Category Archives: Interesting Thought

‘Magic, Running In The Gutters Like Lightning’ by Alan Moore

I am a huge fan of Alan Moore, and I am one of the few readers who eagerly purchased his magazine, Dodgem Logic, as the issues came out in 2010. One article in particular in Issue 3 had a profound effect on my thoughts at the time, and contains a couple of concepts that are so useful I want to be able to reference them in my own writing.

Two years ago, Dodgem Logic content was not available anywhere on the internet, and so I transcribed this piece for reference. I now see that some Dodgem Logic content is available on Scribd. I hope that Alan and the other authors are the ones controlling that account and are getting paid for it. If so, I hope this transcription inspires people to seek out the rest of the Dodgem Logic content on Scribd and drive revenue to the authors, but if the existence of this article is a copyright-infringement-too-far Alan is welcome to contact me on [myhandle] at [gmail] and I’ll take it down.

Until then, enjoy:

‘Magic, Running In The Gutters Like Lightning’ by Alan Moore in Dodgem Logic, Vol1 Issue 3, pp 2-9, April-May 2010

Here amongst the body-bags and melting icecaps of the modern world, magic is surely no more than a comfort-blanket for the dopey and the deluded, or perhaps a lucrative and proven movie-franchise means of separating miracle-starved children and nostalgic, disillusioned adults from their pocket-money. Alan Moore thinks otherwise.

Magic is something that should not be mentioned in mixed company or, come to think of it, in any company whatsoever. It will kill the conversation deader than Houdini and evoke a silence at once horror-stricken, pitying, and uncomfortable, like suddenly announcing you’re partial to incest or Morris-dancing, practices that might have all been perfectly acceptable when we were medieval, but which modern science and common sense assure us we are better off without.

This is particularly true at present, when the science and rationality that dragged our species up from a quagmire of ignorance and pestilence is fighting for its life against a horde of pulpit-pounding, reality-phobic fuckheads who think the planet was, in only seven days, assembled like IKEA furniture a mere six thousand years ago by some kind of talked-up local volcano deity who could apparently have used a course in anger-management and who then planted lots of several-million-year-old fossils just to test the faith of 19th century palaeontologists. It isn’t simply Darwin that’s endangered here: Reason itself is under threat, along with every last advance in human thinking back to Galileo and beyond. Given the stakes, it seems counter-productive to make any sort of case for magic, seems like muddying already bloody waters to dredge up an idea that is equally despised by those on both sides of this increasingly brutal and bare-knuckled argument.

And yet, what if inside the bottomless top hat of magical ideas were some means of conceptually resolving the dispute, some arcane and discarded worldview broad enough to readily accommodate two seemingly irreconcilable realities, the scientific and the spiritual? After all, magic is older than both science and religion and in many ways is parent to the pair of them, with religion being only tribal magical traditions and creation myths that have been organised on a more formal basis, while science is itself built on foundations of hermetic scholarship and alchemy. Who better to sort out a brawl between the kids than Mum and Dad?

So, you might reasonably ask, if magic’s so important historically and potentially, what is it? Although a straightforward enough question, this has a variety of answers which depend on who is being asked. A five year old will tell you with conviction that magic is something that a witch or wizard does to conjure up enchantments or to fly the moonlit skies of Halloween. A Christian fundamentalist will tell you much the same thing but with greater emphasis on satanic orgies and eternal hellfire, while a scientific rationalist would describe magic as a system of belief that has exploited human ignorance of how the world works to prop up or justify an endless system of scams, tyrannies and slaughters, almost since that world began. There may well be more than an element of truth in all of these opinions, and yet if we wish to understand the subject on its own terms before we dismiss it then we might be better off, rather than consulting outsiders on the issue, in asking how magic has defined itself.

This question will admittedly elicit just as many different responses if considered across a few thousand years of diverse magical philosophies, but a halfway-modern definition after the important 20th century magician and alleged Great Beast Aleister Crowley would see magic as the act of bringing about changes in reality according to one’s Will. Will is capitalised deliberately, to stand for the intentions and the actions of one’s highest self, the wisest and most noble part of us, the part that watches out for us and tells us that pissing in an electric outlet isn’t such a great idea. This carefully makes a distinction between our true Will and all our wants, desires and impulses. Running amok at our place of employment or school with a samurai sword or AK47 would certainly bring about change in reality, for both ourselves and for our victims, but these would be changes that only a self-obsessed emotional and psycho-social cripple could find interesting or satisfying. This would be contrary to the whole central concern of magic, which is to connect the individual to his or her highest self and thus transform them into someone much more balanced and empowered, more capable of managing the powerful currents of their life and circumstances that swirl all around them; someone for whom plans succeed and difficulties melt away as if by magic.

Wonderful as this might be, if all there is to magic is some sort of woolly, new-age self improvement program, then what’s all the fuss about? Where are all the demons conjured hissing into pentacles and all the supernatural powers, the flying through the night on broomsticks? Do these ‘changes in reality’ we’re talking about include changes to the laws of physics, such as those which pertain to gravity, for instance? Pretty obviously, the answer to that question would be ‘no’. Does that mean, then, that all the claims made on behalf of magic are no more than a collage of madness, fantasy, fraud and misunderstanding? Given that to say as much is to dismiss the basis for the biggest part of modern science and culture then, again, the answer must be in the negative. This leaves us with an apparent contradiction. Are we saying magic is real, or unreal? Or are we saying that it is somehow both these things at once? The resolution of this puzzle gives us the key to understanding magic, but before we can unpick it we must first sort out our terms of reference. Before we can decide of magic’s real, unreal or somewhere in between we must first make it clear what we mean by reality.

The first thing we can say about reality from a human perspective is that we cannot experience reality directly. We have photons bombarding retinas. We have vibrations in our inner ear, in our tympanums. The cilia in our nostrils and the buds upon our tongues transmit impressions of the chemicals comprising everything we smell or taste, while the minute electrical impulses racing through our nervous systems tell us whether we are touching silk or sandpaper. Moment by moment, we somehow compose these signals into a grand, shifting tapestry we call reality. It isn’t: It’s our sensory impressions of reality, with a direct experience of the thing itself being impossible. Effectively, to practical intents and purposes, reality is in our minds.

The second thing we can say about human reality is that we seem to be perpetually experiencing two very different kinds of this elusive quality or substance. Firstly, there is the material world with all its complex and unyielding laws of chemistry, biology or physics that our mortal bodies exist in and interact with. In trying to comprehend material reality, our human consciousness developed an exquisitely precise tool, science, whereby we could measure, study and perhaps eventually understand most of the cosmos that surrounds us. And then, secondly, we have the immaterial realm that our minds seem to be suspended in, the shifting and ungraspable reality of human consciousness itself… which, as observed above, is the only reality that we can ever truly know directly. This ‘inner’ reality is utterly impenetrable to the scrutiny of the scientific method, which requires empirical proof and phenomena that are repeatable under laboratory conditions, thus excluding thoughts, emotions and the rest of our internal landscape. It’s ironic, but the only blind-spot in our scientific understanding of the world is consciousness itself, the very thing that science emerged from.

Science’s inability to handle consciousness (or even prove that it exists) presents a problem in that if we want to know how our minds work in order, say, to stop them getting ill or maybe to improve them, in the same way that we know things about our bodies, then we have no one to turn to. Consciousness, of course, also presents a major stumbling block for science itself. Science can quite justifiably claim credit for the countless insights into our existence that is has delivered down across the centuries, but one suspects that with consciousness being very probably the most extraordinary, rare and precious item in the universe, the failure of science to provide an explanation for it must surely be irritating.

From science’s point of view, consciousness is what has been called ‘the ghost in the machine’, a vaporous and elusive spectre that is inexplicable and which thus messes up our otherwise detailed and comprehensive clockwork scheme of things. So vexing is this gap in scientific understanding that some areas of science have tried to paper over it by claiming that consciousness doesn’t really exist, that it’s some manner of hallucination caused by glands, by chemicals, by something science is capable of measuring, despite the fact that this flies in the face of all human experience. It also offers us a model of our inner workings that seems limited, impoverished, and functionally all but useless, most especially if we’re in any line of work that calls on us to be creative. How are we meant to aspire to the literary heights of Shakespeare or musical composition skills of J.S. Bach with all mental activity reduced to a mere fart of the pineal gland? A richer and more helpful model of awareness would seem to be called for, perhaps based upon more flexible ideas as to what constitutes reality.

For instance what if rather than denying the reality of consciousness simply because it happens to be outside the parameters of what science can discuss, we instead take the stance that both mental and physical phenomena are real, albeit real in different ways? If we accepted that all thinking creatures were amphibious, in the sense that they have a life in two worlds at once; if we accepted that the phantom world of consciousness was just as real in its own ways as the hard world we bruise our shin on, wouldn’t we at least potentially have a new way of looking at our own awareness, and perhaps a different means of interacting with our own minds that might turn out to be more productive, fruitful and, frankly, exciting?

The idea that we exist astride two worlds, both the material and immaterial, requires examination, though it should be said that this examination cannot be scientific because, as explained previously, consciousness and science go together like milk and uranium. Is there, then, any evidence for the reality of the two planes we are discussing?

Well it could be argued that the definite existence of two such realities is, as the saying goes, as obvious as Lady Gaga’s cock: There is the world in which physical things like, say, a chair exist, and there there is the different, immaterial world in which the idea of a chair exists. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the idea of a chair must come before a physical chair can exist. The same is true of the whole man-made world around us, with our clothes, our homes, our advertising jingles and the language that we sing them in all starting out as ideas in someone’s mind, in someone’s consciousness. Looked at in this way, the world of awareness, far from being unreal, is the solid bedrock upon which a major part of our material world is standing. Also, it bears pointing out that immaterial ideas are much more sturdy and enduring than their physical manifestations. If, for example, every solid material chair were suddenly to vanish from the world (and no, I don’t know how that would have come about, except perhaps in Dr. Who where there’d be some variety of mucous-dripping aliens for whom “our Earth chairs are a kind of drug”), then as long as we still had the idea of chairs, it really wouldn’t be that big a setback. Ideas are immortal, or at least as long-lived as the culture that comes up with them, whereas the objects, monuments and even empires those ideas inspire are transient by comparison. Considered from this angle, which of our two worlds seems the least flimsy and the most important, even the most real?

In this light, we perhaps begin to see how many of the more extraordinary claims made on behalf of magic may have a firm basis in reality, although not the hard, physical reality that we most usually mean when you use that term. We possibly begin to understand that saying magic only happens in the mind or the imagination is potentially a very different thing from saying that it isn’t real. Importantly, if we can accept that the insubstantial medium in which our consciousness exists is just as much a world as the more solid medium in which our bodies, furniture and scratch-cards are all situated, then we can at least try to explore that immaterial world and determine its properties, just our species has so rigorously and rewardingly explored the other realm that our amphibious human breed inhabits, that of matter. Even by simply considering awareness, metaphorically, as being somehow like a world or landscape, we are opening up a family-sized worm-can of fresh possibilities for interacting usefully and interestingly with our consciousness.

What might such a purely cerebral territory be like, compared with our familiar physical terrain, and governed by what different laws? The laws of space and distance, for example, would be different in a world made not from dirt and rocks but from ideas: Land’s End and John O’Groats, famously far apart in the material world, are often mentioned in the same breath and therefore are right next to each other in conceptual terms, are side by side in the peculiar geography of consciousness. The laws of time might well also be different, given that we seem able to travel effortlessly into the remembered past or the projected future in our memory or our imagination, in a way that we cannot accomplish in material reality.

Perhaps the most intriguing question with regard to this world of the mind that we’re hypothesising is whether we each have our own sealed and private mental world, or whether it might be more like the way things are in the physical reality, where each of us has our own private space… our house or room… while having the ability to venture out into the world beyond our door that’s mutually accessible by all, and where we can meet up and interact with other people. If the landscape of ideas were common ground to all of us, this might provide a way of understanding those occasionally reported instances of knowledge-at-a-distance or telepathy. It could also provide an answer to the question asked most often of creative people, which is ‘where do ideas come from?’

If consciousness was actually a mutual environment and if ideas were like physical features in that landscape… like pebbles or landmarks, say, depending on their size and their importance… then we’d have to suppose that since everyone has ideas good or bad, then everyone must be connected with this immaterial world of concepts all the time, whether they be aware of it or not. Some ideas, such as the idea to stick the kettle on and make a cup of tea, are commonplace and could be seen as the equivalent of sand-grains on a beach, in that they’re everywhere, are of such little value and so easily in reach that anyone could have ideas like that without the slightest mental effort. Genuinely original ideas are much, much rarer and will take more of a mental journey and a lot more work to track them down, being less like common sand-grains than like a newly discovered species or lost Aztec city. This is perhaps why new ideas are found most often by artists, philosophers or scientists; creative people who are struggling to establish a much deeper and more exploratory relationship with their own consciousness. It may seem strange to think about awareness as a landscape and ideas as landmarks in that space, distinctive rocky outcrops that we sometimes stumble over in our mental wanderings, but if this were indeed the case it would explain such otherwise improbable coincidences as James Watt’s invention of the steam engine at the exact same time that several other people were inventing the same thing, having had just the same idea.

Of course, so far we are considering our mental realm only in terms of its geography. However when we first set sail on explorations of our physical reality we learned that other areas of the material world were already inhabited by different kinds of people, unimagined animals and unfamiliar vegetation. It might be to our advantage, then to consider the potential biology of our proposed landscape of consciousness, its fauna and flora. Journeying into these further reaches of the mind, what other life-forms might we possibly encounter?

Well, if it’s a landscape that is mutually accessible, we could perhaps expect to make contact with other human minds that happen to be travelling in the same zone of consciousness, as we suggested earlier with regard to a potential basis for claims of telepathy. Furthermore, if it’s a landscape that is indeed timeless, then it might conceivably be possible to meet with human minds that are from our own point of view located in the past or future, which might offer us an explanation for phenomena as various as ghosts from bygone eras or prophetic glimpses of events yet to occur.

Then there’s the at first startling possibility of life forms that aren’t human, that are instead native to the immaterial meta-territory that we’re describing here, creatures made from the insubstantial stuff of thought in the same way that our physical forms are made from flesh and blood, ideas that have evolved to such a level of complexity that they can at least seem to be alive, to be intelligent and independent entities. Living ideas: surely there’s room in such a notion that’s sufficient to accommodate all of the demons, angels, gods, grey aliens, Smurfs or leprechauns, all the imaginary creatures that we humans have made claims for the existence of since the beginnings of our species, back before we had a rational, material worldview which informed us that the things which we experienced in our minds had no legitimate reality.

In our prehistory, before we even had the concept of a mind, we would presumably have taken our experience of the world to be a single, undivided whole, unable to make any separation between mind and body: between external and internal reality. It would seem natural then, in our stone-age attempts to understand a baffling and sometimes hostile universe, for us to vigorously investigate the farthest limits of our territory, both the world that was available outside us and the world that was available within. In these primitive attempts to engage with what we would come to call our consciousness, we have the origins of magic, and also, coincidentally, of science, art, philosophy and indeed almost all contemporary culture. The first Palaeolithic witch-doctors or shamans or magicians patiently developed a whole range of different techniques by which they hoped to interact more deeply and productively with the mysterious underworld that was somehow inside them. By studying these primordial practices, we can get a much clearer picture of the altered state of consciousness that they believed was necessary in order to practice magic, and perhaps also a deeper and more useful understanding of what magic really is.

In our comparisons of commonplace ideas with sand-grains and of rarer ideas with more distant items that would take more mental effort to locate, we seem to be suggesting that some people are prepared to engage much more energetically and deeply with the world of consciousness than others. It was this deeper engagement that our stone-age sorcerers were seeking, or at least this would appear to be the case given that most of their recorded magical techniques seem to be methods of inducing trance-like states in both themselves and their observers. Their otherworldly costumes, in which are the origins of all film and theatre, were designed to shock those watching into a new zone of consciousness. The chanting and the ritual drumming, from which all music commenced, are still still well-known as means of bringing on a state of self-hypnosis, with the same being true of dance, as any hold-outs from the Rave scene would most probably affirm.

And then, also in common with the Rave scene, there are all the psychedelic drugs that shamans are associated with, whether that be the preparations of Ayahuasca or Yage used by South American rainforest sorcerers, the spotted Fly Agaric mushroom favoured by both Lapland shamans and Viking berserkers, or the common “Liberty Cap’ so-called ‘magic” psilocybin mushroom which we may suppose was the most readily available source of a visionary stimulant for the witchdoctors of both ancient Europe and the British Isles. The point is that whether we speak of drumming, meditation. dance or drugs, we’re talking about methods that are only useful as a means of penetrating the internal landscape, which would seem to be a world that the magicians of antiquity thought just as real and important as the physical domain around them, if not more so.

The musings above hopefully present a way of understanding rationally how magic might be seen to work, at least by the practitioner: By using ritual or drugs or drumming or some other technique for inducing altered states, the shaman or magician travels further into our suggested realm of consciousness than would be possible in other circumstances. Moving through this realm they may encounter what seem to be immaterial entities with which they may communicate and from which they believe they can glean useful information. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the entities concerned are actually ethereal, independent life-forms or just facets of the human mind and personality that we cannot usually access by other methods. Whether we’re communicating with an actual god or with some previously inaccessible part of our own awareness, it would seem to be a thing as marvellous and of as much potential use in either instance.

As we trace the course of magic’s evolution from its Ice-Age origins, we are constantly reminded that what people think to be the literal truths of magic are in fact misunderstandings of what are in fact purely internal mental processes. The standard image of a witch astride her broomstick flying through the night air to the Witches’ Sabbat (or, for that matter, off HarryPotter playing Quidditch) provides us with a splendid example of this over-literal approach at work. From what we’ve come to understand of medieval witchcraft, two of the accoutrements often possessed by genuine practitioners were ‘flying ointment’ and a ‘flying harness’.

In the preparation of the former, a variety of common drugs were combined with fat to make an ointment. These included Henbane, Deadly Nightshade, Angel’s trumpet (all of which are psychedelic at some doses and horribly poisonous at others) along with soporific drugs like Mandrake root (from which comparatively modern sedatives like Mandrax are derived) to make the user sleep. Taken in combination, it might be supposed that this would not be any ordinary state of sleep.

This brings us to the so-called ‘flying harness’, a contraption made of ;eather straps in which the wearer could be comfortably suspended as though weightless from the ceiling of a hut or outbuilding warmed to a constant body-temperature and kept in total darkness, muffled to eliminate all outside noises. This would appear to be an early version of today’s sensory deprivation or flotation tank, with the would-be witch hanging weightless in the dark and silence, neither too warm nor too cool, feeling both disembodied and adrift in their own consciousness. It was at this point that the flying ointment was administered, smeared one of the body’s mucous membranes that would rapidly absorb its heady mix of psychedelic drugs and sleeping potions.

Though I’m loath to be indelicate and spell this out, the body’s most accessible and most absorbent mucous membranes would be those found in the anus or vagina. That’s how suppositories work, after all. In the case of the flying ointment, it would be applied to the suspended witch by means of a convenient applicator, such as, say, a broomstick. When the ointment took effect, the witch would be propelled upon a disembodied psychedelic flight through the landscape of the imagination, a flight only taking place within the mind of the practitioner (although as we have pointed out, that isn’t necessarily the same as saying that the flight’s unreal). It isn’t hard to see how the above could easily be misinterpreted and end up as our cliched ‘image of a hag swooping through darkness with a broom between her legs. Best not to think of Harry Potter in the changing rooms at Hogwarts, getting ready for a match.

As magic became more sophisticated in its practices and theory down across the centuries, we still see the same trance-inducing techniques being used and still see magic taking place almost entirely in the inner landscape of the mind. During the 16th century, Elizabeth the First’s official alchemist, adviser, scientist and astrologer was the astounding Dr. John Dee, a man whose abilities with mathematics, navigation and encryption were the basis of the British Empire (a concept that Dee himself invented) and yet who devoted himself to communications through the medium of a black mirror or a crystal ball with startling entities that he described as angels.

His angelic invocations, chanted in a channelled or invented language called Enochian, function in the way that chanting did for prehistoric sorcerers, allowing the practitioner to slip into a trance state where they’re liable to be receptive to imagined visions in the blurred depths of a crystal ball, used here as a blank screen upon which the observer’s inner visions are projected much like pictures seen within the dying embers of a fire. Despite the fact that all of these drug-induced broomstick flights or crystal ball angelic conversations can only be seen by science as worthless delusions, can we easily dismiss the ideas of a great mind such as the one possessed by Dr. Dee, a man without whose scientific work the later work of fellow alchemist Sir Isaac Newton would not have been possible?

Admittedly, great minds occasionally say or do things that are stupid or misguided, and even an open-minded sceptic who was willing to accept that there might possibly be some truth in our theories about mental space could reasonably ask if there was any practical or useful point to these imaginary exercises. After all, putting potential therapeutic value to one side, what is the point of talking to hallucinations? By their very definition they are mental things and thus cannot provide us with real information. This is a good point and, on the surface, a persuasive argument. However, it avoids the fact that science itself has no idea where a great deal of human knowledge comes from. The debate’s still open, for example, on how we arrived at the most fundamental concept in the whole of human thinking, which is language. As for mathematics, which turns out to be a perfect system that allows us to examine our mathematically-ordered universe, we as yet don’t have a convincing explanation for how we came up with it. This obviously doesn’t prove that immaterial spirits must have gifted us with language or mathematics, but it also doesn’t prove they didn’t.

Let’s consider the specific case of one small part of our vast arsenal of medical knowledge that of the vegetable drug curare, used routinely in the west because its paralysing properties are useful in those surgical procedures where it is important that the patient doesn’t move. Curare is one of the many drugs that we have borrowed from the herbal remedies and medicines used by the natives of the South American rainforests, and in his excellent book The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, ethnobotanist Jeremy Narby investigates its origins. Curare, used by the rainforest natives as a poisonous tip for their blowpipe darts, will paralyse a treetop monkey so that it cannot cling to its branch but will instead fall to the forest floor where it can be recovered. Better still the meat will not be tainted by the poison. Now, curare is a compound drug, and the rainforest natives have no concept of scientific method.

Even so, they somehow manage to select the right plants from amongst the estimated millions of separate species to be found within the rainforest, and they somehow know enough to boil the plants together and reduce them to a pulp without inhaling the sweet-smelling but instantly lethal vapours. Then, some-how, they know that the resultant mush will be inert unless it is injected in the subcutaneous tissue just beneath the surface of the skin, as is accomplished by a blowpipe dart, for instance.

Narby felt dissatisfied to all these somehows, and decided to ask the rainforest people natives where the’d got their complex information from. Their reply was that the knowledge was imparted by their snake-god through the medium of their local witchdoctors or wise men, the Ayahuasceros, or ‘the men who drink ayahuasca’.

Contacting these sorcerers and taking part in their hallucinatory rituals, Narby experienced a meeting with two large fluorescent talking serpents whom he understood to be the gods that he’d been told of by the natives. He went on to speculate that these ‘gods’ might be some sort of icon or avatar projected by the snaking double helix of our DNA, if DNA were actually a conscious entity. Whether this is the case or not the point is that a substance we are happy to use in our rational and scientific western world would seem to have its origins in processes that are beyond the limits of what science can usefully discuss. Without a magic worldview, even if that worldview is anathema to any scientific rationalist, both science and medicine would lack a number of incredibly important tools.

The notion that things of tremendous use or value can be gathered front the insubstantial entities that are encountered in the crystal ball, the psychedelic episode or simply in our wandering imagination hasn’t ever been in doubt for the innumerable practitioners of magic throughout history. During the nineteenth century, elaborate magic brotherhoods such as the Order of the Golden Dawn did much to organise some several thousand years of wildly diverse magic theory into a coherent system. Meanwhile, brilliant mavericks like infamous Aleister Crowley or the transcendentally unnerving Brixton artist and magician Austin Osman Spare were introducing the idea that the best magic systems were perhaps the ones that you’d discovered or invented for yourself.

In light of all of the above. where does that leave us? Here in 2010, beleaguered as we are by our increasingly invasive and controlling governments, with our material environment and our economies collapsing, should we even be discussing such a thing as magic? Won’t that just make God more angry?

On the other hand, if as a species we are circling the plughole of existence then it could be argued that we really don’t have anything to lose by just considering a different worldview, and indeed might have a lot to gain. One of the major benefits of the internal magic landscape is that it cannot be penetrated by police or government. In its environment of ideas, much more durable than our own physical environment, it maybe that solutions to our current eco-problems can be found… it’s fairly obvious that we need to get new ideas from somewhere, after all… and as for all our economic difficulties, as a resource magic is entirely free and doesn’t seem to have a carbon footprint.

But, even if we accept that magic might be beneficial, how are we to go about it? Well, we could do worse than looking to the ancient universal principles of magic, as described above, to find our answer. It would seem, for instance, that in order to engage more deeply with the magic landscape of our consciousness, some means of entering a trance-state is required. This could be repetitive and rhythmic drumming, chanting, meditation or a psychedelic drug, depending on the individual’s tastes. Before immersing ourselves in our preferred trance, however, we should have in place some method of controlling and directing our hoped-for experience. This is where magic ritual comes in.

A magic ritual, which might involve a lot of different elements, can be seen as a way of programming our minds towards the area of consciousness that we are hoping to achieve or contact. For example, if we wished to contact a symbolic entity like Mercury, the Roman god of magic and communication, we would decorate the space where we’ve decided to perform the ritual with things that are associated with that god. A good book of magical correspondences like Aleister Crowley’s 777 will provide complete and useful tables of associations for whatever entity you hope to get in touch with, but in the specific case of Mercury you’ll find that among those associations are the number eight, the colour orange, the perfume storax, the vegetable drug hashish, the precious stone fire-opal and a host of other things. So, when it comes to tarting up your ritual space for your Mercury ritual, you might want to have an orange cloth draping the tabletop or altar, with eight candles lighting the appointed space and some storax gum smouldering in an incense burner. You might want to have an image of the god in question in some central place, either a statue or an image clipped out of a magazine or, best of all, an image that you yourself have created. The combined effect of all these things is to create a mindset that’s conducive to the type of magical experience you wish to have.

Some unobtrusive music that adds to the atmosphere and seem appropriate might complement the ritual, and some sort of spoken invocation would provide a focus. You could probably find some already-written invocation to the Roman Mercury or similar Greek Hermes somewhere, but again it would be a lot better to write something of your own. Magic and the creative arts have much more than you’d think in common with each other, and with Mercury as god of writing and communication you might think that he’d appreciate all the creative effort that you’ve gone to. Write something that’s as lyrical and strong and as poetical as you can make it, something good enough to please a god, or at least your idea of a god (which is, after all, all we’re talking about here). When you have all this preparatory work in place, that would be a good time to induce your preferred trance-state by your chosen means, and then sit back and wait to see what happens.

This basic and simple methodology can obviously be adapted to whatever sort of magical experience one happens to be seeking, with a little use of the imagination. The above example deals with conjuring some being in to your awareness, but could just as well be used if you desired to travel mentally into the world associated with that entity, just as the witches travelled in their minds to their imaginary Sabbat. This technique for mental travel…basically a strenuous forum of imagining…could also be used to explore the zones mapped by some magic systems such as the Hebrew Kabbalah or John Dee’s Enochian realm, or with a bit of thought and ingenuity could be applied to whatever experimental magical procedure the practitioner might like to try importantly, at the commencement and conclusion of the ritual or experiment, it is a good idea to cam out what’s known as a banishing ritual, to symbolically seal off the experience and keep whatever forces may have been called up from having an unwanted effect upon your ordinary life. Banishing rituals are readily available in numerous books on magic, or once again you can invent your own.

The reason banishing rituals are necessary is that magic is a subject not without its dangers. Foremost amongst these is the very real possibility of going mad or losing yourself in this new and unfamiliar territory. If one’s reasons for approaching magic are for entertainment or for a secret advantage over others or just idle curiosity, then one is probably better off avoiding it, the risks being considerable. Practiced magicians speak of the importance of keeping your four ‘magical weapons’ with you constantly, at least symbolically. These four symbols… the wand, the cup, the sword or dagger and the coin… are the four suits seen in the Tarot deck.

The represent the four classical elements, fire, water, air and earth, and also represent the human qualities that those elements stand for. Coins or discs that stand for earth remind us that in our approach to magic we must make sure we are grounded and that our material circumstances are sufficient to our needs. Swords, standing for the element of air, are symbols of our intellectual faculties, the cutting edge of our intelligence that helps us to discriminate between a good idea and a bad one and which helps prevent us sliding into mere delusion or perhaps full blown insanity. Cups, representing water, stand in human terns for our emotions and above all our compassion, without which all of the magic power in the world won’t stop us turning into arseholes, brutes or monsters. Finally, wands stand for fire and represent our spirit or our soul, our highest self that should be in command of our emotional, our intellectual and our earthly circumstances if we wish to be balanced and fully realised individuals in control of our own lives.

It’s this harmonious and empowered state that is perhaps the most important goal in magic, turning yourself into someone capable of leading an enjoyable and useful life while having a benevolent effect upon the world, bringing about changes in accordance with your Will. This is the gold the alchemists were seeking, being much less interested in transforming metal than in their own personal transformation. There’s a lot of work entailed, admittedly, but the rewards are unimaginable and more likely to improve your life than winning several million on the Lottery. Of course, there are some people who were hoping that magic would be a way of getting what they wanted without working for it. There are still a lot of would-be magical practitioners who think of magic as a way of, for example, making someone fall in love with them, or conjuring up cash, or punishing somebody who’s offended them with a demonic curse. This, in the current author’s own opinion, is just lazy, cowardly, manipulative bullshit. If someone’s offended you then sort it out yourself, assuming that you can’t just, y’know, move on and get over it the way a grown-up would. If you want money, then why don’t you magically-get off your magic arse and do some magic work and see if money doesn’t magically arrive? And if you want someone to love you, do the necessary work upon yourself that makes you somebody-worth loving. Trying to coerce someone’s affections through the use of sorcery compares unfavourably with simple rape, where at least you’re not trying to involve eternal spirits in your wretched, verminous activities. Generally, the rule is that if there is something that can be accomplished by quite ordinary material means, don’t bother magic with it. On the other hand if there’s some immaterial demon messing up your life, like anger or depression or addiction, then magic maybe the very thing you need to give your problems both a name and face, to banish them or at least to negotiate with them and perhaps see them in a different and more useful light.

Magic isn’t there to turn us into gods, although that’s certainly what it has been mistaken for. Instead, magic is what can turn us into complete human beings, fulfilled in their lives and in control of their own destinies. Even if all the above is no more than misguided speculation and if there’s no more to magic than an over-active use of the imagination, think about the benefits that a better relationship with your imagination might allow you, maybe that job as a writer or an artist that you’ve always dreamed about, if only you could work out where such people get their ideas from. It may not be the bolts of fire from the fingertips that Gandalf led you to believe it was, but I’m reliably informed that it can still be a productive and incredibly enjoyable existence.

Science is a perfect tool to measure our material universe, but it is only consciousness, beyond the reach of science, that lends that universe its meaning. Without meaning, this is just a random, accidental world and all life is an ultimately unimportant fluke of chemistry and physics. If, however, you chose to see your existence as ablaze with meaning and significance, then magic is a worldview and a faculty that’s free to everyone, part of their birthright as a conscious human being. All that’s needed is a shift in how you see reality and you can change reality itself, at least as far as you’re concerned. With our environmental, financial and personal resources at an all time low, it might be that the most abundant human energy resource of all is right between our eyes, just waiting to be tapped and to transform the battered matter of our world with its endless new possibilities.

We could have magic, running in the gutters like lightning.

Britain’s unequal cities and the magnetic force of London’s social norms

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

City Size and Stability

An acquaintance once told me that Germany experiences political stability in part due to the fact that all of its cities are roughly of equal size. I have no way to validate this claim, but Germany’s cities do seem to be noticeably uniform in their population and population density after the top 4. Among the top 4, the largest city, the capital, is double the size of the next largest, while 2,3 and 4 are similar in size to each other.

At some point I became aware of Britain’s “top ten” city sizes and this is the kind of information that my brain likes to keep around. I lived in rank number 8 at the time: Bristol, and now I live in number 1: London.

What is interesting about the U.K.’s city sizes is that the capital, London, is four times larger than the next contender: 8.3 million vs. 2.3 million in Birmingham. After that the city sizes decrease sharply among the top ten. Manchester is 1.7 million, Liverpool 0.8 and so on. My home city of Bristol in rank 8 is only 0.4 and these numbers include a “greater urban area” so they are on the generous side.

This interesting table also lists the “Large Urban Zone” EU rank of these areas. London is number 1, while the next largest area, Birmingham, is rank 21.

On hearing my friend’s anecdote about political stability in Germany, I started to wonder if regions with unequal size cities have more social/political upheaval or strife.

It is sort of common knowledge in the U.K. that London dominates the political and financial landscape of the country, meaning that politicians are unduly influenced by the needs of London and are liable to ignore the needs of the rest of the population. But aside from politicians wearing London-tinted glasses, are there other mechanisms also in play?

Advertising as Signalling

This interesting article about advertising proposes a mechanism for how advertising works. Its thesis is that adverts probably do not overtly or covertly make a consumer have emotions related to a product (“emotional inception”), rather they create a shared social environment where the product is associated with a sign or signal of certain social messages. I recommend reading the article for specific examples, such as Corona being associated with being chill on the beach, so that’s the beer you’ll bring to the barbeque to signal “we are all chill here”.

The article stresses the fact that advertising has to create a potent and enduring social milieu within which to present a consistent social message. This milieu only works if everyone has seen the message, and everyone knows that everyone else has seen the message. Thus, signalling by means of products can begin.

London’s Impact on Advertising

London’s supermassive size has the effect of pulling everything into its orbit. If a company would like to use some kind of creative agency to make an advert, the people they call will be in London.

Now that I’ve lived in London for a while, I noticed that much of UK-produced media is made by people who live in London, using London locations. I recently watched an advert that showed a variety of people in a variety of settings. The urban scenes were in different parts of London with different types of background architecture, but the “rural” or “park” scenes were also in London – the hexagonal black bins and other street furniture were instantly recognisable.

Clearly some London agency had taken the client’s money and shot a “diverse” advert with diverse locations without going any further than Hampstead Heath.

London’s Social Norms

Crucially, I recently noticed that London people also project London social values in their output. The advert mentioned above was quite diverse in terms of the people in the advert: a white same sex couple, an older sikh gentleman jogging, a black family. The ad was trying so hard it was almost painful.

However, for a Londoner, a same sex couple in Trafalgar square, a black family on an urban road and an older sikh man jogging in Hampstead Heath is just normal life. The hammy diversity is only hammy for a Londoner because of trying to jam in different examples of normal people into a short time frame.

The advert lacked poor people, because no-one is very poor in London. London takes racial diversity for granted, as well as sexuality. Engagement in a capitalist economy is also taken for granted in London, because everyone is there to make money, and everyone is succeeding in that. Making money is not inherently bad, since it supports taxes which in turn support infrastructure which supports making more money.

London is ethnically very diverse. London is 49% white British, 58% white (all groups). 37% of London residents were born outside of the UK. This compares to 95% white in the rest of the UK population.

Being a diverse mega-city, politeness in London is an interesting game. There is no way to know which custom should take precedent among diverse people. For example, getting on the bus politely. Whom should you defer to when entering the vehicle? Older people? Women? Men? Children? It amuses me to think that even in say, patriarchal cultures there is no consistency. One culture might deem that women should go first, while another says that women should be at the back of the queue. Most people will defer to elders, but tellingly, only if they have their shit together to board. This shows London’s default social norm: efficiency and speed (which = money).

The only way to keep this city going is with speed and efficiency. If an older person is faffing, it is culturally polite in London to get on before that person, because in the time we’ve wasted deferring to our elders, ten people could have boarded the bus and we’d be underway.

The older person is never left behind, because Londoners are also culturally aware that each person adds more wealth to the whole. This wealth is both cultural and fiscal at the same time. London is so big that it has (paid) roles and niches for absolutely everyone. London understands that diversity is good, not through strength, but through money.

Social Pressure

And these are the values that are translated into advertising. These values make sense in London, but for the rest of the population, which is 95% white, with no financial incentives, they may be having a very negative effect.

If advertising creates a social signalling environment, then a person in a small town or village is being forced to feel that they should welcome and tolerate people who, for them, display disruptive, frightening and dangerous characteristics.

When someone from another culture shows up in a small(ish) community, it is probably better for everyone involved if that person is integrated into community life, ie they are asked to change their behaviours to match their new surroundings (and a link to this idea now eludes me).

However, the opposite message is being broadcast by London-based advertising producers. Cultures should apparently be tolerated and celebrated, not integrated and if a local person thinks that the new person should be restricted or compelled to integrate, they are made to feel racist.

If advertising sets the tone of social interaction, a large part of the UK population is being made to feel social shame. Shame often leads to anger and defiance. Perhaps it has led to backlash voting.

I’m not sure if unequal city sizes generally contributes to social tension rather than harmony, but the mechanism described above could be one more explanation for London’s black hole effect on the rest of the U.K.

End Of Nations: Stage 5 Geography?

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

The State Of Nations

Now

This post will be engaging with an article in New Scientist called End Of Nations by Debora MacKenzie. The featured image is also copyright New Scientist. The article suggests that nation states are currently ubiquitous, they also seem timeless and inevitable. However nation states are neither natural, nor inevitable. Instead, they  arise from the demand for increasingly complex social behaviours/increasingly complex activities.

“The key factor driving this ideological process, [of creating nations] was an underlying structural one: the development of far-reaching bureaucracies needed to run complex industrialised societies.”

This tallies well with the pages in Meaningness relating to Modernity and the rise of the systemic/stage 4 society. David’s pages state (and I agree) that these notions are academic common knowledge. This article by Mackenzie is an excellent read in terms of demonstrating the academic literature in an easy to digest way. So… go read it.

Still here? Well one takeway from the article is that Nations are currently the largest “container” we have for power. This is not useful when trying to solve global problems.

“… there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.”

So, what is the future?

The article discusses the European Union’s strengths and weaknesses.  The integration of European states to benefit from economies of scale is very positive. However Europe has a problem, because it is just another layer of heirarchy on top of heirarchical nations, and heirarchy might be a bad thing. Nations are a new and uncomfortable idea, so they have to preserve themselves with patriotic fanfare, sports teams and the like, but Europe’s heirarchy layer does not use all the patriotic tricks that nations themselves use to promote national identity, which is probably why everyone hates it, even though the principles of the EU are pretty solid.

The article also points out the global meetings of nations exist but have varying degrees of effectiveness – eg NATO, the UN. However,  the more informal, variable and goal-oriented groups such as the G-numbers (G8, G12) might actually be more effective.

The remainder of the article describes a proposed answer: evolving from heirarchies to networks. “Networks of regions, states and even non-governmental organisations”. Proponents call this neo-medievalism (because the medieval model was much more fuzzy around the edges). “Networked problems require a networked solution” says Anne Marie Slaughter. The article also talks about the possiblity of collapse as a crucible for new things.

I’m sure you’re by now with me thinking that this sounds like grasping towards stage 5 fluidity.

The article concludes that everyone agrees we still need nations, as a “container” of power (you can’t just throw out stage 4) but no-one can really imagine how politics would work in a network. Given that the world is changing and we have global problems, “it’s time to start imagining”.

Imagination Fail

I find this sentiment at the end of an article frustrating.

It reminds me of my frustration with AI movies. They often end at the moment the AI steps out into the real world (Ex Machina) or fall back onto unfulfilling, unrealistic emotional crap (Transcendence). Some tech friends claim we are experiencing a “fiction singularity”, a place where we simply cannot imagine our way beyond a certain point with AIs.

It seems we have a similar block here, imagining our way beyond stage 4 politics, capitalism, etc. Postmodernism is the “stage 4 politics singularity”.

Failures of imagination irritate the shit out of me. It seems like a poor excuse for failing to do something, or for believing something is not possible. If you can’t imagine something, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Try harder! Find imaginative people and ask them! Grrrr.

12728480_1523556977940917_1322936434_n

I believe I am no more imaginative than average but we can’t all just throw our hands up in the air and hope someone else is dealing with it. So, here is an attempt at “imagining” how politics would work in a fluid network, rather than a heirarchy of discrete, nation-sized containers.

Imagine There’s No Countries

City Mayors

It seems obvious to me that large cities should work together in a global way. I imagine the mayors of London, New York and Tokyo could have a lot to say to each other. At the moment I think there is probably some borrowing of knowledge from one city to another, but a global network of cities creating shared goals (such as how to integrate travel between them more efficiently) for everyone’s mutual benefit seems like a good way forward. I think creating carbon emissions goals between major cities could also have as a big an impact as nations could. Luckily, mayors also already have some power.

Regional Networks & Tasks

The same idea could be applied to rural areas – in the UK Prince Charles is really into that sort of thing. I am imagining conferences on farming that are wider than just either: corporates or NGOs or charities or Government departments, but rather mix their participants based on topic, not polital unit.

This also implies the strength harnessed by Kickstarter: organise around tasks/goals. This is where the G-numbers have had success. It is important however that participants have the power to make changes. We could confer temporary task-force power on such people.

Some regions might want to hang out around “not feeling like they are part of their surrounding nation” like the Basque area of Spain and Massachusetts. They could chat about how to make free cities actually work.

Fuzzy boundaries

An idea to get our heads around might be that it is ok for some cities/regions to have more fuzzy boundaries. There are huge back and forth debates about country boundaries and visas, which I’ve only vaguely looked into, but I propose that boundaries can be more flexible than that.

They could be fuzzy for certain things or for certain people but solid for others, such as perhaps creating a global accord for academic visas, but still be more strict on tourist/working/immigration visas. Europe’s national boundaries now work in this way, with open borders for EU residents, while political borders remain in tact.

But boundaries could also be fuzzy only for certain times. Burning Man is an example of laws, cities, resources and boundaries that only exist at certain times of the year.

What are your ideas for stage 5 politics?

 

Money, part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post, describing my mission to actively move away from using money. This involved being homeless and discovering the opportunities of life without money.

Going back to money

I always knew I would be reintegrating with the “normal” world eventually. After a whole year of being homeless and surviving without money, I was ready to go back.

In discovering rationalism, I had come across some cool techniques for life. Using probabilities and a cost vs benefit analysis I decided to move to London and become a developer. This was calculated as a low-cost high reward strategy for maximum money in minimum time that had a good chance of success.

The ultimate goal was to make time for more philosophical activity in my life. The no-money route is an option to regain some time, but perhaps not enough. The costs are also high: poor physical health, lack of stability (high anxiety). In short, to reach my goals, I had to use money.

Emotional difficulties

Even though my feminist days gave me this advice: “we all are doing what we can to survive under unfair conditions, so it is wrong to criticise others who are performing along the expected lines of society”, I still suffered feelings of horrible guilt and of being a sell out.

I rationally knew that I had come up with a decent plan that might ultimately help me to do more of what I love, an activity which might help people and even contribute to changing the society I find myself in. However the feelings of being a sell-out, of “getting more right-wing as I got older” were strong. It took some years to be more at peace with my choices and even longer to find a framework that might help to describe them.

I also felt uncomfortable  earning (what felt like) an obscene amount of money in comparison to others. Coming from the local government sector gave me a strong sense that the people who do the hardest jobs get paid the least money. I also felt working class guilt, that I was being a traitor for accepting and using middle class salaries, buying myself middle class privileges.

Of course, it was harder for me to remember that my new salary was still below average, well below median and certainly not “obscene” by any measure.

 

I had to remind myself that it is ok to have money. Life is indeed much easier with money. I think the study about IQ drop when feeling anxiety over money has failed to replicate, like so many others, however the anxiety levels at the low-end of the money scale seem anecdotally extremely large, and are relieved entirely by a modest income. Having modest amounts of money allows for optimism for the future, enables regular excursions outside of the house, enables much easier social relations, allows freedom of travel and greatly improves physical health.

Another aspect of money relates to sharing your money. I can now be honest about my motivations for generosity, is it signalling, is it genuine concern? I now feel ok about exploring those ethics.

One thing is certain, being without money is an excellent way to understand and use it effectively.

Further Truths

It’s expensive to be poor.

This perverse rule was visible everywhere once I recognised it.

The ATMs in poor neighbourhoods always charge for withdrawals, because poor neighbourhoods don’t attract chain banks or other enterprises that provide free cash machines. It’s not worth it, because everyone there is poor.

The converse is also often true: it’s cheap to be rich. Rich people are often invited to free events in the random hope that someone will spend their money eventually on the host’s business. Art galleries have free private views. Overdrafts on wealthy client’s accounts are free, while poor people are penalised for even a £1 overdraft withdrawal. The richer you are, the more free things get offered to you. Of course, money makes more money if you just leave it alone, so the act of simply having some gives you an income on it as well.

Cheating on benefits is much harder than getting a job

Almost nobody does it, so get over it. Of the ones that do, it is our fault as a society for not providing more useful deception games that their skills could be applied to. Either way it is an acceptable loss.

 

Post-money

It doesn’t take very long to earn enough money such that survival is covered and all the questions about the meaning of life, and how to spend one’s time, return. For my freelance friends who really do earn obscene money, the problem of what to do every day becomes a real concern. Material benefits lose their charm alarmingly quickly. Boredom is the ultimate problem.

It leads me to wonder if there are groups of people with rich depression, whom we could leverage to do interesting things. It also makes me a proponent of universal benefit, which might be an interim step that will lead us to the idea that we should spend some time shunting around our shared, limited resources and the rest of the time getting together to do interesting things.

Money doesn’t need to be money

For some people (many?) their salary is much more to do with “numbers going up” – the dopamine reward system that video games harness so well, than it is to do with material goods or comfort. For those who are not too interested in the status that material goods bring, the motivation is more to do with the esteem a society holds them in (itself another kind of status).

This had led me to speculate about the possibility of divorcing “currency” – a phrase for the part of money that is a functional system of exchange rather than drag 2,000 eggs to market to swap for a cow – from the insane, imaginary mathematical games people play in financial markets that none the less cause ordinary people to lose their homes.

I recently spoke to a software developer in the finance industry who openly admitted that he engages in creating software that is deliberately difficult to use, so that financial investors feel as though they are actually doing something during their 90 hour work week, rather than admit that they do no better than random chance. His team actively re-writes old software with more complex navigation menus and deliberately obfuscatory usage procedures to supply the illusion that these people do something Very Hard that only Magic Skilled People can do.

I wonder how hard it would really be to round up the entire top several levels of the world financial system and quietly slide them all into an MMO or virtual world, where we tell them they are trading and have won and lost millions of “dollars” when actually we have disconnected them from the currency we use for basic goods, shelter and transport a long time ago.

Capitalism

I used to think capitalism was evil. Now I think it’s just a system.

I think it’s quite amenable to being hacked and changed, which is good. It might be the least bad system so far. It also doesn’t function in a vacuum. Capitalism so far has always operated with, alongside and within several other systems: nation states, governmental organisation systems, political systems, charity systems and particularly “welfare” systems. The welfare side is where we put lots of our human morals, and I now find it strange when people demand moral behaviour from capitalist systems.

There are some who believe that current systems would be improved if allowed to operate with the same rules as a “market”. I think they are correct in some cases, but it would be disastrous in others.

I do think there are aspects to markets/capitalism that mean it has never been a complete or functioning system. For example, natural resources are exploited at no cost, giving the illusion of eternal resources and thus eternal growth. I will be very interested to see how capitalism changes when this loop is closed, such as when governments give natural resource systems legal rights, or with carbon taxes.

I feel optimistic that since capitalism is subject to theories as engines, not as cameras, it will continuously evolve and will no doubt be a useful system in the system tool box for a long time.

Emotionally Dealing With Cheaters

It’s time for some emotional maturity when it comes to agents engaged in systems.

Hawks and Doves

A few decades ago, a couple of scientists applied game theory to evolutionary development. The result was evolutionary game theory and it gave us some neat new ways to understand evolution.

The most famous example of this work is known as “hawks and doves”. The premise is that given a certain set of circumstances, individuals within the same species competing for finite resources may have more than one strategy for obtaining those resources. Divided simplistically, an individual may behave in a “dove”-like fashion ie standing down from conflict (after an initial bluff of force) and sharing resources with other doves it discovers, both of whom are non-violent or a “hawk”-like fashion ie following through on threats of violence and not sharing resources with others. The dove strategy has low costs but also low rewards while the other has high cost but also higher potential reward.

The theorists produced a graph that showed which strategy might be optimal under which conditions. There is an awful lot more to evolutionary game theory however I mention this as an illustrative example.

Depending on the conditions, you have a certain percentage of hawks and doves. The more hawks you have, the more costly it is to be one as you might starve or be killed. The more doves you have, the higher the reward for being a hawk (violent and not sharing) since almost everyone you meet is a dove and will back down. In the high dove scenario, it makes sense for more individuals to become hawks since the rewards are high and the risks very low. Once you have several hawks though, the chances of meeting another hawk are higher and it once again becomes too costly to be one compared to the expected reward. There is a certain balance that appears between the types of strategy. The exact ratios depend on the situation, but what I want to point out is that you always have some hawks.

Social Strategies/Cheaters

Evolutionary game theory goes on to analyse circumstances where individuals within a species co-operate to a certain extent, rather than compete.

Humans often co-operate, and this behaviour is said to be ‘social’. Humans are one of the most socially sophisticated animals on the planet.

In a highly social society there are systems of rules in place and a few different strategies for success. Social systems are typically based on varying degrees of trust, you need to trust that other people will follow the rules and humans have evolved extremely complex skills and heuristics to assess trustworthiness in others.

One strategy in trust based systems is to fake trustworthiness, not abide by the rules, screw people over and reap the benefits. This strategy risks being caught and completely shunned, which may even lead to death. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that is the social equivalent to a hawk.

It seems to be that any social system that has rules based on trust is also open to the possibility of cheating being a viable strategy. In any social game you always have some cheaters.

Stopping Cheaters

Our social evolution has given humans pretty powerful tools to spot a cheater, helping groups to keep cheaters to a minimum. Many of our formal systems also have safeguards to attempt to weed out cheaters.

However, I frequently come across the assumption that it would be ideal to completely eliminate cheaters. This is wrong.

Eliminating cheaters is not possible. All games of any complexity have rules and therefore can be cheated. The more dove-like rule-followers a game has, the greater the rewards are for cheating and so the likelihood of having cheaters in the game increases. I believe that past a certain point you have a power-law situation with cheaters, where the energy expended to detect and remove cheaters grows exponentially the lower the number of cheaters becomes. Eventually, the measures taken to eliminate the cheaters become more injurious for everyone than the harm the cheaters are causing.

A recent example from my life: at a Pride parade of tens of thousands of people a political group of a dozen participants was denied entry, but unofficially they ‘broke in’ at the end of the column and marched anyway. Despite the fact that the organisers had made reasonable efforts to prevent the group from marching that year the outrage was huge, so the following year the organisers implemented a security system requiring all 10,000 people to acquire official wristbands, the parade needed extra staff, security barriers and to change the assembly point and shorten the parade route. The measures far exceeded the harm.

Eliminating cheaters is not necessarily desirable. Cheaters have to develop great skill to cheat, skills that are often prized in general, from thorough attention to detail to ingenuity, innovation and improvisation. In David Chapman’s essay ‘Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths’ the sociopaths – the cheaters – have an important function. They use their skills to market the New Thing made by the Geeks, making money and enriching culture, even if they reap an unfair share of the rewards. Sociopaths in general are quite likely to be cheaters but also quite likely to be very useful, like surgeons.

Emotional maturity

The extreme measures taken to eliminate cheaters seem to be often caused by the emotional pain of being a rule-follower and seeing or knowing that there are cheaters. Cheaters seem to reap great rewards, while the costs of the strategy are less visible. The emotional reaction can blind people to other causes for cheating, such as injustice (which I think may have played a part in the Pride parade example).

This emotional overreaction goes for double when money is involved – the obvious example is rabidity over benefit/welfare cheaters. I think the extra effort expended on trying to prevent cheaters is one of the key reasons that universal benefit works out cheaper.

People also seem to overestimate how many cheaters there are. I would expect any system to be capable of supporting around 10% hawks/cheaters. However from internet reading I’ve done about crimes, false claims about crimes (eg false insurance claims, false rape claims) are around 2%. This seems absurdly low.

The emotional desire to eliminate cheaters is prioritised over the rational knowledge that cheaters are inevitable, exist in low numbers and are even desirable. We need to sort that out because so often the measures to prevent cheaters are worse than the cheaters themselves.

 

 

Existing signs of fluidity

Required Reading

Robert Kegan’s personal development framework, summarised here by David Chapman. You might also like to read my earlier thoughts about what Stage 5 or “fluid mode” is, or means, for individuals.

This post will be taking huge liberties with material that is intended to describe personal, cognitive and social development of an individual by applying it to wider societal structures. One of my philosophical itches relates to the fact that scale is important, and different methods are needed at different scales of operation, so I am wary of the pitfalls of taking these liberties.

This, as most of my posts, should be taken as an exercise or thought experiment.

Where we are now

At the moment, society is largely at Stage 4, and has been since the tribal group style typical of Stage 3 began to decline.

Stage 3 society is based on relationships and feelings are paramount. This works well in a tribal group (and still operates in small groups, eg rural villages).

Stage 4 societies use a system to organise and make decisions, with relationships deliberately distanced from decisions, because within this stage, that is more fair. For example, the legal system relies on pre-agreed codes of justice, not the personal relationships of those involved, to make fair decisions.

Systemic organisation has given us almost everything we have in society today, from healthcare to exploring space. But, is there room for more growth?

Many current alternative belief/sanctity doctrines, such as groups with New Age / “hippy” values mourn the loss and call for the return of stage 3-style living. This would be a backward step. The way forward involves synthesising everything learned from stage 3 and stage 4 together.

While wider society does indeed have many successful stage 4 systems that can interact with each other, something more is required to become more like stage 5. Chapman’s description of stage 5 for people is very useful:

You have several such systems, “multiple selves,” none of them entirely coherent, and which have different values—and this is no longer a problem, because you respect all of them.

Society has many systems, but most are still invested in the idea that systems must be entirely coherent and that systems that have different values cannot coexist, be reconciled or demand equal respect at the same time because this would be contradictory. Politics is a great example. All the players must behave as if their chosen team on the political spectrum is inherently, objectively right and the others terribly wrong.

Stage 4 societal systems are interacting with each other in the same way as stage 4 people co-operate: very successfully, coordinating calendars etc, but not yet showing stage 5 fluidity.

This post will submit some ideas for institutions that are exhibiting Stage 5 dynamics.

Candidates

Kickstarter et al.

Crowd funding seems to have features that are more like stage 5. It involves co-operation from many people who are different from each other, who probably have wildly differing systems of belief and ethics. Differences are no longer very important because the focus is the end goal.

Crowd funding temporarily brings people together around a node point, a common goal, and they will disperse when the goal is achieved. This node point is slicing reality along a different, specific line. The rules for the node are set by the creators and rather than appealing to a broad identity eg “all Democrats” the appeal is much more specific eg “anyone who wants an Alsatian puppy calendar”.

Because the focus is the end goal, the systems that have been leveraged to make it happen are no longer very important, rather they are shown to be tools used to achieve the goal rather than identities for its participants.

Elon Musk

There are some people who appear to be “hacking” systems, in this case capitalism, harvesting rewards and then leveraging the benefits.

It is likely that individuals have done this within companies and governments for centuries but Elon Musk is a visible example with public goals.

He identified that the best way to make money within our current money system – capitalism – is to make money from money (Paypal as a money transfer service).

Once he was one of the top 100 most wealthy people in the world, he turned his attention to other goal-focussed pursuits. The world is probably lucky that he wants to improve the lot of humanity with high-speed travel, space exploration and green energy.

My point with Musk is that, having exploited a stage 4 system he can now work around those systems and above their heads.

Even just a decade ago it was inconceivable that anyone would market an electric car, because the oil industry is too big and powerful. Indeed, a new product must jump through many hoops to come to market, from patents to funding to marketing to market share to fending off legal battles. It was impossible to imagine any company achieving this. What happened instead was a person who sliced reality along different lines.

The gradual rise up a chain of hierarchical systems is not necessary for Musk. Once one has a certain amount of wealth, one can be more or less outside of most of these concerns. His product does not have to get funding or acquire market share any time soon, much less turn a profit. Money can be thrown at lawyers from the oil industry and at marketing. So, Musk managed to just pop out an electric car, seemingly out of nowhere.

By providing a ready-made product, Musk drives change from above back down through some stage 4 systems, like governments, via (for example) demand for new electric infrastructure. In the US, his company has taken over this stage 4 operation.

Further, Musk actively works together with other companies. He is known to sell his electric car components to other car manufacturers relatively cheaply. His company also negotiates long-term investment from them in exchange for these cheap, high quality components or for long term help in their research and development departments. In addition, he allows “good faith” access to patents held by his companies to help other firms advance their technology in his areas of interest.

This to me is stage 5 capitalism. Everyone has their separate companies, their private patents and are technically in competition. But when striving to change the world  (and when money is no longer an issue) the best way to productively move forward is to once again collaborate, share information and support others around specific goals.

Open-source

Technology developers worldwide (particularly software developers) have for a long time been sharing their work online for free. The work on software does not end at the moment a piece of code is given away, rather many people also actively maintain and debug the software after the fact. This involves a lot of effort and usage of free time.

This seems to have come about due to a combination of good wages in the stage 4 realms that support developers and good will amongst the community. Many developers sympathise with having to write boring code, so libraries have been created such that no-one has to repeat unnecessary labour.

Developers also foster that “for the good of the world” feeling. Open-source software is made available for free to anyone, not just other devs. As software becomes more complex it is increasingly obvious that only collaborative effort will move technology forward. Opensource is an alternative to corporate invention, partly so that life-changing technologies are not owned exclusively by a single company but also partly because such entities are too narrow in their R&D focus.

Summary thoughts

If Chapman is correct about STEM people and stage 4, it is no accident that these three examples are all in STEM fields.

These examples all share something that I feel is very important: goal focus. I believe goal focus flattens out old hierarchies and makes systemic differences less important. These goals also have a certain flavour, to improve the world or to maximise fun. They fill the gaps in capitalism’s goals which are too narrow.

This goal focus is possible because there is another assumption along side it: that we are participating in something that is shared. With Kickstarter it is normally a shared geeky hobby. Elon Musk’s visions assume a shared human race, a shared planet and a shared solar system. Developers exist in a shared community and all hands are needed in software right now so that community also extends to the human race. However this shared environment acknowledges stage 4’s differentiation before building a sense of sharing.

The humanities seem to be straining towards some flatter hierarchies, for example reinventing the system for peer-reviewed papers which would be in line with Foucault’s criticisms of institutional power, however change is still extremely slow.

Can you think of other things that seem to operate on a stage 5 level?

 

Postmodernist Territory

Cover Photo by James Walshe

Intro: You already know this stuff

Sometimes people feel they don’t grasp Postmodernism because they believe it must be complicated, when in fact many parts of it are “obvious”, “normal” or already part of everyday life. We live in a postmodern world and from the end of high school onwards we have been taught and use postmodern principles. Some people feel they don’t understand Postmodernism because of an absence of a  lengthy explanation of it, they feel it must have long words or difficult concepts. There must be a certain amount of forehead wrinkles and frowning before you can say you Get It when it comes to Postmodernism. Whereas the truth is that no-one explains it at length because there is nothing more to say that you don’t already know from your postmodern life experience. To a postmodern person, Postmodernism really is quite “simple” and its concepts appear to be self-evident.

Modernity

Postmodernism is the word for thoughts you have as an inevitable result of achieving Modernism.

I highly recommend this essay by Nadia Rodinskaya about the two shifts in intellectual thought that humans have had so far. Seriously, it’s very enlightening and lays the ground for what is said here. Meaningness talks about this in detail too.

Modernism is stage 4 incarnate, all human life systematised and interlocking extremely well. Some systems are so efficient that human actors are no longer needed (eg factories). Urban planning has gone from not existing to common knowledge. Machines and rational efficiencies have been used in every corner of life, not excluding “natural” life eg farming but also eating, sleeping and defecating. Everything has optimised systems to manage processes in increasingly efficient ways. They are entirely invented and maintained by system 4 successes, normally in terms of civic government & services or capitalist concerns – these include banks, trade routes etc as well as business entities.

These projects need not be complete in every domain for the problems of systems to become intellectually apparent. The precursors of Postmodernism in philosophy were writing in the 19th century. In some ways the next 100 years was a project of figuring out what the hell to say but first building a language to say it in. In the 1960s – 80s  the stuff that the Postmodern philosophers were coming out with was pretty great (and their thoughts are precursors to Constructivism in Nadia’s essay).

At first there were a lot of counter arguments that challenged the status quo of how to think about science and the assumptions we have about knowledge. Criticising Modernism.

Then they made up new ideas about knowledge and meaning (and most people don’t know that part).

Part 1: The counter argument

Post-structuralist critique part 1

Some philosophies in the 20th century were about trying to find an underlying structure to human behaviour, just like that which had been found in physics, biology and so on. The most famous was linguistics – trying to find how language is acquired and what rules govern it.  The people who we now call post-structuralists critiqued this idea in two ways. Firstly, they stated that people do not operate according to structures. Secondly, that as people ourselves it is impossible to “get outside” of a human system to have a scientific, “objective” view of human systems.

They did this in a fancy way and Derrida is the leader, and his stuff is really dense. If you’d like to know more about the details of critiquing structures philosophically, he’s your man.

Inherent bias: Feminists smash up social theory, art and psychology.

One of the ways to know that people do not fit nicely into structures is to be someone for whom the structures do not work, people who are squished or erased by “objective” notions of how people are. The most numerous people in this category are women. Feminist writers took apart everything we thought we already knew in the 20th Century.

Art

Susan Sontag’s critique of cameras as phallic, ahistorical, unreality-death-machines in ‘On Photography’ is utterly dark and convincing. If you’d like some Postmodern nihilism, I can’t recommend this enough.

Psychology

Luce Irigaray’s project was critiquing psychoanalysis. Her books wade in and deconstruct every aspect of psychoanalysis with feminist theory so new and so extreme it’s like a welding torch. In hindsight, Freud was easy pickings for feminists since he based all his theories on men and then sometimes created a ‘mirror image’ for women or just presumed women were the same. Nope.

Irigaray’s alternative feminist psychoanalysis project was a brave and complicated effort, but I think is kind of pointless except as an intellectual exercise because psychoanalysis never had much good to say about women and finally not much good to say about anything after a certain point. It was extremely important but I think more as a step on the path than a Theory of Everything.

Literature

I think it was via Luce Irigary that I came across the idea that not only essays and novels but language and sentence construction itself is an imposed patriarchal system. That grammar rules are a too-strict arbitrary system that restricts its user base, creates unnecessary hierarchies and loses richness of meaning in favour of technical rules.

I think that is mostly silly but none the less there is the seed of an important idea in there. Kathy Acker did some extraordinary literary experiments involving stuff like this, so if you’d like a book that makes William Burroughs’ cut-up technique look like child’s play I recommend her work. Lots of sex and blood too.

Female Life

Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was published in the 1940s and still endures as relevant today. It totally nailed the description of female life within and without these structures built by men in the everyday world. If you want a primer for feminist thoughts and only read one book: dip in and out of this one. Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher and because of this book she totally beats Sartre on historical significance and coolness.

Conclusion

All these structures you thought you’d made suck balls and don’t work.

Not rational digression

Just a quick digression: it was only as a result of postmodern thinking that anyone questioned the idea that humans typically act in a rational way. It took until the 1970s before psychology devised experiments that showed that not only are people more governed by their emotions than previously thought but that they actually act really irrationally, all the time, even if you try to help them with the way you devise the test.

The 70s! Think about that. It’s hard to imagine that before that, everyone was presumed to be rational. Well, white men at least. This assumption was key to propping up all the institutions we have. In fact it still is. How to deal with irrational agents operating inside a rational system is still something we are struggling with.

Post-structuralist critique part 2

Ok, so far I’ve only really talked about current structures for humans being flawed. That doesn’t mean the principle of systems is wrong, does it? Well, now for the good stuff: later Postmodern philosophers point out that “scientific” thinking is also just wrong according to its own principles.

This is talked about a lot by Foucault, using a technique he called “archaeology” to compare scientific reasoning, methodology and behaviour over time. He argued that self-proclaimed ‘objective’ systems of thought were constituted entirely from contingent historical and social influences and the changes within disciplines or the invention of new disciplines are all entirely guided by these cultural and accidental influences. In fact, they always have been.

At first he looked at specific areas, like the history of mental illness, then the medical clinic but eventually he did a history of “the human sciences”.

It became increasingly apparent with Foucault that not only was it foolish to apply physics-like principles to systems for human beings but that all science, physics included, is so skewed by cultural sanction as to lose all ability to claim objectivity or to elucidate ‘truth’.

(No arguing with me in the comments before you’ve read some of his work.)

 

The 4.5 gap

Many people and philosophies get stuck here. Systems seem to have it wrong and the critique of that is quite convincing. This makes systems seem to be interchangeably bad, or in another way to be equally valid. Ethical relativism looms large in particular. Very common in normal postmodern life seems to be the idea that “all opinions are valid”. There seems to be an impasse as to how to judge anything, and whether any meaning is even possible.

Is this the missing stance combination of monist nihilism? We have moved on from stage 4, which tends to favour the division of things into categories because it is a stage of independence and separation. We are moving towards a stage of inclusion (like the previous stage 3), implying a move away from division, but nothing seems to mean anything. Therefore, “all is one” in the sense that old categories do not exist, “all is one” in the sense that all is interchangeable/equivalent and the stance is “nihilist” because this equivalence erases meaning.

The real: a nihilist cul-de-sac

I’m placing this section here because it seems to fit a 4.5 nihilistic train of thought.

Lots of recent postmodern thinkers became caught up in the real, or specifically the absence of it, getting quite attached to the idea that no one can experience the real any more, using words like hyperreal or “real”.

Baudrillard talks about “the absence of negation” ie the negative side of real – “not real” -has gone. “Not real” has been replaced by something different – “artificial”, which is not quite the same. We run around in “artificial” a lot in everyday life and Baudrillard claims that since that is true, we also cannot experience real things any more because “artificial” is not the opposite of real, therefore both “real” and “not real” have become lost to us.

Baudrillard goes on and on with this stuff, but I’m not sure it needs exploring unless you really want to. The Matrix (the film) does in fact explain some of the main concepts pretty well, although Baudrillard is not talking about the ancient “brain in a jar” philosophical problem like The Matrix does.

I surmise that in 2016 we pretty much feel this concept intuitively. We all experience this real-not-real stuff on a day-to-day basis, especially when using the internet, but really it is in all forms of media.

I think Baudriallard was crapping his pants about losing a binary of real/not real and not knowing what will take its place. He seems to fear that humanity will collapse into a void. But, like almost everything, this hyperreal problem is not that scary, we are all basically fine with it in day-to-day life and the void has yet to swallow us. It also has loads of benefits which point towards stage 5 style usages.

Getting unstuck

So, it’s easy to get stuck here in monist nihilism because moving on from here is pretty hard. If not a system to make judgements, then what? What words can I even use? Luckily, philosophers come to the rescue, Thinking Very Hard is what we pay them for after all.

Part 2: What there is instead (the stuff people don’t know)

While it is clear that rational systems clearly don’t cut the mustard it is also clear that everything, especially social systems of persons, is not entirely in chaos. Social norms are in fact surprisingly consistent on the whole, even if they can differ in the details.

When postmodern philosophers discuss this they are pointing out what Meaningness.com calls pattern. They have come up with a few ways to talk about the nebulous yet patterned nature of life beyond systems.

Social inscriptions

Simone de Beauvoir not only described female life she also stated that gender was inscribed on a person by societal norms. Social rules can bruise one into conforming, sanctioned behaviour wears down grooves in a person from the outside. This is in contrast to the systemic idea that a personality springs from the inside, representing a unified self that maneuvers rationally within society. De Beauviour said that society both produces and potentially reduces the person. At the time de Beauvoir was not refuting notions of the self, merely adding to the spectrum of representation of the ‘norm’.

Much more recently the philosopher Judith Butler described her notions of the ‘performance’ of gender, where gender is a series of acts that you do rather than a thing that you are.

Each time a performance is accepted by others the information about permissible acts is reinscribed in the person. There is a continuous flowing feedback loop between self and other that is cooperatively reinscribed.

This process can be a powerful force to preserve the status quo, but there is possibility for change in this model since translations from person to person or within groups can gradually evolve new meanings, whether deliberate or accidental. In addition, challenging acts can be performed that may or may not gain acceptance. Art and jokes are places where challenging representations can be enacted.

Society then is seen as a continuous series of interactions, or dance of performative meaning. (We are starting to sound stage 5ish now aren’t we?)

This idea can be applied to any label or role in society as well as gender.

This more general trick of turning a noun (‘identity’) which is solid and fixed into a verb (‘performance of identity’) which is active and changeable is a useful technique for sliding around systemic thinking.

Rhizomes

I recommend being pretty stoned when reading Deleuze & Guattari but especially Deleuze. Or do I? All I remember is that they use the word “rhizome” a lot in ‘One Thousand Plateaus’ and seem to be describing both the bifurcation of plant limbs and also the flowing movement of stuff or information around pathways that are both well-trodden and also continuously changing.

(That and the black hole/white wall dichotomy which seems to me  to have the same unknowable message as the film 2001:A Space Odyssey but in overblown fancy French. )

Anyway the rhizome pathways seem quite cool as an idea. For a STEM application: I’ve seen some research talking about networks as a system of nodes that have a certain number of connections. The research involved flows of information, and examining whether the richness of connections that a node has effects that flow.

Power lines

After his analyses of modern systems of thought, Foucault went on to formulate explanations of modern society along different lines than that held by structures. His key ideas were around knowledge and power.

Foucault claimed that, for example, biological sciences are not in the practice of ‘objective study’, they are not uncovering something that was already there, like the rubbing of the gravestone, rather they are bringing into being the object of study. Science creates things that were not previously there by categorising, labelling and cataloguing.

In this way Foucault claims that the Victorians were not disinterested in sex, or prudish about it, rather they were obsessed with it. More cataloguing, category-making and forethought went into sex during this period than any other. The reason they did this was to make efforts to control it.

For Foucault, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

Foucault’s point is rather that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.

By knowing something, it can then be designated as “normal” or “abnormal” or “deviant”. In this way certain things can be sanctioned and other things repudiated. Power structures have evolved to reshape what is considered deviant behaviour, rather than simply punish acts. Foucault more often calls this power relations and describes flows of power around nexus points of knowledge and historical contingency.

He gives examples of these flows, which have influenced each other and sprung up for innocuous reasons but have become sites of power. One example is the examination.

The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth”. It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behavior (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).

Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Here again I believe we have a powerful example of somewhat abstract things flowing around a network of node points with stable yet changing connections and configurations.

Making meaning

Almost all the Postmodern philosophers retreat to aesthetics or art to talk about how to make decisions and how to make meaning. I think they are touching on the same thing that I am talking about when I say “judging” and David at Meaningness is talking about with meta-rationality and meta-systemicity.

They seem to be saying that the decision making process is now closer to ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that it is more a matter of sensibility to make judgements, rather than recourse to objective facts. Some talk about fusing rhetoric with aesthetics, perhaps to show it comes from somewhere. More research needed!

Fluid Mode

It is my view that several Postmodern philosophers have given us a consistent language and concepts with which to grapple past stage 4.5. These concepts slice reality along different lines.

Foucault deals explicitly with boxing things up into categories and labels, and what happens when you do so. He then offers what seems to be a more “zoomed out” view of all these different systems, showing the flows of power and knowledge over, between and around the systems we have created.

Deleuze and Guttari’s rhizomes feel like this too. I think there is so much more to be discovered but the original writing is really dense. I would go for these guys over Zizeck any day of the week though.

Butler has described a continuous and flowing notion of a “self” and a “society”/”other” that is by necessity always a performance (and therefore not necessarily a “true self”) which is always collaborative, is often stable but always slowly changing.

(In an interesting side-note I listened to a lecture of hers which marries the rights of prisoners to the rights of disabled people through the concepts of freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. This is very related to Foucault, whose work focussed on prisons and marginalised groups. It also shows how to bring two unrelated groups together in the same thought process by examining an entirely different axis.)

Conclusion

To conclude: I believe these flowing, changeable things that none the less have pathways, grooves and nodes or nexus points are the metaphorical ideas to move forward with. It is this flowy nature that I use to identify possible fluid mode phenomena, and it was this postmodern background that lead me to think Meaningness.com was onto something.

Extras

Labels

In true stage 5/bisexual/Postmodern fashion, almost all post-structuralist and postmodernist philophers explicitly reject the labels applied to them. Some of them are not even philosophers, which is illustrative of formal categories breaking down in academia, which is itself illustrative of stage 5 thinking being well under way in thought arenas. The overarching placeholder word “theory” is now taken to mean the people and ideas I have mentioned plus many more, who range across disciplines.

Omissions and errors

I have attempted to make a sketch of philosophical postmodernism and have missed out loads of it. Tell me which bits you’d like an expansion on! I may have made errors.

Notes

I have yet to figure out proper notes and references, sorry. Below are authors who are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period. These are philosophy based. The ones with stars are the ones I have read. Titles after the names are ones I recommend.

Kathy Acker *
Jean Baudrillard * ‘Simulations’
Judith Butler * ‘Gender Trouble’
Rey Chow
Hélène Cixous
Gilles Deleuze *
Jacques Derrida
Umberto Eco *
John Fiske (media studies)
Michel Foucault * ‘History of Sexuality Vol.1’
Félix Guattari *
René Girard
Luce Irigaray *
Sarah Kofman
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
Jean-François Lyotard *
Jean-Luc Nancy
Avital Ronell

Also mentioned:

Simone De Beauvoir* ‘The Second Sex’

 

What is Stage 5’s environment?

In Robert Kegan’s book, the fifth stage of cognitive, personal and social evolution is called  the Inter-Individual Stage. I find this to be the least useful of all the names for the stages.

According to his framework, one moves from “being” one’s current environment to “having” it as a tool. At stage 3, one “is” one’s relationships. One “is” a father, a son, a friend and performance in those relationships equals one’s success and sense of self.

In stage 4 one goes from being “embedded” in relationships to “having” relationships. One is now embedded in a “system” that governs those relationships, as well as everything else in life, from ethics to personal goals. One “is” one’s system, such that threats to one’s system (eg religion, political leaning, career title) are threats to the self.

In stage 5 one moves from being “embedded” in a system to “having” systems that can be used as tools. But the new “embedded” state does not have a strong name.

Stage 5 environment name

Kegan talks about how graduation from stage 4 might have no road-map in romantic relationships and it is generally equally rejected in workplace environments. His attempt to describe a marriage in stage 5 terms seems a little handwavey.

He went on to write a book for businesses about how to foster a good “holding einvironment” for employees and another book about the breakdown of support for stage 3-4 in society in general. Stage 5 is treated rarely.

Meaningness.com is currently doing a fascinating series of posts about moving from stage 4 to 5 and they are using the phrase “meta-systemic”. I think this is perfect for the STEM audience. Elsewhere in meaningness the relevant phrases are “complete stance” and “fluid mode”.

The “stances” are Chapman’s own creation (with due nods to all the inspirations for it) and I think the name can appeal to general readers and to people more inclined to social or spiritual vocabulary.

The identity politics social science types will, I think, resonate strongly with “fluid mode”. I blog elsewhere about bisexual politics and “fluid” is one of the common labels used as an alternative to “bisexual”.

All of these names are good. All are better than straining to make every stage begin with an “I” like Kegan does and therefore land on “inter-individual”. I think it is better if also interchanged freely with “inter-institutional”. NB in Latin “inter” means “between” and “among”.

Descriptions of stage 5

None the less all of these names seem to not quite capture the whole. I think this is not least because the whole is very hard to describe. Having said that, let’s take a wander over to David’s summary of stage 5. Go on, you can’t get away with not reading this forever.

The descriptions around systems are very lucid.

A favourite bit:

Fluid epistemology can relate systems to each other, in a way that the systematic mode cannot. Systems become objects of creative play rather than constitutive of self, other, and groups. Fluidity can hold contradictions between systems comfortably while respecting the specific functioning and justification-structure of each.11 All ideologies are relativized as tools rather than truths.

And for ethics:

It takes ethics to be a matter of collaborative practical improvisation that is responsive to specific situations.

The Meaningness project is not entirely Stage 5, or hardly anyone would understand it, but it involves many things that stage 5 also involves. I like Chapman’s phrases : “collaborative”, “playful interaction”, “nebulous yet patterned”.

What are we doing in stage 5?

To get to our embededness, which may be impossible, we need to think about what we are doing in stage 5. My own thoughts:

Having fun with “boundaries” and “rules”.

Deliberately drawing and re-drawing boundaries of objects or the self can be so fun! Deliberately re-aligning perception. Such as the game mentioned in this post of looking at a street from the point of view of an architect, then a homless person, then a street runner, then a geologist. How the landscape changes! How meanings and value shine and fade for each object! Yet the physical street remains the same.

Experimenting by using the rules of one game to play another. Smooshing categories together and pulling them back apart in an elastic, reflective manner.

So many things are suddenly less vitally important, and I mean vital in the sense that it supports or threatens life. Now that whole systems are not contiguous with one’s identity, it is possible to use them for play like never before. Experimental, reflective, elastic, play.

Conjuring with systems

Applying systems in appropriate situations. Trying a new system if one is not working. Formulating problems with greater sympathy and skill.  Using experience, experiment, abstractions to inform system-choosing. (Meaningness will cover all this much better than me).Smooshing systems together to make new ones. This feels like judging (without an ethical or moral dimension).

Collaborating

Now that boundaries are flexible and meanings fluid, collaboration becomes the time-bound and circumstance-bound moment to work within a framework for a while with other people. The framework can pre-exist, or be made up. This can work really well for achieving goals, as well as playing. This can happen with people with whom one previously had nothing in common, or even people one deliberately avoided or hated. When the game you’ve decided upon is complete, the meanings and rules can float away again. It is hard not to call this activity a “dance”, where people and meanings come together at a node point, then move away, over and over. The stage 5 version is so flexible because the node points can be anything, rather than rigid systems decided by majority and encrusted by tradition so as to be trustworthy.

A new name?

Does this leave us with a new name? My words have been: play, elastic, flexible, collaborate, judge, smoosh. I feel I want to say it is an ability to be both vague and distinct, both flexible and rigid. This reminds me of sexuality, how a word meaning both men and women just doesn’t cut it as a description for bisexual people.

In the end I think we will get no better than “fluid” for now, until we see some brave stage 6ers using “fluidity” as a tool for something else, embedded in something new entirely.

Which words are your favourite and why? Do you have any ideas for new words?

Reaching Stage 5 – non STEM

Required reading

This post uses a key framework: Chapman’s version of Robert Kegan’s theories of emotional, cognitive and social development, it is summarised here.

This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.

This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.

Reaching Stage 5

As previously discussed, it might be harder than it used to be to reach stage 4 in current society. Humanities students may have it pretty bad (and presumably the other 60% of the population with no higher education at all). STEM students have the best chance of achieving stage 4.

Employment is the other stage 4 structure which might support stage 3 people. But as Kegan has pointed out, up to one third of the adult American population are stage 3 people living uncomfortably inside a stage 4 society, including stage 4 employment, without acheiving stage 4 themselves through their working environment.

So Chapman focusses on creating new structures to support stage 4 STEM educated people to progress to stage 5 with less difficulty. He is correct to identify this group as potentially the lowest hanging fruit.

In this post I will talk about my own experiences of (I think) reaching stage 4 and 4.5 not quite through STEM education, rather through a mixture of politics and STEM-type things. The purpose is to potentially identify next-lowest hanging fruit and possible cultural change that will support more stage 4 development that is not through STEM.

Personal caveats

I’m currently reading one of Robert Kegan’s books – one of the source materials for the stages theory I am talking about – and I feel struck by the possibility of my own uneven evolution through the stages.

Uneven in the sense of mastering some childhood stages above – averagely quickly but then possibly remaining stuck in a stage long after the average age of transition is expected during childhood, teens and 20s,  then perhaps being in the next stage for a very short time before finally entering my current one.

Uneven also in the sense of perhaps being in one stage regarding abstract reasoning that is much further along than the stage I’m in regarding emotionally relating with other people.

As with any framework, Kegan’s stages are illuminating for many situations but not applicable in all. No doubt there are also huge pitfalls with attempting to analyse oneself with these things, however with these caveats we will move forward anyway! For now this post will focus on abstract reasoning ability.

Humanities education

Up to school leaving age I think it is remarkable that I mixed together technical subjects with humanities subjects in equal measure. I enjoyed the scientific method and computing as well as my earlier love of English, literature, history and languages. The pressure to take courses between the age of 16-18 that “obviously” go together was pretty strong, to thus futher specialise during higher education. For exmaple, taking Maths and Physics at age 18 to go on to do Engineering at university. This happens less in the States, where a ‘major’ subject is also supported by other learning at college.

In this context I was being wilfully strange by taking humanities and STEM subjects together.

I waited a few years before attending college during which time I wrote poetry and worked in bookshops. At college,  I made a strange sideways choice to study Fine Art, a surprise to everone, not least myself. I was pretty shit at art so steeped myself in philosophy/theory instead and yes, was indeed taught about postmodernism. It was an elective module that I duly elected. In my own personal case I cannot agree that my tutors did not understand postmodern thought properly and I feel I was left to make my own investigations into its territory in the sense that I wouldn’t get a bad grade if I didn’t internalise postmodern principles.

We focussed on postmodern (and crucially, post-structrualist) thought exclusively within arty, theory, air fairy domains and so I was free to consign it to ‘only relevant to philsophy’ in my brain.

None the less I learned the important idea from Baudrillard that rationalists condense down into the phrase ‘the map is not the territory’. I also got a strong sense that post-structuralist thought was critiquing the idea that human behaviour could be discovered if the rules for the scaffolding could only be worked out.

I liken this to taking a rubbing from a gravestone. The old and time-worn words on an ancient stone are not easily legible, but if one takes a piece of paper and a wax crayon and makes a rubbing of the stone, the crayon will highlight in much greater relief the contrast between the smooth stone and the indented words.

In the same way, persons of the sciences as they are applied to people hoped to simply interrogate humans enough so as to divine the underlying structure which would explain all human behaviour.

(I’ve mentioned in another post how terrifying it would be if such knowledge was put in the hands of people in positions of power over others).

The post-structuralists pointed out the absurdity of looking for structures (or even just one structure) that explains all human behaviour when it is almost definitely not there.

This idea seems a bit obvious to a postmodern teenager, but being forced to discover what modernism was or what structuralism was gave me great insight into the evolution I had been born into.

It could still be true that I had this training in the absence of systemic training however my personal scientific mindset was already present and the disciplines of film photography as well as painting methods had to be fully mastered before receiving anything close to praise from tutors.

Also during university years I discovered feminism. This political line of thought said: there is a system called patriarchy and while it is not so obvious any more it is still fucking you over. Understanding that system and understanding it’s critique was another subject of my university years.

Feminism and other social justice goals became my stage 4 system for a few years. It was the personal system within which I made meaning. It was a framework that shaped my beliefs, projects and political opinions. I think I retained some hesitancy over absolutism or fanaticism though, due to my earlier brushes with postmodernism, as well as exposure to extremely sophisticated feminist thought. 

For relationships, I have said before that polyamory probably provided that bridge to stage 4 in emotional terms. 

So far, we have seen that all of this development was from a humanities input, and informed by a much earlier interest (age 15) in computing and science.

political upheaval

In 2011 I was experiencing a resurgence of anxiety and panic attacks. I felt that something was missing from life and my part time library work and part time activism were not stimulating enough. It was also the year a series of riots broke out, the first in my home town of Bristol. Globally,  the Occupy Movement began and I was involved with my local chapter. I was excited by the newness of the movement and the potential for change but dismayed by reports of sexism and homophobia in the camps, as well as knowing that Occupy was about questions, not answers.

My solution to this anxiety was radical upheaval. I made myself homeless and went on and odyssey of knowledge.

It was in these years that my politics was challenged by a rationalist. They asked me to articulate the other persons point of view on a political issue. I managed it, but it was an unfamiliar exercise. Throughout the subsequent protest I was morose. The idea that the people I was protesting against might actually have a point was a very difficult one.

I subsequently dived into LessWrong, probability theory, Slatestarcodex and the rest but ultimately I feel it was emotional reactions to a political system that began the process of stage 4 to 5 transition.

I think I must admit that my process was deeply informed by scientific and rational principles, plus I’m extremely self reflective but I think my 3-4-5 transition was largely in arts and humanities areas.

My thoughts on this story are perhaps less specialisation between arts and humanities should be encouraged. Cross-specialisation is needed.

I also think STEM minded people have a tendency to dismiss emotional frameworks as unscientific or not useful because they don’t understand them very well, so STEM background people need humanities training just as much as the other way around. 

You might want to check out my cross pollination zine for ideas about how rationalism and feminism could learn from each other. 

I will talk about the emotional difficulties of tr asitioning from stage 4 to 5 in much greater detail in a subsequent post. 

Polyamory as stage 4 bridge

Required reading

This post uses a key framework: Chapman’s version of Robert Kegan’s theories of emotional, cognitive and social development, it is summarised here.

This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.

This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.

Pathways to Stage 4

Chapman outlines some ways for young adults to reach stage 4 through societal structures. They are: higher education and employment. Much of his post outlines the ways that the stage 4 bridge for humanities students is in a very bad way because ‘Postmodernism’, a critique of stage 4 structures, is now taught in higher education well before young adults have had a chance to master stage 4 systematicity itself, thus hijacking their development before it can begin.

The situation is less bad for STEM students, since systematic thinking and structures are still thoroughly taught as the major component of higher education in these fields. Chapman’s post goes on to outline ways to help potential stage 4.5ers who have no societal support to reach stage 5.

Before I get to that discussion, I wish to outline one of the ways I think stage 3 humanities students DO manage to reach stage 4, which is not sanctioned by society. That pathway is through relationships, specifically non-monogamy.

Nothing special

Polyamory is not in any way special or better than any other way of relating to others, it just happens to be enjoying a useful cultural moment. It is still ‘alternative’ to the mainstream, but it is easy enough to discover, making it edgy but also accessible. I suspect that if it ever becomes normalised, its intrigue and usefulness might subside, in fact, it may have already passed peak ‘cool’.

None the less, the tenets of polyamory focus on excellent relationship skills as a pre-requisite (otherwise everything explodes rather quickly) and makes explicit both skills and practices that are integral to stage 4 living.

Poly as Stage 4

Polyamory requires a re-examination of relating to others that explictly moves away from Stage 3 communal mode. It requires new skills and beliefs:

  • one must have ownership over ones own feelings and histrionics is no longer the way to express them
  • one is not responsible for other people’s feelings, each person is resonsible for their own
  • one must have a good sense of self, ones own desires, preferences, boundaries, and how to express them appropriately
  • expressing feelings or needs no longer requires the  listener to immediately change their actions based on those feelings
  • there is a word for the feeling of “falling in to each other”, and that sensation is a phase that ends. The main part of the relationship is what comes after.
  • it is no longer good enough to prioritise relationships based on type, eg romantic, family, friends which can trump each other. There are now multiple people in the same category, and old categories no longer work
  • it encourages systematising scarce resources. For example managing free time by using calendars
  • relationships are about a system of agreements. These are flexible and change over time.
  • different ‘roles’ in different situations are explicit
  • a person has feelings or needs, and polyamory is a system to meet those multiple needs from multiple relationships in a flexible way
  • one has a separate value that is distinct from the sum of one’s relationships
  • asymmetrical relationships are explicitly addressed
  • the apparent coldness of stage 4 thinking is mitigated by the promise of more and closer relationships

Polyamory is partly so successful at delivering on stage 4 goals because it is not the norm in society. This makes it frightening, risky, but also ‘edgy’ and exciting. It can have a higher initial cost, for example questioning relationship norms that were so taken for granted makes someone also question every norm they’ve ever learned, which takes a while, and in relative isolation from friends and family.

However, the rewards offered by polyamory are fairly big – more satisfying relationships, and more of them (and yes, potentially more sex, which is great if you want that). So there is a big incentive to overcome that high initial barrier. Once the new skills of polyamory are learned, they are very thoroughly incuclated and it can be a revelatory change. Overcoming big fears successfully for high reward is deeply satisfying and can lead to embracing further personal change in the future.

Personal Anecdotes

I came to polyamory long after higher education and found it relatively easy to adopt, wheras my memories of university involve very slow progress with understanding basic systems politically, eg grasping what feminism was all about, and I did not attend until after the age of 21, graduating age 24. Poly arrived aged 27.

I’ve observed people arrive at poly during their higher education years and take much longer to grasp it, making many mistakes along the way. I don’t know if they’re eventually successful. I have a personal assumption that anyone younger than around age 25 will struggle with poly, though I know of some exceptional people.

None the less, I feel polyamory is one possible route to stage 4 for humanities majors, who might be drawn to social / relationshippy type things more than STEM majors.

I have a friend who runs support events for non-monogamously inclined people whose audience is largely young adults direct from top level universities (around 50%). I recently scoffed at the idea of tailored resources for these people, because they are too used to being spoon-fed with what to believe. Having written this post however, perhaps I should support him more as a facilitator for transitioning across stages which is now absent from some parts of higher education.

Eternalist problems with bisexuality

Preamble

My thoughts in this blog post rely on other frameworks to better understand bisexuality.

The first set of frameworks are eternalism/nihilism and  monism/dualism as outlined by David Chapman on his project called meaningness. Very briefly,

  • Eternalism says that everything has a definite, true meaning.
  • Nihilism says that nothing really means anything.

I will be focussing on eternalism. Eternalism resolves the ambiguity of life by saying that, even if we can’t fully see or understand it, there is an ordering principle to everything. This ordering principle can explain everything, providing comfort and a sense of control. The most obvious examples are God, or the non-theistic Fate. However many things can be eternalist, such as staunch belief in Science (scientism) or political ideologies.

There are two common ways to futher enact eternalism, called monism and dualism by Chapman. Very briefly,

  • Monism is the idea that “All is One.”
  • Dualism is the idea that the world consists of clearly separate objects.

To take a religious example, Monist Eternalist thought appears in New Age religions that state “you and the universe are One”, meaning you will be saved because you are God. Dualist Eternalist religions say God is a thing, separate from you and he will save you.

I will also be looking at several of Chapman’s ‘Eternalist ploys’ and linking to them as I go along. I really do recommend an extremely long click-around the book linked here before reading my thoughts to come.

Problems of bisexuality

In the bisexual activist community, it is commonly known that advocating for bisexuality is extremely difficult because of a number of problems.

To begin, almost nobody actually identifies as bisexual because the label, or stereotypes of the label, do not fit their experience.

Most people believe they are ‘not bisexual enough’ because they don’t have equal and unbiased sexual attraction to all genders, all of the time. Many people disagree that “both homo- and hetero- sexual” is an adequate term for their feelings.

Many bisexually-behaving people either swing between identifying as ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ depending on their current partner or refuse labels entirely and state “I am just me”. Some find their way to the queer community, which is more of an umbrella term but some of their bisexual behaviour must be sublimated to fit into queer spaces (eg opposite-sex attractions), just as those who remain in a hetero society sublimate their same-sex attractions.

Tragically, despite feelings they are not a ‘true’ bisexual, most bisexual people’s experiences are very similar to each other and distinct from other people’s. This means that services of any kind which are tailored to straight, gay, lesbian or trans people are inadequate and unhelpful for bisexual people, whereas bisexually-tailored help would work, if it were available, or if anyone accessed it, which they don’t, which means funding for new services is hard to get, because no-one identifies as bisexual.

This leads to depressing statistics about mental and physical health amongst bisexually behaving people, with outcomes being far worse than any of the aforementioned groups.

When bisexual people come together in an understanding environment, the effects can be profoundly positive, but finding a way to reach bisexual people is notoriously difficult. The positive effects can also fade quickly over time as normal life once again denies bisexual experience.

Understanding bisexuality through frameworks

Having read Chapman’s ways of slicing reality into stances, I became very interested in how or why this might apply to bisexuality.

I believe bisexuality is inherently nebulous, complex, changing over time, with multiple things going on. It explodes neat binaries and refuses to be its own, easily understandable thing.

At the same time there are strong patterns of commonality between people who feel or behave in a bisexual way, grouped into clumps of common experience. Most bisexual people share some but not all of these groups of experiences, some but not all of the time. This makes the label bisexual more of a marker for a rough direction than any kind of explanation, leading to everyone’s frustration with it, and labels in general.

Common objections to bisexuality from the stances

The eternalist stance has a problem with any sexuality that is not fixed over a long time, while some gay activism has focussed strongly on eternalist principles to fight their cause, such as having no choice about sexuality, whether from a genetic or environmental standpoint – ‘born this way’.

However, bisexual people experience attractions to other genders fading in and out over time. Some bisexual people “decided” to become bisexual or first experienced another-gender attraction quite late in life.

This leads to many people denying that bisexuality can exist. It is dismissed as “just a phase”, as if sexualities must eventually become ‘stable’. Or dismissed as treacherous or dangerous,  as ‘watering down the message’. Sexuality studies exclude bisexual people because they ‘muddy the water’.

The monist view that we are all one comes into play when bisexuality is denied by appealing to similarities. People either say “well, we are all human, that’s what matters” or the extremely pernicious statement “well, we are all bisexual really”. While it is true that most people could conceive of the idea that someone’s attractions may vary across gender boundaries, it is certainly not true that everyone behaves in a bisexual way. Otherwise everyone would be bisexual, really.

I believe this monist inability to see categories also leads people to entirely reject labels. The monist view says ‘I don’t see why we need labels anyway, it only serves to divide people unneccessarily’. However as we have seen, when bisexual people cannot rally around some words or identities, their health and wellbeing suffer tremendously.

When it comes to being gay, almost no-one  gives the following advice: “well, you are just you, you are unique, you should only take up labels that suit you” but this is almost always given as advice to someone questioning whether they are bisexual.

Similarly, the dualist view ends up rejecting labels. Dualism insists on concrete categories, particularly gender of self and gender of the people to whom one is attracted. A bisexual person suspects that they do not fit neartly into the category of hetero or homo, so the dualist creates anthoer category called “both”. This category is entirely unacceptable to a bisexual person as briefly described above.

It’s also very hard to undestand as a dualist, since liking two “opposites” at once sounds suspiciously like categories shouldn’t exist at all. The dualist then wants a bisexual to ‘decide’. Parents constantly state “so you’re straight now”, “so you’re gay now” to a bisexual person when they have a new partner and bi people themselves swing between “gay” and “straight”. Other dualist biphobc statements include “pick a side”, “choose a team”, “stop being on the fence”.

Many valiant attempts to create categories that do seem to fit bisexual people have occured to better describe bisexual experience. These include:

  • bi-romantic, to capture the relationship aspect of attraction only
  • hetereo- and homo- flexible, to express a ‘mostly, but not always’ fit into dualist boxes
  • pansexual, to describe attraction based less on gender than on other attriubutes
  • queer, to express ‘not straight, but check the details’
  • fluid, to desribe lack of fixity over time

And many others.

However, each label only decribes an aspect of bisexuality. The process of choosing and applying many labels which may change over time or not be an exact fit soon becomes absurd, and many people give up the idea of labels all together as unworkable.

As we have seen, the monist view dismisses labels as divisive, while simple dualist labels are not nebulous enough for real people to fit into, but at the same time applying mutliple, more fuzzy categories becomes absurd.

Eternalist ploys

A couple of the eternalist ploys mentioned by Chapman struck home as being relevant to bisexuality.

Continuum Gambit

The ‘continuum gambit’ is a ploy by eternalist thinking to regain control of, and create boundaries on, nebulous things.

When it becomes obvious that things are not either this or that, but somewhat both and neither—a typical manifestation of nebulosity—the continuum gambit suggests that reality is a matter of shades of gray, corresponding to numbers on a continuous scale.

This describes the Kinsey scale perfectly. Kinsey was radical and needed in his time and set us on a new course of thinking about sexuality forever. However, the Kinsey scale is misleading and useless about 10 minutes after it is first discovered.

A person will yield as many different numbers on the scale as there axes of experience around sexuality. The same person will have wildy different numbers depending on the history of their relationships, compared to feelings now, compared to the future, let alone actual behaviour vs desired behaviour in an ideal world vs fantasy life (which normally has no correlation with actual acts).

The Klein grid is an attempt to take into account these considerations, and involves some interesting thoughts, but the results seem to me to become immediately meaningless. A bisexual person will not be indentifiable from the general population when taking this test, and interpretation of the results is apparently complex. This is normally a sign that it is useless for ordinary people and indeed the website itself suggests it’s better to find a therapist.

(Lack of) wistful certainty & others

Wistful certainty is the idea that there definitely is a right system to do things that will solve all our problems, if only we can discover it. For example, the certainty that once we discover the correct laws of physics, they will explain the entire universe. Or the certaintiy that if we develop just the right combination of policies, there wil be a political system that works well enough for everyone.

The fact that this is not true is not immediately obvious (in my view), with the above examples. I believe many people are supported by wistful certainty surrounding many assumptions in their lives, making them more comfortable than they might be otherwise.

However, the lack of wistful certainty is immiediately apparent with bisexuality. There is no hope that someone is working on this stuff and it will all be figured out eventually. Rather, the bisexual person is simply weird,wrong and does not fit any systems.

No-one is examining the puzzle of bisexuality to give them hope. Rather they are excluded from studies as anomalies There are no meanings to bisexuality, fixed or otherwise.

This lack of eternalist bolstering leads to the opposite stance to eternalism, nihilism. Nihilism is not sustainable for very long and is very depressing. Bisexual people either switch back to dualist eternalist (“straight now, gay now”), monist eternalist (“I’m just me, I don’t need labels”) or tragically, commit suicide.

Stages of development

There is another way, however and hopefully many bisexuals reach this stage, at least eventually.

Chapman calls the answer to the eternalist/nihilist stances the complete stance, which sady he has yet to talk about in any great detail (but there are smaller sections on many of the other pages, take a look).

However, the next key framework I am looking at is Kegan’s framework for social and cognitive development, a summary of which can be found here. This is Chapman’s summary and I found it through the meaningness blog. I have yet to read the book, I have only read the summary but it seemed like a good summary that extracts and explains key points.You must read this first before anything I say next makes sense (and we’re at the end so you can stop here if you like).

The first 4 stages do not really relate to the stances, but the 5th one, fluid mode, seems relevant.

There is much discussion on the meta-blog about how few people reach stage 5, about how society operates largely in stage 4, providing no structures to support the transition from stage 4 to stage 5, leaving many stage 4.5ers adrift in nihilisitc depression.

Stage 5 is the moment when the system that a person has been using to have beliefs, achieve projects and relate to others has been replaced by the idea that there are many systems, none of which is objectively the ‘right’ system, because any system is founded on fallable axioms. Rather systems are simply a better or worse fit for situations. Where previously a person was adept at defining their role within a system, a person can now use and even define entire systems dependent on context. In this mode, conflict between systems seems less problematic, as do internal inconsistencies.

A bisexual person will hopefully come to realise that the system we currently have for gender and sexuality is flawed. Labels are both useful sometimes, but not descriptive other times. Categories like gender don’t really exist, but are still handy shorthand for a cluster of attributes. Bisexuality is something outside of gay/straight, it is not simply “both” but it is also not “neither”. That each bi person is different, yet there are commonalities of experience.

I will make a blog post soon talking about how lessons learned from bisexuality can help individuals and societies progress to Stage 5 / fluid mode / complete stance with more understanding and emotional support.

Money

From the title, this post seems to me to have too broad a remit but I wanted to document the changes in my relationship to money.

This blog was started at the outset of a journey in which I refused to engage with money. Money was being used as a weapon of power, particularly in the political landscape, and I wanted to disempower the people I did not agree with. When it comes to affairs in the humaniverse (a term I coined to describe what many people call ‘the real world’ or ‘life’ of the ‘universe’ when actually the thing they are describing is entirely dependent on humans to exist and so I call it the humaniverse), people only have power if everyone else collectively believes that they do. It’s possible to shift power if this act of believing is changed or halted. Since it was mainly the Chancellor of the Exchequer that I had problems with, and their domain is money, I decided to stop believing in it.  Now, some might say that money has non-human power of its own, or humaniverse power of its own, however I decided to see whether it merely had advantages, ones which it was possible to do without.

And I found that it was possible. It is only possible through many other aspects of the humaniverse supporting the journey of course. At first I might have said I was using a different system to live, but I don’t think that’s true, I was still part of the same mechanisms, just squeezing into an extremely unusual choice within that system.

Money is a key step in a short chain that humans have set up. You start with needing shelter, food and luxuries, you exchange your labour for a currency and you use the currency to fill the need. For most of us, money is that currency. By ignoring money I substituted other kinds of currency, such as time or domestic labour. My feminist sisters have done some excellent work in pointing out that vast amounts of female domestic and emotional labour support the lop-sided system of capitalism that rewards some labour with money but relies on lots of other labour that is given very little reward, an extremely disproportionate amount of which is done by women.

So in a straightforward sense I exchanged domestic labour for being able to stay overnight with friends and family and this depended on them still having jobs and paying rent, so was not really ‘outside the system’. In a slightly more subversive way, I removed unwanted food from the bins of supermarkets. This too is only possible if only some people do it, and thoroughly depends on the system.  It also demanded quite a lot of my time and physical energy, so that was the unit of exchange for ‘free’ food.

The biggest thing to try to do without money is try to find shelter. This endeavour brings one into the same category as the homeless, tramps, Travellers (Roma, gypsies) and squatters. All of these people are trying to derive shelter without traditional income streams and all of them have to move on frequently. This way of living requires time, travelling resources and a very large amount of emotional and physical energy. These strategies seem to be the most ‘outside the system’ strategies I encountered because they require almost total disconnection from every other service our society provides and can have a profound toll on physical health.

It is in this area that I had the most insight about the way we order our culture and how profoundly insecure and intolerant we are. Read more here.

However, the benefits of living without money were many.

Time

Not having to work gave me a lot of free time. After sorting out some food and housing for the day, I had many hours left over and I was almost stumped with how to fill them. I read lots of books and talked to people, but I could have learned whole languages or retrained in anything I wanted. I taught myself to juggle and practised for many hours. I read the whole of HPMOR and a good chunk of the LessWrong material. I had lots of time for reflection.

Mental freedom

The mentral freedom I experienced was likely only possible due to actively trying to turn away from money and earning money. This seemed a little like staring into a campfire for a lifetime, then suddenly turning around and viewing a dark, unkown vista that is the whole rest of the world. Entire landscapes of possibility seemed now open. With so much time to fill, something that requires time now seemed exciting, such as learning a language. The world actually felt like my oyster, instead of that being a thing people say.

This revelation was so strong because I’ve always had a life of desperately trying to earn enough money to survive, ie a poor/working class kind of a life.

With money out of the picture, my efforts were all focussed towards things like leisure, learning, helping others, creating art, making plans and basically everthing most humans wish they had more time to do. I found that not tying my decisions to whether it might help my career in some way enabled me to make surprising choices. It was possibly only then did I truly engage in or appreciate activities that you do for their own sake. This last is meant to be a corner stone of good mental health.

It is from these experiences that lead to my current views about the sheer unapprecaited scale of output from all humans we as a species could receive by instituting Universal Benefit schemes.

Novelty

Because of having to move on a lot, and exploring new mental space, something novel happened to me almost every day. According to research I’ve read but not checked, novelty (or absence of routine) makes subjective experience of time seem to lengthen. If things are constantly new, it is as if time is moving more slowly. Perhaps because we generate a baseline expecation of how many things can happen in, for example, one day.

As a result, the year I spent homeless and engaged in almost constant novelty subjectively feels about the same as three years of a normal life. This is one of the reasons ‘travelling’ feels like such a transformative experience since the traveller has experienced (and changed as a result) at seemingly three times of the speed of normal life.

People make their reality narrow

After seeing a city in terms of only its abandoned buildings, rather than its desirable ones or after seeing a pedestrian railing as a playground instead of a crash barrier it is easy to see how many different realities exist for humans in the same physical space. You only see what you need to and human contexts are really narrow.

I sometimes experienced the opposite of what most people experience in certain places. For example, I perceive Birmingham to be very friendly because I was homeless and I locked eyes with homeless people. Homeless people smile a lot at the people that see them, so I experienced Birmingham as very friendly, the opposite of what most people find there.

Realising how context-specific humans can be, to the point of being entirely blind to physical objects was very useful. I now practice context-switching, particularly for city streets. I imagine how a lover of architecture would see a street, then a person looking for free food, then a parkour practitioner, then a squatter, then a property developer, archaeologist and so on and in that way attempt to see my environment in its intricate entirety.

Poor Person Pain

One of the things I learned was that as a poor person, I had developed antagonistic defences against things that I could never have, due to being a poor person. Instead of being in pain over the things I could never have, I created elaborate reasons for why I actually didn’t want them anyway, probably to alleviate that pain. I said and believed that a poor person’s life was more virtuous, due to reusing, recycling and sharing, that I didn’t want things like nice clothes because it was empty signalling, that following fashion was pointless, unethical or deceitful.

It was only through the subject of technology did I notice this behaviour by experiencing cognitive dissonance. I had developed a dismissive and curmudgeonly attitude to technology during travelling. It was indeed partly because I believed non-technological skills like reading maps and surviving when you don’t know where you were are important skills to develop and not lose. However that was not the whole story and in other ways I would describe myself as a person who welcomes technological advances and was not curmudgeonly about technology in general. I realised I had set myself up to hate the things I couldn’t have, because technology is rarely available for free.

Returning To Money

Returning to money, however, was no easy feat.

Bisexual notes – genitals and new binaries

 

New Binaries

Before we even move beyond binaries (that bisexuals can access) we can point out that there are a wealth of more subtle binaries that become visible to bi people, because they have opportunity to play on both sides and being overly invested in neither. Trends that are normally hidden by the apparently impenetrable miasma of gender norms (that the trans movement and feminists both live under, and in certain crucial ways contribute to or reinforce due to their preoccupation with historicity) become clearer to bisexual players.

These oppositionals include:

Active role’ and ‘passive role’

(which can be in part loosely situated within old style ‘masculinities’ and ‘femininities’ but which in this case are obviously accessible to both genders/all bisexual players and with any combination of partners)

‘Subjective role’ and ‘objective role’

in which players can idolise (for example) a celebrity in two ways, sometimes wanting to be with them, have sex with them, experience them as an outside/objective agent. In that way your sexual object has their gender and one raltes to them through one’s own gender. Then alternate: sometimes want to be them, emulate them, inhabit them, in which case an agent takes on that person’s gender and one’s own gender becomes the ‘other’ gender to interact with.

‘hard… thrust’ versus and as well as ‘sponge… flow’

expound [Elizabeth Grosz, philosophy of the body]

similarly

‘defined inside/outside boundaries’ (enabling ‘in/out’) vs. and as well as ‘shifting/diffused boundaries’ (which dissolves the notions of ‘in/out’);

The whole damn mess is all so rhizosomic daahhlink… Deleuze and Guttari postmodern chiciness.

Versus and as well as… power of and, and, and

no wonder some bi people decide to be polyamourous – half and half seems like loads but is actually statistically likely if we really are supposed to have a choice.

Genitals

Clitoris as engorged, waving around object, clitoris as a penis, continue with that thought, clitoris enjoys the same things, engorgement, envelopment, lubricated massage.

‘Thrust’ – contraction of the muscles around the legs, backside, within the vagina, makes the vagina small, the back wall pressed against the back of the clitoris, creating a larger surface area out of composite bits of the genitals, create a thrusting pole, if viewed in cross section. This sensation we could attribute to ‘masculine’; since it is persons with penises that learn this lesson first, and womb/vagina havers learn more slowly.

Vaginal as sponge, feminine, space, envelopment organ

(subsection lips) (Irigaray??)

[other male genitals – huge and needing research but possible sites of pleasure could be: skin sensation on the head, around the edge of the head, shaft engorgement, pressure on the penis/shaft, lubricated massage of penis, testicular sensation/musculature*

*candidate for exclusive to males/masculinity]

Gooch skin and pressure…

Anus sexuality…

Anal canal – for itself and then in relation to pressure on prostate/pressure on vagina then in relation to simultaneous inside and outside pleasure, anal interior, manual exterior, which is available to all genders

Simultaneous within/without

Anal with exterior manual stimulation, whether head/penis/balls or clitoris/labia

Save The World – Community Units

Community Units

It is important to have solutions to human life that are of the appropriate size and scale. Additionally, some solutions are only appropriate for one scale and some for another. Most save the world solutions I hear are brilliant for their context, and I think the hardest part of all is envisioning mechanisms to enable systems on different scales to interact with each other.

In ‘From Dictatorship To Democracy’ Gene Sharp makes many references to social, cultural and intellectual institutions as a source of concentrated activity that can be usefully opposed to oppressive regimes. This is an example of medium-sized collections of people having an impact on macro-sized institutions and is therefore a model we could take forward into new worlds.

These institutions take form around an idea, sometimes as broad as ‘Education’ or ‘Art’ but also more specific such as ‘Humanism’ or ‘Chess’. Small groups of people forming communities around tasks or ideas is something I’m heavily into when it comes to world saving, so I’m pleased to keep in mind that such groups, if necessary, can form broad alliances or opinions on the institutions that exist on the next level up from them, the macro-level, and potentially affect change on that level.

As soon as I have typed this, I hear G. in my head tut-tutting over ‘pyramids’ the metaphor he uses to describe unhelpful hierarchical structures. Therefore let us say this: escaping the dictatorship of Protestant-Military-Industrial-Late-Stage-Capitalism is important for changing the world. People are most easily motivated around a task, event or idea. Smaller-scale institutions organised around an idea can, if they align somewhat with a few other institutions, make a powerful impact on regimes that seem much bigger than them. Therefore: more groups, more ideas and more community units is one of the ways forward.

Religious tendencies

I recently came across this post, an article criticising what the author calls “Pop-Bayesianism”, the first time I’ve really come across a critique of my one of my new interests, ideas around rationality derived mainly from the Less Wrong blog/London meetups of same.

I also saw a link to this video, a trailer for a film about certain kinds of electronic dance music. For me, the video bestrides the line between descriptions of a new version of an old thing that humans love to do relating to music and dance, which can produce ecstatic feeling and flaky claims of spiritual enlightenment.

In the first example above the Meaningness Metablog seems to be cautioning the groups who get excited about probability theory (and in particular Bayes’ theory) from teaching its message in such a simplistic fashion as to inspire religious-style adherence, rather than understanding. The Meaningness author describes it as a version of eternalism, albeit atheistic. 

In the second instance, the video about dance music, I find myself enjoying the concepts that I can explain — movement and dance as ecstatic experience = altered brain chemistry = a fun thing humans love to do — whilst cautioning myself that any reference to “oneness with nature” or improvement of the universe is an anthropocentric religious mistake.

The first/major author of the Less Wrong blog Eliezer Yudkowski also addresses the tendency for any group of people who are exploring an idea to end up acting irrationally/religiously/cultishly in numerous posts. In one post he talks of the need to intellectually resist the tendency towards cultishness:

Every group of people with an unusual goal—good, bad, or silly—will trend toward the cult attractor unless they make a constant effort to resist it. 

I take it therefore, that this milieu within which I exist seems to agree that avoiding religious adherence, or perhaps we should say dogmatic adherence, or resisting cultish adherence to a thing is self-evidently important. 

Since such an endeavour requires great intellectual vigilance and fortitude I suppose I want to question why it is so important. The LessWrong blog is excellent for answering this question, explaining that biases, fallacies and psychological shortcuts that exist in human minds go a very long way to obscuring understanding of how things actually are, causing confusion where there need be none and hindering human progress.

I think I accept the proposition that slavish adherence to dogma should be avoided, but that leaves us with the problem that to do so the entire human population needs to be both educated and vigilant.

It seems a shame that the understandable, enjoyable, pleasurable benefits of “religious experience” such as: ecstatic pleasure, belief in something larger than ourselves, communing/community and the psychological relief this all entails can only be acceptable when employing sufficient intellectual vigilance against having false beliefs about how the universe works.

Well, a shame or not I think my point is that most humans will not be capable of this at all because having these skills basically requires a certain level of education, and that is a greater level of education globally than we can currently provide.

Given this fact, I think I’d like to know exactly for whom it is important to have accurate beliefs about the world? Can we get away with having just a few humans who think this way? If, ideally, all humans are to strive somewhat against dogmatic belief then exactly which parts of religious experience should we strive to reject and which parts should we pursue? 

Dismissing spiritual experience entirely does not seem to be appropriate, or even useful, so drilling down into these questions, perhaps so that we can aquire some kind of “least harm” strategy for humans and their religious tendencies would be a very productive way for someone to spend their time.

The Lazy One Is Well Prepared

“The lazy one is well prepared” – a proverb I’ve enjoyed contemplating. It means that taking small actions in the present allows for greater laziness in the future. Truly lazy people optimise their life for overall idleness, inactivity or in my case, flexibility. Laziness all the time does not foster opportunities for future laziness: money/food/shelter/goods will always have to be obtained and laziness in the present tense always leads to not being able to be lazy in the future. Not going to the large food shop on the bicycle once a week leads to daily visits to the small food shop at the end of the road.

I’ve recently been around people who optimise their lives to be more full and effective, making me realise the ways that my life has been optimised by well prepared laziness. Additionally, laziness has lead to what I consider to be the optimal strategy for important things, particularly activism.

In the realm of hair, my laziness has reigned supreme and brought about startling results. I am of the belief that my body hair is mine to do with as I see fit. I have often been praised or admired for 1)refusing to remove any body hair and 2)wearing clothes that have no regard to covering said body hair. While I could claim this to be a strong political conviction that I hold (and I could, I was featured in the Guardian for my campaign entitled Hairy Awarey) the truth is I can’t be bothered to shave and can’t be bothered to think about my clothes. It seemed much easier to perform the mental acts required to go against social norms, especially since in this case it was an emotional equivalent of being lazy: not caring what other people think. In short I can’t be bothered to shave and I can’t be bothered to give other people’s opinions any space in my mind, but in so doing appear to be a brave and energetic activist.

My head hairstyle is also informed by laziness. I used to maintain a grade 4 all over, as the easiest and cheapest home haircut I’ve ever known. This has lead others to admire my bravery and gender non-conforming look. Lately I am growing a mohawk to look cool at a festival (leading to future laziness of getting people to sleep with me at said festival) and it is only laziness that got me through the annoying length stage, assuming it to be only right that my hair should be completely ignored.

Recently I bleached my hair in order to dye it pink for my birthday (lazy attracting sexual partners again) and then had cause to re-dye from pink to purple. Because I’m lazy, the bleach was not as all-over perfect as it could have been. Neither was the all-over pink, nor the all-over purple. Lazily, I made no effort to maintain the colour, simply allowing it to wash out unevenly. I’m now getting numerous comments on how fabulous my hair colour is, being pink, purple and blue all at once. Everyone thinks it’s deliberate when in fact laziness has lead to the same effect as if I’d spent many painstaking hours carefully dyeing all three colours into my hair.

Back when I still went to hairdressers, I was complimented on the good condition of my hair. “Do you condition it?” I was asked. In fact no. I don’t brush my hair, straighten it, cover it in products and then wash and condition it. It turns out hair comes out of one’s head in fairly good condition. Laziness reigns. The same goes for make-up: too lazy to bother, interpreted as politically effective. Awesome.

Akin to laziness is fun. If something is fun then it doesn’t count as “work” and can be engaged in with gusto. Hence, I organise a club night for bi people because it doesn’t require that much work and is something everyone finds fun. This has become something that makes up enough of my income to allow me to have few other working hours. My other job of course is sitting perfectly still for money. Though this is not as easy as it sounds, it can be made to seem lazy enough for the purposes of this article.

In the realm of activism, the skills I use to be lazy are applicable to figuring out what is effective. Pride parades are a very happy event, but biphobia is so high, and additional reasons, make it ineffective for recruiting bi folks or gaining acceptance for them. So, march in the parade = happy! = bi people might get some press! (they won’t) any further activism at Pride: don’t bother. Prioritising happiness and laziness helps activists continue to be activists and not burn out.

I believe optimising laziness is an essential skill, even for those people who want to be effective. A human that has acres of time for home cooking, leisure, pleasure and rest is a much more optimal being when trying to be effective than a human that does not. In particular, the spectre of being sick as a self employed person is truly minimised by the effectively lazy person. My monthly schedule has about 15 hours per week of work in it, which can be performed flexibly across the calendar. Besides the fact that my illnesses are less frequent and shorter because I am well fed, watered and rested all of the time, it requires no real effort to perform two weeks of work in just one week, and sickness results in no loss of income overall.

Strategising for laziness can: achieve the same goals as via the hard route, help maintain a healthy, happy body & mind and maintain income levels, thus improving effectiveness overall. I urge everyone to give well prepared laziness a try.

Life Isn’t Hard

In numerous ways, I have come to observe that people think something is more worthwhile if it is difficult to achieve, or even more strangely, if it is painful to achieve. Additionally, if ‘the norm’ is to do one type of thing and someone comes up with an easier thing that achieves broadly the same goals, people caught up in the norm will not leap to celebrate and change their lives, rather they will mock and criticise the person who has found an easier way and enjoin them to come back to the hard way.

The first example I observed referred to jobs and working. Since I was homeless, jobless and drifting I had opportunities to hang out with other people in similar situations. I visited some squats, and I was struck by the industry of the people living in them. Everyone was either studying, volunteering, fixing things or making art. Their mental health levels seemed very high. When I was on a protest against the current government’s austerity measures, the most common shout hurled at the people protesting was “get a job”.

If the intent of this request was “be a useful member of society” then the speaker is simply wrong to think that these people were not doing so. I think, however that the speaker did not desire the person to be a useful member of society, they actually did expect the protester to get a job. And not because that’s the ethically correct thing to do, but because everyone else ‘has’ to, everyone hates it, and it’s not fair if some people can get away with not having to. Of course the penalty of not having to is living in insecure, frightening housing circumstances with few utilities or comforts, in all weathers whilst living outside of a society so frightened of them that they are actively legislated against as a group.

It seems to me that creating some kind of system of very basic shelter for extremely low rent would enable many others to be able to not have a job. This may involve changing what we value in our society (such as art and caring for others), which of course would enable the emancipation of disadvantaged groups, particularly women. But no, if ‘the norm’ is to toil and suffer, then we all should, according to popular wisdom.

I feel there are echoes of this argument when people question me about non-monogamy. I often hear the assertion (or its implication) that a non-monogamous person is not truly committed to their relationships or is in some way losing a level of depth or intimacy by having more than one partner. I normally reply that time is a factor, so it might take longer to reach the same level of intimacy with one of my partners as a monogamous couple might do (although, I work very few hours and spend much more time with my partners and friends than people who are full-time workers).

After this argument of taking slightly more time, the defender of monogamy normally has a perplexed look on their face because they want to put into words the feeling that exclusivity is somehow more committed. I think it’s because they are trying to indicate that monogamy involves sacrifice. Monogamy involves shutting off certain parts of yourself and your life, in favour of the relationship  (this can happen in poly too, of course, but we’ll continue to examine the point). If you are willing to do that for a person, you are ‘committed’, you must ‘really’ love the person. And this sacrifice somehow gives you something in the relationship. Well, if this psychological state gives you other benefits, then perhaps, but I don’t believe personal sacrifice on its own confers any specific benefits, it just feels like it should because it is hard, and painful. People often believe that if something is hard or painful, it must be better than something that isn’t.

Not only that, but when people are presented with a better way of doing something that really is easier and less painful, they become angry or resentful. There are several psychological factors in play which create this response including: embarrassment, attachment to the past, resistance to change and feeling their efforts have been devalued. It is much easier to reject the new idea than change their own.

Indeed, psychological factors can go far deeper than that. I was raised in a religion that encouraged extreme sacrifice in the present for a promised rosy post-apocalyptic future. I think this particular religion is successful because of the difficulty of the present-day sacrifices, rather than in spite of them. Pain and suffering seem worthy because they seem real. Like the self-harmer, many people feel tossed around by whirlwinds of emotion, hormones, depression or even imagination and seek to ground themselves in reality with pain.

In addition, the matrix of protestant work ethic perpetual expansion capitalism implies that anyone who toils will receive their just reward, which unfortunately is simply not true. Toil and pain for its own sake will not automatically earn benefits.

Some things are hard and painful but also have a tangible benefit, like working hard at a skill or sport, or (perhaps) putting money in a high interest savings account, but the level of difficulty or pain involved in a project does not automatically indicate its worthiness or utility. As with anything, a quick check on your assumptions about things is often a worthwhile exercise.

Some things are really easy, and fun. Some things that seem difficult don’t have to be. In the affluent parts of the world in particular, life isn’t pain. Life isn’t hard.  Don’t bring down the people who have found a better way; copy them.

Don’t have preferences

It is almost a year since I quit it all and went a-roving. Reflecting on my experiences, I had cause to wonder: “Why am I so happy?”

Well I recently realised that I don’t really have preferences any more. In the course of my travels, my life could be made easier if I didn’t have strong preferences for things. I could save money if I took the bus, I could sleep if I didn’t mind what I slept on, I could eat if I accepted what was offered to me. Of course, I could do all of these things while still holding a preference, but this would result in psychic distress if I hated everything all the time.

Further, I have spent time with people whose interests do not align with mine. Due to repeated exposure I came to realise  that their interests lead to some very interesting ideas, ideas I ended up devoting significant time to exploring. It took me a fair while to overcome my immediate dislike of the topics but once I did i was able to assess the utility of this new subject area and found it both useful and interesting. I subsequently experienced one of the steepest learning curves I can remember.

These ideas of utility and analysis have largely replaced preferences as a way of determining courses of action. It seems preferences will lead to experiencing more of what you’ve already had, while utility normally leads to something new, such as my learning above. Additionally, preferences can be a source of discord between people, while a lack of preference helps to harmonise. For example, deciding with friends on what film to see or what meal to eat. If the point is to enjoy each other’s company, a lack of strong preference will help you come to a decision and enjoy the experience.

I don’t want to sound as if pleasure has gone out the window, having a preference can indeed enable you to choose between two options and get satisfaction from the results, however lack of preference leads to new or different experiences, which I find very pleasurable and when something comes along that particularly aligns to my preference I appreciate it all the more. A nice hard double bed in a private room – what bliss!

I feel this thinking extending to having “opinions” or a political stance. It seems increasingly awkward to me to think I might have an opinion on something without having analysed as much information about the subject as possible. Even with very woolly topics, such as social norms or politics, it is possible to have strategies for analysis and doing this rather than blurting out random emotional bollocks seems eminently more sensible. And analysis is by necessity more dispassionate. Again, I’m not dismissing the idea of passion, in fact I’m still really rather attached to it, but I sense that my thinking until this point had been disproportionately pulled towards the emotional, irrational end of the scale.

I’m almost embarrassed to be writing this, under the sidelong glances of my current peers, but once again I feel at a point in my life when I’ve finally come through a decades-long temper tantrum to humanbeinghood on the other side. Letting my preferences drift away from me has improved my life considerably.