Thursday, 23 May 2013
Have you ever had that feeling in your life where nothing seems to work out the way you want it to?
Where no matter what you try, or how hard you push, things just don't ever seem to go the way they should?
This is very, very common, and there are two main ways in which we are taught to deal with it.
The first is to just chalk it up to 'life' - it's just one of those things. And because it's just one of those things, you can't really do anything about it. And more than this - because it's 'life', you can't ever really expect to understand it, or address it in any meaningful way.
The second is to just keep pushing, pushing, pushing. Eventually, you'll break through.
The assumptions of our culture are the sea through which we, like fishes, swim. We often barely notice that they are there - we're way too busy standing on them. But even when we do, it's always tempting - because so many people agree with them - to assume that they're strong. That they're solid. That they have, at some point in the distant past, been properly thought through.
That the person who first came up with them did so because they actually thought that this was a credible explanation, and that the reason other people agree with it is because they have done the same.
One of the things that you learn if you start tugging at the few loose bits of string that hang off the edges of the great tapestry of our assumptions, is that is another possibility.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman once wrote a great little book called Good Omens, and like everything Pratchett had a hand in, it wasn't just a great read. There were real flashes of brilliance there.
One of these is about the main character, who happens to be the Antichrist. There's a psychic character who meets him, and this psychic character (it's fiction, be cool) has the ability to see auras. She can see everybody's aura, everyone she's ever met. But when she meets this guy, she looks at him and sees no aura at all.
And she assumes that he doesn't have one. But he does. She just can't see it - in the same way that someone standing in Trafalgar Square can't see England.
It is literally to big to see. She's inside it, everyone is, and so to her it seems invisible.
One assumption like this is that the 'mysteries of life' are beyond anyone's reach. The fact that just continuing to do what you are already doing until one day it works, is another.
When you actually look at them, they're very simple things. And because they're so simple, they can do something. They can serve as a foundation for a lot of other ideas.
All the many ways in which people give up on being curious about really deep things, for instance. There are so many - and yet almost all of them rest upon a basic assumption that life is inherently mysterious.
Within that idea, you can have an infinite variety of variations, or extensions. Some of these can be extremely extravagant and complex.
A very clear example would be holy mysteries. The things we can never know because they are beyond the understanding of anything that is not divine.
More subtle ones exist as well. There is an idea stemming from a scientific background that was put to me recently to explain why it is that science has not been able to replicate its success in charting the external world with similar success in charting the deeps of humanity.
I thought it was very interesting, simply because it does seem so coherent. It's this - that physics attempts to directly chart the fundamentals, so it's relatively straightforward to work out clear laws. But the laws of chemistry sit on top of those laws, and so it's slightly harder to work out laws to do with chemistry, because it's 'one step removed', so to speak.
Biology sits on chemistry, another step above. And right at the top, teetering precariously on top of biology, sits psychology.
This is why you can't get clear laws of psychology.
Now, before we start looking at this in a slightly more critical light, take a second to appreciate it. It's quite elegant, as an idea. Simple enough, rational enough, it would seem. Makes sense of the actual work science has done, as well - it is true that clear laws become more rare as you 'climb the ladder', so to speak.
And from physics to psychology? That's a long, long way. Many steps removed.
The result of all this is that we are to lower our expectations. To lower our expectations of the possibility of clear insight about the human condition.
Can you see? It's not just that it explains the lack of it - the way it explains it is to say that the possibilities are themselves limited.
That the human interior, the deeps of life - these are, by virtue of the nature of science itself, inherently more mysterious than the external world.
And with that, you can see a quite striking parallel between the holy mysteries, and the apparent failure of science to match its accuracy with regards to humanity, compared to atoms and stars and such.
It's strange to see such a deep agreement between such apparently antagonistic forces. And yet, perhaps not so strange if you think about the nature of assumption.
A belief is something you know about. An assumption is something you don't. A belief is visible, and so is relatively straightforward to question.
I say relatively - some people never even do that, of course - but if they wanted to, they could. It's not so difficult.
Questioning an assumption is far more tricky, because the truth is, we don't know what we assume. We know that there are assumptions, and we could probably name a few if pressed, but there are seas of assumption on which we float the ship of our life.
What this means is that assumptions can go unquestioned for very long periods of time. And I'm not talking weeks, or months, or even years. I'm talking centuries, and millennia. The assumption that there are things of which we cannot know is a very old assumption indeed, very old. To see it come back in new clothes, all dressed up in a lab coat like a cassock, and wielding a laser pointer like a fiery sword, is quite an interesting thing to see.
Because the thing is, the whole idea of sciences sitting on top of each other like a house of cards is about as strong as a house of cards.
Science is the charting of the real - or it is nothing. And the real is united. A biologist does not need to worry that they might find something that would contradict a physicist - and the reason is that if they are both searching for the truth, and they both succeed, no contradiction will occur.
Reality does not contradict itself.
And to go slightly deeper - it would a mistake to assume that complex systems lack a simplicity all of their own. Although yes, complexity does dramatically increase through the 'strata' of science, from atoms to molecules, from molecules to cells, from cells to people, there is a very interesting thing that happens to simplicity also.
Or rather, doesn't happen. Simplicity doesn't retreat. As complexity rises it makes it easier to get lost, perhaps. But incredible simplicities cut through highly complex systems. In biology, for instance, your poster child for this would be Darwin's work. That is an incredible simplicity that cuts through an enormous amount of complexity.
And in fact, it doesn't just cut through it. It accounts for it.
And in fact, it doesn't just account for it. It demands it.
Benoit Mandelbrot did some very interesting work on this phenomenon. The deep simplicity that intertwines and often is the origin of, deep complexity. He called this quality 'fractal', and spent his life charting the geometry of it. He is extremely well respected, perhaps one of the most respected mathematicians of the last century.
But isn't it easy to just sort of, ignore?
Because when someone says - oh, but science is a stack, and this rests on that, and therefore, therefore, therefore.....
There are things that we cannot know....
Isn't it easy just to nod along? It resonates with a very deep assumption that in ages past was reinforced with incense and ritual. We no longer, in large part, use the incense anymore.
But the assumption remains. And it remains potent and powerful. And it has a very specific effect.
It constrains. It limits. It discredits any attempt to chart humanity, to look to the deeps and find the simplicities that might allow us to generate seismic and profound advances in our understanding of what we really are.
And because of this, it limits the future. As a cardboard sheet with a thin slit in it, placed in front of a light, will limit the scope of where that light can reach, this does the same with possibility.
Because it is being discredited, it is not being funded, not being supported. It is inherently seen as kooky, as 'not science'. And this is not simply an issue of hurt feelings and unhappy researchers.
It's a case of no researchers, because there is no support structure that can allow people to dedicate the huge amount of time needed to actually discover what lies beneath.
What this means is that all the problems of a belief you never question are far closer than any of us might know. It's not that we're fanatics about our assumptions - but we don't need to be fanatics in order to be locked inside them the length of our lives.
Like any belief, an assumption narrows our experience of living within a certain set of limits. We assume that the deep mysteries of life can't be solved, and so we don't even bother. And so they don't get solved. And even if they do, when any potential solution is placed in front of us, it is very, very easy to reject it out of hand, before it is considered.
You don't need to consider it. The ground beneath your feet says it is impossible. You can just save some time, shrug, dismiss it out of hand, and go about your day.
This is just one example, but a revealing one, of the power that hidden - and seemingly harmless - assumption can have. And while we look at this example, it easy to think that a straightforward solution presents itself. Just open up the assumption, drag it into the light of day. Problem solved.
Now, in practice, that's not as straightforward as it might sound - but even if it were, there's a much deeper issue, much closer to home. Because this isn't just a specific problem of scientific research. That's just one example.
The hidden power of assumption to constrain the possibilities of the future is one of the most powerful forces acting on the human animal.
It is incredible how constrained the experience of living is for vast numbers of people. The assumptions of our culture lock us into certain lines of thinking, lines of living. But because these things are assumptions, this effect is invisible, from the inside.
It's not invisible from the outside - if you don't share someone's assumptions, you can see the constraining effect of them very clearly. Political belief is a great example. If you don't share someone's political views, it can be very striking how the ideas they have - and the assumptions those ideas are based on - constrain that person's ability to see things in broader scope.
But science, politics - these are 'high-order' things. Big, banner headline things. But it's the little assumptions, the simple assumptions, the assumptions right down in the core of people's understanding of the world - they have a much greater and more powerful effect than anything we've so far seen.
But they're invisible. Invisible to the people who hold them. So if it is in fact assumption that's holding you back, how do you know? Before you can even address it, how do you know if this is actually the problem?
Well, let's go back to those questions from the start. Have you ever had that feeling in your life where nothing seems to work out the way you want it to?
Where no matter what you try, or how hard you push, things just don't ever seem to go the way they should?
These are not random things that 'just sort of happen'. They are very specific, and arise from a very specific kind of thing, and one thing only.
The constraining power of assumption.
Reality is very big, and contains many different ways to get things done. But if the way to do what you're trying to do sits outside of the boundaries of your assumptions, you will never do it. Never.
No amount of trying. No amount of tears. No amount of resourcefulness. No amount of hope. No amount of support. No amount of backing. No amount of influence. No amount of anything.
And that's why it's so easy to get stuck. It's not random, it's not magic. It's not just 'one of those things'. It's a very specific thing, and it works in a very specific way. Because if you're trapped inside your assumptions of how things work and those assumptions are wrong, no matter what you try, or how hard you push, things will never work out the way you want them to.
There is a pattern, there is an underlying process. It works in a very specific way, and produces a very specific effect - in this case, frustration. But not just 'some' frustration. Frustration itself. It isn't magic, it isn't random. It's a very specific effect that arises from a very specific process.
Another assumption we have is that big effects must have big causes. That if all the frustration of your life is laid at the feet of a single cause, that cause must be vast, just as your frustration is.
But this isn't necessarily true. Because assumptions impact right at the core of how human beings interact with the world, the consequences echo out and amplify through all of life, and become massive.
And just as the damage these deep assumptions cause can have vast effects for a human life, and for the future of the world in which we live, the benefit of finding a way to address these issues directly can likewise be vast, vastly positive, and vastly out of proportion to the process itself.
Get right down in the core, and little fixes radiate out into great change.
And while yes, it's a good thing to identify and bring to light the specific assumptions that constrain your life, there is a greater potential here. A new way of living which strikes to the core of the process itself.
Instead of playing 'wak-a-mole' with all the hidden assumptions, could it be possible to live in such a manner that the process itself that underlies their creation and entrenchment is directly addressed?
Let's take a little step sideways for a second, and see how this stacks up, as an approach, against a couple of popular approaches people take to changing their lives.
'Thinking positive', for instance, is extremely popular. It seems so simple, and so obviously the thing to do for a huge number of people. It involves reinterpreting the world to give it a positive spin, or to emphasise the positive elements. People, events, challenges - these are all reinterpreted, as much as is possible, to make things seem brighter.
Better than wallowing in frustration and negativity, of course - but then, most things are. This approach involves ignoring, drowning out reinterpreting or avoiding the negativity that arises from frustration. But even at it's greatest and most successful, it is still, fundamentally, working to address the problem after it is already fully grown.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a far more rigorously developed thing - it's used to combat depression and anxiety disorders in a therapeutic context. The point of CBT is to work out which thought process are sustaining the negativity, and work to 'rewire' those processes. To build new ones, new ways of thinking that aren't so brutal or jagged.
It is a very different thing from just 'positive thinking', but it does share one very important quality - you're attempting to condition yourself to address the negativity after it is already fully grown.
Forgive all the italics, but I hope you see why they're there. These approaches may seem superficially different, but they all work within very similar terms. They're trying to do the same thing in very different ways, but the thing they are trying to do is basically the same.
This is not in any sense to caricature them, and although we're looking at them from quite a high altitude, we're not mangling them or mutilating them. We're just seeing something else - that things that look very different, close up, can be revealed to be very similar when you take a step back.
And from a step back, we can see a few more things. Firstly, these approaches are inherently antagonistic. They seek to destroy, overcome, attack and defeat negative feelings, emotions and beliefs when the negativity is in its full flush. So no matter how effective they may be, the way in which they are effective is the degree to which this conflict is successful.
There is another, slightly subtler point - but like many subtle things, it has a very big effect when it plays out in full. It's easiest to see in NLP, but is present in CBT and positive thinking as well.
NLP works to change belief, make it less harmful and more helpful. But what is a belief?
At a very basic level, a belief is just something that you think is true about what is going on. Sure, it can be invested with all sorts of feeling, but when you really strip it down, that's what we're talking about.
What about the truth? If NLP works to make beliefs more positive, what about the truth?
If, for any reason, we are ignoring what is real and believing what is convenient to believe, no matter how we do it or why, we are stepping away from an engagement with reality.
This isn't just a little philosophical nicety. It matters, because reality is where real change happens, or doesn't. And no matter how useful or positive a belief may seem to be in the short or medium term, in the long term the beliefs we have will collide with reality. And no matter how useful they may have been at some point, if they are not true, and not accurate, we will collide with reality as well.
This is a very deep problem, and with CBT and positive thinking, is no less pronounced. Our beliefs inform the way we live at a very deep level, and if the accuracy of those beliefs plays second fiddle to how good they make us feel right now, we are retreating into a fantasy world, and living as if that world were real.
And it's not.
Now, that's just three. But the commonality between them is very striking - they're not the same from close up, but take a step back and it becomes apparent that they are all trying to do something very similar in different ways. And the similarity of what they're fundamentally trying to do - which is to say, the core assumptions on which all of these things are built - constrain their power to meaningfully change a human life.
What happens, though, if you can get right underneath the core processes from which destructive negativity arises? That's not just a 'new and improved' version of what these things are doing. It's something fundamentally different in nature. It's not like an 'addition' to these approaches - it's a different approach. And because it's different, perhaps it doesn't need to work so hard to counteract the problems that these approaches generate.
It's coming from somewhere deeper.
What we want is a different kind of approach. Something far more profound, but also very simple - simple enough for us humans to do it, and not get all tangled up.
The last thing we want is to fall into navel-gazing, dredging up assumption after assumption, and pouring analysis all over them. That way madness lies - or if not madness, surely mess.
But something deeper, simpler - and far cleaner - can be done.
Now, there's a lot of work on this site about the fundamental core of human suffering, and the core mechanisms behind a new way of living that addresses them at source.
But what I want to talk about here, is something slightly different. It's the basic approach needed to make any of that stuff work.
It isn't magic - none of this is - and it's not a silver bullet. But it's a pretty high-calibre round nonetheless, if you're prepared to aim it right. Reality isn't magic - but reality doesn't need to be. We don't need to call in supernatural powers to effect real change - reality has power enough.
But there is a problem, and it's probably the biggest single problem that keeps people from effecting genuine change in the very terms of their lives. Because the only way to start tapping the power of the real is to accept a possibility that nobody wants to accept.
This is the admission fee to a new way of living, if you will, and if you don't pay the doorman, you don't get past the door.
The possibility is this - that you might be wrong.
That the deepest and most cherished things you hold true are wrong. Dead wrong. And not just wrong - but that what is actually happening might be nothing like what you think is happening.
This is the gateway possibility. If you won't accept that this might be possible, go to Google, search "cat doing funny things" and you will, honest to God, spend the rest of your day more productively than if you were to continue reading.
It seems like such a little thing. Such a simple thing, and when you look at it, such an obvious thing. That we might be wrong in the things we believe, and that we hold dear. That we might genuinely be wrong, or only seeing such a tiny slice of what is actually going on that it makes little difference.
The scary thing is that it is an unbelievably rare thing for a person to actually do this. If you do it, then you probably don't see why someone wouldn't - it seems so obvious, so basic. And it is. But nonetheless, it almost never happens.
And even in the rare instances where people do admit this possibility, they often only do it with things they don't really care about. The things they do care about, they never, never question.
It's easy to approach things that don't matter to us with open eyes. But because they don't really matter to us they don't form the core foundations of our entire understanding of life, of goodness, of hope, and of love. Of honesty and rationality. Of you, and what you really are.
Because we almost always ringfence those areas, the assumptions bound up in them go forever unchallenged. And this matters because the constraints that those assumptions - the intimate ones, the deep ones - place upon our lives are far, far more pronounced, and far more damaging.
Well, again - although the ways that assumptions constrain and damage a person's life and a person's future are basically limitless in number, the core process underlying them isn't. It's very simple.
To see exactly what assumptions are doing, and how they constrain, let's just see how the process plays out in something that nobody reading this really cares about.
If you're willing to admit you might be wrong in your understanding of the mechanical processes that go into the production of postage stamps, you will open yourself up to understanding the true process in a new way.
You will open up your ability to understand how stamps are really made in a way that would never, never be possible if you refused to allow your assumptions about them to be questioned.
If you refuse to admit there's even a possibility that you might be wrong about how these things are made, you will never understand the truth of what's really going on, though you live to be 1000.
Now, if your life depends on making stamps, this matters. Few of our lives depend on this, so we're able to see the process very clearly.
Now think about this. Is that process somehow going to magically alter when you change the subject matter? What if it's not stamps, what if it's humanity? What if you never admit you might be wrong in any way in your understanding of humanity?
Or love? Or honesty? Or truth? Or hope?
What about happiness? What about despair? What about pain?
What about science? What about rationality?
What about faith? What about God?
What about you?
Switch out these things with 'stamps' and the process remains - but we're no longer talking about a funny little side issue. We're talking about the deepest and most visceral elements of your life itself.
The constraints that assumptions around these things place on your actual life are really, really, really not academic. They are extremely intense, and very profound.
Which is interesting, because when you look at stamps, it's not a problem for any of us (stamp fanatics excluded) to look at this process.
But when you start getting these really intense ideas, these powerful, intimate things that lie at the very centre of our lives, for vast numbers of people the portcullis drops, the drawbridge is pulled up, the crossbows are loaded and the boiling oil is set to standby.
Do not question what lies at the core.
This isn't a modern phenomenon, although in the world around us it expresses itself in a number of modern ways. But the underlying process lies at the very heart of human nature. The chains that rigid assumptions place upon humanity are old, very old. They might look new, but don't be fooled.
And a way to actually start getting at these things isn't just a new paradigm in personal change. It's a new way of being human.
A new human, for a new human future.
This is an opportunity, not a magical incantation. If it is rejected, ignored, or analysed at arm's length - as it will be by many - no change will occur. It's all just the same old same old.
More than anything else, what I'm about to describe could best be understood as an option. A new option. Something that people can choose, or can choose to ignore.
But the consequences of our choices are not of our choosing. You can choose not to eat, but you cannot choose not to eat, and not to hunger.
This is like that. A deep and seismic shift that you are of course free to ignore, or merely dabble with and discard when something flashier comes along to distract you. Or you could take the path less travelled, and live a rarer kind of life. A newer kind of life - a life no longer set on rails, but free to explore a much wider life, a much wider universe, and a much wider horizon of possibility than humanity has yet encountered.
The seismic shift is actually pretty straightforward, although it is quite scary.
As we've seen, the biggest assumptions that bedevil our lives are the ones that are the most important to us. The ones that we cherish and care about the most.
Not that other people care about, or that people should in principle care about, but the ones that we ourselves personally care about.
The things it is deeply disconcerting to question.
And if we want to get the maximum change, and really start getting to the real assumptions that actually have the biggest and most palpable effect on our lives, we can actually use this feeling to zero in on what they are.
Can you see? That of course, I could write a list of popular assumptions - but then, it's not really the popular ones that are the personal problem. It's the personal ones. And although there will of course be big similarities between people's assumptions, living in the same culture, there'll be big differences too.
Differences in emphasis, differences in importance, in priority - things like that.
What you want is a simple rule of thumb that allows you to immediately zero in on the key assumptions that are actually crippling and constraining your life.
So, let's see if we can't get one.
The most powerful assumptions we have are the assumptions it is disconcerting to question.
But ask yourself this - what is being disconcerted?
What is being disconcerted by the consideration of an assumption?
Let me put it in a different way.
If a deep and personal assumption is correct, then in considering it you stand to lose nothing.
If your deep and personal assumption is wrong, then you stand to lose deep and personal delusion.
Either way you cut it, it's a good thing.
In real terms, the deeper an assumption the more you have to gain by questioning it. The more personal an assumption, the more personal the benefit of putting it on the table will be.
And yet in practical terms, as human beings, we find these by far the most difficult assumptions to question.
Isn't that strange?
Take some time with the strangeness. Think about how weird that is. That the assumptions we gain the most by questioning are the ones it is by far the hardest to question.
It seems like a paradox, on the face of it. But then, of course, reality doesn't do paradox. There's something about this we're not seeing.
What is the point of an assumption?
If the point of an assumption is to be accurate, then this makes no sense.
But accuracy has never been the point of assumption.
Assumptions form the bedrock of our understanding of the world, yes - but more than this. They form the bedrock of us. The bedrock upon what we are is built, the stories that we tell about ourselves, that we present to other people - and that we repeat when nobody else is watching.
And if you think of the point of assumption as being to create a stage on which a person can display, can show, can be seen? Can be seen as good, can be seen as moral, can be seen as worthwhile?
Then all of a sudden this paradox vanishes like morning dew under the noonday sun.
This is what is threatened. The coherence of the story. The coherence of the self.
This is why, even though the questioning of deep assumption is by far the most sane choice, it is very rarely chosen - and so far in human history has never been chosen as a central element of engagement with reality.
All the needless frustration and misery that unquestioned assumption causes - which is to say, all needless frustration and misery - are a price that most human beings who have ever lived, from the time of the trees, have happily paid to keep those stories looking good.
And it might seem that there's something to be said for that. I could absolutely imagine someone turning around and saying - "So what? So, I believe a lie, so it hurts sometimes, but if it looks good, then at least I'm getting something."
Which would be a fair point. If we lived in a magical world where all our wishes came true.
We do not.
If we lived in a fictional realm where we get to choose what is true, just because we believe it, then yes, this would be absolutely fine. And many people like to tell themselves that actually, this is what the world is like.
The magical power of belief is a mainstay in a very large number of very potent cultural movements from the obvious semi-mystical ones, to a huge proportion of films, music and writing that tells us that all we need to do is believe enough, and everything will be fine.
It is a massive part of our Western culture, bubbling just beneath the rational veneer.
But it's not that it's 'insufficiently rational' that is the problem.
Reality is the problem. Because reality doesn't care how happy you are to walk along a mountain road with your eyes closed. It doesn't care how pretty your reasons are for closing your eyes. And it won't tap you on the shoulder, and suggest a new approach, and argue and persuade you into taking it.
It will just let you fall off a cliff.
This is what I call "the justice of the cliff-face". It's not that a cliff is cruel, or malicious. It's not that it is stern and forbidding. It's not that it is trying to teach you something. It's not a monster.
But it will shatter every bone in your body, immediately, and without hesitation or mercy if you ignore that it is there.
A brutal justice for a seemingly innocuous crime. All you did was close your eyes. You had all these good reasons. They were all so pretty. You just liked to believe them, is that so bad? Is that such a terrible crime that it deserves the shattering of your bones?
In human terms, no. But in real terms?
Well, even calling it justice is something of a stretch. It would be closer just to say, that's what happens when you walk a mountain path with your eyes closed.
Reality does not march to the beat of our drum, it does not bend and sway to fit itself to our expectations of it, it does not take our concerns or motivations into account.
This, when you get right down in the bones of it, is why lifelong frustration is endemic in humans.
We all understand that the outside world has rules about it. Big ones, like gravity. It's not cute, or sweet, to close your eyes walking along a cliff-edge, no matter how cute or sweet your reasons are. It's just dumb.
But the internal world of human nature also has such laws. When we close our eyes to reality, for the sake of preserving our pretty little stories, reality doesn't care.
It doesn't care that we do it, and it doesn't care how good our reasons for doing it sound.
And sooner or later (probably sooner, to be honest, these aren't vague karmic forces) your blindness will lead you off a cliff.
At the very least it will profoundly constrain what you are capable of seeing, and therefore profoundly limit your ability to successfully engage with the real. And it will continue to do this, and you will live a life of frustration and useless compromise.
But sooner or later, unless you are amazingly fortunate, the cliff will come. Something in your blindspot will lead to a situation of genuine ruin and actual collapse.
And what then of your story?
And this is the final nail in the coffin of the unexamined life. That even the things it tries to protect - the pretty little stories - it eventually destroys.
What you have limited your life to protect will be confounded at every turn, and shattered at the last.
This, when you really get down to it, is the core problem of self-delusion. Yes, it makes you feel good, or meaningful, or deep, or rational, or spiritual (or whatever) for a time. But over time all lies collide with reality. And reality is not dented.
There is a single switch of priority, right down in the source code of all the things we've seen here that opens up a new horizon. A new way of living, and a new kind of future.
It is nothing grand. It is nothing vast. It is scary, yes - but the fear you feel in doing it is nothing compared to the anguish you make your fate by ignoring it.
It is this. To switch the emotional polarity of how you deal with assumption.
The normal emotional polarity of how the vast and overwhelming mass of people through all human history have dealt with assumption is this - that the more they care about something, the less they are open to questioning it.
Flip the script. The more you care about something being true, the more urgent questioning it becomes.
It is a jarring, jarring thing to do - especially to start with. But it is the first step of a new life.
Because all of sudden you're no longer living in a tiny slice of experience, only seeing what is safe to see. You don't live a safe life anymore, you are no longer a tame person.
The possibilities that have historically been closed to almost every human start to open up to you. Ways of doing things that lie outside what people see become apparent - new possibilities hove into view.
It powerful, but it isn't magic. It must actually be done. You can't just read about it, and hope it happens.
But if you do it, you're no longer addressing the symptoms of frustration, or the symptoms of collapse. You're getting right down in the origins, and because of this, if you do wish to do amazing things, you are massively, massively more likely to succeed.
And what is more - if you are no longer limited in your vision to the slice of life your assumptions permit yourself to see, great possibilities of what can be done open up.
So it has two effects. It's not just that it helps you do what you're trying to do. It also allows you to see greater things that can be done than most people have ever been able to imagine.
At the heart of this new way of living lies a very simple thing. It is a very specific kind of humility.
It is the kind of humility that you need when walking along a mountain path. Humility to the real.
Right at the core of human damage lies a very specific kind of arrogance. It is not arrogance to other people, but a far deeper, far more extreme, and far more common kind.
Arrogance to the real. That you feel your beliefs are more important than reality, and that reality should toe the line. Should knuckle down underneath your opinion, and do things your way.
So much of human damage, when stripped right down to its essence, is this.
Standing on the seashore, shouting at the tide.
When we are humble - not to each other, not to those in authority, not to politicians or priests, not to this week's celebrity, or next week's moral panic - but humble to the real?
That is when we begin. That is where it all begins. A new way of living where you no longer crash down cliff-faces, or spend your life banging against brick.
A way of living humble to reality, and in that humility, open to reality.
And in that openness, open to all the beauty, peace, love and possibility that reality contains.
Which is to say, all real beauty, all real peace, and all real love.
All real possibility.
This is the revolution in human affairs that Immanuel Kant spoke of, many years ago. Dare to know. Dare to know the truth beneath all the things you cherish. Do what nobody does. Dare. Dare something new. Something really new, something new in history. Shift the polarity. Break the chains.
It's not in political force or in economic structure that the deepest revolution of humanity must originate. It is in the heart, in the soul, way down in the deeps. It must instead arise from individual people, from the bottom up.
Not to fight the dark, but to kindle a new light, over time, into a blaze.
This is the way to a new human future, for us as individuals, and for us all as a world. A new kind of revolution, something we haven't seen before.
And with the power of the real, to heal the damage we have done to ourselves and to the world, and make of tomorrow something unknown, and better.
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.
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