Abandon all hope, ye who enter this thread

by Dave Maier

Langan IQChristopher Langan's Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe (CTMU) (which, my Ivy doctorate in philosophy notwithstanding, I am utterly incompetent to evaluate) is either a god-awful pretentious mishmash of meshugas, or the most profound metaphysical discovery in history, or something in between. On another day, we might discuss the very real philosophical and metaphilosophical issues involved in the CTMU and its reception.

But that day, my friends, is not today. Today we celebrate, in all its scrumtrilescent glory, an Intertubes train wreck of jaw-dropping scope and power.

On February 11, 2011, blogger Mark Chu-Carroll, a computer scientist at Google, posted on his blog another in a continuing series of posts about amusing internet cranks.

Stripped down to its basics, the CTMU is just yet another postmodern “perception defines the universe” idea.”

Sets are a tool that we use to construct abstract models that describe things. The universe isn't a set; it's the universe. And yet a huge part of his argument is, ultimately, based on “disproving” the idea that the universe is a set, based on silly word-games.

This is pure muddle. It's hard to figure out what he even thinks he's doing. It's clear that he believes he's inventing a new kind of set theory, which he calls a “self-processing language”, and he goes on to get very muddled about the differences between syntax and semantics, and between a model and what it models. I have no idea what he means by “replacing set-theoretic objects with syntactic operators” – but I do know that what he wrote makes no sense – it's sort of like saying “I'm going to fix the sink in my bathroom by replacing the leaky washer with the color blue”, or “I'm going to fly to the moon by correctly spelling my left leg.”

Thereafter follows a comment thread for the ages – a multivolume epic with unforgettable characters and deathless prose, slabs of impenetrable verbiage, earnest confessions, wisecracks, vicious personal insults, and a tragic end.

The first comment asks “Could he be trying to pull a reverse-Sokal on us?”

EinsteinChris responds immediately at comment 3 [“Good grief.”]. Mark is an incompetent critic, in that he has mistaken his abject failure to understand the CTMU to amount to a criticism of it. Four commenters leap to Mark's defense. “Mark is treating you very gently in merely pointing out that you're a crackpot and spelling out how you don't make any sense repeatedly. Me? I suspect you couldn't pass a Turing test. […] You'd be more entertaining, at least, if you threw in some Time Cube trash or Neal Adams quality artwork. As it is, you're just a crackpot and complete bore.”

Further discussion centers on the distinction between sets and their contents, which Mark had picked out as Chris's central confusion.

A commenter called Race Traitor helpfully links to an Amazon page called “So You'd Like To Learn Advanced Mathematics on Your Own” and suggests that Chris check it out. allOrNothing responds to this that “Your comment is so condescending the spittle flying from your mouth feels like rain.”

What I love about this thread is the way what might be, for all we know so far, a minor semantic quibble (about the use of “set”) gets out of hand almost immediately, and mushrooms beyond all conceivable expectation. It's like you can see the trains being carefully assembled and reverently set on their tracks, revved up to full speed (starting miles away for this very purpose) and let loose, the ensuing fiasco unfolding in slow motion over the space of months.

Here Chris could presumably have said “okay, if you want to use “set” that way, let me put it another way for you.” And he sort of does; but mainly, he lists Mark's Errors:”If Mark does not desist in his nonsense, it may well turn out to be something he regrets for the rest of his life.”

Mark is not having this:”What a load of ad-hominem ridden bullshit.”

Again I remove the substantive remarks, as they are not the sort of thing that goes well with popcorn; basically, Mark restates his central point:

As I've frequently said on this blog: the worst math is no math. And that's a pretty good description of your writing. There are lots of mathematical words, but they're used in ways that just make no sense. They look impressive, but when you try to burrow down to get to their meaning, they don't make sense. They muddle together fundamental concepts in nonsensical ways; they blur the distinctions between things that are necessarily distinct.

[insert accelerating train sounds here]

Of course, you won't actually address any of these problems. You'll just wave your hands around and insult me some more. I remain uncertain of just how it is that doing that somehow defends the validity of your theory, but that's probably just because I'm not as smart as you.

LanganOn 2/17, Chris provides another exhaustive analysis, loaded with carefully worded digs and faint-praise damnation. It contains a total (unenumerated this time) of twelve attributed Errors:”If I pop in here again, it will be strictly as an undeserved favor. Good day to all of you.”

Much discussion follows (I have to elide here, or we'll never get to the good stuff), summarized pithily by MikeTheInfidel: “You can take your 'undeserved favor' and shove it right up your ass.”

– but then another defender shows up, and there is more – much more – about sets.

Mark and Chris trade accusations of unintelligibility. Chris shares a joke; the punchline reads

“Wayull, Lurleen,” he drawled after a long and satisfying gulp, “some of ‘em *SAYud* they was. But you know how them @#$$%&s lie!”

Things settle down a bit, and by mid-March it looks like the thread is petering out. (Ha!) For nearly a month the final comment is:

Mr “The Smartest Man in the Room” with an ego to make up for the lack of even basic genius is indulging in Post Hoc Reasoning and Question Begging with the smell of liniment in his nostrils and possibly suffering the side effects of steroids.

But the ad steroidem argument will not be the last word.

I have more delicious excerpts than I can possibly use.

6/27: “[Something John said] means you're asserting that nothing exists. I think you'll have a hard time proving this.”

Reply: “Oh, my god. I though the logic could not get any worse. You seemed reasonable.”

7/25: Julia_L writes:

“OK, I get it. And if I don't, surely someone will point that out and call me a poopyhead(PH).”

Her conclusion:

“There is no paradox in a finite Universe and the rest of Lagan's extrapolations are not required. However, two plus two DOES equal five and I AM the Queen of England.”

Dr bronnerMore back and forth about reality. Shodo namechecks Dr. Bronner. “Seriously, if I had a nickle for every time I came up with a “profound” idea after a few bong rips, sitting on my porch then I would have about $77.45.”

Copernicus, Ptolemy and String Theory (“an abomination”) are discussed. John Fringe's “mocking tone” is not appreciated (“Good bye sir”).

7/28: Mark returns for a brief reprise of his main point.

8/1: Chris responds. His prose is (for our purposes if not his) a joy. Space runs short: I will simply link. Twelve Errors, with a “little sermon” at the end. Its peroration:

if Mark […] continues to pop off because a few diehard sycophants appear willing to cover for him and get his back even when the springs and cogs and gear oil spray out of his ears, then there’s always a risk that sooner or later, at a time to be determined by fate (and/or me), he’ll learn the unpleasant taste of crow. Raw crow, with the feathers and the mites.

A bravura performance.

Mark replies immediately, but briefly; no quarter asked nor given. Chris replies line by line. The trains may by this point be truly said to have collided; yet the debris has only begun to scatter.

You can’t BS your way out of the pickle you’ve gotten yourself into here. You may as well lie down and play dead.

Stay down, Mark. Don't even try to get up.

On 8/3, Tim shows up. Up to now we have seen nothing. Nothing!

I am a metaphysian. And, so that my boldness is revealed up front, I will let you know that, in your regard, I hope to inject some fundamental REASON in to the debate.

You have been warned.

Briefly, Chris, you underestimate the force behind Kant’s noumenon. Materialism can only be bested by I’dealism. That is, reality is at bottom idea! There is no matter as such! “matter” is, rather, information representing real I’dea. I say I’dea, singular, because … give me a moment please.

Take all the time you like. It's only August.

8/5: Still no word from Mark. Maybe he's staying down. In the meantime Chris returns to say that he knows [Robert] Pirsig well (“clearly a very bright man”) but that w/r/t the MoQ, “comparing it to the CTMU would be like comparing a Ford Model T to the Starship Enterprise.”

On 8/11 we meet Jeremy Jae. This guy is great.

I can say now that the CTMU is the most amazing holonic theory of reality I have seen; this is the metaphysics of the future. The CTMU alone is obviously […] the workings of creative genius. It [is] an omnidimensional model of reality (which is nearly impossible for current humanity to penetrate since it is a complete model in fact it may even be overcomplete.) There are several prophetic insights I can see within the CTMU that give us a better understanding of our current gnosis on natural language in man and artificial intelligence that ties directly into my own view of reality and a theory I am working on involving cellular automata and the evolution of physical form by AI.

8/23: Chris himself returns:”It appears that the confusion persists.”

Unfortunately, it seems that

most CTMU critics resemble obnoxious schoolchildren on the rampage, popping off about this or that awful grownup in a way reminiscent of the movie series “Children of the Corn”, or perhaps the old Star Trek episode “Miri”, the sci-fi tale of a mirror-Earth in which […] ragtag death-squads of prepubescent rug rats […], unafraid of spankings and unwilling to toe the line for anyone displaying any degree of mental and emotional maturity, occupy themselves with tracking down and liquidating any grownups – derisively referred to as “grups” – of whom they get wind.

8/31: Jeremy Jae links to “a video I made in 2003 about 'eidetic evolution', a theory of how mental images generate all form in reality.”

Rubix is unimpressed:

Who the heck voiced that video? The Cave of Wonders?


Anyways, what you're saying is BS.

On September 1, a further momentous showdown begins. Chris: “Good Lord Almighty.” He makes a connection between “John Fringe” and John Noble's mad-scientist character on Fringe. I love that show!

9/3: Chris explains his SIWOTI syndrome:

some [readers] erroneously assume that your critique is some sort of expert consensus, as opposed to the aimless bloviation of just another opinionated part-time blogger whose “math expertise” is confined to writing boilerplate code, and who is weighted down by the bursting load of pseudonymous toadies in his pants.

Even though anonymous critics and their ringleaders are a dime a dozen and notorious for spewing smelly mud like ruptured sewage lines, the bunch of you are simply beyond the pale. Obviously, any hostility associated with your squirting behavior falls on your heads alone.

You, Mark Chu-Carroll, are definitely the primary troll here; the juvenile trolls only gathered because they smelled meat. You might as well live under a bridge, polish your scales, and gobble up unwary billygoats.

9/6: Rubix is getting frustrated:

Will you guys please quit plugging up the thread with huge spamwalls of text and keep to the topic at hand? Share that stuff over email or something.

9/14: A new commenter (not me, I swear, though I couldn't have put it better myself):

I'm leaving this comment only to say that, despite the sheer intimidating length of the comment thread, this sort of thing is like porn. The messy kind that may leave you feeling slightly dirty at the end an in need of a bath with sold scrubbing, but thoroughly enjoyable throughout the actual act of perusal.

Glorious metaphysics porn.

9/28: Chris, in response to Mark:

Generally speaking, the typical defender of the CTMU is a model citizen if not an absolute saint next to the typical CTMU critic, who would evidently lie, cheat, steal, and pimp his sister, mother, and grandmother in order to get over on the theory, smear its author, and express his hatred of God and religion.


What is the difference between a mathematician and a metaphysician? They both have paper and pencil, but mathematicians have a garbage can.

Rubix accuses Chris, openly this time, of lying about his (perfect) SAT score. Pathological liar, extreme bitterness, childhood demons, insecure and likely jealous, petty, narcissistic liar, ego-stroking and attention-seeking, disrespectful, disgusting disgrace, unjustly self-entitled. Whew! Chris isn't going to like that!

Isotelesis quotes Chris discussing the “ERSU, short for Expanding Rubber Sheet Universe [and the] USRE (ERSU spelled backwards), short for Universe as a Self-Representational Entity.” More: Prigogine [where has he been all this time??], Eric Jantsch, Hermann Haken. Gertzel's Chaotic Logic. The Necker cube, as discussed by Atmanspacher and Filk. Alternative approaches to bistable perception.

TUNAPOLOCS posts a block of text which looks like it comes from the Postmodernism Generator, and indeed: “8942852 individual pieces of bullshit generated since this program's inception on November 11, 1998”

Back (darn nesting, ruins the chronology) to 9/29: another wall of text from isotelesis. Then another.

Rubix protests: “Posting paragraphs is okay if they're short, but you're just posting huge globs. […] This isn't my blog, but jeez.”

isotelesis, 9/30: “It seems MarkCC agrees with Chris Langan on at least one point, the universe can be modeled by an intrinsic, self-scaling, multi-attribute/constraint satisfying information synthesizer.”

Mark: “Why on earth would you say that?” Oooh, bad question. The ensuing slab of text is a leviathan, a behemoth, a doomsday machine. Rubix: “lol. Yeah, that wasn't predictable at all.”

9/30: Rubix admits defeat:

Anyways, all I will say is that Chris Langan is by **far** the best troll I've ever seen. For that, I have to give him credit. […] He's uncrackable. I've wasted a great deal of time trying to get him to admit his scam, but he's just too persistent. I yield, Chris. You win.

On 10/3, after yet another salvo from Chris against “Chubix,” Mark disemvowels Chris's next post, which now ends like this: “Hv nc d.”

Mark:”I've been blogging for a long time, but I've got to say you're one of the most profoundly, pointlessly, and arrogantly idiotic people I've ever had the misfortune of dealing with.”

Reply: “Mark, you're a full of it as a Thanksgiving turkey. […] All in all, you’re a stain on the Internet, your mother, and the planet Earth.” Yes, he went there!

The ban-hammer is unsheathed and displayed:

Let me make something abundantly clear to you. […] If you want to keep playing these idiot games where you spew insults, you're welcome to waste your time, but they'll hit the bit-bucket, unread.

On 10/5, Chris is again disemvoweled. Mark explains that Chris had threatened legal action. Chris's reply, in which he accuses Mrk of cnsrshp, is likewise disemvoweled. A further reply has apparently been autodisemvoweled.

Isotelesis returns with another slab about the Yoneda Lemma, and another about RDF semantics and the the lattice approach of Formal Concept Analysis of Ganter and Wille, not to mention the distributed logic of Information Flow of Barwise and Seligman. I keep expecting Fartov and Belcher, but no such luck.

More. More still. Mark: “For goodness sake, don't you have anything better to do with your time than copy-and-paste what seem to be entire books?”

10/14: flaneur: “I find all of this very entertaining.”

November is very eventful, with more slabs from mereotelic aka isotelesis, and a new commenter who engages with Mark at length (civilly). Nothing more from Chris.

I have omitted some classic exchanges, including two hilarious parodies (by John Fringe) of other commenters' “arguments”, but I have already overstayed my welcome here today. I leave the penultimate words to Tim [11/27]:

I continue to confidently suspect that Langan's CTMU is missing a degree of complexity. What is self-configuring and self-processing is thee i'dea (“I am”), and “language” doesn't fully capture it. Langan, I think, gives short shrift to the syndiffeonic meduim, and endorses his unbound telesis (UBT), but thee i'dea must be self-bounding, so, in short, I don't think he can properly arrive at an understanding of Jesus' “above”. And should I suspect other than that the “Iron Rod” with which the “victor” will “smash” “the nations” [below] is the Plank scale?! (See Revelation 2:27, and the context! {and should I suspect other than that “Jezebel” is materialism, qua the lie “universe”?})

11/28: Shadonis to Tim: “I think you're crazy.”

Comments are closed on 11/30, as (Mark informs us on a subsequent post), the drain on the server when commenters refresh was getting out of hand. They're still at it, I think, on that new post, but alas, the thrill is gone.