The Whole

One holds the Whole dear not out of love for the Whole; rather, it is out of love for oneself that one holds the Whole dear.

…by reflecting and concentrating on one’s self, one gains the knowledge of this whole world.

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.4



A list of common memento mori, literally “remember death”, short phrases to remind you that life is short & precious.

Tempus fugit – time flies.

Carpe diem – seize the day.

Dust to dust – shortened from Genesis 3:19 – “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Et in arcadia ego – the title of a 1637 painting by Nicolas Poussin. Literally “Even in Arcadia, there am I” where “I” is death.

Ubi sunt – where are they?

Where are those who were before us,
who led hounds and bore hawks,
And owned field and wood? 
The rich ladies in their chambers,
Who wore gold in their hair,
With their bright faces; ...

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may – the title of a 1909 painting by John William Waterhouse

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Sic transit gloria mundi – Thus passes worldly glory. A phrase used in papal coronation ceremonies in the 1400’s.

Memento mori – Remember death.


Whither happiness?

For happiness, how little suffices for happiness!…the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizards’s rustling, a breath, a wink, an eye glance—little maketh up the best happiness. Be still.

Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra

and similarly:

The playfulness and joy of a dog, its unconditional love and readiness to celebrate life at any moment often contrast sharply with the inner state of the dog’s owner — depressed, anxious, burdened by problems, lost in thought, not present in the only place and only time there is: Here and Now. One wonders: living with this person, how does the dog manage to remain so sane, so joyous?

Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks

Simulation & Simulacra

The convergence of literature:

For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall.

Cormac McCarthy – The Crossing

and philosophy:

For something to be real, it needs to be implemented. So the model that you have of reality is real in as far as it is a model, it’s an appropriate description of the world to say that there are models that are being experienced. But the world that you experience is not necessarily implemented, there is a difference between a reality, a simulation and a simulacrum. The reality that we are talking about is something that fully emerges over a causally closed lowest layer. And the idea of physicalism is that we are in that layer, that basically our world emerges over that. Every alternative to physicalism is a simulation theory, which basically says that we are in some kind of simulation universe and the real world needs to be an apparent universe of that, where the actual causal structure is.

When you look at the ocean and your own mind, you are looking at a simulation that explains what you’re going to see next. [We are living in a] simulation generated by own brains. And this simulation is different from the physical reality, because the causal structure that is being produced, what you are seeing, is different from the causal structural of physics. […] Your behavior needs to work in such a way that it’s interacting with an accurately predictive model of reality. And, if your brain is unable to make your model of reality predictive, you will need help.

Joscha Bach on the Lex Fridman podcast


On the Loss of Tribe

In suburban America we generally interact with our neighbors only at a surface level. Most interactions are limited to waving hi as we walk by or occasionally we stop for sidewalk chats. Sometimes we visit for longer at annual block parties.

In the book Ikigai, the authors share several conversations they had with Japanese people who live in small towns and villages noted for their longevity. The interviews almost universally mention the importance of easygoing but deliberate and frequent hangouts with neighbor friends.

Similarly, Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe speaks about the comradeship he felt as a soldier and its distinct absence when he got home. He’s spent the rest of his life deliberately making life decisions that will bring that sense of community back.

Years ago I moved with my wife and son to Uruguay. There, even though we were in a suburb to the capital city Montevideo, it felt like drop-in friendships formed naturally. Having a friend spontaneously show up at your door to chat, or planning an impromptu asado with neighbors was not uncommon. As cliché as it is to say about Latin American culture, the pace of life was slower and people seemed genuinely more connected because of it. I really miss it.

It’s not that this never happens here in suburbia, but it feels like when it does, it happens in spite of our culture instead of because of it. It reminds me of A Pattern Language (pdf). The book is about the impact that patterns used in architecture and community planning have on our lives. It feels like the patterns that we’ve built most American neighborhoods around, combined with our productivity culture, whether by accident or otherwise, are completely antithetical to fostering that easygoing hangout culture.

What a loss.

A few years ago at work I had a good group of co-workers who became friends. Most mornings we’d hang out just chatting for a half hour or on some days longer. I was lucky to have one co-worker, you know who you are if you’re reading this, who was great at fostering that type of environment as well as a boss who was very tolerant. (For what it’s worth, we were also a very productive team). At the time, I didn’t think much of it but I really miss it now. Especially since Covid and Zoom have essentially erased any potential for those types of hangouts.

In Concrete Cowboy, a movie based on the book Ghetto Cowboy about urban horse culture in Detroit, there are scenes of a group of people sitting around a fire talking. The feeling, at least in the movie, was that it wasn’t at all unusual to sit around at the end of the day, as the sun went down, enjoying each other’s company. Talking about the difficulties life brought each other, and observing how the world was changing brought a sense of place. Of belonging.

Yes, it’s just a movie, but we’ve all seen this type of easygoing hangout happening and we’ve all been part of them at times. The lamentable part is how they now feel exceptional to everyday life.

Online hangouts and the cozyweb are nice and have their a place for sure.

Formal get togethers and parties are also nice and have their place as well.

Neither are substitutes for the feeling of “tribe” though.


Quoting Montaigne

I am very ignorant about what I am. I marvel at the assurance and confidence people have of themselves—while there is hardly anything I know for sure and that I could guarantee being able to do. I do not possess a checklist of my abilities; I learn about them only after they have done their job.

No matter how many times I go over my own writings, rather than please me they disappoint and irritate me. I always have an idea in my mind, a fuzzy image, of a far better expression than the one I used, but, like in a dream, I can neither grasp nor develop it.

I know how neither please, delight, nor titillate the best tale in the world dries up in my hands and drones on. I know only how to talk seriously. I am quite devoid of that facility, which I see in several of my acquaintances, to chat away with every newcomer, keep an audience on the edge of its seats, or engage a prince on all outs of topics without boring him.

From Essays, as quoted in The Art of Solitude by Stephen Batchelor

Montaigne is a great example of how someone who isn’t a natural storyteller, isn’t a born self-promoter, or a raging extrovert can, through careful introspection and honest self-appraisal, resonate with so many people for so long.

I find that in most of my writing I studiously avoid including “me” and instead write about “stuff” I’m interested in. Maybe revisiting Montaigne will change that.


Inter-categorical: Here there be Monsters

To make sense of the world we naturally group things into categories. Categories aren’t scientific or fixed, they’re simply generalizations we use to lower the amount of mental processing we have to do when we encounter something new.

For example, tables are a familiar category of things that usually, but not always, have four legs and you can place things on them. When we see something table-like we immediately and unconsciously categorize it as a table.

What happens though when something defies our normal categories? John Vervaeke, relying on the work of Mary Douglas, discusses this in his 34th episode of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. He says:

Inter-categorical are things that don’t fall into our ready-made categories and therefore we typically regard them as ‘weird’.

What do we do with inter-categorical things? Here’s an example from Mary Douglas (in Vervake’s words):

…in the Bible, the book of Leviticus, all the animals that are unclean, they’re very weird! It’s a very weird collection! If you tried to find some sort of essence, like why owls are unclean and crocodiles are unclean, and certain birds are unclean… It doesn’t make any sense! And then she argues, “Well, no, what happens is there’s ways in which people have categorized things and those categories have a certain pattern. And when that pattern is being broken, then these things challenge our grip on the world!


Douglas argues that you should have an interconnection between a creature’s shape–it’s morphology–its means of locomotion and its location–where it lives. So if it lives in the sea, it should swim and therefore it should have a fish shape. So you have things that are in the sea that don’t seem to be swimming, like the crawfish, shellfish, and therefore they’re kind of weird and they turn out to be unclean.

This type of thinking may seem outdated, but Vervaeke points out that we too have our own purity codes.

Jonathan Haidt has written quite a bit about this, notably in The Righteous Mind. There he talks about how, even today, the strength of someone’s sense of disgust plays a strong role in determining political beliefs. As summarized by David Potts:

Disgust is the emotional foundation of the moral ideas of pollution, stain, miasma. It is also (according to Haidt), paradoxically, the ultimate source of our sense of the sacred. For, the idea of pollution suggests its contrary, purity. The sacred is the pure, that which must be kept from pollution and degradation at all costs. It is the infinitely valuable. When we speak of the sanctity of human life, the Sanctity/Degradation foundation is in action. Sanctity talk is in decline in the West. There are still Westerners who think of virginity as sacred, for example, but they are outliers. However, as Haidt points out, we can still see Sanctity/Degradation at work in biomedical debates over abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and stem cell research.

Inter-categorical is similar to, but not quite the same as, disgusting. Vervaeke uses horror creatures as another example:

So if you take a look at many horror creatures, they’re prototypically inter-categorical. The Wolf man is inter-categorical between the beastial and the personal. The ghost is into categorical between the living and the dead. The vampire is also inter-categorical between the living and the dead and also between being alive in the sense of consuming and being alive in the sense of being able to be generative.

Something that’s simply disgusting can gross us out, but something that’s inter-categorical can have a much stronger effect, it can cause us to lose “grip on reality, and intelligibility, because of the deep connectedness between realness and intelligibility.”

(Thanks to Chris, JD, Benica, and Nica for the transcription of the lecture!)


Are we self-transcendent by nature?

When John Vervaeke shared the ideas that humans are naturally self-transcendent in many ways in episode 31 of his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series, it gave me goosebumps. I don’t know that I can do the idea justice, but I wanted to write at least a bit about it while it’s fresh in my mind.

This blog post, to be perfectly clear, contains none of my own ideas—they’re all Vervaeke’s. Some of it is directly quoted from his lecture, the rest is, to the the best of my ability, either paraphrased or restated.

He says that “when a system, [a human for example], is self-organizing, there’s no deep distinction between its function and its development. It develops by functioning. By functioning it develops.” So development is both a result of functioning as well as an input to functioning. In a way, it feels to me like it’s our brief but bright stand against the second law of thermodynamics. As long as we’re alive, by definition we’re constantly self-organizing and transcending. Is that not anti-entropic too?

As we’ve evolved, we’ve moved from single cells to becoming a zygotes. Later, some cells began to differentiate—they specialized into organs. They self-organized. This biological complexification gives us emergent abilities. As these abilities emerge, we transcend ourselves as a system. As Vervaeke says, he couldn’t vote when he was a zygote. It’s interesting on a purely biological level, but the implications for our social and spiritual development are even more exciting.

The processes that determine how this development takes place are key to his research. He’s developing a theory of “relevance realization.” I’ll have to write about that in another blog post, but in a nutshell, for something to be relevant in this context is for the thing to be fit for our survival and growth. He theorizes that there is no possible scientific definition for something that’s relevant since relevance is entirely context dependent. He says that what we can determine scientifically is a theory for how we realize something is relevant to fitness. Again, I can’t do justice to it yet, but it’s basically through a sort of functional feedback loop…

The obvious next question is where does this self-transcendence end? As far as I know, there’s no reason to believe that it does end—we should be capable of essentially endless self-transcendence. It’s exciting to think about! What forms can we take through intentional self-complexification? What will happen through evolutionary processes?


How to think about money in 2021

Money is much more complex than just being the currency that whatever country you live in issues. It comes in many forms and, with cryptocurrencies and other digital currencies, there are more choices today than ever. This is great, but it also means that there is more risk and a higher learning curve to figuring out your options.

It’s not something you should ignore. Money is the most pure representation of your time and work that exists. Think about that. If you value them, it’s worth thinking about what you use to store their value. Whatever it is, the most important consideration is if it will retain its value over time.

1. Story

The fitness of all money, above all, is based on a shared story. The strength of the story is the most fundamental factor in determining the health of any type of money. The reason everyone accepts US Dollars is that we all believe everyone else will do the same thing and we think there are good enough reasons for that to keep happening. If for any reason we stop believing that, US Dollars become nothing but paper or numbers on a computer screen.

Gold, silver and a few other forms of money have the advantage of having an intrinsic value outside of the story we tell about them. This makes them much less susceptible, but not completely immune, to the story behind their value being undermined. Precious metals have their own problems, but story is certainly their strong point.

2. Stewardship

In addition to story, the stewardship of money, meaning the person or organization that controls its supply, is important. In the case of US Dollars, the US Government and the Federal Reserve are the stewards. They decide when more money is created and to whom and under what terms that new money is distributed.

When a steward decides to create more money, no matter what the reason or how valid it is, it lowers the value of all existing money.

Mmm, cookies

A simple, but illustrative way to understand this is to imagine that there are 10 cookies for sale and 10 friends who’d like a cookie. Unfortunately, there are only 5 cookie coins available and each one is worth 2 cookies. In a stroke of inspiration, you decide to simply make 5 more cookie coins.

At that moment, two things have happened. The first is that each of the original cookie coins are now only worth 1 cookie. They lost value because while there are new coins, there are still the same number of cookies. The second is that there is now more flexibility in the system since there are enough coins for each person to have one. What’s important here though, is how the 5 new cookie coins are distributed.

If 5 friends started with the original 5 coins, and each gets one new cookie coin there’s very little change. They’re all just as rich (and not richer) with 2 cookie coins each than they were with just one. If, however the 5 new coins are given to the 5 friends who had none, they’re now richer while the 5 original cookie coin owners are poorer–before they could afford 2 cookies each, now they can only afford one. You might think “well that sounds equitable” and in a sense, it would be, but it is of course more complicated than that. Say the 5 original cookie coin owners earned their coins by working all morning in the hot sun while the 5 who had no coins sat around the pool telling jokes.

The point of the cookie coin story isn’t about what’s fair. The point is that when the steward of money meddles with the supply there are consequences for everyone in the system. Some will be winners, some will be losers.

The big risk is that if too many people are losers for too long, the all important story behind the money breaks down, and we’ve already discussed what can happen then.

3. Suitability

In addition to the story and stewards of money, we need to consider suitability. Suitability is the technical side of money. It’s:

  • how easily and cheaply it’s transferred from person to person and place to place within and across borders
  • how private it is
  • its ability to be used in interactions with the government, primarily meaning to pay taxes
  • its liquidity, or how easily and quickly it can be used to purchase the things people want to buy
  • it’s durability; how easily can it be physically or digitally lost or destroyed

All these are important considerations but be warned not to mistake suitability for being more important than story and stewardship. It doesn’t matter how amazingly perfect and awesome a potential money is if it can’t get popular support or it’s mismanaged.

Conclusion to part 1 and what’s up next

We’ve now seen what kind of considerations come into play when choosing where to store your time and energy. Next we’ll consider what our options for money are and how they compare to each other in light of the above criteria.


Thinking about thinking

This is another post inspired by John Vervaeke’s lectures on the Meaning Crisis. Halfway through the 50 lecture series he switches from focusing on how humans have made and found meaning throughout history to looking at how cognitive science can help us address the loss of meaning we face in a post-religious world.

Vervaeke introduces the section on cognitive science by framing it as a broad discipline that encompasses several levels of thinking about thinking:

Cognition levelAcademic discipline
Information ProcessingArtificial Intelligence – AGI
The BrainNeuroscience

He then argues that the best way to advance our understanding of cognition it to, rather than approach each academic discipline as a discrete field that sometimes gleans from other cognitive fields, take a more integrated, more philosophical, approach.

For example a linguist might ask herself “what can I see in psychology through the lens of linguistics?”

This description barely touches the surface of his thoughts. The first 15 or 20 minutes of this video are well worth watching and don’t necessarily require the full context of the first 25 lectures: