January - February, 2024

previous archive

January 1, 2024. For the new year, some predictions. I'm very pessimistic about one category of the near future: events that are covered on the news. Climate disasters are going to get worse -- here's a short video of giant waves in California -- while climate change denial will not get any better.

Wealth inequality will get worse, while the political will to fix wealth inequality will not get better until our whole culture changes how it thinks about money, from "Poverty sucks but you can climb out of it if you're not lazy," to "We have to make poverty fun because we're stuck in it forever."

There will be more and more homeless people, but that will make the world of homelessness better, because more functional people will be pulled into it.

Worst of all, the world is entering a phase of authoritarian politics and military conflict, which will not end until the generations that have not experienced that stuff find out how shitty it is. Here's a depressing Reddit thread (removed because the internet is also getting worse), What would be the ramifications if Ukraine aid is stopped and Russia wins and takes over Ukraine? Basically, if international cooperation fails to keep the peace, every country will build up their military to try to stop invasions, or to do them. This is looking a lot like right before WWI.

Here's where I'm optimistic. If you add up the death tolls of WWI, WWII, and the Spanish flu, it was about seven percent of the world population at that time. Seven percent of the present world population is more than half a billion people. I don't expect that many deaths, because humans are no longer mean enough to do that many murders -- although nuclear war is still possible.

I'm confident that we will neither go extinct, nor colonize space. We're going to be stuck working shit out on Earth for a long time, without cheap resources, and I think when we get used to that, life could get pretty good.

Where I'm most optimistic, in my lifetime, is in the normalization of psychedelics, and the effect of all that tripping on culture. Posted to the subreddit, The zeitgeist is changing. A strange, romantic backlash to the tech era looms.

I think western culture bottomed out in the 1700s, in terms of how little of reality we saw as alive. For a while after Descartes, you needed propositional cognition to even exist. Emotions weren't real again until Romanticism. The word "ecology" was not even invented until 1873. I predict that by 2200, the Pope will say that trees are people, as the old religions retool for bottom-up theology, and we rebuild participating consciousness from scratch.

January 3. This year I expect to write more about philosophy. A few weeks ago on the subreddit there was a short thread about physics without causality. There are more links in the thread, and when I looked into this subject, I was surprised to find out that professional physicists, in their papers and textbooks, avoid claiming causality at all, because they can't define it. At the same time, popular science is causally fundamentalist, believing there's no such thing as an uncaused event.

If I think really deeply about this, I can get into a mental space where causality is an illusion. Even in the obvious case of a domino knocking over another domino, really it's not one event causing another, but two aspects of one big event, which we view in terms of causality because we're inside the illusion of time and space.

The practical value of acausal metaphysics, is the ability to see and use correlations, which you would otherwise have to ignore because there's no mechanism for causality. For example, astrology. There's no realistic way that the positions of the planets can influence your life. But the course of your life, and the positions of the planets, could be two views of a deeper thing, where one can tell you something about the other.

I try to cultivate synchronicity in everyday life. For example, if I read or write a word, while hearing the same word, I don't dismiss it as meaningless, nor do I think it's a mind-blowing miracle, nor do I get paranoid about evil spirits. I just feel grateful that I've briefly tuned into the normal way that reality works. Related: my 2022 post about bibliomancy.

January 8. I thought I was too old to have my mind blown by a book. But after two of my favorite idea books, Physics as Metaphor and The Reenchantment of the World, both cited Owen Barfield as an influence, I bought Barfield's book Saving the Appearances. I'm only halfway through, and his big idea is too radical for this post, but one of his supporting ideas fits right in with my recent posts about propositional knowing.

Defined by Wikipedia, "Propositional knowledge asserts that a proposition or claim about the world is true." Following Barfield, I now think that no propositional statement is true. Words cannot be true or false, they can only be more or less useful. That includes these words.

I'm going to go ahead and say that nothing is true, because the kinds of things that are claimed as true cannot be true, while the things that are actually true are better described as real. One thing I think is real is often believed to be unreal: your sense experience in this moment. Edward Abbey said, "Appearance versus reality? Appearance is reality, God damn it!" This right now is the only thing you have to work with. If you die and go to heaven, it will still be this right now.

Another thing I think is real is what Charles Fort called the "universal" when he wrote "that only the universal can really be." Barfield calls it the "unrepresented". Beatrice Bruteau calls it the "infinite intercommunicating universe". Stephen Wolfram calls it the Ruliad. Theologians call it God. One thing everyone agrees on, is that it's too big and complex for us to possibly understand.

So, to mediate between direct experience, and the incomprehensible universal, we create the layer of reality that Barfield calls representations. He argues that ancient and medieval people knew they were working with representations, and only modern people think our representations are literally true, thus the book's subtitle, "A Study in Idolatry".

January 8. One useful thing, about framing propositions as useful and not true, is that you don't have to pick one and stick with it. You can use acceptances (not beliefs) as tools. If I start to care too much what people think, I can become temporarily a solipsist, and those people aren't real; if I start to think I'm better than other people, I can become temporarily a determinist, and even moral superiority is only luck.

Another useful thing is that you can go outside of science. I don't mind that science can't explain everything. What I don't like is when science says that anything that can't be pinned down in a laboratory, anything that can't be made the same for all observers, anything that "can't work" if conceived mechanistically, is forbidden territory.

For example, karma. One thing I like to do, when I'm walking around the city, is pick up litter. Usually it's just the most convenient pieces, but the other day I stopped outside the library to pick up a bunch of litter around a bus stop. Five minutes later, walking home, I spotted an ice cream carton in the middle of a busy sidewalk, and leaned down to snag it so I could throw it out. To my surprise, it was unopened and still frozen, a $7 pint of Haagen Dazs Cookies and Cream. I took it home to eat it.

Now, a certain percentage of picked up litter will turn out to be valuable. But the timing! Even the ice cream got lucky. Modern metaphysics is usually called "materialism", but another good term would be anti-psychism: whatever it is, from evolution to the movements of the stars, there's not supposed to be any mind behind it.

One practical advantage, in conceiving the world with mind behind it, is that life doesn't feel meaningless. One danger is, what if it's an evil mind? When things go wrong, am I being punished? If I see the number 4 everywhere, are the 4s out to get me? Then it's prudent to retreat into meaninglessness. But it's like shifting into neutral in a car -- you can't stay there forever.

I wonder if anti-psychism is correlated with an adversarial culture. If your lived reality is "every man for himself and God against all," then it's less stressful if you factor out God. The Scientific Revolution emerged from the late Middle Ages, a time of terrible plagues and wars. If we can make the late modern age friendlier, there may be more willingness to see meaning everywhere. Related: What are the craziest signs you've ever gotten from God/universe?

January 11. A scientific article about why you should go barefoot, The effects of grounding on inflammation:

Multi-disciplinary research has revealed that electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing) produces intriguing effects on physiology and health. Such effects relate to inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

And Stanford scientists boost hypnotizability with transcranial magnetic brain stimulation. This could be big, because hypnosis can be really powerful, except that a lot of people are immune to it. In the future they'll wonder why we were always competing with placebos, instead of just making placebos better.

January 15. Continuing from last week, I'm going to try to give a taste of Owen Barfield's book Saving The Appearances (1957). You've probably heard of Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). By "consciousness", Jaynes means the introspective mode of consciousness that modern humans have, and his big idea is intriguing without being threatening: that ancient people lived in a different reality than modern people -- but only inside their heads, where they heard the literal voices of the gods.

Barfield thinks that ancient people lived in a different reality outside their heads. This gets the book mostly ignored or classified as philosophy of religion, even though he insists that he's not writing about metaphysics, only perception. Rather than try to summarize his subtle argument, I'm going to jump to Chapter 14, and this passage inspired by the observation that art did not have perspective until the 1400s.

If, with the help of some time-machine working in reverse, a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man in the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our 'figuration' the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time at a photograph through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. 'Oh!' he would say, 'look how they stand out!'

We must not forget that in his time perspective had not yet been discovered, nor underrate the significance of this. True, it is no more than a device for pictorially representing depth, and separateness, in space. But how comes it that the device had never been discovered before -- or, if discovered, never adopted? There were plenty of skilled artists, and they would certainly have hit upon it soon enough if depth in space had characterized the collective representations they wished to reproduce, as it characterizes ours. They did not need it. Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved.

In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of -- what shall we say? -- of 'meaning', if you choose. It seems the most adequate word.

January 18. Today's subject, AI, starting with a comment from Matt:

I saw a Mastodon post recently about why AI generated art should neither be considered "AI" nor "art." They said it's obvious that there's no intelligence behind the programs when you simply ask it to generate art for which it has no reference points -- that is, no database of matching images. It can easily generate fantasy images of dragons and elves because those things are popular tropes and plenty of stock images exist for them, conveniently labeled. But once you ask it to generate an image of anything without a past, then its attempts are crude, unconvincing, and even nightmarish.

Of all the reductionist statements I've seen about AI, the one I've found most useful came from a Hacker News thread about ChatGPT: "It's just a big Mad Lib engine." AI takes words and pictures, and jumbles them up and puts them together in intelligible ways. It's not a way of creating stuff, but a way of exploring and remixing stuff that humans have already done. So it's basically the same thing the internet was already doing, except instead of searching the internet for a whole human-made thing that you're interested in, you can have the AI do a Frankenstein of a million human-made things.

I think chatbots and image bots are not on the verge of a world-changing breakthrough, but already into diminishing returns, and more processing power will only make them do the same thing more smoothly. More generally, following Jerry Mander's book In the Absence of the Sacred (1991), I think the best biological metaphor for human technology is not evolution but inbreeding: We are going deeper and deeper into a world of our own creation. This can lead to insight, and I'm hopeful about therapy bots -- but it can also lead to madness.

If any new technology leads to human transcendence, it will be one that enhances our perception of the living non-human world, and thereby turns our attention outward in a way that was not available to our ancestors.

January 20. Matt comments on the value of objects:

Probably, Indigenous Americans thought it was quite strange that white people just bought knives from a general store -- as if knives were interchangeable and their origins unimportant. The further back you go in anthropology, the more art is embedded in (is synonymous with) objects of daily use. In my wife's office, she has little gnomes on her bookshelf that sit there just for fun. A hundred thousand years ago, if someone had three little figurines in their home, they probably had deep spiritual meaning and long histories.

This subreddit follow-up, The importance of everyday objects, adds a story about the deeply embodied value of a much-played guitar, and mentions hoarders, who put value on too many things.

I would add, because our culture is so atomized, our sentimental value is highly specific to each person and object. In a more integrated culture, the feeling-value of different objects would tend to dovetail into a larger shared meaning. Like your gnome and my knife would be part of the same mythos.

January 22. My reviews of 2023 movies have been moved to my Films page.

January 26. From playing piano, I've identified five different possible sources for what your fingers are doing on the keys. If you're reading music, your eyes are telling your fingers what to do. If you're improvising, your ears are doing it. If you're playing exercises, it's your brain. If you're playing a song from memory, it's also your brain, but a different function, plus some muscle memory. And the fifth one, after years of playing, I only noticed this week. Your fingers can direct themselves, based on what feels good for your fingers, with total indifference to the notes.

February 1-5. This week I'm playing Fallout New Vegas, and wondering if video games are influencing popular philosophy. For example, I'm about to "intercept" the Great Khans at Boulder City, but I know that whatever time I happen to get there will be exactly the right time, because the game is coded according to relationships rather than timetables -- not unlike our own synchronicity. Games are making it easier for us to imagine reality, not as a fixed physical world, but as a vaporous potential that gets filled in according to how we look at it.

And Fallout isn't even procedurally generated. This is my greatest hope for AI. Imagine your favorite open world game, with no borders, just more of the same stuff, forever. The next challenge would be multiplayer, and I imagine a larger system that could take your choices in your game, and translate them into someone else's game to make it more real. So if I'm buying a sword in Hyrule, and you're selling a gun in Vice City, with a few adjustments, we could be each other's NPCs. Now imagine taking that farther, as far as it could go, and it's basically what psychonauts say we already have, a shared world that somehow puts each person at the very center.

Now suppose there's something like reincarnation. Given how much fun wild animals are having, why would anyone want to be human? I can think of two reasons. First is the enormous variation in human experience. Being a dolphin is pretty much like being any other dolphin. But as a human, you could be anything from a Roman slave to a Medieval serf to a modern tech worker. I wonder if being a modern human is the many-lives equivalent of going to Disneyland. It's super-crowded, and more annoying than fun, but it's such a peculiar spectacle that everyone has to do it.

The other reason is imagination. Dogs can dream about chasing squirrels, and elephants probably have awesome dreams about elephant-like things. But humans, while fully awake, can go inside our heads and do dog things, or elephant things, or be wizards or space pirates, or do crazy stuff that no one ever thought of until this moment. And through storytelling and later books and now video games, we can share our worlds of imagination with other people. And if there is a more-real world outside this world, then maybe we're learning stuff here, about how we want that world to be.

February 10. Just saw a great line on the psychonaut subreddit: "Happy people use drugs. Drugs use sad people." It reminds me of that line from the Gospel of Thomas: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man."

February 12-14. The Psychedelic Experience Scale has been updated to add some new stuff, including "paradoxicality":

This dimension captures experiences where conventional logic fails, and the individual confronts the limits of rational thought, diving into a realm where opposites coexist. Items within this subscale relate to experiences of identity loss, the dissolution of temporal boundaries, and the merging of self with the environment.

The article also mentions that "transcendence might not inherently be a part of the mystical experience, but might be more an experience in its own right." This totally fits with something I just read in Morris Berman's book Wandering God, that paradoxicality (he calls it paradox) is a feature of horizontal nomadic spirituality, and transcendence is a feature of the vertical spirituality of settled cultures.

Can transcendence and paradox be reconciled? I imagine it's like one of those illusions where you can't see it both ways at once. Getting transcendence requires non-paradoxical certainty, and getting paradox requires not caring about transcendence. I also wonder if "enlightenment" is popularly imagined as transcendence, but when you get there, it's actually paradox. That would explain a lot about Buddhism.

I've finished Owen Barfield's Saving The Appearances, and despite his general ability to see through the filters of modernity, he totally buys into the modern idea of transcendence, by arguing that we are not going back to the "original participation" of indigenous peoples, but forward to "final participation". This might have inspired Ken Wilber's concept of pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational, and I think both authors are reaching. I would call the next stage "informed participation" or "post-rational". It's neither final nor transcendent, just the next thing we're doing.

Barfield was a Christian, and he spends the later chapters in wild speculations about the incarnate word. He doesn't seem to notice that he's created a cognitive framework that explains how Jesus could have actually done miracles -- and that we all could. "With God all things are possible." It's not that you can manifest any reality you want, but that we can filter down the incomprehensible true reality into all kinds of different working realities, any of which can do things that seem impossible to the others.

February 16-19. Today's subject, altered states of consciousness, starting with this exceptional trip report. There's also good stuff in the discussion thread.

What the hell is all this, consciousness is just having fun with energy combinations. It's withholding its own true nature from itself by creating energy labyrinths to arrive at its own true nature differently every time.

The best thread yet on my favorite question, If you could choose what happens after you die, how would you want the afterlife to be like? I like to pretend I do get to choose my afterlife, and I choose a personal paradise based on everything I imagined in this life but couldn't do because of the limitations of this world.

Of course, this world is great with the right mental state. I can get there through substances, and it's a common belief that meditation does the same thing. But if I were to make a Venn diagram of how I benefit from weed and meditation, those circles wouldn't even be on the same page. Weed is like parasailing: without having to do anything, I fly. Meditation is like swimming lessons: I learn the skill of not sinking into bad thought patterns. It has not yet taken me above my baseline, or out of my default mode network.

If it ever does, I hope it's like this post, How usual is this experience?

Lately, after I do my practices in the morning, I feel like I have no body or mind. I will just be in a cloud of bliss and feel amazing. If I stare out the window at a tree or the sky I may just go into trance mode where the world seems to dance and move together slowly, steadily and peacefully but frozen in this very moment. Often I will just cry out of love and gratitude for no reason, or cry if I see something tragic or sad. I actually don't remember when the last time I was fearful about anything. I seem to have accepted that this is it. Life is here and now. If I relax my breath, it feels amazing to be here wherever I am. Death seems like it will be the ultimate relaxation - the most blissful thing. When pain comes I welcome it as an amazing opportunity to shed some more of my burden.

February 23-25. I'm mostly recovered from my second round of Covid. I've found, during times of suffering, the best move is not to look forward to the suffering being over, but to imagine that it's going to continue, just like this, for a hundred years. Being fully present is always good for your mental health, but being present with bliss only teaches you to be present with more bliss; being present with pain teaches you to be present under many other conditions. I've also found, when pain gets beyond a certain level, there's no space for any kind of rumination, all you can do is feel it. I've only been there a few times in my life, not this time, which was pretty mild.

There's a common belief that suffering is necessary for pleasure, or that evil is necessary for good, like the change of the seasons. It's one of those ideas that sounds like wisdom, but when you think about it, it's not actually true. There are some people who are happy all the time, and other people who are miserable all the time. I think suffering and evil are like taking a wrong turn on a journey. It sometimes happens, and some good can come of it, but it's never necessary.

Noah comments:

Happiness is not a meaningful state without something to compare it to. If there was no suffering, we would have no word to describe happiness, it would simply be the natural state of things. It would be invisible to us I imagine, like the background space of our awareness.

That sounds wonderful! And it reminds me of the Christian idea, that the fall of man happened through knowledge of good and evil. This never occurred to me, but maybe the principle that you can't have something without also having its opposite, is only true on a cognitive level.

February 25. Revisiting a link from a couple weeks ago, Depressed individuals tend to avoid experiencing positive emotions. Nobody would consciously choose to avoid feeling good, so they must be doing it subconciously, and it must be hard not to. So I'm thinking, what instruction would you give to depressed people, to change their habits? Something like, "Imagine the world is full of very subtle invitations to feel good, like tiny packages that you can look for, and open."

This subreddit post disagrees with my statement that nobody would consciously avoid feeling good. Clearly this subject is less straightforward than I thought, because it's hard to separate "feeling good" from the stuff that you feel good about, from social displays of feeling good, and from the whole internal ecology of how you feel, in which choosing not to feel good might benefit the whole.

Related: a post from the Spirituality subreddit, Has anyone heard about the real way to pray? Basically, instead of asking for what you don't have, start with something that you already have, even the tiniest amount of it, and then feel grateful, and then ask for more.