Netflix show “Dark” unveils our free will illusion

I have recently finished watching the Netflix series “Dark”, a fascinating and addicting sci-fi thriller whose plot involves a sequence of convoluted and intertwined time travels (no spoilers from here on).

The fascination of this show is the strictly logical and consequential way these time travels unfold and concatenate. There is no room for the grandfather paradoxes that abound in many sci-fi and super-hero movies, where characters travel back in time to change a past they don’t like and succeed (Terminator, Star Trek, The Avengers…). In “Dark” you do find characters driven by this motivation, but they inevitably fail (and in doing so, they often prompt the sequence of events they wanted to prevent in the first place). Most of the twists in the series revolve around this simple principle.

A frustrating Deus Ex Machina

What I found really interesting is the way this consequential approach to time travel — that I rationally recognise as more “correct” because it is logical and paradox-free — instinctively felt wrong and unnatural to me. “Why would you do that?! Can’t you see this would ruin your plan?” is what you will find yourself shouting at the characters over and over again. Some of their actions feel nonsensical and designed by the screenwriters with the only purpose to make them fail and fit the consequential approach. You sense the continuous presence of a Deus Ex Machina that just doesn’t feel realistic.

And yet, I would argue that this sense of dissonance is not Dark’s screenwriters’ problem. It is ours. It is not the result of far-fetched screenwriting; it is the result of our illusory sense of free will. And thinking through this “it doesn’t feel right” sense can give us some powerful insight into the illusion of free will.

Are you so different from a tennis ball?

Let me explain my point by starting with a simple example. Imagine a time travel that only involves inanimate objects: let’s say that a tennis ball travels 10 seconds back in time. Now imagine that, once the ball is in the past, it starts rolling down (because it had ended up on top of a ramp) until it hits the replica of itself that exists in this time line (i.e. the same ball, just 10 seconds younger). As a consequence of the impact the second ball ends up in a time travel machine, which immediately activates (let’s say there is an automatic activation system) and teleports the second ball 10 seconds back, on top of the ramp¹. The ball rolls down, hits its past self… and so on (hopefully the image below makes the whole thing intelligible).

If we assume that things like “time machines” are physically possible, then the whole architecture I described is consistent and logical. It is a toy replica of what I called the “consequential approach” in “Dark”: the future is a cause of what happens in the past, and the past never changes its unfolding as that would otherwise change the future that caused it.

But crucially, and unlike “Dark”, when looking at this example you don’t think “why doesn’t the ball decide to turn left and not hit the past self?”. You don’t ask that because you know that the ball does not have any choice but to follow the laws of physicsBut now my question is: what’s so different when humans are involved in the chain of events?

An uncomfortable (but old) truth

Our brains are incredibly complex systems, but they are undeniably physical systems that obey the deterministic laws of physics². In this respect, they are no different from a tennis ball rolling down a ramp. If we ended up in a similar time travel loop, we wouldn’t be any more able than a ball to break the eternal sequence of travels. And this would happen even if the guy trapped in the eternal loop is trying really hard not to hit his past self: all his plans and thoughts are only sophisticated tennis balls rolling down a ramp, accidental perpetrators of the future which will cause them. There is indeed a Deus Ex Machina here, it is called physics.

“Dark” is a great show because it depicts this inescapable dynamic at a huge scale. What we feel like far-fetched screenwriting is the result of our illusory belief that our brains are somehow above the law of physics. A belief that we have known to be wrong for at least a century. Time travel might be impossible, but it forces us to face this illusion.

[1] Yes, this time machine is also a teleport machine… not the cleanest thought experiment, I grant you, but there is no loss of generality here (i.e. one can easily imagine variants of this example without teleportation).

[2] Quantum mechanics cannot rescue our free will here. For a number of reasons, but the main one is that our cognitive processes are 100% “classical physics”: they can be fully described using the classical theory of electromagnetism.

The ambiguity of “pro-life”

I always sense some ambiguity when people declare themselves “pro-life”.

Typically these people claim to be against abortion and euthanasia (for example) because they value life above everything else. But there is always at least a second way of being “pro-life”, which has nothing to do with valuing life per-se: it is the perspective that views euthanasia and abortion as bad because they end life proactively and artificially. According to this variant of “pro-life”, the problem is going against the natural (or sacred) order of things, not ending life itself.

I sense this ambiguity especially in religious groups that are “pro-life”. Historically life on this planet was never the priority of organised religions, that are all about – almost by definition – things that transcend the material world. Life, in many religious framings, is not sacred for its own sake, but because God gave it to us.

In other words, maybe some pro-life groups are not really “pro-life”, they are simply “pro-natural-order-of-things-as-designed-by-God” (let me call them PNOTDG, to distinguish them from “genuine” pro-life) – which in practice, when it comes to bioethics, makes them behave in a way that looks (and make many believers think of themselves as) “pro-life”.

Why does this matter? Why should we care what the fundamental motivation is, if in practice the two stances are indistinguishable?

We should care for a simple but important fact. “Pro-life” and “PNOTDG” look almost indistinguishable today, but they won’t in the future. The fact that they do today is almost an accident of history. We happen to live at a time when the tools of modern medicine can easily and painlessly terminate a life, but they are not (yet) able to indefinitely extend a life that has reached its biological end (aka ageing). Because of this asymmetry, “PNOTDG” and “pro-life” believers end up on the same side: both groups think we should prevent modern medicine from harming life.

But this asymmetry is only temporary. It will come a time (decades? centuries?) when our knowledge of the human body will be powerful enough to delay ageing more and more. It may come a time when we find a way of getting rid of ageing altogether.

When that time will come, the alliance between “PNOTDG” and “pro-life” believers will break. Their logical contradiction will come out. Those who genuinely value life will greet that new future era as a triumph of progress; those who value the “sacred order of things” will instead reject the end of ageing as a blasphemous (or unnatural) attempt to replace God (or Nature). And those who hadn’t really realised there were in fact two ways of being “pro-life” will have to work out what way they are and act accordingly.

What intrigues me is a possible scenario. In a world where anti-ageing treatments are available and effective, maybe there will be former “pro-life” leaders who will begin preaching the moral virtue of letting yourself age and die. It would be fun to be still around to watch.

“Italians mad at food” is boring

There is one thing that most Italian expats seem to have in common. Something that unites them regardless of region, social status and education – from the bankers in the City of London to the waiters at Starbucks who serve them an espresso. It’s their vocal intolerance for variations on Italian dishes.

Whether it’s the added ingredient in a carbonara or the pineapple on a pizza, their (supposed) anger is so disproportionate and comical that it quickly became a meme. By now it is probably the most common stereotype associated with my home country.

As stereotypes go, the “Italians mad at food” one is friendly and inoffensive, and I have no problem with it. It can even be a nice icebreaker when meeting new people: they hear I’m Italian, they apologise for the pasta they’ve cooked the previous night, I pretend to be offended, we laugh and move on to other topics.

What surprises me is the apparent seriousness with which many of my fellow Italian expats embrace this meme. They really do care about how their non-Italian friends cook their pasta. It is a very strange thing to care about: people’s tastes and preferences are by definition subjective. This role of “fanatic defender of culinary traditions” is maybe fun to watch (especially if you’re not Italian), but I don’t see how anyone would passionately embrace such a ridiculous part1. It is fun to watch precisely because it is ridiculous.

While I understand the feeling of surprise upon knowing that someone prefers cream in their carbonara even after having tried the original recipe, I don’t understand the feeling of annoyance.

Actually, that isn’t completely true: I used to “feel it” too, when I first moved to London. What surprises me is that so many “Italians mad at food” don’t quickly recognise it for what it is: a mild form of tribal instinct. A convenient way of defining themselves in opposition to others, especially needed when you’ve just left your home country and feel lost and misunderstood in a foreign country. You don’t really care what the other person is eating; you just want your diversity to be acknowledged and (ideally) admired2.

I get it. It’s a phase. Most expats go through it. For some expats this phase takes longer than for others (and some people never go beyond it). What I am saying is that we, Italian expats, have chosen quite a boring way to go through this phase.

Memes are fun, unless they’re taken too seriously. Even when they’re not (many “Italians mad at food” play the part just for a laugh or to amuse their non-Italian friends) I wonder whether there are more flattering memes that we could use to characterise ourselves. Why not “Italians mad at medieval misconceptions“? I am sure we could make great logos with Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo.

[1] Especially when the culinary tradition you’re “defending” is the Italian one, that came about as an eclectic mix of regional and international traditions. If it was for the defenders of the tradition, the Italian cuisine would be very different and worse.

[2] The fact that some people are even annoyed at non-Italians for breaking the spaghetti before cooking them is proof that the quality of the recipe isn’t the point.

Are you scared of Wi-Fi too?

There is one argument in the vaccine sceptics’ list that sounds more reasonable and scientific than others. It’s the concern about the unknown long-term effects of the mRNA vaccines.

The technology we are using for these vaccines is new – so the argument goes – and the trials have monitored side effects over a little more than one year. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the possibility of longer-term side effects?

I find the argument unconvincing because of three wrong assumptions that it is based on.

The first one is the idea that this technology was invented from scratch and in a hurry during the pandemic. The technology behind mRNA vaccination is at least 20 years old1. Multiple human trials have been run in that period, for a number of different diseases. Before 2020 these attempts hadn’t ended up yet in approved vaccines because of a mix of challenges, both logistic and safety related. Crucially, the safety challenges were all about conventional, well understood short-term side effects 1 (allergic reaction, immune response etc.), which are not present in the COVID-19 vaccines. No long-term effect has been observed.

The second wrong assumption is that the alternative to vaccination is just living our lives as if nothing happened. Unfortunately this is not true. The alternative to vaccination is the virtual certainty of contracting the virus, sooner or later. And unlike the mRNA vaccines, we already know for sure that COVID-19 does have long-term effects – and bad ones, even for young people2.

The third implicit assumption is a wrong idea about the way science works: people concerned about long-term effects seem to think that the only way we know about things in science is through empirical observations. That the only reason we know the vaccines are safe in the short-term is because we collected short-term observations, but we can say nothing about the long-term effects until we get long-term data.

But that’s not how the scientific method works in practice. When a scientist has high confidence in a particular prediction (e.g. the prediction “this vaccine won’t cause long-term side effects”), that high confidence is only in part due to immediate empirical evidence. A big part is actually linked to how consistent the prediction is with pre-existing theories that do have good empirical evidence3.

To go back to the vaccine, there are no known biological mechanisms by which the mRNA vaccines should have long-term effects. The “induced DNA mutation” some people are worried about is simply impossible, because of the known difference between mRNA and DNA (as well as the fact that the mRNA injected with the vaccine gets quickly degraded, disappearing in a few hours). Which means the prediction “the vaccine won’t cause long-term side effects” is much more consistent with our existing relevant knowledge (genetics, epidemiology, virology etc) than the prediction “the vaccine will cause long-term side effects”. And this fact should greatly affect our confidence about the safety of the vaccine – even before collecting any long-term observation – since our existing relevant knowledge has a great track record at predicting things.

Does it mean that mRNA vaccines are definitely safe long-term? Of course not. Theories are always imperfect and we never know where they’ll break.

Does it mean it is reasonable to be anxious about that? Not more reasonable than being anxious about Wi-Fi. Most of us have been using Wi-Fi networks for less than 20 years now. So far they don’t seem to be a health hazard, but how can we be sure they won’t cause brain cancer after 25 years of exposure? Technically we can’t, because we haven’t collected data for that long. And we are talking about electromagnetic fields fluctuating around our heads 24/7. Are the vaccine sceptics losing sleep over that? I bet they aren’t, because (consciously or not) they trust the relevant theories about electromagnetism and brain physiology. They may as well trust our theories about genetics and help us end this pandemic.

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/nrd.2017.243

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-021-01433-3

[3] In the words of physicist and philosopher David Deutsch, our scientific theories “have reach” to unobservable facts about the world.

A selfish reason to be less selfish

One unspoken, selfish reason to care more about other people is that… you end up worrying less.

The thing is, most of what we worry about when we worry about ourselves is bullshit. We get anxious about speaking in public, even though no one in the audience really cares. We wonder what other people think about us (they’re mostly not thinking about us). We get upset for not winning an argument (as if someone was keeping score and our social status depended on it).

When you worry about a loved one (a friend, a family member, your partner) all of these bullshit worries fade away. It is as if we suddenly become more objective and selective in our concerns, and we focus on the important things: health, happiness, meaningful interactions. And you don’t have to make an effort to drop the secondary concerns, it’s just automatic. How often have you felt anxious about a friend’s work presentation? And it’s not because you don’t care about them – it’s because you know that the work presentation doesn’t matter. A simple fact that you then forget when you think about your upcoming presentation.

Obviously concerns about a loved one’s health and happiness can be daunting, especially when that person is unhappy or sick. But you have the exact same concerns when you worry about yourself, plus the bullshit worries.

Many people tend to believe that there is no rational reason to be altruistic and compassionate. They then deduce that we need religion and metaphysical beliefs to get people to be nice to each other. I think this idea is wrong for a number of important reasons, from game theory to evolutionary biology. I would just add a further reason here: caring more about others is worrying less, and hence rational.

No country for introverts

As an expat I sometimes feel a cultural distance from the “locals”. When it happens, I try to put that feeling into perspective by reminding myself the many times I felt a cultural distance from my own countrymen back in Italy.

There are many ways in which I never felt completely fitting in back home. Recently, I have realised that most of them can be connected to one reason: personality clash.

Italy is not a country for introverts, that’s the problem. And neither is any other Southern European country, I suspect. The reason has not (just) to do with the fact that Italians tend to be more social and expansive than Northern Europeans: that wouldn’t be a big deal. The problem is that the Italian society is designed to make life easier for extroverts.

In Italy, building relationships is crucial to getting things done. From finding a job to getting your car fixed, you’re guaranteed to be treated fairly if you know the right people. If you don’t, you risk ending up in a sub-optimal position: the mechanic may overcharge you, the job you’re a good fit for will be given to someone less qualified, your bureaucratic request at the council will take forever, and so on.

To be clear, this is not a law of nature: I know plenty of Italians who still got hired because of their skills and whose cars got fixed at a fair price even when they didn’t know the mechanic. It’s just noticeably less likely than in other cultures such as Northern European’s, where rules, laws and procedures play a bigger role at informing interactions between citizens (and between citizens and institutions).

This cultural difference is often analysed in terms of its effect on corruption and meritocracy. But it should be also viewed through the lens of unfair personality bias. In Southern Europe (and in other, similar cultures) extroverts have a clear advantage over introverts, because they’re naturally inclined to build bigger networks, which will open them more doors. In countries with a less “relation-centric” culture, bigger networks – while still advantageous – only take you so far.

I have been living in the UK for 8 years and what extroverts get here is mostly more friends, which we introverts don’t mind at all.

Anatomy of a stupid fight

Why do debates derail so often? I’ve read an interesting diagnosis in the article “Weak men are superweapons“, by the psychiatrist Scott Alexander. He points out that, when people argue against a position they don’t like (e.g. opposite political ideas), they tend to debate the least representative and most grotesque argument in support of that position. He calls this the “weak man argument”:

“The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat”

What’s particularly interesting is what happens after people “weak man” a group: surprisingly, the members of the group under attack will start defending the unrepresentative argument, even when they don’t agree with it! They do it because they fear that the defeat of any argument (even the shitty ones) in favour of their ideas would reflect badly on those ideas:

“When people see a terrible argument for an idea get defeated, they are more likely to doubt the idea later on, even if much better arguments show up”

And what’s the most effective way to fight back? Of course: throwing a second weak man argument at the opposing group!

Needless to say, this dynamic makes the entire debate a waste of time. That’s how we end up, for example, with “a stupid fight between atheists who don’t care about Westboro [an American hyper-Calvinist hate group] and religious people who don’t support them“.

Shortly after reading the article I started seeing this pattern everywhere. In particular I came across a Twitter’s debate that reflected it perfectly. I will analyse it here as a useful way of exploring Scott’s article.

Story of a (minor) disagreement

I will first describe in general terms what the disagreement is really about as I came to understand it (knowing the ideas of the people involved from their past writing) and then I will analyse how the debate unfolded and derailed.

In short, the disagreement is between people who believe that the scientific community is sometimes affected by political and cultural biases, and people who believe that the scientific community is often affected by political and cultural biases. If it doesn’t sound like a big deal of a disagreement, well, I agree with you…

For the sake of simplicity, I will call the first group “the optimists”, and the second group “the cautious”. Note that both groups believe that scientific facts (defined as those facts about nature that scientists study) are real, and they both believe that scientists are humans affected by bias. They only disagree about the degree by which scientists are prone to biases.

Story of a (major) debate

The “optimists” and the “cautious” don’t differ much, but weak man arguments can amplify even the smallest differences, like an optical illusion.

The debate started with the famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins – a member of the “optimist” group in my definition – tweeting this:

Hundreds of people from the “cautious” group, including other prominent scientists and philosophers, criticised Dawkins’ criticising his take. Virtually all of the replies were variants of the argument “Science is made by humans so it is a fallible, social construct”. I will copy below only two examples, from two fairly famous scientists:

Shortly after this storm of critics, Dawkins replied with the following tweet:

What’s happening here? To me it’s pretty clear that the “optimists” and the “cautious” are throwing weak man arguments at each other:

  • On the one hand, Rutherford, Pigliucci and the other “cautious” are clearly misinterpreting Dawkins’ original tweet. Sure, Dawkins is using the word “Science” in a way that can lend itself to ambiguity, since it can both mean “the community of scientists” and “the facts about nature that scientists discover”. The “cautious” are assuming he’s using the former meaning, hence their critique. The weak man argument they’re attacking is the argument “scientists are never wrong”, which is an argument that some people do indeed believe1. But does it really make sense to assume that Dawkins meant that? Does it really make sense to assume that Richard Dawkins, a scientist who became famous for refuting what other scientists believed was true about Darwinian evolution, thinks “scientists can never be wrong”?2
  • On the other hand, I have the feeling that here Dawkins is weak manning too. From his second tweet we learn that his statement about science’s truths was targeted at people who deny objective reality, whom he calls “postmodern pseuds”. Now, I know such people exist and it’s possible that Dawkins has met a lot of them – in which case his exasperated tweet in defence of the existence of objective reality is justified, and I wouldn’t count it as a weak man argument. However, there aren’t a lot of those folks and I suspect Dawkins has been arguing much more often with enthusiast members of the “cautious” groups, who don’t really deny objective reality but they’re just very vocal about the ways in which scientists are not objective in their work. Instead of addressing their actual ideas, here Dawkins goes after the weak man argument “scientists are biased because there is no objective reality”.

And here we go: as explained by Scott Alexander, the never ending cycle of weak man arguments strikes again, blinding even (and maybe particularly) smart and educated people. We again end up with “a stupid fight between atheists who don’t care about Westboro and religious people who don’t support them“.

[1] Ironically, these tend to be people who don’t understand how science works.

[2] And if he was referring to the scientific community, how would the sentence “before there were any minds” even make sense?

Beware of false friends (grammatically speaking)

When you start studying a language the so-called “false friends” (words that sound similar in your mother tongue but that have a different meaning) are among the first things you learn. At the beginning they seem difficult but their deceptive nature lends itself to useful memory tricks. Quickly they become your allies and you absorb them.

What they don’t tell you1 is that later, after you’ve become fluent enough in the new language, the false friends come back with a renewed energy and they hit you from behind. This time with a twist: they make you bad at your mother tongue2. I lost count of the times when, speaking in Italian, I said “pretendere” (which means “to demand”) when I wanted to say “fingere” (“to pretend”), or “parenti” (“relatives”) when I wanted to say “genitori” (“parents”).

I have heard other bilingual/multilingual people complaining about these and other longer-term, unexpected failures of the mind. A multilingual friend of mine once told me: “speaking more than one language means speaking all of them mediocrely”. Amen.

[1] Among other things.

[2] They’re not the only reason you start losing your confidence in your mother tongue, but you see them first.

The Almanack of Amazing Things (#3)

  • Why nerds are unpopular: An insightful piece by the entrepreneur Paul Graham putting forward an interesting theory on why nerds are unpopular in high school. A theory that leads to a deep criticism of the whole education system: “The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.“.
  • The role of short-sellers: the recent GameStop saga has sparked a debate on whether short-selling (the practice of betting that a financial asset will go down in price) should be banned. The economist Noah Smith analysed the empirical evidence in support and against the ban in a very interesting and non-technical blog post. The surprising answer: it probably doesn’t matter.
  • The future of our past: We often wonder “what will future generations remember of our present?”, but we never account for the possibility that our descendants may know more things about us, our time and recent past than we do. And yet the story of technology would suggest exactly that, as the engineer François Chollet explains in these enlightening tweets:

Galileos are rare. And we don’t need them

There is a common misconception about Science: the idea that we make scientific progress thanks to lone geniuses who fight against the “scientific establishment”. According to this narrative, new theories are often rejected for being too revolutionary and at odds with the consensus, until the overwhelming empirical evidence finally vindicates the lone genius.

The problem with this narrative is that it is exceptionally rare in the history of Science. For example I suspect many people think Einstein had to face mockery and hostility when he first presented his theories. This stereotype is simply wrong: the problems he was trying to solve were daunting the scientific community and everyone was very receptive of new ideas. Sure, there were physicists who didn’t agree with him, but only because they thought they had better theories to solve those problems, not because they didn’t like the fact that Einstein was challenging the “status quo”.

The vast majority of scientific progress is a collaborative effort where new ideas are greatly valued, if they can solve problems. In fact there are few things that excite a scientist more than being at the centre of a breakthrough in their discipline (if nothing else because it’s a major career’s boost).

This is not to say that scientists can’t be conformist, nor that the incentives built around academia don’t have structural flaws: but these issues are bugs, not features of the community. Better ideas eventually prevail without the need for heroes.

Galileos are rare; and Galileo himself, who is often cited as the quintessential lone scientific hero, is not a good example since he was active in a pre-scientific society (he wasn’t fighting alone against the consensus of the scientific community: he was the first scientist, doing science alone against the consensus of a pre-scientific community).

This misconception about Science is not only historically inaccurate but also dangerous because it feeds the rhetoric behind all conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. If the only way to make progress is to wait for a lone genius to challenge the “establishment” then it’s only logical to give credit to anyone who claims to have found the cure for cancer; and it’s only logical to interpret scientists’ scepticism as conformism.

Galileos are rare because the whole scientific community became Galileo centuries ago. Happy the land that doesn’t need heroes.

The frequency of our mutual interruptions

A law of nature

I have a hypothesis which I would be curious to test empirically, if only I had the data. We could summarise this hypothesis as a natural law:

Two people in a conversation will interrupt each other with a frequency that grows with the number of people listening to the conversation

I see examples of this law everywhere around me: conversations with friends, video calls, online forums and social media. A relaxed, pleasant exchange is way more likely to be a one-to-one conversation. You only need to add a couple of people listening to make the very same exchange much more likely to escalate.

The bigger the audience, the greater the fall

Why is that? When a conversation happens in front of an audience, the social cost of being wrong goes up. We are always instinctively afraid of losing social status when shown to be wrong (or even when we simply change our mind). And obviously the more people are witnessing our “defeat” the greater the fall.

This is a recipe for a dishonest and unproductive exchange of ideas, especially in the wider world of mass media where the potential audience of people listening or reading any conversation is huge. This fact alone must be a big part of the reason why political debates or exchanges on social media are rarely productive.

Framing is everything

What to do then? Part of the solution is recognising this trigger in ourselves. We can try to stop seeing conversations as chess games. For example, it’s incredible how much more relaxed a discussion can be if you simply begin it by asking questions rather than making statements. It magically frames the whole exchange as a cooperative game where both players are working together to find the truth. Framing is everything.

Flee the noise of outdoor markets

But none of this is simple in front of  dozens of people in a Zoom call, let alone the huge audiences of social media. So maybe the very first thing to do is to start moving meaningful conversations away from those places.

I recently started appreciating messaging apps more in this respect. I have always used them primarily as a way to keep in touch with friends and family, but I have come to realise that they are excellent replacements of “public” social media. The space they offer is more private and relaxed. Now when I read an interesting article I am more likely to share it with friends on Whatsapp, Telegram or Pocket, rather than posting it on Facebook. The quality of the conversations has definitely improved1.

Whether online or offline, leave the noise of the outdoor markets and re-discover the pleasures of private, one-to-one dialogues.

[1] Admittedly this solution doesn’t solve the problem of social bubbles. But neither do “public” social media.