After the ritual “clearcut”, bloom

All rituals look to have been “clearcut” in the modern world, because few rituals are well-adapted to the new technological human reality. But this new reality may also be seen as an island: a pristine space, unoccupied by past rituals and very leisurely by historical standards, where sensory exploitation selection may flourish: rituals may serve the emotional and aesthetic needs of humans more than ever before, because they are under fewer constraints. Only a tiny percentage of the population is now needed for the production of food, fuel, and other necessities; selection for collective action in unpleasant areas has been dramatically relaxed. There is more room for arbitrary beauty.

— Sarah Perry, “An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink

On disorders of totalization and fragmentation

It may be that we need to acknowledge a second kind of life, outside of time, for those who are not capable of living in time. It consists in palliation of the eternal now, rather than plans for the future, like a really horrible version of Zen Buddhism that’s not half as funny, but that is more comfortable than the alternative. The technological and material wealth of modernity could allow a new kind of human zombie to exist, who would have in earlier eras perished by suicide.

Feeling the Future, Sarah Perry at Ribbonfarm

Social cognition and “no-self”

To put it in more sociological terms: Reasons are social constructs. They are constructed by distorting and simplifying our understanding of mental states and of their causal role and by injecting into it a strong dose of normativity. Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals’ ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments. This partly consensual, partly contested social record of who thinks what and who did what for which reasons plays a central role in guiding cooperative or antagonistic interactions, in influencing reputations, and in stabilizing social norms. Reasons are primarily for social consumption.

– Mercier and Sperber, The Enigma of Reason

It seems to me (but what do I know) that the things I cling to most tightly are the things I perceive as most inseparable from my unique self—memories (and the sense of having a sharp memory), quirks, moral traits, and as Mercier and Sperber remind me, reasons. Reasons on all tiers, for all objects: reasons for supporting decentralized governance, reasons for abstaining from pork, reasons for trusting A and not trusting B. Turns out, all of these things are inaccurate by design, hazy at best.

The good news is that even a momentary release from identification with them—whether experienced or merely conceived—feels very freeing. I want more of where that came from.

This is not to distort Mercier and Sperber (or any descriptive attempts at cognitive psychology) toward the end of an idealized post-self that overcomes its “deceptive” programming, and casts off the shackles of narrative once and for all. We are built to deal with our environment exactly as we need to, given the constraints of our evolutionary history. There is nothing sinister about this.

And even if there were, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought there was a way out. That said, our self-awareness shouldn’t be limited to the psych lab and the page. An honest appraisal of why we tell the stories we tell about ourselves reveals a bundle of fictions. What does that mean for that grand frame story, identity?

1. That it’s functionally important, and largely for social reasons.
2. That it’s not so important that we should let it hurt us.

The work of taking our attachments (and the I they add up to) less seriously is what we might call a “mental health hack”, with roots as far back as the Gangetic Plain, 2,500 years ago. Studying cognitive psychology, and chewing on its ideas, wherever we find ourselves, can be part of this work.

Who can really say?

When I see other people making a big deal out of seemingly-minor problems, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’ve avoided them so easily I missed their existence, or fallen into them so thoroughly I’m like the fish who can’t see water.

And when I see other people struggling to understand seemingly-obvious concepts, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’m so far beyond them that I did it effortlessly, or so far beneath them that I haven’t even realized there’s a problem.

— Today’s Slate Star Codex, “Concept-Shaped Holes Can Be Impossible To Notice

Particularly resonant today.

Yesterday I reviewed a good summary of Kegan’s developmental stages, and since then, I’ve found myself every few hours waffling between “I’m so metasystematic I can’t even remember Stage 4” and “I’ve never learned how to cope with systems”.

America in decline: nothing personal

When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978…

In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.

— Peter Turchin, “1977-2017: A Retrospective

Our moment is the first in any living person’s lifetime (or in America’s lifetime, most probably) of convergence between structural-demographic “disintegration” and imperial decline. How does this manifest in today’s politics? “Make America Great Again” as an all-purpose banner for fear of emasculation and obsolescence.

Not being the sole (or even primary) geopolitical superpower isn’t a tragedy. Just ask the happy, prosperous folks in Denmark, or the happy, piss-poor folks in Bhutan. But for people who lived the unipolar moment of the fabled 90s, disorientation is to be expected.

To what degree is international status anxiety contributing to America’s internal “disintegrative” trend by making people feel like dispensable losers? It’d be hard to gauge. To be sure, it’s not the main driver of our spike in partisan rancor, mass shootings, fatal overdoses, and endemic complacency.

But the degree to which Americans cling to exceptionalism can’t be psychologically healthy (Hell, I voted for Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, and the thought of America not being #1 even stings me a bit!). And when this clinging plays out at the ballot box, tectonic plates shift—and never in our favor.

How can we convince people that changes in the global order needn’t be experienced as personal tragedy?

Chapman on metasystematicity

Metasystematicity is closely related to the complete stance. It is the attitude that systems of meaning are of great value (because meaning is patterned), but none can be complete or fully correct (because meaning is nebulous). Instead, we must deploy multiple systems, comprehend and negotiate the conflicts and synergies among them, and be willing to act even when no system can guide us.

— Meaningness, “Desiderata for any future mode of meaningness

If you dig David Chapman’s approach, this—the future-building series—is the node of Meaningness you should be engaging with most closely. The quote is a nice restatement of Meaningness’ applied nonduality, and just that. Do read the whole post.

A habit for talking about truth

It’s a lot to ask, but there’s one thing we should all do every time we make a claim 1) that is debatable and 2) whose truth value matters to us and our audience.

We should state the level of truth we’re speaking on—in effect, where our claim lives in the world of claims, and how wide or narrow its implications are. This is something I suspect we already do implicitly and occasionally—but I sincerely think we’d be better off if we made a habit out of doing it in plain, explicit terms.

What do I mean here? A good starting point, to which I’ve referred before, is the central idea in Meaningness, that all things (ideas, objects, living beings, you name it) are characterized by both nebulosity and pattern. Applying this to truth—or let’s just say, the truth value of a statement like “John’s grandmother is from Ohio”—it should be apparent that all truths are relative, but non-arbitrary. 

We could add that with given the way information is structured “out there”, some truths refer to a wider set of things than other truths—and on, and on. We might intuitively grasp this as there being multiple levels of truth, ranging from the most total (verging on absolute, but never quite getting there), to the most specific and contingent.

So yes, John’s grandmother is from Ohio in the sense that people identify with the places where they grew up, and John’s grandmother just told us that she grew up in Ohio. But our definition of “from Ohio” might change—do we use it to mean “born in Ohio”? “Spent more than 5 years in Ohio”? “Lives in Ohio currently”? “Once made a pit stop in Ohio”? “Is made of molecules with origins in Ohio air and soil”? “Is made of molecules with origins in Ohio air and soil dating back past the Ice Age”?

This is a case where the commonly understood meaning of “from Ohio” wouldn’t vary too much in practice—but clearly there’s some wiggle room. But in no case is it infinite.

When it comes to contestable claims that draw on multiple realms of knowledge and mutual understanding, there’s just enough wiggle room that people will often talk right past each other, unaware of how incommensurate their ideas of what a claim means or the scope of the claim actually are.

This happens all the time in conversations with my brother about politics and society—unsurprising, given that conversations about politics and society include both huge, abstract, unverifiable claims and tiny, tactical, testable claims, and also given that my brother and I both agree on plenty and disagree on plenty.

It turns out that when we agree, we’re usually referring to a common set of claims that we understand in roughly the same way. When we disagree, though, we often find out—45 minutes in, say—that one of us is making claims on one hierarchical level, with X set of implications, and the other is making claims on another hierarchical level, with Y set of implications. We probably ended up making the arguments that went easiest with our gut convictions, but now at least we make more sense to each other.

To that end, I’ve gotten into the habit of prefacing my arguments with (maybe I should postface instead), “Now, I’m talking on the level of aggregate social good / metaphysics / political messaging when I say this, but…”

A good analogue is Slate Star Codex’s habit of labeling his conjectural posts with “Epistemic status: X” at the top. In fact, we can kind of think of “truth level” as orthogonal to “epistemic status”—when you’re parsing an argument, the scope and hierarchical context of a claim matters big time, just like the author’s degree of confidence in that claim.

But I guess they’re not entirely orthogonal. There’s a pretty obvious general pattern in which lower-level, more topical claims can be more easily assigned high confidence, and the highest-level, most abstract and systematic claims can only be made with so much confidence. Clearly communicating these variables, and this tendency, is crucial to healthy thinking.

A closing example of why:
Toward the end of a very arduous, very beautiful serotonergic experience, I called up a person I love who happens to believe in God, and who’d known me as an atheist for many years.

I told him that it no longer made sense for me to identify as an atheist, because of the depth of wonder and absolute doubt I’d developed in reference to Existence/The Universe/Ultimate Reality. Because from an honest human perspective, all bets are off.

Not a hard theist himself, he appreciated my take and said he could relate. It is also worth noting that this person is a Republican, and in the moment, he extended the logic of my cosmic doubt to the question of man-made global climate change. Something like: This is why these scientists who think they know why the climate is changing are so out of their depth.

In that moment, I had to remind him: we can’t even begin to compare claims about The Nature of Ultimate Reality can’t even begin to be with claims about the earth’s climate. The difference in scale between Universe and earth (10 followed by 20 zeroes, by the most conservative measure) means that they’re on entirely different levels. Which means that while one is impossible to make total sense of, the other can be carved at the joints rather neatly.