Metaphysical musings from the Playa

Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course.

Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans.

This from Qualia Computing, a true powerhouse of Whitmanic dynamism.

Rules for “taking the wheel”

1. Leave irony and cynicism at the door.
2. Allow for maximum human enquiry.
3. Exit as first priority.
4. Rhizomatic conservatism.
5. Don’t be pathetic.

This from Meta-Nomad—a site with which I’m unfamiliar, but which I’ll need to start following. Sincerity and (meta)system-building are underrated these days.

 

Mindfulness: the subtler and subtler way

A few days ago, I approached Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True about two-thirds of the way in, and asked if mindfulness had the potential to short-circuit the evolutionary fitness of individual practitioners.

For my money, the answer hinges on a few things:

The level at which it disrupts our self-immiserating habits
Does it bring our circuitry into better alignment with contemporary reality, or does it go as far as to deprogram some of our deep mammalian and even chordate instincts?

– The intensity of the practice
Is it a supplement or a replacement for default social life?

– The facts on the ground
Is there evidence of such a trend in people’s lives?

In short, the question can’t be answered with the resources I have. So allow me to change course a bit, without losing sight of the fundamental issue of what mindfulness meditation does to us.

Skewed toward happiness: an “unseen order”?

In the final chapter or two of the book—which I hadn’t read when I wrote last—Wright gets to the question of whether non-attachment can have lasting, undesirable affect-deadening effects, in addition to its widely-acknowledged anti-anxiety, clarity-inducing benefits.

His answer, broadly: in theory, yes, but in practice, the benefits outweigh the risks to a surprising degree. People who achieve high levels of ambient mindfulness and meditative absorption rarely lose their ability to experience beauty and love—quite the contrary, even. This jibes with my anecdotal observations, and if true, constitutes important information.

In the book’s capstone, Wright gets dangerously close to suggesting this is the case because of inherently benevolent “unseen order”—which I imagine he knows as well as I do to be an incoherent claim. But I understand the temptation. Wright sees in the mindful experience “a world in which metaphysical truth, moral truth, and happiness can align … an order that seems to lie at a level deeper than natural selection itself”. I have felt this way too, in moments of altered consciousness—and I can’t profess to give a full account of why.

Regardless, this sense of synchronicity is not uncommon among Buddhist contemplatives (and similar types); amoral, dead-eyed nihilism, on the other hand, is pretty rare. And people with more robust aesthetic, loving, and moral faculties tend to do pretty well in life—by measures both spiritual and material.

So case closed? Maybe.

But this raises another question: if not an unseen order, what can account for this happiness-skewed asymmetry?

For that, I think we need to revisit the foundation that Wright and other expositors of Buddhist mindfulness teaching use to get people’s attention: What does mindfulness meditation do, and what is it for?

What is it good for?

I’ll come out of the gate and tell you what I think. I don’t think mindfulness meditation is for anything.

Well, at least not anything easily characterized. And even if it were, the purpose-driven wrapping with which pop-Buddhists and self-help coaches pack mindfulness meditation is bound to set practitioners up for disappointment.

Now, I don’t disagree with Wright, or anyone else, about the fact that mindfulness meditation tends to do certain things to its practitioners, like dampening the affective coloring of stimuli and reducing ambient anxiety.

But if you’ve meditated with any frequency, it becomes clear that Wright’s picture is rather limited—in the sense that it focuses almost entirely on mindfulness meditation’s effects on feelings, rather than thoughts. And when I meditate, it’s my thoughts that are most bewildering, and similarly, most stubborn.

To its credit, Why Buddhism Is True is faithful to the most up-to-date cognitive neuroscience, which rejects the idea that there’s a clean, dividing line between the affective and the cognitive. As far as we can tell, stimuli (internal or external) activate emotions, which activate complex cognitive modules, which amplify or dampen emotions, and so on. Rational executive control is indeed, for the most part, an illusion.

But this doesn’t mean that cognition—all the forms of thinking we do—is beside the point. Quite the opposite: even if our conscious thoughts aren’t in control, they are exceptional for their staggering complexity, and the amount of attentional load they take up. And if we pay attention, we can even see something of the structure of cognition for ourselves.

Thinking about thinking about thinking

In my experience, the stickiest observation of my meditating mind has been the recursive, self-referential nature of so many of my thoughts. Just as our snap emotional judgments prompt conscious thoughts, our initial conscious thoughts prompt thoughts in reference to them, and so on, and so on.

Here’s the classic example. You are sitting on a chair in your room, eyes closed, feet on the floor, practicing non-directed mindfulness meditation. You are thinking shame- and inadequacy-tinged thoughts about your lack of success with recent job applications, and you notice yourself thinking those thoughts, tinged with those feelings.

Knowing you’re “supposed to be Zen”, “not let things get to you”, you begin to think ashamed and frustrated thoughts about feeling ashamed and frustrated, which you notice.

At which point, knowing that there’s no right or wrong thought in mindfulness practice, you begin to think ashamed and frustrated thoughts about being frustrated and ashamed about being frustrated and ashamed. This is about as many layers of reference as you can usually hold in your head consciously, but on some level, the spiral winds on in ever-ascending layers of self-reference—a unique kind of personal hell, some have reported.

Expectations about what mindfulness meditation is for have a way of getting people caught up in these spirals. Expectations and prescriptions of any kind, really. (Guidelines and prescriptions exist for a reason, but they all cause problems of one kind or another).

Because the structure of cognition itself is natural and unproblematic, the only issue, if we care about people feeling good and seeing clearly, is getting caught up in it. Which, if I’m being logically honest, is perfectly natural and unproblematic (it’s what we do), unless you’re getting caught up in it. And so on.

How do I free myself from paradox and irrelevance at this point?

The answer comes from my mindfulness practice!

Meditation: not what I thought it was when I started

I’ll start by disclaiming that I started dabbling in meditation without any systematic teaching, barreling into the practice in my typically Western, skeptical, headstrong way. The truth, though, was that I started out by aping cultural caricatures of what meditation is (as is natural). And as far as I can tell, as I mature as a meditator, this will continue to be the case—just in progressively less egregious ways.

In the early days of my meditation practice, my understanding was that the purpose of meditation was to make the mind quiet; to think as few thoughts as possible. This way of thinking about meditation is bound to lead to disappointment. Maybe in the long run, mindfulness meditation will still your chattering mind to some degree. Regardless, you will have thoughts and feelings—and their arising will mostly be beyond your control.

So then, inspired by chats with friends and some experience with Theravadan vipassana instruction, I began to think in more subtle terms. You’re supposed to let your thoughts and feelings happen, without getting attached and chasing them. It’s how you react to thoughts and feelings that’s in your control. This is seemingly closer to the mark, but equally hazardous.

Because maybe in the long run, mindfulness meditation will make you less reactive to your thoughts and feelings. But regardless, you will react to your thoughts and feelings on some level—and if “the ceasing of reactivity” is what you’re expecting, you’re once again bound to be disappointed. Not that there’s anything cosmically wrong, or sinful, about being disappointed—but wouldn’t you rather not be?

Now look: I know that the message of Buddhist meditation teachers, when understood from a place of mature practice and subtlety, is anything but oblivious to this series of traps and disappointments. But the problem I’ve found is that most tend to compress it into a single level of reference—“your practice, right now”—as opposed to talking about mindfulness of thoughts and emotions as an unfolding, ever-evolving process that occurs recursively—that is, at many levels, with reference to itself.

That is, with two prominent 19th century exceptions who’ve helped square the circle for me: the Tibetan dzogchen master, Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol, and the bard of America’s democratic spirit, Walt Whitman.

Radical, recursive acceptance: Whitman and the Tibetan masters

The two most astonishing texts I’ve read in the last few years—Tsokdruk Rangdrol’s “The Flight of The Garuda” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—come from opposite ends of the world, but could be said, elementally, to belong to the same type: long, lyrical rambles through the world of embodied self-inquiry. (I couldn’t recommend either strongly enough, with the caveat that you must read them as if they’re written to you, and about you—because they are.)

But the similarity isn’t just one of type. Because at their core, both dzogchen (the current in Tibetan tantric Buddhism on which “The Flight of The Garuda” expounds) and Whitmanism come down to the teaching of acceptance.

Not kumbaya—acceptance of good things, neutral things, and benign diversity—I’m talking radical, recursive acceptance of all phenomena of mind on every level, including horror, doubt, brokenness, attachment, greed, unsolvable problems, apparent paradoxes, and the mind’s instinctive rejection of all-acceptance itself. Everything in its place, or not in its place.

You’ll notice that acceptance isn’t a metaphysical principle. Nor is it served up as an ethical imperative—if everything is all right on a certain level (note: this doesn’t mean that action, change, and outrage are without their place—I’ve been working on this realization lately, myself), you can’t seriously be obligated to regard the world in a certain way. Rather, it’s an intentional practice for your own practical good, and hopefully for the good of others as well.

I won’t get too deep into Rangdrol and Whitman’s lyric reasoning, but suffice it to say that both are deeply concerned, in their own terms, with twin poisons that Wright and his teachers talk about at length: getting caught up in things, and pushing things away—in other words, attachment and aversion. Acceptance, yet another a-word, makes space for both of these natural human tendencies—that is, not getting caught up in their characterization, and not pushing them away with charms and directed techniques.

Both the dzogchen tradition and Whitman have wisdom to bring to the practice of mindful, recursive acceptance in light of an understanding of cognition as a recursive, bottomless process.

In the case of dzogchen, it’s the practice of trekchod, commonly translated as “cutting through”. The Tibetan masters are keenly aware of how easy it is to get caught up in the inscrutable, bottomless realm of cognition, meta-cognition, and so on—and so they focus on developing techniques (yelling “pat!”, among others) to reveal the futility of perseveration and interrupt the mind’s course. In other words, recognizing the patterns of cognition, and making an effort to take them lightly, whatever they seem capable of doing to you.

In the case of Whitman, it’s the practice of self-kindness. Famously identifying his self with both light and shadow aspects, the exalted and the gross, moss and mica, murderers, syphilitics, prostitutes, and Alamo defenders, the good gray poet conceives of the self as an never-ending, rough-edged, recursive process.

In Whitman’s sanguine heart, this is a beautiful thing to be celebrated and sung. But self-judgment, he recognizes, can be bottomlessly recursive too. So accept whatever your self happens to be identified with, or focusing on, and make an effort to be kind and gentle in your self-assessment, no matter what.

The practice of subtlety can lead anywhere: still, recommended

So on a good day, I find myself able to attain enough of a distance from my circumstances, thoughts, and feelings—a playful, kind, wry distance—and I manage to avoid getting caught up or grossed out quite as often as I did before. I remain a semi-obsessive thinker. But I’m aware—sometimes viscerally, but almost always conceptually—that only so much good can come out of pursuing my thoughts as far as they ask to be pursued.

Going back to the original issue at hand—Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True, and what its claims about mindfulness and evolutionary psychology mean for practitioners’ evolutionary fitness—I think we need to revise the terms of the discussion in light of our now subtler understanding of what it is that mindfulness meditation does, and what it’s for.

If recursive, radical acceptance is, at the base level, what mindfulness practice leads to, it opens up the possibility that one can be mindful in thinking, feeling, or doing just about anything—or, to rephrase things in more popular dharmic terms, it is possible to think, feel, or do anything with less attachment and less aversion.

It’s possible (but as Wright correctly notes, less common than chance) to mindfully lie, steal, kill, or be mean. Less extremely, it’s possible to live a mindful, externally normal life in the materialistic, acquisitive world of 21st century shopping and Tindering apes. Again, mindfulness practice is no substitute for a well-tuned moral compass.

So does mindfulness meditation turn most of its practitioners into socially low-functioning, reproductively useless, saber tooth-cat susceptible chum? Intriguingly, no. And as far as I can tell, the best explanation for it is that mindfulness is a subtler, more nested process of self-reassessment than most of us can make sense of.

Rather than unplugging our mission-critical, heavily redundant circuits, à la Matrix, we get closer and asymptotally closer to an honest dialogue with our own wiring, the major part of which is more useful and precise than we know.

Becoming more aware of the texture of our thoughts and feelings won’t lead us to a blissful, permanent end point. The well is bottomless. But evidently, plumbing its depths is therapeutic—for one reason or another. I should do more of it.

Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

This is a question that can only be answered empirically, but I’ll pose it as theoretical food for thought anyway.

In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright discusses the relationship between the direct experience of emptiness or formlessness and the dampening of perceptions’ and thoughts’ affective tug. As a meditator, this idea spooks me a bit—partly because when I think about it, it rings true. I remain as obsessive a thinker as almost ever, but emotional reactivity just ain’t what it used to be—for better or worse. (Wasn’t that what I was signing up for?)

Anyway, Wright anticipates this concern and comments:

Remember, for starters, that when I talk about our affect being dampened, our feelings being subdued, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Indeed, I’ve tried to show why certain feelings are a poor guide to reality. And I’ve suggested, more broadly, that the entire infrastructure of feelings should be viewed with a certain suspicion, given that it was built by natural selection, whose ultimate aim isn’t to foster clear perceptions and thoughts but rather to foster the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that have gotten genes spread in the past.

First, I should say, I buy and deeply appreciate Wright’s cognitive-evolutionary approach. Wright’s exploration of mindfulness and the mechanisms it works on gives no quarter to ideas that meditation will tune you up to Darwinian ubermensch-hood.

Rather, his gist is that mindfulness of the body, feelings, and thoughts can help to deprogram a brain that natural selection has wired for perseveration and misery. Again, still fully onboard.

But what’s interesting is that on close inspection, Wright is speaking about our cognitive-evolutionary misery on 2 different levels.

The first is virtually timeless: natural selection would never have produced clear-seeing, untroubled minds, because these kinds of minds would have done a bad job at advancing competitive and reproductive goals.

The second is much more bounded, and makes a claim about our culture outside of evolutionary paradigms: the minds we have were shock-tested by natural selection for Paleolithic conditions, and are causing us misery because of their mismatch to our contemporary situation.

In theory, which of these accounts of our misery turns out to be truer has big implications for what mindfulness meditation means, in practical, everyday terms.

If our minds are as chatty as they are, and our feelings as sticky as they are, because today’s stimuli are less “honest” signals of danger and reward than those encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, then it’s hard to imagine a downside to mindfulness meditation—except that it might make you a bit culturally and morally weird. Which you knew when you signed up, I’d guess!

I’m a 100%, unrepentant fan of letting go of temporally-specific, culturally-specific attachments. Perhaps non-attachment and non-judgment really are the keys to deep happiness. If not, though, those keys lie in elements of the human experience that are universal, long-evolved, time-tested, and antifragile—like love, family, community, and ritual.

But what if the difference between Lascaux Cave and Los Angeles hardly makes a difference in the grand scheme? What if, as Wright more often suggests, natural selection boosted our most fundamental biological drives with a set of cognitive-affective modules designed to rouse us out of satisfaction, and torment us into status-jockeying, mate acquisition, mate-retention, and resource acquisition with no concern for inner peace?

I suspect that this is the major part of the picture—and assuming for a moment that I’m right, this complicates Wright’s argument as to Why Buddhism is true.

On one hand, it proves Buddhist mindfulness practice and folk-psychology to be Herculean in their success at deprogramming some very fundamental circuitry. With sufficient effort and focus, you can effectively tone down tens of millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years’ worth of accumulated system-maximizing, inner-peace-indifferent signals.

But on the other, are we sure we want to do that? Say you sincerely want inner peace, and the dampening or cessation of reactivity that Buddha says will bring it. I know I do. But are you willing to give up everything that makes you a human ape—a loving partner, children, status, material comfort—for it? I don’t think so.

Not that great Buddhist laymen and post-traditional teachers have had to, necessarily. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t some kind of zero-sum dynamic. Caring less and reacting less means grabbing at less, and over time, grabbing at less means getting less. This is true for both the dreck we know we don’t want, and the human experiences we know we need.

So what I mean to ask is: Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

The dial of significance

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

– Rumi

Is anyone familiar with the cognitive psychology literature (even terminology would be a good start!) on how we ascribe particular levels of significance to things?

That is to say, in everyday consciousness, objects, events, and agents feel significant/meaningful to varying degrees. These differences in significance tend to be stable across time, and seem to follow an intuitive evolutionary logic.

“Significance” or “meaningfulness”, as I see it, is a bounded conversation between internal states and feedback from the environment—the machinery of significance ascription is neither entirely scripted at birth, nor generated entirely by external stimuli.
 
By extension, significance levels don’t come fixed, but under normal conditions, it’s impossible to reprogram them arbitrarily.
 
That’s not the end of it, though. Experiments in philosophy/conceptual framing offer a peek into the wider possibility space. High school nihilism shows you that it’s possible to turn the significance dial all the way down to 0. Ecstatic, pantheistic spirituality—”everythingism”, you might call it—allows you to crank it up to, well, infinity.
Thought experiments will rarely get you there, though. We have a whole class of serotonergic compounds whose most fundamental, universal effect seems to be messing with significance ascription.

Is the answer in the serotonin system, then?

“To fathom hell or soar angelic / take a pinch of psychedelic,” wrote Humphry Osmond. But rarely does the psychonaut brush up against classical, embodied celestial beings. Hell, most generically, is the significance dial at 0; to soar angelic is to take in reality at significance-level infinity.*

*There are also experiences of pleasant meaninglessness and agonizing hyper-significance out there, so take my heaven/hell framing with a grain of salt.

Coming to terms with “construction”

These days, if an argument isn’t going the way you like, here’s one easy way to shuffle the deck: zero in on the subject of debate (e.g. gender, race, intelligence) and point out that it’s a social construct. And on this count, you’ll probably be right. All human experiences are socially-mediated; all experiences with social content are constructed.

At this point, there are two basic ways your sparring partner might respond:

1. By folding. “I guess you’re right. Since X is socially constructed, we can’t really talk about it coherently. Unless you want to have a conversation about how X is constructed! (And honestly, that’s not what I came here for.)”

2. By holding. “Now hold on a minute. All the research data suggest that X is stable across societies and across domains. I’m not so sure we can get rid of it so fast!”

The folders do something admirable: instead of reflexively rejecting inconvenient logic, they come to terms with it. But they’ve also fallen into a trap: where there’s a conversation worth having, they’ve been shut down. Granting that all social phenomena are constructed, the folders have bought into the idea that we can’t have a productive discussion about anything human, without cracking into the hieratic chambers of critical theory.

The holders have the opposite problem. The good: they manage not to give into the nihilism of the “socially constructed” trick—they recognize that there’s still a conversation worth having about X as X, one that doesn’t devolve into endless definitional bickering. The bad: they essentialize, assuming that social construction is not at play, or is barely relevant—a brand of overkill that gets in the way of open-eyed inquiry into the truth.

At this point, you can probably guess that I’m setting you up for a third position: something foxier than 1 and 2, which manages to combine their strengths and avoid their pitfalls. Something like this:

“You’re right, X is a social construct. But that doesn’t mean we can throw it out. X still has power. On a certain level, it’s still very real.”

Agreeable, right? You’d think. But if anything, this is the sharpest jab at the common “socially constructed” trick. How so?

Because at the end of the day, this is the message that we deliver when we call something a social construct: It’s not essentially real. It can be broken down. There’s a higher realm where it doesn’t translate—whether or not you believe that race has a correlate in biology, you have to admit: there’s no chemistry or physics of race. And fair enough.

But here’s the rub: What would be essentially real, anyway? What, if anything, continues to hang together, the further you go into abstraction and obscurity? What could possibly be irreducible?

If you believe in God, there’s your answer. A fundamental, inscrutable, perfect unit.

For those of us who don’t, at least as anything other than poetic metaphor, the situation gets pretty weird, if you think about it for a bit. Race, gender, the species, even biological life itself fall apart quite easily. Generations ago, Newton and Bohr gave us models that suggested we might be able to find refuge in physics.

But like all brilliant approximations, Newton’s laws proved to be relative, as did Bohr’s model of the atom as an orderly unit made of electron orbits nested around an indivisible nucleus. In contemporary physics, the concept of a “God particle” is something people approach with skepticism and fear: every time we’ve tried to trust something as indivisible, it’s broken down before our eyes, leaving us groundless once again.

Unless you care deeply about physics or metaphysics, the failure of the nanoscopic world to conform to our expectations of permanence and discreteness isn’t something particularly traumatic. But turn the lens of “construction” on yourself, and the conclusions become much more alarming.

No matter how complex you are, and no matter your take on what consciousness is, you are reducible in the same way that a chair, a palm tree, or a circuit board is. Your mind, which is typically what you identify as your self, can be described in many ways—but one thing it doesn’t do is stand on its own, a foreign graft upon the material world.

It encompasses things other than what you’d think of as “the self”—look out the window, and your mind becomes part-street; look up at the sky, and your mind expands to contain clouds.

From another angle, remember that your mind depends upon the properties of your brain, which is made out of the same atoms as everything around it, molecularly rearranged and reconstituted in every instant. In other words, the mind generates everything in your world, and is generated by everything in your world.

Plus, “mind” is just my small human metaphor for whatever’s going on—so remember not to take any of those claims too literally. And if it’s who you are, good luck identifying yourself with anything in particular.

This core principal of Buddhism, called anatta (no-self), and corroborated by neuroscience and physics, has the potential to be either terrifying or liberating. Not to trivialize how it feels—I’ve experienced both sides of it—but put those feelings aside for a minute and keep rolling with my descriptive point: you yourself, on the deepest level, are a construct too.

At this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “construction” is something that our brains do, that whatever’s being constructed—national identity, atoms, chairs, or selves—the process is the same, and it’s primarily cognitive, and only incidentally social.

So what shocks me is that people insist on keeping the conversations separate—treating “social construction” as a special, damning secret about identities and group phenomena, while continuing to treat the self as something like Democritus’ atom, irreducible and subject only to external, social forces—or more simply, just refusing to admit that construction happens everywhere, to everything we have any reason to think or talk about.

If we accept construction as a given, we can no longer use it as an excuse to derail conversations—unless you deeply believe we have no right to talk about anything in the terms that come naturally to us.

Here’s an example: a few years ago, I was interviewing for a job at a company that makes interviewing into a day-long, round-robin debate tournament, the interviewers goading would-be hires into intellectual traps and silly thought experiments. My kind of game.

The first topic of the day, presented to about 8 of us, was free will—same old song and dance, does it exist or doesn’t it. Well-informed nihilists squared off against bright essentialists, getting into the definitional weeds, talking past each other with points from neuroscience, ethics, and classical epistemology. (I’m shocked, once again, by how few people make the leap from “free will doesn’t exist” to “the self doesn’t exist”, outside of Buddhist circles at least.)

I didn’t get the point of the debate, as it was staged. The heart of the matter seemed clear enough to me, so I spoke up: “Unless we’re gonna make this into a debate about souls, free will is obviously something that emerges from neurochemistry. But so is the feeling that we have free will, which itself matters, and isn’t going anywhere. Knowing that ‘free will’ doesn’t ‘exist’ doesn’t change anything!”

And that’s the kicker: while recognizing that all objects and concepts are constructed is interesting fodder for thought experiments and maybe even nirvana, it won’t change the fact that “construction” will never stop. There’s no truly, permanently stepping out of it, because it’s part of our cognitive architecture—and thank God for that.

Object permanence and concept coherence, driven by our innate capacity for metaphor, are what keep us functional in a world of constant flux, where if we can’t get it together enough to acquire resources and forge social bonds, we’re toast.

(We might go even deeper and say that “construction” is an essential property of information processing: to perceive or compute anything, you have to approximate it, and to approximate anything, you need to boil it down into generalized attributes.)

So a final point on the terms real and exist—“everything is constructed” doesn’t just mean that nothing is real, or that everything is arbitrary. It’s easy to leave it there, as I did when I first came down off the God trip at 16, and give it all up to the void of nihilism.

“Everything is constructed” has an equal and opposite meaning too, as strange as that sounds: everything is real, in some sense. Since even the most trivial absurdity, like “purple walruses dance on the moon”, has a nanogram of reality if it creates an image in your brain, concepts like “the Caucasoid race”, “girl”, “Central Park”, and “I” are most certainly real on some level, even if they’re not real in the way a five-year-old, a Sumerian, or a contemporary believer in souls might think.

David Chapman of Meaningness talks about this approach to reality and meaning by identifying two idealized, but helpful poles that get at how things can be both real and unreal at once, depending on your level of reference. These are nebulosity, the universal tendency of objects and concepts to lack perfect boundaries and perfect coherence, and pattern, the tendency of reality to be textured by difference, and for objects of perception to emerge out of it.

Chapman, an AI researcher by training, takes his inspiration for this conceptual framing from the ground principle of Buddhist thought, which makes sense if you think about it, and even more sense if you experience it*:

Form itself is Void, and Void itself is Form.
Form is not other than Void, and Void is not other than Form.
The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.

— The Heart Sutra

The same is true of markets, political movements, identities, wine, and airplanes. To say nothing of you, with your particular circumstances of birth, physical features, and Social Security number. On this point, some closing words of reassurance from Douglas Hofstadter, an honest, relentless chaser of the elusive self:

To see ourselves this way is probably not as comforting as believing in other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up on is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming, marble-like “I” is the realest thing in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be … And to my mind, the loss is worth the gain.

– “I Am a Strange Loop”

* We’ll get to “experiencing it”, as opposed to “knowing it” in another post.