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  • What is Nihilism?

    I have benefited greatly by being completely unaware of the popular understanding of nihilism. To me, the definition is the belief that nothing has intrinsic value or meaning; it is all invented by people. All other interpretations or ramifications or connotations come after. So my confusion comes when Adam Lee says “I am not a nihilist” and a few paragraphs later says “all meaning is an invention of man.” (paraphrased).

    I find the statement that all meaning and value are invented and do not exist naturally so obvious that it doesn’t even require argument. So I say, “I am a nihilist.” And then I get blowback from my friend who keeps misunderstanding anything I say and eventually says, “I don’t know what nihilism is.”

    Apparently, I am just learning, the popular idea of nihilism is a guy who is immoral, selfish, thinks everything is stupid and pointless and a waste of time, and so not only doesn’t try to do anything with their life but actively attacks anyone who tries to do anything or cares about anything. Maybe I don’t have that quite right, but this is what I have pieced together.

    But like I said, that is all secondary to nihilism, by my definition, and I think my definition is borne out by the variety of thought and practice in the world.

    Some people take nihilism to be freeing – if nothing has meaning, you are free to choose to do what you enjoy and not stress about whether you’re doing the right thing with your time. Such people still accept certain duties or obligations to themselves and, perhaps, love their families deeper because they have consciously chosen it and chosen to go as deep as possible. This type of nihilist says a glass of beer makes me happy, and seeing my wife smile makes me happy.

    Some people take nihilism as the root of a constant dread, anxiety, or nausea, to quote some famous philosophers, which we all must live with. And for those people, morality is a separate debate and they usually end up advocating for a universal morality.

    On the other side, some people take nihilism to mean that morality and ethics are lies and for suckers. Only they see through the screen and behave however they want and laugh at the idiots following fake rules. Those people generally do not live happy lives – because we live in a society and constantly screwing people over gets you a reputation. For the several people I know who are like this, bar one, they are not happy because the kind of person who would choose this has a lot of separate emotional problems.

    – ZZA

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  • Good Comte is Bad Comte and Bad Comte is Good Comte

    Every summary of Comte will describe how his philosophy of science was first lectures and then published as a long treatise, and only much later he released his description of the ideal society. So his career can be neatly divided. This was described by John Stuart Mill as “good Comte” (philosophy of science) and “bad Comte” (society).

    I entirely disagree. As a practicing scientist, I found his description of the philosophy of science to be out of date and useless. It was based around the concept of a hierarchy of science from the most concrete to the most difficult, but also in a sense “higher.” To put it clearly, since astronomy is based on careful observations of objects far removed from the laboratory, it is more concrete. It was also one of the oldest sciences. Then came chemistry, then biology, some others and finally sociology. He also says that you cannot have biology without chemistry and you cannot have sociology without first understanding all the other sciences, so it is a hierarchy. An advanced society applies the scientific method to its own society and government.

    However, this hierarchy of science is a fallacy. There is much to biology that doesn’t rely on chemistry, and almost anyone practicing sociology today is free to be entirely ignorant of chemistry, biology, and physics. The domains are quite distinct in their bodies of knowledge and methods. Also, what would he have done if he had lived another hundred years? He neatly classified all of science into six categories, but then the entire field of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics was invented in the forty years after his death. Maxwell’s equations and much of electromagnetism came about in the thirty years after his death. Fluid mechanics was again, in the last two decades of his life. Then time marches on – quantum physics, gravity, particle physics, beam physics, rheology and polymers (physics style, de Gennes) and polymers chemistry style. Comte’s hierarchy would have to bloom into a massive zoo of traditions and I’ve only covered physics, which I know, and not all the subfields of chemistry and biology and mechanical and aerospace which are so distinct from other subfields in the same domain that the practitioners can barely speak to each other. And yet they all talk, exchange, and influence each other. It is pointless to try and build some hierarchy of domains of science, and ahistorical to do so. Any discussion of positive logical statements or the foundation of empirical knowledge is a quick reference to Bacon without depth. Unless you’re interested in the minute details of the history of philosophy of science, I don’t think it’s worth reading. So good Comte is bad Comte.

    When Comte addresses society, he starts with the premise that society should be built based on scientific principles. This requires, he says, a basic science literacy of the entire population and thus motivated his short course in the most important results of each field of science as he knew them. He also believed that, more than the actual structure of government, stability was important. He also famously believed religion was defunct but it had value for community, so he invented an atheistic religion which was based around altruism (a word he invented) and becoming your full human self. Without God it was imperative to express yourself through art (Nietzsche said the same thing). He plays fast and loose with ideas and doesn’t justify them like some other political philosophers, but his contribution raises some valid lines of thought. He is not careful, but was guided by the principle that government should be scientifically informed, and that science is a process not an answer. That final statement is something I can emphatically agree with today. So in the particulars of his structured society and religion he made many errors, but the fundamental premise I fundamentally agree with – public policy should be evidence based. So bad Comte is good Comte.

    – ZZA

  • Braco

    Ok, one of the weirdest contemporary religions I’ve ever come across. Braco’s Gaze. He’s built a following and a financial empire around staring into his slightly droopy eyes for 5-10 minutes. In the videos he’s sometimes in a large room. From 20 feet away you cannot even clearly see his features, so not sure what the effect could be. https://youtu.be/qGn8KAtzOgw

    Related, there’s this great documentary called Human that interleaves beautiful music and landscape shots with hyper personal interviews that are shot with the face filling the screen and a black background. It’s really compelling with those high-res faces showing in all their lines and detail. Is it true that with good lighting and high resolution anyone’s face is beautiful? If there’s anything to Braco’s Gaze maybe it would work with literally anyone’s face. Just find a stranger and stare into each others’ eyes for ten minutes.

    If it has anything to do with his face shape, maybe Braco’s Gaze will cease to work as he ages and his skin sags. His neutral face has this kind of dopey Eeyore-like look to it but with intelligent eyes. I doubt my face is as compelling.

    – ZZA

  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull

    I don’t claim to fully understand the author’s intent with this book, but man are people totally not getting it.

    “It’s Christian.” No, if anything it makes fun of Christianity when they want to make a religion around Jonathan but he keeps saying no, I’m just another seagull like you.

    “It’s Buddhist.” No. What form of Buddhism says you can be enlightened simply by pursuing your art, whatever it may be? What form of Buddhism has endless hierarchies of nirvana, instead of simply one?

    Oh wait, that sounds like Pure Land Buddhism, and his desire to return to the lower plane to teach others places him securely in the tradition of being a bodhisattva.

    Pure Land Buddhism allows for attaining enlightenment by limitless ways, some taking many lifetimes and some happening instantaneously.

    But I doubt Richard Bach was trying to sell us all on Pure Land Buddhism.

    I looked up some interviews and it he does believe in some sort of metaphysical thing where time and space aren’t really real and death is not the end. He even calls his daughter “discarnate” after she died in a car accident.

    A lot of people call the book trite, silly, or some other term. I found a lot of value in it simply because of my personal experience. Whenever I try and do anything, or care about anything, I’m surrounded by detractors who ask “what’s the point?” For instance, I’ve been asked what is the point of picking up an instrument as an adult? Well, I reject the absurd belief that musical instruments are for children. Plus, as an adult you can become competent enough to really enjoy it in just a couple years. I was asked why I continued competing in fencing even though I’ll never make it to the Olympics. Like, what the fuck? Said by a guy who watches a ton of football. A guy who would rather spend hours watching adults play a children’s game rather than do anything else.

    I don’t even think it’s worth spending the effort here defending a lifetstyle where you do things you’re interested in instead of just watching Netflix and doing chores until you grow old and die. It’s just too obvious.

    And what does Jonathan Livingston Seagull do for me? It gives me permission to be myself and be passionate about something. And ignore the detractors.

    No matter what you try and do, you’ll be surrounded by people mocking you for it.

    My friend from high school, who also entered a PhD program, was making fun of another mutual friend for “getting back into hobbies” including knitting after getting a job post-bac. And then post-PhD she abandoned research, took a job, and took up embroidery. HAH.

    My problem is that I self-doubt already, and being surrounded with low people who have internalized that everything they do is pointless just brings me down that extra step.

    The beautiful thing about being an adult is being able to cut negative people out of your life.

    – ZZA

  • Writing

    I need to start writing. I’m going to start writing. I mean, I’ve been writing. I have tens of thousands of words in notes and essays. What I need is to get this into book form. Honestly, it could be seen as a waste of time, but I need to have some milestone, some product, of all this. I will vanity print a copy for myself, and shop around the pdf with a link to an on-demand printer. Maybe. Feels good to have a goal like that.

    A problem is that it’s hard to organize a large document using the computer. I want to lay it out, dozens of stacks of notes and printouts and tacks going up to where the wall meets the ceiling.

    But I cannot do this since I don’t have a private space where I can be creative without people thinking I’m crazy. I agree with Gnarls Barkley – I’ve always envied those who can be themselves.

    – ZZA

  • You Cannot Trust Secondary Sources

    To take a single example, when you look at reviews of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, popular understanding, professional reviews, and reviews on something like GoodReads or Amazon, all agree: the book is a “dense tome” that is closer to what a beginning professional might read and not suitable for casual home kitchens. Then I actually read it, and literally the opposite is true. For one, a professional would find it too basic to be useless; and it is very far from exhaustive. It does not even fully survey French cooking. Instead, it has recipes selected in order to illustrate a particular point. The recipes sometimes take up many pages but that’s because she breaks everything down to the absolute simplest steps, such as telling you exactly what kind of pan to use and how to heat your pan and know it’s ready before adding the onions or egg or whatever. And describes in detail chopping techniques instead of simply saying dice or cube.

    It is a basic manual for cooking for someone who knows nothing at all. It has the most simple, broken down, clearly written recipes of any cookbook I’ve read. It is not a dense tome, but incredibly sparse since it takes paragraphs and pages to explain the most basic concepts so that your recipe comes out perfect even though you’ve never been taught anything around the kitchen.

    How is everyone so wrong?

    I don’t have an answer to that question, and I’ve kind of stopped caring. Instead, I’ve just accepted the fact that you cannot trust anyone on anything, and you have to go to the originals yourself. This applies to Julia Child as well as Gerald Gardner as well as Nietzsche as well as the Bible.

    You also cannot trust the original sources, but that is a different issue. The above is about reading the original and having a correct view of the book itself. The contents are a different issue. The worst offenders are autobiographies which are usually only true in the barest facts that are verifiable, but even that is not for certain.

    – ZZA

  • The (non) Primacy of World Religions

    The grouping of religious practice into “actual” religions versus cults, shamanism, magic, or paganism, is a fallacy designed to cement the sole authority of Christianity. The bad thinking even extends to the Western perception of Buddhism as more philosophical than religious, which is only possible if you are absolutely ignorant about Buddhism and how it is practiced. However, even those in esoteric or “pagan” circles have adopted this thinking, and classify some religions as more true or authentic than others. This all falls apart upon analysis. The correct mode of thinking is that there is no primacy of one religious practice over another.

    I need to acknowledge that in anthropological and comparative religion study, all of those terms have come to have a precise meaning which is useful when discussing religion: cults are defined by how they isolate you and control your life and behavior, paganism can refer to a specific cluster of European religions but is so broadly applied that it is almost useless, and shamanism can refer to religious practice that includes a specific mode of thinking of how magic works and the culture around needing a person to mediate for you.

    Terminology aside, it is worth looking at the specific example of contemporary pagan “revival.” In the actual Druidic religion, the druids were like a Brahmanic class with all of the social structures and privileges that you would expect. It was also the sole religion of its culture, that everybody practiced, and was thereby centralized and authoritarian. Yes they had a completely different worldview than Christianity, but the social structures around it make Druidism, as it was practiced, closer to Christianity than anything a “druid” is doing today. Druids today generally value their individuality.

    Some druids are not shy about the fact that they invented their whole religion and call themselves neopagan, but some claim to be continuing ancient tradition and following it as faithfully as they can discover through scholarship. The reality is that in both cases they are practicing a religion they invented themselves that is not the same as the any ancient version.

    Even if you could somehow replicate a form of ancient Druidism, the hierarchy of validity is nonsense because at some point all religions were invented. Just because some tens of thousands of people practiced your religion from 500-100 BC, you get a pass as an “authentic” religion? This is falling into the pitfalls of Christian thinking which classifies everything as Christian or magical nonsense. It is playing the same game but trying to provide argument that you get to be one of the true religions along with Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

    Almost everybody is stuck in the fallacy that the older something is the more authoritative or more authentic it is. This kind of authority also falls apart upon analysis. Christianity today is not like Christianity in early America is not like Renaissance Christianity is not like medieval Christianity, and all of those can’t be sharply defined because it varied by location.

    We are all constantly creating structure and ritual around ourselves and it is a delusion to stamp the brand of authenticity on one thing and not another.

    When a trained member of the privileged priestly class chants the specific ritual words to turn bread and wine into the literal body and blood of their God and then consumes it, how is this different from other magic ritual? How is this authentic and the ritual someone invented to blow their wooden horn and welcome the southern wind is not?

    It is difficult but the only rational path is to put all religions on the same level. Once you step from philosophy, which tries to convince, to religion, which claims supernatural authority for its dogma, then it is all the same level. The proper path is to free your thinking from creating a hierarchy of the verity of various magical practices.

    Ironically the result, at least for myself, is a broader tolerance of religious practice and plurality. The other path is militant atheism, but that is not inevitable or required.

    So when I was reading the blog post of a guy who was describing how they found a lot of value in the aesthetic and mechanism of the gods in the Shin Megami Tensei video game series, my reaction was: okay, why not? It’s just as valid is making up a new version of Kemetic religion that never existed but trying to claim authority by showing that it hearkens back to a very specific period of Egyptian religion practiced around 3000 BC. Ditto for religions based in imagery from H.P. Lovecraft. Why not? It’s more authentic to worship aspects of the ancient four elements? Or some kind of syncretic monotheistic Buddhism? Hardly.

    – ZZA

  • The Limits of Values

    An interesting probe of your own values and society is to discover the limits of your values. We’ve seen this in the last seven years where right-wing people and politicians do something offensive and then when they get publicly shamed and ostracized complain, “but I thought you were supposed to be liberal and tolerant!” It goes down to the level of the local guy who makes casual racist or misogynistic jokes or behavior and then, when they are called out on it, complains about the “PC culture” that’s ruining America. It’s disingenuous because people like that don’t live in the world of reason, but simply use words to coerce you, but it is an important exercise to understand what are the limits of your values such as tolerance, liberalism, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion?

    Freedom of speech is an easy answer in the US because it’s been carefully codified and tested by law. First there is the fact that freedom of speech does not apply in the interpersonal sphere. It is that the government cannot limit your speech, not other people. So if you’re heckling a political rally, they have the right to remove you; they are not the government. If you are retweeting neonazi memes, there is nothing saying that Twitter, a private company, can’t delete your account, and other people are free to boycott your business or verbally call you out on it in public. The neonazi example leads to the second concept: protected classes of people.

    The law enshrines that you cannot discriminate based on age, sex, religion, color/race, national origin, disability, or against old people. (But you can discriminate against young people – guess the age of the people that wrote that law? Actually I don’t mind because I see it as an answer to capitalism, mainly, which is quick to discard anyone over 50.) So that means you cannot exclude anyone from Twitter simply based on their religious affiliation, even if their religion is something abhorrent. You can only exclude them based on specific actions/speech that are documented.

    What is not on the list? Religious affiliation, something obscure like zip code as a proxy for race or income, income level itself, social class, and participation in any religion that isn’t officially recognized by the US government.

    Other limits to freedom are hate speech (especially against a specific list of often-target groups) and calls to specific violence. You can in fact call people to violence, but not targeted at any specific individual or group.

    All of the above are currently limits to religion itself. It is obvious to me that secular rule is still above religious values in the United States because freedom of religion does not mean total freedom. If your “religion” includes a desire to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the planet, well that is unacceptable within our society. Nobody will say directly that your religion itself is illegal, but when your public speech and actions are absolutely limited to the point where you cannot even practice your religion, it effectively is illegal. In practice the law is unevenly applied because of the arduous process of actually prosecuting anyone, so there’s plenty of examples of people getting away with it.

    This is why the current illegitimate Supreme Court is alarming because in several recent rulings they put religion above any law. If your “religion” gives you the right to discriminate against protected classes, what is next? It also allows hate speech, abuse, physical violence?

    That aside, I’ll return to the discussion of personal values. What are your limits to tolerance? Is there some underlying principle? An exercise is to first is to write down specific actions and think about whether you would tolerate them or not, and then try and find the underlying rule. Singing loudly in public, does it matter if the lyrics contain curse words or are offensive in another manner, yelling angrily into your phone in public, being filthy, casually noting every attractive girl that passes by, making comments like “I’m not racist, but…”, a man wearing a dress but it’s modest, a man wearing a dress and it’s lewd, wearing overt religious paraphenalia, inserting your church into every conversation, two men kissing in public, what about a man and a woman groping in public?

    I find that I want to say I tolerate everything that is a personal choice and doesn’t affect others, but in reality I have my own moral guides. I tolerate everything that doesn’t upset the good vibes, by which I mean my own good vibes of course. So if a man wears a dress in public but is otherwise casual and doesn’t even bring it up, I don’t care. And then if a second person gets offended and starts to make a big deal out of it, I am actually angry with the guy that got offended because they are in fact the ones who are ruining the calm vibes, not the guy who’s just trying to buy groceries in a dress. In that case, yes, I am following the principle that you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. But the guy who gets offended is also following this rule. Perhaps he feels an unbidden and uncontrollable disgust at the sight, and so he has been “harmed” by the man wearing the dress.

    I am not free of this thinking. What about public sex? Nothing is harming me except my disgust at the sight. But my feelings cannot be the metric for “harm” because that path leads to unnecessary restriction and is, in fact, the basis for homophobia. Homophobia cannot be tolerated because gay people exist, they didn’t choose to be gay, and thus should be allowed to exist with the same freedoms as straight couples.

    What is the universal principle that allows certain public acts and not others? Sometimes there isn’t one. Those who study ethics have shown this. You have to embrace the mess and the shades of gray, just as you have to embrace the fact that it is a waste of time to try and control everyone, and the law will always be unevenly applied due to the practical difficulty of documenting and prosecuting everything.

    Are my reactions that are based on feelings of wanting peace and positivity around me a personal failing that needs to be corrected? Yes, because disgust is not the same as morality, and ethics should be based on principles and not your personal feelings. The problem with basing ethics on your personal feelings is that you can try and surround yourself with others and enforce a common code of values, but it’s unnatural. You will have to resort to force and violence because there will always be a difference of opinion. Reflecting and analyzing values is an important step in getting somewhere where you can easily navigate life because your values and reactions have been considered in advance, and not a gut feeling. That sense of security in action and belief has high value.

    There will always be a limit to your values. There can never be an absolute universal principle. Find the limits and understand yourself.

    – ZZA

  • The Outrage Machine (by accident) and the Time Machine (on purpose)

    This post is about social media. Social media is still being understood; we are not yet at the final form. Think of the fact that the internet was first ubiquitous in the US in the 90s, and we are still exploring what that means. It’s like how movies took ten years to figure out how to include cell phones in movies in a way that didn’t destroy every plot, so we had a good number of years where everyone had a cell phone in their pocket and yet none were visible on the screen. Social media took an extreme turn around 2007 and 2008 with the first introduction of like and share buttons and the introduction of new marketing and website/app design techniques that blew everything prior out of the water.

    What we have now is the first understanding, with careful research results, on what that all means. The conclusion is universal that social media and being constantly is connected is bad for you, but that statement means nothing without explaining exactly how and why it is bad for you. A full analysis of that is not the subject here, but instead I’ll focus on two aspects of design that makes social media particularly insidious – one on purpose and one accidental.

    The term “the outrage machine” refers to the fact that items that make you angry are more likely to be shared and amplified and are less critically examined before being shared. Knowing this, you can start to see the trend in every website or app you use. Scrolling through Reddit nets a series of video and news stories of criminals, public fighting, and people behaving badly. This is not one hundred percent of posts, but it is a significant fraction. People love to get mad at what others are doing, and then extrapolate that to a trend that is not really a trend (see: eating tide pods, dumping milk on yourself in a grocery store, boys using the girls bathroom, and other things that were so rare that they didn’t deserve any space on the news or your social media app).

    The outrage machine was by accident, but once it was discovered it was exploited or simply left in place because it draws revenue. Why does it draw revenue? Because all of these websites’ real money comes from advertisers’ pockets and not the users.

    There is irony in sharing this video against sharing, but it’s compelling…

    And we come to the crux of the problem: I rationally accept that life is better when you disconnect, but I have trouble actually doing so. And why? Is it a failure of willpower? Yes but also no, this is by design! It takes extreme willpower to fight against techniques that have been honed to work along with fundamental human behavior and psychology.

    This is by the same guy and is the original presentation he gave internally at Google in 2012 (this guy subsequently left Google and made it his career to fight against all this notification-clickbait-share mode)
    http://minimizedistraction.com/

    and a more recent overview
    https://www.wired.com/story/phone-addiction-formula/

    What is empowering is to understand what and why these companies do what they do, and then you can properly fight against it.

    To summarize:

    The goal of all these companies/apps (Facebook, Youtube, CNN, Instagram, etc.) is to maximize the time you spend on the website, because that is how they maximize advertising revenue. However, your personal interest is to spend little time on the website, only use it for a short while, and then drop it. But it is designed as a spider web; once you open it you are driven to spend much more time than you intended. This leads to mental exhaustion as well as wasted time.

    How do they do this?

    • Notifications draw your attention back to the app when you aren’t using it
    • Suggestions and feeds keep your attention once you open it
    • The gambling effect keeps your attention. If a small percentage of your feed makes you happy, you’re more likely to keep scrolling looking for the next jackpot.
    • Encouragement to like and share become notifications for your friends

    The result?

    You feel like you have no free time because hours of your day are sucked away. Instead, you need to sit down and let your mind wander and be quiet and actually think about things. Even checking email feels “productive” but it is toxic; to be successful and happy you need time to focus and do something in depth and not shallowly jump from task to task. Only a few of the hundreds of emails are actually important and it’s not even worth your time to read the subject and mark as read.

    So to fight against it, recognize that everything about the website or app design is trying to take more of your time

    and just stop

    • disable all notifications except critical ones so that you choose when to use the app instead of being interrupted
    • budget time for apps or websites that you actually want for leisure or find value in, and then just close them when the time budgeted is over.
    • Fight against FOMO by recognizing how futile and pointless it is to keep constantly up to date on anything. Every minute there is a lifetime’s worth of videos or other content created that you would enjoy, and it’s impossible to watch it all or keep up to date
    • mainly, just turn it off

    – ZZA

  • Community

    As human, you are social. Like any drive or emotion, trying to suppress it is just going to lead to pain and wasted time, wasted will, and unhappiness.

    The problem with community is that you cannot turn it on and off like a switch. You have to build community before you need it. You don’t want to be desperate and searching and eventually landing on something toxic just because you need something.

    Social media, forums, or chat-based communities don’t fill the need. You don’t get the sense of community and companionship. Even chatting with strangers is more fulfilling than hours spent online. Online socialization is forever hollow and leaving you wanting more, so you spend even more time on it and you lose out on life. Instead of being recharged by socialization and human connection, you are left in a low state and still seeking.

    With true companionship, you are satisfied and refreshed and can go about your life. It buoys you up when you need it, when there are difficult times in your life, and enhances your life in many ways.
    This is only found in face-to-face friendship and human connection. You are human and thus you are social; you are wired this way no matter how you try and fight against it. So build or find your community now.

    Choose it carefully, but don’t always be searching for something “better” or you’ll miss out on real deep connections that only come with time.

    – ZZA