Pity the Feeling

On top of Everest, in my mind,
a dark cloud, lightning blasts, 
a hurricane of controversies, unwind
below, nonsense sea, fish net casts.

The Sherpa is fishing about
prefers an understanding cartel.
Procrustean commodities—easier without 
a heart, a totalitarian Tinkerbell.

Feelings, the repugnant social Other,
are the dream within the dream.
Before we think, we must feel, brother,
a mind | heart alone, cannot reign supreme.

How to Teach Yourself Hard Things

  1. Identify what you don’t understand (maybe the most important one)
  2. Have confidence in your knowledge
  3. Ask questions
  4. Do research

…Taking a bit of extra time to take a piece of knowledge that you’re pretty sure of (“there are 65535 ports, Wikipedia said so”) and make it totally ironclad (“that’s because the port field in the TCP header is only 16 bits”) is super useful because there is a big difference between “I’m 97% sure this is true” and “I am 100% sure about this and I never need to question it again”. Things I know are 100% true are way easier to rely on.”

—Julia Evans, “How to teach yourself hard things.” jvans.ca. September 1, 2018.

I would add that the an important pitfall is those things that we are sure is 100% true that aren’t true. Being a philosophical skeptic, this is probably everything.

Rearranging Our Minds

Open Question: Should we make an effort to change our minds in some fundamental way? And if so, how?

There are a number of stories of people suffering a traumatic brain injury that results in the brain being rearranged in a way that gives them a new ability. Generally, this involves some skill with art, understanding music, improved memory or doing calculations in math. Although, a few also involve different kinds of experience, such as synesthesia.

It’s not limited to injuries. There is also the question of psychedelics. Scott Alexander makes this point in an article in his blog Slate Star Codex:

“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying.”

Scott Alexander, “Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?” Slate Star Codex. April 28, 2016.

Anyone that has been around people that have taken a lot of LSD know that they are different. Often, they are different in ways that make it more difficult to function in society, not easier. But, the opposite can also be true.

There was also a lot of discussion a few years ago about how people in Silicon Valley were microdosing LSD in an effort to boost their creativity. Clearly, in this case, psychedelics were being used to improve performance in a particular context and probably without full consideration of the effects beyond creativity.

There has also been research done in using electrical impulses to change mental states in people. The U.S. military, for example, is using electrical brain stimulation to enhance skills. Of course, there has been a dark side to this as well, as any discussion of Electroconvulsive Therapy will invariably bring up.

Meditation is also said to have effects on our mental states. A meta-analysis into meditation research by the medical community described it as follows:

“Results indicate that meditation leads to activation in brain areas involved in processing self-relevant information, self-regulation, focused problem-solving, adaptive behavior, and interoception. Results also show that meditation practice induces functional and structural brain modifications in expert meditators, especially in areas involved in self-referential processes such as self-awareness and self-regulation. These results demonstrate that a biological substrate underlies the positive pervasive effect of meditation practice and suggest that meditation techniques could be adopted in clinical populations and to prevent disease.”

M. Boccia, L. Piccardi, P. Guariglia. “The meditative mind: a comprehensive meta-analysis of MRI studies.” Biomed. Res. Int. 2015:419808. 10.1155/2015/419808

It seems like meditation is a good idea and has many positive aspects, but it also fundamentally changes the biology and the functioning of our brains. Should we be doing it?

You could probably make arguments that music, creating art, exercise and many other activities have dramatic and important effects on the mind and likely change it on a biological level. But, should we be striving to reorganize our minds to achieve some goal or mental state? And what techniques should we be using and why? This strikes me as a fundamental unanswered question about human life that warrants investigation.

Reference: Might be useful to consult Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” to get a sense of how psychedelics are currently being used.

Thinking Itself Is Dangerous – Los Angeles Review of Books

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them, for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Ideological thinking forecloses our ability to discern by flattening the plurality of the human condition, destroying our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, right and wrong.”

—Samantha Hill, “Thinking Itself is Dangerous.” Los Angeles Review of Books. October 22, 2018.

Review of Hannah Arendt’s Thinking Without a Bannister. The idea for the title is quoted within the article:

“I have a metaphor which is not quite that cruel, and which I never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a banister. In German, “Denken ohne Geländer.” That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold on to the banister so that you don’t fall down. But we have lost this banister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.”

—Hannah Arendt, quoted in ibid.

My Affair With the Intellectual Dark Web – Great Escape – Medium

“If the idea is that I piss people off by being disloyal to my likely tribes, well, I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think it just makes me a good intellectual.”

—Alice Dreger quoted in Meghan Daum. “My Affair With the Intellectual Dark Web.” Medium. August 24, 2018.

Easy test to see if you (or others) are thinking for yourself is whether your ideas easily conform to a political orthodoxy.

The Daum article is interesting throughout.

Riccardo Manzotti & The Spread Mind Hypothesis

An hour long presentation on the “Spread Mind Hypothesis,” or that consciousness isn’t located in our head but in the objects in the physical world.

I haven’t listened to this presentation yet, but it seems like an attempt to reformulate materialism to integrate our current understanding of forces like gravity into a physicalist theory of mind. I’m adding it as a post here as something I’ll want to dig a little deeper in the future.