December 3. New video of a talk by Rupert Sheldrake, Is The Sun Conscious? He makes a strong argument, starting with how the sun was always seen as conscious until Descartes invented mind-body dualism, and arbitrarily decided that only God, angels, and humans have minds. Later that got whittled down to only humans, and then expanded into other animals -- but there's no good place to draw a line and stop it from expanding back into other arrangements of matter, especially if they're self-organizing.
My position on the "hard problem of consciousness" is that it's not a hard problem for anyone. For materialist metaphysics, it's an impossible problem, and it's not a problem at all for any metaphysics that makes consciousness fundamental. There are different flavors of consciousness-based metaphysics, including animism, pantheism, and pan-psychism. I like to think that mind-matter dualism works like the particle-wave dualism of light, where reality can be either matter-based or mind-based, depending on how you look at it. Sheldrake mentions a fascinating model in which mind/body equals future/past equals possibility/resolution in quantum physics.
Later in the video he speculates about what it's like to be the sun, and how it might make conscious decisions about where to shoot its flares. Maybe that's the answer to Fermi's paradox: if a planetary civilization gets too advanced, its electromagnetic emanations become annoying to its sun, which zaps it back to a lower tech level. He also argues that "volitional stars", steering their own galactic orbits, would allow us to explain galactic motion without dark matter. Related article: Is the Universe Conscious? I think this is why physics has stagnated, because it can't get any farther without putting mind back into matter.
This also reminds me of fringe astronomer Halton Arp, who discovered a strong statistical correlation between quasars and nearby galaxies. If quasars are not extremely bright and extremely distant, then their light is being redshifted by something other than recession velocity, which casts doubt on the theory that cosmic redshifts are caused by an expanding universe. Anyway, Arp thinks that quasars are like seeds shot out by galaxies to become new galaxies, and this fits right in with the idea that the universe is alive.
December 5. I like Rupert Sheldrake's distinction between self-organizing and non-self-organizing arrangements of matter. In the video it's from minute 22-26. A chair is not self-organizing, so it doesn't make sense to ask what it's like to be a chair. But it might make sense to ask what it's like to be an atom, or the sun.
And now it occurs to me that modern technology has created a lot of stuff that's not self-organizing. Our nature-based ancestors were animist, because almost everything in their world was self-organizing, and could be realistically viewed as a person. Even a tool would be made by the person using the tool, or by someone they knew, so it would already be integrated into the world of people and stories.
I always thought the emptiness of modern life came from how society is arranged. But now I'm thinking it could be caused by manufacturing, which has surrounded us, far more than any other people, with objects that are not alive, and not part of the sphere of meaning of anything alive. Instead of making a tool to serve our needs, we buy a tool, as part of some aspirational project that we hope will make us a better person. (Thanks John for that idea.) We spend our lives seeking the feeling of aliveness from things that are not alive.
Sometimes I think that our whole high-tech world is a fad. But it's hard to think of an alternative, of where we could realistically go next. Now I'm thinking the answer has something to do with either artificial intelligence, making the leap to self-organizing intelligence, or biotech, making living systems that increasingly replace machines.
December 7. Last year I didn't do a year-end music post, because I hadn't heard anything that great from 2017. But in the universe of my musical taste, 2018 looks like the best year since 2014, with one album and three songs for the ages -- and thanks Leigh Ann for introducing me to all of them.
The album is the self-titled debut by London duo Insecure Men. It's loaded with intoxicating melodies and complex sonic textures, with a vibe like the bottom of a tropical lagoon. The best song, Whitney Houston and I, turns the tragic lives of celebrities into an epic metaphor of the divine feminine.
My song of the year is Wiggy Giggy by the Lovely Eggs. Like my favorite band, Big Blood, the Lovely Eggs are a married couple who started recording in 2006. It's hard to find a heavy song as warm and fun as Wiggy Giggy, let alone with its message of mind expansion: "Spaceman, take me out to a place, that I don't want to go."
And the third great song is Destroyer by Lala Lala, a Chicago band whose singer-songwriter, like everyone above, is originally from England. The quiet parts sound a lot like the quiet parts of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Then the chorus is nothing like Nirvana, but it reminds me of another Seattle band, Carissa's Wierd, and their layered vocals in songs like like Drunk With The Only Saints I Know.
Big Blood released two albums this year, from which my favorite normal song is Underneath He Is A Girl, but I've been getting more into their space-ghost soundscapes, like Make Way and Wishy Wishy I. And lately I've been listening heavily to their 2014 double vinyl blowout, Unlikely Mothers, especially the hypnotic and filthy So Po Village Stone.
There are also two old songs that I got obsessed with this year. One is bright and clean and popular, a UK radio hit from 1979, known to Americans through Tracey Ullman's less brilliant 1983 cover: Kirsty MacColl - They Don't Know.
The other is dark and erratic and obscure, released in 1997 by a New Zealand indie band, but probably recorded in 1992: The Garbage and The Flowers - Carousel. I love the impressionistic lyrics:
Filing your shells by the fire
Creasing the water with violets and sighs
Asking every simmering quasar if you know it well
Autumn and the paint glowing brightly at the Carousel
December 10. Continuing from last week, I've had some email conversations about biotech surpassing cybertech. Matt writes:
What if, one day, we could design organisms that we could live in? A bioengineered creature that can feed itself with sunlight, or other gradients of energy, but that's also hospitable to humans. And, what if while the residents might choose its basic structure, it grew in ways that surprised us, like a living art project?
Is the future of humanity one of high-tech animism, in which everything around us is not only alive, but capable of carrying on conversations?
I love that idea, but I think there's a trade-off. Machines do exactly what we tell them to do (which is never quite what we want them to do) but they're expensive to build and maintain. Biology can self-replicate from common materials, but because it's self-organizing, it will have its own motives.
I don't think we can have the best of both worlds, but now I'm thinking like a science fiction writer: imagine two competing utopian cultures, one based on cybertech and one based on biotech. The biotech culture will win, because 1) it's more efficient with energy and resources, and 2) its people will be mentally stronger, because they have to negotiate with allies instead of commanding servants.
December 12. The Economist has a great new interview with Adam Curtis, the documentary filmmaker and social critic. The whole thing is worth reading, but it's pretty long so I want to try to summarize it.
He starts with the word "HyperNormalisation", which was coined to describe the last years of the Soviet Union, but now it applies to us: everyone knows the system isn't working, that it's unreal, and that it can't keep going like this, but no one knows what to do about it.
Donald Trump is a "pantomime villain" who has locked liberals into a theater of outrage, so nobody pays attention to what's happening outside the theater.
Politics used to be about groups, and now it's about individuals, and the tech system has figured out how to control us as individuals, so that we feel free while we're being managed. Big data looks at the past to tell us what we will want in the future, so it can never imagine anything new.
The concept of "risk" has spread from the world of finance to the world of politics, and to our whole culture. Instead of having a vision for a better world, we're just trying to stop bad things from happening.
The internet is like a corporate HR department, removing people who misbehave, but never questioning the larger system that feeds the misbehavior.
Baby boomers are projecting the fear of their own mortality onto political issues, so climate change becomes a looming nightmare, instead of a challenge to restructure power and resources.
We need politicians who will inspire people to take big risks for exciting visions of the future, but the left is no longer doing that at all, and the right is doing it with nationalism, "the easiest story to go for."
Curtis thinks "there's going to be a resurgence of religion," and that "there's a romantic age coming." Those are interesting predictions, but he doesn't have good evidence, or a good definition of either R-word.
December 19. We're back from the coast, and tonight, on the 170th anniversary of her death, I want to write about Emily Bronte. Like me, she grew up in a small town, with educated parents and good exposure to the high culture of her time; she spent a lot of her youth in worlds of imagination; and as an adult, she made it a top priority to avoid ordinary labor so she could be alone and do creative work.
Thirty years ago, I was so obsessed with Wuthering Heights that I took four different classes that read it, and I photocopied the whole novel and put it on my wall. But what I liked about it is not what people supposedly like about it -- the intense romantic love between the two protagonists. I think their bond is something entirely different from romantic love, and only takes on that appearance after they have both been corrupted by society.
More generally, the theme of the book is the primal aliveness that is the birthright of all living things, and how the human world crushes it out of us -- or if we are stubborn enough in holding onto that feeling, how the world twists it into something destructive.
I agree with a common fan theory that Catherine and Heathcliff are actually half-siblings. And when they wander the moors together as children, they nurture and grow a rare understanding of the divinity of wildness, and will forever associate that magical state with each other's company. That's what Catherine means when she says Heathcliff "is more myself than I am" -- that in him she sees a deeper self that she has lost.
Wuthering Heights is a young person's book -- I don't feel like reading it again. But as I get older, I gather more experiences that are too big for conventional reality, and remind me of the final lines from Emily Bronte's best poem, Remembrance:
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?
Christmas Day, 2018. A couple weeks ago I mentioned Adam Curtis's prediction, "there's going to be a resurgence of religion," and since then I've been puzzling about how to define that word. With some help from Eric, this is what I've come up with:
A religion is a community of people united by a foundational belief. With so much uncertainty in life, it's practical to pick one thing that you refuse to doubt, and that belief is like the foundation of a building, or the anchor of a ship, or the seed of a crystal, for your whole model of reality.
In the old days, religion ran in families -- not just "you kids have to go to church," but people who really wanted to keep believing the same stuff for centuries. I think this is because our foundational beliefs are usually connected to whatever is the closest thing we've had to a transcendent experience. So the most magical thing kids would do, and later their most awesome memory, would be church events with their families.
That changed when we invented technologies that created stronger experiences than going to church, like television and psychedelic drugs. I'm not a Christian, because the story of the son of God dying for our sins doesn't resonate with me. Instead, I suspect that this is a badly run prison world, like on Hogan's Heroes, or that we live in some kind of fate-dense exile, like on Gilligan's Island.
Still, I'm grateful for being raised Catholic, because even though the nuns wore normal clothing, and the hymn singers looked like hippies, somehow I caught a precious vibe of epic spirituality. It's not a coincidence that my favorite sci-fi author (Roger Zelazny) and my favorite singer-songwriter (Colleen Kinsella) are also ex-Catholics.
If we do get a resurgence of religion, I'm wondering what the foundational beliefs will be. I remember a favorite Bible quote of my old priest: "The stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone."
December 30-31. Another quick thought on religion. In the old days, you could get killed for saying something slightly weird about God. Now I could stand up and say the Old Testament Jehovah was an evil space alien, and people might be like, "that's cool" or "that's dumb," but nobody would get mad.
Now, at least in the developed world, the ideas that people get mad about are not metaphysical but political. Or, our most intense disagreements are not about some unseen world, but the world in front of us. Strangely, this has happened while the number of cameras has increased.
My best explanation is that humans love to divide the world into home tribe and enemy tribe, and politics has out-competed religion, as a focus for tribalism, because fewer people take religion seriously, and because pseudo-democracy has created the illusion that ordinary people can influence large-scale politics.
Eric's take is smarter:
Religion and politics are both ways for allocating power and social control. And a way of drawing conflict team boundaries. Their methods vary, but the medium is very much the same: physical force for the control of material property, with a veneer of ideology.
So now that we are in the post-Enlightenment world and nobody can imagine the gods being anywhere but in the sky, invisible, and probably dead, the narrative is done with gods, and the locus of power can be brought back to Earth and we don't need so many excuses to put it in the hands of a secular human elite.
January 3. The other day a reader mentioned ritual as a defining feature of religion, and I wondered "whether my immunity to ritual is related to my life-long struggles with motivation." Now I'll explain what I meant. When I see people doing a ritual, I'm like "Why are they wasting time on that boring and unnecessary behavior?" They must be getting something out of it that I can't see. Thus my definition:
A ritual is a highly predictable behavior, which might seem like a chore to people who don't understand it, but actually energizes the people who do it. Or, a ritual is an engine for turning activity into motivation.
On a personal level, I suspect that physical rituals don't work for me because of my poor mind-body integration. Ordinary people can get into a groove, for example when they're driving, where their body just does the right thing without guidance from their head, and where familiar physical actions feel good to them.
There are a lot of other directions to go with this. How are mental rituals different from physical rituals? How are rituals different from habits, including bad habits? Where do games fit in? How are rituals related to culture, to childhood imprinting, to personality?
Is our civilization failing because useful activity has been de-ritualized, so that it feels draining instead of energizing? How do rituals compare with other ways of motivating people, like grand narratives or reward-and-punishment?
Finally, a sci-fi idea. What if we had a technology to instantly make behaviors compulsive? Like you zap your head while washing a dish, and suddenly you love washing dishes. That would solve the problem of low motivation, and create more dangerous problems.
January 7. Continuing on ritual, Kevin mentions the tightness of American social rituals, all the things you have to do exactly right to not be considered weird. And that reminds me of this classic Adam Curtis post from 2011, Learning To Hug. It's about how television tells us how to be emotionally authentic, in a way that's full of hidden rules and ultimately artificial.
And that goes back to what I thought was an off-topic post about Mortal Engines. In the books, Hester Shaw is surly, moody, fierce, and mostly selfish. She's a great character and she stays that way. In the movie she starts out a little bit like that, and soon becomes a normal Hollywood Hero. In the book, Thaddeus Valentine is morally complex, and the movie makes him a normal Hollywood Villain.
Now, Curtis is talking about real people behaving in a fake way when they know they're on television, and I'm talking about screenwriters and directors making fictional characters bland and predictable. But they all have the same motivation: in front of an audience, they're afraid of being weird.
I think this is an unexpected danger of technology. Our primate ancestors needed some urge for conformity, to keep their tribes stable. Now, high-tech media has made all humans into one tribe, with only one way to be human. And what's it like?
We already know that crowdsourcing ruins creativity. This TED Talk covers some evidence. So my thesis is that when a culture, through technology, increases the number of people who are all watching each other, normal human behavior becomes less alive, and the culture declines.
But my next thought is, there's plenty of entertainment modeling human behavior that's more real and interesting, when you move from blockbusters toward movies and TV made for niche audiences, and when you move from serious fiction toward comedy. So maybe the global monoculture, rather than being doomed, can stay alive if it keeps integrating stuff from the edges.
January 9. Taking another angle on storytelling rituals, the thing that's really bothering me lately, about most TV and movies, is how the reactions of the characters are so rote, so mindlessly fixed. Once someone is established as a certain kind of person, you always know what they're going to do, even down to their tone of voice.
Then it occurred to me, most of us are doing the same thing, internally. Just like hack writers, we think we're making creative choices, when really we're following rules that we're not even consciously aware of. It reminds me of something Gurdjieff said, that most human psychology is just mechanics. Of course the cure is mindfulness, to watch inside yourself, notice those rules and habits, and practice doing things differently.
Back to fiction, here's a definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: Tragedy is where the characters do exactly what they're supposed to do, and it destroys them; comedy is where the characters do surprising things, and it makes them happy.
January 11. International System of Units overhauled in historic vote. The kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin, and the mole used to be defined by measuring actual objects, and from now on they'll be defined according to scientific constants. I can't put my finger on it, but this seems metaphysically important, as if science is now untethered from matter, and drifting in a realm of mind -- or fixed in a realm of mind, while the world of matter changes and no one notices.
January 15. Why willpower is overrated. There are people who report having high self-control, and there are people who do well on cognitive tests measuring the power of the mind to overrule habit and instinct. The shocker is, there is little or no correlation between those groups. People who actually exercise a lot of willpower to get through the day, are not more successful, only more depleted. The most likely explanation is that people who report high self-control are really experiencing less temptation. Somehow, they just have more overlap between what they're supposed to be doing and what they feel like doing.
January 17. What's Causing the Rise of Hoarding Disorder? There's a lot of buzz about Marie Kondo, a decluttering guru with a show on Netflix. Her big idea is sparking joy. You look at your possessions and ask if this or that sparks joy, and the more you do it, the more skilled you get at sensing your own positive feelings and acting on them.
My thought on hoarding, and the cure for hoarding, is that it's about animism. Quoting my December 5 post:
Our nature-based ancestors were animist, because almost everything in their world was self-organizing, and could be realistically viewed as a person. Even a tool would be made by the person using the tool, or by someone they knew, so it would already be integrated into the world of people and stories.
Now manufacturing has surrounded us with mass-produced objects, and we don't have a clear sense of how to assign meaning to all these things. From the article:
Rather than see an object as a member of a large group (say, one of 42 black T-shirts), [hoarders] see it as singular, unique, special. Each black T-shirt is perceived apart from the others and carries its own history, significance, and worth.
The genius of Marie Kondo is not fighting animism, but embracing it: Go ahead and think of all your objects as people, and then politely send away the ones that aren't making you happy.
January 21-23. Lately I've been making some progress in motivation by using my superpower: narrowly focusing my attention. For example, if I have to do some cleaning, I forget the entire context of why I'm doing it (to fit in with a culture whose standards of cleanliness are a waste of energy and a trick to avoid boredom), and just focus completely on the task itself. The book of Ecclesiastes said it best: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."
I used to do exactly this when I was a novice nun because I spent hours doing manual work like cleaning and laundry. There were very precise rules about how everything should be done, and I knew that it would drive me crazy if I thought too much about other things I preferred to be doing.
So I focused all my attention on my senses, the light coming through the windows, the smell of the air, the texture of the bed linen I was ironing or folding, the smoothness of the cloth running along the kitchen work surfaces and so on. I ended up appreciating the moment so much that I lost all interest in trying to finish early so I could do something 'more interesting'.
Now I'm wondering, why is this only done in religious communities? Couldn't someone start a secular monastery, and say, "We're just going to give you a bunch of work, and if you think about it right, you'll feel good."
Tess writes, "The joy is kinda secondary and would go away if you made it the goal." I'm also thinking of a quote from Christopher Lasch: "The secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy." And it's oddly similar to a rule in fiction writing, that I saw the other day in this reddit comment: "If the plan is explained beforehand, it will fail. If it's not, it will succeed."
For some reason, happiness likes to come from where we're not looking. So any institution that makes people happy, has to turn their attention elsewhere, and the simplest way is to have one point of fixation, that's the same for everyone, and while they're all looking at that thing, the happiness sneaks in sideways.
You could even use that as a definition of religion. Is capitalism a religion, whose point of fixation is money? This subject is too big, so I'll cut it short with this thought: Of the many differences between money and God, the most important is that money can be used to transform work into power over others.
January 21. Is religion a universal in human culture or an academic invention? It's a subtle point. The author is not disputing the reality of all the stuff that we call religion, but arguing that the line between religion and not-religion is artificial, and that what we generalize as religion is better viewed as "a patchwork of particular beliefs, practices and experiences."
January 29-30. I want to say a little more about religion. I don't think we're going to see more people praying to a sky father deity, but we might see new trends that only look like religions if we shift the definition. My latest definition is: a community of people united by a point of focus, which has no external practical value, but great psychological value. If the object of your religion had practical value, if you liked it because it was good for something else, then that other thing would be what's really important. The religious object must be self-justifying.
So money can't be the focus of a religion, because money is good for other things. The actual god of capitalism is not money, but increasing money. Both as a society, and as an individual, you're never supposed to say, "Okay, we've grown our wealth enough now, we can quit." The game is to keep it growing forever. I think that game is dying, and in fifty years everyone will be talking about sustainable zero growth, or smooth degrowth.
I do see a big new thing, something that's not considered a religion, but a lot of people are focusing on it to give meaning to their lives, and it's both self-justifying and impractical: colonizing Mars. It's not physically impossible, but it's way beyond our present technology, and Mars will never be as hospitable as the planet where we already live -- which we've been busily de-terraforming for thousands of years.
Colonizing Mars is only the most dignified of several new points of focus inspired by science, including reversal of aging, unlimited energy, uploading consciousness, and the singularity. Or you could say all of these (and also economic growth) are just different denominations of the religion of progress.