Bad Religion and False Satori – Practical Mysticism #006

There’s a natural mystic blowin’ through the air
– Bob Marley, Natural Mystic

Image under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license from Vincent Le Moign, via Wikimedia

It has been pointed out by a few folks that #005 was a bit abstract. I had a choice of stretching it out over a bunch of posts, risking folks losing the plot between posts, or writing it up in a single one in compressed form. I chose the latter. Hopefully, the framework discussed there can be productively unpacked over time in subsequent articles such as this one.

It has also been pointed out that I often fail to connect the dots. That comes from thinking about something enough so that things that are obvious to me aren’t necessarily clear in any objective sense. Fixing that is going to be my primary writing improvement objective for the next while.

So then…

Evolution

One result of considering ‘the mystic’ as a naturally evolved capacity maintained under selective pressure is that it’s unpinned from being the Voice of God.

In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the perfect secular analog for the Voice of God.

Things evolve limited by the potential of where they start. Things are then maintained under selective pressure because they are good enough, not perfect. And once they hit good enough status, progress (if that’s even a good term for evolutionary change) tends to stop.

A picture helps explain this.

  • Below, you see a modeled terrain with a bunch of hills.
  • The highest one will have to pass for perfect; within this terrain, it’s clearly higher than the others.
  • Think of this as a map of possible evolutionary solutions to a challenge, with higher being better and successfully adapting to the challenge as moving uphill from wherever you start.
  • But if you end up on top of one of the less perfect ones, you’d need to go downhill before you’d be able to get higher.
  • Evolution doesn’t do downhill–only uphill. A random mutation might pop you far enough away from one top so that things move towards some other local maxima, maybe even the ‘perfect’ one, but that’s the exception. A random change is more likely to simply break things.
If evolution is a gradient that moves upward toward improved fitness, it’s always a movement from a very specific location on the map of all possible solutions and thus heads uphill to the closest local maxima.

Given that, here are a couple of suboptimal mystic phenomena…unfortunate cases of local maxima, as it were.

Bad Religion – always look a gift horse in the mouth

I was in college in the early 1970s, an era of widespread ontological disquiet. One Monday, after weekend field trips looking for answers, two friends joyously described having found The Answer while undergoing the same classic religious experience: white light, resolution of doubt, “heart strangely warmed,” etc. The results: one converted to born-again Christianity, and the other became a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 15-year-old perfect master.

Both were absolutely certain that they’d found The One True Answer.

Back cover of the book, Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?

My immediate conclusion: Be careful! Folks will jump in and try to convert you at a particularly vulnerable moment–right after you’ve been saved. They might even honestly believe their answer is The Answer.

Stepping back, while not common, the white light experience is not particularly rare either, especially for people suffering from a significant inner crisis nearing a breaking point.

I view it as part of our human birthright.

Set and setting can be manipulated to make it more likely–that’s what my friends had experienced.

Another example: the Cathari had a ritual called Consolamentum that signaled a celebrant’s once-in-a-lifetime break with their secular life. It involved laying on of hands–an initiator pressing their palm on the forehead of the initiate–and was specifically aimed at triggering this sort of ecstatic experience, one culturally primed to occur. (More on them below.)

Cathari rock art, sort of. I was trying to recreate an image I remembered from somewhere and failing (the palm should be down), but I did get a cool image. - Hand over concentric circles carved into rock.
Cathari rock art, sort of. I was trying to recreate an image I remembered from somewhere using ChatGPT and failing (the palm should be down), but I did get a cool image.

This type of experience is at the near-tend of the mystical experiences pool, relatively close to the everyday experiences of awe, wonder, and the type of ecstasy available through dance or immersion in nature.

It can often appear when, for example, someone is battling addiction and is in a war between ego and their wider situation and is self-medicating to blunt the pain of being only an ego trapped in their everyday life. This experience pops them out of their ego-built cage while providing a grounding in intense, immediate awareness. The conversion experience is often parodied: I used to be fucked up on false drugs, but now I’m fucked up on the real thing: the Lord!

Based on what I’ve read and observed, these experiences should be treated as gifts. The best advice on these and related phenomena is to let the package open and unfold. Don’t let someone jump in and tell you what’s in there instead.

Second, treat them as a natural phenomenon, part of an ongoing process, and not the last word. This is the critical shift provided by using an evolutionary rather than a religious framework to understand what’s going on. Meaning has been created, not delivered from on high. The creative process will continue.

(It’s a fair question to ask why I feel qualified to have an opinion on any of this! After trying to finangle any sort of response from The Lord during high school, I went the false drugs route in college. There I read the usual suspects (Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Underhill, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, etc.), and most relevant to this, Stan Grof‘s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (1975). Grof was one of the earliest LSD researchers, and this book and subsequent work established him as the Linneaus of non-ordinary experience. Based on thousands of trip reports, he laid out a classification system grouping the reported experiences. Added to that, I’ve done a few hundred group workshops using Grof’s post-LSD system to induce non-ordinary states: three hours of fast and deep breathing to loud music. Part of the workshop: folks conclude the day with descriptions of their experiences. With an average of 12 participants per workshop, I’ve heard something like 200 x 12 or 2400 ‘trip reports’ myself. In some cases, this was with the same individual over repeated sessions, allowing me to see their experiences as part of an evolving process. And I still read a lot.)

Perhaps it’s my Viking heritage–a culture that found a peak experience in combat and killing rage–but non-ordinary experiences are no more worthy of absolute trust than any other. If the neighbor’s dog, Sam, is telepathically instructing you to kill the postman, you need to reflect. Even if the neighbor’s dog is telepathically instructing you to call your boss and quit RIGHT NOW, it’s time to hit pause. Tomorrow or next week will be good enough for that if the dog should happen to be right.

One problem with being in a culture that doesn’t really work well with this sort of stuff is that folks are often left flailing. That does seem to be changing a bit recently. There are people who can be a resource, are familiar with these experiences, and can help unpack them in an individual context rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all interpretation: transpersonal psychologists, folks in Grof’s spiritual emergency network, Jungian analysts, bartenders, etc. There are also a wide variety of integration exercises that can help.

False Satori

Satori: sudden enlightenment and a state of consciousness attained by intuitive illumination representing the spiritual goal of Zen Buddhism
– Merrian Webster online dictionary

Carl Jung called attention to mandalas as images of an integrating journey. He noticed them emerging spontaneously in therapy sessions. Often, dream figures would appear in conflict in a dream narrative, and then, as the conflicts resolved, they would appear in an image that put all the figures represented into relation to each other within a bigger whole. Typically, the pattern had a framework with four parts. (Four is sort of a magic number in Jungian therapy, signaling a big integrating shift in the psyche.) That led to his ongoing interest in mandalas in religious art and his adoption of the Sanskrit term to describe these images.

Mandala of Jnanadakini, Tibetian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Now, look at the mandala on the left below. It fits the criteria: a quaternity of figures arranged around a center in four sections. The image is called the Tetramorph, with the four figures representing the four apostles. It dates from the 2nd century and was kept current as a numinous symbol through the years, appearing in the book of Kells (c. 800) and in the 20th century in Sister Aimee McPherson‘s Foursquare Church, famous for involving tens of thousands in public faith-healing demonstrations.

Medieval Christian mandala and a card from the Crowley/Harris Tarot deck

But what’s wrong with this picture?

If the mandalas are images of numinous integration (as Jung claims, and as this seems to have been), where’s the feminine side?

The answer, of course, is nowhere…which pretty much matches the patriarchal history of the West. (Crowley’s Tarot deck on the right uses the Tetramorph to show his deck’s version of the Pope. He’s illuminated from within by the Goddess (points to Crowley), while the card clearly displays tradition’s patriarchal nature.)

If my hypothesis is correct, mandalas are images from a psyche’s system that provide experiences that transform personal and cultural conflicts. In individual cases, that typically occurs with a convincing emotional pop that recenters the individual in a broader context. They are a mechanism that deals with deep conflict…but they only work with what’s given. There’s no ‘perfect’; no Voice of God–only a local maxima.

In other words, if you have an experience that resolves four conflicting ways of being a dick, you emerge still a dick. If the feminine is not part of your internal struggle, the feminine side of wholeness is still excluded.

This is what I’m terming a false satori. The resolving experience has to be convincing or it’s ineffective– but the resolution only works with whatever the individual is struggling with. (This queues up the next installment, #007 – The Bigger the Headache, the Bigger the Pill.)

In the sense that all such experiences are some version of a local maxima, all are less than Nirvana, or Full Illumination, or the Voice of God, or whatever the brass ring is called on the merry-go-round you’re riding.

Back to Cathari

My issue with what I’m calling bad religion and/or false satori is the misguided assumption of certainty both can provide–with often dire consequences. Here’s a classic example.

The Cathari were Christians with a gnostic theology that Rome declared heretical. They were intense dualists and believed that God created the world but departed, leaving it ruled by the Demiurge, i.e., Satan. That explained the existence of pain, death, sin, and why things are obviously so screwed up. It also left a bit of spirit in each of us trapped in the matter of our bodies. Through knowledge and practice (gnosis), one could release the spark back into the Godhead. Christ was born to show us the way out.

At one point, the Cathari made up a large part of southern France’s population. Most of them were murdered by Pope Innocent’s armies during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) or the subsequent Inquisition. This was the most extreme example of Christian-on-Christian Crusader violence, topping even the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. One of the first actions in the Crusade was the siege of Beziers, a city of 15,000 people mixed between Catholics and Cathari, which ended in the murder of most of its population. When asked how to distinguish between the two groups, the Papal legate and commander, Arnaud Amalric, ordered, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

Bad religion and false satori, indeed!

Thanks for reading.

Instinctual Integration Part 2 – Practical Mysticism #005b

This is the 2nd part of this:

Hypothesis 3: Balance can work at cross purposes to the ego’s immediate mission. Hence, the counter-balancing system has to be able to overpower the ego if need be.

There’s a concept invoked in Stan Grof’s breathwork system, Jungian dreamwork, and psychedelic-assisted therapy of an inner healer–that there is a mechanism that provides just what’s needed to start healing trauma or unblock a blocked life.

This could be overly rosy. If we’re looking at something that evolved, it only has to be good enough most of the time.

We might need to distinguish between a utopian version of Self that provides wise and compassionate guidance and a good-enough version of Self that evolved because an integrated individual is more energy efficient than one headed off in various directions at once or one that’s conflicted at key action points. The latter version of Self would likely happily break a few eggs to make the omelet.

An example of what I mean: one sickle cell allele gives some immunity to malaria. Both, and you die painfully. That evolved and is maintained by selection because the malaria vs. sickle cell equation preserves the allele.

It’s not often discussed, but any traditional practice that goes deep, for example, old-school meditation practices, has to acknowledge the triggering of not just peak experiences but also nadir experiences. We can achieve a state of exalted meaning, or meaning can collapse. Stan and Christine Grof, after decades of work with psychedelics and then their Holotropic breathing technique, formed the Spiritual Emergency Network to deal specifically with such emergencies. (It was later renamed the Spiritual Emergence Network in order to sound a bit less dire:-)

The Self’s intervention need not be so abrupt. Many of Jung’s case histories involve individuals whose conscious side had become so maladaptively or rigidly overbalanced that the unconscious slowly kicked them out of their workday life with increasingly severe neurotic symptoms which, when followed out, can lead to a needed greater wholeness.

The commonality, however, is that the Self is capable of throwing a spanner in the works and bringing the ego’s game plan to a screeching halt.

Tantric mandala of Vajrayogini, By Anonymous, improved by Poke2001 – Rubin Museum of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3589258

Hypothesis 4: CNOS are a means to relax the ego’s grip and allow excluded aspects in. As such, they have an evolved place in our psyche’s structure.

Too much of the animal disfigures the civilized human being, too much culture makes a sick animal.
– Carl Jung, “The Psychology of the Unconscious”, 1916

This is where the corollary comes in: like earthquakes, it’s better to have things adjusted with multiple small tremors than one big potentially obliterating quake.

I am arguing that CNOS in our species are under selective pressure. The phrase “under selective pressure” means that a trait is sustained by some sort of evolutionary pressure…like the sickle cell allele mentioned above. Once that pressure is removed, the trait decays or disappears like the eyes of cave-dwelling fish.

CNOS and their cultivation are found in the earliest histories, in archaeological evidence, and across all known cultures. Widening out to a long view, that argues that for their being under selective pressure. (The fact that they are often fun isn’t a counterargument. What we consider fun is itself likely under selective pressure:-)

A simple view of the ego is that it’s an evolved anti-‘look squirrels’ mechanism. It puts energy under the direction of conscious intention by walling it off from both internal and external distracting impulses. It gives us conscious agency. The ability to focus in and exclude distractions has made us who we are, for better or worse.

A Jungian tenant is that everything has a dark side (and the dark side has its own archetype, the Shadow.) Our ability to focus in and wall off distractions, unfortunately, means that we can proceed lock-step as individuals or as a culture towards some objective while the situation has changed to demand something else. A little OCD provides focus. A lot is often maladaptive. The Jungians believe that our robust ego is a trait that has become too effective. Thus, we are disconnected from our broader self and, perhaps, more dire from the wider world of which we are a part.

It remains to be seen how all this is going to work out. We’re a blip on the evolutionary scene. Dinosaurs had a 165m year streak. Genus homo only 2.5m, with homo sapiens sapiens clocking in at .25m. We should be so lucky as to go the way of the dinosaurs.

A common theme of almost all CNOS is they leave the subject with an expanded feeling of connection–to themselves, to other people, and to “all of creation.” We’re undergoing a resurgence of psychedelic therapy. One core finding from the earliest Tim Leary era research and confirmed by the most recent, is that achieving an expanded state correlates highly with the efficacy of the session. The research tool used to measure that, btw, is the Mystical Experience Questionnaire.

If you’ve never seen the Ted Talk above, it provides an eloquent description of the expanded state and a way to get there that’s effective but of limited utility for most all of us:-)

Considering our advanced state of disconnection, we owe it to ourselves to cultivate this side of our potential. To do a good job of it. The modalities are legion: awe, nature, meditation, inebriation, music, and it ramps up from there. See #002 in the section near the end titled Feedback for a simple program to add a bit of awe to your day.

By Oluf Bagge - From Northern Antiquities., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=576714

By Oluf Bagge – From Northern Antiquities 1847., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=576714

I’ve written a longer exploration of this in Jungian terms on Medium. Carl Jung – Building Self: Bliss, Disquiet, Enlightenment, and False Satoris

Next #006 – the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill.

Thanks for reading

Instinctual Integration Part 1 – Practical Mysticism #005a

Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well.
– Robert Lewis Stevenson

Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.
― Carl Gustav Jung


Our story so far:


A general theory of mystical experience – wherein I nerd out

In this series, I’ve been working up to presenting my theory of the role of a group of experiences variously called peak experiences, mystical experiences, altered states, or Non-Ordinary States (NOS). They range in intensity upward from the more common states of wonder, awe, or mild intoxication.

I prefer to think of them as Currently Non-Ordinary States (let’s call ’em CNOS). Many cultures recognize and cultivate them as part of everyday life, making the term non-ordinary inaccurate. Finding a unifying thread—placing experiences we consider outre on a continuum with those we do cultivate—might help make them all more accessible. Dance, for example, has a CNOS dimension that’s sometimes cultivated but often not.

(A recent term, expanded states of consciousness, captures a bit of what I consider their purpose but loads an assumption of their value into the term, putting the cart before the horse. The rest of this article is all about why I think they are, in fact, expanded states and why I think they are necessary.)


The following four hypotheses link instinct, ego, integration, and CNOS in the bones of the theory. Here’s the basic outline. This will be challenged and fleshed out in subsequent articles.

  • Hypothesis 1: We are born a bag of parts that don’t necessarily fit all that well together.
  • Hypothesis 2: This requires a counter-balancing system that knits the parts together into a functional whole.
  • Hypothesis 3: Balance can work at cross purposes to the ego’s short-term objectives. Hence, the counter-balancing system has to be able to overpower the ego if need be.
  • Corollary: like earthquakes, it’s better to have things adjusted with multiple small tremors than one big potentially obliterating quake.
  • Hypothesis 4: CNOS are a means to relax the ego’s grip and allow excluded aspects in. As such, they have an evolved place in our psyche’s structure.

That said, I start the analysis with a core assumption: we are an evolved and embodied species, not floating analytic engines or some sort of ghost running the machine. I look for the meaning of CNOS in that materialist context.

It should be noted that neither psychology nor physics has managed to adequately define consciousness though both centrally use it. There is some possibility that consciousness has the status of an elementary independent component. Millennia of Hindu philosophers would agree, and also, a small cohort of contemporary scientists and philosophers.


Hypothesis 1: We are born a bag of parts.

We often talk as if there’s a self we can find. I think that’s incorrect. Self is something we build day by day. Paradoxically, the built self often presents itself as something we’ve discovered. There is, I believe, an archetype of Self that holds an image and presents a path to wholeness. That’s part of what confuses the issue. More on that in Hypothesis 2.

But let’s start with birth.

We’re born a bag of parts: psychological tendencies (e.g., introversion and extroversion), talents, capacities, physical strengths, and so on. The parts may or may not work well together. They’re often tied to specific gene configurations inherited from possibly quite different parents and can often head in quite different directions. Further, the inherited traits may or may not harmonize with other family members. Beyond that, as our world expands, they may or may not fit into our culture.

I suspect almost all of us have suffered from one mismatch or another. That might be what binds us together.

Here’s what it’s like to >not< be a bag of parts. David Sloan Wilson describes the water slider spider’s well-honed behavioral instincts in his anti-Randian novel, Atlas Hugged:

Amazingly, the legs also serve as an organ of perception. A struggling terrestrial insect creates ripples that spread over the surface of the water. When the ripples reach a water strider, they cause its legs to bob up and down. The flexing joints trigger nerve signals to the brain, which then instructs the leg muscles to move in just the right way to skate over to the prey and suck out its juices with its mouth shaped like a hypodermic needle. If a trout were to attempt to capture a strider from below, like Bruce the shark captured the woman in the opening scene of the movie Jaws, then it would create a bulge on the surface of the water. This causes the leg joints of the strider to flex in a different way, which results in the strider leaping out of the way like a trampoline artist. In this fashion, every event relevant to the survival and reproduction of the strider that results in a disturbance of the water surface is perceived by the legs and interpreted by the brain to prompt the right behavioral response.

Would that it were so easy!

To open up space for learning and culture, the lock-step glue that holds the water slider’s responses together has to be relaxed. Heir to millions of years of evolution, our instinctual impulses remain, but they are much transformed into inherited schema for behavior and cognition. Some knee-jerk reflexes are still there, of course, but most of our behavior is entwined with learning; hence, the knee-jerk component had to open up into fuzzier structures in most cases. We have an instinct, for example, to learn language(s)…an instinct that fades through adolescence. But the instinct is language agnostic and opens up to allow children to learn the language(s) they’re born into.

Given where we each start, a more or less unified self that doesn’t undermine itself or head off in multiple directions simultaneously, and that fits more or less into the culture (or effectively resists it) is a significant and often difficult accomplishment!

Tibetian Mandala, public domain

Hypothesis 2: this then requires a system that seeks to knit the parts back together.

So why, then, don’t we simply fly off in all directions or, more frequently, come to a complete gear-grinding halt?

I’m not totally comfortable with the wide range of things that get called archetypes, but I think, at the very least, one of Carl Jung’s archetypes is clearly active–the one he calls the Self.

The Self is, quite specifically, an evolved function of the psyche that continually works to knit the parts of us together.

Jung has quite a bit to say about how the Self archetype functions. It is, above all, an abstract but compelling guiding image. It can present itself as a timeless mandala of divine beings or show us our nature as globes of light. If you ask the Self about itself, it will tell you it is timeless and indestructible. And in a very real sense, it is; it’s certainly transpersonal and not an individual invention.

Wholeness remains as a guiding ‘imago’ (Jung’a term), always aiming at an expanded state of being. But we’re doing the work, having the experiences–and are never the Self archetype itself. That is a process, not a thing, and it brings together aspects of ourselves, some known, some unknown, some consciously developed, some synthesized in the dark of the unconscious.

Traditional image

More later this week. These posts are supposed to be bite-sized, and this is getting long. I’ll look at Hypothesis 3 and 4 then.

Thanks for reading!

Reality is Bayesian: the evolution of reality

How real is real

Our reality is constructed; quite simply, our brains build it.

Let’s start with some examples from sense perception.

  • We all live just a tiny bit in the past. Our brains wait for sight, sound, and touch to sync up before they deliver what we perceive. Typically, this takes .5 seconds.
  • The neural signal time difference from toes to brain is the slowest piece, and the taller you are, the greater the time lag. As a result, tall people live further in the past than short people!
  • Early television designers thought syncing sound and image would be difficult until they observed that our brains have an automatic 80-millisecond delay correction.
  • You can observe this by walking backward away from someone bouncing a basketball and noting when it goes out of sync.
  • If you’re watching a video that seems out of sync, then it’s really out of sync. (And, of course, that video consists of between 24 and 60 still frames per second that your brain is assembling into continuous motion.)
  • Here’s an experiment that demonstrates the impact of evolution on how our brain processes visual signals. Humans are “cusorial hunters.” We evolved to chase things down–like wolves do. You can see the result of that in our nervous system. Pick a spot a bit off in the distance. Now, move your head up and down as if running forward while keeping it in focus. Good? Then try that while moving your head from side to side. Quite different, right?
At ~16:00 Tall people live in the past; at ~22:00 syncing up sound and sight – https://longnow.org/seminars/02016/oct/04/brain-and-now/

Furthermore, a lot of our moment-to-moment reality is prebuilt. We simply don’t have the brain capacity to look at everything anew each moment. We start with a model of sorts and correct it.

Here’s a great example from Merlin Sheldrake in an Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures.

A friend of mine, the philosopher and magician David Abram, used to be the house magician at Alice’s Restaurant in Massachusetts (made famous by the Arlo Guthrie song). Every night he passed around the tables; coins walked through his fingers, reappeared exactly where they shouldn’t, disappeared again, divided in two, vanished into nothing.

One evening, two customers returned to the restaurant shortly after leaving and pulled David aside, looking troubled. When they left the restaurant, they said, the sky had appeared shockingly blue and the clouds large and vivid. Had he put something in their drinks? As the weeks went by, it continued to happen—customers returned to say the traffic had seemed louder than it was before, the streetlights brighter, the patterns on the sidewalk more fascinating, the rain more refreshing. The magic tricks were changing the way people experienced the world.

David explained to me why he thought this happened. Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch. It is our preconceptions that create the blind spots in which magicians do their work.

By attrition, coin tricks loosen the grip of our expectations about the way hands and coins work. Eventually, they loosen the grip of our expectations on our perceptions more generally. On leaving the restaurant, the sky looked different because the diners saw the sky as it was there and then, rather than as they expected it to be. Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.

Bayesian reality

I’d like to dig a bit deeper into what Merlin terms “what we find when we actually look.” Even that is grounded in a prebuilt model.

My core metaphor here is a statistical method developed by Thomas Bayes in the 1760s. It works by starting with a model, noting differences, and using that to correct the model exactly as Merlin’s friend David describes above.

Here’s the math…

{\displaystyle P(A\mid B)={\frac {P(B\mid A)P(A)}{P(B)}}}


…which resolves to “take a starting model, make an observation, correct the model.”

I’m not saying our brains do the math. Instead, I claim that this is an excellent metaphor for what we actually are doing.

In fact, our base reality is itself a model created in the face of Darwinian selection that weeds out unworkable realities over time just like any other maladaptation.

First, evolution

Our perceptual system starts with a model generated by our species’ evolutionary history. Our package of senses and interpretive schema evolved around the environmental challenges of our species.

Banana slugs…

….have a perfectly workable reality. Four tentacles feel and smell. Two tiny black dots on the upper tentacles detect light and motion.

Eagles…

…are on the opposite end of the visual acuity spectrum and can see a rabbit from above two miles away. The acuity is built into the structure of their skulls. There eye sockets are angled 30 degrees from the midline of their face, which gives them a 340-degree visual field and, thus, excellent peripheral and binocular vision.

Our visual reality would be featureless grassland.

Photo – Create Commons by M.Kuhn at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkuhn/117768119

Tigers…

…are an example of the evolutionary interactions that create different realities. Tigers are orange and black because gazelles see orange and black as the same colors as green and brown foliage.

How different a tiger appears to dichromats and trichromats. Fennell et al. 2019 

Each species lives in a “reality tunnel”

Image from Wikimedia, Bowermanlucas, Creative Commons 4.0 share with attribution

From this perspective, each species’s evolution is a trip down a particular reality tunnel where the possibilities of perception and cognition are built upon their immediate predecessors and have only a limited amount of flexibility. Our reality is a hypothesis shaped by evolution. It will be eliminated if it becomes maladaptive. Our inability to feel the impact of slow destructive change might, for example, be our undoing. It was futurists call the “long fuse, big boom” problem.

Culture and Learning

Every kind of ignorance in the world results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles.
– Robert Anton Wilson

Learning

Stacked on our evolutionary rootstock is homo sapiens’ capacity for learning and our extensive cultures.

Piaget discovered that babies learn object permanence around 8 months old. Peekaboo is a big learning tool. Earlier in life, things that were moved out of sight were of questionable existence. Piaget considered this learning a major milestone in an infant’s development.

Culture

This all happens in a cultural context. Some of our perceptions are culturally specific.

Daniel Kahneman introduced the distinction between fast and slow thinking. Fast thinking is described as instinctive and emotional, but a close read shows that a lot of his fast thinking is simply learning that’s been taken deep enough that it’s automatic. In fact, that automaticity is the goal of a lot of training. Slow learning becomes “fast thinking.”

As a result, much of this fast thinking is learned and culturally specific.

For example, we don’t have to puzzle out the words on a stop or yield sign as we approach one. We see a stop sign well before the word is clear. But what does this sucker to the left mean?

Robert Anton Wilson, “American author, futurist, psychologist, and self-described agnostic mystic,” uses the term reality tunnel to describe the unconscious set of mental filters that frame up our worldview. Wilson was a confederate of Timothy Leary and might better be described as a psychedelic philosopher. Anyone taking what is now called a “heroic dose” of LSD or mushrooms (what in the olden days we called a “dose”:-) can pretty quickly see his point.

This can have some alarming implications

People

I’ll always love the false impression I had of you.
– favorite saying, Wendy Walsh

With our history of extreme sociality and cooperation, we necessarily build models of other people, complete with a story about why they’re doing what they do.

Even our models of people who are our close relationships are constantly refined. Starting with mirror neurons and building out to Freud’s projection and transference, the modeling of the folks around us is a case in point of how such modeling is essential and can go astray.

Emotions

There is increasing evidence that this modeling is not only externally directed. Emotions—particularly the more subtle ones—seem to be a mix of signals from the body and a learned and occasionally culture-bound interpretive schema.

And you

All this is a bit disquieting.

My view: reality is a leash tethered often to unmoveable facts; in some cases, it’s a short leash and, in others, a long leash. Hitting the end of your leash can be amazing or unpleasant, enlightening or deadly. My brother Tim felt the whole world was less solid for months after the Volkswagen he was riding in fell through the ice.

Something appearing as a bolt from the blue can set us back for moments as we marvel at how amazing the clouds are–or for months as we recalibrate our reality if trust goes astray.

Thanks for reading.


PS, over on Medium, I’ve begun a series on Myth and Gender hosted by my friend Patsy in her feminist magazine, Fourth Wave. These should be the free links.

The Night Sea Journey in Campbell and Jung
Myth and Gender in Jungian Psychology

Practical Mysticism #004: Holy Shit!

Concerning the move from ‘religious experience’ to religion.

Milky Way Galaxy with pointer to our Sun: "you are here"
Image: NASA – public domain – we don’t seem central to pretty much anything

Emergent properties

An ’emergent property’ is something appearing in a system that was not predictable from looking at the individual parts alone. Examples? One could argue that studying oxygen and hydrogen separately would not let you predict the behavior of water. Similarly, it would be hard to predict cellular life from the set of elements created by the Big Bang.

I’m suspicious of how often the term is used, however. It seems, in many cases, to simply be the limit of the predictor’s imagination. “I didn’t see that coming! Ah, emergent property.”

Planning depth

I do, however, have a clear example relevant to this series.

It’s easiest to explain in terms of planning depth.

We think about the consequences of our actions continually. Some of the most complex planning involves our interaction with other people. Social species (elephants, killer whales, ravens, people) typically have bigger brains than other comparable species. This is because social interactions demand some of our highest cognitive capacity.

One way to analyze social interaction is by abstracting it out into a game theory framework of initial action, response, counter-response, etc. and consider each action as a game move. This makes it easier to think through. Planning depth is the number of moves ahead you can think, making assumptions about what your opponent will choose or be forced to do. 

Let’s simplify and say it’s two players in a zero-sum game like chess. Grandmaster chess players have claimed to think 15+ moves ahead. They’ve been accused of lying:-) But certainly, good players can think 3-5 moves ahead. Planning out 5 of your moves in addition to your opponent’s 5 responses and you have a planning depth of 10.

Tools such as calculating calendars (Stonehenge?) and sketches in clay or dirt can extend planning depth beyond what can simply be held in one’s head. All that applies.

Planning depth evolving

At some point during the last .5M years, our evolving planning depth capacity generated a whopper of an emergent property. To see it, we need to back up through the phylogenetic tree to a proto-chimp/human and then move forward. (Genetically, we’re the third chimpanzee, so we can see three divergent evolutionary paths.)

Image: Dave Huth, Creative Commons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/davemedia/6276774712

Our close cousins, pan troglodytes, use tools and have a troop structure. They don’t use stone weapons or fire…both things that a proto-human species developed with a brain 2/3rds the size of ours. I think they can be imagined as a reasonable starting point. Chimps can set up ambushes. Let’s call that a planning depth of three: 1) you stomp around over there; 2) our target will bolt from the bushes in the direction of where I’m hiding; 3) I’ll grab ‘em.  And maybe 4): then we eat it.

Holy shit

The point of all this planning is to keep us and our offspring alive and fed. The deeper the planning depth, the more successful we’d be.

An analysis like “We need to gather acorns in the high country, process them, and carry them out of the hills before it gets too cold. But the weather looks like the pattern of a dry year, so we need to head to the last place trees thrived in a drought rather than somewhere closer!” shows deep planning. (It also demonstrates a good reason to keep old people who remember long patterns around as humans have evolved to do.)

There’s a huge gotcha, however. Somewhere on the path from proto-chimp/human to homo sapiens, we hit the point where the deeping planning depth, evolving to keep us alive and thriving, hits the “Oh shit; we’re all going to die anyway” realization. It’s not a matter of what, just a matter of when.

At that point, we’ve stepped outside the bounds of the survival-based impetus provided by our species’ evolution. We’re now in a conceptual space with no given answers and a brain big enough to worry about such things.

Planning has suddenly become mind-blowing–perhaps even paralyzing–and something new emerges.

Religion

There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.
– Gertude Stein
(Image: public domain)

I think this is where religions started to evolve…their job is to calm the existential freakout and get us refocused.

Not all approaches are adaptive. There are cults in India that pray to Shiva to open his third eye and destroy the universe. Some Christians hope for an immediate apocalypse (that, hopefully, they’ll refrain from imposing on the rest of us) rather than material thriving.

A recent, highly effective exploration of the problem is found in the work of Nietzsche, who sees meaning as something we posit as an act of will in the face of an uncaring and often cruel universe. He may not have generated the best answer, but he certainly away most of the cruft from the question.

So what

What has this to do with a series on practical mysticism?

Mystical experiences are mind-blowing: at best, transcendent; at worst, shattering (and typically a bit of both.) Religion tries to contain the damage. Religion can support the mystic by providing a framework. It can also try to suppress it as a challenge to its power. Either way, it’s important not to confuse the two.

Next up: I’m going to try and put the pieces explored so far into a general theory of ‘non-ordinary experience’ as a feature of our evolved species.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts.

Contemplating a Winter Ritual on New Year’s Eve

Qarrtsiluni

“Qarrtsiluni means something like sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Inuit word.

I stumbled on the above somewhere on the internet and copied it down. Today, I did a search on the quote so I could give proper attribution. Well, wherever I stole it, I wasn’t alone. Lots of sources used the same wording without attribution.

Perhaps it emerged spontaneously from the darkness in multiple locations.

It resonated in a particular way. What is that about? It sounded like something I’d like to try. Particularly during the deep dark of winter…solstice, new years, somewhen around then. (Interested in trying it?)

Every year in late fall, when things start to get cold, I’m suddenly hungry all the time and simultaneously lethargic. It’s a Norwegian thing, I think. Conserve calories! Plump up! You’re about to spend the next 4 or 5 months holed up in a long house and want to survive the winter. The skinny are doomed!

I think it’s like that. I had a mental image of 8000 generations of ancestors looking up through the trees at cold solstice skies and, over time, assembling rituals and earthworks inspired by the seasons. By doing something similar, I could tap into a tradition stretching back to the beginning of our species. Climate, terrain, cultures, and polities have come and gone, but the night sky has presided over it all. And we must always have looked up in awe.

Stonehenge at sunset by Mastiello, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

Nerd

However, being the type of nerd I am, my first question is this: if I’m experiencing some sort of midwinter preset vibe, can I plumb the resonating depth?

My starting point is pretty much always a long view of us as embodied members of a species with an evolutionary history. Our emotions, perceptions, and cognition are not wholly idiosyncratic but of a kind.

We’ve spent most of our quarter of a million years as homo sapiens near the equator. Now that I think of it, a dark, cold solstice mojo would have to have started building when the ice retreated enough to let us move on north into dark, cold winter nights. So it’s really a function of 1) how far north in latitude it’s dark much of a 24-hour cycle, 2) long wave climate cycles, and 3) human migration out of Africa.

First, long nights

Here’s the table.

Latitude (Degrees)Night Length at
Solstice (Hours)
Notes
012.00Equator
1514.00
3016.00
3516.67Tokyo
4017.33San Franciso = 38d, NYC = 40d
4518.00Lascaux Cave, France. Cities in N. America:
https://www.mnmuseumofthems.org/45th/NAmer.html
5018.67Stonehedge, Warsaw
6020.00Oslo, southern most border of
Nunavut, Canada’s Inuit Province
7021.33
8022.67
8523.33Northern reach of Nunavut
9024.00
Northern Latitude, Hours of Darkness, Notes – table by me


The 17.33 hours of darkness here in San Francisco seems plenty long enough, but my relatively recent ancestors lived in even longer darkness.

Second, climate

We are in the Quaternary Glaciation starting 2.5M years ago, in a period commonly called the Ice Age (formally the Last Glacial Period) starting 155k years ago, and having a recent maxima called the Last Glacial Maximum starting 26k years ago and continued until 13k years ago. Ice sheets extended to about the 45th parallel north with ice 2-2.5 miles thick. Miles!.

For reference, homo sapiens, i.e., us, are 250k years old. Ice, we’ve seen it come, and we’ve seen it go.

Fun fact: the weight of all that ice is still felt. Every year some land in coastal Alaska rises over an inch, springing back from being compressed for so long under so much ice. It’s called isostatic rebound.

Third, out of Africa

While it does appear that members of our species migrated out of Africa prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, they didn’t persist. Genetic analysis, particularly of our mitochondria, shows that current human populations all result from the most recent migration out of Africa 70k years ago, perhaps following the retreating ice. This was the wave that survived, mingling with Neadrathals on the way out. We show up in Southern Europe 40k years ago, Denmark 30k years ago, and entered the Americas from the north 20k years ago. All these numbers are estimates and under constant revision as our analytic tools become better and better.

Fun fact. A number of species, including probably a homo species, including possibly homo sapiens, lived through the Last Glacial Maximum in sheltered areas termed Refugia, plural Refugum. I like the word. We may need it again soon. It’s possible that this happened in North America, as well. Give research another 30 years, and we’ll have a much better picture. Lidar and improved methods of genetic analysis are in the process of totally rearranging our view of what’s happened over the last 100,000 years.

Bummer

But bummer. I was hoping for resonance a couple of hundred thousand years deep. It appears I have to settle for only fifty thousand or so! No imagining a great^8000th grandmother looking with awe at the winter night sky through conifers just as I have.

Still, that’s a lot of dark, cold, Solstice nights.

If a generation is 20-30 years in length, then my great^2000th grandparents might have started the process after generations of migration: wondering when it’s going to stop being dark for so long, and, btw, why is it so cold up here?…surviving long winter nights, perhaps popping out from a smoky shelter for a look at the winter sky alight with the aurora borealis, perhaps marking the seasons with wood and stone and starting to use earthworks to chronicle the cycles written in the sky.

Image creative commons from the Store Norske Leksikon

Qarrtsiluni redux

While trying to find the source of my opening quotation, I found the below. It’s the definition of quarrtsiluni I like best. The author doesn’t seem to have any particular qualifications, doesn’t cite any sources, and she could just be making this up. That’s good enough for me.

Qarrtsiluni. Inuit, Iñupiaq / v. / kʌːrʒ.sɪ.luːnɪ / kartz-sih-loo-nih –  Sitting together in the darkness, perhaps expectantly (e.g., waiting for something to happen or to ‘burst forth’); the strange quiet before a momentous event.

The Inuits initially used this to describe their ritual of finding new songs to honor a whale each year. The hunters would go to a special house where no lamps were lit, and would sit there in silence as a group, thinking of beautiful things, anticipating the inspiration which was about to stream into their collective consciousness. And then they made their songs.

Thanks for reading.

Grey Goo and You – Capitalism Wants to Eat Your Grandma

Disney's Big Bad Wolf: 1933
Big Bad Wolf. (2023, September 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bad_Wolf

The plan for October was to do a lot of reading, thinking, and writing. That’s didn’t quite work out. The net result was a bunch of fragments that I’m now trying to build out and publish. This is the second this week. My all-time publishing record:-)

Before we delve into the details of highly speculative doom scenarios, here’s a young adult sf novel about AI and cat videos that will help restore your faith in machine intelligence:-) Catfishing on the Catnet.

Blood Music

Joe Biden’s administration has just announced regulations for Generative Artificial Intelligence. There’s a concern that the widespread use of Large Language Models heralds a new era where general artificial intelligence becomes an “existential threat to humanity.”

Scary artificial intelligence

For this to be true, you would need 1) advanced ‘artificial intelligence,’ whatever that is exactly, but presumably machine intelligence smarter than we are. Also, there would need to be 2) a programmed motivation, i.e., a goal and, more specifically, a goal like achieving total global domination, and 3) agency…some equivalent of fingers and toes.

The fears typically center around number 2) above. Specifically, the fear is AI motivation gone off the rails in a particular process called instrumental convergence.

The classic example is this paper clip maximizer thought experiment (Nick Bostrom, 2003): a system charged with making paper clips ends up converting all matter on earth into paper clips…not because it had anything against the biosphere but because converting it was instrumental to the goal of paper clips.

Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985) provides a parallel example. Here, a rouge researcher injects a simple biocomputer into his bloodstream to smuggle it out of the lab rather than destroy it, and ultimately, he becomes an infectious hive mind. The short story version ended with the biosphere converted into a superorganism (see the jacket cover below.) The novel had a happier ending with all of us people re-instantiated as individuals but with a variety of defects fixed. Thanks AI!

The nanotechnology version of this is called ‘grey goo’…the term from K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 nanotech rah-rah book, Engines of Creation. Here, everything gets converted into nano substrate…grey goo…thanks to an insufficiently regulated process.

I like that term the best for instrumental convergence bad juju. (I’ve argued elsewhere that the goal of a lot of political dinformation is to turn all facts into noise–the informational equivalent of ‘grey goo.’

Side note: there’s a parallel speculative thread to all this I find scarier. I’ll add an addendum about that below.

But first, a more immediate type of runaway instrumentality: American hyper-capitalism.

Finance is Coming for Your Grandmother

Again, science fiction leads the way:-). In an essay in BuzzFeed, author Ted Chaing lays it out very concisely. I’m going to quote him at some length. Emphasis mine.

Ted Chaing in BuzzFeed – Dec 2018 – Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear

Speaking to Maureen Dowd for a Vanity Fair article published in April, Musk gave an example of an artificial intelligence that’s given the task of picking strawberries. It seems harmless enough, but as the AI redesigns itself to be more effective, it might decide that the best way to maximize its output would be to destroy civilization and convert the entire surface of the Earth into strawberry fields…

This scenario sounds absurd to most people, yet there are a surprising number of technologists who think it illustrates a real danger. Why? Perhaps it’s because they’re already accustomed to entities that operate this way: Silicon Valley tech companies.

Consider: Who pursues their goals with monomaniacal focus, oblivious to the possibility of negative consequences? Who adopts a scorched-earth approach to increasing market share? This hypothetical strawberry-picking AI does what every tech startup wishes it could do — grows at an exponential rate and destroys its competitors until it’s achieved an absolute monopoly. The idea of superintelligence is such a poorly defined notion that one could envision it taking almost any form with equal justification: a benevolent genie that solves all the world’s problems, or a mathematician that spends all its time proving theorems so abstract that humans can’t even understand them. But when Silicon Valley tries to imagine superintelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.

Chiang’s insight is accurate, and the term grey goo comes in handy: capitalism, or more specifically finance, is well on its way towards reducing most enterprises to a devalorized economic grey goo. People and their little concerns become instrumental to the grand task of consolidating wealth.

image from Adbusters – now and their targeted future

Within capitalism, private equity and investment banking firms are the most voracious in chewing value into grey goo. They operate by purchasing an enterprise and then extracting value for themselves by reducing its value to employees, clients, customers, and often the environment.

A typical process is the one that I’ve seen from the inside.

First, secure debt to purchase a business (often in the form of creating a loan from yourself to yourself); second, transfer the debt to the business; third, pay yourself interest and hefty consulting fees for managing the process; and fourth, discard the desiccated husk. Sears is the poster child for this.

A 20,000-foot view: if you’ve made a billion from a declining business, that money must have been extracted at the cost of something else. As surprising as the thought may be in the current climate, money has to come from somewhere.

Here’s a deeper dive from last week’s Atlantic: The Secretive Industry Devouring the U.S. Economy. From 4% of the economy in 2000 to 20+% today, grey goo is spreading.

But rather than continuing in general terms, let’s focus on Grandma.

Health and Welfare

Well, what does Grandma need?

  1. Often a Doctor – Who Employs Your Doctor? Increasingly, a Private Equity Firm
  2. Frequently a Nursing Home – How Patients Fare When Private Equity Funds Acquire Nursing Homes
  3. And eventually, probably, a Funeral Parlor – Death Is Anything but a Dying Business as Private Equity Cashes In

(The last reference is from an investigative series, Patients for Profit: How Private Equity Hijacked Health Care. Also good and a good read is the inimitable Cory Doctorow’s Private Equity finally delivered Sarah Palin’s death panels.) 

Axis of Evil

Heartlessness as a service

What do I find scary? The merger of AI and hyper-capitalism!

In a recent episode of This Week In Google (my sole remaining tech podcast), Leo Laporte and crew report on what they term ‘heartlessness as a service.’

Their source is ProPublica:

On a summer day last year, a group of real estate tech executives gathered at a conference hall in Nashville to boast about one of their company’s signature products: software that uses a mysterious algorithm to help landlords push the highest possible rents on tenants.

“Never before have we seen these numbers,” said Jay Parsons, a vice president of RealPage, as conventiongoers wandered by. Apartment rents had recently shot up by as much as 14.5%, he said in a video touting the company’s services. Turning to his colleague, Parsons asked: What role had the software played?

“I think it’s driving it, quite honestly,” answered Andrew Bowen, another RealPage executive. “As a property manager, very few of us would be willing to actually raise rents double digits within a single month by doing it manually.”

Rent Going Up? One Company’s Algorithm Could Be Why (Oct 2022).

Back to Grandma

And back to Cory Doctorow: America’s largest hospital chain has an algorithmic death panel: HCA’s administrators berate doctors over “missed hospice opportunities.”

I consider hyper-capitalism to be a machine that tends, in an interative process, ejects humans that let ethics get in the way of profits in favor of humans with fewer scruples–ultimately leaving only the machine.

AI will sort through options to optimize whatever it’s told to optimize.

The combined result in a particularly vicious combination: a mindless instrumentality that will chew through the economy remorselessly, generating grey goo from actual human value. (Kinda like Elon Musk’s brain.)

Addendum: good and bad singularities

Okay, Elon’s not scary enough:-)?

Warning: I’m going to nerd out a bit. Why? Because I can’t help myself.

The grandmother of all this ‘generative ai’ talk is The Singularity, defined as the point machine intelligence uplifts to sentience–but with expanded networked intelligence that dwarfs our own ‘as humans are compared to flatworms’ as the expression goes.

There’s a fascinating LongNow lecture and discussion, What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen? featuring Vernor Vinge.

Vinge is the Sf author who coined the term Singularity. John von Neumann discussed the event in the ’50s, but Vinge’s 1983 short story ‘True Names’ put the term into use.

The discussion immediately jumped track since none of the panelists could imagine that The Singularity wouldn’t happen. So, they started talking about possible positive or negative singularities and the range between them.

Their benchmark for a bad singularity?

Two opposing hyper-paranoid military computers in China and the US ‘uplifting’ each other to sentience during a disastrous global war that lasts only a couple of hours.

Thanks for reading.

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 3

TLDR: This is Part 3 in the Emotional Truth / Political Lies series: a loss of meaning can be more deadly than the loss of income when jobs go away for White working-class males. Their immiseration ripples out to affect us all.

(But first, friends links to a couple of new things on Medium:
Christianity from the Heart – Reverend Al makes a rare appearance.
Kevin Phillips – RIP – a history of today’s out-of-control Them-ing.)

Mervin Jules - Dispossessed [c.1938] - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mervin Jules – Dispossessed [c.1938] – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Our plot so far:

We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.

This is a further step in a series of a dozen or so works of political analysis I’ve written since 2016. I’m building this in small sections. Please kibitz!

This is also the counterweight to a theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us.

My thesis: the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs. The economic crisis creates a crisis of meaning and identity.

Political lies: significant resources are being spent to make sure widespread discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political action.

It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.

Part 1 introduced the thesis and looked at who is to blame for our current laws and regulations.

Emotional truth: the feeling that government policy ignores everyday people is accurate.

Part 2 reviewed Those That Work and Those That Don’t – an early Petri dish example of identity destabilization through job loss.

The author’s finding: identity resets outside economic factors, substituting intangibles such as ‘moral superiority.’

  • Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
    Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

Part 3 – Deaths of Despair

The next analytic touchstone after ‘Those That Work’ is the research of Anne Case and Angus Deaton. This takes us from the Petri dish of ‘Golden Valley’ out to the wider impact of job loss. In this section, the pattern of good ‘working class’ jobs disappearing is viewed demographically rather than through a specific case history.

The research

In 2015, life expectancy in the wealthiest country in the world fell for the first time in decades. Then came the nearly unfathomable: Life expectancy in the US fell again in 2016 — and for a third time in a row in 2017. It is hard to communicate just how disquieting that trend is.
– Roge Karma, Vox, 4/15/2020

Half a million people are dead who should not be dead.
Case & Deaton 2015

Deaths: Bold Red = US White, Bold Blue = US Hispanic. Deaton & Case.

In 2015 (in a study that they initially had trouble even getting published!) Case & Deaton announced the discovery of what has come to be termed ‘deaths of despair’ among non-college-educated middle-aged Whites…men in particular and women to a lesser extent.

They noticed a spike in death rate first in comparison to other US ethnicities and then in contrast to similar populations in other countries. Digging into the statistics, these additional deaths were a result of suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose coupled with poor access to healthcare. Deaths of despair.

Groups less dependent on their job for a sense of identity (primarily because of their historical exclusion from ‘good jobs’ and, hence, centering meaning elsewhere, e.g., Latinos and women) did not exhibit the same demographic trends.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective.

Chart by me. Deaths of despair extrapolated to 2019 from Case & Deaton’s 2015 numbers using their methodology. Stopped at 2020 when COVID made that too complex.

What’s going on?

Repeating:

Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

If we apply Sherman’s discoveries across this entire demographic, identity was set adrift— decentered —for a broad demographic   with dire consequences both for those individuals and for society.

Individuals scrambled to find a new way to play a leading role in their own stories. As Sherman points out, being ‘moral’…being a ‘good guy’…became core.

Many of those who failed the challenge died. Between successful and dead lay degrees of emotional distress, typically a chronic low-grade sense of panic among those on the edge.

Into the breach came a huge billionaire-funded industry aimed at offering wedge ideologies as identity and toxic religion as a comfort.

A core strategic win was the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church during the ‘Conservative Resurgence‘, starting in the late 70s and consolidating gains through the subsequent 15 years and again now in a second cycle. The SBC’s ‘liberals’ were certainly not far left of center, but they and even center-right moderates were purged.

The impact of this can’t be underestimated. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination even after close to 2000 churches broke away to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the Jimmy Carter Baptists.) Huge monetary and organizational resources were now available. The SBC has six sizeable seminaries training thousands yearly and an annual budget of nearly $200M–all contributed by people in local churches.

Worse, in my opinion, those local churches, critical envelopes of support in the face of death, illness, trials and tribulations, and pillars of identity to many, now became organizing cells in the culture wars.

Add to this Koch-brothers-type think tanks, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News as the Ministry of Truth, and you have the enormous resources devoted to keeping the pot boiling.

Observing people seeming to vote against their self-interest, I hear friends asking how people can be so stupid. If we could calculate a ‘cost per unit of stupid,’ I think we’d find it’s hugely expensive to make people this ‘stupid.’ Obviously, it’s worth the investment to those footing the bill.

Two points:

First, if you combine the decentering of working-class identity and the way that it has been exploited, the result is that ideology has become identity. This is key to understanding what’s going on and looking for strategies to fix it.

An ideology is a narrow and brittle basis for identity. Under these conditions, a challenge to particular ideas is an existential threat!

Much of what seems crazy has to be understood in that light. It’s not at all a matter of ideas and evidence. The challenge is to the person’s sense of self, not some contingent idea that can be easily revised or corrected.

Another way to look at it: if people are acting against their economic interests, there must be something they see as more important.

I believe that dividing the world up into Us and Them is baked in by our evolutionary history. (Evidence on request.) That makes it a leverage point easily exploited.

Starting politics with a common rallying point…say, a commitment to decent jobs, good schools, health care that wasn’t a huge source of misery and personal bankruptcy, and a clean environment…could cut across the most common Us vs Them divides.

It would also mean that the corporate engines of consolidation and profit at any cost and the 1%’s domination of American politics would be imperiled. So, something divisive has to be substituted.


Coming in future installments. Where do we go from here? Republicans and Democrats – heartless exploitation vs. gutless weasels. And more.

Side note: Wedge identities are only getting more unmoored. Even conservative pastors are starting to flip out. They’re being challenged over direct quotes from Jesus, e.g., love your neighbor as yourself or turn the other cheek. (But “Jesus said that” apparently carries insufficient weight.) A recent study found Trump supporters trust him significantly more than their friends and families, conservative media figures, or their pastors.

For a fascinating interview on the Christians vs. Jesus thing and how ideology becomes identity, listen to this podcast with Russell Moore, ex-head of the SBC’s policy arm and current editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, in this episode of Talkin’ Religion and Politics without Killin’ Each Other.

Instinct and Resonance- Practical Mysticism #003

map of the mouth of Tomales Bay

Life flows along the commonplace
– Carl Jung

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
– Michael Pollen

Despite the American cult of individualism, I have never believed our identity was our idiosyncrasies and, despite my neophile tendencies, I have never believed that something was of value simply because it was new.

On the other hand, I don’t believe something is of value simply because it’s old—unless it’s really really old. That may be a different story.

Here follows a variant on Michael Pollen’s ‘eat what your great-grandmother ate’ test expressed not in a few generations but in tens or hundreds of millennia.

You are reading part of an intellectual wander aimed at building a framework for understanding the continuity between everyday experiences of awe and wonder and the type of ‘mystical’ experiences that are considered outside regular human experience (in my view mistakenly). And for considering the utility of such experiences.

My starting assumption is that this framework needs to address ego, instinct, and what are often termed nonordinary states. I have some theories about each of those. They will hopefully be modified in dialog with you and with the writing process itself.

Thoughts published so far:
Awe Shucks – Practical Mysticism #001
Ego and Awe – Practical Mysticism #002

First up, a bit of personal awe.

The time has come the Walrus said…

Many of you who know me know of my love of grilling oysters and, in particular grilling oysters on the beach. It feels deeply right to me.

Elaine Morgan. (2023, July 3). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Morgan
Elaine Morgan. 1998. From Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Morgan

Explaining my theory about why requires a digression.

In an undergraduate course in Feminist Literature, I read Elaine Morgan‘s, The Descent of Woman. This was 50 years ago. I have no clue at this point what Shulamith Firestone wrote about. Time has fuzzed that out. Many of Morgan’s points, however, remain vivid.

Her central argument is that we share a few key odd body traits not with our close cousins, the chimps, but with aquatic mammals. Examples include women’s subcutaneous fat and both genders’ minimal body hair…traits that overlap with dolphins, for example, but not most terrestrial mammals. She believes this argues for some interregnum of seashore or riparian evolution. Women, specifically, were at the leading edge of evolution during this period. (Men’s layer of fat is half the thickness of women’s, and men are typically furrier.)

One reason she stayed fresh in my mind was that ‘real’ anthropologists would remind me of her in occasional snide footnotes or asides. You could almost see the eye rolls. Not that they actually disputed her claims. That would be beneath them. So, irritating certain pros, and ideas I liked: two points in her favor:-).

Jump forward to 2015 or so. Wendy, Griffin, and I are at a lecture on human evolution at the California Academy of Science. It’s being given by Zeresenay Alemseged, Curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and discoverer of Selam, a remarkably complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton that predates Leakey’s famous Lucy by 120,000 years.

Alemseged is discussing one of the big issues in human evolution: what provided enough calories to allow the step up in brain size between Australopithecus and Homo species. Brains burn a lot of energy. Other primate’s diets could not support a brain of our size. And evolution does not support the sort of look-forward activity that would require some Australopithecus species to decide, “Hey, we need bigger brains, let’s go look for different food.” The calories have to be there already to allow a boot-up mutation to work.

His answer is based on his recent work in what was at one time the coast of South Africa. Shellfish! They’re easy to gather in quantity, can be eaten cooked or raw, and protein is calorie-rich.

Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.
Australopithecus species had stone tools. Homo hablis used fire.

Soooo, oysters on the beach, baby! Step aside ‘man the hunter’. Enter proto-people with digging sticks on the shoreline. Elaine Morgan, fuck yeah:-).

(To set a bit of context. Both fire and stone tools predate the appearance of homo sapiens. An ancestor some 2.5M years ago used stone tools and one used fire 1M years ago give or take. All these dates keep getting pushed back. Homo sapiens likely clocks in at a mere .25M years to date.

Connecting it all up, there was an ancestor animal with a brain roughly 2/3rds the size of ours walking erect, using stone tools, cooking on a fire, and consuming shellfish. Likely there were adolescent hominids poking the fire with a stick. Shellfish have remained a high-quality staple for many cultures. The unceded Muwekma Ohlone land in nearby Emeryville contains a shell mound with the remains of millions of shellfish meals consumed over a recent two and half thousand years. )

Instinct?

Okay, evidence-wise, the oyster thing is a bit squishy. My feeling deeply grounded while cooking oysters at the beach…a feeling of ‘being all of one piece’… doesn’t exactly make it at the top of the hard evidence chart. And I’m not even sure how to articulate this within a theory of what’s commonly called instinct.

Let’s try.

I’m starting with a metaphor. In my defense, thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and George Lakoff have argued that metaphors, despite getting trashed by the likes of Newton and Bacon, can play a central role at the core of the clusters of scientific thinking and evidence that Kuhn termed paradigms. Math and hypothesis testing are key in the mix as well, of course, but both verbal and visual metaphors are important ‘tools to think with’.

My metaphor will be the mouth of a bay.

My friend Martin has warned me that the mouth of bays are particularly dangerous places to boat. You have currents, tides, waves, occasional whirlpools, and abrupt shifts in winds caused by the temperature differential between the waters and the shore. The mouth of Tomales Bay and Drake’s Estero are both good examples. Sometimes they’re relatively placid, and sometimes they’ll kick your ass. Every once in a while, they kill somebody.

You can paddle in a specific direction with knowledge, good equipment, and determination, but sometimes it is much more difficult than others, and if you take your eye off your destination, you can suddenly find yourself somewhere you did not intend to go.

Our typical view of instinct is of something like salmon swimming upstream– a compulsion or drive–which I think limits what we consider when we talk about its impact in humans.

The hormonal/neurotransmitter blend in our internal sea marks the intersection of our bodies and the environment and adds the push of currents and tides to our behavior. We transverse them occasionally wondering how we ended up somewhere.

We can consciously tweak our blood chemistry by, for example, blocking adenosine receptors with caffeine or seeking dopamine hits with a game on our phone. But mostly all this is mostly happening below the surface. Our tide and currents are at play against underwater surfaces that are not typically visible in an easy-to-interpret way. This interacts with built-in and learned schema that helps pattern what might be called raw perception into what we perceive…all that outside consciousness as well.

Something between me, oysters, cooking, and the beach is tweaking how I feel. A hormonal and neural balance is emerging in my inner sea. I contend that this is on a continuum with whatever else human instinct might be.

Side note: other reasons I like the water metaphor are, first, water flows downhill following a natural ‘instinctual’ gradient, and, second, water has depth. Things can be closer or further from consciousness.

More on instinct: positive and negative examples

In order to firm up and challenge this formulation, let’s look at a few more examples. Next post we’ll complicate things further by adding in Jung’s concepts of imago and archetype. Then try and tie it up into a tentative theory of instinct.

Thinking fast and slow

We should at least mention Daniel Kahneman’s fast thinking vs slow thinking. Kahneman describes fast thinking as ‘instinctual and emotive’. That would include knee-jerk responses, but he includes pretty much anything that happens below the surface: perceptual and cognitive biases, the automatic placement of objects in space, and even skills that have achieved automaticity.

Certainly, danger reactions that have to be faster than conscious ‘slow thinking’ can achieve should be termed instinct.

Instinct with a positive impact

Despite a shocking lack of research on grilling oysters, there’s a significant body of evidence for a similar activity: getting out into a natural environment.

As an outdoor nerd, I’ve been collecting citations. Here are just a few from my stash that focus on measurable metrics.

1. How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

… experiments conducted by Japan’s Chiba University found that forest bathing lowered heart rate and blood pressure and brought down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on every system when large amounts circulate through the body. … These findings underscore that spending time in the forest is a medical intervention as well as an aesthetic and spiritual one, something scientists have long observed but haven’t been able to quantify.

2. The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash BorerAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2013, Geoffery Donovan et al.

There was an increase in mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness in counties infested with the emerald ash borer. The magnitude of this effect was greater as infestation progressed and in counties with above-average median household income. Across the 15 states in the study area, the borer was associated with an additional 6113 deaths related to illness of the lower respiratory system, and 15,080 cardiovascular-related deaths. [In other words, when the trees went away, health suffered.]

3. In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure – Nature, 2017, Simone Kuhn et al.

Our results reveal a significant positive association between the coverage of forest and amygdala integrity. We conclude that forests may have salutogenic effects on the integrity of the amygdala.

Brother Francis and Brother Sun, Giovanni Costa, 1878 – if there’s a patron saint of getting outdoors, it would be Francis:-)

Instinct with a negative impact

Regular readers know that I consider our Us vs. Them reaction to be a species of fast thinking with malign impact. (Links here, here, and here; it’s a long story.) Here are a few things more contained.

  1. Ebola Fears Helped The GOP In 2014 Election – Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, 6/14/2017

Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.

“Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall.

For those working on a better class of conspiracy theories, note the Ebola panic faded shortly after the election.

Heightened anxiety makes people more prone to share claims on social media – Psy Post, 3/22/2023
reporting on Believing and sharing misinformation, fact-checks, and accurate information on social media: The role of anxiety during COVID-19, 2021, Isabelle Freiling et al.

A new experimental study found that heightened anxiety makes people more prone to believe in various claims they are exposed to and to share them on social media. This was especially true for Republicans and did not depend on the accuracy or truthfulness of the claim. The study was published in New Media & Society.

Next up

    In part #004, I intend to complicate things considerably.

    We will explore a Jungian view of ‘instinct’. Here we find an unconscious realm populated by ‘imago’ and archetypes and inhabited by dark gods and talking animals. A realm from whence not just impulse but full-blown narratives arrive. A realm of entities that constantly tweak our felt gradients and that can override our everyday self quite dramatically—but that might also contain an instinct for wholeness and healing.

    The driving question that Jung successfully answers: what form did instinct take as hardwired behavior evolved in beings such as ourselves that need room for the huge role of learning and culture?

    Thanks for reading.

    Spring 2023 Newsletter

    Hi all,

    It’s been a while.

    Short version: wife Wendy took an abrupt fall (the result of an unrecognized Lisfranc injury), and, between acting as a home health aide and dodging storms then making repairs, I spent 3 months with no time to write. Even with much healing and the end to a series of atmospheric rivers, time was tight. Now Wendy is highly mobile again, and it’s a glorious spring. Time to get active.

    Uprooted trees in Point Reyes National Seashore after numerous storms during winter 2022/23
    Pt Reyes Natl Seashore: after months of rain, even deeply rooted trees started blowing over

    But hold on a minute.

    The interruption gave me yet another opportunity to try and decide what I want to be when I grow up. I’m nearing the end of a series I call Emotional Truth / Political Lies written in order to think things through. (More of that below.) I used Medium as a platform because it makes writing look good and held out the promise of helping find readers/kibitzers.

    Blooming wild irises at Pt Reyes National Seashore
    Spring!

    Here’s the problem.

    First, it has become clear to me that folks that get read a lot on Medium, write a lot on Medium. Like every week. Some daily! I’m not capable of that. I’m using writing to think; that’s a slow process. I can get something out every month or two if I’m pushing it. So no big rush of new readers.

    Second, the wtf demon that’s had me since 2016 is releasing its grip.

    I’m finishing up the analysis phase of the Truth/Lies series. There will be a summary of thoughts so far, and I do need to write something about the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church. But I’m nearing a natural transition point.

    So here’s what I’m going to do.

    A piece on Medium by Cory Doctorow pointed to a way to solve my ‘slow but unsteady’ approach to writing:
    “…interesting stuff that crosses my path gets turned into a blog post
    where it rubs up against other interesting stuff and crystallizes into
    longer, more considered pieces”
    I’m going to try that. Pieces here will be short, tentative, and likely awkward. Things will appear on Medium as they mature or in the unlikely event that I end up writing something quick and fun (could happen, right?).

    If you want to see the long stuff, you could Subscribe on Medium.

    The latest piece and the first in 6 months is Drake’s Equation and You. If you think you’ve Subscribed but didn’t see it, then either it went to spam, or you Followed me rather than Subscribed.

    (If you want to see all work by a writer on Medium remember: Follow bad; Subscribe good. Their system is confusing.)

    Photo of Fermi
    Fermi’s question = If there are so many stars where are the aliens? Drake took it from there.

    I’ll add a teaser to the current work in progress below. See it here as sections get roughed out.

    Thanks for reading,
    Al

    ===============
    ===============

    We Need a Smaller Them

    Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far

    There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.
    Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)

    The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.
    -Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)

    I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.

    Intro

    On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. Now hijacked, my attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.

    Decentered Identity 

    Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.

    In my six-year journey to try and understand the dynamics of US politics, I have come to believe that it’s, in fact, “identity politics” at the core — but not in the way the term is commonly used. 

    …to be continued…

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