Of Things Unspoken

“The Map is not the Territory”

This saying was first coined by Alfred Korzybski, the man who gave us the book “Science and Sanity” in 1933 which founded General Semantic. I first encountered it in a book by Robert Anton Wilson who spent a lot of his writing expounding on this idea and providing parables and exercises designed to help those interested in getting comfortable with this stark fact of life. Ken Wilber often uses this quote as a grounding principle when discussing the Integral Model. Alan Watts had a more whimsical version, “The menu is not the meal.”

Basically, it means that our perceptions, maps, and models of reality are never reality itself. An idea about a car will not get you to the airport. The word, “water” will not quench your thirst. An understanding of how trees grow provides no shade. An orange is actually pale blue, which is the shade of light it absorbs, leaving behind the orange we see.

Our eyes only perceive a certain band of the light spectrum. Our ears only catch a limited range of tones and volumes. Our skin is not infinitely sensitive. To our tongues, some flavors don’t exist.

This is all to say that the world as we perceive it is not the world as it actually is. That doesn’t mean our approximations aren’t useful. What it does mean is that we should be careful to not be fooled by them. There is an old experiment that goes back to the time of the Greeks. Put your left hand in a bowl of cold water, and your right hand in a bowl of warm water. Wait for a minute. Then put both hands in a bowl of room temperature water. To your left hand, the room temperature water will feel warm. To your right hand, the room temperature water will feel cold. So, which is it?

Words, maps, and models are only ever good for description. They are never the thing itself. Perception is only good for a general notion. The thing perceived is never precisely what is perceived. To believe that reality is as we perceive it to be is a notion in philosophy known as Naive Realism. The Buddha refuted this view of the world 2500 years ago. At least once every century, some philosopher comes along to do it again. It seems like we need a regular reminder of this truth because the delusion that things are as they seem is so persistent.

When I was a boy I had this problem with the television in my room. Whenever I woke up and turned the set on, or came home from school to watch some TV while doing my homework, I would get upset because my shows were no longer where I had left them. I would get quite upset and yell at my brother and mother, blaming them for turning the set on while I was away. They didn’t know what to do with me. It took me many years to understand that the shows ran on their own schedule whether I watched them or not. This is one example of how the conviction of naive realism can cause us trouble. (Of course these days, with streaming video and on-demand programming I would not be such a frustrated kid.)

No matter how much we would have it otherwise, the map is not the territory. Persisting in believing otherwise leads to needless suffering.

I mentioned that Robert Anton Wilson gave out a lot of exercises in his work to deal with the persistent delusion of mistaking the menu for the meal. One simple one is this: whenever you pick up a thing to use, take a brief moment to look at it and remind yourself, “this is not what I suppose it to be.” Then go on with whatever you were going to do. Reality still works, even if we can never quite know it.

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Stop And Have a Feel

Universal health care, and universal basic income. These are two topics that liberal peaceniks love to go on about. Different groups of people have different opinions about these ideas and many objections. However, these objections all seem to be rational reasons involving implementation. I wonder what they would think if they took a moment to really feel what these things would be like.

For the liberal peacenik crowd UHC, and UBI would feel like security. A major source of anxiety and fear would be removed from their lives. They would be able to turn their concerns to other issues and could rest in the comfort of knowing that if they chose to volunteer their time for good works there would still be food on the table, a roof over their heads at night, and some help if they met with an accident.

For the impoverished, these things would be nothing short of a godsend. Desperation would flee from their world view, and they would be able to focus their minds on things they want, like education, a chance to engage in life, and no need to turn to less than legal means of making ends meet.

For the (dwindling) middle class, and the small business owner, this would feel like more people with the means to frequent their businesses. More people would be able to eat out at restaurants. More people would have the funds to support local shops. In addition, UHC and UBI would mean relief from twinges of guilt when catching a glimpse of the current truth on their news and social feeds. The inconvenient truth that people are starving in the streets. Children are homeless. Desperation haunts our nation. Once UHC and UBI were in place, you would feel that these issues were at least being worked on.

For the big business owner, this would feel like a release from the headaches of providing health insurance for their employees as that would be handled by the government. There would also be the feeling of assurance of a population where everyone has at least some disposable capital to spend at the businesses in question. Lastly, I think that all business owners could get a good amount of comfort from knowing that their employees want to be there, rather than needing to be there.

I am aware that there are a whole slew of logistical issues with implementing UHC and UBI, especially in my country (the United States.) That’s the cool things about humans though, when we want to get something done (usually for a reason sourced in some kind of emotional investment, positive or negative) we figure it out. My point with this post is that maybe if we let ourselves deeply feel what living in a society with UHC and UBI systems in place, we will be sufficiently motivated to make them work with minimal adjustment pain along the way.

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A Brief Glimpse of my Neurosis and the Nature of Evolution

I have always been curious about how the mind works. Since I only have direct access to mine, I have spent a lot of time over the years watching it. Meditation has definitely helped in this regard. For the most part, it’s a fairly banal bit of business, but occasionally it does something interesting. I’ve noticed this mostly happens when I have an “Ah-hah!” moment. Usually, this occurs when a problem I have been ruminating on for some time finally moves a bit forward. One of those leaps happened today.

The ah-ha moment I got to witness today has to do with a couple of things that Buckminster Fuller, Ray Kurzweil, and Terence McKenna have in common. They actually have a lot in common, but the two things that are important here is that they all had some very interesting notions about the acceleration nature of time and evolution and that they all happen to be people whose work I admire (and hence have studied.) Buckminster Fuller was famous for carrying with him a set of charts which showed the accelerating curves of a number of areas of human development. Ray Kurzweil, in his book “The Singularity is Near”, features a number of these type of charts especially focused on the accelerating development of computing power, while also showing the trend to decrease in pricing and size of said computing power over time. Terence McKenna talked about this tendency of evolution accelerating in his work on novelty theory, and his time wave zero model of time. These three deep thinkers (along with many others) have noted that the amount of change over a given period of time is accelerating. As an example I’ve talked about before, if you take the amount of information available to humanity as a whole in the year 0 AD as one unit, the amount of information humanity has doubled by the year 1500. It doubled again in 1750, then again in 1900, and again in 1950, etc. As you can plainly see the rate of accumulation of information (new discoveries, sparks of genius, fresh fields of research, etc.) is plainly accelerating.

Several mathematicians have worked on this notion as well. A pair of them calculated that by around noon on June 12th, 2012 there would be an invention on the order of the wheel, the mastery of fire, the creation of the printing press, or the development of the Internet, happening every second, and that new invention would have been propagating into general use by the human species as a whole the next second. Not only do I have no idea what that would look like, it also does not seem to have occurred. Similarly, Terence McKenna showed mathematically that on December 21st, 2012 the amount of evolution that has happened since the big bang would happen in one seconds time, and all of that evolution would happen again int the next pico-second, etc. He called this the collision of our reality with the transcendental object at the end of time. Again, I have no idea what that would mean, and again it does not seem to have happened.

All of these thinkers were quite brilliant, and their math seems to hold up. So, what happened? That’s the very problem my brain has been chewing over for the last five years. Normally when a problem like this clicks it’s because another notion collides with the first. That’s what happened. It went like this: I was watching Red Dwarf (one my favorite science fiction series) on my iPhone. I got up to go to the restroom, paused the show and stuck it in my pocket. The thought came to me, “How amazing that in my lifetime TVs have gone from back breaking cubes with bad black and white pictures to something I can keep in my pocket. Hmm, why can’t I fit an oven in my pocket? Ovens have been around for longer than TVs. What’s the difference?” What came to me was information. Information is the difference between a TV and an oven. A TV is (to a large degree) all about transmitting information. An oven is about physical material, and the transformation of physical material. That was where the second notion came in.

Most of the major traditions of contemplation on the nature of existence have some form of a “ladder of existence.” The Hindu traditions breaks it down (basically) into the gross, subtle, and causal realms. One way to think of this is that the gross realm is the waking world or rocks and trees. The subtle realm is the dreaming world of ideas, emotions, and thoughts. The causal realm is the deep dreamless sleep world of being without form. This conceptual framework collided with the theory of accelerating change over time which led to my ah-hah moment.

The material world which ovens play in is the gross realm on the ladder of existence. The information world of TV is mostly in the subtle realm. So, rather than thinking of evolution as one thing, what if we think of it as a multi-faceted affair. Some of it is material, and it obeys the rules of that realm. Some of it is informational, and it obeys the rules of the subtle world. Perhaps then what is happening with the fact that there seems to be a slow down in the speed of progress has run into a limit in the material realm. Perhaps material evolution cannot go any faster than it currently is. The informational portion of evolution may still be accelerating as it always has, but now with the drag factor of the “material evolution speed barrier.”

Of course, this is a new notion for me, and I am sure it will lead me to more areas of research and study, but it may be that I am on to something. It’s likely an old notion to other people out there. However, this moment is an example of when such a moment of insight happens to an individual.

Anyway, that’s how things happen inside my whacked out brain.

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