Sunday, 19 May 2013
I'd been wanting to get some audio recorded, and now I can - but I'm quite new at it, so there's a lot I need to work out.
While I'm doing that though, you might want to check out this, which is probably the first article I've ever written that might, if it works, destroy the Earth.
The article concerns something that occurred to me when I was putting together the signature piece for this site - One Song. During the many months of research that went into that piece I was able to develop a very radical new way of understanding what the mind is, and what the human self is.
If you've read it, you'll know that this isn't just a nice little academic exercise - the point of the new perspective is that it allows people to undercut suffering, despair, anxiety and anger at source. It also opens up a new understanding of something else that lies beyond them - the nature of human peace and joy, and a way to live life free of the ancient chains of human nature.
Now, while I was putting this together, something occurred to me.
If I'm right about what the mind is, and what the brain is fundamentally concerned with doing, what would that mean for artificial intelligence?
Would it be possible to build an AI along these lines, and literally create a self-aware machine?
Anyway, a couple of days ago I wrote a piece where I lay this out, lay out a very rough sketch of a potential architecture for what I call 'Artificial Humanity'.
It's written for the layman, and doesn't go too much into technical detail, partly to make it more accessible, and partly because I am basically Amish when it comes to computing, but I think the theory is solid enough.
The interesting thing about it is that if it works, it would effectively demonstrate that human beings do indeed work in the way that One Song describes.
As such, if anyone has a background in AI, and the time and resources to knock up some kind of working prototype, I'd be more than happy to work with you on it, on the proviso that if it works, we don't plug it in to any national defense systems (Terminator) to the internet (Lawnmower Man) or to any manufacturing facility it could use to replicate itself (The Matrix).
If there's nobody who's interested in building it, that's fine as well.
You can check it out at this link.
Hope you enjoy it!
Thursday, 9 May 2013
Sir Karl Popper was the 20th century's preeminent philosopher of science. Now before you all tune out and start watching cats on YouTube, here's why that matters.
Science produces knowledge with a precision and clarity that nothing else has ever matched. It is stunningly effective, and this raises a question. Why is it so effective? What is it that makes it so potent?
If we could get right down into the bones of it, past all the clunky words and terminology, past all the fancy white coats and thick layers of mathematics, could we find the core? The core mechanism that underlies all this success, the core thing from which it all proceeds?
Because if we could do that, well. Firstly, we could do better science. But secondly, we might be able to drive that process into areas that it has never before touched, and chart what has before been unchartable, the deepest dynamics of humanity itself. If this process has opened up such incredible possibilities in the external world, what could it do in the internal? What could it mean for the future of human nature itself?
Let's start with a simple, and annoying truth. You can't prove anything right. Doesn't matter what it is, doesn't matter a damn. No idea can ever, ever be proven right, under any circumstances, if it is an idea about something real.
Well, it's simple. If you take a simple idea - that all swans are white, for instance - how would you prove that right?
Well, you could look at all the swans. And you can look at every swan that you can get your hands on. And they'll all be white. And so you see a million swans, all one after the other, all white.
But it doesn't prove that all swans are white. Because you only need one black swan, just one, for your theory to fall. And no matter how many swans you see, you can never know that the next one won't be black.
And indeed, when explorers went to Australia, they did indeed come across actual black swans. In real life.
Pop goes the theory.
You could say this about any idea, no matter how stunningly self-evident. That the sun will rise tomorrow, for instance. It's risen every day since the beginning of recorded history, and quite a long time before that. None of this proves for certain that it will rise tomorrow.
How about the laws of physics? Surely they are proven?
Well actually, no. Because what we have is a set of theories and ideas about how things work. Some of these theories are incredible accurate, and amazingly good at predicting things.
But that's not to say that the very next experiment you do, the atom or the star will do something completely different, something that shatters every notion you had of how it works.
They don't - but they could. There is always that possibility. No matter what.
And so nothing can ever be certain, ever. Doesn't matter what it is.
And pay attention here - this is a big one....
It can be accurate.
It can't be certain, but it can be accurate. You idea can - in principle - be absolutely bang on. If it is, that accuracy will allow you to do things you could never do before. But no matter how accurate it is, you'll never know, because you'll never know what's around the corner.
And more than this. No matter how accurate it is, reality is bigger than it. And what this means is that although new accuracy can open up radical and striking new ways of living (the scientific revolution of the last 500 years or so, for instance), certainty is never on the cards.
What Popper spotted was this. Although you can't prove an idea right, no matter how accurate, you can show that an idea is inaccurate, if you're prepared to put it to the test.
You see, no number of positive test results proves that an idea is certain. But just one negative test result demonstrates that it's not completely accurate.
Of course, nothing is certain one way or another, ever. But then, certainty isn't the point. Accuracy is.
Most people hunger for certainty in what they believe. And in fact, it's a strange thing to see, but human beings defend their certainties way beyond the place where any sane observer could see that they aren't true.
To be a philosopher, you have to go beyond this. You have to stop defending the things you want to believe, and ignoring challenges to the certainties of life as you understand them. It is a rare path, and most people will never take it. Many people who call themselves philosophers will never take it.
And why? Because although accuracy opens up whole new ways of living, revolutionises life and the experience of being human, certainty looks good.
And it does. Certainty looks really good. Much better than accuracy. Accuracy can do more - but certainty can shout. It can make a big noise, and a big show. It can invest itself with moral purpose, make itself moral certainty, and provides the finest fuel for unimpeachable vanity.
If you're thinking "I don't want another way, I don't care what's really going on, what I really want is certainty, or at least the appearance of certainty, so I can make a noise and have people listen to me" then I have some good news. You're in glad company. This is a view that is very common, an approach to knowledge and what is going on in life that underlies the minds of vast numbers of people. It is very common. It is by no means strange. It is, in fact, the norm.
I'm not going to argue against this here. I'm not going to try to give reasons why people should care about the truth, or anything like that. I have found that there's a very simple process that makes doing that something of a wasted effort. It's that if someone doesn't care about the truth, they're well practised in ignoring anything that challenges them. And if someone does, they don't need convincing.
What I'm going to do here, is talk about the other way. A different way of doing things, a different way of handling knowledge. It isn't as shiny and polished as the simple certainties that ignore evidence against them. Nothing is. But it isn't without its charm, and it isn't without its power.
People who care about certainty work very hard to protect the ideas they have from being meaningfully challenged.
But if your ideas are accurate, you don't need to protect them. Reality protects them.
And if they're not accurate, you don't want to protect them, and reality will destroy them.
And that's why Karl Popper said that the experiment is the centre of science. Not mathematics. Not logic. Experiment.
Right there, right at the core. The collision of ideas and the real. A theory tested. A hypothesis thrown to the flames, to see what burns.
You can't verify your ideas by stacking up a bunch of things that agree with them.
But you can falsify them by putting them to the test.
That's science, that's what Popper saw science as. How it worked, what it was doing. That every failed experiment was a step forward, a step toward a more accurate understanding.
But there is another dynamic interwoven with this process. And it's the dynamic that make science possible, that makes the clarity of knowledge science produces clearly understandable. Something Popper missed, that is the glue that ties it all together.
To see it, we're going to have to go back a little ways, on something of a journey, to find a problem that seemingly has no possible solution, and find one, and solve it.
The problem was first formulated by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, way, way back in the 18th century.
Kant pointed out that the world as we experience it is mediated through our senses, and our minds. The world as it actually is, in itself, is not really accessible to us. There is a wall, if you will, a barrier. Reality as such can never be known, because all we have are perceptions, and that's the way it is.
The world as we experience it through perception, Kant called the 'phenomenon'. The world as it is in itself, he called the 'noumenon'.
Now, from that time it's been understood that this division is essentially sacrosanct. You cannot know the noumenon, you cannot know the world as it is in itself. You've only got sense perceptions and the categories of the mind.
And for many, this is where the story ends. This division cannot be breached, cannot be undercut, or worked around. Anything that you do to try and get to the noumenon - the world as it really is - is just more phenomenon - appearance.
Take a good look at this problem, it's a big one. A great wall across the entire endeavour of philosophy, of understanding, of insight - a wall that cannot be breached, that is inherent to the experience of human beings as such.
You can never get at the real. All you have is illusion.
When you read about these things and see the big, fancy sounding words that are used to describe them, like 'phenomenon' or 'noumenon', it can be very easy to think of these problems as abstract philosophical musings that can be safely held at arms length. Things that are only of real use to people with too much time on their hands, who like speculate in complex and tangled ways about all this, and look frightfully clever.
This is, in all fairness, quite an accurate depiction of much of what is written about these issues.
The fact is that most people like their philosophy dry. Western thought has become very detached, contrived and abstract. And this isn't because of a close-knit clique. It's because that's how Western culture likes it. Nothing too deep, thanks. Something that looks clever. Something I can learn about, so I can look clever. Something held at arm's length and analysed. Something for the geeks. Something that never challenges us. Something that shakes nothing.
A safe and tame philosophy for a society scared of the dark.
But that's not what philosophy can be. There is another way. A philosophy which takes courage as its central driver, not complexity. That values staring into the dark, into the assumptions that underlie - and constrain - our entire lives. Assumptions many would like to leave unchallenged, because they fit the small purposes of providing a little foundation on which to stand, and make a show.
It is the hope that we do not need to close our eyes to sustain a belief in our worth or value. That we are prepared to stare into the possibilities that might undermine it all, in the hope that there is something in reality, and in ourselves, that is real, and really worth finding.
It is a risk, a very big one, because the truth is, there might not be. And for this reason it is a risk that is very rarely taken.
So let us take it now, stop holding all these things at arm's length. These issues implicate us, implicate our lives in the deepest and most intimate ways possible. And to consider them, and the possibilities of them - both good and ill - means to leave behind, if only for a moment, the placid comfort of unquestioned assumption.
There is a wall, it would seem, between human experience and the real. The noumenal barrier, if you want a label for it.
Nothing can breach it. The real can never be known. Never. Everything we have is just different shades of lie, and all that is possible for human beings is to make those lies safe and tame, so that we do not cut ourselves on the corners.
Many would say this is a liberation of sorts, a liberation from the tyranny of truth. This is a very common way of dealing with this issue, because all you need to do is sign on the dotted line, and you're off the hook.
You never have to ask any deep questions, never have to examine anything you're doing, or anything you are, with the worry that you might actually find something that will blow it all to pieces.
You never have to admit you're wrong. That's a powerful draw for many, many people. Many never overcome it. Many more never try.
You can just draw shapes in the air to impress people with your clever abilities at shape-drawing, and never have to shoulder the responsibility of having anything you say be accurate. And you never need to walk the lonely path of the pioneer, because if truth can never be reached, the pioneering of insight is impossible.
This is the dark, this is the possibility. And it is a real possibility. Maybe it can't be breached. Maybe everything's just noise.
That if this is what is happening, there is no hope of truth. No way forward. No way through this wall. You cannot know the real, so all you can do is play with the categories of the fiction you invent, and the fiction that you are, and be content never to reach the real, for it is beyond you. Be content in your little fiction, little human, and the little life you live. Say something pretty while you can. Then die, and be silent.
Placed against the scale of this problem, Popper's insights seem rather small. You can have your ideas, and test them, and find that they are wrong, and tick them off the list, and come up with new ideas - but there's a disconnect.
Where is the accuracy coming from? You can falsify ideas till the cows come home - but how do you get more accurate ideas? Is mere falsification the true charting of the contour of the real?
To a degree, perhaps. A small degree. Perhaps over time, if you cross out enough false ideas, you might, by chance, hit on something that is more accurate.
Perhaps. And you can test that, until it runs out of road, and fails. And then what do you have?
Have you truly breached that wall? Overcome that most profound of all philosophical divisions - the division between the false and the real?
In a small way, perhaps. But not enough, not nearly enough.
And that, it seems, is where the story ends.
Except, of course, it doesn't.
Because for some reason, and in some way, it is very obviously possible to chart reality to an incredible degree of accuracy.
The electronic device on which you read this didn't materialise out of the ether. For it to be made, incredible accuracy of understanding was necessary. Not just a little accuracy, but a lot. The microscopic sophistication of the chips and wiring, the extreme precision of the manufacturing techniques that physically put it together, as part of an assembly line churning out devices of unbelievable sophistication and complexity.
It doesn't work by chance. It works because of thousands of different theories, each one of which has been refined - through some process - to allow the screen to work, the buttons, the transistors, everything.
The industrial development of extreme accuracy is what makes modern technology possible, and modern technology stands in stark defiance to the assumption that the real cannot be mapped.
It clearly can.
The question is how.
Well, let's stop banging our heads against a wall, and take a little bit of step sideways.
This issue is accuracy. And we've looked at accuracy of knowledge, but there's another kind of accuracy too.
Let me ask you a question.
Have you ever seen street theatre? I live in Edinburgh, and once a year, in August, there's a festival here, called 'The Fringe'. It's the world's biggest comedy and performing arts festival. The city just explodes with performances, it's an amazing thing.
And one of the big attractions of the festival is the street theatre. All along Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the medieval road that stretches from the great castle in the centre of the city to the palace of Holyrood at the edge, street performers do their thing.
And a lot of these people juggle.
But they're not just juggling a few balls around. We're talking flaming torches, and buzzing chainsaws. Sometimes while on a unicycle. Sometimes when on a unicycle blindfolded. It's genuinely incredible.
Crowds gather to watch the shows, and there is a great deal to watch. And if a man's juggling four chainsaws, engines revving in a deafening howl, you might get to see more than you bargained for.
But you never do. They never drop them, never catch them by the blade, never get cut.
The accuracy needed to do that is incredible. To spin multiple chainsaws through the air, catching them only by the handle. Blink, and you lose your hand.
How are they doing it? How does someone do that? How does someone develop such incredible accuracy of motion and reflex? Are they just talented? Are they born that way?
No. They learn. It takes years, but they take the years, and learn the skill.
And how do they do that?
Well the interesting thing is this. Say you're learning to juggle - just with little beanbags, to start. You try it, you mess up. You drop the balls, you pick them up. You try it again.
Why did you drop the balls? Well, you've never tried it before, so you don't have any finesse. Perhaps your timing was too fast, you reached too soon. Perhaps your timing was too slow, you reached too slow. Perhaps your grip was loose. Perhaps you were concentrating on the wrong place.
The point is this. Whenever you drop a ball, the reason you do so isn't random.
Do you understand? Whenever you fail, it's a very specific thing. You're not just doing it wrong - you're doing it wrong in a certain way.
This might seem like a tiny little point to make, but like the flap of a butterfly's wings, small things can have big implications.
And as you keep picking those balls back up, and keep trying to juggle, and keep failing, over time that way will become clearer and clearer.
Of course, every time you pick up the balls and try to juggle, things will be very slightly different - but there will be a commonality that cuts through all of your failed attempts. And the more failed attempts you have, the clearer that commonality will become.
So eventually, you see that it's going wrong in a certain way, so you address that.
You try again. You drop the balls again. But this time - and pay attention here - the reason is different. It's not the same as it used to be. You've addressed the old problem, but you're not immediately an expert.
You're just getting it wrong in a different way. A slightly more advanced way. You might not know what that way is - but if you keep practising, you'll keep failing in the same way. And after a while, you'll see that new commonality that cuts through your new failures, and correct it.
The point is this. It's not that you fail that reveals the path to improvement.
It's how you fail.
Failure is not random, and when repeated, that failure exposes the pattern that underlies it.
This is how skill develops. And it's not done by rote-learning. It's not done by logic. It's not done by analysis, or by division, or by separating things into categories.
It's done by pattern recognition and pattern revelation.
That when you fail in a new way, that failure reveals a new pattern. And if you keep at it, the pattern of how you are failing will become clearer, and eventually be recognised. And then it will be compensated for, and you will get better. Rinse and repeat.
So here's another question. Where is that pattern coming from?
Well, the mental recognition of the pattern is an event in the brain, of course. But pattern recognition is not fantasy. It's not the invention of patterns, it's not shapes drawn in the air.
It's the recognition of the shape of what is really going on. We're actually quite good at this, we humans - pattern recognition. Iain McGilchrist's book The Master And His Emissary (which I reference extensively elsewhere) demonstrates the enormous power of the human ability to recognise patterns. Or rather - the right hemisphere of the brain's ability to recognise patterns.
But who is inventing that pattern? Is it us? Does a young trainee juggler, dreaming of Edinburgh, contrive to fail in a certain way he has decided to?
No. He doesn't mean to fail - that's why it's called failure. He certainly doesn't mean to fail in a certain way that is hidden to him.
And that's an interesting point. The way in which we fail is not something we decide. It's not something we invent. It's hidden to us, otherwise we wouldn't do it.
We aren't choosing that contour. We don't get a say in what it is. Where is it coming from?
The real. You're recognising the contour of the real. But more than this - when you do something real, and fail over and over at it, you aren't just recognising a contour. You're revealing one.
To reveal a pattern, not just recognise one passively, but actively reveal a new one, there's a few things you need to do.
Firstly, you actually have to throw the balls in the air. You can't just sit there planning it, or thinking about it. You can't 'work it out' and then do it. It has to actually be done. Physical ball throwing must occur, because the pattern recognition only works if there's a pattern there to recognise. So something real has to actually happen, and probably quite a few times.
If you're not pushing it at the limit of your ability, you won't reveal the commonality that's holding you back.
The deeper the failure, the deeper the revelation. You don't want to be failing because of some silly little side issue, like your shoelaces are untied, or you have a headache. You want to get all the little side issues out of the way so you can get the clearest view of the shape of your failure.
And you won't develop any skill whatsoever unless you admit to yourself that you have failed, and keep failing, and keep admitting it, and look deeply into the failure.
The more you do that, the faster you learn. And if you never admit that you're doing anything wrong, you'll never look at how you're doing things wrong, and you'll never, never improve.
Humility, therefore, is the accelerator pedal to this process. Arrogance is the brake.
Now let's move back to science, for a second, back to Karl Popper. You have a theory, you test it, you work to falsify it.
But you're not just ticking failed theories off the list. Does this make any sense? This is what Popper missed - you're not just falsifying.
Falsification is not random. It reveals. It reveals the contour of the real. And active work to falsify ideas actively charts that contour.
When a theory fails in experiment, it does not fail randomly.
It fails specifically. There is a specific contour to this failure, to every failure that is real. To every experiment that actually engages reality. If it fails, it fails in a specific way. Where is that way coming from?
Is it something the failed experimenter invented? No. They had no idea it would fail in the way it does.
So where is it coming from?
The answer is simple. Reality.
Failure in the testing of specific theories is never random, and never 'just happens'. It always happens in a certain way, and that way is never random, because reality is not random. Reality is coherent. And whatever contour is revealed must fit - somehow - into reality, and be coherent with all that is real.
There are other parallels with the development of skill.
You have to actually do the experiment, and actually repeat it. Thought experiments are of no value. Something actually has to happen, in real life.
You need to genuinely be trying to find the truth. You can't just do random test after random test and hope that the data magically tells you what you need to know. You can't just churn. You have to churn specifically, by genuinely testing specific ideas.
You have to give the experiments every chance of working. You don't want an experiment to fail because the test tube is dirty, or the lens on the microscope is cracked. That doesn't reveal anything deep, or anything about the theory. So you have to give it a serious, and sustained, and genuine go. If the theory is wrong, you don't need to hamstring it. If it's right, you want to see that too.
So you want to push that theory as hard and as well as possible. Any problem that can be solved with a caveat, use a caveat to solve it. You don't want to see the theory fail for some piddling little reason that doesn't matter.
You want to break that theory, to the bone. You don't want to pick at the edges, you want to drive a truck through the centre. You want to take it to a point of heart failure, so it fails in the core, and on its own merits. And when you see how it fails then, then you will see something you haven't seen before.
The pattern recognition of the right hemisphere of the human brain only works on real things, on reality. It's very powerful, but that's what it's 'pointed at', so to speak. There has to be actual interaction, real occurrence. The experiment has to actually happen. You can't just theorise.
But there is a problem.
If you're doing an experiment and it keeps failing in the same way, that reveals something. But you don't always - or even often - know where that fits into the wider picture.
You can come up with new and better ideas that take the new contour into account, but it's like getting a new piece of the jigsaw. The contour you reveal is just a piece. You don't know where it fits in to the wider puzzle, and you don't even know what that jigsaw is supposed to look like when it's finished.
That is a problem. You just get the contour, revealed by looking deeply into how an experiment has failed.
So how do you put the jigsaw together?
Well, you need a few things.
One, a lot more pieces. Keep the conjectures coming, keep testing them, keep seeing how they fail. Every failed experiment reveals another contour of the real.
Two - Remember. The real is united. The pieces do fit. They do fit together, because reality fits together. There are no paradoxes. It all fits somehow.
Three - It's not the paradoxes you need to solve. It's the assumptions that generate those paradoxes you need to question.
And so you have to put everything on the table, everything. All your assumptions, all of them. Anything that gets thrown into question gets thrown on the rack, no matter how cherished it is, or how deeply you want to protect it. No matter how fundamental it is, or how strange it seems to even question it.
Four - Keep stepping forward, keep stepping back. Pattern recognition is something people are very good at. Reality does make sense somehow. There is a way through the maze. Step forward - get a good, specific idea that can be tested, do the experiment, look deeply into the failure, see the pattern. Step back, and look at the wider whole.
Five - Persist. Persist until you have so many pieces that it is ridiculous. That you have an incredible and sophisticated understanding of the terrain of the entire issue. The rolling hills, the little rivers, the great mountains and the mighty seas.
And eventually, you will see the simplicity that cuts through it all. Because there is always a simplicity that cuts through it all. Reality is stunningly elegant. It is not a tangled mess. We are.
This is pioneering. This is how it works. This is why it works.
And interestingly enough, there's something missing from the process.
Can you spot what it is? It's simple.
Linear reasoning plays literally no role in this. The results can be framed in linear language, or a linear framework, as the ideas can - but the core process neither depends on, nor really contains, logical reasoning.
It's pattern recognition, and pattern revelation. There's no analytical process.
This is quite seismic. And it's seismic because the assumption that logic, and logical reasoning is central to science has dominated 20th Century philosophy. It still dominates it.
But this way is different. And because of that, the problems of divisional thought are utterly circumvented.
Quite a strong parallel between science and skill, I hope you'll agree. And it could be that this is just a useful metaphor. But I think that there's something else going on. Something that has never been seen before about science, about what it is, and about why it is that human beings do indeed have the capacity to chart the real.
Science is, in its heart, the refocusing of the human capacity to develop skill into the realm of understanding.
And in this way, it can genuinely be understood as a true evolutionary leap. One faculty, evolved for a certain reason, being extended in a completely new way that changes the terms of what an organism - in this case human beings - are capable of.
It breaches the wall. It makes possible a true noumenology, a true process to directly chart the contour of reality itself. It is messy. It doesn't look pretty. It looks chaotic from the outside, a mass of failure heaped on failure, over and over, again and again, and then suddenly, something new is born.
The deep simplicities that unite reality, that cut through the blinkered chaos that we build around ourselves, and open up new horizons of scope and depth.
It isn't magic. It takes a lot of time. But nothing else human beings have ever developed has anything like this power.
How much time does it take?
Well, think of this. Science is the extension of the processes that underlie skill into the realm of knowledge.
Actually doing science is a skill.
To actually do this there are a million little course corrections that need to be made. A million failures that need to be revealed. A million little rules of thumb that need to be discovered.
This is why it's hard to do, but also why it's possible to do. Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote of the eerie fact that it always seems to take 10000 hours of solid, hard practice for anyone to get world-class at anything.
For anyone to get world class at anything.
10000 hours. That's 6 hours a day, every day, for five full years. That's how long it takes to master any skill. And this is a skill. And that's how long it takes to master it.
This is also, I believe, the mechanism that underlies what Nassim Nicholas Taleb called the 'antifragility' of knowledge.
Fragility is when things break when you hit them. Antifragility is when they get stronger, and better, and deeper when you hit them.
But I would add a small tweak to Taleb's insight. It's not knowledge that's antifragile. It's accuracy.
This also brings the work of Iain McGilchrist on the brain hemispheres straight to the heart of the scientific method itself. That rational thought is not what is driving science. Pattern recognition is driving science.
Pattern recognition, and pattern revelation.
Certainty never arrives. There is no final stop on this voyage. As Benoit Mandelbrot revealed, the nature of reality is not smooth, but fractal. The deeper you go into the elegance, the more elegance there is to find.
Simplicity and complexity are not two opposing poles. They're two aspects of the real, and do not contradict each other, and neither are ever exhausted.
There is a way to chart the real. It can be turned inward into the nature of humanity itself. It can be used to open up a whole new dimension of human understanding, and with it, a brighter future.
But it's not magic. It takes time. Time to develop the skill, and time to use it.
Real change can happen. It has already happened with our understanding of the external world. But the insights of science into the external have not been matched by similar advances in humanity, kindness, or wisdom to put those things to good and sustainable uses, and to open up a ways to live that are free of the pettiness, conflict and pain bound deep into human nature.
This is the new way of doing philosophy. Deep and real. The insights that can change your life, uncovered and laid bare. No fuzziness. No vagueness. Just the truth.
This new understanding of science allows it, finally, to be directed to the one place it has never been directed before. A true fusion of the potent accuracy of Western insight, with the transformative depth of Eastern thought. A philosophy neither Eastern, nor Western. The world is too small for that now. It needs something new.
The deepest insights, stripped of all mysticism and magic, cut down to the bone to the core processes. Tailored specifically for you, through the unique services this skillset makes possible.
So I suppose the question is simple.
Do you want to change your life?
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
Just got an email from a guy called Chris Jordan, who made me aware of a film project he's working on. It's got some really strong support so far from such luminaries as Edward "Fight Club" Norton, and it's just brilliant."
When I first started looking at it, I thought - ok, this is a beautifully filmed nature documentary. Then it took a dark and disturbing turn, and I thought - ok, this is a beautifully filmed environmental documentary.
Then the voiceover kicked in, and I realised that it's more than this. It's a stunning and heartfelt metaphor for the lives we live, and the world in which we live. The true nature of our times, and the society we have built for ourselves, and the consequences of it.
It's just under 4 minutes long, check it out.
Here's the trailer for it...
When I first started looking at it, I thought - ok, this is a beautifully filmed nature documentary. Then it took a dark and disturbing turn, and I thought - ok, this is a beautifully filmed environmental documentary.
Then the voiceover kicked in, and I realised that it's more than this. It's a stunning and heartfelt metaphor for the lives we live, and the world in which we live. The true nature of our times, and the society we have built for ourselves, and the consequences of it.
It's just under 4 minutes long, check it out.
Here's the trailer for it...
Saturday, 27 April 2013
Winston Churchill once made quite a profound observation about how the British people handled the Second World War. He said that the war passed through phases. You had the 'phoney war' period, you had the Blitz, you had the North African campaign, you had D-Day.
And in every phase, the British people seemed to think that this time, this phase would last forever. That this phase was the war. That it would go on, just like this, in these terms, until it ended.
Of course, it didn't. Each phase ended, as phases do, and a new phase began. But every time the assumptions of stasis were broken, they would reform, very quickly, around the new phase of the war.
This speaks, I believe, to a very deep characteristic of all humans. That whatever the situation is in which we find ourselves, we very rapidly build the assumption that it is eternal. No matter how many phases we go through, the one we're in now is always the one which we feel is the normal one. The real one. The final one.
Well there's a completely different way you can look at human beings, at what they're fundamentally doing and why. That we are not the rational processing machines that we assume we are, but something quite different in nature.
That humans do not process rationally, instead fill fictional rational processes with moral colour and emotional quality, for the sake of show.
The importance of stasis takes on a completely new level of importance from this perspective. Not just of generating a static understanding, but of defending it. Maintaining it. Colluding with others to protect it from what might disturb it.
This is because every display needs a context for it to have meaning. If you are a brave and noble warrior of Christ, heroically slaying brown-skinned infidels, in the context of Medieval Europe, you are a hero. In the context of the modern world (or at least that parts I'm happy to visit), you are a deluded and brutal monster.
This is why there is so much at stake when it comes to assumptions. They are the bedrock on which the display of the human self is built, the stage on which the action happens, and makes sense. To question that context is to throw into doubt the purity and goodness of the self who acts within it.
That's why people act to entrench assumptions, and entrench the idea that the situation that they are in is eternal. If the context is eternal, the display has eternal relevance. And that's the payoff. That's what matters. A display of self that is unimpeachable, and who's moral importance resonates with the ground underfoot, and the stars in the sky.
But of course, just having a flat, dull, eternal context is of little use or value. If the context does not provide sufficient fodder for vibrant display, it is useless.
And so there is another, closely related dynamic. It is the movement toward hysteria. Toward the construction of a conflict, and a siege mentality, where the situation is deeply interwoven with, and essentially dominated by, an enemy, or threat.
That enemy can be anything. The most easy and convenient targets are often the ones chosen. The enormous but utterly irrational pull of racism throughout modern history makes a lot more sense from this point of view.
In fact, you could go further. From this perspective, bigotry makes sense.
That's not to say it makes moral sense, or is in any way a good thing. It's very much not. But when you look at the specific contour of all kinds of bigotry, from racism through homophobia to the plight of the 'untouchables' in India's caste system, it can be very hard to understand why such things occur. Why they persist. What their fundamental nature is.
And because it's so difficult to comprehend, it can be very difficult to overcome - both socially, and personally. And on a personal level, a very large part of what makes racist abuse, and homophobic abuse so deeply hurtful is the assumption that the people who are being bigoted hold that opinion because of something you have done, or something that you are.
From this new point of view, however, it can be clearly seen that this isn't true at all. The actual reality of what black people are actually like, or what gay people are actually like, has essentially no relevance to the phenomenon of bigotry.
What matters is that they are different in some way that is easily communicated, and do not have the capacity to meaningfully challenge the abuse. Everything else is incidental - everything. The actual content of the vivid, passionately expressed racial fury of the white supremacist, for instance, isn't really relevant to that white supremacist.
What's relevant is that there's something to appear passionate about. Everything else is filler.
The same is true with gay people. The actual content of the vicious abuse that many gay people have to deal with on a day to day basis is not chosen because of any actual problem bigoted people have with homosexuals. What instead is happening is that people who want to display pick on the topic of gay people, because it is clearly delineated, and easy to fill with lurid sexual content.
The extension of legal protection for minority groups, and specific recognition for hate crimes has been hugely important, and will continue to be, when it comes to reducing these things in society.
Another thing of great impact is dragging this abuse into the light of day - which is what the Civil Rights movement in America did very well. Once the reality of it is seen (attack dogs, water cannon, etc) very few people have the stomach for it. And the mass condemnation that results strikes to the very core of the reason bigotry exists in the first place.
What is of no use is black people, gay people, or any other minority that is subject to abuse, beating themselves up or blaming themselves for what is going on. This isn't a pep talk. It's just the facts. There's really no point - not because it makes you feel bad, but because the abuse simply is not connected to the reality of what is going on with either of these groups of people.
In both cases, the context is built, and set in stone, complete with an eternal enemy who can be brutalised, misused and crushed. All for the sake of something very specific. A clear goal, that emanates from the bones of human nature.
To display. To display morality, in some clearly set terms that resonate with others who accept those terms. And in that resonance, the true nature of the human self is revealed. A mating display, to attract others, and spread the genes.
In this way human beings are beholden to their evolution. Constrained by it, even as it casts all this in the compelling (if somewhat superficial) illusion of rationality.
And were the world itself to be a static place, this would probably be all humanity could ever be. Some people do question their actions. But few question the context against which those actions occur. And those who do?
They find that their questions - and any answers they might have that would disturb the context - face an amazingly well-organised wall of silence, mockery, and neglect.
So well organised it is, in fact, that it is far more effective than anything human beings actually intentionally do. If you want to organise a business, or a sports team, or even a little event like a birthday party, getting human beings to all act in concert is often like trying to herd bees.
But when it comes to assumptions, and having those assumptions thrown into question, human beings respond with an incredible unity, almost like a massive flock of birds moving as one. The tyranny that entrenches belief systems, and leaves human beings open to the systems of control that those beliefs empower, does not extend from the top down.
It extends from the ground, up. From the masses, upward. It is not political masters imposing stasis on the people. It is the people imposing stasis on themselves and each other.
Political power just exploits it. And static delusion does rather leave human beings open to exploitation.
But in fact, it's even deeper than this. Political power often has to exploit it. The people at the top of the mountain are often the least able to undertake any serious reconsideration of the foundations of the mountain they have climbed, whether they want to, or not.
It has happened, but is not common, and rarely does it have any longevity.
The strangely short history (all things considered) of Soviet Russia is one example of this. Another, far more ancient, would be the attempted reforms of the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenatun. A radical reordering of social and cultural assumptions from the top down is harder than you might think, and harder still to make stick.
Much of human history - certainly over the last 500 years or so - has been the wrenching story of these assumptions colliding with reality, and the extreme levels of effort that human beings throw in to maintaining ideas and belief systems that are clearly false.
Much of the noise, stasis and chaos of today can also be clearly understood from this point of view as well.
The incredibly potent, very deep and instinctive movement to close down new avenues of thought. To ignore and neglect them. To quickly contain and shelve new perspectives. To render them safe, and tame. To protect that iron consensus that provides a stable backdrop against which to display.
But we are living in, as the Chinese say, interesting times. The advances in technology, especially communication technology, make these assumptions far more vulnerable than they have ever been. To put in from Churchill's perspective, the phases of the war have never changed so quickly.
Static assumptions have one goal - to entrench a compelling backdrop for a vibrant display. To be unchallenged, to be stable, to allow hysterical moral display, and preserve the context that makes it seem coherent.
And it might seem from this point of view that stasis is the enemy, that challenging stasis is the way forward for human beings.
But of course, that's just moving the pieces around. When stasis becomes the enemy, we just get a new context, complete with fodder for hysterical shrieking. Change for change's sake becomes the answers. Many radical movements of our time fall into this trap - I support whatever change can be had, because I am radical.
It ends in a kind of reflex protest to everything that is older than a week, and any new reforms or things labelled 'progressive' are defended with immediate and extreme fury, that has eternal meaning in the context of the eternal importance given to change.
Something else has to serve as the beginning of a new way forward - and when I say new, I don't just mean new in the context of our novelty driven times. New shoes, new clothes, new gadgets, new fashions. The product cycle, basically - which serves only to put a new skin on the same old process.
I'm talking about something new in human history. A new dawn for humanity, a new path that has genuinely never been walked before on any serious scale, or for any serious amount of time.
I think it is arguable that at several points through history, individuals have attempted to instigate this new path, but I also believe it is undeniable that their efforts have, historically speaking, always been subsumed into a new rigid consensus.
Made rigid and set, in ritual, ceremony, reverence and stasis because of the process we have just been looking at.
But something has changed now. The times in which we live open up a new opportunity to instigate that change on a much wider scale, and in a much truer form, than has ever been seen before.
Nothing is guaranteed. This is not a shoe-in. It is a window of opportunity, nothing more. And maybe it will not be enough - but maybe it will be. Because when it comes to static assumptions, the cavalry has arrived.
The cavalry of constant, rapid change. The speed of change, change in culture, change in the social terrain, change in technology, change in society, has accelerated to such a degree that rigid assumptions no longer really need to be challenged.
They die fast now. They die anyway. Almost as soon as a new idea is coined it begins to lose relevance and die.
The impermanence of that which you oppose has never been more palpable. In ages past you might have opposed (quietly) the rigid dominance of the Medieval Church, but the impermanence of that structure would not have been obvious. And moreover - it would not have been practical to rely on that impermanence to sufficiently erode that structure, in your lifetime, to allow unsanctioned ideas to flourish.
There is so much people oppose now. This enemy and that. This ignorance. That fear. This bigotry. That system. This structure. That.
But just as the static context fast becomes irrelevant, so too does the threat, and the enemy. And so new contexts are built, new enemies are created. It would perhaps be somewhat uncharitable (but perhaps not untrue) to suggest that this, when you really boil it down, is the main social purpose of the news media.
But even then, with all the funding and selective reporting, and moral panic and hysteria, technologically advanced attempts to re-institute new fearful contexts work against each other. So many piled on so many - so many potential fears and horrors, so many new enemies to hate, and flashy worlds of packaged conflict to occupy?
After a while, even the dullest and least interested members of the audience begin to raise an eyebrow.
The cavalry that has arrived is the exponentially increasing speed of change. It is not some little issue now, but a rapid and moving force that has no sensitivity to the human need for static understanding.
There is no longer much purpose in challenging the system. Reality is challenging the system. And reality, unlike you, is bigger than the system, older than the system, and several orders of magnitude more robust.
The interesting thing is this. That seeing the impermanence of that which you oppose takes the eternal out of that opposition.
It removes the power that conflict draws by casting itself as eternal.
This strikes to the very heart of the old chains of human nature. The construction of conflict, and prisons of thought. The generation of suffering and pain for the sake of display.
So deep is it, in fact, that it might seem tempting to see if there is any way to impose this idea on society.
But as we have seen, the problems of society are symptoms, not causes. They rise from the source, which is human beings, you and me. And a problem cannot be resolved unless it is addressed at source.
And because of this, it is not in believing this idea, or in pushing it as a belief, that its power can be realised.
It is instead in your heart, in the most intimate spaces of your soul, where change must begin.
To be the change you wish to see in the world. And not to impose it on others, but to spread the word of such a possibility to those brave enough to attempt it.
Consider the very real impermanence of that which you oppose.
This is a genuine gateway to a new kind of living. The impermanence of that which you oppose removes the ability of opposition, conflict, anxiety and pain from casting themselves as eternal.
Emotional opposition is the beating heart of human agony.
In this, there is incredible peace to be had. The desire to fight, to create fights, to sustain them - it is very fundamental to the human animal, but very unpleasant also. It shuts down perspective, narrows vision to a laser-thin line, and living in this way means that your experience of life is profoundly narrow. Far more fraught with fear and anxiety. With loneliness and rage.
A more open life, happier, more replete with creativity and the true, simple joy of being alive.
And if you just do this, you should get some good results. You're striking very deep. To make these results permanent means you have to strike a little deeper still, and that's what the article One Song is all about.
But it's not just an anesthetic for the soul, or a way to experience a fuller kind of life, although yes, it does have those qualities. It also, interestingly enough, opens up a new way to effect very dramatic change with quite small amounts of effort.
Not no effort. It isn't magic. But in considering the very real impermanence of that which you oppose, and in this being able to step away from the useless noise and fury of fruitless opposition, something else hoves into view. A way of doing things that is very different from the old, conflicted ways that create more problems than they solve.
I remember a lesson I learned from a kung fu teacher. He said this - that when men want to show how strong they are (usually to ladies), they tense their arms, and show their muscles. But then, it's not their biceps (the muscles along the top of the arm) they tense, it's their triceps too - the muscles along the bottom of the arm.
And it looks very strong indeed. But both muscles are working against each other, and so no matter how strong it looks, it generates no net force.
This is like that. Instead of making a display of conflict for the illusion of strength, you're free to actually use your arm as intended, and though it does not look anything like as spectacular, a new option arises.
Because instead of pouring all your effort into conflict, to destroy and defeat the foe, be that foe fear or anxiety, sadness or despair, anger or any of the manufactured scapegoats we are given to despise, you can pour it into something else.
Instead of beating down the false (which reality can do far better than you can anyway) you can do something else. You can cultivate the true.
But what is the true? What is to be tended in this world where all static thought is meat for the feed?
Well, put it like this. Reality will shatter static assumptions. But it will not shatter itself.
Work to uncover the true contour of the real, the hidden nature of humanity itself, to bring new clarity to the deep ways in which those brave enough to make the attempt can genuinely break free of the chains of the past?
All that is shaken will be. And only the unshakable remains.
And there is quite an amusing irony to be seen here. Because after so much effort and so much pain, so much blood and so much blindness, all in the service of preserving an illusion of eternal context, the truth is, there actually is an eternal context anyway, that needs no maintenance, and sets no yoke around our spirit.
Not things in reality. Not the form that reality takes right now. But the reality in which all forms occur, the convergence of possibility into the real, that moment of total coherence that is the nexus of all being.
We have spent many thousands of years inventing fictional eternities on which to stand and show.
Perhaps it is time we put away such childish things, and, in the spirit of humility, curiosity and hope, set ourselves to discover.
To discover the shape and contour of what can never be shaken. What can never break, or be superceded, or become irrelevant, or change.
That the only stable mindset in a world where all our fictions die is a mindset that seeks the real, whatever the cost, and whatever it may be.
This is the revolution of our time, but not if we choose to fight it.
Only if we choose to cultivate it.
This is what is called a 'paradigm shift'. A fundamental reordering of understanding, but not for the sake of fictional, enforced and shallow stasis, based on false eternities. Instead, it is for the sake of that which is already eternal. The truth.
Philip K Dick once penetratingly said that "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." And he was right. And it is in that step beyond belief that is the step away from the past, and into the future.
It is a sad thing that the majority of people today who give any time whatsoever to thinking about such things, can only see the possibility of fiction replacing fiction.
But what if what replaces the fiction isn't some new theory that tries to impose a false stasis? What if, instead, it's something different in kind. Different in nature.
Instead of arrogantly imposing ideas that suit us on a world that shatters them almost as soon as they come, we do something else. We accept that the little fictions we create can never be anything like as stable, or as potent, or as elegant, or as beautiful, as the insights we find when we open our eyes to the real.
Discovery, instead of manufacturing. Humility to the deep truths of reality, not an ignorant denial of them in the sake of what suits our little needs in the next five minutes. Curiosity about their nature, their contour, their shape and connection, not wilful blindness to questions that we'd rather bury for the sake of our little egos.
It is a very deep change of direction, a total reordering of how to deal with knowledge. Thomas Kuhn wrote of how such revolutions occur. And they do not occur by fighting.
It's not about persuading those who refuse to consider, or who refuse to be pioneers. It's not about changing the mentality at the top. The top is in this up to its neck, and is very jumpy about new ways of thinking.
Instead, it's about nurturing and supporting the work of those who do consider, and do pioneer. Much as you might water a plant. You don't need to force a plant to grow, not if it has good roots. But it does need to be watered, and tended - especially if it is growing in the midst of many, aggressive weeds.
The time has come - but not for a new idea. Instead, a new way of handling ideas. Of handling belief, and handling assumption. Not to protect and enforce it against reality, but to throw it against reality, and by doing so, and seeing how it breaks, discovering more of the real.
And no matter how deeply entrenched the assumptions of today are, and how much many in power and positions of intellectual authority refuse to allow serious questioning of the assumptions on which their authority is based?
Well, put it like this. They may have great power. But they are not immortal. And as Charlie Chaplin once said - as long as men die, freedom will never perish.
For the future belongs to the real.
Sunday, 21 April 2013
There is a keen interest in those who look to the future with hope, to be also aware of the dangers. And perhaps the most misunderstood - but brilliant - philosophers of the future was a Frenchman called Jean Baudrillard. You may or may not know the name, but you have seen his work, if you’ve seen The Matrix.
Even by the dubious standards of French philosophers, Jean Baudrillard’s writing is shockingly difficult to read. And the worst part is, he does it on purpose. His work is aggressively opaque, confounding any but the most serious attempts to understand what he has to say.
But then, it is a common disease of the philosopher to write in dense and unreadable prose. Sometimes the work of modern philosophers is so difficult to follow, let alone consider, that it is more effective to get deep insight yourself, from scratch, than to stumble through such contrived labyrinths hoping for a ray of light.
Most of the time, a philosopher who does not write clearly is not worth reading. If they don’t make it clear, that’s because they don’t care enough about what they’re saying to think it’s important enough to communicate, or strong enough to stand alone without smoke and mirrors.
And more often than not, they’re right.
But sometimes, very rarely, you get someone who writes in this way who actually does have something very serious to say. Baudrillard is one of these people.
He described himself as an intellectual terrorist, and although most people who read him will remember him only as a man of crimes against writing, his thinking was radical, savage, and terrifying indeed.
If there is one phrase I could coin to sum up what he’s talking about, it’s this - the neon coffin. That the advances we make, and continue to make, doom us to a world of perpetual cheapness, shallowness, and exponentially increasing degrees of fakeness.
One of the things about being a philosopher - if you’re serious about it, and you actually do want to know the truth - is that you can’t just reject things you don’t want to hear. Baudrillard’s ideas are not nice, and not hopeful. But we must remain beholden to the truth, to reality. Because if we are not, and if we simply believe whatever we want to believe, whatever little myths or excuses suit our present desires, then Baudrillard is right, and the future is lost.
To begin to go beyond him, we must do something else, something that perhaps is more suited to those of a daring bent.
We must stare into the dark, without flinching. We want to drive a stake through its heart, and to do that, we can’t just snap at its heels. And if it turns out that he is right, and we are doomed then we will see that with open eyes too, and never unsee it. That is the risk we run. It is the greatest risk - to roll the dice and look unflinching at a truth that might destroy all hope.
And it might.
So let us look then, at the heart of what this man has to say, and see if we can’t find a way to stake it.
Speed. The problem, when you really boil it all down, is speed. Speed of travel, speed of reaction - but more than any of that - speed of communication.
Things move fast now. Really fast. Anyone can say anything, and say it to everyone, and do it all in a mere instant. And most people do. And as speed rises, so the hunger for speed rises, because there is so much to see and do, and so precious little time to fit in all in.
The capacity for rapid communication creates an exponential demand for more rapid communication, and something has to give. What gives is detail. Substance. Contour. Depth. Passion. Humanity. Truth.
What remains is the little soundbites. The short, punchy taglines. The ‘5 star ratings’ of reviews. Just give me the labels. Give me the labels. Suicide bomber. Check. Right wing extremist. Check. Single parent family. Check. Government spending. Check. Liberal. Conservative. Communist. Capitalist.
Check. Check. Check. Check.
All of a sudden everyone wants the York Notes. TL; DR. But because the mass demand is only for the short version, the shrill version, the version stripped of depth and contour, that becomes the only place where big money can be made. And so big money invests in it. And it grows.
A world of labels. Split away from the reality to which they refer, packaged, polished, served up and consumed. Greedily consumed, of course, by teeming and countless millions who regurgitate those polished labels and look like they have opinions of their own.
A dark vision, indeed. And it gets darker still. Because the problem is, there’s no way to fight this. Any attack on the system just fuels it. Rage against the machine, and the machine will do what it does. It will label you. Shelve you. Reduce you to a to a soundbite, a label. Goth, punk, geek, rocker, dissident, rebel... whatever.
And as long as you stay below the radar, you can experience real living, hidden away from the charts, the Gap and the howling, jagged emptiness of the mainstream.
But beware - because if you gain any real scale, and catch the eye of the machine, it will isolate you as a demographic, and build flashy, shiny, polished copies of what you are. Products to create an impostor of whatever island of reality you've carved out of the lies. A cheap copy, with multi-million dollar advertising budgets. And many will buy into that copy, and say they are like you, and because there are many of them, your hideaway will become swamped with wannabees who don't really care what it's there for, or why it was necessary in the first place. They just like the look.
Fight it, and you make it stronger, because fighting is very easily packaged. The York Notes write themselves. This side believe A, B and C. That one, X, Y and Z. Look at them fight, and be entertained. Here are some opinions that sound clever - you can use them if you want, and people will think well of you.
This is the neon coffin. The prison Baudrillard wrote about. The prison you cannot smell or taste or touch.
I don’t like that this is happening. I’m not happy about it. I don’t ‘support’ this.
But it is happening. It extremely pronounced, and becoming more intense, entrenched and extreme with each passing year.
It is the dominant force of our times, hidden from view by the noise it makes, and the show of it. And if Baudrillard is right, it is the dominant force of our future, and the fate of humanity.
Baudrillard calls this universe of superficial labels ‘hyper-reality’. Reality sped up so it loses cohesion, becomes splintered and fractured, and more than all this, fake. And then that fakeness feeds back into itself, and we get parodies of parodies, copies of copies. He calls it a crime that hides its own tracks. And we are all complicit.
A vision of a future superficially bright, but inside, the human spirit rotting and dead.
The neon coffin. The modern world.
Don’t flinch it. Because if he’s right, we should at least have the courage to face this doom with open eyes.
But if he’s wrong, there is only one way in which we can find out how he’s wrong. And that’s to look, and not to flinch. Because there may be a way. Just maybe. A way to a better world, and brighter tomorrow.
All things eventually sunder under exponentially increasing speed. This is the heart of Baudrillard’s insight.
But even in this darkest of places, it seems to me that there is a hope.
Perhaps hyper-reality itself is starting to come apart at the seams.
Perhaps not - maybe it is merely my wishful thinking, but as the superficiality of the world increases, more and more people are being spun out of that superficiality.
X-Factor. Justin Bieber. Twilight.
A talent show. A pop singer. A film.
Why is it that these things create such intense and savage loathing in so very many? Is it the music that makes so many so full of hatred?
There has been bad music before, and bad films. But has there ever been so many millions united in furious rejection of them?
What are they rejecting? Because the passion and intensity of the negative reaction totally outstrips any normal reaction to a bad film, or a bad song, or a bad television show.
I think people are starting to see. They are starting to see something else. Not what the individual film, or song, or show is, but what it represents. A massive, bloated, corporate monstrosity that exists to feed the masses into superficiality, silence, and the illusion of free choice between different kinds of garbage.
Bill Hicks was one of the first to see this clearly. His brutal excoriation of the false and hollow culture of his time seems more and more relevant as time passes, not less and less. And these passions are rising in more and more people. As the corporate machine becomes more and more potent and effective at delivering superficiality, its true nature is becoming clearer, easier to discern, and harder to ignore.
Perhaps it is my wishful thinking, but I believe that Baudrillard was even more right than he thought he was. Even the sundering may be sundered, even the shattering might have a breaking point.
As the corporate machine churns out ‘culture’ that is ever more facile and shallow, it is hitting that breaking point for many, many millions of people.
Not the majority. The majority keep the machine fed.
But a very large number, and growing, are finding themselves strangers in their own land, strangers to a culture that is coming closer and closer to a kind of event horizon of superficiality. It’s running out of ideas. It’s cannibalising itself.
Ask yourself this - when’s the last time you saw a film that was genuinely new? Heard a singer with real originality?
It happens - yes. But it is happening with ever decreasing frequency. Repeats, remakes, reboots, cover songs. All the genres set in stone. Science fiction. Fantasy. Even literary fiction, the ‘worthy’ writing we all dread to read, was brilliantly characterised by Nicolas Mosley as just one more genre - the genre of elegant despair.
Perhaps that’s why we dread to read it. We know what it has to say. We’ve seen it all before.
We are living in the midst of apparent plenty, and yet many of us rail with fury against it. Fictions of fictions, copies of copies.
Because beneath all this lies something that cannot break, cannot be divided, cannot be split or cracked, and can never die. Something that calls out to be found and opened up, and whenever that call is met, it opens up further, and deeper still.
It is the only thing that can truly meet that human need we try to fill with glitz and frippery.
Real depth. Real substance.
Because all of this starvation of substance and truth has created a hunger. A hunger that for now can only find its outlet in blind fury and derision - scorn for the superficial lies, and the pop stars and the talent shows, and the film franchises, and the machine.
But even then, we must learn from the Frenchman. You can’t kill it with hate. It’s feeding on your anger. Instead, leave it alone, and watch it kill itself. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing but the truth.
And the truth is that we are not tiny children to be forever satisfied with simplistic songs and shows, and easy answers that never work.
More and more people want something else. Yes - still a minority of people. But a large minority, and growing.
The world wants you to wallow in the poverty of fictional riches, and sit like a fat, bloated spectator, a little emperor in your own mind, accepting the threadbare clothes you’re given because they are packaged in shiny wrapping. Don’t worry, says the world. Don’t trouble yourself. Consume. Spectate. It’s always someone else’s problem. Someone else will sort it out. You can’t be expected to do anything. You’re so small. You don't have the 'talent' that all these lucky people have. These beautiful people. It's not your fault you can’t change the world. And you can't. So stay quiet. Say what you’re told to say. Argue the arguments we give you to argue. Look like you have an opinion to other people who have accepted this.
Leave the big things to us. We’ll sort it out. Here, watch this new show. It has vampires.
The rebellion of our age, the revolution of our time, the battle for our future, is not one waged with guns or bombs over lines on a map. It is waged with courage and hope over the ownership of the human spirit.
And it cannot be won by fighting.
The lines drawn are these - do you care? Is any of this your problem? Do you still dare to hope? Are you prepared to do anything about it? Are you prepared to support those who are already doing something? Are you prepared to step off the couch, unplug from the superficiality, and in whatever way you can, enter the fray?
Because the problem is this. Nothing is set in stone. It is not written in the stars that humanity will rise from the mire. If our rage is all we have to throw at the superficial, that rage is very easily subsumed into it, marketed to, commercialised and neutered.
Instead, a truer and deeper rebellion is to support, nurture, develop and spread the one thing that the machine cannot replicate. Cannot cheapen. Cannot corrupt. Cannot tame.
This is how important it is that you support those indie developers. That you post links on your Facebook page, or Reddit, or any social media site, or forum, or podcast, to the amazing work done in the fringes by radical thinkers who break the mold. When you tell your friends over a coffee or a beer. When you fuel the subcultures, and don't sell out. When you go to live shows, and buy the tracks of real musicians who have given their hearts to the song. When you support those many, brilliant comedians who can never make the mainstream while they insist on rocking the boat.
When you make real contributions to support the work of people who play from their heart. Who have spent their lives to cultivate real quality, real craftmanship, in the hope that one day the storm will break, and the world will awaken, and quality will matter again.
These things cannot exist without support. The machine will not support them. It is extremely effective at sidelining them, pushing them aside and starving them of every scrap of oxygen it can.
Nothing can grow in a vacuum. If you do not actively support them, they will die.
And if you do support these things, what you are making happen is this - that when the storm does break, and the world stirs in its uneasy slumber, and blinkingly opens its eyes - that there are wonderful things for it to see. And perhaps, if they are wonderful enough - if they have been supported enough, and nurtured enough - then the world will reject that terrible fate that Baudrillard foresaw.
Just as the victory of the human spirit is not written in the stars, neither is its defeat.
The machine wants your rage. It wants your hate.
What is cannot handle is your support for an alternative.
So the choice of which future humanity will see, it would seem, is yours to decide.
Monday, 15 April 2013
This companion piece to One Song was commissioned by Erik Blanchard.
There's a new way to live a life where you never have to be angry or sad. It's really easy, and you can test it yourself. And it works like this.
Much like a peacock's amazing, multi-coloured tail, the human personality has come to be. It's main purpose, just like that tail, is to be seen.
This is why suffering is so common in people and why so many people are so unhappy.
The thing is that sadness and anger can make a person extremely visible. If you're in a lot of pain about something that shows that you care about it. Your pain is seen and others are moved, and may think well of you. If you're in conflict you look (from one side at least) quite the hero. In this way sadness and anger light up a personality and make it more visible.
This can make life really bad. And it's so bad because it doesn't matter what happens on the outside. You can solve whatever problem it is that's upsetting you but you'll still be very upset, just about something else.
This isn't something that people do intentionally. It's not that everyone's sitting around working out how they can best display to others. This is far deeper than that. It's all part of being a person, and as a person this is just one of the things that happens. No-one's to blame because it's nobody's fault. It's just the way humans are made.
But there is a way to change this process. And it starts like this.
You know how a person who is very set in their beliefs can be 'blinkered'? How they can be blind to things they don't already agree with? It's a strange thing but you can see it clearly, particularly when people are very angry or very sad.
In those times the whole world seems nasty. When you're sad everything seems depressing. When you're angry everything seems wrong. When anyone gets into this kind of state they see the whole world through sadness or anger and everything you see is scary or sad or nasty.
This happens because when we are absolutely certain about something and refuse to question it, the whole world as we see it falls in line with what we believe.
Certainty is like the ground on which anger and sadness are built.
But there is something else as well. Whether or not you are angry or sad, if there is something you refuse to question then you trap yourself in that. Everything you see will agree with the thing you refuse to question and make it stronger. And the stronger it gets the more blind you become, and the more angry, and the more sad.
But there is good news. This works backward too. If you allow yourself to question all of the deep things that really matter to you then you cure the blindness. Your eyes become open to see things as they are rather than what you believe them to be. Life is new again!
It's being honest about what you believe. Nobody knows everything, and anything we think can be wrong. Even if our ideas are right they still aren't the final word because reality is much bigger than any idea. If you remember just that you will never get trapped, or become blinded for long.
So instead of trying to win every argument, instead look at things from the other person's point of view. Get right inside it. And get right inside every point of view you can lay your hands on.
And actually, you'll see some amazing things. Amazing things about how the world really works. About how people really work, what people really are and what you really are. There's so many things that are unseen about the world - so many amazing things that you can see.
And yes, some people might decide they'd rather be angry, or sad, because at least then they know who they are. But they live narrow lives, because they can't see anything outside of what they believe.
You get to live a different life. It's a life that's far rarer, and not at all common. But because of that it is far more precious. It's the life of someone who sees the world as it really is. Who sees amazing connections between things, and develops an experience of life that is rich and full of wonder.
But while this is wonderful, there's an even deeper thing you can do. And it's all about using this approach in a special way.
When you look at the world in this way, you see all sorts of amazing things. Connections and deep patterns that are the hidden fabric of the world. A fabric that is not apparent to most.
And when you see these things, sometimes they'll be so interesting that you'll want to hold onto them.
But then there's a secret to all the ideas you find and it is this. They don't last forever. All things that are born, die. This is very true of any idea you have. When you live like this, you realise deep things about the world and life. New perspectives that make perfect sense of everything if only you can hold onto them.
But the fact is that they will fade.
They will always fade. And that's ok – because if the idea is true, then it doesn't matter that the idea fades. The truth itself won't fade at all.
So when you get a really big idea and see some amazing element of what it means to be a person?
Remember this – no matter what it is, it will fade over time. Yesterday's earth-shattering breakthroughs are tomorrow's normality. And this is ok!
Many people don't like this, and they try to hold on to these ideas. They try to keep themselves thinking a certain thing, or believing a certain belief.
In fact it is sadder than this. Many of people are holding onto ideas so tightly that they can never have any new ones of their own. These people rely on the ideas of others and never really see life for themselves. They live their whole lives just arguing about ideas other people had instead of living and seeing the wonder that life offers freely.
But no matter how much anyone holds on to an idea, the original idea always fades. Nothing can stop that. So the people who try to hold onto ideas make copies of them, and these copies are never as good as the original. And when those copies fade they make a copy of that copy. And so on, until there's nothing left of the original power.
It becomes an imposter. But because so many people do this the imposter ideas have a lot of support. And other people attack those imposter ideas. But they make the same mistake of holding on to the idea behind their attack and so they become imposters too. And all you get in the end is imposters fighting imposters.
And they all look very grand, and the people who do them often wear very impressive clothes just to underline how grand they are. But there is no heart there anymore, and the brilliance of the original idea has been lost.
There's only one way out of this.
What you do is let it go. Any new and brilliant idea. Have it and enjoy it. Experience it in full. See all the wonderful things it has to show you. And when it starts to fade, let it fade.
Ideas fade anyway. Let them go. Just remember that no matter how special or amazing an idea is it's never going to stay forever. But that's ok, because if it's true then you won't need to hold onto it for it to stay true.
Have faith that the truth isn't going anywhere.
Here's a story about a man who had that kind of faith.
There was an old man once, with a wonderful name. He was called Galilei Galileo. He used a device called a telescope to look far into the night sky. What he saw made him realise that the world was a very different place from what a lot of clever-sounding people in impressive clothes thought.
And those people took him, and were very nasty to him. They threatened to hurt him if he didn't take back the things he'd said.
And do you know what Galileo did? He did take back all the things he said. He let the people in impressive clothes have their way.
But don't be sad – because Galileo knew something. Something that all those people in impressive clothes didn't know. Galileo knew that it didn't matter what he said. It didn't matter what he believed, or what he left behind. The truth was still the truth, and nothing could touch that.
Today, Galileo is remembered as one of the greatest men who ever lived. All those people in impressive clothes have been long forgotten. When they are remembered it is only for their shame.
This is the power of faith in reality. Faith in the truth of things.
And this power can change your life completely. And if you ever do let something really deep go, in this way, what you'll be able to see is amazing. And it's this.
The reason that pain and anger and sadness are able to stick is because they always say they're true. There's always some reason they give and it is always compelling.
But if you let go of really deep, really true ideas – the wonderful stuff that amazes you – what then becomes apparent is that any truth, whatever it is, can be released and let go.
It's not just wonderful ideas that fade. It's pain as well. Once you let go of the important truths that move you, and let them fade away, you suddenly become able to do that with anything. Any emotion or thought.
But the thing is that sadness and anger are both forms of grasping. They aren't just side effects of grasping at truth, they're the main effect. And so if you release your grasp on truth, sadness and anger just automatically fall away.
This isn't to say that there isn't any truth. There is. And that's why it is so tempting to hold onto it. But if you really believe that any of your ideas are true, you can let them go. And the suffering goes with them. But the truth itself isn't going anywhere and it will always be there.
You're still able to see all the amazing things. In fact you get to see even more of them because when you aren't grasping at things your vision opens up.
You're not fighting the pain like it's this terrible enemy you need to beat. You're not fuelling the anger by provoking yourself in an attempt to win. You're doing something else, something that goes right underneath both anger and sadness. It works on any sadness and any anger and anyone can do it right now.
Thoughts and feelings rise and fall as they should. As they do anyway – just without that painful grasping to keep the good stuff, and painful fighting to beat the bad stuff. Both the good and the bad will fade, and that's ok – because the truth remains.
And what is the truth? When you get right down to it, there's so much to see and you should really see it for yourself. And underneath everything, the deepest truth is the lovely experience of being alive. That wonderful feeling of life and love that just is, all the time.
That's how you can live, in this place. And yes, anger and pain may rise again, but every time they do, they'll be less, and it will be even easier to let them fade. And one day you'll be amazed that you were ever sad at all.
And no matter how big or how nasty, old grudges or old sadness just start to seem so very silly, and very small.
But life doesn't. Life is wonderful – or at least, it can be.
Now go and find that out for yourself. And I hope you choose to tell your friends, because I hope you think that everyone deserves the chance to discover this. And if you do tell your friends, and they tell their friends, maybe one day, everyone will know, and the world will be a newer, and far happier place than it is right now.
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