"Each shift into clear vision was a gift that followed total failure to achieve."
June 27. This week I want to write about a completely different thing that the word "religion" points to: the afterlife.
I've been on Ask Reddit for a long time, and it used to be a rare question: "What do you think happens after you die?" Lately it's one of the more common questions, and the answers are not that interesting. Reddit is full of philosophical materialists, so the most upvoted answers are different ways of phrasing nothing, and if you sort by controversial you get Christians saying heaven/hell.
I understand why people believe there's no afterlife. If you think this life is all there is, you live better. And given that the question can't be answered from here, it's prudent to choose a belief with practical benefits.
But I prefer to use that uncertainty to choose beliefs that are more fun. A better question is: "What do you wish would happen after you die?" If you think consciousness is fundamental, then it seems likely you'd have some influence over where your bit of consciousness goes next. Even heaven and hell are usually imagined as reflecting your earthly life in the details, the people you meet or the precise torments.
Some consciousness-first thinkers still imagine only two levels of reality: the universal, and where we are now. So when you die, you go straight back to the one mind. But if I were the one mind, or on the way back there, I'd enjoy making some more levels. So I like to think that merging with the Absolute is one option among many.
A growing number of people believe we're living in a simulation. Ok, then think it through. The simulation is first person. The people outside the simulation aren't watching you from the sky -- they're watching you from you. Or, you are one of the people outside the simulation, and when this life is over you'll remember yourself.
If a world exists with the means to simulate this world, what would they use it for? It makes sense that they would use it to filter their own members. If you live well, you get to join them; if not, then back to the great melting pot. This is not that different from original Christianity, in which there is no place of eternal torment, only hanging out with Jesus or nonexistence.
Western metaphysics is awfully vertical. What if we're not being sorted into higher or lower places, just different places? And consider how peculiar it is to be a modern human, compared to, say, being a tree. A tree probably has little sense of what else it could be, except another tree. But not only can we imagine being a tree, or a hawk, or a sea otter, we can imagine being a space pirate, or a wood elf, or a postapocalypse scavenger.
So if there is sorting going on, we seem to be in a great nexus, or concourse, with a huge variety of options for where to go next.
The problem is, we need other people. There's a Twilight Zone episode where a guy thinks he's gone to heaven, because he can have anything he wants, but he soon gets bored with his own ability to entertain himself, and discovers he's in hell.
Suppose, after you die, you want to go to the Harry Potter universe, and because it's popular, you can gather enough other people to create a world. Ok, who wants to be the muggles? Nobody? Maybe we can just fill them in with NPCs.
I don't think there are any NPCs. Someone always has to play them. In your imagination, you play them; in a tabletop RPG, the game master plays them. And in any enduring world, every feature of that world has to be maintained by someone who continues to get something out of it.
That's a pretty severe constraint. So my best guess about the afterlife is, under that constraint, it's whatever you believe it's going to be, or whatever you can get away with.
Coincidentally, in another context, Tim just sent me chapter 50 of the Tao Te Ching. I looked it up in Ellen Chen's translation, and this is part of her commentary:
Death is a phenomenon from the individual's viewpoint. Cut off from the life of the round and standing alone, an individual faces his opponents and arrives at the place and time of his death. However, in the round, which is the eternal life process, productive, and embracing all opposites, there is no death. There is only intense life-producing activity. A person who transcends his individuality, identifying himself with the eternal life process that has no place of death, also has no place of death.
June 26. I got some long and thoughtful feedback on the last post, none of which I'm going to reply to, sorry. I haven't found a way to write about this stuff that leads to discussions that I enjoy having, and I have a feeling there's some key concept that I'm missing, probably in the area of the collective subconscious. What I'm increasingly convinced of, is that people who argue about politics are arguing on the wrong level and getting nowhere.
June 25. Ok, I'm going to try to step into this minefield without pushing any buttons.
Religion is not a thing. "Religion" is a word that blurs together a bunch of different things. One of them is in the news right now. Some people have fetishized an old book, which if you squint your eyes can be used to justify almost anything, and they're using it to justify an aggressive move in an ongoing conflict.
This conflict is between two ways of being, and two mindsets. One of them is ancient and tested. You can see it in a forest, where trees share nutrients through their roots, and work together to catch sunlight and cycle water. The other is new and radical. It's only possible in a highly social species, and it's only been tried on a large scale for a few thousand years: a collective way of being whose fundamental relationship is one person telling another person what to do.
Social dominance orientation is the psychology term for the mindset of feeling good about a domination-based social order. It's more common in categories of people who have historically been in the dominant position; and even if they find themselves in a weaker position, it may be easier to imagine getting the strong position back, than to imagine a social order where you view every person as just as important as you, and you're sensitive to their needs.
By the way, under a certain definition, I'm against fairness. If there aren't enough cookies for everyone, I still want to give out all the cookies. But there's a kind of cookie that should never be given out: the kind where you can make someone do something they'd rather not do.
In the long term, a system built bottom-up from what people enjoy doing will outcompete a system built top-down from what people enjoy telling other people to do. But right now we live in a clunky hybrid of taken-for-granted power relations and sappy messages about equality. I believe that America is on the leading edge of a global surge in social dominance, as we cast about for better ways of living. I don't have any non-obvious advice.
June 23. Continuing from the last post, Eric points out that there is value in seeking understanding because "if I observe a pattern in one field, it's likely that similar patterns pop up elsewhere." That reminds me of a Charles Fort line: "One measures a circle beginning anywhere."
I got a lot of feedback from people who are moving away from negativity as they get older. I think this is because old people have less stamina, and also because they have the accumulated experience that it works better to focus on what you're for, than to focus on what you're against.
Personally, I've added the Uplifting News subreddit to my daily links, as an antidote to regular news. Aaron writes:
I keep looking for the obscure people who are coming up with real solutions to our problems. They build things quietly and then all of a sudden, when the time is right their solutions take over the world and nothing can stop it.
That reminds me of a quote I read back in the 90's, from an old Soviet dissident: "History is like a mole, burrowing unobserved."
June 21. The reason I stopped writing about social issues is I got tired of fighting. Twenty years ago, when I started writing on the internet, I wanted to slay dragons. Gradually I shifted from warrior to scout, from fighting to trying to understand stuff. But lately I'm thinking, what's even the benefit of understanding stuff? For example, if I have a good understanding of why gas prices are high, or if I have a bad understanding, what difference does that make to anyone?
Now, there is value in seeking understanding just for the intrinsic pleasure of seeking understanding. But if that's my motivation, I might as well be gaming. If I understand ship loadouts in Starsector, that benefits the world exactly as much as if I understand gas prices -- but it benefits me more, because I play the game better.
Another value of seeking understanding is that I can develop habits of thinking that are generally helpful. That's why it's good to study philosophy, not because those dweebs were right about anything, but because you're getting practice in precise thinking.
But if I'm writing for an audience, there's one big factor that affects whether people even notice how I'm thinking. If they already have a strong opinion on the subject, the only thing they're going to notice is whether I'm right or wrong.
So now I can formulate a better rule than "Don't write about social issues." If it's a subject where people already have strong opinions, don't write about it. And if it's a subject where there's no practical benefit to better understanding, don't write about it unless the process of thinking is interesting.
June 18. I'm now fully moved to Seattle, and dog-tired. We still have a lot of unpacking and arranging to do, and also selling the car. This is a long shot, but if anyone in the Seattle area wants a 2008 Honda Fit, I'll give you a good deal.
June 15. Some good news links. World's largest organism found in Australia. It's not a giant spider, but a 4500 year old patch of hybrid seagrass.
From a few weeks ago, a Hacker News thread about microbes evolving to eat plastic.
Liquid platinum at room temperature: the cool catalyst for a sustainable revolution in industrial chemistry. In terms of coming technologies, I think space travel and virtual reality are being overhyped, and we're going to see a lot more action in materials science and brain hacking.
U.S. Landfills Are Getting a Second Life as Solar Farms. They're near cities, there's already infrastructure going there, and they can't be used for buildings.
June 13. Last week I heard someone on TV use the word "synchronicity" when they meant "synchronization". This is synchronicity: I was just at the post office to fill out a change of address form, to move from Pullman to Seattle. While I was there, a guy came in with something for the address 140 Windus. "140 Windus," called one postal worker to another. 140 Windus is the house I lived in when I was three years old, and right next door to the house I came back to when I was born, 55 years ago.
June 11. Moving is terrible. Back in the nomad days it was probably lots of fun. But never in history, until now, has it been normal for people to have this much stuff, without being rich enough to make other people deal with it.
So for the last several weeks I've painfully going through stuff, looking at ten thousand things from matchbooks to grain mills, deciding whether to haul it across the state, use it up, sell it on Craigslist, take it to a thrift store, or throw it away. And then there's the cleaning.
I'm now in the terminal phase. The last time I was this busy was my final week of college, when I put a sign on my wall that said "WORK EAT SLEEP" because if I did anything other than those three things, I wouldn't finish.
But this time, something peculiar happened. I wouldn't call it a "flow" state because it's not something I would seek out. A better word is inertia: near the end of my second straight 14 hour day, I reached a state where having one more thing to do was no longer painful. I was like, wow, this must be how highly productive people feel all the time.
One of my projects, before I move, is to go through my Complete Far Side and photograph all the best ones. Yesterday I saw this one, "Life on cloud eight", which fits right in with the last post.
I've heard it said, if you can enjoy being in hell, you're in heaven. But some of us don't even have to enjoy being in hell -- we just have to appreciate second-rate heaven.
More explicitly: whether you're talking about making more money, or having more fun, or being a better person, there's always a way to reach the next level. But the higher you get, the harder it is to stay there, and the more likely you are to notice: the good feeling of achieving a higher level is less than the bad feeling of not being satisfied with the level you're at.
This helps explain a cryptic line I read years ago in a Cynthia Ozick story: "Heaven is for those who have already been there." It also seems vaguely related to a cryptic line I read the other day in this Reddit thread: "Life does not give a rat's ass who lives it."
June 6. I almost didn't make last week's post about enlightenment, but I got some good feedback. Eric writes:
A friend went on a mindfulness retreat once where the exercise was to fully experience a thing that you were eating. The instructor gave everyone a segment of a tangerine to savor. My friend told me that later he tried the same practice at home, and he discovered that it was impossible to savor an Oreo.
I read a similar story about an exercise to stop overeating, where people were told to completely savor one Hershey's kiss. It's not that it was impossible to savor it, but it had never occurred to them to do so. They'd eaten hundreds of chocolates and 100% of the time they had gobbled them down.
I think we're talking about two distinct mental states, one where you're holding tension between what you're doing and something else, and one where what you're doing is self-justifying. And these two states come into clearer focus with that eating exercise.
Coming back around to "enlightenment", that concept, in western spirituality, is framed as an achievement, something you strive for. Paradoxically, the mental state people are seeking is already inside them, but they can only see it by not striving. That idea is thousands of years old, and we're no better at putting it into practice.
Fun stuff for the weekend. Yesterday I saw this on TV and jumped out of my seat to snap a pic. It has to be accidental, because if she tried to do it on purpose it wouldn't be this perfect. If you want to look closer, here's a larger photo. (And that's not a green screen behind her. I saw from another angle that they were at the actual event.)
A Hacker News thread about how awesome it is, if you have some extra time, to cross America by train.
Some good news, Children who play more video games show greater gains in intelligence over time
And a cool video about a strange musical instrument, Inside a Mellotron M400: How the Mellotron Works
June 2. The Buddha, the story goes, was a rich kid who indulged in every pleasure until he burned out and became enlightened. You'd think, with so many more pleasures now, and so many more people, there would be Buddhas popping up on every street corner.
Instead, there are more and more depressed people. And it occurs to me, depression and enlightenment have similar symptoms: not enjoying the things that ordinary people enjoy, and preferring to do nothing all day.
Maybe enlightenment was invented by ancient people as a way of framing depression, so that they could see themselves with more pride and less shame, and so that other people would see them with reverence, instead of trying to kill them for being unproductive.
What I really think is, "enlightenment" is a modern buzzword loosely based on a lost culture. The word has too much baggage and should not be used. Instead, we should talk with precision about the many techniques under the umbrella of meditation-metacognition-mindfulness, and the many specific benefits of those practices.
Personally, I have three goals in mental health: 1) An unshakeable sense of well-being. 2) More overlap between what's good for me to do and what I feel like doing. 3) Better body awareness so that I have better physical health. Over the years, I've made some progress on number three.
May 30. Two Reddit threads, one mostly pessimistic, What do you think of the United Nations report warning "total societal collapse"?
And one mostly optimistic, What are we living in the golden age of? "Idiots" isn't even on the first page.
May 27. A few links on time and changes, starting with this cool page by Merriam-Webster, Time Traveler. You just plug in any year, and it tells you all the words first recorded in that year.
Is an unknown, extraordinarily ancient civilisation buried under eastern Turkey? It's looking like Gobekli Tepe is the tip of the iceberg, and there's older, bigger stuff yet to be uncovered. Also, Mind blowing ancient settlements uncovered in the Amazon.
A cool YouTube lecture, Thomas Kuhn on the Incommensurability of Paradigms. The most interesting thing is, when two paradigms are well-balanced, you cannot decide between them by gathering more data, because both paradigms will have their own ways of explaining it (or excluding it).
The word "incommensurability" reminds me of my favorite solution to Fermi's paradox, that aliens are trying to contact us, but they're so different from us that we exclude their communications as too weird, as explained in this PDF paper, Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness.
May 26. So Leigh Ann is in Seattle, setting up our new apartment, and I'm in Pullman, getting rid of stuff in our old apartment. This is the cycle of stuff: 1) Getting stuff feels really good. 2) Having stuff feels subtly bad. 3) Getting rid of stuff feels really bad. 4) Having no stuff feels subtly good. 5) Go to step one.
May 25. Following politics makes me stupid. Following sports makes me smart. Sports are more transparent, and less rigged, so you can actually learn stuff about what makes people and groups good at what they do.
The latest thing I learned is from some important playoffs that are happening right now. Of course it's women's college softball. Last weekend, one commentator kept saying that the hitters needed to "stay within themselves". I find that to be a really helpful combination of words. People talk about "being in the moment", which is about time, but this is about space. It's about discipline in the envelope of the self, not sticking your will beyond your means.
May 23. For me, writing about social issues is like alcohol for alcoholics. I can't do it just a little, or I get sucked in and regret it. I have to stay off it completely, which means I'll continue to write about weird philosophy and mental self-improvement.
Last week there was a good Hacker News thread about ADHD. I can remember before they added the H, when it was just "ADD". That fits me better, because I'm not at all hyperactive, but I've always felt an "attention deficit", in that I don't have enough attention to go around for the demands of the human-made world.
According to the top comment, "...the root cause is that I can't stand being with myself." My self is the only thing I can stand being with for very long. Another comment says, "...an ADHD brain needs more stimulus to feel healthy." I need less stimulus to not feel overwhelmed.
Related: Study suggests maladaptive daydreaming should be classified as a unique mental disorder, distinct from ADHD. I don't think maladaptive daydreaming is a disorder. I think it's a symptom of a talent that has failed to find a niche. If the world inside your head is better than the world outside it, that's not a problem -- it's a resource.
A few months back I wrote about an attention exercise: while walking around, practice going very wide and then very narrow. Yesterday I tried something similar. I call it "hunter-artist". While walking around, look at your surroundings as if you're a prehistoric hunter, or if you prefer, a first person video game character. The point is that you're looking both widely and narrowly, scanning for benefits and dangers. Then look at your surroundings with an aesthetic eye, as if you're walking through a painting by your favorite artist. Again, you're looking both widely and narrowly, but you're in a completely different mental state than the hunter. By switching back and forth between these states, you're exercising your brain and it's probably good for you.
May 20. Another book I'm slowly reading is The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs by Tristan Gooley. There's a great bit about ivy. While other plants grow toward the light, young ivy grows away from the light, so that it can find its way into the shade of trees and up their trunks. Then, once it's established, it grows toward the light.
So I was thinking about the Tao Te Ching line: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light," and I got the idea: The next time I get high, why don't I go away from the light? Instead of trying to make everything luminous, contemplate the void. Coincidentally, Patrick had just sent this very mellow video about meditating on emptiness.
This also reminds me of a story about Osho. One of his students asked, is it good to do drugs while meditating? He said, no, that will interfere with the meditation. Another student asked, is it okay to meditate while doing drugs? He said, yes, that's perfectly fine.
I was off weed for ten days because of Covid. (There's some evidence that THC interferes with the body fighting viruses.) So I vaped a small dose, and ate a small dose of mushrooms, and contemplated: I am not the person who has experiences, or the experience itself, but the space, the capacity that the experience fills.
I can't say I had some magical breakthrough. But it was the opposite of a bad trip. Whatever bad stuff might have come up, would be sucked into the void. Then I fell asleep. Later, with more weed, I thought of another twist on Alan Watts: There is no message, only envelope.