January - February, 2024

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January 1, 2024. For the new year, some predictions. I'm very pessimistic about one category of the near future: events that are covered on the news. Climate disasters are going to get worse -- here's a short video of giant waves in California -- while climate change denial will not get any better.

Wealth inequality will get worse, while the political will to fix wealth inequality will not get better until our whole culture changes how it thinks about money, from "Poverty sucks but you can climb out of it if you're not lazy," to "We have to make poverty fun because we're stuck in it forever."

There will be more and more homeless people, but that will make the world of homelessness better, because more functional people will be pulled into it.

Worst of all, the world is entering a phase of authoritarian politics and military conflict, which will not end until the generations that have not experienced that stuff find out how shitty it is. Here's a depressing Reddit thread (removed because the internet is also getting worse), What would be the ramifications if Ukraine aid is stopped and Russia wins and takes over Ukraine? Basically, if international cooperation fails to keep the peace, every country will build up their military to try to stop invasions, or to do them. This is looking a lot like right before WWI.

Here's where I'm optimistic. If you add up the death tolls of WWI, WWII, and the Spanish flu, it was about seven percent of the world population at that time. Seven percent of the present world population is more than half a billion people. I don't expect that many deaths, because humans are no longer mean enough to do that many murders -- although nuclear war is still possible.

I'm confident that we will neither go extinct, nor colonize space. We're going to be stuck working shit out on Earth for a long time, without cheap resources, and I think when we get used to that, life could get pretty good.

Where I'm most optimistic, in my lifetime, is in the normalization of psychedelics, and the effect of all that tripping on culture. Posted to the subreddit, The zeitgeist is changing. A strange, romantic backlash to the tech era looms.

I think western culture bottomed out in the 1700s, in terms of how little of reality we saw as alive. For a while after Descartes, you needed propositional cognition to even exist. Emotions weren't real again until Romanticism. The word "ecology" was not even invented until 1873. I predict that by 2200, the Pope will say that trees are people, as the old religions retool for bottom-up theology, and we rebuild participating consciousness from scratch.

January 3. This year I expect to write more about philosophy. A few weeks ago on the subreddit there was a short thread about physics without causality. There are more links in the thread, and when I looked into this subject, I was surprised to find out that professional physicists, in their papers and textbooks, avoid claiming causality at all, because they can't define it. At the same time, popular science is causally fundamentalist, believing there's no such thing as an uncaused event.

If I think really deeply about this, I can get into a mental space where causality is an illusion. Even in the obvious case of a domino knocking over another domino, really it's not one event causing another, but two aspects of one big event, which we view in terms of causality because we're inside the illusion of time and space.

The practical value of acausal metaphysics, is the ability to see and use correlations, which you would otherwise have to ignore because there's no mechanism for causality. For example, astrology. There's no realistic way that the positions of the planets can influence your life. But the course of your life, and the positions of the planets, could be two views of a deeper thing, where one can tell you something about the other.

I try to cultivate synchronicity in everyday life. For example, if I read or write a word, while hearing the same word, I don't dismiss it as meaningless, nor do I think it's a mind-blowing miracle, nor do I get paranoid about evil spirits. I just feel grateful that I've briefly tuned into the normal way that reality works. Related: my 2022 post about bibliomancy.

January 8. I thought I was too old to have my mind blown by a book. But after two of my favorite idea books, Physics as Metaphor and The Reenchantment of the World, both cited Owen Barfield as an influence, I bought Barfield's book Saving the Appearances. I'm only halfway through, and his big idea is too radical for this post, but one of his supporting ideas fits right in with my recent posts about propositional knowing.

Defined by Wikipedia, "Propositional knowledge asserts that a proposition or claim about the world is true." Following Barfield, I now think that no propositional statement is true. Words cannot be true or false, they can only be more or less useful. That includes these words.

I'm going to go ahead and say that nothing is true, because the kinds of things that are claimed as true cannot be true, while the things that are actually true are better described as real. One thing I think is real is often believed to be unreal: your sense experience in this moment. Edward Abbey said, "Appearance versus reality? Appearance is reality, God damn it!" This right now is the only thing you have to work with. If you die and go to heaven, it will still be this right now.

Another thing I think is real is what Charles Fort called the "universal" when he wrote "that only the universal can really be." Barfield calls it the "unrepresented". Beatrice Bruteau calls it the "infinite intercommunicating universe". Stephen Wolfram calls it the Ruliad. Theologians call it God. One thing everyone agrees on, is that it's too big and complex for us to possibly understand.

So, to mediate between direct experience, and the incomprehensible universal, we create the layer of reality that Barfield calls representations. He argues that ancient and medieval people knew they were working with representations, and only modern people think our representations are literally true, thus the book's subtitle, "A Study in Idolatry".

January 8. One useful thing, about framing propositions as useful and not true, is that you don't have to pick one and stick with it. You can use acceptances (not beliefs) as tools. If I start to care too much what people think, I can become temporarily a solipsist, and those people aren't real; if I start to think I'm better than other people, I can become temporarily a determinist, and even moral superiority is only luck.

Another useful thing is that you can go outside of science. I don't mind that science can't explain everything. What I don't like is when science says that anything that can't be pinned down in a laboratory, anything that can't be made the same for all observers, anything that "can't work" if conceived mechanistically, is forbidden territory.

For example, karma. One thing I like to do, when I'm walking around the city, is pick up litter. Usually it's just the most convenient pieces, but the other day I stopped outside the library to pick up a bunch of litter around a bus stop. Five minutes later, walking home, I spotted an ice cream carton in the middle of a busy sidewalk, and leaned down to snag it so I could throw it out. To my surprise, it was unopened and still frozen, a $7 pint of Haagen Dazs Cookies and Cream. I took it home to eat it.

Now, a certain percentage of picked up litter will turn out to be valuable. But the timing! Even the ice cream got lucky. Modern metaphysics is usually called "materialism", but another good term would be anti-psychism: whatever it is, from evolution to the movements of the stars, there's not supposed to be any mind behind it.

One practical advantage, in conceiving the world with mind behind it, is that life doesn't feel meaningless. One danger is, what if it's an evil mind? When things go wrong, am I being punished? If I see the number 4 everywhere, are the 4s out to get me? Then it's prudent to retreat into meaninglessness. But it's like shifting into neutral in a car -- you can't stay there forever.

I wonder if anti-psychism is correlated with an adversarial culture. If your lived reality is "every man for himself and God against all," then it's less stressful if you factor out God. The Scientific Revolution emerged from the late Middle Ages, a time of terrible plagues and wars. If we can make the late modern age friendlier, there may be more willingness to see meaning everywhere. Related: What are the craziest signs you've ever gotten from God/universe?

January 11. A scientific article about why you should go barefoot, The effects of grounding on inflammation:

Multi-disciplinary research has revealed that electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing) produces intriguing effects on physiology and health. Such effects relate to inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

And Stanford scientists boost hypnotizability with transcranial magnetic brain stimulation. This could be big, because hypnosis can be really powerful, except that a lot of people are immune to it. In the future they'll wonder why we were always competing with placebos, instead of just making placebos better.

January 15. Continuing from last week, I'm going to try to give a taste of Owen Barfield's book Saving The Appearances (1957). You've probably heard of Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). By "consciousness", Jaynes means the introspective mode of consciousness that modern humans have, and his big idea is intriguing without being threatening: that ancient people lived in a different reality than modern people -- but only inside their heads, where they heard the literal voices of the gods.

Barfield thinks that ancient people lived in a different reality outside their heads. This gets the book mostly ignored or classified as philosophy of religion, even though he insists that he's not writing about metaphysics, only perception. Rather than try to summarize his subtle argument, I'm going to jump to Chapter 14, and this passage inspired by the observation that art did not have perspective until the 1400s.

If, with the help of some time-machine working in reverse, a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man in the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our 'figuration' the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time at a photograph through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. 'Oh!' he would say, 'look how they stand out!'

We must not forget that in his time perspective had not yet been discovered, nor underrate the significance of this. True, it is no more than a device for pictorially representing depth, and separateness, in space. But how comes it that the device had never been discovered before -- or, if discovered, never adopted? There were plenty of skilled artists, and they would certainly have hit upon it soon enough if depth in space had characterized the collective representations they wished to reproduce, as it characterizes ours. They did not need it. Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved.

In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of -- what shall we say? -- of 'meaning', if you choose. It seems the most adequate word.

January 18. Today's subject, AI, starting with a comment from Matt:

I saw a Mastodon post recently about why AI generated art should neither be considered "AI" nor "art." They said it's obvious that there's no intelligence behind the programs when you simply ask it to generate art for which it has no reference points -- that is, no database of matching images. It can easily generate fantasy images of dragons and elves because those things are popular tropes and plenty of stock images exist for them, conveniently labeled. But once you ask it to generate an image of anything without a past, then its attempts are crude, unconvincing, and even nightmarish.

Of all the reductionist statements I've seen about AI, the one I've found most useful came from a Hacker News thread about ChatGPT: "It's just a big Mad Lib engine." AI takes words and pictures, and jumbles them up and puts them together in intelligible ways. It's not a way of creating stuff, but a way of exploring and remixing stuff that humans have already done. So it's basically the same thing the internet was already doing, except instead of searching the internet for a whole human-made thing that you're interested in, you can have the AI do a Frankenstein of a million human-made things.

I think chatbots and image bots are not on the verge of a world-changing breakthrough, but already into diminishing returns, and more processing power will only make them do the same thing more smoothly. More generally, following Jerry Mander's book In the Absence of the Sacred (1991), I think the best biological metaphor for human technology is not evolution but inbreeding: We are going deeper and deeper into a world of our own creation. This can lead to insight, and I'm hopeful about therapy bots -- but it can also lead to madness.

If any new technology leads to human transcendence, it will be one that enhances our perception of the living non-human world, and thereby turns our attention outward in a way that was not available to our ancestors.

January 20. Matt comments on the value of objects:

Probably, Indigenous Americans thought it was quite strange that white people just bought knives from a general store -- as if knives were interchangeable and their origins unimportant. The further back you go in anthropology, the more art is embedded in (is synonymous with) objects of daily use. In my wife's office, she has little gnomes on her bookshelf that sit there just for fun. A hundred thousand years ago, if someone had three little figurines in their home, they probably had deep spiritual meaning and long histories.

This subreddit follow-up, The importance of everyday objects, adds a story about the deeply embodied value of a much-played guitar, and mentions hoarders, who put value on too many things.

I would add, because our culture is so atomized, our sentimental value is highly specific to each person and object. In a more integrated culture, the feeling-value of different objects would tend to dovetail into a larger shared meaning. Like your gnome and my knife would be part of the same mythos.