Category: essay

Evolution or Revolution

September 11th, 2017 — 2:54pm

A meritocracy is a kind of evolution, a social evolution. Like biological evolution, its business is to reward the survivors, and winnow out the weak. It is a hard game but the rules are set by Nature herself.

For all its advantages over less obviously fair systems of resource allocation, like systems based on dynastic rule, one disadvantage of a meritocracy gives license to those who do well in it to pat themselves on the back a bit for their good genetics and intelligence (forgetting the role of luck). It does not encourage charity – it believes that there really are ‘deserving poor’.

But perhaps meritocracies aren’t so different to dynasties after all. For if meritocracies are a good principle, why keep them only one generation deep when they can be inter-generational? Dynasties are simply meritocracies that are allowed to build up the merit from generation to generation. The opportunity to do so is itself part of the reward which a meritocracy provides to encourage us to strive. Evolution certainly passes on its rewards in this way, allowing species to accumulate their advantages.

Unlike a meritocracy though, evolution acts unevenly on organisms. Sometimes the competition is fierce, such as when landmasses join and a region is flooded with a new species; or when the climate changes and resources become scarce. But for many other times the competition wanes and organisms can become more experimental and exuberant, such as often happens on islands where e.g. dodos can experiment with flightlessness in the absence of predators. Most of these frivolities will quickly become extinct when the competition increases again, but occasionally some new idea is hit on which gives a significant advantage, a new weed emerges to conquer the world.

Possibly these little evolution holidays are essential to the development of complex new traits. Endless competition for resources is not a constant factor in any ecosystem, for sometimes resources are abundant.  So it should also be in a meritocracy – as well as the competition in the marketplace of ideas, there needs to be a safe place for experimentation.

Funnily enough this happens naturally if you allow dynasties to exist, as the rich create and inhabit a playground which is free from the competition under which everyone else must work. It also happens in the modern world within certain institutions – or with the apparatus of a beneficient state – perhaps one which provides a living wage – which takes the heat off the need to constantly engage in the struggle to succeed. The advantages of social apparatus over dynasties is that dynasties essentially rely upon the slavery of much of the population, whereas a social safety net enslaves no-one.

Where meritocracies fail I think, is where they fail to address that need for some space to play. Life needs room to innovate, there need to be good times as well as hard times. It’s a misconception that only through constant struggle will the best be brought out of us. This is the lie that is behind austerity movements, and the cutting of state safety nets. The argument for such cuts, when you get down to it, is that people must be left to make their own way by merit alone, there is no helping hand. But this is a myth – for a properly functioning system we must make resources available. Otherwise we will quickly revert to dynastic rule – and of course that seems to be happening with the vast inequalities of wealth that are now the norm in the west. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of the market-meritocracy that has existed in the west.

But a meritocracy is not the only way evolution can happen to society. The alternative is if instead of struggling against each other, we join together in the struggle against the wider universe – against the challenges posed by the Earth’s capacity to support our growing population for instance. For this we must come together and think as a single brilliant organism, and leave behind the sordid game of keeping each other down as we scramble to be at the top of the muck pile.

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Trumpista phenomina

February 16th, 2017 — 4:02pm

So here we are. This morning I woke up feeling optimistic for the first time in months. So I revisited this old draft post, and decided to make it live, even though things are moving on already. I live on twitter too much these days and the rawness of events seems to get so much amplified there, that it is hard not to feel like the whole world will end in a snap. Maybe this is the singularity they have been talking about for all these years.. what I hope is that the twitter whale can rise above the divisions of hard opinions and closed minds.


A personal muse on election 2016

I don’t see the election of Trump as being inevitable, but rather as the result of the chance congruence of several factors.

Clearly there is a genuine protest vote and organic movement for change. There is also the charisma and personality of Trump himself – not likeable to many of us, but still a vital part of his appeal especially against the prospect of four more grey years of politics-as-usual.

Then we saw how the support or at least acquiescence of many major American news networks to Trump’s extreme views really helped to ‘normalise’ the whole thing, even when he ventured into completely uncharted territory of crime and vulgarity.

There was the Russian support and interference through fake news, troll armies and leaks to Julian Assange, all of which seems to have been conducted as a sort of game to amuse Putin.

Finally there was the well-known effect of republican gerrymandering, vote suppression and other cheats which seek to undermine an honest election process in subtle ways, difficult to quantify.

Given the closeness of the vote in the end, all of these factors I think can be considered necessary to bringing about the election result, but I’d argue that only the first two fit within what should be the normal paradigm of a well-functioning democracy. All the other factors exist because of the self-interested influences of power. They are not new – there has been money influencing the white house forever, undermining the sort of decision making that should occur there, and the way elections are fought. It does seem to have got worse, though, due to the enormous amount of money in fewer and fewer hands in recent years. Similarly the media has been run to ensure the interests of the very few rich media operators are protected, and these interests intersect with those that influence the white house directly. Only the Russian influence seems to be quite new to this election, an interference which reflects geopolitical power games, and Russian ingenuity which has shown how with a bit of money the news can be created or leaked, and then shaped and spread on the internet to influence ‘real’ opinions.

The trump card was Trump himself, and without his personality I don’t think all the other factors could have combined so effectively to keep Hilary from power. But Trump himself seems like an outsider to the whole process which has now placed him in the driver’s seat. The danger he faces is that all the vested interests which his election has benefited, including Russia and the GOP, will want to dispense with him if he doesn’t continue to be useful to them. The way in which they try to do this, and the way he chooses to retaliate, if he gets the chance, could create dangerous frictions. I am nervous that it will create a state of emergency in some way or other, which will be the justification of attacks on his enemies, and on the systems of government itself.

The other danger is that he actually is removed, and the party he leaves behind is left in the hands of the the hard core of the GOP (Pence), or the strange fanatics he surrounded himself with (Bannon), all the moderates having abandoned him during the election. People like Bannon have seriously ideological positions which seem certain to create conflict, in fact they probably invite it, using chaos as another means to an end. You only have to take an ideology of extreme intolerance – whatever it is that you are intolerant of – through to its logical conclusion and you have gulags, or war. Because what else are you going to do with all the intollerable people in the end? This is why tolerance has been at the heart of all modern/liberal democracies. I think I’ll talk about that more in another post.

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Gaia is born of freedom

June 23rd, 2016 — 3:07pm

Freedom is a very basic personal instinct. I think all creatures want to be free, free from fear and desire, free from hunger and pain. The protection of key personal freedoms has been central to the rise of civilisation, and this has continued in modern societies through activities like the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women. We now believe that freedom is a basic human right and human happiness and social cohesion is dependent on it.


Img: earth wind Map

But we are even now not entirely free – and much of what we do in life is really an effort to procure more freedom than what is granted to us at birth by our society. So gaining power over others has become the primary means to exercise more personal freedom. This drive to acquire power is the basis for the market  – as money grants us material freedom so earning money becomes in theory a freedom creating exercise. Freedom of mind is more elusive but either quenching or ridding ourselves of desires can be described as a method of freeing ourselves from them, and so becoming happy. By engaging in such activities, we express in our everyday lives the truth that greater freedom is a good thing, whether we think much about how we obtain it or not.

The struggle for personal freedom has been continuing since the first microbe ate another to make some space in the warm purple soupy ocean of the Archaean earth. Evolution is simply the playing out of these desires through time, with the reward for chance innovations being an enhanced domination of other species. Even though the struggle of evolution was undertaken nearly blindly by its competitors, it delivered us our bodies and the supporting natural world around us. The survival games of a market economy continue with this model. So long as a level playing field is maintained, market economies harness the same desires for freedom that are the drivers of evolution to encourage innovation. The 20th Century has demonstrated the amazing facility of the market to create the most efficient systems to feed, house and entertain the human population of the planet, nearly all driven by the self-interests of everyone involved. As an engine to drive evolution or humans technological powers forward, there seems to be nothing better.


Img: John Lurie Art.

The creation of corporate entities has added a level of coordination in this activity, but the principle is the same. Corporations act within the system as if they were individuals, but with desires that are tailored to their individual business model. The drive for increased power and freedom is the same – but it is like a ghost desire, articulated in the objectives and raison d’être of the organisation. It is hard to hold the individual greed of humans accountable – except in a few instances of corporate tycoons whose personal agenda is embodied in the company they lead (Murdoch, Koch brothers et al). John Poynder noticed in the 19th Century that corporations “have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned” (referenced here by John Quiggin) but do reflect the amalgamated desires of the actual bodies of a subset of the human population.

Nation states are very similar creations, as they also seek the greatest possible freedom for themselves. It’s just we tend to view them more benevolently as they are supposed to put the rights and wellbeing of their citizens first – places like North Korea are exceptions.  Nations have an interesting relationship to corporations, as taxation is essentially parasitic, yet its legislation is existential. The drive by corporations to reduce government power pushes back against these hindrances, in accordance with the desire for increased freedom. It is interesting how in recent decades nations actively compete against one another to provide low tax havens to encourage businesses to set up their headquarters, e.g. Apple in Ireland.

This might go on indefinitely. However a problem emerges when the environment which these entities operate within becomes suddenly closed. This can be demonstrated by placing yeast in a jar. Previously harmless by-products (alcohols) which used to be carried away suddenly become concentrated. The yeasts go on multiplying and competing with each other and producing these contaminants, not realising that they all face the same existential threat. Thus they poison themselves en masse once they reach a certain concentration. Portions of human society have been in similar scenarios through time, for instance on Easter Island where all the trees, then all the historical records (inscribed on wooden tablets) were burned for firewood as society collapsed. As the population has grown, the whole of human society is now effectively in one jar now, with climate change being the most pressing hazard resulting from pollutants at present. Because the same problem affects all inhabitants of the planet equally, and there is no way for one person’s activity to avoid it (space colonies still being too difficult), we find that the struggle against one another, as created by market capitalism, does nothing to help us innovate away from the apocalyptic end game. The way of talking about this in economics is in terms of ‘negative externalities’.

In this situation, nature does not select against one or another of us, nature selects against all of us. The only solution which actually guarantees our continued freedom is clearly one that reduces our freedoms. It is a solution which supersedes the market economy but requires the coordination of our activity as if we were a single organism. But in doing this, there is no alternative but to restrain the personal freedoms which are so highly valued by each of us.

This dilemma, of subverting personal freedoms for the good of the whole, is not entirely new to us. We are familiar with the operation of the principle in some areas of civilised life already, and it is forced on us by nature herself – every creature has an instinct that runs against their personal freedom when rearing its children, for instance. But we are not used to it affecting our right to compete with one another. Ever since we have been free of slavery or serfdom or debilitating poverty, we have expected to be able to use our work and cunning to obtain what is best for ourselves and our family, to increase our freedom at the modest expense of those around us. It seems counter to the very trend of modern society to slip back into the shackles of a controlling overlord. If we do not fight against it at a personal level, it will certainly be fought by corporate entities and nations for whom the freedom to compete and dominate one another is as natural as it is to the male lions of the herd or the sharks in the ocean.

Perhaps we should prefer the feminine instinct to protect the herd against the greater existential threat, than to continue to allow infighting for dominance among the alpha males. However, unlike some on the left, I do not think that the engine of innovation which is the market economy should be shut down altogether. However it needs to be subsumed within a system that places first the good of the whole, second to the good of its individual parts. It can be like the mitochondria inside an animal cell, generating energy but kept safely in check.

The shift in reference which needs to accompany this change in the organisation of humanity really can be compared to episodes in the evolution of the species. In fact it seems that every great leap forward has been accompanied by a similar gestalt moment – the realisation that the whole must become more than the sum of its parts. The movement from protozoa to eukaryote is one such shift, the movement from single cell to multi cell organism, the socialising of animals into altruistic groups, and finally civilisation itself – are all shifts upwards in the level of coordination. At each shift, there has been a loss of freedom at the level of the individual component. It is unavoidable. But the benefit is clear and in some instances it has been necessary to ensure survival.

Humanity is at this juncture now. Climate change poses a certain kind of existential threat but it is only one part of the general threat which is a product of our own success – the limitation of the earth’s resources to sustain us all. The threats that are now coming our way occur on a different plane to that on which the market economy works. They are essentially unseen externalities to the players in the capitalist game, as the actor – humanity as a whole – is simply assumed by these players to continue to exist. There has never been an existential threat to it, so there is no capacity to respond to such threats. Humanity’s interests must be hardwired in, through a new superstructure which must be applied to the entire society. Fortunately, the technology for this superstructure has just been invented.

(next episode coming soon…)

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the ethical dilemma of the vegetarian

September 1st, 2015 — 2:49pm

Life is suffering, said the Buddha. This seems to me to be true much of the time, and what is also unavoidable is that our aliveness causes suffering for other living things. Even the most careful of us will unfortunately step on a few ants and swallow some gnats (unless we follow very particular ascetic orders). At the very least we generally take up space on the planet that might have been used by someone else. This seems to be an unavoidable fact, but it does seem at first glance that we can at least diminish the quota of suffering that we cause in the world by not going out of our way to kill and maim things. Famously the Buddha advocated this, in a time when animal sacrifice for religious reasons was even more common than it is today). And one of the more obvious ways we still kill a lot of animals is by eating meat, so an easy fix to that is become a vegetarian.


But it’s never as simple as you think. As this article delights in pointing out, a vegetarian diet might easily still result in the deaths of many creatures who would not have otherwise died. The most powerful example given is that of mice, as millions of mice are poisoned every year by farmers growing grain. They aren’t killed humanely in abattoirs but poisoned – a particularly nasty way to die. When you start to think about it, many agricultural practices do result in animal deaths, especially if you count insects.  Moles get ploughed, badgers trapped, birds and kangaroos shot, fish poisoned by polluted waterways, not to mention the heavy death toll on insects, if anyone cares about them.

Obviously organic and sustainable farming goes a long way to reducing these impacts on other creatures – but it seems like there will always be some death associated with farming. What can the vegetarian realistically do? If animals are going to die anyway is there any real benefit in not eating animals outright? There are certainly some cases where animals are able to subsist on land that is otherwise quite useless to agriculture, which is part of an argument that George Monbiot, once a vegan, now uses to cautiously support ethical meat eating.

I was reading a bit of decision theory, and I think that there has to be an equation to sort this question out. Nothing too complex for me though.

S = s + s + s + s …

Let S be the sum total of suffering we cause though an act of eating. Let little ‘s’ be the suffering of those life forms who suffer through the act of us eating. So if we eat an ox then then the total suffering S = s where s is suffering of the ox, or if we eat some bread which causes the death of ten mice then S = 10s, or ten times more.  Here is the dilemma – for the vegetarian seems to be causing more suffering than the meat eater with this meal.

The difficulty is in what constitutes s, suffering. I think there are two main things at play here. Firstly, there are the events that are experienced which are ‘suffered’. Some events are worse than others – there are some ways to die that involve more suffering than other ways. We tend to prefer short and sharp ‘humane’ killing to deaths that are long and drawn out. We must also consider the quality and of life lived – the suffering caused by eating pork from pigs intensively reared in factories is higher than if the pigs had nice lives in a field, regardless of how they died. Perhaps also the duration of life is important – perhaps eating lamb is ethically worse than eating mutton. And an animal might not even have to die to suffer as a result of our meal – battery chickens producing eggs are an obvious example. To experience this sort of suffering might be worse than suffering a short sharp death following a contented life.

But we also have to consider sentience when considering the suffering of the life form – for it seems to be widely and intuitively believed that there is a spectrum, with humans at the top, and barely sentient bacteria or slime moulds or plants at the bottom. Killing creatures that are closer to the top is held to be worse than killing those at the bottom, and this is based on an intuitive idea of sentience. We believe that fly does not suffer as much as an ox when he dies, or at least that it does not matter as much to us. And even vegetarians have to draw the line somewhere, about what sentience is acceptable to kill, if they want to eat. For instance, a vegetarian is clearly happy to eat plants, which are dimly sentient, and would probably be unconcerned about eating bacteria, even though some bacteria are motile and quite complex. Algae is bacteria like this after all. Pescetarians draw the line up higher, above fish. Even meat eaters draw the line somewhere – above oxen but probably below dogs and whales and humans. Some more ancient cultures seemed not to have drawn any line at all.

So ‘s’ in the equation above is really a combination of at least these two things – the suffering experienced (se) and the rank of sentience that experienced it (st).

S = (se * st) + (se * st) + (se * st) …

The only way to truly calculate the the value of the meal is if we have perfect knowledge of the suffering inflicted and can scale sentience accurately. Unfortunately, calculating this in most circumstances seems to be an impossible task, and open to lots of argument.  But it would be interesting if we could measure these things accurately to discover whether a vegetarian diet still comes out on top most of the time. I think it often would – but I don’t think that it would all of the time.


[A gratuitous picture of offal which is unrelated to the merits of the argument. Although wouldn’t this be less offensive if these were mouse carcases?]

Vegetarianism at least has this appeal: it is a very easy ethical position to practice and understand. It at least excludes some of the most obvious ethical wrongs like eating factory-reared pork. The suffering caused by a vegetarian diet seems to be less direct – perhaps the farmer gets the bad karma for poisoning all those mice.  But I tip my hat to anyone who can improve the lot of other creatures by thinking about and tracing the ethical effects of all our eating – vegetarian or otherwise.  Like most things, there is a lot more to this question than is obvious at first glance.

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imperfect world

April 10th, 2014 — 9:33pm

Methodrone, the Brian Jonestown Massacre soundtrack to many a closeted indoor summer's day

If opium were more widely available, I would take that rather than red wine on some nights (I have a glass of red by my hand as I write this). Michael Dransfield I suppose was of the same opinion. Coleridge, Hafiz; – it is recognisably a poet’s addiction. The few poems I have written under its influence have an intense, paused sensibility. I am a big fan of Cocteau’s description: “under opium, the world spins a little slower and the moon is a little larger”. I also loved “The Opium eater” by Iqbal Ahmad which i found in Edinburgh library – and then took years to rediscover it. I have always disliked De Quincey’s book though.

My friends and I first experimented with poppy seed tea, not knowing its potential dangers, then later when i was traveling and living with the Hare Krisnas at Somogvanos their poppy harvest was destroyed by a storm, and i ate some of the crushed pods to get at the sweet joy of poison. These days it is not hard to get small amounts but I wish it was socially acceptable. I have a collection of chlorodyne bottles as reminder that opium and morphine were very common as over the counter medicines less than a century ago. I also have empty tins of chlorodyne throat sweets that contained opium (cannabis was also sometimes an ingredient) and which were obviously intended to be used casually while continuing with work etc. A search through the newspapers on Trove shows how common chlorodyne poisoning was – some poisonings are seemingly accidental while others clearly are suicide attempts. Some of these articles are slightly suggestive of the recreational use of chlorodyne, i.e. opiates, in 19th and early 20th Century Australia. My grandmother who worked in hospitals in the 1940-50s recalls that chlorodyne was still in the medicine cabinet at that time.

But it was not only in the West that opiates were embedded in mainstream life until the early 20th Century. Reading “Narcotics, nationalism and class in china: the transition from opium to morphine and heroin in early twentieth-century shanxi” by Henrietta Harrison, published in East Asian History #32/33 it is interesting to notice that that opium use had become quite a normal part of society in China before it was banned in the 1930s. Opium and later Morpnine were usually taken in a casual social way, and at special occasions like weddings, much like wine or cigars are in the west today. Unlike wine and tobacco of course, opium is a fairly harmless chemical to put into the body (up until the point of overdose).

Drugs drugs drugs. Looking around me, I wonder if the desire to ‘pierce the veil’ is entirely destructive or if it has some redeeming value. The callous compassion of the paternal state, like that of a farmer whose husbandry is designed to fetch the highest price at the meat market. If there is any appeal in the centuries behind us, plague ridden and chaotic, it is that people were free to explore the consequences of their mistakes, whatever they be.

When oneday we slice the world in two, with the good on the one side, and the bad on the other, I wonder which side I will fall into? Isn’t it the case that too much goodness gives us indigestion? Perhaps I am thinking of lentils.

I don’t doubt that karma exists, but if the consequences are all just functions of their inputs, then there is no reason to avoid what is one’s due, when both sides of the calculation have been worked out beforehand. It’s called free will, or freewheeling, or Bob Dylan, or something like that. Whatever the name, the only thing we can ever truly discover is our own stupidity, or ignorance. And that meeting is always a charming occasion for the poet philosopher.

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what is enlightenment?

January 14th, 2014 — 10:33am

I was recently filling up my motorcycle at Buddha at the Gaspump, a great newish website of interviews with spiritual people, run by Rick Archer, when I came across his great interview with David Godman. David, who lives at Tiruvannamalai in India is the primary editor of information in English on the great 20th Century sage Sri Ramana Maharshi. In fact most of what we know about Sri Ramana is thanks to David’s editing and publication of translations of various tamil works, and his tireless and continuing efforts in seeking out and recording the stories of those who knew Ramana when he was alive. He is also a key compiler of books about the spiritual careers of Ramana’s disciples such as HWL Poonja and Nisargadatta Maharaj, who are now all big names in advaita.

Batgap with D Godman

David does a good job in the interview of quoting from memory the words of those with higher spiritual authority than himself, rather than offering his own views on things, but towards the end of the two hours Rick pushes a little harder to try and get an answer to the question of what enlightenment actually is. It is not surprising that this line of questioning quickly leads us into a quagmire of contradictory evidence. What at first seems like such a simple objective – to define enlightenment – is actually very elusive. After all, if it could be defined, then we could all go out and find who has it, and get some of it. That would be a rational approach.

There are many conflicting statements on the matter, even those given by high authorities like Ramana and Poonja are contradictory. On the one hand, statements by Ramana speak of only a handful of ‘fully’ enlightened souls in the world, and he confirmed the enlightenement only of two beings. Poonja said to many of his followers that they were ‘enlightened’, but later listed to David only a handful of people as ‘fully’ enlightened. Nisargadatta Maharaj seemed to consider a slightly different set of people to be enlightened. These three saints who are normally considered to be enlightened were very different people and so our definition of enlightenment would seem to encompass quite different human manifestations.

If enlightenment is very rare, then this contradicts the mission of buddha at the gaspump, which is about interviewing ‘ordinary spiritually awakening people’, who clearly need to be in some abundance in the world if there is to be any material for interviews. So Rick was keen to establish in the interview whether we really should go by the ‘Gold Standard’ of enlightenment exhibited by Ramana himself, in which case there might be no-one alive today who is enlightened. David seems to hold this view, although expanding it a little to include a handful of immediate disciples and saints associated with Arunachala, including Poonja and Nisargadatta. But even with this narrow circle, David is forced I think to accept a definition that allows different degrees of enlightenment or different manifestations of it. And once we establish a spectrum of awakening experiences, this might well open the door to extend the concept right down to include ‘everyday enlightenment’ experiences which are rather more common, as Rick would have us do.

Ramana himself said that it was the calmness of mind one felt in their presence, and the equanimity shown to others which were marks of an enlightened person. Certainly it was this that most new visitors to the ashram used as confirmation that Ramana was in possession of that state. But if we allow different manifestations of enlightenment then it need not always be so. Following this line of reasoning, Rick asked if enlightenment can’t be linked to any particular set of personal characteristics, then might it be possible for a child molester to be enlightened? After all, even when we have a tight definition of enlightened, there are examples of what would be considered ‘bad’ behaviour – even Nisargadatta was a chain smoker and grew agitated when he gave up smoking, likewise Poonja seems to have been a sort of terrorist at some point. David gives an explanation of body karmas playing themselves out after enlightenment – but I think it is still a good question to ponder given that we traditionally judge our spiritual leaders largely by their morality.

So if it seems like spiritual leaders are using different yardsticks to measure enlightenment in others, how can we begin to measure it in ourselves? Is the answer to “am I enlightened” always either yes or no? Or if there are grades of enlightenment how are we to place ourselves on the spectrum? Isn’t the introduction of some kind of spiritual scoreboard against the whole idea of equality of all beings? Yet this concept is built into ideas of karma, which themselves probably underlie the caste system. And it is not like it is easy to improve our score – when raising the question of effort David points out that Ramana – the most fully realised modern guru by many estimations – seems to have realised his enlightenment without making any effort at all (in this life at least). And yet the whole point of talking about enlightenment seems to be that we are seeking to get closer to it, to attain it, by our efforts.

The rational person at this point will likely throw their hands up in the air and despair. It seems that enlightenment cannot be defined. We cannot decide even if it exists in degrees. And any effort to attain it may well be pointless. And even those who have attained it may or not be nice people whom we would wish to emulate anyway.

At this point I would like to take a break for a moment and look at the question from another perspective.


I would like to pull the reader back from the brink of despair. In my last post I think I demonstrated that enlightenment is hard to define, if we are looking for outward signs of it in the world. If something has no definable outward signs in the world, our first and indeed most rational impulse might be to conclude that it does not exist. But I think it is possible to show that this is not the case. We need to change our perspective a little. I will show you what I mean.

Poetry does exist, in the form of poems. And Poets exist, as the people who write poems. But does poetry exist before poems and poets?

I think philosophers still argue as to whether things can exist apart from their outward signs, their forms, which define them. Socrates probably began this with his theory of the ideal form. It does seem possible that there might be a great poet who remains unknown because they never exhibit it by writing poems. The outward signs are missing but the truth is still there. Also we all tend to have subjective ideas about what poetry is so we might disagree on who the great poets are. However I think that the only ideal form which can exist perfectly, is that form which is no-form. This formless thing is the universal that is the attainment of enlightenment.

The existence of this universal form is implicit in the existence of anything. Yet being formless it exists apart from particulars. Poetry does inhabit forms such as poems and poets, however by their very definition it doesn’t inhabit poetasters. Enlightenment is different from poetry of course because as enlightenment is the antithesis of outward forms there is nothing that can be said to represent it. If it could be tied down to an outward expression it would not be enlightenment, but something else. At the same time, we needn’t expect it to occur as something evenly smeared across reality. Anything that can be described rationally can be ruled out as they are too much like a definition. Even if we were to define enlightenment as “that which cannot be defined” there is a logical problem, similar to the problem in the truth of the statement “this statement is false”. There are clues in these paradoxes of language and logic which point to the weakness of such structured reasoning to grasp at formless things. As a result, I think that some outward forms of enlightenment could be shown as more likely than others, even if they were not definitive. At the same time, enlightened people might exhibit none of these likely forms, without invalidating their enlightenment, just as it is possible to be both a great poet and yet display nothing of the ability.

I hope all that is not too confusing.

Great skeptics like to say that we might all be brains in jars. “How do I know that I have hands?” is how a traditional argument begins. The philosophy of skepticism strikes to the heart of enlightenment – just as the enlightened person contends that all the world is a dream, the skeptic asks how it is that anything can be really known.

The modern world has moved on from the doubts of the skeptic, and now mostly operates along pragmatic lines. A great tree of theory has grown which bears the fruits of science, humanism, and critical reasoning. But there is still a sourness to these fruits which can be traced to its roots where the doubts of the skeptic still fester. Scientists tear at their beards in frustration as their explanations of evolution are questioned by those who regard the bible as the ultimate truth, for instance.

Skeptics can explain why the seeds of doubt will never be expunged. The enlightened sage holds the key to this truth in his heart. In the smile of the enlightened one is the knowledge that the two worlds – the objective and the subjective – can never be reconciled from just one side or the other. Their reconciliation comes from understanding the play of tapas. Their union is deep and resides in the heart of the mystery that is life itself. It cannot be grasped by reasoning alone – nor alone by meditation.

We cannot say that poetry exists only as poems and poets, yet at the same time we cannot say that it exists apart from these things. The ultimate poetry is the movement of consciousness through the world – but this is going beyond poetry perhaps – into pure being and awakening.

In despair we look and look and enlightenment is never found. But the seeker cannot find herself in the world no matter where she looks. She is not in the body, not in the brain, not in the firing of a neuron. She is everywhere. Truth is ever elusive.

That is the beginning of some new kind of knowledge, I think.


Maybe I am slightly setting myself up as some sort of authority on enlightenment with these posts. Well that is not the case. I did try once, to be enlightened. But i noticed that the very idea was itself an impediment to enlightenment. So i cast off the idea and was left with life, just as it was before. Or perhaps it was not quite the same. For i no longer was seeking for ‘enlightenment’ but found that life itself was the seeking.

I was going to use this third part of my enlightenment series to come back to my favourite topic of science vs religion or logic versus emotion. I love these topics because i can’t decide which side I am on, and there is so much that is interesting about the line that divides these dualities. I think that life itself is a sort of unending battle between these dualities, and we need to rise above them. But how to do that? We inevitably find ourselves falling back into the habit of one or the other, and so setting ourselves against its opposite again.

But each side is tempered by the other. Let me start with religion. It annoys me when in discussing enlightenment we too quickly get into magical talking, everything is a dream etc – disregarding the 21st century and the advances of learning since which we have stopped all being barbarians to each other and dying horribly of various diseases. Because if you turn your back on science you are just opening the door to all the problems that we have had with religious belief ever since the beginning, that is religious ‘authorities’ take charge of human affairs because they are the sole owners of the ‘truth’. This is where we quickly find ourselves when talking about enlightened people. We clearly give them an authority over ourselves but since we can’t easily define enlightenment this opens the door to easy abuse by impostors. It is not just a matter of a few bad eggs– this can build up over time into an impenetrable system of orthodoxy which it is dangerous to speak out against. It has happened again and again through history and there are plenty of modern examples which are alive and well. Modern rational discourse and scientific advances have liberated much of humanity from this great evil but if we turn our back on these rational ways of thinking we will soon be back in the dark ages. This is my greatest bugbear I suppose about religion, at its core it has an irrational belief in some being or holy text or truth and this bleeds out into a hesitation to embrace rational explanations for things when a sloppy religious explanation will suffice.

But calm yourselves, religious types. I have a grudge with science too. It is that science is based on reasoned thinking and a finite world, and both those things have some big problems. I touched on it before with the brain in a jar argument – sorry if I’m breezing over this, i’ll expand again later – but basically it is impossible to be sure that we know anything. That is just how it is. We could all be in a big dream, that’s a fact, there’s no getting away from it. So Science is a pragmatic approach to life and knowledge about the universe but it is incapable of grasping all the answers. It is not a silver bullet for truth. Most importantly for most people, it can’t say what happens after death, and it can’t give us an answer to the ‘meaning of (my) life’ (or rather it says ‘nothing’ and ‘there is none’). Well, this is where science and reason fail, and they will always fail at this because it is not built into their design to be able to answer these things. So into the void of these questions comes religion, or I should say comes enlightenment, which is quickly manifest in organised society as religion. It is interesting that 19th century scientists had a much clearer idea of the limits of their power, and still held onto some idea that there were questions which reasoned inquiry was not suited to answer. But modern science has lost this deference and now sees itself as the sole arbiter of truth, and sees religion as just something people cling to in order to make them feel better.

This is a shame for enlightenment. This state of mind comes about from the training that scientists and we in the west generally have had for some time, which is to see the world in an objective way. If we see the world objectively, then truly science can explain perhaps everything – except human irrationality (although it does try to explain this too). It is essential to see the material world objectively if you want to understand it and control it. I also think an objective, rational viewpoint is the best way to run a fair society. But when we look at our own individual experience of life, it is impossible to be truly objective. For a start, we spend half our lives dreaming, or daydreaming. This material world comes and goes. At the time of your reading these lines you are in this material world foremost of all, for sure, but you will soon be departing it again. This viewpoint is anathema to science. Science must disregard dreams. In fact, science disregards people in a way, and only sees their bodies. Religion sees the dreams and puts them first, the world comes second. But each tries to rule the other. I have written about this in other posts.

Do we just accept that each rules their own realm? But where is the boundary.. it seems diffuse and hard to define.. anyway only a scientist would try to define it. Are they really part of the same phenomenon? Can each absorb the other? Science would say there is no room for religion.. and then tries in vain to eradicate it. Religion likes to claim that science is just a plaything, a toy, useful maybe, but ultimately unimportant. Just as surely as infinity exists, or zero exists, so also enlightenment exists. It doesn’t make much sense, but there it is, say the saints. But science shows that even the fully enlightened person is subject to the mundane realities of existence, maybe you can call it karma. Enlightenment agrees that nothing changes, everything is always as it was. I think it is fair to say that from a scientific real world perspective, enlightenment doesn’t actually exist. But reason can only ever paint half the truth. Ultimately at its limits, it finds contradiction and paradox. This is the clue. The clue that everything that exists is a dream.. miracles, true miracles which are very rare, are another clue.


Viewing life as a dream is an interesting experiment in enlightening our day to day existence. Dreams are the simplest example of a state of unknowing with which we are all familiar. All of us have inhabited dreams before, dreams which we were certain to be true. There is a lot of juice to be had in unravelling this idea. It is not a perfect analogy but I am going to work it a little more from a philosophical perspective.

If I was sitting a philosophy exam on the nature of reality in a dream and I wrote in that exam that ‘this world is a dream’ then I would probably fail the exam, despite being absolutely correct from the perspective of this world. But to my dream examiners I would be wrong, as my dream is their reality. Likewise in real life, it is just impossible for others to confirm our waking experience for us. Facts are no longer facts in dreams- in a dream it might be true that I can fly, whereas upon waking I find that it is no longer true. And on seeming to wake, one may continue to find one is dreaming, and so through infinite recursion of constantly awakening from dreams, our knowledge of things is severely reduced until perhaps all we know is that we cannot be sure of anything.

It seems foolish to me to grant special status to waking reality as the final state, from which no more waking is possible, when every other example of reality we have experienced has turned out to be a dream, dreams that at the time seemed to be real. The old story of the philosopher dreaming he is a butterfly and upon waking being unsure of if he is merely a butterfly dreaming he is a philosopher illustrates this point. It seems whimsical but there is a solid skeptical argument wrapped up in this funny story.

Unfortunately, the only sure test to find if we are dreaming is to end our life – for only after death will we find out whether there is anything to wake up to. But even if we find that there is something else, it could be yet another dream, so it is no solution to the ultimate problem of needing to wake up. This state of it being possible that we are dreaming, but it being impossible to know without waking up, is a bit like quantum mechanics – where it is possible that an electron exists at a certain place and velocity, but it is impossible to know without disturbing it. It might simply be a fact that reality as we thought it was simply can’t exist – that it shares its status with dreams as things we experience as real but might wake up from. I won’t take that analogy any further but I think it is an interesting one, and perhaps there is a mathematical solution.

I have found that people generally recoil at the idea that life is a dream. We don’t like having our certainties trashed. The first argument raised against life being a dream is that dreams seem fragmentary and ephemeral. But we are only comparing them to this life – which might itself seem ephemeral to some deeper wakeful state. Some argue that Ockham’s razor rules out the concept – why invent more worlds? But I would say that ockham would be happy, that there is actually no simpler explanation for things than the dream explanation. This is the argument the simplest universe is not the one which is smallest, but the one which is smallest to code – which has fewest exceptions – the so called Kolmogorov complexity (there is an interesting discussion about this here). So we could argue that a reality which always has a dreamlike quality is a simpler version of reality which has both dreams and a ‘root’ reality to support them. Another argument against the dream idea, used i think by Russell, is that it is a nihilistic one, as if we dream, then nothing in the world is worth striving for, and we might as well act amorally or do nothing at all. This is a good argument against acting as if the world is a dream, but it does nothing to disprove the idea that it actually is.

I think the answer to the final argument is that something must be worthwhile – and that something is awakening. Not in an ordinary sense, but one that takes us out of the entire slideshow of dreams and reality and puts us into another as yet unimaginable state. Obviously this escape from the treadmill of dreaming is simply what is generally termed ‘enlightenment’. It emerges naturally from the understanding that reality cannot be proven to be different from a dream, that waking either from a nights sleep, or from a life into the afterlife, is simply an ongoing process. If there is any alternative to the endless births and deaths, the karma treadmill, then it would fit the description of enlightenment – whatever the experience of enlightenment might be. So rather than look about for enlightened people as having certain characteristics, like human doorways to an ethereal world of bliss, instead think of the possibility of your own escape from an endless cycle of dreaming. What would be the clues?

On the whole i think they would be mundane, and deeply embedded in ordinary life. They are the holes which keep the spiralbound notebook together. The apple core whose seeds contain the clue to the tree.

It cannot be ignored that for many people their first foray into all this is through the experience caused by various mind altering drugs. Such experiences often seem to be about ‘awakening’ from a dream or experiencing a deeper reality. Drugs are clearly powerful things for the individual and for society to deal with. But they are also interesting because they prod at the very workings of consciousness which we still fail to understand. How is it that a drug taken in a dream could cause one to awake from the dream? The mechanism by which drugs work might reveals some interesting connections between consciousness and matter – connections which run in both directions.

Explaining drug experiences forces one to fall into either the science camp or the spiritual camp. For if mind is not contained in the body, if this is a dream, then why is it subject to these chemicals? I don’t think spiritual types should shy away from the question. If the roots of illusion are somehow tied to matter, then doesn’t this open the door to manipulating our travel through dreamspace through chemicals? This is exactly what psychonauts do. If we allow our dreams and hallucinations to be bearers of truth, then we can learn a lot about reality. If drugs became very sophisticated, then it might become possible to visit other time periods and dream universes through sophisticated chemistry or other manipulation at quantum scales. Maybe we are already doing this without being aware. The pixels on this screen have their origin in the movement of atomic scale actors. Virtual realities are dreams of a kind.

Nothing is lost by considering the world to be a potential dream state, yet there is much to gain. There is no need to update the laws of physics, or change immediately the ordinary pursuits of our life and of society. The dream does still remain intact. What changes is our attitude to the debris of consciousness – thoughts and the imagination gain a new footing. Their importance to our lives increases when we recognise them as signposts to genuinely new realities. I expect there is a lot to explore in the different degrees of wakefulness. We must ask what it means to be awake and to dream – or are they necessarily the same thing, only experienced differently? Only then can we talk sensibly about enlightenment.

If we accept that dreams are viable alternate realities then they become rich with significance. For instance, we assume that we are the only actors in our dreams, that they are created by us and experienced by us alone. If dreams have their own reality then this perhaps is incorrect. There are other entities in our dreams and they may not created by us. Just as there are other life forms in this world, so also in dreams. This may be why we cannot easily control dreams, they seem to have a life of their own. Certainly our most wakeful dream – this world – is one which we have limited control over. But wakefulness brings increased degrees of control over the dream state. We have all experienced some dreams where we are more like god the creator – willing the world into existence. I am interested in exploring the demi-dream states which mix this world and another, these seem to be analogous to the ‘semi-enlightened’ state, post satori bliss episodes. The nature of our thought landscape is also of heightened interest if we consider it to have a reality and populace all of its own.

Suppose we are one entity travelling through space and time, being born again and again, then all these ‘others’ in this life and in dreams are simply other manifestations of ourself. The laws of nature are also crafted by us, by the interplay of our actions, much like tracks on a lawn, the ‘desire lines’ made by the passing multitudes. Our consciousness extends further than we typically grant it, to stars and stones which seem inanimate to us. Ramana said indeed the stones are conscious.

But putting aside all these crazy ideas, which i post here to empty them out of my head where they cause havoc on their own, if anything good is achieved in accepting that we are potentially dreaming, it is the acceptance that further awakening is possible. To awaken we don’t use the tools of the world, of different states of dream and reality, but we find the one common identity in all dreams – the dreamer. If we follow this clue, the ‘who am I’ of introspective interrogation, then we can arrive at the ultimate condition and be enlightened. Thus spake a Sage.

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the running man – from Henry George to Aaron Swartz

January 12th, 2014 — 2:18pm

The internet mind is growing. It is sorting the threads of sticky intelligence, categorising memes, getting to know itself. There is not yet much policing of the internet. When it is established (probably after many turf wars) will it come from within? Or be enforced from outside? I wonder if the guerrilla battles which already take place online will spill out into the real world. That would be the moment that the significance of the internet as a seat of power becomes manifest. Hackers are dragged out of their homes onto the streets and shot in broad daylight by other hacker groups. Coordinated attacks on server farms tear apart shelves full of hard drives, the culprits disappearing back into the city before a response can be organised. Undersea cables are dug up by automated robots. The Google website is hacked. Will this all happen? I don’t know. But the flux of power will be sorted out just as is in the real world, until everything settles into equilibrium.

In the future people will spend most of their time on the internet. These early days will seem so archaic, but it is here that we will plant the seeds for tomorrow’s forests. Countless memes are beginning right here, to accompany humanity forward in time for perhaps 1000 years. This is the first of rain on a new land surface, sculpting the channels that will one day be canyons. We are lucky to be the first of those online, much power is in our hands.

I think my views on the problems with copyright will be borne out over time. The free transference of information is what makes the internet work. But it is not just the viewing of this information which is transformative, but the recycling, the churning and winnowing out of detail.. and this is what needs to occur unhindered by concerns about who owns what. We all need to share our intellectual property. There are comparisons with the great land grabs which occurred in the 18th and 19th century (the enclosure acts), where common land ostensibly owned by the people became the private property of the rich. Indeed the use of the word ‘intellectual property’ is a clue to how ownership of this elusive substance – information – is envisaged to enrich the same wealthy set.

There is definitely an egalitarian ideal that drives my ideas on the common ownership of IP. Some of the most heated battles might occur not with large corporations but with individuals who are concerned that their work stays under their control. I would encourage such individuals to lessen their grip on these fabricated possessions for the greater good. Society at the same time needs to look after these people and reward their creativity, its needs to provide the situations for them to exist healthily within society (which it doesn’t do much of at the moment).


I see myself as a modern day Henry George. The sphere of ‘information’ is much like the terrestrial globe. Sure, the universe is effectively infinite and so is the potential for new information and ideas, but there is in both cases some property which is intrinsically valuable because of its location. It is local and useful to all. Those who squat out on these patches of ground and demand rent from every passer by are profiting off the accident of their birth, or of fate, which placed them there. They are doing no service to anyone. They operate on the same principles as a parasite. He who discovers a great invention, or writes a poem, was really just the right person in the right place at the right time. It is pointless to continually reward them forever after by granting them ownership of the idea, which at the same time hinders its usefulness. Instead, society should be ensuring that it creates situations for the emergence of these ideas in abundance, whether that means putting researchers in labs, or poets in garrets, or musicians in studios. Anyone can put their hand up for the job and receive a stipend but the return to society is that their output is for the benefit of all. Everyone wins, and the information is let free to move about and change the world.

Innovation and creativity would be supercharged. In fact, it always was, in most places until mid way through the 20th century. Only then did it become easier to enforce these artificial intellectual property rules and so innovation and creativity has become entangled in lawsuits while at the same time becoming the preserve of large corps who have the strength to fight them. The internet is encouraging some undoing of this mess with creative commons licencing (which doesn’t go far enough) and the gradual acceptance of the ubiquity of cut and paste, as well as occasional stands being made by the likes of Aaron Swartz (who died one year ago today). But there is still a long way to go and it can probably only occur with a big shakeup of the structures of the world, probably much as along the lines that Henry George was arguing over 100 years ago.

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a ‘belief sphere’, induction, and stained glass flarf

April 11th, 2013 — 12:46pm

There is plenty of promise held in the future’s tightly clenched fist, and I look forward to prising those surprises from its grasp as the years unfold glorious and slow.

I want to explain a concept i have had lately. I would like to introduce a thing I call a “belief sphere”, which occupies the space beyond the horizon of our understanding. This unexplored vast space is by definition unknown, and so is able to contain any idea or thought that you can posit. It contains all the crazy Flying-Spaghetti-Monster type theories, the amusing thoughts and mental daydreams which do not seem to belong to reality. It is of course infinite in size, as there is nothing that cannot be fitted into it. In fact what i am describing simply resembles the imagination. I have been thinking about how to define it for a long time, because i think it has its own ‘reality’ and is also composed of a few different elements.

Anyway the first point is that even though this space is continually encroached upon by progress in knowledge, the accrual of ‘new knowledge’ it always remains whole and intact. It cannot ever be lessened or dissolved, for even if every possible phenomena was known, that knowledge cannot ‘know’ itself, so there remains a bit of ‘left over’ knowledge still to discover (a bit like several paradoxes such as godel’s theorem make clear). Also, if theories obey the law of Occams razor and so must take the most efficient route in explaining phenomena, it implies that something is left out. So perhaps the only complete theory is also the most complex, and in fact occupies the entire fabric of the reality it explains – and so is in fact that reality (I wrote a poem about Occam years ago).

Image courtesy of t.abroudj on flickr

I tend to think that reality is fractal, so that it is possible to grab a small part of it and generalise upwards, but it gradually becomes imperfect the further up you generalise. So you have to grab a larger chunk of it to make a better generalisation, a better theory. Ultimately though, the only perfect way to describe reality is to grab the whole thing. This explains why theories are getting more and more complex generally – there is nothing wrong with that – it is just the same as how our tools and technology are getting more complex and operate at finer and finer tolerances in order to do their work for us. Theories are like tools – in fact they are inseparable from the tools of experimentation. Fractals have simple equations underlying their complexity, but chaos theories explain that if you want to find the reality of a precise location you need to do a lot of computation – you basically need to a computer as big as the universe to do the whole thing, and it will take all of time to run the program. We need to somehow step out of the system and just observe it as it is.

The problem of induction seems to be a problem with time, and the fact that our brains don’t experience it completely, but rather are drip-fed the reality of it day by day. So we can never know what is just around the corner – even if we recognize a pattern and can make guesses about the future, it is never certain, because patterns can change suddenly and chaotically. This is not a problem in the natural world because we can see a shape in its entirety and say “that is a circle” – end, i suppose, of story. But when we want to say ‘the sun will rise tomorrow’ even though we have a fairly established pattern, there is no knowing because we have not experienced tomorrow. If on the other hand we were eternal beings that could step out of time as freely as stepping out of a river, then there would be no problem with making such a statement – the knowledge would be there simply by looking at the reflection in the water.

I read an interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about the work of Sam Parnia in resuscitation, and his thoughts about the nature of mind as distinct from brain/neronal activity. He states that “Even prominent neuroscientists, such as Sir John Eccles, a Nobel prizewinner, believe that we are never going to understand mind through neuronal activity”.

This clicks with me. To clarify, I believe that mind is something that is eternal and can experience the past and future, as well as different life trails (see this earlier post for a bit of a mashed up description of this idea). There are lots of people who believe this in some way or other (read some of the comments on the Guardian article to get a few). The problem is that these days, unless we are ok with being crazy, we need to justify our beliefs in terms of scientific truths. But does this take us back to the first paras of this article, where the justification of such justification is itself a belief, and one built through flawed inductive reasoning at that? So there is a problem here, if we want to put an eternal mind inside the same ‘system’ as ordinary reality. I don’t think it can be resolved through simple scientific proofs.

However there might be a test – if we become able to read images out of the mind (and there are already successful attempts out there at doing this) then it might be possible to pick up something from this ‘belief sphere’ – of course there will be loads of stuff from the past, i.e. memory. loads of stuff that is just ‘imagination’ but there should also be stuff which turns out to be from the future. Sifting it all out is the problem. I personally have had impressions of future events which strike me as being sound and true – but proof seems hard to attain through metrics. Instead, it might come through capturing images, if these can be resolved out of the mind somehow. It might not be ‘proof’ in an ordinary sense, but if it could be shown to resonate sufficiently deeply, then we might have something tangible for people to accept as true.


Flarf has got a bit of press lately with the inclusion of some flarf poems in Norton’s 2nd ed of Postmodern American Poetry. There is a really gratuitous and amusing discussion going on about it on htmlgiant. I was reading this at the same time as i was reading a paper about the Devonian Hodgkinson Formation in Norther Queensland, and imagining Conodont faunas swimming in ancient red sandy bottomed lakes (my Ettrema trip was primarily to visit a contemporaneous Devonian reef on Jones ck). Anyway the whole lot got smashed up in my mind and all evening i had this sensation like I was observing things through a blue stained glass window, like a petrographic thin section, a matrix of intergrown materials which do not exactly coalesce or form a solid solution but have to live alongside each other somehow in my brain. Like a flarf poem cut and pasted together, or winnowed down through selective deletion.

And this sensation, of chaotic interlinking but distinct objects forming a translucent window, this to me is what a slice of time looks like when you hold it up to the light of eternity. That is when events and ideas have distinct shapes which can be mapped and known for what they really are. It’s just an image but it captures a truth for me.

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Open Democracy, and also, an idea for a floating space port

October 27th, 2012 — 11:02am

I often find myself speaking enthusiastically about Open Democracy to someone online or in person, only to discover that their attention seems to be focused on a little fleck of foam on my lip. At least, it seems as if that is the case. So I am faced with an uphill battle to first prove I am not a nutter, and then talk a bit more about how Open Democracy will change the world.

spaceish view (30km up)

Putting the possibility that I really am a nutter to one side for a moment, there seem to be a few core arguments against Open Democracy which need to be put to bed. First of these is that it will never catch on, as it requires too much engagement from the general populace. Second, that it is too difficult to design a system that is secure, powerful and easy to use. And third, there is the argument that people can’t be trusted with true democracy anyway.

The first objection, that people aren’t engaged in democracy, seems reasonable enough when you look at the world today for sure enough, no-one really seems to care who is in charge most of the time. Decisions made in government are only of concern to ordinary people on rare occasions. It is often said that these are times of political malaise in the west, in comparison to the situation in say the 60’s or the 30’s. Apart from a few of us who are active in political parties, we are either too jaded or too comfortable to care about it. But I think this situation is a result of the way democracy is currently run and that the antidote to it is Open Democracy. People would engage far more if they thought their engagement mattered. Open Democracy is all about empowering the people to be involved in decision making about how their country and planet is run. I think even a small taste of that power would lead to much greater engagement. But these are just suppositions. The fact is that even if most people remained disengaged – it wouldn’t matter. Open Democracy would be designed to allow decisions to be made without every person actively taking part all the time, or ever. This is through the ‘proxy’ mechanism described below. Open Democracy provides the means to be engaged when one wants – and can continue to operate with or without much voter engagement. However I do believe more voters would become more engaged if decision making in politics became ‘open sourced’. You only need to look into the effort that goes into something like wikipedia to see how engaged people can be when they can see the results.

The second objection, that is too difficult to design a system that is secure, powerful and easy to use, can really only be answered by the demonstration of such a system, which doesn’t currently exist. But I think there are no insurmountable hurdles to it existing. The first concern, that a voting system that worked through the internet could never be secure, is the one most often raised. And yet every day billions of dollars, and terabytes of sensitive information move around the globe through the internet. Indeed there are security glitches and I don’t think every one of these could ever be completely removed from a system that is that complex. But the point is that the financial system works. Security works on the internet already. A fully fledged open democracy system would have to be well resourced by government and continually monitored by security experts for hostile attacks. Numerous safeguards would have to be in place. I do not doubt the task would be difficult but it is not beyond our ingenuity to do it, especially when we already have a lot of experience in keeping data safe on the Internet. I do not think the few electronic voting experiments which have taken place around the world, accompanied by many controversies, are a good example of such a system. They seem to have been generally one off ventures poorly resourced and poorly executed. An open democracy system would be many orders of magnitude greater in scale and power, a more equivalent system to something like the network of an intelligence agency or very large financial institution.

Obviously such a complex system could not come into existence overnight. I think any shift to a completely Open Democracy would have to go through several stages. That is why parties like the Pirates are so important (as per a previous post). They are the test beds – Pirate Parties around the world are already using Open Democracy software to conduct internal party votes and discuss policy. The basics of such a system are falling into place. In fact, voting and commenting on issues are integral to web 2.0, and these technologies are already becoming refined and familiar to us all. It is no big step to craft this into a tool for debating and voting on legislation.

A key concept is the one of the proxy vote. Obviously not all members of a democracy can participate in everything that is happening all the time. But assuming all votes need a quorum to pass, it is essential to gather votes from offline members. This could occur by members pre-determining their voting intention, and it seems the safest way is by nominating a proxy, who is a member who participates in all votes. These ‘super’ members make their general policy stripes well known and seek to gather the trust of ordinary voters, so as to strengthen their own vote by accumulating proxy votes. They are similar to senators and delegates of the current parliamentary system but the fluidity of an open democracy means that there can be an unlimited number of them, and they can gain or lose our proxy vote at any time, for we can vote directly on any issue and are not forced to use a proxy. Also they are less likely to attract such a specific type of person as is attracted to politics today.

A system similar to this seems to already be in use in Germany by the Pirate Party there. I have no direct experience of it, but only know what I have read. In any case, it seems to me like this is a good basic system for enabling everyone to vote on an issue. The next step is for this vote to mean something in our Democracy. For this to happen, a Pirate Party member needs to be voted by conventional means into Parliament. Once this occurs, Open Democracy can really come into action. All that is required, is for the Pirate Party member to promise to vote in parliament in accordance with a vote that is concurrently held online using the Pirate’s Open Democracy system. In this way, all people using such a system will directly control the vote in parliament. This step would unleash the power of Open Democracy and would also be the point where maintaining confidence in the security of the system would become essential.

I think that seeing this tool in action would be the moment the penny would drop for the ordinary citizen. The moment we see a party member voting as a direct result of our wishes, is the moment we would realize the sham that is democracy today. For when does parliament vote in accordance with our wishes otherwise? Only if they have made an election promise, or it is convenient, or it is as a result of pressure from the press (which is hardly a mouthpiece of the people).


Once this realisation sunk in, a change would begin to occur in the way parties went to election. For what can be their excuse for not enabling direct participation in democracy once it has been proved to work? I can imaging a number of political parties springing up at this point each giving their own version of Open Democracy. There would be a lot of innovation, then a tipping point would be reached when the government would need to look at instituting a nationwide system. This could all happen very quickly, and I can’t really imagine what path things might take. I do think there would be resistance from those who benefit from the current system. Resistance might also come from the final argument mentioned in the start of this post, that people can’t be trusted with true democracy.

This is the hidden truth behind the longevity of the existing system. It works. We don’t go to war too often. The structure of society is preserved year to year. People generally benefit from the status quo. Problems have been ironed out over more than a century of use and critically, the general populace are kept at a safe distance from any real decision making. This is because as a rule, it is generally agreed that people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. And I agree that most of us act self interestedly most of the time, and making decisions for the public good does not come naturally. This is democracy’s fundamental weakness, the threat of ochlocracy (mob rule). Once established, democracy is brilliant at keeping tyrants under control and allowing commerce to occur, but it must protect itself from itself, by obscuring decision making behind closed doors and being unaccountable in a detailed way to the voter.

And on this last objection I don’t really have an answer. I do think that most people are actually capable of behaving sensibly when they really are given the power to change things. I also think that there has to be some way of setting the scope of certain things – we may need to be protected from easily voting up a measure that would give us all 365 holiday days per year. I am sure that such a shift of power would be destabilising to our society – one can only imagine how international markets would react – the whole nation based system of governance could be thrown into disarray. But once the genie is out of the bottle there will be no putting it back, people are not going to hand their vote back to a piece of paper to have it shut away for four years. We will simply have to find a way to make it work – and when we do it will be so invigorating for human society, we will look back at the current times and wonder why such societies considered themselves democratic at all. We have become blind to the inefficiencies of the current system, but once the shutters are opened a sliver by a taste of Open Democracy, there will be no turning away from the light.

Oh and I also had an idea for a floating space port made of thousands of balloons 20-40km above the south pole, but I think I will have to save that story up for another day.

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rivers intimate to mind travel

June 26th, 2012 — 12:11am

In recent posts I have mused on new mental techniques like ‘pistons’ in the mind, and also on the mind experiencing time as dimension(s) beyond the three of the material world. I’m going to work these ideas together here a little more.

Lets conduct an experiment. We are sealed in a room, without windows or doors, and are cut off from the real world entirely. Soon, the landscapes of the mind come to dominate our life. Our thoughts seem tangible and real, no less than the solid walls around us. Occasionally a sound can be heard from the world outside, but it is distant and dream like. Gradually, ‘reality’ becomes a thin veil, and loses its solidity. A chair is no longer just a chair, words become meaningless labels and human society seems an enigma. Actually this ‘experiment’ is occurring wherever solitary confinement is practiced. It is also occasionally adopted by monks seeking to dive within themselves. The diving bell for them is meditation, and without it we are likely to be crushed by the pressures of our own psyche, but when well equipped it is possible to explore these deep places, and I can attest that reality quickly seems to fade away.

And yet we consider the mind to be a reflection of reality, a product of our experiences, so why when we lock ourselves away from these inputs does it seem to increase in strength and excitability? Perhaps we have a sort of internal compressor which amplifies the background noise when there is nothing else there. The noise of our neurons – the hiss and hum. Our own memories become close and material, old tunes play themselves in the head with precision and clarity. During meditation we find the content of the mind is remarkable in its inexhaustible breadth and depth and colour.

I say ‘the content of our mind’ as this is the concept with which we are used to describing it. But lets suppose for a moment that all this material had its own existence. Rather than dredging up ‘saved content’ we are simply tuning into a real phenomena which we call ‘our mind’ but is actually as separate from us as is a waterfall or a bird call. Instead of thinking of these memories as being something we have created and stored for ourselves, or of our thoughts as being something we are somehow in control of or at least responsible for, think of them as sense impressions from a world that is as real as this world is, but different to it. They seem familiar just as the front door of our house is familiar, they seem intimate because there is no one experiencing them but ourselves (it seems). But they are no more ‘ours’ than is the front door of our house ‘ours’, or even our hands and body (which return to earth) truly ‘ours’. These are rules we have borrowed from this world, this reality, they do not necessarily apply to another completely different reality.

Now I’m going to take a leap – imagine that we could experience the whole of time, all its paths and rivulets, not as we do in this world, but all at once. I wonder what it would feel like – perhaps it would seem familiar but incoherent, intangible. Perhaps it would seem like we could control things happening, rewind events and see them play out, perhaps explore different event paths based on alternate choices. We could ‘recall’ past events, and also ‘see’ the future – but there would be no difference between the two because we would not be tied to a particular point so the future and past would be meaningless. What would be the meaning of free will? Perhaps it would all come down to where we placed our attention, how closely we chose to scrutinise, when an infinitude of experiences lay before us. The concept of ‘body’ would be meaningless, this is just a vehicle for experiencing the three dimensional world.

Well this experience, I conjecture, is very close to what we experience as ‘mind’, especially when we shut out the ‘real world’. I propose that we are experiencing, in the background, every day as part of ‘ordinary life’ a genuine other kind of reality. It is simply that which we call ‘dreams’ ‘thoughts’ and ‘memories’, but normally we only skim the surface of it. But it is possible to go deeper. And in some ways it is the same reality as this – but in other ways it goes further – and it is different.

It’s a bit of a bold insane claim, but there might be some key ways to test that our mind is another reality; and not just philosophically. It should be possible to glean bits of evidence from the nooks and crannies of our everyday experience.

Firstly, it should be possible, if time is part of this reality, that we can predict or experience the future to some degree. In fact, I think we have all experienced little hints that this can occur. I am thinking of deja-vu experiences and premonitions. These common experiences are easily explained by this model. It might be possible to access ‘the future’ in a more reliable way, but the idea of time being a ‘single thread’ is unrealistic and so pinpointing an event in ‘the future’ might never be possible. Instead what seems to happen is that you have an ‘aha’ moment, as you experience something that you have experienced before. We have all experienced this. I experience it a lot – even more when I meditated regularly. The only other explanation is that a brain chemical is accidentally triggering the sensation of familiarity. But this theory argues against brain chemicals as the cause, much as cone cells in the eye are not the cause of light, although they do cause us to sense it. As an aside, consider how we do predict the future where possible using rules of logic, cause and effect (eg in the future i will get old). Maybe there are other rules which we are not familiar with. Also if you have trouble accepting time travel, consider that we experience the past all the time – this is simply what memory is.

Secondly, if time is part of this reality, it is likely that we have access to ‘alternate pathways’ of time. I don’t think it is realistic to describe time as a single thread which corresponds to our course through life. It seems like that to us from the perspective of a three dimensional world, when you look at world history as a single thread which can be described. But I think it is more likely that time is a vast network of interconnecting events and patterns which play out across different dimensions. Our limited experience of a certain thread is just a product of our myopic 3d understanding. Once we allow that there are many multiple ‘universes’ (actually still very much this universe) ‘out there’ it actually becomes much easier to conceptualise what experiencing time is like. In fact we are doing it constantly. This is simply the activity of our ‘imagination’. We are used to this experience of a jumbled assortment of sounds, images and sensations – of course we are not used to thinking of them as being reality.

A third test is that it should be possible to make contact with other beings within these time dimensions. This is probably the most unbelievable claim but it flows from the others and is integral to the theory – after all what is a reality if it is not shared? There are several possibilities here. For a start, it could be possible to communicate in some way mentally with others, if they are experiencing the same space and you can interact with them. Second, it should be possible to communicate to some extent with people who have died, or not yet been born, all you would have to do would be to travel to a place in time where they exist (and this raises the question of what birth and death is all about but i won’t go into that). Thirdly it should allow us to communicate with other ‘alien’ beings, as there can be no doubt that there are countless beings out there, many of them just like us.

It is also illuminating to examine the content of our heads in an every day context and consider what or who might be inhabiting that space that is not ourselves. The majority of us have the mental strength to rein in the various thoughts and impulses that exist there, but that doesn’t stop these things from existing. To identify too closely with our thoughts can lead to confusion about who we are – but then ‘who we are’ becomes a central question when meditating.

In our thoughts we can be anyone. However we tend to use our existence in this world as a starting point. It is still necessary to use these real world prompts as a springboard into thought spaces. The two are not separate. The way I conceptualise it, the 3d world is contained within the world of the mind. In fact the world of the mind does not disconnect from this world at any point, if you like the 3d world is the ‘body’ which experiences the next dimension (time) which is what we know of as mind. But how is it all connected?

Consider the universe – its vastness is so mind boggling, we tend to ignore it in order to function. But the fact that it is so mind bogglingly large means it is certain that there are other earths out there, and in fact, I would say it is certain that there are other humans out there. Consider convergent evolution. The skull of a Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are so alike that it can be hard to tell them apart – yet they are completely unrelated species. The shape of their skull is fitting a niche – it doesn’t matter too much the exact pathway that was taken to get there. My poem Our Planet considers that we (humans) are the natural expression of a certain chain of events, a certain limb on the ‘event tree’ and it is without doubt that on planets out there which have experienced similar histories, in order to create a certain niche (the perfect Goldilocks zone), there will be humans. This is simply a matter of convergent evolution. The size of the universe is easily large enough for the ‘earth experiment’ to be run many times. The seeds are simply organic molecules which exist more or less everywhere. If you place a petri dish on the kitchen bench for a few days you will get yeasts. If you place a planet in the goldilocks zone for a few billion years you will get humans. It’s as simple as that.

That should be elementary enough (update: actually, it’s not – see my later post about the Fermi Paradox). But if you really consider the size of the universe you can take it further. Crunching the numbers, it becomes apparent that there should be many, many billions of human colonies that come into being in the course of the life of the universe. These will be to a greater or lesser degree like our own. Some will be very similar. The convergent evolution idea can be applied to societies as well – we already have the notion of ‘history repeating itself’. I think we underestimate how many universal norms are playing themselves out in human society, we tend to imagine ourselves unique and special. Well, there is undoubtedly something unique about us, just as each person is unique – but how unique? A possibility emerges naturally from the enormous size of the universe and immensity of time, which is that you – I – each of us – has close analogues living (not necessarily at the same moment in time) on other planets probably in far flung regions of the universe.

This might all seem very speculative and random, but it is an intrinsic part of the time-is-mind theory. As mind gives us access to alternate pathways of time, and in fact demands that these exist somewhere ‘in reality’, it requires a universe the size of the one we just described in order for this to work. I’m not going to start entertaining ideas of alternate universes. I suppose this is possible but the current universe seems to be big enough. Anyway, for mind to be able to explore all of time, the space between things also becomes immaterial, as distance is just a product of time. What brings things together in this realm, is likeness. So although two events might be occurring at other ends of the universe millions of years apart, from the point of view of mind, they might be intimately connected if they have a likeness to one another. This likeness is as intrinsic a relationship as cause and effect or physical distance between particles. I like to imagine that I am seeing time and space sliced in cross section, and this image has as its parts things that are intimately related by this likeness. In fact the image that is formed by mapping the peculiar connexions between apparently unrelated events might not be unfamiliar. I often amuse myself by thinking that a light switch can in some way perfectly map the rise and fall of the austro-hungarian empire, if only we can make the right links.

Well I suppose I have lost everyone by about now. I am just spilling out my crazy ideas in raw form, courtesy the internet – I haven’t worked out the inconsistencies – for instance at the moment I’m not sure if time is simply a single other dimension placed over the three familiar ones or if there might be multiple additional dimensional component. I suppose it is hopeless but I think there is some good in this idea. It makes some far-out sounding predictions, but nothing that hasn’t been thought of before (predicting the future, telekinesis etc). Crucially, I only think these would be controllable with a lot of mental training (meditation), and perhaps not even then.

What I am reacting against is that we currently sweep all of our dream and imaginative experiences into the scrap heap of ‘mental activity’ with only some fairly pithy explanations for what it is all about (mind rehearsing events for life, etc. With apologies to neuroscientists who I know are working very hard in this area). If we accept that the mind is a keyhole to another genuine reality then first of all we have an explanation for why all this mental activity seems somehow important in its own right, and secondly it frees us from the misconception that we are a random freak event of nature on a far flung arm of the galaxy with no connection or way of relating at all to what’s going on in the rest of the universe. It also explains all my crazy technicolour dream episodes.

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