Recommended: Jay Garfield’s The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life is the first lecture series I’ve listened to from The Great Courses and it’s fantastic. The name is maybe a little too lofty, I’d have called it “How to Live,” but don’t let that dissuade you. The lecturer, Jay Garfield, is a professor at Smith College and Harvard Divinity School and has written extensively on Eastern religions. His presentation style is efficient, engaging, and approachable. His course roams the world touching on many of the major philosophical and religious traditions in a way that gives a brief overview of each but also, more importantly, examples of where they differ in their philosophies on how to live.

In my own study, I’ve found it’s easy to find and focus on the similarities between philosophical traditions because they are what I’m drawn to naturally. I’d be hard pressed to say “this is what a taoist would do in this situation while a stoic would instead do this.” Garfield excels at giving a sort of WWJD for each of the traditions he covers. It’s in the contrasts between them that I feel the real character of each philosophy comes out.

For example, where Aristotle would say you can learn to cultivate anger, Seneca would say anger is never good and we should learn to avoid it completely. Where Confucianists would say we should focus on ritual and virtue, taoists would say that ritual marks the waning of belief and the onset of confusion.

Garfield also strikes a great balance between academic and practical. He doesn’t skimp on reading directly from source texts and doesn’t shy away from the complexities of distilling hundreds or thousands of years of wisdom into 30 minute chunks. But where condensing is necessary, he leans to the side of actionable information. It’s a symmetry that’s hard to find elsewhere.

If you’re looking for something good to listen to on your commute, and want more depth that most podcasts can offer while still getting the same casual feel, check it out. It’s well worth it.

The 10 Best Links from Myth & Matter No. 13

This 1970’s quote by Joseph Weizenbaum made me uncomfortable: Programming “appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success.” Found in The Seventh Sense.

Jewish Stars and New York Values – my new favorite blog Slate Star Codex has an article on “dog whistling” and why it’s kind of dumb.

If you like programming OR you like Chuck Norris Facts, these Jeff Dean Facts are really funny. Jeff Dean is a hyper-productive coder at Google.

Lenin was a Mushroom – File this one in your “Weird Wikipedia articles folder.”

Have you ever noticed how almost anything can be a cure for depression? Think of anything that isn’t directly harmful to your health and search for it as a cure for depression. I bet you there’s an article about it. Knitting. Carrots. Cats. Gems. Pottery. You name it.

I have a small hobby of collecting articles about Norway. For such a modest country, it seems to be very well represented in the news. This time – Why the Norwegians Love Electric Cars.

Urbit is the new hotness in the digital currency world. It’s been under development for 12 years and is finally coming out of hiding.

Here’s to hoping. The NYT says that 1 Minute of All-Out Exercise May Have Benefits of 45 Minutes of Moderate Exercise.

Articles that talk about why dead philosophers are “so hot right now” always crack me up. This time, David Hume.

Speaking of dead philosophers, Vivekananda is in the news for his influence on Tolstoy, Salinger and Tesla.

Warrant Canaries are an interesting experiment in detecting government surveillance. Here’s how it’s going a year on.

The Archer’s Paradox in slow motion. The fascinating physics of archery.

A Dangerous and Evil Piano Piece.

Want more?

If you’re not already subscribed to Myth & Matter, do it! It’s an infrequent newsletter with great content.

I Believe in Altruism

Altruism, selfless sacrifice for the benefit of others, is something that I keep coming back to because plays such an important role in what it means to be human. It’s easy and tempting to make the argument that everything humans do is motivated by selfishness. For example:

You push a child off the train tracks, saving her life while seriously risking your own. Was your motivation selfish? If the child wasn’t related to you then, evolutionarily speaking, your action was clearly altruistic. You reduced your chances of reproduction while increasing hers. Case closed.

Where things get more sticky is when you consider the psychological aspects of the situation. Your motive could be to avoid embarrassment or, assuming you survive, to make yourself look better to the people on the train platform. Even if you didn’t survive, you could have the motivation of assuring your legacy. If it wasn’t that, if there was no one to witness your act and the child was too young to remember it, maybe it was that you have an internal moral code that you pride yourself on following and you want to uphold it in order to have personal internal peace the next day and for the rest of your life.

If it’s so easy to explain away such a selfless seeming action, Is it possible for someone to act in such a way that isn’t primarily motivated by personal gain? Does it matter?

It matters to me because it says something about the goodness of our species. Either we live in an Ayn Rand-like world where, at our best, we constantly optimize for our own happiness, indifferent to anything outside of that selfish goal. Or if psychological altruism is possible, we could live in a much more interconnected world where true humanity means we are concerned about others, even if it means we might sometimes suffer for our consideration.

I believe in altruism. I think it’s silly to say that because doing good anonymously for other people at a cost to yourself makes you feel good, that feeling good is the strongest motive for doing good. If there’s a hierarchy of motives, feeling good about doing good fits in somewhere, but I don’t think it is always the top motive.

To return to the example of the child on the train tracks—does it not seem ridiculous to say that someone who anonymously saves the child could only do so begrudgingly, simply because they’d feel guilty later if they didn’t? I think so. I don’t think people are always so cold and calculating to the point that when we make a snap decision we always do it with selfish motives. I think that we can make concern for others our highest priority and act altruistically.

Aesthetics and the Outdoors

Over the last few weeks I’ve had a few very different outdoor experiences in similar settings that have me thinking about the role of aesthetics in everyday life.

Experience 1: Our family backpacked a short distance to the coast and spent a couple nights on the beach. On the second day we met up with friends from work and camped they camped a night with us. We spent time hiking, looking at sea creatures, sitting around the fire talking, playing games, and cooking simple meals.

Experience 2: I met up with couple long-time friends and another guy I just met. We did another, longer hike through the forest and camped on the beach. We spent time sitting around the fire discussing our various philosophies of life, our kids and families, and the turns that life had given us and how we dealt with them. Being a group of guys, there was a fair amount of body humor but it was far outweighed by substantive conversation.

Experience 3: A friend invited me to stay at a cabin on the coast then spend the next day fishing with a group of guys that I hadn’t met. Being out on the ocean was amazing. We caught salmon and saw humpback whales frolicking in the rainy, overcast Pacific waters. This time the mood of the trip was more macho. Life and feelings weren’t discussed, the focus was on the “hunt” for the fish and on the equipment and techniques to best carry it out.

I came back from the first two experiences feeling refreshed and invigorated. The third wasn’t bad by any means, but it left me feeling relatively empty. As far as I can tell, the third experience was marred by a lack of what would traditionally be considered feminine characteristics. The physical environment was very similar for all three but the texture or aesthetics of each couldn’t have been more different.

For experience 1, there were children present. This naturally kept the tone of the trip more chill. A lot of time was spent nurturing them—teaching them about the environment they were in and talking to them about their lives. It was great to see my friends who don’t have kids taking such an active interest in my children.

Experience 2 had no women or children present but the group was composed entirely of family men. There was little in the way of posturing or machismo. It enriching to swap stories of our ups and downs in the role of providers. We talked about our other outdoor experiences, made plans for the future, talked about books and tv shows we’d all read or seen, and swapped tips for living the good life. We kept our gear and meals simple and rather than spending time focused on “doing,” we optimized for enjoyment of the natural beauty of the area. I think the best word to describe the trip would be “edifying.”

The last experience had its share of camaraderie. We celebrated each other’s accomplishments—in this case catching fish. Plenty of inside jokes were born and died. It wasn’t a physically challenging activity but there was a big disparity in terms of technical ability. I’m a fishing newbie and appreciated the guidance from the more experienced members of the group. Upon reflection though, what was lacking was any philosophical discussion of what we were doing. There were comments on the beauty of the ocean, the fish, and the whales. There wasn’t much though in terms of deeper discussion of what it means to live.

The contrast between the three trips makes me think about how to apply their different aesthetics to my non-camping life. I appreciated:

  • Slow enjoyment of natural surroundings
  • Conversations free of posturing that go deeper than surface level observations
  • Base humor in small doses
  • Minimalism with regards to food and equipment

I feel like I still have some processing to do before I’ve distilled the experiences down to anything actionable, but the contrast between them was an unexpected lesson in how to live.

A Thousand Thousand Fragments of Light

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippet is quickly becoming one of my favorite books this year. Her interview with Rachel Naomi Remen was, for me, one of those eye and heart opening moments where I feel connected with humanity in an empowering way. This is the story Remen shared:

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.
And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

When questioned about the reality of “healing the world,” she said:

I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to make a difference, that we need to be more somehow, wealthier or more educated or otherwise different than the people we are. And according to this story, we are exactly what’s needed. And to just wonder about that a little: what if we were exactly what’s needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?

To me, this ties together some of the most poignant aspects of the world’s great philosophies. The idea that we are okay now—there is no need to wait for anything to begin to do good. That global change comes person by person as we become enlightened to our role in humanity.

The Future of Human Dignity

I love this quote from Krista Tippett, host of the On Being podcast, in her book Becoming Wise:

[Einstein] began his life with a profound faith in the social good of the scientific enterprise—a community of cosmic endeavor that should transcend tribal rivalries and national boundaries. Then he watched German science hand itself over to fascism. He watched chemists and physicists become creators of weapons of mass destruction. He said that science in his generation had become like a razor blade in the hands of a three-year-old. He began to see figures such as Gandhi and Moses, Jesus and Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi, as “geniuses in the art of living.” He proposed that their qualities of “spiritual genius” were more necessary to the future of human dignity, security, and joy than objective knowledge.

Just as there’s a place for science and rationality, there’s a place for emotion, intuition, and spirituality. What a good reminder.

The Seventh Sense

The core idea behind The Seventh Sense is good. “The Seventh Sense, in short, is the ability to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection.” Networks are changing the world and the implications of hyper-connectedness are changing the economy, politics, social relationships and just about everything else. As far as I can tell though, Ramo doesn’t bring much new to the table.

He’s done his homework for sure. There are dozens of great references to all kinds of work that is happening around connectivity and networks across all fields. In fact, this is the most impressive part of the book, the sheer breadth of stories, quotes and books he references. I learned a lot from these and it’s why I’d recommend the book to others.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have evolved and refined his own theory of networks deeply enough to tie all the disparate information together into a cohesive, actionable argument. Instead, the seventh sense seems to encompass nearly every idea Ramos finds cool. He resorts to breathless arguments and empty statements like “Many of our current leaders like things as they are. The words ‘potential’ and ‘threat’ rhyme in their consideration.” He often alludes to vague promises and threats that will come from our increasingly networked world without being able to clearly attribute them to any concrete idea that can be pinned down to a seventh sense.

Ironically, Ramo seems to have self-diagnosed the flaw with his book in the very first chapter. He tells a story of his zen master giving him some tough, but wise council.

“You know you can’t just understand this easily,” Master Nan said sharply. He was a little angry with me, I could see, for asking such a direct question—and he was also using the Chinese teaching technique of driving students through a range of emotions. Chinese philosophers believe we learn differently depending on how we feel. Terrifying, intimidating, or praising a student is often more effective than explaining an idea to them. Nan was working on my humiliation bone now: “This isn’t like some idea I can sell you and then you can just go and use,” he continued, his voice rising. I saw the focused intensity of the twenty-one-year-old who had recruited his own mountain army. “This is going to be hard.”

There’s potential here but, my opinion, it’s not fully realized.

What Motivates Super-Achievers?

Is intense passion the best motivator for getting stuff done? It seems to be a reasonable enough proposition. When you look at the world’s top [insert-anything-here], they often seem to be driven by their demons. Maybe something happened to them when they were young that propelled them into a frenzy of productivity to prove that they could build something of value. Many times they are proving the world wrong, proving to themselves that they are strong enough or proving that they’re not the failures that their parents or society or their teachers thought they would be.

With this narrative being so common as to have almost become a cliche taken alongside the objective knowledge of the effects that stress and anger can have on physical and mental health, it’s worth re-examining these assumptions. Specifically:

  • Is there value in becoming a super-achiever. If so, what is it? Does it lead us toward the common, ultimate goal of flourishing? Is it better for society? Do some people have a duty to humanity to sacrifice their personal health for the greater good?
  • What is the best motivator to become a super-achiever? Is it actually anger or some other strong emotion that comes from a place of deep discontentment? Can the same level of achievement arise from a healthier emotional basis? An example a friend at work gave was: If there are two marathon runners and one is motivated by his or her ultimate fear and the other is motivated by pure devotion to action, is it a given that the first will win with all else being equal?

Seneca believed that there is never a place for anger or other negative emotions in the pursuit of virtuous goals:

An assertion: “Anger is useful because it puts more fight in people.” Drunkenness can be regarded in the same way: it makes people aggressive and reckless, and many have been better at handling a blade when they’re tipsy. Claim, too, that delirium and insanity are necessary for strength, because madness often makes people more powerful! Or consider this: hasn’t fear sometimes had the contrary effect of making someone reckless? Hasn’t fear of death roused even the most sluggish to battle? But anger, drunkenness, fear, and other things of this sort are foul and futile stimulants: they give no tools to virtue, which needs nothing that vices can give, they just give a little lift to a mind otherwise supine and abject. No one becomes braver by becoming angry except the sort of person who wouldn’t have been brave without being angry: anger thus doesn’t assist virtue; it substitutes for virtue. What of the fact that anger, were it a good, would attend all the most highly developed people—-whereas those who are most inclined to anger are babies and the aged and the sick? Everything weak is by nature given to complaint.

I’m not sure that Seneca was right, but I hope so. The famous Yoda quote was never more appropriate: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” My gut feeling is that super-archivers who are motivated by discontentment are much more likely to suffer and cause suffering than those who, as the Bhagavad Gita says, “perform action without attachment.”

Meditation in the Age of Apps

As meditation becomes more popular and accepted in the mainstream, many are exposed to it through by apps or drop-in classes. Just as yoga is much more than the physical actions of the Hatha yoga that most studios in the US practice, meditation is more than sitting silently focused on the breath or on a mantra. There are benefits to both Hatha yoga and to concentration meditation, but both are only the beginning.

My exposure to the deeper aspects of meditation is limited, but I had the good fortune to stumble on Allan Wallace’s eight-week retreat podcasts. Wallace has studied Buddhism for many years in both an academic and personal settings. and has generously put a lot of time and effort into making the audio from his retreats freely available by podcast.

Relative to other guided meditations, the depth is incredible. The first few sessions are spent training you to settle your mind and body into its “natural state.” This is Samatha meditation. The focus is on a having relaxed body and a mind free from wandering thoughts and desires. He then moves on to other types of meditation such as Vipassana, or insight meditation, which is an exploration of what reality is by close examination of the mind. This is where things get more interesting. While Samatha meditation is excellent for lowering stress and increasing concentration and mindfulness, Vipassana is not always so easy. The level of attention required to address the tough questions it poses is something that takes time and energy to build. From Vipassana he goes on to Mahamudra and Dzogchen meditation and with 94 sessions, there is enough time to dive in deep to some of the relevant Buddhist (and other) texts.

The point of this is not to argue for which form of meditation is best or which you should start with, it’s to say that there’s a much deeper world of meditation out there than what you find in the guided meditations that most apps come with or what you might find at a center where anyone can drop in at any time. It’s the difference between Cliff’s notes and the full book. Find a teacher, a good book or, at a minimum, check out Allan Wallace’s podcast. There’s a lot out there.

Mystical Conversations

I just published another the 12th issue of Myth & Matter, here it is in case you haven’t subscribed yet.

Derek Sivers has published more of his “directives.” Short, often controversial, statements on how to live. It’s unsourced, unexplained and distilled advice. For example “Do not be the starving artist, working on things that have great personal value to you, but little market value. Follow the money. It tells you where you’re most valuable.” I hope this type of list becomes a trend. It’s what inspired me to post my list of values and he links to this list by Cheryl Engelhardt of her directives.

How can you review a rap album so exclusive almost no one will ever hear it? Dan Cohen has a fascinating take on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” and, more generally, on the mystery and beauty of the secret and ephemeral. He compares it to Ai Weiwei and his broken urn.


Science has problems. Paper after paper is being retracted after results can’t be reproduced. FiveThirtyEight writes about how this might actually be moving science forward. Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University, is more pessimistic and says it’s time to basically declare bankruptcy; that “Everything published before 2016 is provisional.” It’s a big, embarrassing problem that’s not going away any time soon.

I recently read Magicians of the Gods by journalist and amateur-of-many-years archeologist Graham Hancock. He proposes the existence of a civilization with advanced science and agriculture that existed before 9200 BC. He theorizes that this civilization was destroyed, but managed to pass along some of its knowledge via messengers or “magicians,” to help jump-start future civilizations. His work is controversial but mostly level-headed and, without a doubt, very interesting.

Slate Star Codex is one of those sites where you can lose yourself for hours in a fantastic rabbit hole of everythingness. Not to be missed. The author, Scott Alexander, is also writing a serial novel called Unsung. It’s about what happens after an Apollo rocket crashes in to the ceiling of space and cracks it open. It’s first-rate science fiction.

A couple IQ related links: Dogs have their own test now. Tall people are more likely to have a higher IQ

With the recent confirmation of their existence by LIGO, gravitational waves are back in the news. I’m looking forward to reading Black Hole Blues to understand the significance of the discovery a bit more.

It had been awhile since I read Roald Dahl. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator to my son and rediscovered how refreshing his writing and how bizarre his plots are.

I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, Altruism by Matthieu Ricard. It’s a good answer to proponents of selfishness ranging from Dawkins to Ayn Rand. And, as with most things, the Internet has taken altruism and made it weird.

At work we’ve had a lively discussion of the guaranteed minimum income. It’s an idea that has been loved and hated by people on all points of the political spectrum. Some think it could bring about another creative or entrepreneurial renaissance. The idea has been seriously explored in the UK, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand and now in the USA. Others think it would only increase global poverty.

The painting in the header is Mystical Conversations by Odilon Redon.

Hasta la Proxima

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