and one thing we were clear on: being a grown-up was no fun.

One function of culture is to provide us with emotions and thoughts we would not ordinarily have in our daily lives. If we are caught in a dull routine under grey skies, a sad song about an Island of Dreams can be as much a support or a means of escape as a jolly tune. If not more. It says there is something out there that is more and better, even if it is out of reach, and the idea of it can provide hope. If it is dangerous to feel sad about our actual lives, we can more safely feel sad about the distance between our lives and something easier and more pleasant. Nobody wants to be a full-time beach-bum, but if it's only for one summer, how bad could it be, when reality is a long bus-ride to a job in the town's only department store? At the end of Catch Us If You Can, the advertising mogul says to the runaway model "I got here in the end", and the model's reply is "Yes, but you missed the journey". If dull adulthood awaits us all, can't we have some fun on the way there?

And then we have Goffin and King’s 1966 song Going Back. Sung by Dusty Springfield, it takes on an emotional depth far beyond the music and lyrics.

Dusty sings with sadness and vulnerability that says she is choosing to return to the simpler feelings and truths of childhood because the compromises and isolation of adulthood have exhausted her. That's not the song that Carole King wrote. Going Back says that adulthood is not worth it. It's the song of a young person who has taken a look, had a brief taste, and cannot see any benefits. We cannot avoid growing older, but we can stay young in heart and mind, and see the world in simpler terms. That way we "can play the game of life to win" and "live our days / instead of counting our years". That was how my generation felt, and we were barely teenagers.

It turns out that the dreary adulthood of the Golden Age depends on some very specific economic conditions: near-full employment, job security, some opportunity for promotion, seniority-based pay scales, and the promise of a decent pension. With those you can trap people. And when everyone is living like that, one song can speak to millions. Under the present exact conditions of really existing Capitalism, we are broken up into economic micro-segments, each with its own fears and resources, each generating its own emotional needs and lacks, each unable to identify and act or feel in solidarity with the other, and each with its own special music to add to the highs and fill in the lows. One song cannot now speak to millions. But once it could.