The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?
This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.
Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.
If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silence. If you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.
To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.
Most people are convergentists by default. They believe that if reasonable people share an increasing number of explicit beliefs, they must necessarily converge to similar conclusions about most things. A more romantic version rests on the notion of continuously deepening relationships based on unspoken bonds between people. Bonds that allow them to finish each other’s Medium posts, and enjoy companionable soul-meld silences.
Convergentism is the basis of all politics. Liberal politics exhibits convergentist thinking particularly strongly. This is partly why liberals attempt to bridge political divides by earnestly trying to increase the raw quantity of shared priors, sincerely believing that every new shared belief (based in Science! preferably) brings people closer together. Conservative politics is convergentist too, but via pre-emptive silencing of no, I cannot hear you links, and energetic attempts to turn shallow verbalized bonds into deeper unspoken bonds that are always on, always at yes.
There is an obvious relationship here to hedgehogs and foxes. Convergentism is the natural social state of the hedgehog, divergentism the unnatural, but preferred social state of the fox.
In a way, divergentism is the claim that everybody is born a hedgehog, in a web of reassuring yes, I hear you signals, but in the long run, must turn into a fox to preserve their sanity in the growing silence.
Fortunately for hedgehogs, in the long run, everybody is dead.
The Expanding Social Universe
The picture above is a visualization of a society evolving in a divergentist way (on average). There may be small, local convergence epochs (especially when population grows faster than knowledge; a sort of knowledge-Malthusian condition), but the overall picture is one of divergence. It’s an expanding universe of thought, just like the physical one we inhabit.
Here’s what’s happening in the picture.
Imagine a large population of people living, seeing, learning, doing and generally going about their lives. As they do so, they accumulate beliefs. Depending on how smart they are, they also compress beliefs via abstraction, metaphor, subconscious pattern-recognition circuits, muscle memory, ritual, making and consuming art, going p-value fishing, exploring tantric sex, generating irreproducible peer-reviewed Science! and so on.
Some small fraction of this growing mass of beliefs can fuel communication attempts of some sort.
When two people attempt to hear each other, all communication rests on, and builds on, this shared set. If they mostly get to mutual yes, I hear you now conclusions, communication (of any sort, including non-verbal) creates an attractive force between them, and a repulsive force otherwise.
But that’s not all there is. There is the gradually snowballing momentum of everything that is not available as fodder for communication, all the unsocialized and incommunicable private dark matter of accumulating lived experience. If this is sufficiently high, the two will drift apart, cognitively speaking, even if their communication is a net yes, I hear you (and you hear me). And as they drift apart, communication will become harder, and slowly flip to a net no, I can’t hear you. In the picture, these are the snapping and missing links on the right, in the diverged later stage of the network of yeses on the left.
The noes eventually give way to silence. You can’t even get through enough to get to a no.
The reverse is also possible but statistically less likely: people can be drawn together, even if the ongoing communication results in a net repulsion force of no. This eventually turns into yes once the convergence proceeds beyond a point. A lot of romantic fiction is based on this dynamic.
Divergentism is the assertion that as time goes on, you are in a net no or silent relationship with an increasing fraction of humanity. Imperceptibly, silence descends on you. At least if you keep seeing, learning, doing and thinking. Or growing, for short. Actually, even a single self dissolves into a silence of diverging foxy homunculi yelping forlornly at each other in an expanding mind (proof: in Kung-Fu Panda, the wise teacher dissolves into a flurry of orange, dead autumn leaves: these are really tiny, dry fox carcasses), but let’s set that aside
Growing people necessarily grow apart. From each other, and even themselves.
You can extend this idea to dead people and received traditions too. As you grow older, fewer and fewer books by dead people will retain their initial ability to speak to you. If you are a voracious reader, you might still find a book at age 85 that cuts through the growing silence and speaks to you, but if you take your longevity pills and keep growing to 115 say, that book too, will lose its power to speak to you (of course, books by dead people can’t really hear you, so it’s a weak one-way street to begin with).
Convergence and Meaning
I’ve never really spent much time thinking about meaning, as in “I need to do something meaningful with my life, it feels empty. I need purpose.”
Meaning in that sense has never been a particularly high priority for me. I know this because some trivial thing can usually distract me when I ponder it for more than a minute. It’s not an aversion — it is simply not much of an attractor. I suspect people look more urgently for meaning when they find it harder to distract themselves from awareness of its absence.
This past year, as luck would have it, I’ve had a lot of interactions with people to whom meaning seems to matter a great deal. People for whom the search for meaning is always a very urgent existential matter, rather than an occasional sudoku-like diversion.
Most of these people are hedgehogs and convergentists, though not all.
I’ve learned two things from these conversations.
First, they don’t seem to mean the same thing I do when I think about meaning. To convergentists, the absence of meaning (always easier to notice than meaning itself), seems to correspond to the material notion of silence rather than some metaphysical notion of nihilism. For less evolved convergentists, who are as easily traumatized by dissent as by indifference, even a condition of more noes than yeses to can you hear me now? is sufficient to create a feeling of absent meaning.
Second, to convergentists, meaning and value are the same thing. For a thing to have meaning is for that thing to have value and vice versa. It must have a place in a narrativized universe in which there is no room for non sequiturs, or true surprisal. This value can only be socially situated. Things that might potentially be valued without being socially situated are, almost by definition, excluded from contributing to meaning. For the extreme convergentist, even the simplest solitary pleasures, such as enjoying a good coconut on a desert island, are legally inadmissible in the court of meaning-of-life construction.
So I speculate that to convergentists, meaning is fundamentally a social thing: not only is all shared ideology about meaning, all meaning is about shared ideology. Absence of meaning is silence in the practical and social sense of a pervasive non-response to the can you hear me now question. You yell your truths louder and louder at the universe, but get no response.
“I need to do something meaningful with my life, it feels empty. I need purpose” is simply another way of saying, can you hear me now?
To a convergentist, to first order, life is meaningful if the answer to can you hear me now is mostly yes rather than mostly no, or worse, a deafening silence. This, incidentally, has almost nothing to do with whether or not the communication conveys any information. In fact, other things being equal, a yes, I hear you unburdened with new information is often preferred to one that contains some capacity to surprise. Confirmation bias is not a minor bug in our attempts to learn and grow, it is a feature in our attempts to create and stabilize meaning in the face of the ever-present entropic allure of divergence.
To a divergentist, this is a bizarre position that requires an increasing amount of alcohol (or suitable substitute addictions) over time to maintain. Neither silence, nor a chorus of yeses, is necessary or sufficient for meaning. The possibility of meaning is mostly an undecidable. But the growing silence is an undeniable reality.
Such subversion of meaning can happen across far greater distances in thought space than affirmation of meaning.