March - April, 2024

previous archive

March 3. I'm reading a lot of books this year, mostly about anthropology or weird stuff. This is from the latter category, The Real World of Fairies by Dora Van Gelder, about tree spirits:

They learn from the cell life within their own bark the difficulties of survival. They see the life around them and know death intimately, as the trees next to them often fall and die. But the trees learn through all this experience that life never dies and is never wasted. They cannot move about and therefore we think of them as having less life experience, but that is where we are mistaken. It is not through rushing about that one learns, but from taking into oneself the experiences from without and thus feeling the pulse of life beating within. Humanity tries to escape from experience which is often suffering. When it rains we go to shelter; when death comes we put away the sight of it. The trees let life beat against them, and try to withstand it.

March 5. Another quote from a book I'm reading, Morris Berman's Wandering God:

What Woodburn discovered in Tanzania was that the Hadza do not experience any severe food shortages and that they are unconcerned about the future. Although all Hadza consider themselves to be kin, they have few obligations to each other and are not bound by commitments. Everyone has direct access to valued assets, and this provides security for all. Dependency, let alone hierarchy, is not part of the Hadza way of life. What is perhaps the popular image of hunter-gatherer societies -- close, warm, communities that are simultaneously very supportive and very conformist/restrictive -- may be off the mark. Instead, what we often find is a great deal of autonomy and independence.

I haven't written about this stuff in a while, but my position hasn't changed. Just as you need an empty container to carry water, the foundation of all freedom is the freedom to do nothing. The fact that this has been achieved by hunter-gatherers, and not by modernity, should not discourage us from technological ambitions.

Here's a fun question. How far can we go with an all-volunteer economy? Can we go to space? There would be plenty of volunteers to build the rockets, not so many to mine the ore.

Related, a classic essay, The Economics of Star Trek.

March 8. The cities stripping out concrete for earth and plants. Something I noticed, going back to my hometown after 30 years, was that while the edges had been pushed out with McMansions, the old part of town was actually wilder, with bigger trees, restoration of the river, and a culture of letting lawns get scruffy or replacing them with native plants.

March 11. Science links. Controversial new theory of gravity rules out need for dark matter:

Oppenheim's theory envisages the fabric of space-time as smooth and continuous (classical), but inherently wobbly. The rate at which time flows would randomly fluctuate, like a burbling stream, space would be haphazardly warped and time would diverge in different patches of the universe. The theory also envisions an intrinsic breakdown in predictability.

I think it's obvious that dark matter is a place holder for something we don't understand yet. Another thing that would do the job is Star Consciousness, in which "Stars are considered to be conscious entities maintaining their galactic position by their volition."

More astronomy, a new model of Tidal Locking, in which the same side of a planet is always facing the sun. It now appears that this will not make the bright side a sterile desert. Air currents would distribute heat and bring clouds to block the sun, and the global climate could even be more stable than a rotating planet.

Surprising link observed between body temperature and depression. "The researchers found that higher levels of depressive symptoms were consistently associated with higher body temperatures." The causality is still unknown, but it's possible that making yourself hot, to "engage the body's self-cooling mechanisms", or just making yourself cold, could reduce depression.

Finally, a fascinating Twitter post arguing that prehistoric venus statues "were likely made by women who were examining their own bodies and sculpting them from their own first person POV", with images showing how this explains the exaggerated proportions.

March 18-20. Today, video games, but first some philosophy. What is the point of being human? More precisely, given that reality is full of all kinds of beings living all kinds of lives, what can I experience, as a modern human, that is rare and unusual in the whole scope of creation? Maybe, instead of trying to change society so that future humans can live more like squirrels, I should be asking, if a squirrel got to live as me, how would it have the most fun?

My favorite PC game franchise is Fallout, a post-nuclear RPG set decades to centuries in the future, with retrofuturistic aesthetics. I've played Fallout 2 and 3, and after 3, the developers split into two camps, which made Fallout New Vegas and Fallout 4. By waiting for them to go on sale on, I've finally been able to play both for under $20.

It seems like most people prefer New Vegas for its superior story, characters, and dialogue. But if I want that stuff, I'll read a novel. What I want in a game is to wander at random around an open world dotted with "dungeons" -- places I can optionally go into to fight baddies and get loot. In both Fallout 3 and New Vegas, The 2D map is often a 1D maze, where buildings or slopes block you (unrealistically) from just going anywhere, until you find the one path through by doing a quest. The landscape is made subservient to the story, which means a pre-coded story, or a choice among several.

Another kind of story is one that arises organically from good game mechanics, and there's more room for this in Fallout 4. For example:

I couldn't beat the raiders in the Corvega plant, so I snuck in through a pipe, used a dose of Jet to get past a turret, and did a lucky headshot on the leader to complete the quest -- using a .308 bullet, which are rare, so I have to save them for important shots. By now, I had a ton of loot stashed in the Sanctuary root cellar, and still hadn't found a merchant. So I took the Lone Wanderer perk, enabling me to carry more stuff, and I loaded up and did a straight run all the way to Diamond City. I used the postman hat to raise my endurance so I could sprint past enemies without fighting them, and at one point some two-headed deer ran with me. Then in the city I used fancy clothing and a dose of Day Tripper to boost my charisma, so I could get a better deal in bartering, and came out with some good chest armor and a deadly laser pistol. To make better use of it, my next perk should be Sneak.

On a tangent to social philosophy, I wonder about the popularity of pre-coded character stuff. There are a lot of games where you join a faction and the faction gives you quests, and I think this is filling a need that could be filled in the real world, if it were designed better. The "factions" in modern society, from corporations to religions to nation states, tend to be predatory toward their own members.

March 22. The hunter-gatherers of the 21st century who live on the move. It's mainly about the social benefits: "staying mobile is a deliberate choice because it enables large and complex societies -- societies that look more like mobile constellations than villages or cities."

March 25. The surprising psychological benefits of framing depression as a functional signal. More precisely:

The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the Biopsychosocial Risk Factor condition, depression was introduced as a disease, akin to cancer or diabetes, with a focus on its behavioral, environmental, and biological risk factors. In the signal condition, participants were presented with the notion that depression could serve an adaptive function, signaling the need for greater attention to certain areas of life.

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 notice that 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.

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 wanderer, 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.

Update: 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.

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.

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 11. 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 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; 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 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.