Our Expansive Will

The other night I was traveling through the city, first by bus then walking, and doing a bit of people watching. The bus was typically crowded; standing room only, pressed up against strangers. Normally on transit I read but it was clearly not possible given the number of people. So I overheard a series of conversations. What struck me was how few of them were between people actually on the bus. I was hearing half of these conversations, the other half taking place blocks, kilometers or even cities away. That’s bizarre. That’s fantastic.

I arrive at my stop and get off the bus, now walking down some side streets. I pass a woman talking to someone on her bluetooth. She’s still making facial expressions and hand gestures, as if the person could see her. Her brain actually feels like there’s another person next to her in the conversation. And I’m not calling her crazy for doing this, I do the same thing (well I don’t have a bluetooth, but similarly unnecessary visual cues while on a cell phone).

This experience got me thinking on how unique we are. This ability we have, to communicate over vast distances, it may not be the thing that differentiates us from other creatures, but it’s the significant final element. The core end result of our technology is that we can do this. In generalized terms, it allows us to extend our conscious will across space and time. If you look at the animal kingdom, many non-human creatures can speak and communicate in some fashion. We don’t know exactly how complex their languages may be, but they can definitely express something vocally and/or through physical gestures.

Writing is one of the earlier technological signs of a ‘civilization’. Language is a way for an individual brain to influence the world around them by imparting ideas into other brains. It’s limited by its locality because only people nearby can hear. With the advent of writing, that locality is extended through time into the future. When you read ancient manuscripts from Greece, China, Mesopotamia, etc, you are hearing the words of people long dead. This is a startling power and it’s crucial for the development of all other technologies. Whereas before new ideas must be passed down person to person, now they could lie dormant, like the seeds of a great tree.

It allowed for great power to centralize within individual hands. The rulers of nations were only capable of doing so by utilising an extensive bureaucracy, which itself required the written word. Some may argue that this was a bad thing, others say it good, but none can disagree that it allows a single person to wield far more power than would ever be possible without it.

Additionally, when writing is moved around the world, it not only travels through time but also space. The words of a man in China can bring technology to Europe. The spread of religious texts shows how powerful this can be. The technology of writing advanced over time, making the written word more accessible to more people. These were incremental advances, improving upon the original. The printing press was a major leap forward but I would argue the far more significant revolution had to wait for the 1800’s and the discovery of electricity.

Transmitting words through wires allows us to broadcast our ideas over space without a time lag. The lag of physical writing would severely hamper two way communication, often setting back human discoveries by generations due to failed opportunities. Transferring of writings could result in the originator being deceased long before the ideas could reach enough people to achieve their true potential. Telegraph wires pushed this back but radio was what broke the barrier. The first time the ruler of a nation broadcast their voice over the radio, effectively exerting their mental will into thousands and thousands of homes, that was the dawning of a new era for humanity. It was as if they had made an avatar of themselves and placed it in every home of the nation. That is awe inspiring power. And I mean awe in the original form, powerful yet tinged with fear.

And now to the modern era and the people on the bus. We all have this insane ability. We can exert our will across space and time. In social media we post, and like, and comment; it’s all communicating across distances. Visualizing this helps to show its true power. Try to see these massive arcing blue lines connecting each person on the bus to the other end of the lines. I’d love to get some technology, ala an augmented reality app, to actually see all these pulses connecting us through radio communication. That woman on the bluetooth, it’s as if she had an avatar of the other person walking next to her and talking. That’s effectively what we’re able to do, even if we can’t see them yet. We need to appreciate the power we wield.

Really this blog is an attempt for my will to be exerted across time and space.

Upon you dear reader.

Advertisements

Writing Ones Past

The past and future are fiction, only the present is real. This isn’t some deep philosophical point; your Will, the part of you that exerts control on reality, can only act in the present. We see a connection between the present conscious mind and the ones that preceded it (and the ones that will likely follow it). This isn’t backed up in a physical way. Multi-cellular organisms will replace their cells so often in a lifetime that no individual cell exists from birth to death. Raw physicality won’t show you to be a continuous entity. Your mind changes over time too. At best we’re patterns of information, imprinted on a steadily changing substrate, with no consistent pattern of said information. I don’t wish to belabour the point so I will recommend a great book on the subject, “The Mind’s eye”, by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter.

Memory is notoriously fallible. We don’t admit it often, but we misremember things all the time. And that’s okay. It’s only a problem if you think the past is something set in stone. A fixed part of reality so to speak. Sure, you can’t actually go back and change things, but the idea that it’s a concrete thing is just as silly. It doesn’t actually exist somewhere, it can’t be held and it can’t be tested. It’s a useful assumption to believe it exists, nothing more.

If you think memory is accurate, it can be shown as unreliable in two ways. The first is doing tests on memory, using recorded data to verify. Additionally, you can ask participants how confident they are in their memory, to show how false our confidence is. It’s been done and the results are clearly against our amazing ability to remember things. People will regularly claim to be sure of an event or the appearance of something, which is subsequently shown to be incorrect. This is not to say we can’t remember anything, or course we can. Our abilities are far from perfect and confidence in a memory does not equate with increased accuracy.  

The second way is to try to understand how the brain forms memory, tackling it from a hardware perspective. Our memories are imprinted onto patterns of neurons. Remembering things causes a rewrite of said memory, that’s how we retain them over long periods of time. That rewrite process can literally imprint the memory with your current mental perspective on the event. This happens every single time you remember it. That’s what remembering actually is. So it will obviously change over time. Hence it being unreliable. This last part is speculation on my part, so take it with a grain of salt. When a memory is bound up with strong emotions, remembering it will cause a stronger re-imprint. More powerful emotions will lead the conscious mind to think harder on a memory, replaying it repeatedly in a single sitting. This can magnify the memory in whatever direction the mind is currently interpreting it.

“Well then”, you may say, “what about physical artifacts from the past, surely those are concrete evidence of the past?”

Well no, not really. Those only exist in the present tense world. It’s not a pedantic point because the current state of an item doesn’t directly show it’s history. There are many ways any particular item could have ended up where it was. A manuscript from 10 years ago could have been written as if it were from 1000 years ago. We have ways to test things, like carbon dating, but every test has limitations. Some only work on short time scales, some only on long term scales with the margin of error in centuries, and all of them are limited to what materials they work with. That’s all speaking about long term history but short term is just as challenging. Look at crime scene evidence (not the silliness on TV, actual police investigation) and you’ll see just how challenging it can be to reconstruct a single day from within the last couple months. The amount of information that can be gleaned from physical remnants of the past has a startlingly steep decline.

It’s certainly more accurate in the long term compared to memory, but ultimately it’s just as fallible. The fact of the matter is that in order to understand any artifact, one must create a history which includes that item.
A history.
A story.

A major change in the human’s relationship to the past has occurred recently. Social media. We have an unprecedented ability to record and analyse our world. A major component of social media is a log of ones life. Photos, parties, weddings, graduations; we catalogue them all. When we post about a boring day or a shitty day or the most beautiful day we’ve had; we’re writing our past. It’s a degree of control that few humans have had access to until very recently. Before then it was always in the hands of someone else to write your history (if it was ever deemed worth recording). Now we curate and edit our past selves. It’s an empowering thing to do.

It can also smack of narcissism.

When someone is spending more time taking photos of their life than actually living it (whatever the hell that means), what they’re doing is writing their story. The past as a fiction, with the self as the protagonist. It is unquestionably narcissistic, yet so is consciousness. As long as they’re aware of the inherent narcissism and they keep it in check, there’s nothing wrong with it. You have every right to try and write your own story because you are the owner of your past. 

If you’re not a good author though, no one will care.

Many words, Little Time: Birthday

Aging. Decay. A birthday.

The day your body was birthed.
The day you ceased to be contained within another
Expulsion day.

The earth orbits the sun.
The pattern of information that is a person has staved off entropy,
for now.
So we celebrate.

Some are over joyed,
a party where you’re unquestionably the centre of attention.
Some are terrified,
a tangible sign that death is one year closer.
And some just don’t give a damn,
a day like any other.

The date may be arbitrary,
but all holidays are.
We need them,
they help us live.
They help us carve meaning into an uncaring cosmos.
The modern feast day.

But which do we celebrate,
the past or the future?
The accomplishments that have passed,
or the ones to come?
The distance from birth,
or the approach of death?

On Martial Arts

sketch_1

As someone who focuses on intellectual pursuits it’s easy to neglect the body. No matter how much one may identify as existing in ones mind, you will always have a physical form. And that form matters. Learning is an admirable goal in life, but you’ll always be neglecting a part of yourself by not developing your body. Mental development means learning about the world and seeking inward knowledge through introspection. The physical analogue of this is body mastery.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t provided a compelling enough argument in favour of this goal.

In the grand scheme of things, we may not be here for a purpose but that doesn’t mean we should waste the opportunity we have. Life can, and should, be meaningful. It’s up to us to figure out and decide on what that actually means. Any philosophy ultimately start from a personal philosophy, you must understand yourself before you seek to understand the world.

Humans are arguably the most important things to understand (because it’s what you and I both are, I assume) and they’re made of mental and physical parts. In fact, you’re likely to know their physical parts more than the mental ones because that’s what’s most apparent to you. You can’t truly appreciate their physicality until understand your own and you won’t understand your own until you have taken some control over it. Hence the term body mastery.

And here we come to another of those great caveats. In the same way we all have mental blocks to work through, we have physical ones as well. Again, like mental stuff, our physicality is shaped by our actions, regardless of if we plan it. As we go through life, our body and mind adapt to how we treat them. Neglecting either leads to a life not fully lived. When you chose to pursue this you will have a harder time the longer you’ve spent neglecting it.

No one is fully responsible for their actions as a child, nor are they responsible for their genetics (and epigenetics or other pre-birth ramifications). Everyone has limitations because we’re all born and shaped differently. Because of all that, many people will have limitations on them ranging from minor to severe. The key here is that you are not being judged by comparison to anyone else. It’s less about overcoming limitations and more about working within them. Whatever skill you’re attempting to learn, you learn it within the context of how you can get the needed result within this mortal form. It’s your body, it’s your control over it that’s being developed. Everyone can do this.*

Now what do I mean by body mastery.

Well it’s probably different than what others mean. Linguistically, the term just fits what I’m trying to describe best, so it’s what I use. To get rid of any preconceived notions, I’ll start by saying it isn’t to achieve anything specifically. It’s not about winning competitions, looking a particular way or hitting some arbitrary goal. It’s challenging yourself in a physical context, learning how your body functions and utilizing that to develop a complex skill set. Convince your body to listen to you. Master it.

You have to set some kind of goal though, if only to help you in your development. It shouldn’t be something arbitrary and it shouldn’t be external. Something that requires strength and finesse will be well rounded because it requires balancing strength training with flexibility and most importantly, bodily control. For me Martial Arts are the best fit. For others maybe it’s rock climbing or dancing or gymnastics. It’s gotta require skill and long term training (and obviously be of a physical nature).

I find an established skill set is the easiest to engage with. Having a school of people with shared goals is a great support structure. They can assist you when needed and the system as a whole gives you a sense of progress. Testing oneself can be a great way to understand progress. Martial Arts are geared towards this but the others have their own form of progress. In dance it’s the creation of new bodily art. In climbing (or other wilderness adventuring) it’s surmounting obstacles. I will admit that I understand these other forms less because I don’t practice them, so my emphasis may be on martial arts. That’s not because I see it as superior but simply more familiar.

I’ve been practicing various Historical European Martial Arts for almost 3 years now. If you’re unaware of it, it’s basically learning to fight with various swords, bows, and other pre-firearm weaponry. Modern schools are normally based on one particular historical school with a large amount of interpretation of documentation going on because they were not continuously practiced.

I’ve waxed and waned in the amount of time I commit to it, but I’ve yet to stop doing it. It’s become an integral part of me. Spending a bit of time every week trying to train my body to perform something with great precision, it’s almost a therapeutic thing. Coming away from training, I have a renewed sense of confidence; I feel like closer to my skin, to my physical self.

There’s this point where the bridge between mind and body are fully united. The strongest I felt this was back at my last rank exam. It was during the portion that tests your basic skills under continuous duress (roughly 20 min). I was focused on the task at hand but also not directly thinking about it. The time flew by and I barely felt tired. I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as zen, as no-mind, or as a flow state; regardless of what it’s called the effect is the same. It’s a very euphoric state that can stimulate some powerful mental creativity. That part is realized after the fact though, I’m usually not conscious of the new ideas yet. The zen state isn’t solely something to be reached from body mastery though, other ways to achieve it would be endurance activities, drugs, and many forms of art (and sex actually).

What’s important here is to live a full life. Embrace all the parts of living, mental and physical. Be the little voice trapped in the skull and the hairless ape wearing clothes.

*With many further caveats; Of course there are extreme physical examples that can stop you, not to mention many other societal factors that can (and do) impede one’s ability to seek any life development goals

Purpose

Time. Loneliness. Pain. Purpose.

Being human requires a purpose. Well, being a happy human requires it. Consciousness and self reflection, they make you need it. Without a purpose you have no reason to seek enjoyment, you become bored with life. Not everyone has this problem because some simply don’t have the opportunity to become bored. It’s something that only comes about from a certain level of privilege, specifically economic privilege. That doesn’t make it insignificant. All hurt is worth discussing and this one is alarmingly common in our society.

At a stripped down level we all have one purpose; avoiding pain. It’s the most basic purpose because it will come to you if nothing is done to prevent it (eg. starvation). No one wants to actually suffer either. Even a person who enjoys physical pain is deriving enjoyment from it. They are not suffering.

A subsistence human is always near that suffering, is always near pain and death. They can’t get away from that basic thing, it’s always a day away. Modern humans are far removed from this. The socialized humans have safety nets; they have family, they have welfare, they have charity. None of those last forever though. You may get depressed, lose your reason to go to work, then you lose your job. The safety net keeps you from starvation for a time. Family and charity won’t support you forever. The state may continue this indefinitely, but you must suffer in penance. You’re not supposed to enjoy life on welfare, you’re supposed to survive until you can “fix” your life.

Depression is a downward spiral. It saps your purpose, your will to want things to be better. Without that Will your life gets worse (or at best stagnates where it is), which only leads to more depression.

It self justifies.

So one must have purpose.

There’s an intense struggle in trying to find purpose without devoting your life to a person, some people, or a cause. Those are all perfectly fine things to make your purpose but they’re all external; they’re not intrinsically a part of you. People can leave, relationships change and then you’re left stranded with no direction. A purpose that will always be with you is far more reliable. Even an idea, like a religion or some other such ideology, they can leave you too. They can depart from who you are as a person; you can stop believing in it, lose your faith. What if you could find a goal that will always be a part of you, no matter what?

Contrary to what I may feel for myself, I think that devoting oneself to something external can be very admirable, even heroic at times. It’s not for me though. I want something more reliable, more internal.

My current solution is to work towards being the idea of myself I used to have. I strive to better myself in a very particular way, by contrasting myself with an idealized version of that self. I choose my activities to try to get to that goal, to become more like that person. This person isn’t a fixed point either. Like how stagnancy is something to be avoided in oneself, it is also something to be avoided in ones idealized self. He must remain ever changing. This ideal changes as the years go on. Meaning that I can never reach it, so the goal is inherently unattainable. Reaching one’s goals is dangerous because it leaves you in a state between goals, with no purpose in life.

And back into that downward spiral.

Seeking this ideal is what I’ve chosen as my purpose but it’s by no means the only sensible goal. Anyone care to share their purpose in the comments?