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Mike H

Dave I have been considering these posts and the concept of nihilism as applied to homo sapiens (I think human lends dignity to an overrated primate). After picking up on one of those casual remarks from a very skilled scientist I formed the view that this was the key to why homo sapiens are so hard wired. The scientist was the Australian Peter Doherty who has spent his life studying the human life form at the cellular level, like all gems of truthful insight by this group of homo sapiens, in an unguarded moment, he dropped the bomb - homo sapiens are unique, they are unique because unlike every other life form on the planet, genetically they are aware of being alive (bare with me here) but that awareness of existence comes with a switch, that flips into two states - delusion or denial, why?, because we are the only species who are aware of being alive and of death. It is the defence mechanism that drives this nihilism and hence the flatland psychic or existentialist state. Now there are a few (statistically I would suggest not morally) who have somehow also have the capacity to think beyond this primal genetic state (I guess we are an adaptation) and therefore have what you have thoughtfully described as genuine hope. The capacity to learn and the capacity to therefore change in a meaningful way not simply a loop back to denial or delusion. Doherty's view and this is correct from my perspective is that this is so fundamental that it will never change. Hence nihilism, hence the flatland world.

The other fundamental problem or conditional limitation of both the flatland existence and processes is that we have not despite the search found any other link that produces a genetic change in this condition in other words, biologically we have changed or adapted to take into account this learning or experiences, we don't biologically but we do learn and we do remember but we rely on communicating and recording this learnt or cumulative knowledge. So knowledge retained but not communicated becomes lost over a lifetime or two, not to mention the problem of imperfect recollection or transmission for that which is retained. So we need very long and arduous training regimes (education) to be able to even absorb this knowledge but for most there is no additional capacity to take it another step and use it either for understanding or improving our life circumstances condition for most no matter how sophisticated they may appear at the biological level, they are left with flatland thinking, nihilistic outlooks and indifferent responses which are so basic as to be frightening. Reptilian minds and rudimentary primate behaviour is what is left.

At least by articulating and recording your discoveries an original breakthrough has been made.

I guess we are now in a really bad place as far as knowledge transmission is concerned because we have fundamentally shifted across to a very sophisticate machine based logging and storage processes that is now driven by primal flatland nihilism, in comes and goes along with the electrons that carried it and will be retained no longer than that time period, thus we end up with the loss of journalism, the loss of scholarship, the loss of proper rigorous education and thus we will lose as communal or tribal standards the ability to question, the ability to learn and the ability to genuinely change. How else could you arrive at a situation where we are in the processing of so changing the very biosphere of which we are part that we neither recognise it or seek to prevent it but await the finality of the process, dumb and stupid but satiated.


Wow, Dave, your posts have been hitting me in the gut lately. I don’t want to be always sharing personal stories, but some things you write are inescapably personal for me. This is one of them. I'm still a bit impaired from meds so this isn't going to be the most eloquent comment, but considering the relevance of this post to my life and thoughts, I had to say something. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

First, I agree the trait of shifting baselines is rare, but not extremely so; and there is in fact a disturbing reason why it would appear to be vanishingly rare, a reason I know from personal experience. Allow me to explain…

I’ve been struggling for many years to figure out why I couldn’t relate to other people. As a child, I had trouble in school and was sent to a psychiatrist who said she didn't quite understand what was wrong with me, but it seemed like the core of my problem was that I "lacked a filter." She was right: I’d rather know the truth than keep my ego intact. Also, having a long memory for fuckups has made me extremely anxious. In order to take care of certain basic tasks, especially those involving other humans, I must purposefully strive to “unlearn” certain things, to wipe my mind clean. But, most problematically for my welfare, my baselines do shift: I update my worldview in accordance with new information. What does this updating look like from the outside?

An unstable identity. Insanity! The social contract demands consistency at the cost of truth. This constant updating has caused me profound suffering.

The point of my story is this: we at DOTE are not the only ones without Teflon coatings. The rest, you’re likely to find in psychiatric wards or on the streets. People who choose truth are not fit to compete socially, so they are ostracized and hidden away from "polite society." It’s a nontrivial challenge to respond to new information meaningfully yet to continue living and interacting with people. It seems to me that what makes you so vanishingly rare is not that you change your baseline, but that despite your responsiveness to reality, you’ve managed to put together a model of human nature, present it to others, and stay sane. I think this is what I admire about you most.

Second, I’ve literally spent years trying to get better at filtering, so it's a real shock and a great irony to see you make a persuasive argument that filtering is the downfall of our species! Your work has started to make me consider--what if the traits I’ve most hated about myself may be advantages in some way?

And last, my two cents on the cause of this Teflon-nature. You cover most of it in your Flatland essays (and I imagine even more in the fourth) but I believe the problem is also partly related to information processing constraints. Another interesting non-academic thinker, RS Bakker, calls his blog Three Pound Brain for a good reason. As you mentioned, you had to keep a file of notes to augment your memory. In addition to all of the tragic flaws you've covered, human brains also lack sufficient information processing resources to track changes in baseline.


I was worried that you were dealing with absolutes here. There are always exceptions to any rule - but I think you've addressed that above. The question would be if more people return to the baseline than not, and then dealing with humanity as whole, one could say which direction humans are most likely to move towards. Gilbert has his answer ("the vast majority"), and he sees it as a positive event for individual human adaptability, but I wonder if there are other studies confirming the effect?

It sounds right to me, though. Throughout history, one can see humans adapting to new normals constantly.

It's pretty much why I rule out some great come to Jesus event regarding climate change. Sure, there was a hurricane that wiped out such and such, but come on, there are always hurricanes. Sure, the Arctic is melting at an unprecedented rate, but did you hear about the airport shooting today?

It will just become old news in two seconds. Move on, brother! We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming - in more than one way.

On nihilism, sure, for someone hoping for deeper meanings to life and seeing basically hardware and software in human form in a time-space continuum of random interactions, then one can say it's all meaningless. For many, though, and disregarding the fact that it is almost certainly a delusion to think it, but meaning on a personal level can be found in a smile, or a sunset, or a good song. Some people find meaning in prayer, some in a child's hug, some in learning something new about themselves or others.

So, is life meaningless? From an objective perspective, and that's one in which we are completely incapable of perceiving anyway, then likely yes.

But, I'll stick to my regularly scheduled programming and say I wouldn't mind another sunset or two.


@knoelle: "what if the traits I’ve most hated about myself may be advantages in some way?"

I think it's pretty clear that they are. But, one with those advantages has to navigate the fine line between exploring the verboten and living with the better adapted of society.

Thanks for sharing here.

Jeremy MG

We have so much confidence in the things we clearly can't do. We're so certain that we'll be able to harness nuclear fusion, explore interstellar space, terraform other planets, geoengineer our own planet, etc. Yet, when it comes to things we theoretically can do, like lower personal consumption to limit damage to the environment or refuse to elect corrupt leaders, we lament how powerless we are as people.

Mike Roberts

I get frustrated by this kind of thing on news programmes. Maybe this leads to the general populace doing the same thing. We get the odd really important item (say, environmental degradation) which only lasts a minute or two, if that, immediately followed by some YouTube clip which has gone viral, about some dog rescuing it's owner, or something. The important news is immediately shifted down the queue of concerns.

When the death of some celebrity (I was going to write minor celebrity but they are all that) makes the lead news item, for 10 mins, with a recap at the end, you know the world is crazy.


Dave, thanks a lot for your writing. It may seem strange, but helps me to find some degree of sanity. Your points remind me of my father, who has in his own way an intuitive grasp of Flatland. Or Arthur Schopenhauer :-)

John Wheeler

I actually find a glimmer of hope in this Teflon Human idea. Sure, it does hurt in trying to warn people of dire consequences, but it also cuts to the heart of Consumerism. The whole idea of "pursuit of happiness" becomes a utterly worthless goal. If (and this is a big if) lots of people can come to see that their happiness doesn't depend on what they buy, consumer demand can come crashing down.

A life dedicated to, for example, restoring the biosphere, does not depend on the vagaries of human happiness for its meaning, and the Teflon Human also means that sacrifices made for the sake of the biosphere would not have long-term consequences for human happiness.

Brian Sheller

I've always found this tendency in people interesting. Ringing the herd with the same bell day after day comes to mind.

At 29 years old, I've had occasion to look into the past and to some extent stitch together historical events leading up to the present, but I've noticed that not my peers, nor my elders seem to do this in any meaningful way.

'Why is it?', I've wondered to myself, 'That while a rather consistently corrupt trajectory of federal policy seems to exist plainly across the lifetimes of everyone I've ever met, no one seems to consider it or care about it during November or April, or in discussions of politics for that matter.'

If human nature tends toward nothing sticking in the first place, what then must the addition of excessive hours of well-designed, suggestive television, print, and audio inputs do to augment that tendency, I wonder.

Would the population be more (though not 'highly') capable of thinking about, say, the US intervention in Syria in terms of other costly military adventures like Vietnam, Iraq, Cuba, Libya, and Afghanistan if it weren't for the constant exposure to the daily barrage of dream disrupting media?

Human nature may be that nothing sticks for very long as it was those ancestors who found themselves returned to more readily to a baseline state found themselves more capable of successfully overcoming the next survival challenge. But today what I see is that everything seems to bounce off immediately as though the minds of my peers are perpetually flashing 'insufficient space on disk'.

It's as if they not only have been rendered to a state such that they disregard the past, but that the present circumstances directly affecting them hardly occupy their minds.

That seems to me to be the difference between the phenomenon and the manipulation of the phenomenon to achieve a desired effect.

-The desired effect being a horde of subservient, highly programmable production inputs. True AI, if you will.


Dave, your last several posts just hit it outside the park (not sure if that is the correct sport metaphor) so I would just encourage you to take a post break and continue work on your 4th Flatland essay. What else could be added to the idiocy we find ourselves immersed in?

Interested readers can catch up in the meantime by reading your previous posts, especially the Flatland series 1-3.



I recall Ronald Reagan was said to be composed of Teflon, but then again, perhaps I don't recall...

J. F. Mamjja

Thank you, the Teflon Principle makes a lot of sense
as we observe our human freak show.

Case in point:
Can a nation be called sovereign if it allows
it's leader to be picked by another nation? Isn't that
GAME OVER? How do you proceed from that point?

Here we have the U.S. government crying loudly
that Russia - Putin, effectively picked
its 45th POTUS. If they really believe that, isn't
that an act of war, a major breach? At the very least,
you don't go along with it. Why not declare the
election void & have a redo? Why cry foul
if the plan is just to go along with breached
sovereignty as if all is normal?

Oh, it's the Teflon Principle. Let's cry now, then forget
about it and move on. Nothing sticks anyway.
In a few months, the department of defense
will get a nice budget raise even though no
defense is ever forthcoming from that department.
(This is the crew who couldn't prevent their own
temple from being punched in on 9/11)

All the outrage will be swallowed and forgotten,
and life will go on, thanks to the amazing
human Teflon Adaptation.


@J. F. Mamjja: the United States and its media is like one giant funhouse mirror, so it's understandable to be confused at this moment in time, but Russia didn't 'pick' our leader.

I'm so exhausted and frustrated at everyone in Washington and in major media right now. The Democrats are now a bunch of hawks. Putin 'might' have ordered the hacks on the DNC and Podesta (who aimed to be Secretary of State but didn't understand basic internet security principles), but this hasn't been proven to the American people. We're all acting like its established fact now, though, so let's say it's true.

The result of those hacks were internal memos released to the press via Wikileaks. None of it has been shown to be faked memos. It's all real info, so in effect we had more transparency during this election than we might have otherwise had. Because we're a gaggle of morons, we now think greater transparency is a threat to democracy. President Obama's farewell speech was mostly, yet again, an autobiography of his legacy, but it was also a bemoaning of the state of democracy in this country, as if it hadn't been eroded during his term and by his actions, and as if democracy is only threatened when the other side wins.

That said, the releases did have some effect on the election. It probably caused some who might have voted for Clinton to stay home on election day, for instance. But, this was one factor of many, and those other factors had a much greater effect on the election than the Wikileaks info, and none of that had anything to do with Russia.

Finally, if Russia's leaders ordered the hacks, it's not like the United States hasn't also meddled in elections and governments constantly ourselves - and in far greater ways. The hypocrisy of it all is stunning. Mario Rubio yesterday called Putin a war criminal for civilian deaths in Syria. Did he forget about the events of the past two decades - or the events of the past century, for that matter. How much blood is on our hands?

This whole Russia thing is one giant scapegoating, because we can't face our own faults squarely in the face. We're a nation of cowards and idiots.

Argh. I just had to vent a little. I'm okay now. And, don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of Russia in any way.

On the Department of Defense - we call a massively bloated military that needs constant use "defense". We have so many enemies! Let's add Russia to the top of the list!

I think some have missed the basic function of the Teflon principle. It's not just that bad news doesn't stick for long. It's that any news, good or bad, has a limited effect on what we desire, and how we act due to that desire. We return to our own baselines in time, and just continue to behave as our programming dictates.

Life will go on, but outrage might not be forgotten quickly, especially if it serves a purpose towards our wishes in the first place. America needs enemies, and we SHOULD be asking why that is, rather than constantly seeking new people and countries to blame, but we don't do that. Asking why we don't, and really probing that question, leads to some depressing truths about ourselves as a nation and as a species.

Compound F

You gotta ask, "what makes Sammy dance?" in order to understand the failure to learn even while learning.

This short paper from the Brelands goes a long, long way toward that end:


the main point being that arbitrary signals can be learned to guide what you were going to do anyway, no matter what, regardless of the consequences of that behavior. The Skinnerians said, well, that's just "instinctive drift," or "evoked behaviors." I say, call it what you want, beeyotch, but you based all your stupid theories on contingent-dependent behavior (behavior is shaped entirely by consequences!), and then said, well, those deviations from theory were special cases of animal flatland.

Yeah, you can teach a pig put a coin in a piggy bank, but only for the first few trials, because as far as the pig is concerned, "it's all just rooting to me. It was you experimenters who tied my eating to this arbitrary signal of food. When I appear to lose my ability to learn by consequences, don't blame me! I'm just a pig! When i see tokens of food, i start rooting and biting that SOB like at get out. I don't really understand banking, at all."

J. F. Majja


I'm not confused about whether Russia is responsible
for the election of Trump. The US Govt. is the party
shouting about it, but actions (or lack thereof) speak
louder than words. Do they really believe what they say?

I said...
"Here we have the U.S. government crying loudly
that Russia - Putin, effectively picked
its 45th POTUS. If they really believe that, isn't
that an act of war, a major breach? At the very least,
you don't go along with it. Why not declare the
election void & have a redo? Why cry foul
if the plan is just to go along with breached
sovereignty as if all is normal?"

Now since the US Govt. IS in fact going along with it
on 1/20/2017, they must not really believe their own
shouting, and they count on us not to notice or comment on the disparity between what they claim, and what the logical
consequences should have been.

It's working, nothing sticks, and we move along on our merry way.
Game over, long live the game.


"In the most bleak assessment of primates to date, conservationists found that 60% of the wild species are on course to die out, with three quarters already in steady decline. The report casts doubt on the future of about 300 primate species, including gorillas, chimps, gibbons, marmosets, tarsiers, lemurs and lorises.Anthony Rylands, a senior research scientist at Conservation International who helped to compile the report, said he was “horrified” at the grim picture revealed in the review which drew on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, peer-reviewed science reports and UN databases.

“The scale of this is massive,” Rylands told the Guardian. “Considering the large number of species currently threatened and experiencing population declines, the world will soon be facing a major extinction event if effective action is not implemented immediately,” he writes in the journal Science Advances, with colleagues at the University of Illinois and the National Autonomous University of Mexico."


Then we have this clown:

“I’m an optimist and I believe we can come up with solutions, but we have to be very targeted now to make sure we don’t lose anything,” he said. Writing in the journal, the authors add: “Despite the impending extinction facing many of the world’s primates, we remain adamant that primate conservation is not yet a lost cause.”

"Optimist", "Adamant" - fuck these idiots.

Mike Cooper


I'll summarise it all in just the one word: doubleplusbullshit.

Flatland at its finiest - including getting close to the truth, then filtering it, and bringing in the obligatory hope.


@Mike Cooper: I read the same article this morning and thought the same things.

There's a part in there about how Great Britain would need to trim 13% of their carbon emissions each year (and then every other country would need cut theirs as well, of course) to meet the 2 degree threshold, so I looked into that a bit.

GB's emissions declined by 8.7% during the recession:

One would think they would have risen a bunch since then, but they haven't. They've mostly continued to go down, with the notable exception of the year right after the recession. That's in part due to biomass, which is seriously questionable, and rather like robbing Peter to pay Paul:

In any case, it's not a solution that could be applied to every country at the same time. But, emissions dropped in Great Britain by 8.4% in 2014 and 4% in 2015:

A lot of these drops are due to the easiest emissions sources being eliminated first (coal), so future drops might not be as high. However, there's a lot of offshore wind being developed for GB, so it's reasonable to expect the emissions drops to continue at some pace:

It's way off that 13% per year mark, though, and GB is doing far better than we are in the U.S. - and that doesn't look likely to change over the coming years.

The author of the Guardian article you linked is an activist, though, and he has to maintain his optimism, despite hearing from every scientist he contacted that there's no way the world will meet the 2 degree target, and despite all the available data on the ground.

He ends it with, "But we are also clever, quick and innovative when we want to be. Now that we understand the game better, the question we face is whether we will choose to change it, fast and enough, so that we can all have better lives."

Psychologically, the average reader will see his ending and go, "Phew! I don't have to worry so much, after all."


How many definitions of nihilism are there? I am now confused, your `Nihilism` really should be renamed `Teflonism` if not alread assigned a label. Our concepts should be crisp and clear, like a Venn diagram with no overlaps, so that our language does not befuddle and confuse us. I think of Nihilism

Decline of the Empire could use a subheading or catch-phrase like `Hard-wired for Hope` or `Optimismus ist Feigheit`. You may get some hits from disillusioned Spenglerians.

Also, I think it my public duty to inform y`all that The Manic Street Preachers are a fabulous musical outfit suitable for DOTE fans and a salve to our troubled existence.


I clearly need an editor.

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