Pattern Matching Euphoria
Finding connections between LSD, conspiracy theories, software engineering, and Material Girls.
I have been thinking today about the euphoria elicited by psychoactive drugs like LSD - the sense that you have access to some sort of truth, scales falling from your eyes, the secrets of the universe falling into place. The elation is real, but the connections are smoke.
To anyone you try to explain this mind-expanding experience to at the time, you sound like a gibbering idiot - but the subjective clarity of this revelation, and the transcendent feeling of understanding it elicits leaves you convinced that language itself is inadequate to the task of conveying such deep truths.
And then, when the effects fade, you can't quite grasp what it was you were excited about. There must have been something to it, but you can’t quite find the words to describe what it was all about.
It strikes me that this rush you experience when you connect the dots is at the root of conspiracist thinking. How the human mind - which does so love to find patterns and connections in all things - generates these connections, along with the euphoric sense of realisation when it all drops into place. So when we start to go down the rabbithole of finding connections and sinister machinations behind world events, letting go of them is hard since they are reinforced by the euphoria of pattern recognition.
I see similar processes all the time in software engineering - when you solve a problem, when you find an elegant form of interconnection, when you can reorient all of the components of a system just so and suddenly they form something new and beautiful. The pattern of the most correct, most perfect solution already there, just waiting to be discovered and shaped in your mind.
It is ephemeral, and seductive. The practicalities and messy compromises of reality render such perfect architectural visions fleeting. Something you didn’t think of beforehand always turns up weeks or months down the line and simply won’t fit - so you’re left making it work together somehow. Either you compromise your vision for the code, or you redefine the problem in such a way that it can be half-heartedly accommodated. If this is all undertaken in too haphazard or too purist an approach, these kludges accumulate and eventually some bright spark will look at the tangled rats nest this once beautiful system has become, and experience a moment of revelation: if we just redo everything like so it will all just fit into place.
And so the cycle begins anew, because there is no perfect system that can cover all eventualities. All you can do is be aware of the tradeoffs of each approach, and try to avoid getting mired in chasing impossible perfection.
In a way that is no doubt massively insulting to philosophers, I’ve often thought of programming as like practical philosophy. Taking abstract notions of systems, of the way the world works, and conceptualising how they might fit together. The difference being that in software, you can run it, and see how it works or falls apart.
It is with all these in mind that I have been reading Material Girls by Dr Kathleen Stock.
What struck me fairly early on was how much space and verbiage was required to try and do some sort of justice to the philosophical ideas of gender identity that she is critiquing. Pages devoted to summarising a tiny amount of the literature on the subject, and then pages more trying to tease it apart to show where it breaks down, where it is flawed and self-contradictory. How much complexity we apparently need to grasp in order to be informed enough to make what ought to be very simple statements.
And yes, sometimes we can delude ourselves the simple solution must be the right one, but also the overly complicated one creates opportunity for us to find patterns and meaning in the architecture of the ideas themselves. They are not then reflective of the world, or of anything useful, but merely a linguistic hall of mirrors.
I wonder to what extent those obsessed with the endless play of language and meaning of gender are chasing the euphoria of finding illusory patterns of meaning in abstract scholarship, as opposed to anything reflective of the real world. Theories and ideas that cannot coexist with simple experience - and thus, if the theory is perfect, if the patterns are so revelatory, it is the world which is wrong. Reality reshaped or dismissed in order to fit with a singular purity of vision that is somehow accessible to the one who believes it, yet language seems inadequate to properly convey its true meaning.
The reaction to Stock’s criticism has been predictable: she did not read the correct literature, or she did not understand what she cited, or she did not fairly describe it.
Perhaps why so much of this takes so very many words to explain, yet never actually makes sense, is because there is nothing there. And like a conspiracist, the mind simply cannot let go of the pattern recognition that triggers so much euphoria.
When a theory becomes too large and complex for one mind to hold at once, I think that a sort of perpetual sense of enlightenment can emerge, as different yet contradictory aspects phase in and out of awareness in isolation. Each time a part comes to the fore it creates again the euphoria of finding fresh meaning in the patterns there, but at no time does the whole picture emerge, remaining tantalisingly incomplete.
This is quite different to the “emperor’s new clothes” situation, where an idea is hailed as so clever that anyone who does not understand it feels like they lack the expertise to gainsay it, and live in fear of their own stupidity being discovered.
Rather, this is something that flatters the intellect. I actually think that this can lead to a sort of collaborative delusion, where individuals who feel they have a clear understanding of some part of an idea can find recognition and social reward from each other, through rearticulating the parts of an idea to each other as they come in and out of mental focus. We are social creatures, and a connection that continually retriggers a euphoric state of understanding is a powerful one indeed. What would we do to remain part of a self-reinforcing network of such endlessly seductive complexity? How viciously would we turn on someone who tried to take it away from us?
Of course, I am speculating here about similarities between seemingly unrelated phenomena, finding a pattern that makes sense to me, that is not necessarily there, but that I am momentarily convinced exists just because of the sense of completeness and revelation it produces.
Perhaps the most important thing is to be aware of the limitations of connections and patterns like this, and to know when to let go.