Ran Prieur

"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."

-James Tiptree Jr

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May 13. I was reading a review of the film Soylent Green, which pointed out that the most interesting thing is not that they're eating people, but that they live in a strange and highly constrained dystopia, and yet they see it as totally normal. You can see the same dynamic in the Fallout TV show, with the vault dwellers who think they're enlightened but they're totally clueless about the real world.

This raises the question: In what sense are we vault dwellers? Is there a perspective from which we appear as narrow as the citizens of North Korea appear to us? One answer, from Ask Old People, a thread completing the sentence, "I think it would be great if you could all go back in time and experience a day (or week) of _____."

Another answer, from a 2017 article, Adam Curtis on the dangers of self-expression. Curtis is a big critic of the modern self, and I'm less interested in that subject than in what he says farther down:

I was reading a sociologist called Max Weber the other day. Back in the 1920s, he was predicting that we would all be taken over in a bureaucratic age. It could be left wing or right wing, but we would enter into what he called an iron cage of rationality. It would be a wonderful world where everything was managed, everything was rationally done. But what you would lose was enchantment. It would become a disenchanted age.

I think, following Morris Berman, that the original disenchanted age was in the 1700s. Romanticism brought some enchantment back, but then it was buried under industrialization. Curtis says, "I sometimes wonder whether conspiracy theories are an attempt to re-enchant the world in a distorted way." That's an important insight, that if something is being suppressed, it may only appear in distorted form, which conveniently makes it look repulsive to the dominant culture.

I'm still reading Moravagine, and if some future enlightened society is trying to understand the mindset behind the atrocities of the 20th century, that novel nails it. From the context of a suffocating mechanistic perfection, the narrator seeks to feel alive in a world of wild flux, and can't even imagine how to do that without horrific murder and destruction.

May 10. No ideas this week, but I have another long quote. I've just started reading the 1926 novel Moravagine. This is a complete paragraph from chapter 2:

I have already said that the activity of consciousness is a congenital hallucination. Our origins being aqueous, our life is the perpetual rhythm of tepid waters. We have water in our stomachs and in our ears. We perceive the rhythm of the universe through the peritoneum, which is our cosmic tympanum, a collective sense of touch. Of our individual senses the first in rank is our hearing, which perceives the rhythm of our own particular and individual life. This is why all diseases begin with auditory troubles which are, like the manifestations of marine life, keys to the past and precursors of an inexhaustible process of becoming. It was, therefore, none of my business as a doctor to attempt to hinder such manifestations. I envisaged, rather, the possibility of multiplying these tonic accidents and achieving, through a prodigious subversion, the perfect accord of a new harmony. The future.

May 8. Two more drug links. Cannabis use is linked to a lower likelihood of experiencing subjective cognitive decline. "...after controlling for various demographic, health, and substance use factors, non-medical cannabis use was associated with a 96% decrease in the odds of reporting subjective cognitive decline." That's a big number that will probably come down with better testing, and I'm curious to see more research.

From the Psychonaut subreddit, Can you you describe THAT thing? I have a thick head against tripping and have never experienced that thing, but I've read a ton of descriptions, and the top comment is one of the best I've seen, so I'll quote it verbatim:

It's like all possible paths converging into this present thoughtless moment. It's an infinite informational orgasm that loops back on itself forever. There's no where to go because it's everywhere. There's no other time because it's all of time. There's nobody else there because it's everybody. It's not a personal experience but it's somehow also all you. It's before the universe, it's after the universe. In fact the existence of a universe becomes completely nonsensical. It will always be THAT thing, there's no room for physical existence whatsoever. There never was a universe. And you can never come down from this realization. It's Nirvana and it always has been Nirvana. But then in the same paradoxical way that you forgot this unforgettable thing when you were born. You forget it and are rebirthed. It's like the realization shape shifts into non realization. It's still THAT thing but it's completely unlike itself so you don't recognize it anymore. It's just normal reality as we know it. Something like that! xD

May 6. Stray links. From a Reddit predictions thread, a sub-thread about drone warfare: "Soon they'll have guns and fly in coordinated swarms."

From the same thread, another sub-thread predicting a resurgence of tinkering and trades. Related: a big blog post, Woodworking as an escape from the absurdity of software

Another Reddit thread with lots of good stories, People who have done hardcore drugs, what was the experience like?

More drugs, Is childhood trauma linked to challenging ayahuasca experiences? Surprisngly, no. Among people who do ayahuasca, a study found no correlation between childhood trauma and challenging experiences.

Finally, some ecology. Why you should let insects eat your plants. Because the plants will recover and insects are in trouble.

May 3. Today is Bandcamp Friday, on which all the money goes to the artists. I've been continuing to explore obscurities, and this compilation album, Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music led me to this page, From The Stacks, which is loaded with interesting and pretty good stuff.

But the album I'm buying is from 2021, by a young NYC duo called Petite League: Joyrider. I like it better than their other albums, and though I can't say exactly how, I can guess why: it was made during Covid quarantine. I wonder if, in 20 years, we'll look back at a little golden age across multiple kinds of creative works. Anyway, my favorite song on the album is Echo, an absolute gem of psych pop.

I also want to give a plug for the greatest album of all time, now ten years old, Big Blood - Unlikely Mothers

May 1. I'm still reading Marshall Sahlins' book The New Science of the Enchanted Universe, and today I have a few notes on God, specifically the differences between the supreme being as conceived by Christians and by hunter-gatherers. Sahlins, with more precision, describes these two cultures as transcendentalist and immanentist.

Transcendentalists see God as separate from the world and perfectly good, which leads to the problem of evil: why does God allow it? Immanentists don't have this problem, because they see God as containing all good and all evil -- and then it's up to us, which of those aspects we call upon.

The way immanentists think about God is not unlike the way we think about the government. The government is not mythical but practical. It is both one and many. Although it's a real thing, we can't exactly see "the government" or talk to it -- all we can do is talk to various people who represent the government and perform some of its functions. In the same way, the BaKongo don't talk directly to Nzambi, only to intermediaries, which could be anything from living shamans to dead ancestors to animal spirits.

The funny thing is, even totally egalitarian cultures, where no person has power over any other person, still describe the spirit world as hierarchical. Materialists would say, they must have been exposed to hierarchical human cultures, in order to project them on their imaginary world. Immanentists would say, the spirit world came first. It is the deep nature of reality to have nested spheres of influence, for example, one spirit for the mountain, and one spirit for each tree on the mountain. It doesn't mean the mountain can force the trees to do something they'd rather not do, but that's what tends to happen in human hierarchies.

lava, flowers, palm trees April 29. So last week we finally made it to Hawaii, specifically Kona on the big island. It's an easy flight from Seattle, and there are ways to do it more cheaply than we did it, but we got the full tourist experience. A few notes:

So much lava. If there is a wall, it's going to be built of cemented-together lava rocks. I've seen photos of smooth lava, but most of it is very rough. Off the side of the road it's just endless jagged black rubble, in various stages of plants growing there since the last flow. The landscapes could be anything from blasted desert to scrubby grass to savanna to jungle.

The color of the ocean, looking down from a boat, is more beautiful than I thought colors could be. I didn't even take a picture because I've seen surfing movies and it's nothing like touching it with your actual eyes. It reminded me of the lyric from Once In A Lifetime: "Into the blue again, after the money's gone."

The ocean is not even lukewarm. We went snorkeling and the only reason I wasn't shivering is that I didn't take a flotation noodle and I had to burn a lot of energy to stay afloat. But parasailing is surprisingly peaceful. There's no adrenaline rush at all, just floating serenely through the sky.

Best restaurant in greater Kona: Rebel Kitchen. It's far enough out from the tourist area that the staff are not obsequious, and most of the diners are locals. Everything on the small menu is creative and made carefully.

April 24. Posting from my phone with a random thought. Like a week ago, it's three things that are kind of similar. First, a reader comment from way back, that according to physicist Freeman Dyson, the universe will never experience heat death, because life can always keep adapting to lower energy.

Second, in the deep sea episode of Blue Planet 2, they say there are more kinds of coral in the darkness at the bottom of the ocean, than in all the shallow water coral reefs.

Third, I had an idea for a reality TV show. First they make the regular show, call it Master Chef A. Then, using only footage not used in A, they edit together a new version of the same competition, call it Master Chef B.

Then, using footage not used in either A or B, they make C. And so on. Assuming they don't run out of footage, and they put it together with skill, as the letters get higher, the show will become more subtle and more interesting.

April 19. I'm mostly taking next week off from the internet. If you want to go deeper into Monday's subject, it was mainly inspired by two books, Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances and Beatrice Bruteau's The Psychic Grid, from which I've transcribed a chapter, What is Real?

For the weekend, music. Since I made my Not On Spotify playlist, two of the best songs have appeared on Spotify: Souvenir by Pretty & Twisted, and Summer's Over by Dennis Harte, a 1970 one-shot, through a 2022 compilation of obscurities called Ghost Riders. The same record company made another compilation in 2016, Sky Girl, which led me to this incredible psych folk song, Linda Smith - I So Liked Spring.

I've been wanting to make a playlist of songs that are on Spotify, but have low play counts. Tuesday I got obsessed and went through my mp3 library, picking out likely candidates and looking them up. Play count turned out to be a valuable constraint, because it forced me to go deeper into the discographies of some of my favorite artists, either because their best songs were too popular, or not on Spotify.

This is the first time I've made a playlist with the Spotify interface, and wow, it's much more convenient than downloading and tagging mp3s. But I'll keep doing that, because I don't trust the cloud to hold onto my stuff. I mean, it's right there in the name. What do clouds do?

Anyway, I love this playlist, and I'm calling it Dregs of Spotify. Only one song has over 50k plays, and five of them don't even have enough plays to be counted. Two of those, via YouTube: Rex Holman - Red is the Apple, and a luminous Brazilian instrumental from 1973, Satwa - Valsa dos Cogumelos.

April 17. Shifting from theoretical to practical metaphysics, I keep running into this idea in very different contexts. First, I saw an interview with an athlete, it might have been Paige Bueckers, who said, in a big game, you can avoid mental jitters by taking your self out of it.

Second, in an anthropology book, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe by Marshall Sahlins, I read this idea: It's not that the gods give fish to the people, but that the gods give fish to the gods, through the people.

Third, determinism. On a propositional level, I don't believe that either matter or mind is fundamentally deterministic. But I also think the modern concept of "free will" is not quite right, because it's tied to the illusion of the self. A better way to frame non-determinism is participation in the creativity of the universal. And on a practical level, determinism does the job of deflating the western heroic ego, and making us humble before the absolute.

April 15. Continuing on aliens, thanks Imre for motivating me to make some images to explain my thinking. On the left we have the materialist view of reality. At the bottom, the most fundamental level, we have space, the physical universe explored by humans. Then, within that space, we have humans and aliens. Above their heads we have human consciousness and alien consciousness.

On the right, we have first-thought psychism. I'm going to call it "psychism" because "idealism" has additional meanings. So there at the bottom, the most fundamental thing, is consciousness. Then, emerging from consciousness, we have space, and within space, we have humans and aliens, each with their own ways of thinking.

To pad my desktop view, I'm putting image credits here. The humans and green alien are from freepik.com; I can't find the original source for consciousness; the galaxy is M31 in Andromeda from Wikimedia commons; alien consciousness is the painting Transverse Line by Kandinsky; and the alien below is from Ophanim by Danilo Wolf.

Now, here's how I see it. Again, the most fundamental thing is consciousness. Then, emerging from consciousness, we have humans and aliens. Above their heads we have their representations of reality. It might be more accurate to put them below, since they are developed through active engagement with the Universal, but I put them above to emphasize that they emerge from the qualities and choices of the two kinds of beings, and that other representations are available.

You could even put other humans in the image, hunter-gatherers with their own representations, weirder to us than outer space, but not as weird as whatever aliens have. My point is that the stuff described by physics is not universal, but peculiar to us. Quoting Donald Hoffman, "We are the authors of space and time; their myriad contents are our impressive stagecraft." Aliens have their own stage, which is why I do not believe we will find any life in space that's intelligent enough to dream a universe.

I'm also wondering, if science is a representation, how much room do we have to represent it differently? I don't think flat earthers could actually make the Earth flat. Quoting Karen Blixen, "the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road." But I wonder if future astronomers will figure out how to imagine space smaller and less hostile, so that it's easier to explore.

April 12. Quick note for the weekend. The new Fallout TV series is much better than I expected. They made the right choice in not adapting a story from the game, but writing new a new story in the world of the game, which is the best thing about it. The plot is crude but fun, and they got the world exactly right.

April 11. Back to the afterlife, thanks Kelby for sending this powerful NDE report, which led me to this long page of exceptional experiences. I've been reading a few at random, and I notice that most of them do not include going down a dark tunnel toward a light. The reason we expect that, is that Raymond Moody, who pioneered NDE research in his 1975 book Life After Life, favored reports that featured tunnels, lights, and dead relatives, because he wanted to reduce the experience to certain common features.

I think it's more interesting to look at the variation. We might imagine that this world is a messy place, from which we return after death to a simple place. Maybe it's the other way around. This is the simple place, and the world beyond is incomprehesibly multifaceted.

Related: Mysterious Drones Swarmed Langley AFB For Weeks. This was a UFO event, and this 2021 article on mystery drone swarms in the midwest goes deeper into the weirdness.

I always think of something John Keel wrote: that UFO researchers are not telling the government what they know. The phenomenon is neither space aliens, nor secret human tech, nor mass delusion, but a manifestation of the incomprehensible world beyond, which appears to us through our own cultural filters. In the 1890s, there were a bunch of sightings of mystery airships.

April 8. Today, psychology. I want to juxtapose two comments at opposite extremes of social tuning-in. From a 2017 Hacker News thread on being alone, in the context of the Maine hermit:

Coming back into the civilization is similar to someone pointing flashlight into your eyes. So much external triggers for behaviour. Realizing that I'm not actually me with other people and I'm disappearing into network of others. Me with others is mainly just bunch of triggers that fire based on conditioning.

I bookmarked that because I don't relate to it at all. But I somewhat relate to this recent Reddit post on autism:

For instance, whenever I am in a group setting, there's always this sense of confusion/nervousness of not knowing what to say. And trying to figure out what words should come out if my mouth is always something I have to calculate like a robot while also adjusting my body language.

My point is that we tend to assume that other people experience reality the same as us, when they often don't. By the way, I don't identify as autistic, because while I score high on some measures, like not having an autopilot, I score low on others. I'm very good at tuning out distractions, and don't mind doing things spontaneously. This makes me think that autism will turn out to be multiple things when we understand it better. Also, I wonder if people who experience themselves as "a bunch of triggers that fire" are more likely to believe in determinism.

April 5. I often wish for more overlap between what I feel like doing and what's good for me to do, and this week I got a win. I've been obsessively playing a browser game called Guess My RGB. You move three color sliders to try to match the background color of the screen. Not only is it compelling in the sense that I always want to play one more game, it also has a really satisfying learning curve. At first it was taking me more than ten tries every time, and now I'm usually getting it in five or six. Just by following a compulsion, I've gained more color awareness and color intelligence. I used to think raising the saturation of an image somehow magically added more color. Now I know that it's just spreading out the sliders, moving the high ones higher and the low ones lower. Now, walking around the city, I'll think, that green has some red in it, or that's a really pure blue.

Posted to the subreddit, 'We need to accept the weeds', about a trend in the Netherlands to tear up paving tiles around houses. I'm thinking, why were the tiles put there in the first place? Western aesthetics are shifting, from appreciating human-made cleanness, to appreciating the rough beauty of the non-human-made world.

And To Keyi Toko Zonga is a pretty good new album of psychedelic world music.

April 3. Continuing on the afterlife, Matt comments: "What if there are alien metaphysical versions of Libertarian seasteads? Pirate enclaves? Zealous empires? The Borg Collective? Societies that convince you they have all the answers and that their rules should be followed. All between physicality and ultimate unity."

Heraclitus wrote, "After death, nothing expected, nor imagined." That doesn't change my strategy. Even if you don't believe in an afterlife, you can say the same thing about the ordinary future: It's unpredictable, but it's still going to work with what I give it.

Related: a Skunk Ledger post imagining bots making supervirtual speculations about Servers. And a Reddit thread, What is the most profound realization that you have come to while on a psychedelic trip?

April 1. Continuing on indigenous metaphysics, lately I've been thinking about the afterlife. I don't plan on dying soon, but neither of my parents made it to 80, despite healthy lifestyles. If I have 20 years left, 2004 was yesterday.

Here's my question. To what extent is the afterlife influenced by culture? According to western metaphysics, not at all. Under materialism, nobody gets an afterlife, and under Christianity, it's the same heaven or hell for everyone. But Sahlins' book is full of examples of hunter-gatherers who continue to maintain empirical relationships with dead ancestors. A dying Walbiri will expect to hang around the living Walbiri, and it would not even occur to them to say that the Mianmin also get the Walbiri afterlife and not the Mianmin afterlife. The idea that other cultures get your culture's afterlife is unusual, presumptuous, and recent.

If we accept that the afterlife is influenced by culture, it opens a really interesting can of worms. Reports of a world beyond this world, from NDEs to psychedelic trips to mathematics, are wildly divergent. We have a lot more options than our ancestors.

That doesn't mean it's a blank slate. If this world is contained in some other world, then probably my story in this world is contained in a story in that world. But in that case, what is the story that contains the story of billions of us being rootless, generations removed from a land-and-ancestor metaphysical context?

My guess is, being a modern human is like being in an airport terminal for consciousness. Probably a lot of people are going straight back to the void, especially if that's what they believe in and wish for. They may be surprised to find that awareness survives nonexistence. A Christian who dies expecting hell might go to a hell-like place, but it won't be eternal, because the fundamental reality is flux.

If you want a Harry Potter afterlife, I doubt you can get it exactly, but there should be a way to at least get the same vibe. I'd love to be a Roger Zelazny landscape-shifting walker, and my attitude is a lot like Pascal's wager. Pascal said, I'm going to believe in a God who will reward or punish me based on that belief, just in case. I'm thinking, I'm going to act as if I'm training for a certain next stage of being, and see how it goes.

March 28. Last month I wrote about Morris Berman's distinction between the horizontal spirituality of nomadic cultures, and the vertical spirituality of settled cultures. Now I'm reading another book that does a better job of explaining it. I learned about it from this great review, The Enchanted Worlds of Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins was an anthropologist best known for his 1966 paper on the original affluent society. In his later years he became more interested in hunter-gatherer metaphysics, and his final book is called The New Science of the Enchanted Universe.

Berman called vertical spirituality transcendence, and horizontal spirituality "paradox". Sahlins would say it's not paradoxical at all, it only seems that way from the perspective of modern culture. He calls hunter-gatherer spirituality immanence. Where transcendence has two worlds, the disenchanted physical world, and the invisible world of the divine floating above it, in immanence there's only one world, and the divine is right there in it. From page 39:

As imported from our own transcendentalist ontology, the depiction of African "religion" and similar cosmologies in terms of a natural/supernatural opposition is a kind of ethnographic original sin. Yet it is only one of a series of related categorical distinctions that have for too long and too often corrupted the ethnographies of enspirited societies: including spiritual and material, nature and culture, subject and object, reality and belief. Based on the assumption of a divine other world apart from the human world -- where "religion" is superstructural and "spirits" are immaterial -- what these distinctions commonly ignore is the cosmic subjectivity of the immanentist cutures they purport to so describe. They ignore cultural worlds where subjectivity, not physicality, is the common ground of existence... a sentient ecology positing a universe of communicating and interacting subjects.

It's funny, you know what else puts subjectivity as the ground of physicality? For the last hundred years, our own physics. Here's a comment from the Psychonaut subreddit, quoting physicists on consciousness.

I'm only a third of the way through the book, so I don't know if Sahlins makes this point explicitly. But every time we say we're seeking "transcendence", whether it's Christians going to heaven, Buddhists escaping the cycle of rebirth, or techies uploading their consciousness to the cloud, what we're really seeking is complete separation from the world that, in our partial separation, we call nature.

I don't do an RSS feed, but Patrick has written a script that creates a feed based on the way I format my entries. It's at http://ranprieur.com/feed.php. You might also try Page2RSS.

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. John Tobey's archive takes a snapshot every few days, but sooner or later it will succumb to software updates. If anyone is interested in taking it on, email me and I'll send you the code. Also, the Wayback Machine takes a snapshot a few times a month.

I've always put the best stuff in the archives, and in spring of 2020 I went through and edited the pages so they're all fit to link here. The dates below are the starting dates for each archive.

2005: January / June / September / November
2006: January / March / May / August / November / December
2007: February / April / June / September / November
2008: January / March / May / July / September / October / November
2009: January / March / May / July / September / December
2010: February / April / June / November
2011: January / April / July / October / December
2012: March / May / August / November
2013: March / July
2014: January / April / October
2015: March / August / November
2016: February / May / July / November
2017: February / May / September / December
2018: April / July / October / December
2019: February / March / May / July / December
2020: February / April / June / August / October / December
2021: February / April / July / September / December
2022: February / April / July / September / November
2023: January / March / June / August / November
2024: January / March