The decline of Western posture

My partner’s job involves hours looking down a microscope. Thus, her management is hot on ergonomic setups that enable such sustained work. The microscope, the desk, the chair, the computer monitor; all of it has to be just right.

The company I work for has a health and safety officer and an external occupational health assessor that visits regularly. So when you walk through the offices you see raised computer screens, lumbar supports, footrests and wrist-pads added onto keyboards.

When I used to do personal training I worked with the director of a non-profit who experienced regular back and neck pain. He gave the company an ultimatum: shell out several hundred quid for a decent chair or have a director who is absent from work due to chronic injury.

A friend of mine is a strength and conditioning coach. Last year, he brought a new mattress. Four figure expenditure—and, he said, the best money he’s ever spent. Bruce Sterling advised a similar strategy in a talk he gave a while back:

“Whatever is in your time most, what’s taking up most of your time, or in your space most. The stuff that’s closest to your skin, on your skin, inside your skin, in intimate areas. Space and time. That’s what’s going on, that’s where it’s at. That’s where it’s happening.

Common everyday objects. You need to have the best possible common everyday objects.

Number one, a bed. You’re spending a third of your life in the thing. You never take it seriously. Rich people have great beds. You should go out and get the best bed you can get. Money is no object. On a per hour rental basis, beds, super important. The sheets, the pillows, pretty high up there too.

Every morning when you wake up you will thank me for this.

I know you’re resisting it. It’s like: “Why? Why am I buying a fancy bed? It’s bad for me, I’m being taken outside of my comfort zone.”

You live in the thing! Get rid of the wedding china! Get rid of the tuxedos! The exercise equipment you never use! The things you never touch! The heaps of things, the heaps of material objects in your closet and, God help you, your storage locker. Sell them all, buy a bed. Get a real bed.

Get a chair.

I shouldn’t have to tell people who work with computers to get a chair. No, they’d rather whine about their wrists blowing out, their spines blowing out. They wouldn’t come up with a chair that would cost them maybe fifteen cents an hour over the first amortizable period. The world is full of beautifully designed ergonomic chairs. Get a real damn chair!

Sell the other chairs, the fancy chairs, the couch, the over-stuffed thing, your grandmother’s chair. Get rid of your grandmother’s chair, it was never properly built to begin with.

Get rid of it. Get rid of it, if you don’t use it! If you haven’t touched it in a year, get rid of it immediately. Sell it, buy real things you really use.

Now, you’re going to have a lot fewer things, but the actual quality of your life will skyrocket! If you have real shoes. Real underwear. Women, if you use actual cosmetics instead of shoplifting cheap cosmetics, because you’re deeply conflicted about your impulses. Go ahead, it’s on your lips, it’s on your eyelids, get real cosmetics.”

Myself? I’m currently sitting in an Ikea chair (with lumbar support), looking at a screen elevated to match my eyeline, typing on a bluetooth keyboard, opening and closing windows with a vertical mouse. I’m a sucker for ergonomics too, it seems.

But a hundred years ago, “ergonomics” wasn’t even a thing—it came about in the 1950s, I believe. Now it is central to workplace and workspace design—the entirety of our everyday life, in fact. Just how central is illustrated when you consider the average day for the average modern person:

Wake up in bed to a chirping alarm clock. Silence it. Swing legs out of the nest of warmth and onto the carpet. Head to the en-suite bathroom—do the business. Then, don slippers and a dressing gown, go out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen. Put bread in the toaster and pull out a plate from the cupboard and butter from the fridge. Butter the toast and amble, zombie like, to the dining table and take a seat. Eat. Rise and go back upstairs. Shed slippers and dressing gown. Locate outfit for work. Dress. Back downstairs. Grab keys, phone, coat and maybe a banana. Lock the door, unlock the car, and commence the drive to work. Arrive at work and step out the car. Lock it. Head indoors, up in the elevator and dump bag and coat at desk. Head off in search of coffee. Ritual morning small talk with colleagues. Back to desk. Power up computer, begin work. Coffee break. More work. Lunch time. Down in the elevator, outside and to the deli down the road. Sit on a park bench and scoff sandwich. Lunchtime is over. Back inside, up the elevator, to desk. More work. Another break. More work. Home time. Power down. Outside, into car, drive home. Unlock front door, ditch coat and bag. Head upstairs and get changed into gym gear. Back out the door, into the car and down the road. Arrive at gym, go inside and do thirty minutes on the bike and thirty minutes of half-hearted dumbbell exercises. Exercise done. Back home. Shower, slob clothes on, sit on the sofa and watch TV. Maybe a beer with the curry. Back upstairs, set the alarm clock, climb into bed. Sleep.

Question: how many times in that imaginary day did our person undertake an activity that required he go below knee level and above head height? No more than a few times, if we’re being generous. Which is the problem. Modernity is engineered to take place at a narrow and uniform level. Beds; chairs; cars; desks; computers; stairs; handles. It’s all at the most convenient of heights.

extremes and uniformity

Another take: did you know that a high percentage of injuries as people age result from falls? More anecdotally, did you know that most people, as they age, find it difficult to get down on the ground and get back up again, and they find it hard to function for a long time doing tasks involving overhead activity? It’s got something (but not much) to do with the biological degradation of various bodily tissues; it’s cultural. In the West, we have spurned both earth and sky. And as a consequence we’ve given up our postural self-reliance.

SIT ON THE FLOOR

I’m a novice when it comes to vipassana, but one thing I do understand is that when the posture of the body is properly aligned we can sit for hours in a state of mental awareness with no external support. The structure of our hips, spine and upper body are enough to support such prolonged sitting. They are, after all, an efficient anatomical load-bearing structure that has evolved over millions of years. But get the average person to try and sit for an hour on the floor with no support, and what happens? Aches, pains, discomfort. If you don’t believe me, try this simple test: sit on the floor, both legs together and straightened out in front of you, for as long as possible. Illustrated:

sit test result solution

We need chairs to sustain a good posture; we need devices that keep everything at the perfect level; we need four-figure mattresses to support us while we sleep; we need high-tech shoes, tailored insoles and visits to a chiropodist to be able to walk without pain upon the artificially smooth pathways that blanket our villages, towns and cities. Isn’t that absurd? But fortunately it doesn’t have to stay that way.

BACK TO THE WILD

We can counteract the inevitable decline of western posture by taking an Eastern approach. If you google, “traditional Japanese home”, what you will see is nearly-bare rooms outfitted with tatami mats. That’s because traditional Japanese culture is floor-based, with many customs and rituals associated heavily with the ground. For example:

– The Japanese tea ceremony.
– The practice of zazen.
– The use of futons and chabudais in everyday life.
– The art of jujitsu.

All take place on, or make strong use of, the ground. But the ground is only one part of the equation.

Consider humanity’s transition from a wild environment, to what I term a “natural” environment (one that is mostly suited to our physiological structures), to a modern environment. A wild environment contains unbounded variation in landscape and a vast range of capacities in order to live amongst it; a natural environment contains moderately bounded variations in landscape a mild range of capacities in order to live amongst it; a modern environment contains extremely bounded variations and a minimal range of capacities in order to live amongst it. Or, to phrase it more succinctly, the difference between the wild, the natural and the modern is akin to the difference between a raging river, a coastal area complete with life- and coastguards, and an indoor swimming pool.

So, in order to reverse the decline I suggest that we try to expand the range of postures we utilise in everyday life, that we get back to the wild. A typical modern life involves uniform heights and postures, by design. But we can fight back. We can make an effort to sit on the floor. We can make an effort to squat, kneel, crawl, roll and lie, all for random periods. We can incorporate passive and active hanging each day, and get back to our ape-ish heritage. We can forego an increasing dependence on ergonomics and instead invest in the effort to regain postural self-reliance.

Or consider it another way. Most will agree that the tyranny of political correctness is bad for the human mind and society’s soul. But there’s another “PC” which could be just as damaging—postural correctness, the determination of modern life to limit the breadth and depth of physiological states that we can exist in.

Black box reality

Would you be so kind as to undertake a little basic math? Take the idea of a “black box”, “a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs . . . without any knowledge of its internal workings”, and combine it with the concept of a “fractal”, a structure whose dimensions replicate upwards and downward in scale. What do you get? One answer is what Venkatesh Rao calls “the unreasonable depth of reality”:

“Reality just has such mindboggling depth of mindless detail you can keep modelling to infinite weariness.

It just never ends. No matter how much artifice you impose on a piece of reality, 9/10 of it is still left, showing up as territory noise in your knowing map.

And knowing is so fragile. Poof and you’re liminally entangled in unfactored reality again.”

So, perhaps it’s not so much turtles all the way down (and up) as black boxes all the way from the quantum to the cosmic?


Now, you may be wondering what consequences this black-box-reality has for you, or me, or anyone else. Well, simply put, it affects the very essence of how we live. Enter the Father of Fractals, Benoit B. Mandelbroit:

“…consider two ways of looking at the world: as a Garden of Eden or as a black box.
The first is cause-and-effect, or deterministic. Here, every particle, leaf, and creature is in its appointed place, and, if only we had the vast knowledge of God, everything could be understood and predicted.

…How realistic is that? We cannot know everything. Physicists abandoned that pipedream during the twentieth century after quantum theory and, in a different way, after chaos theory. Instead, they learned to think of the world in the second way, as a black box. We can see what goes into the box and what comes out of it, but not what happens inside; we can only draw inferences about the odds of input A producing output Z. Seeing nature through the lens of probability theory is what mathematicians call the stochastic view.”

Seeing the world as a black box means abandoning the godly tools of cause and effect for the very human tools of trial and error. It requires the abandonment of the pursuit of omnipotence and the assumption of aggressive tinkering. Easy to say, harder to do. Especially when the human mind is primed to weave deterministic narratives from the threads of existence.

Yet, this tendency towards narrative creation is just one pitfall in the trial-and-error approach to life. The other, our inability to design sound reality experiments, is just as, if not more, harmful.


Above, Mandelbrot describes a black box which transfigures input A into output Z. Reality ain’t so simple. Typically we’re forced to interact with multiple black boxes at once, all being fed a large number of inputs at the same time and all kicking out a large number of outputs. Consider a typical social situation, a party.

At a party you have multiple people, all with their own black boxes—specifically, a brain and a mind and all the accompanying intentions, expectations, traits, desires and fears. As well as that, there is the relationships between each and every person, there is the influence of the environment the party takes place in—the music, the food, the drink, the spatial layout of the room or building, the weather—and there is the absolute total of their individual and collective history.

Look closely and a simple social gathering becomes an immense collection of black boxes processing input and producing outputs in ways that we can’t at all fathom.

To further deepen the fog of FUD just created, consider this extract which is pulled from the Wikipedia page for “design of experiments”:

“In its simplest form, an experiment aims at predicting the outcome by introducing a change of the preconditions, which is represented by one or more independent variables, also referred to as “input variables” or “predictor variables.” The change in one or more independent variables is generally hypothesized to result in a change in one or more dependent variables, also referred to as “output variables” or “response variables.” The experimental design may also identify control variables that must be held constant to prevent external factors from affecting the results. Experimental design involves not only the selection of suitable independent, dependent, and control variables, but planning the delivery of the experiment under statistically optimal conditions given the constraints of available resources.”

Does the creation of a sound experiment appear conceivable in any real-life situation? What is the use of abandoning cause-and-effect for trial-and-error if it is beyond our capacity to even create a trial from which we can accurately derive error?


The obvious retort to all this is the observation that, despite our un-knowledge, we still make it through such situations. People interact with other people all the time. We seamlessly slip from home environment to workplace to social situation, day in and day out. We make mistakes and we go on—sometimes—to correct them. We act and reflect and after enough cycles we adapt in a way that seems to work.

That I do not dispute. No, what I take issue with is the idea that we can grasp reality with anything resembling certainty. It’s understood that science, as a whole, is a process of falsification and what is considered as scientific knowledge is simply what we know to be least wrong right now. But that often fails to filter down to the level of the individual. Even the person who asserts that he knows nothing is still confident of knowing that.

This seems like epistemological nihilism. It isn’t, really. It is more a confession that my faith in humanity’s ability to know what it knows has been severely shaken in the last few years. And with our transition into a society whose complexity is in danger of surpassing the power of our individual and collective intellect, I can’t see that faith being rebuilt.

Deep fatigue

A quick search tells me that “fatigue” is a “subjective feeling of tiredness” and that, unlike “weakness”, it can be remedied by periods of rest and recovery. I’m also told that fatigue can be both physical and mental. What I am not told, however, is that there is a difference between deep and shallow fatigue.

Shallow fatigue is a linear state: its alleviation requires a stimulus equivalent to the one that created it. For example, a poor night’s sleep can impair the functioning of the central nervous system. You’ll know this if you ever meet me after I’ve worked a night shift and am attempting to reset my body clock by staying awake until the following night. It’s common for me to drop things, be unable to hold a conversation, and generally show an inability to do anything requiring fine motor control. But after a long night’s sleep I’m okay. In contrast, deep fatigue of the CNS requires more than a good night’s sleep to undo. A month of sleeplessness, chronic stress from work and home life, and terrible food will require more than a month to fully recover from. Shallow fatigue is tit-for-tat; deep fatigue must be repaid with exorbitant interest.

Now, consider fatigue of the mind. A mind in a state of shallow fatigue is one that cannot focus and perform cognitively demanding tasks. To the shallowly fatigued mind, both mundane and interesting tasks are a step too far. To remedy this state all that is required is a micro-period of rest and recovery. An afternoon off, a walk around the park with the dog, coffee with a close friend, a session at the gym, perhaps a weekend at a spa. These things offer enough respite to make basic functioning a possibility again. But a mind in a state of deep fatigue? That is a bigger problem to overcome. Imagine someone who is depressed. They see their work as banal, all their relationships are failing, and enjoyment has faded from any and all activities they do or consider engaging in. Some heavy lifting is required to lift someone from this state. Therapy, sabbaticals, a fundamental refactoring of perception.

The soul is susceptible to states of shallow and deep fatigue, too. I often ask myself, “Do the possible joys of life outweigh the inevitable pain and suffering?” Sometimes, I can’t help but answer, “No.” Other times I answer, “Yes.” The former comes about when my soul is in a state of shallow fatigue, when colour has temporarily drained from existence and despair is prevailing. Typically, I circle out of such a funk. However, if I were to always and unequivocally answer, “No”, then my soul would be in a state of deep fatigue and I’d be forced to seriously reconsider my approach to life. Perhaps I’d top myself? Or, more likely, I’d do what Bruce Sterling calls acting dead.

A HUMAN TAXONOMY

So, three components—body, mind and soul—and two degrees of negative states—shallow and deep fatigue. But what about the converse? If the body, mind and soul can exist in states of shallow and deep fatigue, then surely they can exist in states of shallow and deep energy? Yes, but the same distinction applies. If my mind is in a state of shallow energy, then a four-hour block of creative writing will knock me back into neutral. Exertion must be matched by recovery. But if my mind is in a state of deep energy—brought about by a year of good sleep, consistent communion with the wilderness, and lots of fornication—then a four-hour writing block won’t take the edge off of my cognitive facilities.

Let’s look at this a bit closer. Three components and four possible states yield many combinations, but I will provide only six as an example.

human taxonomy

The Empowered is in a state of deep energy across the board. His body, mind and soul are all crackling with potential. Such a person is like a live wire, emitting a force that jumps to anyone who gets too close. Such a person is also, unfortunately, a rarity. Not often across the spectrum of time has there been a person with a deeply energised body, mind and soul. The Degraded exists in a state of deep fatigue. They are in a rut they may never escape from. The prime example of this comes from the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. They existed in a system designed to shunt the body, mind and soul into a state of irrevocable fatigue. For the most part, it worked. The Zealot is someone alight with a religious energy. Such a person endures extreme physical and mental hardship because they have a Purpose. Think of the Prophets through time who were subservient to truth, of founders who run themselves into the ground in pursuit of success, of activists who destroy themselves in the name of compassion, kindness and universal human rights. The Athlete, conversely, relies upon his energised physiological state to negate the presence of mind- and soul-fatigue and The Artist does the same with his energised mind. Finally, The Mediocre excels in no area. He just persists.

CAPITAL ALLOCATION

Of course, the above are static conceptions. The body, mind and soul are dynamic, always becoming fatigued or being imbued with energy. But what I find most interesting about this way of perceiving the human is the ability of one extreme state to compensate for another. For example, The Zealot’s energised soul allows him to endure despite severe contraindications from the mind and body. States of deep energy in the other components do the same. Why does this matter? Well.

The old adage is that Everyone has the same twenty-four hours. Despite some significant disagreements with the notion—for example, the observation that a pro athlete with a full support staff has a radically different time-status than a single mother of three—it’s basically true. But let’s change “time” into something more generic: life capital. And let’s take the character creation process from Dungeons and Dragons as our model for the capital’s allocation.

In D&D, there are two ways to generate scores for the strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma stats. A player creating a character can roll for them, hoping for high scores across the board but also enduring the risk of successive bad rolls. Or, they can take the “standard set” of scores—15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8—and allocate them as most befits the character they are creating. In both cases, balance is the aim—chance or deliberate constraints (ideally) prevent a character from having scores of 20 across the board. A similar handicapping is present in how we allocate our own capital down the separate avenues of body, mind and soul.

Let’s say that across those three axis, each with four degrees, we are allowed six points. That discounts the possibility of becoming Empowered or Degraded (such states occur only in the most unusual of circumstances) and forces us to decide what we will and won’t optimise for. For example, do I put four points into “Soul”, two into “Mind” and accept the resulting deep-fatigue state of the “Body”? Or do I go for two points in each and exist in a pleasant state of neutral mediocrity?

DIAGNOSTIC

The question is, I’ll admit, academic. Allocating life’s capital is too neat an exercise to map onto the messy, dirt-infested, shared student kitchen that is Reality. But what is not academic is the observation that we can assess what state each component of our life is in, and then attempt to alter or prolong it. In this light, the Body-Mind-Soul concept and the accompanying Fatigue-Energy spectrum is not so much a model as a diagnostic tool for existence.

The courageous society

I want to share two stories. The first comes from Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game. The second from Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. Enter Taleb:

“The minute one has evaluation forms, distortions occur. Recall that in The Black Swan I had to fill my evaluation form asking for the percentage of profitable days, encouraging traders to make steady money at the expense of hidden risks of Black Swans, consequential losses. Russian roulette allows you to make money five times out of six. This has bankrupted banks, as banks lose less than one in one hundred quarters, but then they lose more than they ever made. My declared approach was to try to make money infrequently. I tore the evaluation form in front of the big boss and they left me alone.”

And the story from Ordinary Men, a book about the Nazi police battalions sent into Eastern Europe to kill Jews en masse:

“Departing from Bilgoraj around 2:00 a.m., the truck convoy arrived in Jozefow just as the sky was beginning to lighten. Trapp assembled the men in a half-circle and addressed them. After explaining the battalion’s murderous assignment, he made his extraordinary offer: any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out. Trapp paused, and after some moments one man from Third Company, Otto-Julius Schimke, stepped forward … [Captain] Hoffman began to berate Schimke, but Trapp cut him off. After he had taken Schimke under his protection, some ten or twelve other men stepped forward as well. They turned in their rifles and were told to await a further assignment from the major.”

Keep in mind that Trapp addressed five hundred men that morning and not even twenty opted out of mass murder. What was it that made those few able to do that? What was it that enabled Taleb to disrespect his superior and rip up an evaluation form in his face? The answer is given a few chapters later in Ordinary Men:

“The two men who explained their refusal to take part in the greatest detail both emphasised the fact that they were freer to act as they did because they had no careerist ambitions. One policeman accepted the possible disadvantages of his course of action “because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one, but rather an independent skilled craftsman and I had my business back home. . . . thus, it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.”
Lieutenant Buchmann had cited an ethical stance for his refusal; as a reserve officer and Hamburg businessman, he could not shoot defenseless women and children. But he too stressed the importance of economic independence when explaining why his situation was not analogous to that of his fellow officers. “I was somewhat older than then and moreover a reserve officer, so it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance, because I had my prosperous business back home. The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.”

Taleb was a derivatives trader at the time of the above episode; the men who opted out of mass murder had economic independence because of prosperous businesses back home. Material wealth was the foundation of both of the above moral stances. Or, phrased more informally, they had “fuck you money”.

THE FIRST FOUNDATION

“Fuck you money” is a phrase coined, as far as I know, by Taleb. It means possessing enough cash to be able to walk away from employment, to dispense with civility in communication with unpleasant people, to call people on their bullshit and not be afraid of the consequences. An example from “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund” by Paulette Perhach:

“Your boss tells you that you look nice in that dress, asks you to do a spin. Just to get the moment over with, you do.

Your boyfriend asks you how much you paid for it, says it makes you look chubby. You lock yourself in the bathroom until he bangs on the door so hard you think he must have hurt himself. After he falls asleep, you search Craigslist for places, and can’t believe how expensive rent’s gotten around town. You erase your Internet history and go to sleep.

A few weeks later, your boss calls a one-on-one in his office, walks up behind you, and stands too close. His breath fogs your neck. His hand crawls up your new dress. You squirm away. He says, “Sorry, I thought…”

You know what to do. You’re just shocked to find you’re not doing it. You are not telling him to fuck off. You are not storming out. All you’re doing is math. You have $159 in the bank and your car payment and your maxed out credit cards and you’ll die before you ask your dad for a loan again and it all equals one thought: I need this job.

“It’s ok,” you hear your voice saying. “Just forget it.” You scurry out of the room, survey the office half full of women, and wonder how many of them have secrets like the one you’re about to keep.”

That’s the lower end of the scale. Three or four zeroes in the bank makes it possible to move out of an apartment or endure two months unemployed while you apply to other jobs. The upper end of the scale is illustrated by John Goodman in a scene from The Gambler:

Own your home and have liquid assets: that is the position which allows you to play defense and offense. As Peter Thiel points out in Zero to One, cash is “pure optionality”. It allows you to pursue opportunities almost as quickly as they arise. But more importantly, cash is pure redundancy. It’s a backup for when the critical components of your life—work, relationships, reputation—fail. (Of course, there are limits to the virtue of cash—an apocryphal saying in finance is “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” This is also tied up with the idea of HODLing cryptocurrencies—holding on for dear life, having enough assets to outlast the volatilities of the cryptocurrency market. It takes a lot of cash to win a game of Chicken with Time.)

THE SECOND FOUNDATION

Wealth is one enabler of moral behaviour. Taleb ripping up an evaluation form seems minor, but it is still a refusal to compromise in the face of a usually persuasive authority—a boss. In contrast, opting out of a situation in which enormous social pressures are at play—alienation from comrades, potentially evoking the displeasure of the totalitarian Nazi state, amongst others— definitely requires moral courage. But is there not something else that enables morally courageous behaviour besides wealth?

Corporate whistleblowers go up against tremendous adversity. They lose their jobs; they are blacklisted in their industry; smear campaigns are unleashed upon them; their families and friends are threatened, either indirectly by association with a supposed pariah or directly by warnings concerning the stability of their own employment; legal proceedings are opened up which offer bankruptcy and imprisonment as prophecies of their future. And all this persists for years, not weeks or months. Some, in the face of such opposition, back down. Others acknowledge this and proceed anyway. Why? Because alongside wealth as a foundation of morally courageous behaviour stands dignity.

In 1986, Richard Feynman was asked to participate in an investigation of the Challenger disaster. He went about it with his usual rigour and tenacity, despite being ill with cancer, and found the cause: little rubber “O-rings” that degraded at ice-cold temperatures. The commission attempted to hide his findings, which Feynman sourced from discussions with engineers and technicians instead of high-level executives, but Feynman fought back: his findings were published, albeit as Appendix F of the report. What compelled him to persist? Feynman was dying, and he was a successful physicist, anyway. He didn’t need the validation or the exposure or the credit. Simply put, Feynman believed in telling the truth, no matter how unpalatable the consequences for those associated with it.

DIGNITY AND/OR WEALTH

Wealth and dignity are the foundations upon which morally courageous behaviour is built (“dignity” here is a catch-all for integrity, principles, ideals etc.). Possessing both makes morally courageous behaviour a near-certainty. But what about other mixes? I refer to a 2×2:

wealth x dignity

Someone like Taleb, at this point in time, has both wealth and dignity. Thus, he can engage in Twitter brawls and speak out against corporations without fear of retribution. Someone with only wealth could engage in morally courageous behaviour—they are in a position to challenge and endure the assaults of otherwise unchallengeable authority, should they see fit. And someone without wealth but possessing dignity could also act with moral courage. Recall that of the millions who entered the concentration camps only a select few resisted, amongst them the Sonderkommandos—the inmates assigned to clear the corpses of the gassed. This is not a criticism of those who did not resist. Far from it. It was just that the Nazis were masters of human degradation and presented themselves as implacable forces of power and destruction. What person, when sleep deprived, starved, worked within an inch of death, suffering from disease and stripped of all humanity and identity, would resist the Nazi state and the SS officers who carried out its will? I wouldn’t have. But the Sonderkommandos were pushed to the furthest limit. Their very humanity, the essence of their dignity, was threatened—so they revolted.

But with no wealth and no dignity, with no resources and no higher ideals or moral scruples? Courage is an improbability.

TOWARDS A COURAGEOUS SOCIETY

I’m assuming that we would like our society to act courageously—to stand up to corruption, to fight exploitation and inequality, to promote universal human rights, to opt out of destructive practices, to put an end to violence, to be compassionate towards one another. But how do we go about getting that to happen? One way is to focus on dignity, to raise the baseline of education and ensure that the generations growing up now are exposed to multiple cultures and imbued with an understanding of the importance of basic human values like freedom and security. The other way is to focus on wealth.

Campaigners for basic income and the provision of fundamental amenities (like healthcare, water, electricity, shelter) across the spectrum of society cite many benefits to such a policy. Increased happiness, better working conditions, increased productivity, a reduction of inequality, empowerment of minorities and the disenfranchised, and so on. But one thing I never see advocated is the idea that basic income would enable a society to be more courageous. Imagine that, because of a universal basic income, no one has to worry about paying rent or feeding their family. Do abusive bosses last that long in such an environment? Can corporations take advantage of employees or citizens? Will ordinary people debase themselves and squander their dignity just to keep their job or preserve the reputation that their employment depends upon? I don’t think so.

No. If we want to become more courageous as a society, focusing on education and enlightenment is not a bad choice. But a better choice, at this point in time, would be to focus on wealth. The former takes decades, centuries even. The latter can happen a lot faster. And it’s not that we don’t have the resources or the technology. All we lack is the unified will.

Unmasking the self

“Know yourself” is perhaps the most famous philosophic dictum. It’s often attributed to Socrates, but it actually first appeared as one of the one-hundred and forty-seven Delphic maxims, which include such sage advice as:

Φίλοις βοήθει (Help your friends)
Σοφίαν ζήλου (Long for wisdom)
Κοινὸς γίνου (Be impartial)
Γυναικὸς ἄρχε (Rule your wife)
Ἄρρητον κρύπτε (Keep deeply the top secret)
Εὖ πάσχε ὡς θνητός (Be well off as a mortal)

I happen to agree that “Know yourself” is sound philosophical advice. However, most interpret it as a call to introspection, as opposed to a desirable end state. It’s understood as a process, not an outcome. Which is a problem.

Generally speaking, when you attempt to “know yourself” you are faced with a simple choice. Imagine a spectrum with 100% Reality on one end and 100% Narrative on the other. The choice is between which end you choose to move towards. If you head towards the “narrative” end of the spectrum you are selecting the route of self-help, which in my reckoning is the imposition of order upon life’s inherent chaos. It is the conscious search for meaning, for a story, for a metaphor, for a narrative to live by, and it’s possible to acquire and live by one without doing untold harm to yourself or others in the process. There’s few problems heading in this direction.

The problems occur when you head towards the other pole, when you try to introspect towards the reality of the self. It’s possible to move without harm in that direction for a little while—coming to terms with the chaos of existence is what philosophy is all about, after all. But go too far and you realise that the reality of the self is ungraspable. As Venkatesh said on RefactorCamp.org:

“You’ve heard about the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’.

There’s also what you could call ‘the unreasonable depth of reality’

Reality just has such mindboggling depth of mindless detail you can keep modelling to infinite weariness.

It just never ends. No matter how much artifice you impose on a piece of reality, 9/10 of it is still left, showing up as territory noise in your knowing map.

And knowing is so fragile. Poof and you’re liminally entangled in unfactored reality again.”

In fact, in your grasping for reality you mistakenly pick up a narrative. Attempts to introspect to the reality of the self actually take you further way from it—towards a narrative of the self. Take half an hour and sit with yourself. Just breathe. What do you notice? Ephemeral impulses and strange thoughts rising out of the muddy water of the mind, probably. Do this daily for a long enough period and you’ll find patterns in your thoughts, commonalities in what you reach for and what you push away. This pattern recognition gives rise to narrative creation and pretty soon you have a compelling story that imbues your actions with energy but arises from attempts to denarrate. It’s an illusion, though. You are no closer to knowing yourself. You’ve just found a convenient story.

This is not to say that you can’t know yourself. You can, but not via introspection. Boggarts, basketball players and concentration camp survivors indicate why.

TEMPORAL DISPARITIES

If you’ve read the Harry Potter novels you’ll know what a boggart is. It’s a magical creature that, when faced by a witch or wizard, assumes the shape of that person’s deepest fear. And how does one defeat it? Confusion and humour.

In the The Prisoner of Azkaban, during a Defence Against the Dark Arts class, Lupin’s students all line up and take it in turns confronting the boggart. As it is forced to rapidly transition between shapes, it becomes vulnerable to assaults of humour. Why? The magical students are disorientating the boggart by manipulating the tempo at which it has to change its form. It’s a Wizarding World utilisation of the OODA loop. For another example, consider this video.

Stephen Curry creates a temporal disparity. In the video, he was on the three point line with a defender rushing towards him. Curry faked a shot, then faked a dribble as if he was going to move past the defender, but instead of moving closer to the basket he stayed in his original spot and drained the three. The defender realised he was caught out by the fake, then saw Curry moving towards the basket so he turned to chase him down, but Curry wasn’t there.

This is analogous to how you catch out a certain type of person; the courtier. In medieval times, and modernity, the aim of the courtier is to be all things to all people. This works, but only if the courtier can perform relationships in private. Imagine that the courtier shows contempt for the king to one person and admiration for the king to another. Such a two-faced strategy falls down when he has to interact with both those people at the same time. He will likely have to reveal his inauthenticity to one person or the other, or rely on ambiguity to guide him through the impasse. In this case, the complexity of a situation strips the mask away against the courtier’s will.

Another example. Special forces training. We’ve all heard of things like “hell week” where candidates are deliberately deprived of sleep, where their dignity is purposely stripped away, where they are exposed to isolation and humiliation. The motive behind such uncivil treatment is not, as many think, sadism or cruelty. It is pragmatism. Under extreme duress all affectation falls away. S.A.S. officers, for example, don’t care how you act when times are good. They want to see what you do when you haven’t eaten for two days and are trapped in a hostile environment and have minimal resources and are up against titanic odds and are severely fatigued. They want to see the best of you in the worst of times.

The above examples are about the revelation of character via adversity, which reveals in a way that introspection alone cannot. As Primo Levi says in The Drowned and the Saved:

“No one can know how long and what torments his soul can resist before crumpling or breaking. Every human being has reserves of strength whose measure he does not know; they may be large, small, or nonexistent, but the only means of assessing them is severe adversity. Even without invoking the extreme case of the Sonderkommandos [the inmates responsible for removing corpses from the gas chambers post annihilation], we survivors commonly find that when we talk about our experience our listeners say, “In your place, I wouldn’t have lasted a day.” This statement has no precise meaning; you are never in someone else’s place. Each individual is an object so complex that it is useless to try to predict behaviour, especially in extreme situations; we cannot even predict our own behaviour.”

We exist in a permanently masked state so all attempts to look in a mirror, no matter how precise or long the effort, are fundamentally flawed. It’s as useless as trying to dig through a concrete floor with your fingers. We can’t see past the mask we wear. But others can. Which has consequences for the concept of self-knowledge.

PINGING REALITY

One of the simplest ways to test a network is with a ping command. Quite simply, you send out packets of data to a URL or IP address and the time they take to come back—minimum, maximum and average—gives you an insight into the functioning (or malfunctioning) of the network you’re testing. This is how self-knowledge works too. A device will ping a URL or IP address; we have to ping existence and other people. Restated: others observing and responding to our existence is how we accumulate self-knowledge.

Consider the strategic cliche, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Have you ever considered the logic behind it? Well, if we do and we do so with the unachievability of introspective self-knowledge in mind, then it becomes apparent that the reason to keep your enemies close has less to do with knowing about them than with what they can teach you about yourself. What is an enemy’s objective? Inflict tremendous chaos at a rate greater than we can possibly handle, initiating our ultimate downfall. Thus, a good enemy will unwittingly plant the seeds for his own defeat—by exposing us to chaos and adversity, he allows chaos to unmask us, and by his consequent actions reveals to us what he finds, and so gives us an opportunity to leverage that gift of knowledge. A friend is less likely to do this—they shield us and unwittingly harm us, preventing us from gathering self-knowledge and continuing to obscure the things we most need to know about ourself—specifically who we are in our naked, mask-less state.

This is how we have to go about knowing ourselves. Not via hermit-like retreats into the forest or solemn contemplation in a Buddhist temple atop a mountainside. Not even by half an hour of vipassana meditation every morning—that only helps us look out into the world with clarity, not into the self. No. We must seek interaction with the adversity that existence presents to us and derive information about ourself from our relationships with others—both strangers and intimates, both allies and enemies.

Death isn’t dying

I have a self-professed interest in “practical philosophy”, in the questions of life and the question of death. The latter I have written about many times. Most recently, in an essay called Near-Deathness, I proposed that peak-life is near-death. Not long after penning it, I came up with a visual complement to the piece involving Rodin’s thinker and a cliff edge.

Near-Deathness

But that was just the conclusion of the countless times over the past three years that I have entertained the idea of death and mortality. I wrote a series about ego death, about the countdown to death, about death as motivation for the Great Men of history, about mortality’s role in societal progress, about humanity’s true war, about the ultimate victory, and about the freefall. I’ve read about different philosophical systems that maintain that the contemplation of death and dissolution is key. I’ve read accounts of trials and tortures, from antiquity through to the concentration camps and the Soviet gulags. I’ve read fiction and non-fiction about people who fight death, ally with it and transcend it.

So, there I was, thinking I too had a firm grasp on the Reaper’s Scythe. Nope. I overlooked a fundamental distinction: death isn’t dying.

HEART ATTACK

Reality has conspired to compel me to realise and consider this. First, I read Jean Amery’s At the Mind’s Limit. In it, Amery says:

“To put it briefly and tritely: just like his unintellectual comrade, the intellectual inmate did not occupy himself with death, but with dying. Then, however, the entire problem was reduced to a number of concrete considerations. For example, there was once a conversation in the camp about an SS man who had slit open a prisoner’s belly and filled it with sand. It is obvious that in view of such possibilities one was hardly concerned with whether, or that, one had to die, but only with how it would happen. Inmates carried on conversations about how long it probably takes for the gas in the gas chamber to do its job. One speculated on the painfulness of death by phenol injections. Were you to wish yourself a blow to the skull or a slow death through exhaustion in the infirmary?

For all that, if one is free it is possible to entertain thoughts of death that at the same time are not also thoughts of dying, fears of dying. Death in freedom, at least in principle, can be intellectually detached from dying: socially, by infusing it with thoughts of the family that remains behind, of the profession one leaves, and mentally, through the effort, while still being, to feel a whiff of Nothingness. It goes without saying that such an attempt leads nowhere, that death’s contradiction cannot be resolved. Still, the effort contains its own intrinsic dignity: the free person can assume a certain spiritual posture towards death, because for him death is not totally absorbed into the torment of dying. The free person can venture to the outermost limit of thought, because within him there is still a space, however tiny, that is without fear. For the prisoner, however, death had no sting, not one that hurts, not one that stimulates you to think. Perhaps this explains why the camp inmate–and it applies equally to the intellectual as well as to the unintellectual–did experience agonising fear of certain kinds of dying, but scarcely an actual fear of death.”

Second: not long after I read the above a colleague died of a heart attack. He was fifty-one and would definitely be classified by Amery as an “unintellectual”. I haven’t one single, negative memory of him, and as I absorbed the news in the quiet of my home I contemplated his dying—not his death. How did it happen? What was he doing? What was his last thought? Was it remorse for the things he had not done? Gratitude for the things he had? Or was it nothing so high—simply a commentary on the evolving pain in his chest, the shortness of breath, the fading of consciousness? Was it the panic of a cornered animal looking for an escape from the inevitable? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. The man was good and he went, as most do, too soon.

THE FREEZING RUSSIANS

Due to the combination of Amery’s essays and my colleague’s passing, I revisited my position on all things regarding mortality. And, unsurprisingly, I found my stances inadequate. For example, I had gone along with Montaigne’s famous idea that “to philosophise is to learn how to die”, and in the process I had determined that those who did not philosophise did not know how to die. Bizarre.

As I’ve noted before, history is remarkably opaque. So while I’m familiar with the heroic deaths of Warrior Kings and the noble deaths of the Senecas and the Catos, I managed to skip over the death and dying of the millions of nameless and faceless extras who took part in the dramatic episodes of history. These unknowns likely did not philosophise, but that does not mean they died in a manner any less glorious or heroic than the figures who grace the pages of our distorted and dirty history. Take the case of the freezing Russians, which I came across in “The New Order” chapter of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

“It was the worst experiment ever made. Two Russian officers were brought from the prison barracks. Rascher [the Nazi “doctor”] had them stripped and they had to go into the vat naked. Hour after hour went by, and whereas usually unconsciousness from the cold set in after sixty minutes at the latest, the two men in this case still responded fully after two and a half hours. All appeals to Rascher to put them to sleep by injection were fruitless. About the third hour one of the Russians said to the other, ‘Comrade, please tell the officer to shoot us.’ The other replied that he expected no mercy from this Fascist dog. The two shook hands with a ‘Farewell, Comrade’ . . . These words were translated to Rascher by a young Pole, though in a somewhat different form. Rascher went to his office. The young pole at once tried to chloroform the two victims, but Rascher came back at once, threatening us with his gun . . . The test lasted at least five hours before death supervened.”

These unfortunate Russians likely didn’t spend their time as I have, in material comfort ruminating upon the meaning and method of physical torture and refining their spiritual postures, but I suspect they died in a manner that surpasses anything I’d be capable of in a similar scenario.

A POOR IMITATION

Death can be contemplated, endlessly actually, but you only get one shot at dying. There aren’t really any rehearsals. In part, this is why I hold to the importance of experiencing physical discomfort. The concrete experience of pain is a poor imitation of what it is to die, but a poor imitation is better than no imitation, right? So I practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So I push hard when I weight train or cycle. So I take cold showers. So I fast.

It’s not much, I’ll admit. But since contemplating death is no guarantee of help when dying, what other option do I have?

Removing the normative

If I show you this symbol…

466px-Yin_yang.svg

…the chances are your thoughts will take on a familiar tint. After all, that symbol is globally known as the idea of yinyang. The idea that forces like dark and light, good and evil, suffering and joy are complementary and interconnected, instead of contrary and incompatible with one another. X and Y, not X or Y. It’s a symbol that, by itself, makes a strong argument for the absence of universal dichotomies.

If I show you this symbol, however…

triangle of life new

I suspect your mind will flick to a question: What that?

Answer: it’s what I prefer in place of the yinyang symbol. Forgive my presumption, but I think the yingyang symbol—the symbol that has persisted for thousands of years—is lacking something very important. A bit of grey. In The Value of Grey Thinking, Shane Parrish says:

“It’s only once you can begin divorcing yourself from good-and-bad, black-and-white, category X&Y type thinking that your understanding of reality starts to fit together properly. Putting things on a continuum, assessing the scale of their importance and quantifying their effects, understanding both the good and the bad, is the way to do it. Understanding the other side of the argument better than your own, a theme we hammer on ad nauseum, is the way to do it. Because truth always lies somewhere in between, and the discomfort of being uncertain is preferable to the certainty of being wrong.”

In itself, this is a basic idea: think in spectra, not dichotomies. In fact, this is basically what the yinyang symbol asserts. However, my triangle—which I have modestly dubbed “The Triangle of Life”—makes this a concrete, instead of an abstract, suggestion. It says that there is a third option. Not just thesis and antithesis, but synthesis. Some more examples, presented in black; white; grey format:

Action; reflection; life.
Heuristics; questions; philosophy.
Body; mind; breath.
Physical courage; intellectual courage; moral courage.
Descriptive; normative; prescriptive.

It is the latter trio which I really want to talk about.

PROBLEMS OF MODERNITY

The previously mentioned triangle can be refactored into the most fundamental of goal setting systems.

1) Define your A—where you are.
2) Define your B—where you want to go.
3) Create the bridge.

In this sense, A is analogous to a descriptive model, B is analogous to a normative model, and the bridge is analogous to a prescriptive model. Thus:

the grey bridge

Now, allow me to pose a question with the descriptive-normative-prescriptive trio in mind: What is one of the core problems of modernity?

The emphasis on the normative.

Think of Instagram and other social media. It’s commonly observed that they compel us to present the highlight reel of our lives. This is a problem because, due to the nature of the human mind, we tend to fill in the gaps between posts by imagining more of the same. The perception we have of other’s lives is what we see on Insta. The perception of our own life is what we live through—which is usually far less exhilarating that what comes up in our feed. We see other’s lives through the lens of the normative and our own through a descriptive lens, and all the time we are bombarded by individuals and organisations telling us how to bridge the vast and terrifying chasm between the two.

There have been some responses to this. For example, some people try to be more “authentic”. They try to be more self-deprecating with their posts or highlight the mundaneness of their life. It’s done with good intentions, but it’s still harmful in it’s own way. Think of artistic “vulnerability”, the way an artist uses their own flaws in their work. Are they being “real”? No way. Those flaws, those vulnerabilities, those banalities are still presented in an alluring manner.

A less recent response to the emphasis on the normative is the annales school of history, which prioritises focus on day-to-day life at the local level instead of narrating grand geopolitical narratives and telling stories of the great men and women who occupy the lead roles in such dramas.

Those are just two examples, but we can go further back in time to see how different modernity truly is.

PERFECTION AND PECULIARITIES

Before modernity, we knew only local maxima. Possibilities were bound by geography. The biggest bully in town was synonymous with the biggest bully in our reality. The smartest person in the village was the smartest person we knew, full stop. Now, we have access to global maxima. We can learn about the biggest bullies and the smartest people, and when we learn of them we also learn of the great distinction between them and us. Body image is typical of this. We’re surrounded by images of the most beautiful people in the world and it makes us painfully aware of our own physical peculiarities.

We’re bombarded with normative models, overwhelmed with prescriptive suggestions, and forced to endure the full experience of our decidedly non-normative lives.

NO MORE NORMATIVE

I’m mentioning this because as soon as I realised that one of modernity’s problems is an emphasis on the normative, I had a question. What happens to the human condition in the absence of normative models?

The obvious objection is that the human condition is bound by its features to create one. Consider the religions of antiquity and the people that followed them. They lived amongst local maxima, but still had deities to measure themselves against. True, but these deities were cosmic in nature, not of this world. A cosmic deity doesn’t provoke the same discord in the human spirit as a real world, human icon. Back to the question.

There are, essentially, three possibilities: the human condition will improve, degrade, or remain the same. That is what’s possible, but what is probable? Improvement, I think. In the absence of a normative model I believe that humanity would engage in philosophical bricolage. We would experiment, keeping that which results in better and discarding that which results in worse. I don’t know why I think this. Perhaps it’s an innate faith in the relentlessness of man? Or more likely, it’s a belief that, regardless of his condition, man interprets life as a series of questions to which he is compelled to find an answer.

Of course, this question is too abstract to have much bearing on how we actually live. So, I’ll switch it up. If I am partially correct and modernity emphasises the normative more than is healthy, what can you or I do? Nothing—if our aim is to change that on the societal level. But we can correct for that emphasis in our own life by gutting our environment of normative models. If you must stay on social media, try to ensure the accounts you follow are descriptive, instead of normative (or prescriptive). If you must consume other media, make a point of reminding yourself that art is the distillation of life, not its replica. And if you must worship someone or aspire to something, make it cosmic. The mundane cannot hope to successfully mimic that which is not of this world, so it is a less anxiety-generating pursuit. You’ll find more peace—and probably more prosperity—in the worship of Jesus than in the slavish admiration of a Kim or Kanye.