Ultron, Spirituality, and String Theory, Metaphorically Speaking


Are we all puppets, tangled in strings? One of the lessons that Pinocchio taught us is that our quest to identify and then remove the irrational strings that bind us is invariably tied to our need to understand and remove the lies and distortions that we tell ourselves.


“The lover’s power is the poet’s power. He can make love from all the common strings with which this world is strung.”-Amelia Barr

Seeing the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron last week was a Stark reminder of how terribly I’d failed my ex-girlfriend. I had loved her. Sadly, in a truly deep and spiritual way, I had failed her. And it has taken me much reflection to understand and face the true nature of that failure along with its repercussions.

We’ll come back to this discussion at the end of this essay, but for now, I’ll just mention what any good entrepreneur knows: that a failure only remains one if we are unable to turn it into a learning opportunity. The learning opportunity that came out of that experience has led me to be able to write this article for you today; one that I hope will bring you a degree of insight into your own life.

String Theory

“In essence, String Theory describes space and time, matter and energy, gravity and light, indeed all of God’s creation… as music.” — Roy H. Williams

The study of string theory has been a recent interest of mine. Since the beginning of May, I’ve been getting together with a group of friends on Monday and Thursday nights to learn the ropes, so to speak, and it has been quite intriguing.

In a macrocosm described by physics, string theory provides a theoretical framework for understanding all the particles and forces that make up the universe.

In The Domino Principle, our version of string theory will seek to provide a practicable framework for understanding, and sometimes shedding, the strings placed on us from our society, from our parents, and from our religious upbringings.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

In the recent movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark (aka Ironman, fittingly sans Pepper in this outing) creates Ultron, an artificial intelligence designed to “protect the world.” But Tony fails to give Ultron any sort of moral or ethical value system. And without any value system, Ultron decides that the best way to protect the world is to eliminate the human imperfection upon it (with echoes of Nomad from the Star Trek episode “The Changeling.“) As Tony notes with much regret and humility, “It’s the end, the end of the path I started us on.”

Even if you didn’t see the movie, the brief teaser trailer makes the point eloquently:

When Ultron chides the Avengers, telling them “You’re all Puppets, Tangled in Strings,” it is an allusion to the lyrics from Pinocchio’s song:

“I’ve got no strings
To hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings
But now I’m free
There are no strings on me”

In Age of Ultron, “strings” become a metaphor for the moral and ethical rules that we adopt in our lives. If we cut all the strings upon us and shed those rules entirely, we have then no moral nor ethical compass. Without those footholds, there is nothing to prevent us from turning into a homicidal killer like Ultron.

The Strings that Influence Us In Our Lives

“All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury or folly which can–and must–be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a ‘perfect society’ on any foundation other than ‘women and children first!’ is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly–and no doubt will keep on trying.”  — Notebooks of Lazarus Long, Robert A. Heinlein.

Society places many kinds of strings upon us, and these strings often come to influence us without any kind of rational foundation. These strings can prevent us from fulfilling our potential as human beings. The key is gaining sufficient self-awareness to understand the strings that bind us, and then removing or modifying those which are holding us back, while retaining those that keep us grounded.

The idea of marriage, for example, is a social contract and convention broadly accepted in American culture. It is a “string” placed upon us by our culture that does not stem from any kind of natural law of the universe. Indeed, some cultures don’t have this convention, or view it in very different ways than its being an exclusive contract between one man and one woman.

Another social convention is the idea of God. The worldly interpretation of this social convention manifests itself in everything from monotheism to henotheism and atheism. The varying interpretations of the strings around these people are often of their own design and result in a coefficient of satisfaction for them. It is a unique identifier of the “seek and ye shall find” idea.

I have friends who have replaced many of the strings that our society traditionally places upon us, with other strings of their own design. While contemporary American society as a whole might frown upon their lifestyle and actions, their choices bring them great fulfillment, impose no harm on others, and involve no self-deception. And I consider these people to be among the most moral, ethical and self-aware people that I know. Suum cuique.

Where Our Strings Come From

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” — Desmond Tutu

The strings that influence our lives vary based on a wide variety of factors:

  • Cultural: Someone raised in America likely will be influenced by a very different set of strings than someone raised in Iran.
  • Religious: Someone who is Christian likely will be influenced by a very different set of strings than someone who is Buddhist.
  • Generational: Our children see the world very differently than our parents.
  • Economical: Those coming from an affluent segment of society tend to have very different values than those from impoverished segments.

When I work with a business to help the company define its value system, the exercise is reasonably straightforward, and the choices are fairly limited. We can look at the corporate value statements of other companies (I have a book full of them) and then use them to guide us in finding an appropriate set of values for the business. But for an individual, it isn’t quite so easy. The spectrum of possible values is so very broad and so very personal.

Where My Strings Came From

My parents gave me a set of values that they lived by, and perhaps yours did as well. In many cases, I came to accept those values, while in other cases I decided to reject the values they had for others that better fit my world view. And the religious values and concepts that came from my heritage I have largely rejected in terms of theological value, while I have retained some of the associated cultural values for my life and to share with my daughter.

When I was about the age of thirteen, for the first time in my life I went through a period where I examined the strings placed upon me by society at great depth. I made a conscious and deliberate decision to reject and replace many of the values that others had tried to thrust upon me with values of my own design that seemed more rational, ethical, and sensible.

At the time, there were two fictional characters who had a great influence upon me. I’ve included quotes from both of those characters at many points throughout my The Domino Principle articles.

The first was Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, whose influence upon me I have already written about at some length on The Domino Principle. See: I Have Been — And Always Shall Be — Your Friend — LLAP.

The second major influence on me was Robert A. Heinlein’s fictional character of Lazarus Long, a man who (over the course of many years and books) lives to be more than 2000 years old. Lazarus then records his cumulative experiences and wisdom through a series of stories and aphorisms (pithy insights and opinions), many of which provide a rationalistic perspective at odds with the strings placed on us through contemporary society.

When I read the aphorisms of the “Notebooks of Lazarus Long” (included in Heinlein’s book Time Enough For Love) at a young age, it helped me see many of the unnecessary strings that our culture places upon us… and it helped me decide which of those strings I would be better off cutting. The “Notebooks of Lazarus Long” are not lengthy… they are online and you can probably read them in less than 15 minutes if you wish, using the links I’ve provided.

Today, science, rationalism and secular ethics provide most of the strings that guide my moral compass. I have a “personal mission statement” that describes the person who I am and strive to be, and I update it twice a year to help me set my course in life and maintain it. Using a process I first learned from Sasha Strauss and have extended upon, on occasion I’ve helped other entrepreneurs write their own missions statements.

While my full personal mission statement is quite lengthy and outside the scope of this essay, I recently realized that I could summarize it with one simple sentence that encapsulates its essence quite well:

“I choose to live my life with a belief system centered on love, curiosity, and striving to be good, and the perspective that true spiritual enlightenment comes from sharing these things with those whom I love, while continually seeking to gain a deep and undistorted understanding of the universe that we live in.”

And that is the essence of the ME that I endeavor to be.

I hope this article motivates you to take the time to examine the strings in your life, remove those that are holding you back, and define the YOU that you endeavor to be as well.

The Rest of my Little Story

“And again and again and again. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?” –Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

And that brings us back to the love that I mentioned that I had failed at the beginning of this essay. That story is, in fact, a continuation of the Little story I started telling you in my earlier Guns and Dominoes essay:

“On March 6, 2014, I sat across the table from a woman in a Thai restaurant in Katy, Texas, and she relayed to me an amazing story:  how she had lived virtually her entire life in a highly cultish religious environment, and that she was now free of it.  Over time she had discovered that she was unable to find a foundation for most of the tenets she had freely accepted at one time but could no longer find rational cause to justify (this group, for example, believed that Harry Potter books were the Devil’s work, and that the act of dancing was inherently evil). When she asked the right questions, she had begun to knock over the dominoes and root out the distortion in her life. I knew then that this was an extraordinary woman.”

I fell in love with this extraordinary woman. A truly gifted and perceptive writer, she stood for goodness, intellectual growth and integrity, and finding and embracing beauty in the world. She was everything I’d ever dreamed of finding.

When I met her she had come out of a situation in which she had broken most of the strings in her life. And it left her without a spiritual framework or compass. She deeply needed one. I failed to help her find one. My business situation at the time was highly unstable, and it left me distracted and unable to give her the help she needed on her spiritual journey, or even able to understand and recognize how terribly much she needed that help and that it was my role in our relationship to help her in such a manner.

When we broke up, we both agreed we had to do so at that time, but for very different reasons. She gave me a lot of explanations as to why she felt our relationship wasn’t working for her and those explanations were, for the most part, lies… lies that perhaps she was telling to herself as well as telling me. In the end, it all really boiled down to just two reasons, and one of them, her need to find the strings she needed to set a new compass in life, relates to the focus of this essay, and is why I’m telling you this story.

Not long after we broke up, she filled her need to have a framework in her life by getting involved in another highly cultish situation, and as far as I know, she is still in it. It is one based on beliefs which are detrimental to society, and involves a culture of fanaticism and extreme intellectual dishonesty. It stands in betrayal to everything the woman I knew stood for, and with the greatest of irony, everything that, in large part because of what I learned from her, I have since incorporated into a central role in my life. And the faulty rationalizations she has told herself to make it seem acceptable (I only know some of them) are and must be quite extraordinary.

She had five “superpowers” that I became aware of as I grew to know her. Four of them are very positive character traits. The fifth one is very different, and it was the hardest one for me to allow myself to see and believe… it is, in fact, exactly the same superpower that I wrote about in my earlier essay on the TV show Breaking Bad, “Yeah! Dominoes, bitch!” It is the ability for a person to deceive themselves. On several occasions she even repeated to me the exact same faulty rationalization that was mentioned in that article which Walter White had used to try to justify his slide into a life of darkness.

She had the strength and intellectual capacity once before to cut the irrational strings in her life and find her way out of a similar cultish situation. So I know she is capable of doing it again, someday. But that someday could be a very long time from now…

For six months or so she was able to cast aside distortion from her life and step into the light, and she shined like the brightest supernova in the galaxy when she did that. I will always treasure that I got to spend some of that time with her, because those were many of the most wonderful months of my life, and I learned so very much that helped me grow and become a better person.

Yes, I failed her, in a manner very similar to the way that Tony failed Ultron. She needed me to help her find a path to define the strings that would allow her to lay a positive and constructive foundation to her life with clarity, and when I didn’t do that, one of the most brilliant jewels I’ve ever touched slid back into a life based on opacity and distortion, while somehow managing to fool herself into believing that she was doing the exact opposite.

“It’s the end, the end of the path I started us on.” And that is something I will live with for the rest of my life. And should she ever read this, I just want her to know that for letting that happen, dearest Rho, I am so very sorry.

Additional Reading:

Robert A. Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100/Methuselah’s Children isn’t an incredible book, but it introduces Lazarus Long and other characters in Time Enough For Love, which IS an incredible book, so read them both together.

Lying: “In this brief but illuminating work, Sam Harris applies his characteristically calm and sensible logic to a subject that affects us all—the human capacity to lie. And by the book’s end, Harris compels you to lead a better life because the benefits of telling the truth far outweigh the cost of lies—to yourself, to others, and to society.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History

Free Will: “Many say that believing that there is no free will is impossible—or, if possible, will cause nihilism and despair. In this feisty and personal essay, Harris offers himself as an example of a heart made less self-absorbed, and more morally sensitive and creative, because this particular wicked witch is dead.”
—Owen Flanagan, Professor of Philosophy, Duke University, and author of The Really Hard Problem



“DOminoes are activists. Their first name is DO.“ I could use just a little help from my friends to enable The Domino Principle to gain sufficient critical mass to become more successful and useful. Our readers, like you, are influencers, and YOU can DO something quick and easy that would use your influence to help us out. Below each article we publish on The Domino Principle blog (like this one), you’ll see buttons to share the article on social media. Please use these buttons to share our articles, especially the option to share our articles with your friends on Facebook. It will really help spread the word of what we are trying to accomplish!

Cliff Kurtzman
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2 thoughts on “Ultron, Spirituality, and String Theory, Metaphorically Speaking”

  1. Kinda having a hard time getting past the whole “my ex-girlfriend is deluded” thing. Not classy, man: a transparently childish jibe at somebody you (used to?) love. I’d proofread this essay to get the ego extracted from the content.

    1. Rich, I appreciate your concern, it lets me reflect on some of the decisions that went into writing and publishing this essay that could not be incorporated into the piece itself.

      The words deluded or delusional were never used in my essay. I’ve never claimed she was deluded, I did state that from my perspective she had come to a point where she was viewing the world in manner that was distorted and not in concert with the principles she had expressed to me that she held most dear.

      I think it is fair to say that the last part of this piece was written from a position of regret and humility. It was very much about my personal failure. And it allowed me to illustrate poignantly the consequences of my (or anyone else’s) failure to learn the lessons described in the earlier part of the essay.

      During the time we were together, it was very difficult for me to see my ex-girlfriend in any other light than one of extreme adulation. When we broke up, she in fact chided me because I had failed to challenge her and meet her need to “cut through the bullshit” in her head and her life. What she was saying when she said that was that she needed help building the right strings in her life to feel grounded again.

      The difference between “cutting through bullshit” vs “filling your head with new bullshit” is subtle. Both acts are similar in the sense that they involve breaking old strings and establishing new ones. Perhaps sometimes in the need to establish new strings to guide us, it is all too easy to fail to make the distinction of whether or not the new strings are rational to adopt. It is precisely at such a juncture in life, when people are eager to find new strings to guide them, that they are most prone to being drawn into entering into a cultish situation. I have a pretty good idea, based on things she has said to me in the past regarding her unfilled needs in life, why she was induced in this particular situation to make the rationalizations and choices she has made.

      We hear stories in the news of young adults being drawn to join ISIS, or other socially detrimental organizations like neo-nazi groups. (These are not the same situation as what happened to my ex… they are somewhat more extreme to be sure, but allow me to illustrate my point.) When someone is drawn into a group like this, it is because they are grasping for strings to ground them. But instead of finding strings to guide them constructively, they end up in highly distorted situations… and I won’t hesitate for one second to call those situations distorted.

      I suspect that there are many people in her life who are deeply concerned about her, but most won’t have the nerve to express those concerns. While I may no longer be “in romantic love” with her in the way I was once before, I deeply care about her. It is my obligation as her friend to help her face the reality of her situation, even if it isn’t something she wants or is ready to hear right now. I may have failed in the past to help her “cut through the bullshit” in her life when she needed it, but I won’t repeat that failure.

      She is perhaps in an environment at the moment where she is discouraged from deeply interacting with those who might unravel her current foundation. But whether it happens 10 days from now or 10 years from now, there will come a day in her life when she is again ready to ask the right questions, and to knock over the dominoes and root out the distortion in her life. When that day comes, it will be a very difficult time for her, and I hope this article will help her sort through that process, and to understand that the questioning of the foundation she is now living is not unreasonable. If she should read this essay, while she might not at present agree with my perspective on her current situation, I suspect she will understand that it was, in fact, written out of the deepest concern and love.

      This was the most difficult piece I’ve ever written. It required me to face personal truths I really didn’t want to admit or face. The response to this essay has been the strongest of any I have ever written. I’ve had people call me up and tell me it is the best thing I’ve published, and that it was courageous to be willing to expose my personal failure and discuss it. I’m glad I did it.

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