Ran Prieur

"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."

-James Tiptree Jr

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June 11. Continuing on philosophy, I'm going to start using the words "physicalism" and "psychism" instead of "materialism" and "idealism", because the latter words have other meanings that make them confusing.

Physicalists talk about "the hard problem of consciousness", but for psychism, it's not a problem at all. The hard problem for psychism is this: Why has physicalism had so much practical success? Thousands of cultures, all over the world, once believed that humans are minor players in a conscious universe full of powerful beings. Now all of them have been defeated by one culture that believes in a mindless clockwork universe.

I have an inkling of an answer, and it sounds more like fantasy than philosophy, so I'm not ready to write about it yet. But I think it's related to another puzzling question:

Why do Christian missionaries have any success at all? I grew up in a Christian culture, going to Catholic church and Sunday school, and I found that belief system completely uncompelling. The idea that I do find compelling is a universe saturated with perspective and personhood. Why would anyone, who grew up thinking that way, convert to Christianity? I mean, I think there's a good reason, and I want to know what.

June 7. I'm in Pullman for the next twelve days. June is the most beautiful time to be here, and I'm excited about walking up the river under the spell of certain substances. I finally bought a portable vaporizer, the Xlux Roffu, and it's better than my old Silver Surfer in almost every way. The SSV has a large chamber and a raw blast of hot air. The Roffu has a much smaller chamber, perfect for small doses, and the heat goes through it evenly. It's like the difference between a firehose and a shower. With the SSV, the vapor comes out so hot that I put water in my mouth to serve as a bubbler. The Roffu has a compact cooling apparatus, so I don't have to bubble it, and I can actually taste the different strains. It also feels like a smoother high. The SSV is still better in two ways. Because of the simple design, it's easy to clean, and very robust.

Four links from PsyPost. Individuals with ADHD may be better at foraging, hinting at an adaptive function

Whole-body hyperthermia shows promising antidepressant effects through anti-inflammatory pathways

Playing video games linked to enhanced wayfinding abilities. I've noticed, after playing Fallout, I'm more interested in what buildings are where, and which way north is, when I'm walking around the city.

And the technology of the future, Six surprising things about placebos everyone should know

June 4. Continuing on indigenous metaphysics, I've been reminded of this important anthropology article that I keep in the readings section of this site, Preconquest Consciousness by E. Richard Sorenson. From the conclusion:

As fascinating as we may find the impact of conquering cultures on preconquest groups, it pales before the challenge to epistemology posed by the existence of a system of cognition not based on symbolic logic. We of Western training may find it virtually impossible to see how truth can be demonstrated without recourse to symbols that are logically controlled. When I first came face-to-face with these experientially-based modes of cognition wherein logic was irrelevant, they slid right past me. I did not even see them. Even when I did begin to catch on, I tended to doubt such perceptions once I was again within the confines of Western culture. It took years of repeated, even dramatic exposure before these initially fragmentary mental graspings were able to survive re-immersion in Western culture. Experiences repeated, however, eventually make their mark and I began to question whether symbolic logic was actually the only means to get at truth. Now I rather think that alternative routes to truth may exist within the immediacy of a type of experiential awareness that perhaps moves in extra-sentient directions not yet brought into the realm of our modern sense-of-truth. My slowness in this matter leads me to believe it may take modern humankind some time to identify and make use of these perhaps more rarefied mental capabilities.

Related, posted to the subreddit, Quatism is an ambitious page trying to use science to get beyond science. More precisely, it's using concepts developed by science to try to explain phenomena normally excluded by science. The strategy I prefer is to simply abandon the core assumption on which science is based: an "out there" objective physical universe that is internally consistent and not influenced by observation. Many worlds? How about no worlds? We're all just making up our stream of experience on the fly, and we don't have to agree on what's "real" unless we're trying to share the convenient illusion of a third person reality.

The mystery that remains is the definition of the self, because the "me" that's creating reality is not the same as the "me" that feels banged about by a confusing external world. Also, this whole time I'm trying to use language for something that is described, by people who glimpse it, as being beyond language.

Related, Helen Keller on Her Life Before Self-Consciousness. This was posted last week to Hacker News, with a long comment thread about the effect of language on consciousness, and the possibility of some further human awakening. Keller writes:

I am inclined to believe those philosophers who declare that we know nothing but our own feelings and ideas. With a little ingenious reasoning one may see in the material world simply a mirror, an image of permanent mental sensations. In either sphere self-knowledge is the condition and the limit of our consciousness. That is why, perhaps, many people know so little about what is beyond their short range of experience. They look within themselves -- and find nothing! Therefore they conclude that there is nothing outside themselves, either.

May 31. I had some nice replies to the last post, and I have a lot more to say about that subject, but it's difficult and I don't want to push it. So today's subject is why I love making playlists. Apparently a curator is a fashionable thing to be right now. What I try to do with music is what you'd do in a museum: from a basement full of junk, pick out the very best stuff, and try to line it up right.

The first step can easily become compulsive: given a category or date range, try to think of every song I ever liked, browse compilations for ideas, and download the mp3s from Soulseek. Luckily Spotify is so convenient, and so profitable, that old-fashioned file-sharing is not worth shutting down.

If I have a lot of songs, I break it up into sub-categories, and that's another fun puzzle. The next step is listening, and I always look up the release dates, and do the first listen chronologically. I want to hear how sounds change across time, and sometimes that order works for the final list. But it's more important to have good transitions, and in a category with a lot of different sounds, it's another fun puzzle, to figure out the right order.

The whole time I'm also deleting songs for not being good enough. Quality is an idea so elusive that there's a famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where a guy gets so obsessed with defining quality that he goes mad and independently derives Taoism. But it's not complicated. Quality is a matter of fit, and how "good" a song is, is how well it fits my ears.

It took me a long time to learn to trust my ears, over social factors like how important a song is, or whether its tone or lyrics make me cool or uncool. It's one thing to listen, and another thing to separate out the judgment of your ears, from other kinds of judgment. That's why my favorite hit of the 70s is Afternoon Delight. It's why aliens don't kill us.

Anyway, last week I did some heavy listening to split my 90s playlist in two, mainly to find a place for Pulp's Common People. Now the sadder songs are in vol 1: Woe and the more energetic songs are in vol 2: What's Up?

May 28. The main thing I'm thinking about lately is non-materialist philosophy, so I want to go back to last week's link, What's the single most mysterious thing that has ever happened to you that you still can't explain?

Some of the reports involve what I call acute intuition: a sudden strong feeling that you should do something, or not do something, contrary to your plans or routine. Like getting the feeling you should pull the car over, and then something dangerous happens. The conventional explanation is what I call peripheral sensing. Your eyes or ears must have picked up something subtle that your conscious mind missed, but your subconscious mind noticed and warned you.

I understand why people say this, because they want to get the benefits of intuition, without accepting anything weird. But I think it's a mistake on two levels. First, on a practical level, you have to exclude any intuition that doesn't fit that theory. I've been burned by this myself, ignoring accurate feelings because there's no way the information could get there through causal objective channels.

Second, on a theoretical level, it doesn't add up. If your subconscious mind is that good at scanning your sensory inputs, calculating future events, and suggesting actions, why is your conscious mind even necessary? And why are there so few false positives? Say, your subconscious mind noticed some deer in the far distance and gave you a strange feeling to stop the car, but then the deer went a different way and you stopped for nothing. This should happen all the time, and it doesn't.

Also, in my experience, and in the many reports I've read, there is no empirical difference between acute intuitions that can or cannot be explained by peripheral sensing. These two supposedly separate categories feel the same and work the same.

This suggests that the subconscious source of acute intuition is not scanning physical senses and making calculations, like our conscious mind, but doing something we don't understand. Except we sort of do. It's not a stretch in modern sci-fi, for a character to look down alternate timelines for the flash of the soul's passing, and steer away.

This reminds me of the Incas, who had wheeled toys but lacked the infrastructure to scale the wheel up for practical use. Or the steam engine, which was understood in ancient times but not fully developed until a particular set of circumstances made a place for it. In this case, I think the context we're waiting for is not technological but cognitive.

May 23. No ideas this week, maybe because I'm focusing on writing fiction. My favorite thing is when I pull up a sentence that is both beautiful and hard to say out loud. In this one, the narrator is looking at the stars: "I stared so hard at one I swear it stopped twinkling."

Thanks Noah for sending this video, Tai Chi Basics. The idea is, if you push hard enough against an obstacle, and then remove the obstacle, the muscles that were pushing feel like they just move on their own; and you can remember this feeling and cultivate it in ordinary movement.

Cool Reddit thread, What's the single most mysterious thing that has ever happened to you that you still can't explain?

Some good news, In Saudi Arabia, an all-women psychedelic rock band jams out as its conservative society loosens up

And I saw this on Hacker News, a short blog post from 2007, The Complex William Jennings Bryan. I was taught to think of Bryan as a right winger who opposed the teaching of evolution. But he was left wing in some ways, and the reason he was against that book, in the famous monkey trial, is that it used evolution to justify eugenics:

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.

May 20. I've mentioned the book The New Science of the Enchanted Universe by Marshall Sahlins, and I'm also slowly reading a much longer book with some of the same ideas, The Perception of the Environment by Tim Ingold. Posted to the subreddit, a 2005 David Abram essay, Animism, Perception, and Earthly Craft of the Magician:

Merleau-Ponty's careful analyses of perception revealed, contrary to our common ways of speaking, that the perceiving self is not a disembodied mind but rather a bodily subject entirely immersed in the world it perceives.
Oral, indigenous peoples from around the world -- whether hunters or rudimentary horticulturalists -- commonly assert that the land itself is alive and aware, that the local animals, the plants, and the earthly elements around them have their own sensitivity and sentience.

Related: The War On Weeds. It's just like the war on drugs: a dumb idea that has done a lot of harm, and inevitably the weeds are going to win.

New subject, astronomy. 100,000 stars is a cool zoomable map of our local part of the galaxy, although if you're on Firefox you'll have to zoom with the side slider and not the mouse wheel.

Swarming Proxima Centauri: Coherent Picospacecraft Swarms Over Interstellar Distances. I continue to believe that there is no future for humans in space under the present paradigm, but we can still do some really cool stuff with space robots.

May 15. I continue to think the future will be more techno-utopian, more techno-dystopian, and more postapocalyptic, all at the same time. Here's an example, and also, following Monday's post, an example of the urge for aliveness coming through in unattractive ways. This happened Saturday night, less than a mile from my apartment, a street takeover in Seattle, in which cars did donuts in the middle of an intersection, while people got as close as they could without getting killed, while recording it on their phones.

I hate the song "Dancing in the Streets". It's so smarmy, as if dancing in the streets is some bland happy thing that no one would ever be against. This was actual dancing in the streets, and everyone in the comment thread is indignant that the streets are being used for something anti-utilitarian. "Anything that blocks the flow of traffic, protests included, should result in jail time."

The video was filmed from a pedestrian overpass, and the location was surely chosen with easy filming in mind -- this action was not just adventure, but spectacle. Expect more of this kind of thing, as we get deeper into these strange times.

May 13. I was reading a review of the film Soylent Green, which pointed out that the most interesting thing is not that they're eating people, but that they live in a strange and highly constrained dystopia, and yet they see it as totally normal. You can see the same dynamic in the Fallout TV show, with the vault dwellers who think they're enlightened but they're totally clueless about the real world.

This raises the question: In what sense are we vault dwellers? Is there a perspective from which we appear as narrow as the citizens of North Korea appear to us? One answer, from Ask Old People, a thread completing the sentence, "I think it would be great if you could all go back in time and experience a day (or week) of _____."

Another answer, from a 2017 article, Adam Curtis on the dangers of self-expression. Curtis is a big critic of the modern self, and I'm less interested in that subject than in what he says farther down:

I was reading a sociologist called Max Weber the other day. Back in the 1920s, he was predicting that we would all be taken over in a bureaucratic age. It could be left wing or right wing, but we would enter into what he called an iron cage of rationality. It would be a wonderful world where everything was managed, everything was rationally done. But what you would lose was enchantment. It would become a disenchanted age.

I think, following Morris Berman, that the original disenchanted age was in the 1700s. Romanticism brought some enchantment back, but then it was buried under industrialization. Curtis says, "I sometimes wonder whether conspiracy theories are an attempt to re-enchant the world in a distorted way." That's an important insight, that if something is being suppressed, it may only appear in distorted form, which conveniently makes it look repulsive to the dominant culture.

I'm still reading Moravagine, and if some future enlightened society is trying to understand the mindset behind the atrocities of the 20th century, that novel nails it. From the context of a suffocating mechanistic perfection, the narrator seeks to feel alive in a world of wild flux, and can't even imagine how to do that without horrific murder and destruction.

May 10. No ideas this week, but I have another long quote. I've just started reading the 1926 novel Moravagine. This is a complete paragraph from chapter 2:

I have already said that the activity of consciousness is a congenital hallucination. Our origins being aqueous, our life is the perpetual rhythm of tepid waters. We have water in our stomachs and in our ears. We perceive the rhythm of the universe through the peritoneum, which is our cosmic tympanum, a collective sense of touch. Of our individual senses the first in rank is our hearing, which perceives the rhythm of our own particular and individual life. This is why all diseases begin with auditory troubles which are, like the manifestations of marine life, keys to the past and precursors of an inexhaustible process of becoming. It was, therefore, none of my business as a doctor to attempt to hinder such manifestations. I envisaged, rather, the possibility of multiplying these tonic accidents and achieving, through a prodigious subversion, the perfect accord of a new harmony. The future.

May 8. Two more drug links. Cannabis use is linked to a lower likelihood of experiencing subjective cognitive decline. "...after controlling for various demographic, health, and substance use factors, non-medical cannabis use was associated with a 96% decrease in the odds of reporting subjective cognitive decline." That's a big number that will probably come down with better testing, and I'm curious to see more research.

From the Psychonaut subreddit, Can you you describe THAT thing? I have a thick head against tripping and have never experienced that thing, but I've read a ton of descriptions, and the top comment is one of the best I've seen, so I'll quote it verbatim:

It's like all possible paths converging into this present thoughtless moment. It's an infinite informational orgasm that loops back on itself forever. There's no where to go because it's everywhere. There's no other time because it's all of time. There's nobody else there because it's everybody. It's not a personal experience but it's somehow also all you. It's before the universe, it's after the universe. In fact the existence of a universe becomes completely nonsensical. It will always be THAT thing, there's no room for physical existence whatsoever. There never was a universe. And you can never come down from this realization. It's Nirvana and it always has been Nirvana. But then in the same paradoxical way that you forgot this unforgettable thing when you were born. You forget it and are rebirthed. It's like the realization shape shifts into non realization. It's still THAT thing but it's completely unlike itself so you don't recognize it anymore. It's just normal reality as we know it. Something like that! xD

May 6. Stray links. From a Reddit predictions thread, a sub-thread about drone warfare: "Soon they'll have guns and fly in coordinated swarms."

From the same thread, another sub-thread predicting a resurgence of tinkering and trades. Related: a big blog post, Woodworking as an escape from the absurdity of software

Another Reddit thread with lots of good stories, People who have done hardcore drugs, what was the experience like?

More drugs, Is childhood trauma linked to challenging ayahuasca experiences? Surprisngly, no. Among people who do ayahuasca, a study found no correlation between childhood trauma and challenging experiences.

Finally, some ecology. Why you should let insects eat your plants. Because the plants will recover and insects are in trouble.

May 3. Today is Bandcamp Friday, on which all the money goes to the artists. I've been continuing to explore obscurities, and this compilation album, Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music led me to this page, From The Stacks, which is loaded with interesting and pretty good stuff.

But the album I'm buying is from 2021, by a young NYC duo called Petite League: Joyrider. I like it better than their other albums, and though I can't say exactly how, I can guess why: it was made during Covid quarantine. I wonder if, in 20 years, we'll look back at a little golden age across multiple kinds of creative works. Anyway, my favorite song on the album is Echo, an absolute gem of psych pop.

I also want to give a plug for the greatest album of all time, now ten years old, Big Blood - Unlikely Mothers

May 1. I'm still reading Marshall Sahlins' book The New Science of the Enchanted Universe, and today I have a few notes on God, specifically the differences between the supreme being as conceived by Christians and by hunter-gatherers. Sahlins, with more precision, describes these two cultures as transcendentalist and immanentist.

Transcendentalists see God as separate from the world and perfectly good, which leads to the problem of evil: why does God allow it? Immanentists don't have this problem, because they see God as containing all good and all evil -- and then it's up to us, which of those aspects we call upon.

The way immanentists think about God is not unlike the way we think about the government. The government is not mythical but practical. It is both one and many. Although it's a real thing, we can't exactly see "the government" or talk to it -- all we can do is talk to various people who represent the government and perform some of its functions. In the same way, the BaKongo don't talk directly to Nzambi, only to intermediaries, which could be anything from living shamans to dead ancestors to animal spirits.

The funny thing is, even totally egalitarian cultures, where no person has power over any other person, still describe the spirit world as hierarchical. Materialists would say, they must have been exposed to hierarchical human cultures, in order to project them on their imaginary world. Immanentists would say, the spirit world came first. It is the deep nature of reality to have nested spheres of influence, for example, one spirit for the mountain, and one spirit for each tree on the mountain. It doesn't mean the mountain can force the trees to do something they'd rather not do, but that's what tends to happen in human hierarchies.

lava, flowers, palm trees April 29. So last week we finally made it to Hawaii, specifically Kona on the big island. It's an easy flight from Seattle, and there are ways to do it more cheaply than we did it, but we got the full tourist experience. A few notes:

So much lava. If there is a wall, it's going to be built of cemented-together lava rocks. I've seen photos of smooth lava, but most of it is very rough. Off the side of the road it's just endless jagged black rubble, in various stages of plants growing there since the last flow. The landscapes could be anything from blasted desert to scrubby grass to savanna to jungle.

The color of the ocean, looking down from a boat, is more beautiful than I thought colors could be. I didn't even take a picture because I've seen surfing movies and it's nothing like touching it with your actual eyes. It reminded me of the lyric from Once In A Lifetime: "Into the blue again, after the money's gone."

The ocean is not even lukewarm. We went snorkeling and the only reason I wasn't shivering is that I didn't take a flotation noodle and I had to burn a lot of energy to stay afloat. But parasailing is surprisingly peaceful. There's no adrenaline rush at all, just floating serenely through the sky.

Best restaurant in greater Kona: Rebel Kitchen. It's far enough out from the tourist area that the staff are not obsequious, and most of the diners are locals. Everything on the small menu is creative and made carefully.

April 24. Posting from my phone with a random thought. Like a week ago, it's three things that are kind of similar. First, a reader comment from way back, that according to physicist Freeman Dyson, the universe will never experience heat death, because life can always keep adapting to lower energy.

Second, in the deep sea episode of Blue Planet 2, they say there are more kinds of coral in the darkness at the bottom of the ocean, than in all the shallow water coral reefs.

Third, I had an idea for a reality TV show. First they make the regular show, call it Master Chef A. Then, using only footage not used in A, they edit together a new version of the same competition, call it Master Chef B.

Then, using footage not used in either A or B, they make C. And so on. Assuming they don't run out of footage, and they put it together with skill, as the letters get higher, the show will become more subtle and more interesting.

I don't do an RSS feed, but Patrick has written a script that creates a feed based on the way I format my entries. It's at http://ranprieur.com/feed.php. You might also try Page2RSS.

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. John Tobey's archive takes a snapshot every few days, but sooner or later it will succumb to software updates. If anyone is interested in taking it on, email me and I'll send you the code. Also, the Wayback Machine takes a snapshot a few times a month.

I've always put the best stuff in the archives, and in spring of 2020 I went through and edited the pages so they're all fit to link here. The dates below are the starting dates for each archive.

2005: January / June / September / November
2006: January / March / May / August / November / December
2007: February / April / June / September / November
2008: January / March / May / July / September / October / November
2009: January / March / May / July / September / December
2010: February / April / June / November
2011: January / April / July / October / December
2012: March / May / August / November
2013: March / July
2014: January / April / October
2015: March / August / November
2016: February / May / July / November
2017: February / May / September / December
2018: April / July / October / December
2019: February / March / May / July / December
2020: February / April / June / August / October / December
2021: February / April / July / September / December
2022: February / April / July / September / November
2023: January / March / June / August / November
2024: January / March