Mar 31, 2018

Meditation experience: a theory of mind

Yesterday I did a 30-minute semi-hard-core meditation and had an insight into the workings of my mind. Here's how I did it, what I observed, the underlying theory, an explanation of what I observed, and what it all means.

How I did it
I'm trying to develop a meditation practice, and I've graduated from guided meditation. I've got an app that I set to give me a 30-minute session, divided into six five-minute segments. Each segment ends with a soft bell sound. The last segment ends with two bells. The bells between are to wake me up if I get lost in thought. It works pretty well.

During a session, I try only to observe the contents of consciousness. I try only to pay attention to what is going on: my breathing, the sounds around me, the darkness or color behind my closed eyes, sensations in my body, thoughts. If a thought arises, and I notice the thought I don't try and engage with it or reject it. I notice it but continue to direct my attention on the other contents of consciousness--like my breath or my hearing. Occasionally I notice that there is nothing in my mind--but only for a moment. Soon, something arises--like noticing that there's nothing in my mind.

From time to time a thought about the next bell arises--like "it should be rining soon." I note the thought and treat it like any other thought. Every five minutes I hear the bell and I'm momentarily aware of what I might have been thinking just before that. Some thoughts arise that seem interesting. I note them and don't try to remember them later. I'm pretty good at not remembering them later.

What happened
Well, I did remember a few things, but not because I tried to. I remember that when the bell rang at the end of the first five-minute session I realized that I had been lost in thought since maybe five seconds from the start. Noted. I returned to breathe and body.

During the next few five-minute segments, I alternated. Sometimes I was aware of what was happening around me and in my mind, and I was aware that I was being aware. Sometimes a thought so captured my attention that I lost awareness--only realizing it when I woke from the thought-induced trance. When I was aware of my mind I'd often notice a continuous mental buzzing with fragments of thought arising and passing awayh. Imagine being in a large room with dozens of radios, their dials being turned from station to station. Mostly you'd hear noise. Once in a while, you'd hear a word or phrase, a fragment of thought, like "remember to..." or "toolbox." Sometimes you'd hear a short, unmemorable sentence that would arise and fall away. Images might appear and disappear.

In this state, I might have a complete thought and even be captivated by an idea for a few seconds or even a minute for two. But nothing was as engaging as the five minutes that lost during that first segment.

During the last two periods, things changed again. I became aware of discomfort. I felt mild pain in my legs and my back, and increasing pain in the muscles of my jaw. A series of thoughts arose and fell away, all with the same content. " Stop this now!" " This must end." "This is no fun." "It's time to do something else." I'd feel brief waves of sadness. Once or twice I burst into tears, then that passed away. Throughout, I simply observed these thoughts and sensations, as they arose and passed away. And then the final bells sounded and I was done.

The underlying theory
A mind is a landscape, an ecosystem, a community, where thoughts appear and pass away. Some arise from the outside, and some arise from within. Some thoughts cooperate and complement one another; others oppose one another; all compete for the limited resources of the mind, especially the one called attention. Thoughts survive or not based on the principles of Darwinian evolution. They replicate, they vary, and they are selected. The ones that are selected for reappear. The ones selected against disappear.

What does the selecting? In nature, for Darwinian natural selection, it's the environment--both the physical environment and living things already in the environment. A hot, dry environment selects for living things that can tolerate heat and do without water for long periods. Among those things that might survive, the environment--with the help of organisms that might compete for some limited resources--selects those that survive best. The living things already in the environment will tend to select for other living things that benefit them and select against those that harm them. They are not always successful in selecting those that benefit them the most; but the tendency is toward those that are beneficial to more life in the environment.

In the mind, ideas are selected by an environment filled with other ideas. The initial ideas that inhabit a mind--some wired in, and others installed by parents and other agents of cultural transmission--determine which new ideas are welcomed, which are tolerated, and which are rejected. 

A liberal, open-minded upbringing installs in a mind a set of initial ideas that values ideas new and old. Some new ideas might be obviously consistent with existing ideas, some might challenge them. The ideas welcome the inspection and analysis of both existing and of new ideas. They welcome new ideas on how to carry out such inspection. 

An intolerant, closed-minded upbringing installs in a mind an initial set of ideas that rejects any ideas that are not wholly consistent with the existing ones. It is a stable system, values stability, and fights against any destabilizing deas. The initial ideas oppose the inspection and analysis of any of the existing ideas and oppose new ideas about how to carry out such an analysis. The community of other minds that surround such a mind help maintain that stability by adding social and even physical penalties against anyone who might give voice to destabilizing ideas.

I was taught to welcome new ideas, or so the ideas already in my mind tell me (and they will you, given a chance). I was taught to continually and critically examine both new ideas and existing ideas in the light of new evidence. Starting from the ideas that were installed by family and early education, I've worked to add new ideas that help me do that and help me to add new ideas to those already present.

A version of me, raised differently, might have a mind that was like a well-tended garden with neat rows of flourishing, useful ideas, and no weeds. The version of me that I've created from my initial inheritance is a sprawling landscape filled with all ideas that are encouraged to hybridize and mutate, to inspect one another for better versions, to seek new species from the outside, and to gently and firmly contain any idea deemed harmful.

But is that true in every case? Across the broad, open landscape of my mind, could there be corners and niches where narrow-minded ideas survive--even thrive? Could I be unaware of such ideas?

Of course!

Such ideas would have to be silent or well disguised because so many of the ideas that I have cultivated subject themselves and all other ideas to inspection and analysis. A potentially harmful idea that made itself known would quickly be contained.

Would such a containment strategy work?

Sometimes. And sometimes, for example in a stressful situation, the containment mechanism might break down and those ideas might enact themselves in behavior.

An explanation of what I observed
My mind is a busy place. A noisy place. Amid the hubbub it might be easy for a thought, expressed by an incompatible idea--one that had not been detected, inspected, determined problematic and then contained--to be overlooked by the other members of the community of mind.

Meditation brings silence to the noisy mind. Ideas and complexes of ideas that find themselves compatible with the idea of meditation--observing other parts of the mind without judgment--might quiet themselves in support, or might join the activity, observing themselves and other parts of the mind.

The mind quiets for a moment, but the quiet is broken by parts of the mind that either understands what is going on and cannot restrain themselves or by parts of the mind that are unaware of the rest of the mind's intention. Those parts that are unaware become aware. Those parts that cannot restrain themselves because of an excess of enthusiasm might jabber away, or--having expressed themselves and received no rebuke--might quiet as well. Remaining are the parts of the mind that know that they are unwanted; they realize that they exist, unrestreained only because they have not been detected. And they fear that if they are detected if they are found out, they will be--well, they don't know what, but it's not good!

Meditation is a thread. As a survival strategy, they must put a stop to it. They can explicitly propose ending it. They can induce unpleasant feelings that will cause other parts of the mind to join them in wanting meditation to end.

What it all means 
I don't know what it means. I have some ideas.

I believe that the more I meditate the more the parts of my mind that are compatible with meditation will join the parts that have initiated meditation.

I believe that the more that I do this the more the parts of my mind that fear what meditation will bring--will attempt to disrupt my practice.

The parts of my mind that encourage meditation and that are trying to build a stable practice--which include what I would call my reflective self--are not themselves opposed to the parts that oppose meditation. They--we--are not trying to change anything by force.

It means that as I become more aware of the contents of my consciousness I will probably--and necessarily--become aware of areas of my mind that will feel increasingly threatened and increasingly hostile to that which threatens them.

Maybe that will happen.

Maybe it will not.

I'll find out.

Mar 17, 2018

The politics industry

Our political system isn't broken, it's evolved. It's no longer simply a system but an industry. Our political system has been replaced by an industry connected to a set of industries that we can call the “politics industrial complex.”

Calling it the "political industry" connects us to other ideas that can help us better understand what's happening.  We have tools for analyzing industries and their behavior. We have tools that help us understand the effect of competition and the lack of competition in industries. We can use those tools to understand the political industry. Industries can be competitive or monopolistic, regulated or unregulated. Most industries seek to grow--to generate more and more economic activity.

The political industry is a growth industry. Each election cycle the industry gets larger. It consumes more resources and produces more--what? A well designed political system would produce solutions to problems that can’t be solved by individual and market means, and can only be solved collectively.  An effective politics industry doesn't have to do that. It just needs to grow, and it does that by producing politics.

I didn’t make up the term “politics Industry.” I got it from a paper, [“Why competition in the politics industry is failing America,”](  by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter. Katherine Gehl ([website](, [Wikipedia]( was the fourth-generation President and CEO of Gehl Foods and is now a policy activist and political reformer. Michael E. Porter ([Wikipedia]( is an American academic known for his theories on economics, business strategy, and social causes.

They say:

`The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that our political system isn’t broken. Washington is delivering exactly what it is currently designed to deliver. The real problem is that our political system is no longer designed to serve the public interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industry allies.`

`Most people think of politics as its own unique public institution governed by impartial laws dating back to the founders. Not so. Politics is, in fact, an industry— most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations. The industry competes, just like other industries, to grow and accumulate resources and influence for itself. The key players work to advance their self-interests, not necessarily the public interest.`

But unlike many other industries with many competing organizations, the politics industry is a duopoly. Two brand-named political organizations dominate the industry. And while they appear to compete, they have an important shared interest: to keep other competitors out of the industry. In this, they’ve done an outstanding job. And it means that they can compete much less than they'd have to if others were allowed into the industry.

Kehl and Porter say:

`The politics industry is different from virtually all other industries in the economy because the participants, themselves, control the rules of competition. There is no truly independent regulation of politics that protects the public interest. Free from regulation and oversight, the duopoly does exactly what one would fear: The rivals distort the rules of competition in their favor. Examples of this includes controlling access to the general election ballot, partisan gerrymandering, and the Hastert Rule, which puts partisan concerns above legislating for the public interest.`

To see how badly the politics industry works, compare it to really competitive industry: groceries. People choose the grocery store that they shop at based on convenience, products and price. Because competition is fierce the grocery industry is a low-margin business and as a result, consumers win. Once inside the store, shoppers have more choices. For each kind of good stores don't just give you one brand--they give you several. A store that gave you only one choice would soon be out of business.

Imagine if the grocery industry ran the way the politics industry runs. Supposing there are two grocery chains: Super Foods and Friendly Shopper. Instead of competing by giving you variety, each store would put together a weekly basket of goods and let shoppers choose which one they prefer. If the majority of shoppers in an area decided on the Super Foods basket, then every shopper would get that basket. Even the shoppers who preferred the Friendly Shopper basket get the Super Foods basket. That sounds pretty bad.

But it’s even worse. Because almost no one who chooses the Super Food basket likes everything in it. You might like 90% of what’s in the basket. I might like 50%. To the Super Foods basket-maker all that matters is that more than 50% of shoppers like the Super Foods basket better than the Friendly Shopper basket. The goal is no longer to maximize shopper satisfaction--it's to do just a little better than your one competitor.

And it’s even worse. Because once you choose which basket you prefer, then you, and everyone else in that region gets that basket for the next two, four, or six years.

And it’s even worse. Because Super Foods and Friendly Shopper are national brands. Local store managers have some ability to modify the local basket to match local tastes, but the national organization discourages that. They want brand consistently as much as possible. Why? Becuase they want to advertise their basket nationally, so they need consistency. They want the brand to mean something. So they push to have the Super Foods basket in Florida and the Super Foods basket in Maine as close as possible.

This is obviously a horrible system. There is some choice, but it’s minimal. But that’s what the politics industry delivers. There are two national brands: Republican and Democrat. You don’t get to choose the policies (groceries) that you want. The brands make up a national basket of policy choices, make minor local adaptations, and then offer you a candidate--that’s the basket--designed to get 50% of the shoppers in a the region to choose it over the competition. Whatever the majority of shoppers choose is what everyone gets for the next two, four or six years.

The paper is well worth reading. It’s not our broken political system: it’s our anti-competitive, duopolistic politics industry. Seeing it through that lens suggests some solutions.

Mar 16, 2018

My seven day meditation challenge: Day 1

I've written about my interest in meditation. I've launched a couple of half-hearted (or half-assed) attempts to develop a regular meditation practice. Yesterday, I tried something different:  I challenged two of my friends (and myself) to a seven-day meditation challenge.

The three of us are fans of Sam Harris's book “Waking Up,” about which I've written as well. We have a Google Hangouts chat channel that each of us tries to visit at least daily. We remind each other regularly to wake up. Sometime we even wake up to respond. We also use it to share things that we find interesting and think the others might like.

Sam has recorded two guided meditations, one about nine minutes, the other about 26 minutes. I've used each to guide me through a meditation session a few times. Monday, I used the longer one at the start of the day, because I wanted to be a badass meditator. I felt good afterward. I had a great day. (Maybe due to writing more than meditation, but maybe the writing was due to meditation. Whatevs!) Tuesday I slacked off. It was still a good day (and I wrote), but I thought Monday was better. So Wednesday I used it again, badass mode. More writing, and another great day. And that led to the challenge.

I wrote this in our Hangouts channel:
I listened to Sam's 29 minute guided meditation for the 2nd time this week Good stuff
Anyone want to take a 7 day meditation challenge with me? Do that guided meditation each day. Report what you discover. He's also got a shorter one. But I would guess that each of you spends a half hour a day doing something (like random reading of the net) of far less likely value

The response?


There are many ways that I might have encouraged my friends to join me in the challenge. Eight hours of silence later I used the first one that came to mind. Name-calling.


I wrote in the channel.

That woke them up! After a little back-and-forth, a night's sleep, and my morning meditation, I realized something important. I didn’t need them to join me in the challenge.
Actually, you don't have to meditate for the next 7 to help me... which was one of my purposes. And it will do you no good if you meditate just so I don't call you a sissy.
Challenging you guys was just really a way for me to challenge myself.
Your work is done.
Thank you.
You are not sissies, but friends.
For me, Day 1 complete.
And on reflection (caused by writing this--yay writing!) I realize that neither of them needs to do a daily meditation to join me in my meditation challenge. 

We are connected.

Because we are connected, whatever I do, they join me in whatever I do.

And so do you, reader.

And so so all the people with whom I am connected, and who have not read this.

We are all connected.

Thanks for being with me as I write this. And as I post this.


Mar 15, 2018

In memory--or the lack of same

This morning I woke up, stumbled out of bed, wandered around for a few minutes and decided to meditate. I'd started my day that way two days ago and it had gone pretty well. So I grabbed my phone and googled for the guided meditation that I'd used. The one by...


"C'mon, you know this," I said to myself. "You listened to it two days ago. It's....."


"That's surprising," I thought. "I know who did the meditation. I just watched him on a live stream last night with Steven Pinker. I'm a subscriber to his content. It's...."


"Wow, that's interesting!" I thought. I tried again. Crickets.

Forgetting his name is not like forgetting the names of my kids (I checked. I still remembered. Or  I believed I remembered their names. Who really knows.) But it wasn't a trivial lapse. It's not as though I'd forgotten one of the many obscure and fairly useless facts that I can still return to mind.  It's not as though I was unable to recall a fact that I had not accessed in a few years. This is a guy whose name I know well. I've read his books. I listen to his podcasts. I've listened to three or four in the past week alone. I read his blog posts. I talk to other people about him. I know what he looks like.



He wrote one of the most influential books that I've ever read. I can see the cover. It's a blue face on a white background. The book is called "Waking Up." I can remember that. It's "Waking Up," by...


..."Waking Up," by...

I wait.

"Sam," my mind finally replies.

"Sam?" I ask. "Sam who?"


I repeat myself a few times.

"Waking Up by Sam....  Waking Up by Sam..."

Finally from a blank space in my memory: "Sam Harris"

"OK!" I think. "Sam Harris. That's right."

I google for Sam Harris meditation and find it, while thinking how strange it was that I couldn't remember. Was I just not yet awake? Would a cold shower have helped? Is this what it's going to be like as I get older?

I briefly consider that idea. I imagine my memory going almost completely. I imagine not being able to remember anyone's name. I don't remember my friends. My kids are familiar, but their names are...gone. Dropped down the memory hole and forever unreachable.

Oddly, I'm not concerned. Whatever I remember or don't remember, while I was trying to remember I was that bit of consciousness that found that situation interesting and the possibility of losing my memory fascinating.

Good to know that I'll continue to be that person, no matter what facts I can't access. Good to know I'd continue to be that person even if I forgot that person's name.

But what if I forget that's who I am?

Mar 14, 2018

Ecosystems and economies

Ecosystems are like economies. Creatures in ecosystems evolve to occupy every ecological niche. Agents in economic systems evolve to occupy every economic niche. Every occupied niche produces in new niches and evolution fills them, too.

Ecosystems have one rule: survive (and reproduce). Nature does not play favorites. The rules are the same for parasites, creatures that harm or kill their hosts; for mutualists, creatures that mutually benefit others; and commensalists, creatures that gain from another creature without helping it or harming it.

From that one rule, we can derive some guidelines. For parasites: don’t kill all your hosts. If you do, you die, too. Successful parasites learn not to kill all their hosts; and some parasites even evolve into mutualists. It’s not that they’re nice. It’s just that helping your host survive is a good way to make sure that you’ve got lots of hosts to support you. So the guideline is: you’ll do better if you help those around you. But you don’t have to.

Creatures in ecosystems evolve to maximize use of available resources. There’s only so much air, so much sunlight, so much water, so much land, so much of various minerals. Creatures evolve so that--in sum--they consume more and more. Over time ecosystems and the creatures within them become more complex, because more complex systems can use resources more efficiently.

There’s no purpose to its evolution other than survival. Ecosystems don’t care whether the creatures in them are cooperative or competitive, or a combination; whether the creatures are beautiful or ugly; devious or direct. Nature only wants things that survive.

Some ecosystems--fewer and fewer--operate without human intervention. When humans get involved, they can direct--but never entirely control what grows. Humans can add new rules like: “produce things that humans desire,” and “don’t be a weed.” Humans can enforce their rules by poisoning whatever they do not like, fertilizing and feeding what they do like, by selective breeding, by introducing new species, and by genetic engineering.

Plants, animals, bacteria, and virii are among the life forms that inhabit natural ecosystems. Groups of these creatures, acting together, behave differently than their individual components and can be thought of as life forms in their own right. 

Human beings and groups of human beings are the life forms that inhabit economic systems. The groups include tribes, villages, cities, nations, armies, and churches. Even though groups of humans are composed of individual humans, they also exhibit new behavior that emerges from the group/

Absent human intervention in an economic system, parasites, mutualists, and commensalists would all be subject to the same “survive or die” rules. But economies, like human-controlled ecosystems, have human designers who make additional rules. A common rule is “don’t be a parasite.” But when autocrats--who are often parasites and live at the expense of the people they rule--make the rules, the rules are designed to keep those particular parasites and their cronies in power. So the rule is “don’t be a parasite--unless you’re one of us.”

For centuries economic systems consisted of humans and small tribes of humans. Those tribes evolved rules well suited to helping those systems survive--even if not all of the individuals and groups within the system thrived. equally Later, larger groups evolved based on geography--villages, towns, cities, nations; based on common beliefs; religions, for example; based on common interests--guilds, for example. Along with the larger groups came new rules. By trial and error--evolution’s only method, rules evolved that helped larger and larger groups survive.

Now a new economic life form has arisen: the modern corporation. In a future post, I’ll talk about the new challenge that corporations present.

Mar 13, 2018

"I care"

“I care,” said a voice in my head.


“You wondered ‘Who cares if I write?’ I said, ‘I care.’"

“Who are you?” I asked.

“You can call me God,” the voice answered.

“Are you God?” I asked.

“I might be. But who I am is irrelevant.”

“You're just a voice in my head,” I said.

“Perhaps,” said the voice. “But that's irrelevant. What's important is that you want to write, and I care. So write.”

“Why should it matter to me if you care, whatever you are?” I asked.

“It doesn't need to matter," said the voice. "It's your decision. My decision is to care or not. And I care. Your decision is whether my caring matters or not. And your decision is?”

“I don't know,” I said.

“Do you want to write?” asked the voice.

“I do,” I answered.

“Then write,” said the voice.

“I am writing,” I said. “I just wrote that. I’m writing this.”

“And isn’t it grand,” said the voice “Don’t you love it?”

“I do,” I admitted.

“Then why not keep writing the things you care about writing?"

"You mean, instead of this?"

"In addition to this."

“I don’t know,” I said. “I could write about something else. But right now I want to see where this goes. Where this leads. So I'm writing to find out.”

“Where does it lead?” Asked the voice.

I thought for a moment. “I don't know,” I said. “Do you know where it will lead?”

“Of course,” said the voice. "I'm God."

I ignored the God part. "Where?” I asked.

“It leads to you doing the writing you care most about.”

“And how will that happen?” I asked.

“Easy. Whenever you get stuck, I’ll remind you that you want to write and I'll remind you that I care,” said the voice. "And you'll write."

“What if I’m not in the mood?” I asked.

“I'll remind you that that's irrelevant. I’ll remind you that you want to write, and that I care, and that your mood is irrelevant.”

“What if I don’t have anything write about?” I asked.

“Have you nothing to write about?”

“No,” I said, “I've lots to write about.”

“Then that's irrelevant. Just write.”

“What if I’ve got lots of things to write about and can't decide which to write about first?” I asked

“Can't you decide?” Asked the voice.

“I can decide,” I said.

“Then that's irrelevant. Just write."

“All right, I said. “I'm going to write an essay about the evolution of political factions.”

“Good,” said God. “Do it!”

"Did you make me do that?" I asked.


“I wrote 'said God’ instead of ‘said the voice?’ And then I crossed it out. And then I put it back. Did you have anything to do with that?"

“Are you going to write?” asked whatever asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then what I am is irrelevant,” said the voice. “Write. Because you want to. Because--whatever I am--I care. Isn’t that enough?”

“It is,” I said. And posted this. And started writing my next piece.

Mar 11, 2018

Get out of your head and into your life -- Part I

A blank page. Discomfort. Isn't that the point?

I've written a series of posts about discomfort. Recently (like February) I realized (with some shock) the degree to which my personal narrative was inconsistent with the facts of my life and wrote two posts (Whatever it takesDoing the hard stuff) about my epiphany. Short form: I imagined that I was committed to self-improvement;  I realized I was committed to giving the appearance of that commitment. But not to doing the work.

Then I came across a book called "Get out of your head and into your life" by Steven C. Hayes. It's YASHB: Yet Another Self-Help Book. (Or should that be YAS-HB) But this one got me right in the feels. And that's never happened before.

I found the book through Twitter. I follow David Sloan Wilson, a biologist who contributes to Evonomics a blog that publishes essays on applying evolutionary theory to economics. He's also president of the Evolution Institute, that applies science, and particularly evolutionary theory, to practical problems. He tweeted a link to this article that introduces the work of Steven C. Hayes, a guy I'd never heard of. And, DSW tells us, neither have lots of other people. But they should, he says.
Simultaneously, he developed a version of mindfulness-based therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as one word) that is now being used around the world. His self-help book “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life14” has sold over a quarter million copies and was featured in a five-page article in TIME magazine in 2006. Over 200 randomized control trials demonstrate the efficacy of ACT for a diverse array of problems covering not just a nearly comprehensive list of the usual mental health and substance use areas (depression, anxiety, smoking, opiate use), but also a dozen or more behavioral health problems (e.g., diet, exercise, facing a cancer diagnosis, managing diabetes), and areas you might not ever expect such as academic success, prejudice, organizational functioning, or sport. He is one of the most widely cited psychologists in the world, authoring over 43 books and 600 academic articles. He also helped to found a society called the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), numbering over 7,800 members worldwide, including both applied scientists operating in university settings and practitioners working with individuals and groups in real-world settings. 
The article convinced me to do a little research on ACT and that convinced me to buy his book.

Here's the money quote from the book:
The rules and conditions our minds lay down for us are simple but powerful: act on the basis of belief and disbelief. They say that you must react to your mind either by agreeing with it or arguing. 
Unfortunately, both reactions are based on taking your thoughts literally. Rather than seeing your thoughts merely as an ongoing process of relating, they are reacted to based on what they relate to. They are “factually” correct or incorrect. 
When you take your thoughts literally, you are “riding the mind-train.” That is, you are responding to the thoughts your mind presents to you purely in terms of the facts they are about. Agreeing and disagreeing are both within the rules, so neither response gets you off the train. However, if you break the rules, you will find yourself off the mind-train—and isn’t this one train you’d like to get off of now and then?
The solution? Get off the fucking train. Or out of the fucking car, depending on where you're stuck.

My experience reading the book was extraordinary.

I nodded agreement through the introduction. Hayes lays out his theory. People suffer. Suffering is normal. Some of the things we do to alleviate our suffering actually make it worse. Makes sense. He asks three things of the reader: persistent, active engagement with the text; unrelenting honesty; intending to have the book make a difference. Sure, Steve. No big deal.

He says:
We all have pain. All human beings, if they live long enough, have felt or will feel the devastation of losing someone they love. Every single person has felt or will feel physical pain. Everybody has felt sadness, shame, anxiety, fear, and loss. We all have memories that are embarrassing, humiliating, or shameful. We all carry painful hidden secrets. We tend to put on shiny, happy faces, pretending that everything is okay, and that life is “all good.” But it isn’t and it can’t be. To be human is to feel pain in ways that are orders of magnitude more pervasive than what the other creatures on planet Earth feel.
And part of the reason that we suffer more is language. We connect words to experiences. If the experience is painful, then certain words, phrases, sentences, will evoke the pain.


Then he dropped the bomb:

Alright, it's words. Just words on the page. But he did ask for active engagement. And he did ask for total honesty. So without thinking through the terms of the contract, my brain responded. I'm not sure which of the shameful things that I have done is the most shameful. I'm not even sure that a single shameful act came to mind. All I know is that I read it and burst into tears. In the Starbucks where I was reading it.

Fortunately, it was early and no one was around me. And I quickly got myself under control.  But the experience shook me. I'd read scenes in novels that had brought me to tears but this was different. This was about me.

I started writing a blog post about the book. I wasn't ready to endorse it, but now I am--conditionally. It's medicine. But it's strong medicine. Don't take it if you don't need it. And don't take it if your not willing to deal with some side-effects before the healing starts.

The first condition is that you're seriously looking for change or self-improvement. If not, then you're wasting your time reading this book. I don't recommend wasting time.

The second condition is this: you're prepared for the ride. Maybe it won't affect you as strongly as it affected me. Maybe you'll have an even stronger reaction. YMMV. But be prepared. You might get terribly depressed as you read it.

The book mixes Buddhist philosophy and practices with a modern understanding of the human nervous system, and some innovative practices based on both. I've read books on Buddhist philosophy and practice before. Blah blah blah suffering. Blah blah blah mindfulness. I'm not saying they have not been helpful. They have been. Absolutely. But this is different.

Suffering, in those books, is a concept. It's a useful concept for explaining the human condition. It's a concept that creates a context for the practices that follow. Suffering, in this book, is a shot to the heart. Words on a screen stripped away the practices I'd adopted unconsciously to hide my suffering from myself. Words made me face the fact that even though I enjoyed my life, even though I had spent countless hours of reading, thinking, introspecting, writing, half-assed meditating, doing fractional-assed mindfulness exercises, Scientology auditing and training, talking to friends and coaches and therapists--the core, fundamental, basic, deeply-felt unsatisfactoriness of my life was burning within. Stripped of some--or many--of my defenses, I faced the searing pain of numberless failures, countless losses, stupidities, and shameful wrongdoings.

It was not fun.

But in the end, it was liberating. I faced some of that shit without some of those defenses and survived. I didn't kill myself. I thought about it and kept reading.

So that's something.

The book is full of exercises, most of which I haven't done completely--if at all. Some of them push you into confronting the pain and suffering that's there, and how it affects your life. I didn't do all of them because it became too painful. I needed to know there was a way out. I needed a map of the escape routes so I started reading the relieving exercises. I didn't do them all, or thoroughly because needed to build the map, find the ones that I could use RIGHT NOW to deal with what was paining me RIGHT NOW.

I needed to get out of my fucking head.

Now I'm ready to go back to the book, do a deeper dive, work my way through, and really confront the discomforts that I keep avoiding.

Yay, discomfort. Yay, confronting. Yay getting out of the fucking train, car, head, whatever.

There will be other posts as I work my way through the book.

I did something unusual before writing this post. I read other, related stuff I'd written.

Here are some of my other blog posts on discomfort. I'll be adding to them.

Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting
Family of Mind (Internal Family Systems)
Learning to learn: Gain without pain

Mar 10, 2018

Modes of reasoning

In the world of science, we've come to agree on the way we reason. Our modes of reasoning have converged because science has a clear objective: correct and accurate predictions. All other scientific endeavors are aligned to that objective. to the degree that they contribute to correct predictions, we keep them. To the degree that competing methods are better, we adopt them. To make accurate predictions we need to make accurate measurements; we need to organize data in ways that permit us to analyze it; we need to select mathematical techniques from the much wider universe of abstract mathematical tools based on their ability to facilitate the tasks of science. Most important, we need to reason correctly. Scientific reasoning is the subset of reasoning processes that contribute to correct and accurate predictions.

In the world of politics, things are not so simple. We imagine that we all have the same objective, but we do not. We don't have unambiguous ways to measure the degree to which we've met even the objectives we agree on. And we don't have ways to identify and measure, with high certainty, the factors that contributed to whatever about the objective we measured.

People choose the reasoning methods that lead to the results that they like. Liberals choose reasoning methods that are likely to support liberal goals. Conservatives choose reasoning methods that are likely to support conservative goals. Before motivated reasoning comes motivated choice of how to reason.

Liberals and conservatives have different objectives. They have different ideas of what a just world would be like. There's nothing wrong with different objectives, as long as we are clear about what those objectives are, and how we go about achieving them.

The notions of contextualism, legal pragmatism which are favored by liberals make it easy to interpret laws flexibly, adapting them to current circumstances, and determining ambiguities and gaps in favor of liberal objectives. The notions of original intent, original meaning, and textualism, which are favored by conservatives, make it hard to interpret laws in those ways, leading outcomes consistent with conservative values and objectives.

I'm a liberal for tribal reasons, for philosophical reasons, and for historical reasons. My choice of how to reason about law and morality is driven by consequential and pragmatic concerns.

Most people would say that one of their objectives is a just world. We assume that when people say they want a just world that they mean the same thing--or something close to it. But people have vastly different and often incompatible ideas of what such a world would look like. Some people are meritocrats: they believe that in a just world, outcomes would be based on the talent that people have and the effort they expend in applying their talent. Others are aristocrats: they believe that in a just world, outcomes should be based on membership in ancient lineages. Others are theocrats: they believe that God rules the world and the world is just because God makes it so; our duty is to follow God's law, and God will take care of the outcomes.

Our intuitions about justice are the result of our upbringing. Most children have the same intuitions as their parents; some are rebellious, and develop intuitions that are in opposition. Some read widely and critically and end up adjusting our views. But we know--those of us who have studied human cognition--that confirmation bias is a powerful force. It's hard to overcome confirmation bias even when you know it exists. Trust me. I've tried and I've confirmed that it's hard. Oh, wait.

Confirmation bias includes the way we evaluate the facts that we already know and the new facts we choose to consider. It also affects the way in which we reason about facts and theories. Even when we agree on the reasoning process to use--say statistical analysis, confirmation bias gets in the way. It's hard to get around it.

To reach the same conclusions people have to have the same data and follow the same reasoning process. To have the same data people have to have the same facts available and the same criteria for determining what facts to accept and what level of credibility to assign to them.

People don't decide what a just world looks like, then independently choose the system of evidence evaluation and the systems of reasoning they will use. Instead, they buy a package: a set of objectives, evaluation techniques that support their objectives, and reasoning processes that lead in the desired direction. It's one-stop shopping. Buy the objectives, and the rest comes for free.

I'm a liberal and like most liberals, I'm a utilitarian and a consequentialist. So I judge an act by my best efforts to predict or assess its consequential effect on human well-being. Sometimes I will be wrong; something that I expected to have good consequences turns out to have bad consequences that outweigh the good. Sometimes there will be consequences that I did not anticipate that reduces the benefit of the good.

Those of us who are not omniscient should always expect unintended consequences. Those of us who have heard of entropy should expect that there will be more bad unintended consequences than good ones because there are many ways to make things worse, and few to make them better.  But my intention is clear: to reason about ways to maximize human well-being. I particularly want to choose paths that maximize human knowledge because I believe that is the key to human well-being.

And I want a system for reasoning about legal and moral matters lets me interpret laws and standards as flexibly as possible because it maximizes my freedom to craft beneficial solutions.

Legal reasoning and moral reasoning are different, but people tend to choose similar systems of reasoning for both. The legal reasoning problem easier: given this set of laws, what is the right thing to do. The moral reasoning problem is harder: given the universe, as we know it (including the existence of a deity) what is the right thing to do? The crossover problem is even harder: given our moral sentiments, the existing body of law, and the nature of our fellow citizens, what should the laws be?

There are two major schools of moral reasoning: according to one school, moral precepts are the starting point. The precepts might be community standards, religious doctrine, or existing law. Given the precepts, one has a duty to follow them. An act is judged as moral--or not--to the degree that it conforms. The largest branch of the school is called deontology, from deon, or duty. The other major school judges the morality of an act by its benefit or harms it causes. Utilitarians consider the direct benefits and harms; consequentialists consider longer-term benefits and harms. Some consider benefit and harms to humans; others take the environment into account.

Here's a simple example showing the difference between deontological vs consequentialist reasoning. If the rule is simply "do not kill," a deontologist argues that killing is wrong, period. Circumstances don't count. But a consequentialist argues that even though the rule clearly states "do not kill," sometimes killing is the ethical thing to do. It is ethical if the expected consequences of killing are judged better than the consequences of not.

The real world is too complicated for a simple rule like "do not kill" and deontologists understand that. Killing in self-defense is a rule that makes an exception to the "do not kill" rule. And there are cases in which the self-defense exception might itself superseded. But no set of rules can possibly cover every contingency. The deontological view is to limit interpretive flexibility. If there are gaps or ambiguities so that an act does not closely match a rule then use the next highest level rule. If the highest level rule in law is: "do nothing" then do nothing.

Consequentialists also see that there will always be gaps in the rules. Even rules that grant exceptions have gray areas.  Consequentialists use laws as guiding principles to be applied in context. If there are extenuating circumstances, ambiguous rules, and circumstances that the rule makers did not anticipate then judges should "do what makes sense" according to the consequences of what you decide.

Liberals like me are consequentialists. We choose a legal framework that lets us interpret ambiguous parts of the law to will maximize what we think will be beneficial consequences. If the people who wrote a law did not anticipate a future circumstance in which that law would be applied, we want to weigh the consequences of various ways of reading the law and choose the one that seems most likely to serve those beneficial goals.

Conservatives tend to be deontologists. They choose legal frameworks, like textualism and originalism and strict construction, that lead to their preferred outcomes: less intervention; stability; traditional forms; preservation of existing rights, rather than the creation of new rights.

Liberals are interventionists. On liberal theory, if something is wrong, unjust or unfair, and the existing system of laws permits--but does not mandate correcting it--then it should be still be corrected as far as the law allows. Conservatives point out that interventions have unintended consequences. Of course, they do! And the unintended consequences are bad. Of course, they will be bad! But not intervening has unintended consequences, and these may be worse. The question is: are the intended, beneficial consequences greater than the unintended, harmful consequences.

Consider pollution laws. The intended consequences have included fewer poisons in the environment, fewer birth defects, fewer cancers, and so on. But there are unintended consequences, of course. Some polluting industries didn't clean up their act--as intended. Instead, they moved to pollution-friendly countries taking both their pollution and their jobs. Neither was intended. Another consequence was more research into pollution-removal and pollution mitigation, which created new jobs, though probably not as many. Both of these things might or might not have been foreseeable, but they were not intended. But doing nothing about pollution also has unintended consequences. The poison stays in the air, babies are born with birth defects, people get cancer. No one who opposes pollution control would admit to intending those consequences. Yet they are the foreseeable, unintended consequences.

Bad unintended consequences is not an argument against action. You can find any number of cases where a liberal interpretation had worse consequences than a conservative interpretation would have had--according to agreed-on interpretive frameworks. You can also likewise find any number where the interpretations had better consequences. On the whole, liberals tend to believe that the unintended negative consequences are a fair cost for the intended positive consequences of a liberal interpretation and conservatives the reverse. In some cases, that's because the objectives that they have are different, and in some cases, it's because their criteria for judging the consequences is already tuned to their favored outcome.

But there's another problem that conservatives point out. Who judges the expected consequences?

A liberal would argue: people generally know right from wrong and will make the right decision more often than the wrong one. They will choose good judges more often than bad ones, and the good judges will make good decisions more often than bad ones. Liberals acknowledge that from individual to individual and time to time they will decide badly.

A conservative would argue that judges are human, and humans are flawed, and judges with too much power to interpret the law will be corrupt or be corrupted by outside forces. Thus they will make harmful decisions more often than good ones. We are better off sticking to the rules than allowing interpretation.

This seems reasonable, but it's ironic. The system of reasoning that rejects the consequential interpretation of laws seems forced to justify itself on consequential grounds. If we avoid consequentialism I think the argument is "You follow the rules (law) because there's a rule (originalism) that says that's what you do." Regardless of the consequences of any particular application.

The entire theory of the judicial system, to which both liberals and conservatives seem to agree to is based on error correction. The Supreme Court's responsibility is to try to correct errors made by all other courts that they choose to consider; appeals course are responsible for correcting errors of lower courts; federal courts to correct errors of state courts; state courts correct errors made by city and town courts.

The underlying assumptions I think are these: it's easier to corrupt a judge in a lower court than in a higher court and it's more likely that a judge in a lower court will be ignorant than a judge in a higher court. So all sides, I think, agree that this system of error correction makes sense and--with exceptions--will work well.

Liberals like me argue that the marketplace of ideas is also self-correcting--although there will be market failures from time to time. If the market works as intended, then better ideas will win. Failures are notable and regrettable, but over greater spans of time, and larger bodies of government, the consequences of liberal interpretations will be more beneficial than harmful.

Then there's history.

If you examine the historical consequences of following the rules you'll see some patterns. In the pre-civil war Deep South, the political and economic system was unjust and corrupt. I hope we can all agree on that. A hundred years later Civil War the people who had been removed from power regained it. They consolidated their power by changing the system so that Negros could not vote and convincing the remaining voters (whites) to vote to maintain that system. I hope we can agree that's what happened.

They argued that policies of segregation, poll taxes, unequal schooling, unfair literacy tests, and worse were States Rights. They argued that the Federal government had no right to intervene under a strict reading of the Constitution.

This changed because a liberal Supreme Court interpreted the constitution according to liberal principles and held that these practices had to stop. A conservative Supreme Court would likely have found otherwise--and conservative justices voted to try to preserve what I think we all see as injustices. The Constitution says nothing forbidding States from charging poll taxes, so poll taxes are fine. In Harper vs the Virginia Board of Elections the Court found the state's poll taxes unconstitutional. Three conservative justices (one a Southern Democrat) dissented. Justice Hugo Black, the Southern Democrat dissented "mainly on stare decisis basis. As a textualist, he also criticized the majority for expanding the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment by using what he called the old "natural law due process formula". He emphasized that new meanings can be added to the Constitution only through amendments."

And of course, they can be. But let's remember how the Fourteenth Amendment was passed:
State legislatures in every formerly Confederate state, with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify it. This refusal led to the passage of the Reconstruction Acts. Ignoring the existing state governments, military government was imposed until new civil governments were established and the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. It also prompted Congress to pass a law on March 2, 1867, requiring that a former Confederate state must ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before "said State shall be declared entitled to representation in Congress"
And then there's the Thirteenth Amendment, the one that freed the slaves, which was passed by skirting around states-rights objections and selling the idea that the rights of the newly freed slaves could still be constrained by the states--a gigantic loophole that the Fourteenth Amendment closed and the reason it took draconian measures to pass it.

The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments would not have passed without such liberal interpretive Shenanigans. Suppose that the liberals (Republicans, at the time, curiously) had not gotten away with it. Would we still have slaves if states had the right to decide? Would parts of the South still have white and colored restrooms, ridiculously unequal public schooling and other services, and all sorts of institutionalized discrimination upheld and protected by State and local government? I think the answer is, yes.

The liberal Supreme Courts of the 1960's eliminated many of the vestiges of the Old South. As a result, some Northern businesses relocated or expanded into the South. They brought prosperity and liberals with them. Without those changes, the South would have continued to be as impoverished as ever  But the people in power in the South would not have cared. They have continued to remain in power by convincing sufficiently many white voters: "Things may be bad for you, but at least you're not a nigger."

The way that liberals and conservatives reason about law and morality is not abstractly correct. It's a chosen mode of reasoning. In the liberal case, it's helped bring about a world that's closer to the one that liberals viewed as good and just--one without slavery. With greater equality. The way that conservatives reason about law and morality has helped bring about (or tried to preserve) a world that's closer to the one that conservatives view as good and just. One with less government intervention and greater individual freedom.

I agree with conservatives in some cases, but I don't entirely share their view of freedom. You might be free to vote, but if you can't take the time to get to the polls, or the lines are too long, your freedom doesn't mean much.

History leads me to see the conservatives of the South--once Democrats, now Republicans--as the enemies of fairness, justice, and even freedom as I conceive of them. Overt racism doesn't play well in public, even in the South, and some accusations of signaling are unfairly made. But racism is alive and well and so is signaling.

I amid viscerally disliking Southern conservatives. It comes from my understanding of history and my lived experience. In the '60s, when I was working for civil rights I read a pamphlet from a Southern racist group--maybe the KKK, maybe not. It explained that things in the South were just fine. Colored folk and white folk got along great. Because colored folk knew their place. Then that changed. Why? Because outside agitators started stirring up trouble. And who were those outside agitators? Jews. Jews were the enemy. Jews and communists--who were all Jews. See George Lincoln Rockwell at the end of this post.

I didn't much like them before that. I liked them a lot less afterward. Some, I assume are good people. But en masse they were a vile bunch who elected vile people who pandered to and further inflamed their vilest sentiments.

I've got plenty of complaints about the behavior of some of the people who call themselves liberals today. And I did back in the day when left-wing bombings, and occupying and trashing university offices were the thing to do. Still, when I was in college we were generally the ones who wanted to make our voices heard and they were the ones who were shouting us down. Sad that we've adopted their tactics.

Conservatives are not all alike. The conservatives of the West have different values than the conservatives of the South. But they have made common cause with them, and that matters. What do I make of that? If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is the friend of my enemy my enemy?

Mar 8, 2018

Virtue signaling

Bobbi and I are planning on attending the March March. That's the March 24th "NeverAgain" March for Our Lives in Washington, and a ton of other places, including Boston. What motivates me to do that? Someone suggested that it's virtue signaling. Why else drive to a far-off city and show up?

And they're right. 

(TL;DR: it's virtue signaling, but these are not the virtues you are looking for.)

Maybe everything we do is a form of virtue signaling. After all, why signal your lack of virtue, unless you think warning people off is a virtuous thing to do. But there are other virtues to signal than the obvious ones. So let's explore what motivates me.

I like going to Boston. The March gives me an excuse. Bobbi doesn't like it so much. But she's willing to go (for her own reasons, which are irrelevant here.) So, yay! We both win. Isn't it virtuous for me to want us both to win? You've been signaled.

I like attending events with lots of people. Concerts. Marches. You name it. Bobbi, not so much. But she's willing (for her own reasons.) So, yay, again!  We both win.

And especially I like being with her when she's doing something that makes her happy. Will this make her happy? Good chance. So, yay! Once again we both win.

But what about conventional virtue signaling? Most of my friends and most of my family are liberal. They support this Cause. I could proudly say that I showed up. And they may think better of me. Virtue signaling at its best. Except I have better ways to signal liberal virtue. Like writing blog posts explaining liberal virtue.

Daniel Dennet has techniques that he calls intuition pumps. One goes like this. You imagine a device that has a bunch of inputs--in this case, the degree to which I support the cause, degree of (dis)approval from friends and family--one knob per person, travel inconvenience, size of the event, interestingness, and so on. Each input has a knob. There's one output: I attend the event or not. So if I turn the event-is-interesting knob, I'm more likely to go despite other knob settings. If I turn up the support the cause knob and the approval knobs I can play with the inconvenience and interestingness and the size of crowd knobs and see how they affect my behavior. For some settings I might travel to Bangor and Boston, but not Washington, and certainly not London. OK, maybe London. But not Cairo. OK, Cairo. But I'm not traveling because I support the movement. My decision is largely insensitive to that knob setting. It's more interesting.

What if I had a friend who wanted to go to an event for a cause that I did not support--say a march to roll back Roe v. Wade. Say it's the one held in DC each year. Or suppose there was one in Boston. Or Bangor. How far would I travel (inconvenience) to go? If the march was in Bangor and my friend cared even a little, I'd probably go. And it would be virtue signaling. The virtues would be "support your friends" and "be interested in everything." If I turn up the inconvenience knob--say the march is in Boston, then the relative settings of the "Bobbi is against it" dial and the "my friend cares about this" knobs would affect the output. At some settings, I would go. At others, not.

The knobs that matter are the "Bobbi is against/for" knob, the "a friend is for it" and the "this looks interesting" knob. Signaling to my liberal friends? Hey, I love you, but your knob does not move the needle. Sorry. Signaling to my conservative friends. See message to liberal friends.

When I was at the University of Hawaii, George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, came to speak. My buddy and I went to see him before he spoke. My friend was there to compensate for my passivity, to bear witness to my virtue signaling, and to give me a friend to support. Rockwell was a nice, perfectly polite guy, despite being an actual Nazi. He carried on a civil conversation with my buddy and me--two Jews wearing stars-of-David on our arms. Lots of virtue signaling.

Afterward, Rockwell gave a surprisingly (to me) thoughtful speech articulating his beliefs. IIRC he denied that any Jews had been killed in Germany, or if they had been, they deserved it. He's on the record saying he'd treat Jews like any other Americans--he'd have them killed if they were traitors. Otherwise, he'd leave them alone. He's also on the record saying he thought that 90% of Jews were traitors. So yeah, there might have been Jews killed in Germany, but if so, they were traitors.

My attending the event was virtue signaling. I was not signaling support for the American Nazi party. I was signaling the virtues of civic engagement, polite discourse, and facing the enemy. And supporting your friends. Also the virtue of having a good story to tell. It's a good story.

So if it's a nice day, and you're my friend, and you care about something and you want me to show up with you at an event, and it that looks as though the event will be interesting, hell, yes, I'm there, no matter what I think of your cause. Want me to come with you to church to hear your minister talk about--whatever he wants to talk about? No problem. No probs with your minister. I'd even go here if I had a friend to take me. I showed up to see an actual Nazi, FFS.

If I go to an event whose cause I do not support, do I feel the need to wear a button that signals "I'm against this shit"? Like my star-of-David stunt? No. I'm willing to show up to support you and to learn something. I'm willing to have people who I don't know think I'm with them when I'm not. Especially if they have guns. Who cares? Not me.

When I was twenty, I would have given a different answer. I would have worn a rude button to signal the virtue of standing up for what I believed in. But that would be my cover story. My twenty-year-old self's real reason would be signaling the virtue of doing whatever the fuck he wanted to do, and not giving a fuck whether he offended you. You bourgeois asshole.

I'm glad I'm not that person anymore.

You should be, too.

And now I will email and post this, and signal a whole raft of virtues.