The Truth Shall Set You Free

There is only one reality.

Whether we are dedicated to an increased, enhanced understanding of it is the chief determinant of our ability to grow and progress in life. To do so requires ultimate humility. It requires us to relinquish claims to having our own truth or our own reality. It means we must live in the same reality as everybody else around us.

It means we must subordinate our interpretations of reality to an ethic of uncertainty. Dedication to reality does not necessitate that we subordinate our dreams and desires to those of others, but it means we must craft them in a way where coexistence and community with others is possible. The ethic of uncertainty allows us to do this without doing unnecessary harm to our identities.

Whenever our identity is impermeable, however, we will do whatever it takes to preserve even the most absurd notions.

Truth sets us free from our absurdities. Truth sets us free from unrealistic expectations. Truth sets us free from all of the things that hold us back from love, peace, and self-actualization.

This is a paradox. We must first sacrifice our rigid identity in order to emerge into an authentic identity. Only when we have humbled ourselves can we actualize all of our possibilities. Like a fruit tree requires pruning, so do our egos.

We reach Truth through self-reflection, to be sure. But the more powerful and effective path to truth is friction with other people and in the cooperative sharing of our “maps” of reality with other people. Through friction and cooperation we are able to acquire better and better information about reality and our unique places in it.

Few people are truly open to this process. It is threatening. It means we must be vulnerable. It means we must disarm ourselves instead of engaging in an arms race of ego that prevent us from relating to other people and building community with them.

Don’t deprive yourself of the opportunity to see the world as it is. Don’t shrink from friction with other people. Embrace others, their differences and all.

Nobody else can do it for you.

Distilled Philosophy Digest Issue #1

brevity

Welcome to the first installment of Distilled Philosophy. This one is going to be a lot longer than it will usually be, because it is a digest of my distilled philosophical reflections since the beginning of January, and usually it will be just for the preceding week. Please leave your thoughts, responses, etc., and if you like anything in particular, please Tweet and/or Share on Facebook. Although not required, I would love it if you would give me a shout out– @skinnerlayne on Twitter and “Skinner Layne” on Facebook.

I

To relate is to heal, and to be healed.

II

Always think well. If you are endowed with great mental faculties, it is a waste to spend them any other way. And if you aren’t, you don’t have anything to spare on anything else.

III

One need not be passive in order to be a pacifist.

IV

To be willing to die for freedom is brave. To refuse to kill for it is virtuous. May we all learn to be both brave and virtuous.

V

The design mind is beautiful. It can articulate what to the rest of us are just vague impressions about aesthetic life.

VI

Humility does not mean that you must think poorly of yourself, but rather that you must defer your own needs in favor of others’.

VII

Envy arises from laziness in doing the work you need to achieve, and from ignorance of what you should uniquely want for yourself that nobody else already has.

VIII

Self-deprecation is often the falsest form of humility.

IX

Lend your books without reservation, don’t worry if you won’t get them back. A book worth sharing is a book worth re-purchasing.

X

A man can only be truly free when he accepts both that he has nothing of value anybody can take away from him and incalculable value he can create for others.

XI

Institutions cannot develop human potential, but people can. Institutions must create the space for that to happen.

XII

People are like plants: in order to bear fruit, they must be rooted in something.

XIII

If you really do “have it all together,” chances are you are totally miserable.

XIV

The Old Testament is man’s response to God. The New Testament is God’s response to man.

XV

To decide to live is to not commit suicide today. To decide to be alive is to not commit suicide gradually every day.

XVI

There is a life experiment most people are trying but shouldn’t: Do what everybody else is doing and hope to come out ahead.

XVII

Without radical doubt, there cannot be radical faith.

XVIII

A just and orderly society should be characterized by laws that are thusly made: Everything not explicitly prohibited is permitted. Very few things are explicitly prohibited and any reasonable man of average intelligence and little study could at all times be aware of those things that are.

XIX

Beyond the human toll of the tragedy of the 20th century’s experimentation with totalitarianism, the worst lasting impact of it is that it raised the bar for what people are willing to call tyranny.

XX

The future will be determined by those who are conscious of, but not tied to the past.

XXI

The hypocrisy of disarmament is that it would be enforced by people who are heavily armed.

XXII

Most people learn the wrong lessons from failed experiments. This is rooted in the mistaken belief that an experiment with an other-than-desired outcome is a failure.

XXIII

Don’t over-think. Experiment. There is no such thing as over-experimenting.

XXIV

The truly radical reformer is not the man who wants to change everything about the world, but who wants to change just the one thing that matters, knowing that everything else will change as a result.

XXV

It is a dangerously slippery slope from “Some things could be known a priori” to “Many things are.”

XXVI

The medicalization of the mind is among the 3 most disastrous sociological trends of the second half of the 20th Century.

XXVII

Depending on context, “That is so American of you” can be the finest compliment or the gravest insult.

XXVIII

Most of the time it’s not that people make the wrong kinds of sacrifices for those they love, but they make them toward the wrong ends. They sacrifice so that their loved ones may have more, instead of so they can become more.

XXIX

Liberty does not guarantee virtue. If you want a world characterized by liberty, you would do well to first build a world characterized by virtue.

XXX

Contemporary “mental health” professionals are just legalized drug dealers in most cases.

XXXI

A tribe is an identity without Community.

XXXII

Free Markets eventually zero out economic profit. If you want to eliminate the super wealthy, you have to eliminate the artificial barriers to entry in the market that prevent this from happening.

XXXIII

Linear-thinking is the best way to ensure that your life will flat-line.

XXXIV

Forget life plans. Forget “where do you want to be in 10 years?” All of that is complete bullshit and is making you miserable. Think about what you want to be doing tomorrow. Then figure out how to do that thing and do it amazingly well. Then, in 5 years, when you don’t want to do that anymore, you can figure out what you want to do next.

XXXV

On Facebook, ignorance usually triumphs.

XXXVI

There is only one path toward giving unconditional love: doing the daily work of identifying and expunging conditions, one by one.

XXXVII

There is a big difference between communities and Community.

XXXVIII

There are two kinds of days worth living: days of inspiration and days of perspiration. If you aren’t having the former, make sure you have the latter.

XXXIX

Finding happiness is like finding the end of a rainbow. Better look for something more useful instead.

XL

Forget discovering your passion. This is the wrong way to think about the question. We must determine our passion. It’s up to us. We aren’t born with it. It’s not ingrained our genetics. It is up to us to choose. Choose wisely.

Sliding Back to Modernity

Nothing stings more than the end of a revolution, for in failure it brings a loss of hope, and in success, the bitter disappointment that the world continues to operate as before.

So the intellectual revolution of post-modernity has left us straddling between success and failure, with the twin disappointments of the end of a revolution. There has been almost nothing of profoundly new written in the realm of social philosophy since the death of Foucault. The critique of the post-moderns remains with us, but so do the Enlightenment institutions they were supposed to tear down. Instead of new, more functional institutions, we have the old, broken ones, but without the blind faith that previously gave them enough clout to function at a minimal level (albeit with ghastly discrimination).

In our cynicism we have abandoned the bold task of rebuilding society and Generation Y is content to lob snark projectiles as an emotional outlet for its frustration. In the realm of technology, where the media tells us people are “revolutionizing everything,” we see a lot of hype, but very little meaningful revolution. For all of the remarkable speed of Internet education, for example, it is just a more flashy, digitized version of the public library.

As a result, we have slid back into modernity, its categories, and its presuppositions, but with the ever-present knowledge that it’s all a broken mess. We know the University is screwed up, but we don’t know why, and we don’t consider genuine alternatives to reviving the sciences and the literary disciplines. We may not be content that our educational institutions have become credential-factories and that truly brilliant people have almost no chance of success in an academic career, but we have accepted it as an immutable rule of contemporary life. Wittgenstein not only wouldn’t be offered a teaching post at a major university today, but he probably would not have even received a Masters degree (much less a doctorate) for Tractatus–not enough sources cited! The same would probably be true of a Newton or an Einstein in the sciences.

The neo-marxists sit around complaining about neo-liberalism and the IMF-imposed world financial order. The libertarians sit around complaining about the Rothschild-Bilderberg global conspiracy in central banking. The conservatives wring their hands about a decline in morality because gay people want to live in committed relationships and raise children in a two parent home. The liberals are still fighting the Civil Rights movement of the 60s fifty years later. Our categories are broken, but we dare not discard them.

The French Revolution’s lasting victory was to eviscerate all of the non-State institutions of civil society. Given what most of those institutions were, it was a first step in the right direction. The post-modernist critics succeeded in completing this revolution. Not many Americans under the age of 40 are going to Rotary Club meetings, and most people’s relationship with church is as a consumer of religion. These institutions represented the perpetuation of a social and economic order that needed to be deconstructed, but once we finished deconstructing everything, we were too tired to build something new and better in its place. And so we are living in a society where we maintain mild attachment to hollowed-out organizations and empty notions because the void would be too painful to bear.

Western Conservatives want to rebuild the old institutions and claim that our contemporary anxiety and depression is the result of abandoning the old, “tried and true” ways of organizing society, and indeed of forgetting God himself. The left believes we still have deconstructing to do. It is a stale war with soldiers only feigning genuine interest in its outcome–but they fight on because they wouldn’t know how else to fill their time. Old culture warriors never die, and they apparently don’t fade away either.

In the face of the anxiety and meaninglessness of our existence, we have no context, no institutional framework to come of age and learn to navigate the actual process of living. The Western meta-narrative has been dead for decades, but it is still the closest approximation to a framework we can find. What has happened as a result is its continued perversion. Life has become hyper-atomized. Materialistic aspirations have morphed slightly, and subsequently become more acute. Status is still the most prized possession, but different things now constitute it. Even though my generation believes it is more spiritually and emotionally advanced than our predecessors, we are in fact moral and emotional midgets who have tacitly and unwittingly embraced the financialization of existence. We speak about the ROI on friendships, we are concerned about whether our romantic partners have a good enough credit score, and our careers have come to define who we are more than at any time in human history. Our parents were building families by their mid-20s and decentering their identities. We wonder if we can “afford to be in a long-term relationship,” or have children, or any other things we now continually delay out of financial concern.

We read of our younger members being a lost generation because they cannot find high paying jobs after college–as if the lack of cog-in-a-machine corporate serfdom is the defining nature of us as individuals or collectively as a generation. The alternative of founding a Silicon Valley start-up and raising venture capital is one of the few other options available to our status-craving selves. Starting a successful business just won’t do–we have to raise investment capital and get featured in TechCrunch. We need that invitation to speak at SXSW or TED to feel accomplished. Actually advancing the bounds of science anonymously or publishing a work of literature under a pseudonym is an unthinkable way to approach life more than a decade into the 21st Century. If you can’t take credit for something in the social media universe, why bother doing it?

This is not just a social malaise, it is a cultural cancer that is eating away at our core. We cannot imagine that we would be valued for our actual merit–we have to be sure to take public credit in order to be valued. We cannot believe that years of toil to solve a particular problem with no significant reward in the short or even medium term could possibly be worth it. This is because we lack new institutions to encourage, support, and frame such ways of living. We have thus far lacked the imagination required to conceptualize what an institution of such a sort would even look like, how it would operate, how it would persist into the future beyond our deaths. No, we can’t be bothered to think about these matters because they aren’t sexy, the don’t live up to the expectations of the zeitgeist to talk about how we don’t need institutions anymore and that the Internet is making them obsolete. Ignore all of that inner loneliness and longing, for a bunch of barely 20-something upper middle class white kids in Northern California are going to become multi-millionaires making photo-sharing apps and turning educational lessons into online videos!

The revolution is coming!

We were told something similar before, back in the 90s. The world is better off, no doubt. Technology has improved our lives, and its continued marginal innovations are empowering us to do a lot of things that we couldn’t do before. But we are not pushing the boundaries of technology in any meaningful way. Solar panels that are efficient enough to be at grid parity–iPad Mini–3D Printing–these are not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination. 3D Printing has been around for decades, and while it is now becoming more accessible to more people, and there are tremendous opportunities that will flow from this, it is not a revolution, but an evolution. We will be as disappointed by it as we were by the bold claims of the Internet hype-sters of the 90s. Life rarely changes by revolution.

But like the religious zealots longing for the rapture or some other apocalyptic event to save them from their boring and absurd lives, the technology televangelists will keep preaching about the imminent appearance of their savior, one invention this year, some other invention next year, and the revolution will always be near, but not present. Repent of your Luddite ways, for the kingdom of Kurzweil is at-hand!

The Marxists promised salvation by revolutionizing the economic order. Not only did it not materialize, it produced disastrous results. So too will the techno-fascism that has become the religion-of-the-day in Silicon Valley and is being imposed on the rest of the world in our smartphones, our web browsers, our cars, and nearly every other electronic way we interact with the world. Technology can and does improve our lives, but it is not inevitable, and given the motivations of the culture driving the creation of most, it is growing more unlikely by the day.

If we remain (or grow more) hyper-atomized, alienated from each other, devoid of enduring relationships other than those that are mutually beneficial at the margin, without a framework for confronting the difficulties of existence, then we will be nothing more than the hapless victims of the Digital Robber Barons in Cupertino, Mountain View, and Menlo Park, their products rather than their customers, infinitely replaceable parts addicted to making money for them impoverishing ourselves in the process.

It does not have to be this way. No course of history is irreversible. But our slide back into modernity, its categories, its consequences, can be changed if only we find the resolve to push back against it, to battle the inertia in society and in ourselves and build from nothing with worn-out tools a foundation for a new way of living, a new way of thinking. There will be no sudden transformation of life from its current state into some euphoric utopia. Indeed, most of the benefits of the work will not even be ready to be enjoyed by the people doing it, but instead will be the inheritance we leave to future generations.

For me this is not mere idle chatter or navel gazing. This is what I have decided to give my life to doing. Exosphere is not an educational institution–it does fulfill that function–but it is exactly the kind of post-post-modernist civil society framework that I have been describing in this essay. We are doing the low-time-preference heavy lifting needed to make the world a livable place and we are creating a space where people can make sense of their lives through collaboration, innovation, and mutual support. If any of this resonates with you, please join us. We are creating an open community, not an elitist hang-out like most entrepreneurial “communities” that are being built on mountains in Colorado or beaches in some exotic location. We want to help you where you are in your life–to help you figure out what you can uniquely do with your talents and your passions, to learn the skills you need to do it, to provide you with a forum to find collaborators, to lift you up when you fail, to cheer you on when you succeed, and to empower you to help others to do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

The Unsexiness of Meaning

“Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

-The First Book of Kings

What are you doing here? By here, I mean wherever it is you are in your life–your occupation, preoccupations, anxieties, goals, desires, fears, the people surrounding you, perhaps your geographic location as well, but most importantly your values. This is what God was asking Elijah in the cave–not so much “why are you in this cave?” but “what is it that you value, fear, and believe that led you to this place?” and “why exactly did you expect to find me in the earthquake and the fire?”

We ought to ask ourselves these questions more frequently than we do, but we must do a bit more work and peel back the layers of our assumptions and make these questions ever more probing–even more painful. If our self-questioning does not result in at least a little bit of pain, we are not asking the right questions in the right way. As a student of economics, I have learned that one of the most important concepts to understand is opportunity cost. In everything that we do, every decision we make, what it is that we choose is at the expense of something else, frequently a plethora of alternatives. No decision comes without the cost of foregoing alternatives. This is so basic to our existence that we rarely even bother to think about it in detail.

If I wake at 7am, I am foregoing the hour of added productivity of waking at 6am and the hour of added sleep of waking at 8am. If I decide to spend Saturday gardening, then I won’t spend Saturday reading or practicing chess. Being in a committed relationship is mutually exclusive to dating and to being in a committed relationship with any other person. Living in South America means I am not living in Beijing or Prague or Alaska. The reason I discuss these seemingly obvious realities is that they make a significant difference in who we are and who we are becoming.

Each decision we make, each alternative we forego, pushes us in a new direction. Rarely do our decisions push us in a fundamentally different direction–the changes are often more subtle. Few people muster the courage to forego familiar alternatives in favor of a new path altogether. This is why it is of paramount importance to continually ask ourselves “why am I here?” Especially if “here” is not where we want to be (hint: “here” should never be where we want to be if we are intentional in our spiritual growth, but be careful not to conflate “here” with place alone).

Most of us want meaning in our lives. We want to do meaningful work. We want to have meaningful experiences. Much of what we do is in search of such fulfillment. Having interacted with people from around the world, from different cultures and languages and backgrounds, I have concluded that the vast majority of people live in want of this fulfillment. In no segment is this more true than in Generation Y, who have become nomads in search of meaning, wandering the globe (usually figuratively, but quite often literally) looking for that series of experiences and people that will deliver novelty and fulfillment. What I see under the surface of this way of living, however, is a deep yearning for something-they-know-not-what. The only thing my generation seems to know for sure is that the place they are is not the place they are going to find whatever it is. Expecting to find it in the earthquake, they cannot hear the still small voice above the din of the iOS device buzzing to alert them of an update on Facebook or Twitter that needs their immediate attention.

Indeed, so many people travel to far off places only to see them through the filter of the screen on their iPhone, taking pictures and uploading them to Instagram to show everybody else just how meaningful and exciting their life is. A generation or two ago, the conventional wisdom was that meaning was found in settling down (usually near one’s hometown), getting married relatively young, having a family, and hopefully living well enough into old age to enjoy grandchildren and retirement. For many people that may indeed define a meaningful existence, but if demographic trends in Gen Y are any indication, it is no longer the majority.

We are a generation of spiritual nomads too afraid of attachments, commitments, and putting down roots to experience any one thing long enough for it to become routine and boring. In doing so, we fail to experience any one thing long enough for it to actually become meaningful. We fear doing anything that will define our lives because we consciously or subconsciously believe that the moment we do so, we lose control of who we are. Like Buridan’s Ass we are starving due to our failure to make a choice. Why put our spirit into something–work, a relationship, building community–when something better might be just around the corner? I submit that this ethos is killing us.

In our era of abundance (the financial crisis and high unemployment notwithstanding, it is still better to be poor in 2012 than to have been rich at any time prior to the advent of modern medicine), the greatest pain we experience in the West is not hunger or fear of physical violence, but boredom, anxiety, and the apparent absurdity of life. We do not have institutions equipped to deal with these pains. The Church has abdicated its role by driving itself into obscure irrelevance, either through its failure to admit its error on the part of the conservative movement or through its abandonment of all foundations on the part of theological liberals.

With the evisceration of civil society in the past 30 years, there are no other institutions left to fill the gap either. Hyperconsumerism has left us living isolated, atomized lives that have pulverized our souls into fragments. These phenomena are compounded when we seek fulfillment in the glamorous, the fashionable, and the popular. What we need most to counteract this trend is to be willing take the risk to make commitments, and then to keep them. Commitments undoubtedly limit our possibilities by number, but they increase them in quality.

By making and keeping commitments we are able to relish the joy and work through the pain involved in the effort required to do so. Then, just then, we might be open to real meaning. We might be still enough to hear it, and lacking the distractions of post-modernity, to grasp it.

 

Triviality Awareness

There are striking similarities between the core messages of Socrates, the Hebrew Prophets, and the prophetic message of both John the Baptizer and Jesus. The core message of all these spiritual men was essentially this: we are in grave error, we care about trivial things instead of the things that matter, and in doing so we are in ignorance and in the Judeo-Christian context, we are in sin.

Socrates went around Athens interacting with people he encountered in the streets, talking to the Athenian decision makers on their way to council, and challenging them on their basic assumptions about life. Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets essentially did the same thing. As with all prophets, they were all ignored by the vast majority of the people they encountered.

The awareness of our trivial endeavours (I resisted the temptation to say ‘our trivial pursuits…’), our own vanity and egotistical motivations, is the awareness of our sin, our fallen nature, our separation from the kingdom of God. Kierkegaard referred to sin as the “sickness unto death.” When we become aware of this, we are suddenly appalled at the meaninglessness of our previous way of living, our prior occupations and preoccupations. We are almost punished at every turn by the banal conversations and concerns of the majority of people we encounter, and yet it is from the bleakness of our death-bed that we can peer into the kingdom of God and see that it is within reach.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus frequently used the phrase “the kingdom of God is at-hand.” I find the use of this peculiar English idiom in the King James translation to be quite interesting. I was discussing this subject last night with one of my closest friends and asked what the translation was in Spanish, which he said is “el reino de Dios esta cerca.” Or, the kingdom of God is near/close. The essence, which is communicated in both translations, is that the kingdom of God is within reach. The continue usage of the phrase in the Gospels indicates that the kingdom of God is not far off in the starry universe, but is rather in parallel to us here on earth, and within our grasp. But if we are preoccupied with trivial things, we will never find it. Tolstoy wrote a famous account of this line of thinking in his non-fiction work “The Kingdom of God is Within You.”

Whether one is a Christian or an agnostic/atheist, or an adherent to some other religion, there is little doubt that we are all enriched by first becoming aware of the extent of our concern for the trivial and the questions of grave importance we overlook because of our trivial concerns. It is a painful process, but a cleansing one. We must extricate ourselves in most cases from the social circumstances to which we, by default, have dedicated our time and efforts. We reckon with the painful reality that most of our human relationships are predicated on such triviality and are injurious to our own humanity (and, if I am permitted to say, divinity).

What then, should we pursue that is opposed to triviality? St Paul, in his letter to the Philippian Church, gives us a pretty good starting point:

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man on the things of others.”

Confidence

Confidence is not the certainty that you will succeed, but the suspension of disbelief about the overwhelming odds against you.

The suspension of disbelief is the root of all faith.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for. 

Faith, then requires the hope of something.

If the thing hoped for is meaningless, Faith is in vain.

Therefore, to have Confidence in one’s endeavors, one must Hope for things which are good.