When the cage of everything that makes sense is not sufficient, perhaps it’s time to pick the lock.
Sometimes we just feel bad, off, bored, frustrated, or angsty and can’t seem to figure out why. Usually by this time we’ve already done all of the usual feel good techniques we know about, hopefully seen a doctor, talked to a therapist, checked to see if our friends are assholes and have given whatever it is some time in case it just fixes itself. In happy cases, just a little extra oomph and the problem resolves itself, but just as often it seems to make the problem worse. This is about those times.
1. Who Are We
In times of crisis, especially a melancholic-quarter-mid-meaning-existential-transition-life-crisis, what is often needed is a re-shifting of worldview. What I mean by worldview is the primary objects and relationships between those objects that we care about and use. The classifications, language, concepts and ways of valuing that we use as we go about our day. Our ontology.
To give you a taste of what I’m talking about here are some extremely caricatured examples of worldviews:
Activist Hippie – This person’s world is primarily filled with deep senses of emotion and interconnectedness. Their world has an intensity of feeling and embodiment. They see and architecturally understand current social systems and how they perpetually advantage some groups of people and disadvantage others. They have a felt if not cognitive sense of sustainability and eco-systems. Liberation is part of their telos. Rituals, mass gatherings, and vulnerability between friends are explicitly essential to their way of being. They are certainly able to add numbers and follow chains of reasoning, but it is always within a narrative structure.
Rationalist Techie – This person’s world is primarily filled with evaluation of logical argument and friendly debates. They take science as a quasi-religion, and are deeply interested in methodological rigor. They prefer well defined rules and systems which make predictions whose results have a high degree of accuracy. They understand physical technology and like to engineer things. Games allow them to exercise their cognitive capacity on simpler worlds and challenging debate between friends helps keep them honest. They may enjoy stories, but find emotion and narrative to lead to distortions of fact.
These descriptions are hyper simple, two word labels are gross stereotypes. The point is to notice that the subjective world they experience is radically different because the ‘things’, the primary objects, which their world consists of are quite different. This is true even when they seem to be talking about the same thing. Not only are their goals with that ‘same thing’ often subtly different, but the connections to other objects and frames through which they view it can be pretty diverse.
That doesn’t mean that all worldviews are equal, or that understanding each other well is impossible… that’s the postmodern nihilism trap. In any given context, some worldviews are simply better or more useful than others. They are not arbitrary. However, if we aren’t accustomed to testing out new worldviews then we are inherently stuck in the problem of evaluating one worldview from the perspective of another as opposed to evaluating worldviews between each other.
It’s not about “How rational are activist hippies? Do they even understand the technology” and it’s not “How is this technology perpetuating a world of depression or harming a minority class?”.
It’s about “In this context, in this situation, which lens would be most appropriate for the benefit of myself and the world at large?”. It’s about asking “What can one of these worlds learn from the other?”.
2. What’s In A World
When we think of a worldview it can be tempting to frame things as ‘correct vs incorrect’. But this is often mistaking the map for the territory. Think about how theories of the world come into existence. At some point, someone looks at a phenomena for a long time and thinks to themselves, “hmmm, maybe it’s X”, and then tries to see if X ‘fits’.
The problem comes when we equate passing experimental tests with equivalent to reality as opposed to seems works well for some domain.
Something like physics, in which the complexity is fairly low and the ability to isolate variables is high, allows for rigorous use of the scientific method. This along with the the boundary line for what physics makes claims about (i.e. all the components of material stuff) gives the ability to extrapolate expectations from a given theory which are fairly broad. So testing in this case means extrapolating what should also be the case if the theory is correct and experimenting to see if that’s the case.
Now it’s important to note that even in physics, theories are contingent, human drawn, and incomplete. Often times this distinction seems and is completely pedantic. 99.99999% of the time, the boundary and model of ‘atom’ works perfectly well and pointing out that it’s just a model just means you’re a snothead who should speak less, listen more, and do some work. The same is true for natural mesoscopic objects… like banana. It’s true that the boundary of ‘banana’ is in some sense created by us, but that boundary has been carved by millions of years of species survival as fucking useful. Not only is it useful, it’s almost certainly more beautiful and meaningful than other possible boundary lines. It carves the world in fundamentally more interesting ways.
Recognizing the constructedness of our ontology, the ways we carve our reality via models, becomes useful and non-pedantic when we encounter a problem or scenario that our current models are not useful for.
On the intra-domain side of things, that could be because it’s unable to or incorrectly predicts some observed phenomena that it should. So the atom becomes sub-atomic particles which become quantum field excitations… for the common peasant like myself, saying the world is made of ‘quantum field excitations’ is equivalent to telling me everything is made of magic soup, but as long as the magic soup builds nifty MRI machines I’m happy. It’s not clear to me personally if we should even expect this series of paradigm shifts to ‘bottom out’ to something that is as good as it’s going to get, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes right now.
On the inter-domain side of things, which frankly I think is the more important of the two, we can very usefully talk about object boundaries when no field we know of seems to be able to usefully talk about the area of reality we are interested in. Physics is useless for talking about economics, gender norms, or adult attachment. Some might claim that particle physics could in theory be used to describe something like psychology. But there is no way to even come close to doing this and my guess is that there is actually some limit of computation such that it could be shown that it’s impossible to usefully model psychology with particle physics.
If it can’t be used to describe higher level phenomena, then it actually doesn’t describe higher level phenomena, even if they are ‘built’ or are emergent from some lower level phenomena. In other words, reductionism, the idea that higher level phenomena reduce to lower level phenomena is just not workable. I think our current society has a bit of a micro-fetish but maybe society is just trying to make up for some sort of insecurity. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Anyway, back to the point. We have to bundle reality into abstractions in order to make any progress on them, those abstractions are incomplete descriptions of reality, and they are only applicable to particular domains of reality at a certain scale.
This is also true of really complex things like psychology. Psychology models, similar to physics, comes from someone experiencing reality and asking “what if?” But the difference is that psychology has a whole shitstorm of factors, and it’s not clear what’s a component of a system, what’s a byproduct of societies current niche configuration, and what’s total poop. That’s not to say that we can’t or don’t make actual progress. I definitely think psychology is ahead of where it was 100 years ago. Attachment theory being a prime example of something that seems stably useful, but clearly only a very small part of the psychology puzzle.
3. Bad But Good
The real humdinger though is that a theory can be pretty shallow, have contradictions within itself if you look too closely, seem nonsensical, be inconsistent and even make claims contrary to well established experimental evidence but still be useful! How could this be?
There’s at least three ways (and some important warnings):
A. Good Practice Bad Explanation
It’s pretty easy for some model, however bad it may be, does manage to capture some pattern or aspect of reality better than your other models do. Of course it’s possible that the pattern it captures is completely unrelated to the pattern that it claims to capture. Which makes the theory aspect of it unstable, but may make whatever actions that theory lends itself to as very useful in the absence of an ontology that does carve out those sections of reality which the ‘bad’ theory is unknowingly operating on.
It’s pretty easy to get hung up on this one as understanding that a bad theory can be useful, but that it’s ‘not true’. But we also need to remember that classical physics is also ‘not true’ in the sense that quantum mechanics seems to describe reality better with less inconsistencies, but that it works well for many things. Again that doesn’t mean everything is equal, classical physics is higher quality than almost all theories, but the domains it operates on is limited. If some way of looking at the world seems to be beneficial and you don’t allow its benefit to happen because it’s a bad, illogical, contradictory theory… you’ll be missing out.
Warning on this one: Obviously the less ‘tight’ and consistent the results are from some way of looking at the world the quicker you should throw it away for another way of looking at the world. The two main dangers here are: One — Gathering too many shallow worldviews and getting massively confused, and Two — finding worldviews which give a lot of short term gain at the expense of long term wellbeing, A.K.A are essentially addicting.
B. State Based Usefulness
Some ways of looking at the world are useful because they put you in a different state of being or are illogical precisely because they aren’t talking through a logical lens. They make you more emotional, socially connected, or allow you to fantasize and be creative. Suffice to say that the state you’re in plays a big role both in how your body does it’s thing internally as well as how well you perform different kinds of actions externally. Everything from immune system functionality and blood flow to lateral thinking and interpersonal connectedness are affected by what state you’re in. I haven’t cracked the code on this one, but there’s some big mojo in it.
Warning on this one: Basically the same as the previous one. Easy to get confused trying to put yourself in a ideal state versus shutting up and doing what needs to be done. Easy to get addicted to absorbative states, and easy to be chanting naked with a djembe when you need to be doing your taxes.
C. In Over Our Heads
Another possibility is that the worldview is at a meta-level we don’t have experience with or understand. Spiritual and adult development folks will undoubtedly get a boner at this… I know I do. Basically if we haven’t taken the consistent things in our experience and taken them as objects, allowing us to notice the relationships between them, then anyone talking about those relationships will probably sound like they are spewing nonsense. (David Chapman is a canonical resource here, primarily targeting the limitations of cult rationality.)
If I talk about crossing paradigms to someone who is learning systematic thinking for the first time, at best they will understand a very distorted version of what I mean. The same is true if I’m talking about code architecture and they’re just learning how to code or if they’re a child that understands there’s a difference between what a mommy, brother, sister, and mailman is, but I’m trying to explain marxism to them. It’s important to remember this process of looking at the top level things in our ontological reality and seeing what’s going on with them happens repeatedly, and continues to happen even though we’ve become ‘adults’.
From my current perspective it seems like a lot of spirituality and adult development research converges although there is much I haven’t read and there’s many dimensions that can be conflated. In the spirituality realm there’s a just an unending amount of junk to wade through because of differing contexts, languages, and advances in material understanding. If we give the Buddha, Plato, Jesus, or Lao Tzu the benefit of the doubt and assume they had some genuine insight, you still have to fight against their language, world, and context being substantially different than ours. Not only that but the method of transmission from thoughts in their head to words in front of our face is muddy at best. Almost all of their contemporaries were illiterate peasants, the translators needed to understand their thought with limited distortions, stories are often used to convey principles making it difficult to distinguish what was principle and what was just incidental story, and even if they did grasp a ‘higher’ frame that does genuinely encompass more of reality… the world which they viewed through that frame still thought everything was made of earth, fire, wind, and water or something similar.
Warning on this one: The biggest thing here is that if you do catch the meta-bug it’s easy to chase empty holes that are actually just garbage hoping to reach some hidden vista from which it all makes sense. There’s also a tendency to chase enlightenment to cure your pains when you just need to be out of financial debt and make good life choices.
But also… there’s some juicy juicy juice down this path.
The real clusterfuck is of course that all three of these can be operating at the same time. It’s like if you’re trying to decide if Tai-Chi or physical therapy would make you feel better before diving in… good luck soldier, god speed. Maybe chi and meridian lines can’t be found in the body and there’s no scientific evidence for them, but maybe they are like emotions… you can’t cut someone open and find their anger. Of course meridian lines are pretty darn close to nerve lines, so maybe they’re just outdated theories of nerves kept around for tribal integrity. So maybe meridians are outdated nerves, and chi is a subjective thing which requires some training to grok and it comes on top of a complex language barrier. Maybe you could do statistical analysis to see which is more effective, but then you have to box what they’re effective for into a box that may or may not be a good box. Maybe Tai-Chi is only better if you put a year or ten into it. Maybe the vastly differing skillsets, understanding, and communication abilities of the respective practitioners is hard to capture rigorously. Tai-Chi may not target at the same level of specificity as physical therapy, but it will certainly manipulate your states of consciousness much more with it’s slower motions, poetic imaginary language, and breathing practices. It could be that you just needed a sense of safety, community, and permission to move which is really outside of both theories but one may give it more than the other. It could be that traditional Tai-Chi is really more of a spiritual practice with the language pointing at higher level principles which are difficult to comprehend, poorly translated, and often taught by bad teachers and just as a side effect happens to sometimes help with joint pain . It could be that actually it’s total junk, but the distortions it causes in peoples belief systems cause them to stick around and some of them become supple panthers because that’s what happens if you move slowly for hours a day for 30 years. It could be that physical therapy is actually an accretion of trying to scientize things to gain political credibility and in doing so their theory is ‘more consistent’ but mostly irrelevant and that all of it’s benefits come from side effect activities rather than the theory as such.
Given all of these things, it’s worth re-iterating that I do expect reality to be sensical. I do expect good worldviews to progress towards being deeper, farther reaching, more coherent, and consistent. But we aren’t there yet, and yet may never actually arrive. In the potentially infinite meantime, it’s worth being more aware of where things actually stand and of our own ignorance.
4. Turning The Cage Of Reason Into A Haberdashery
When we accept any worldview, we are accepting tradeoffs. We accept tradeoffs with respect to how, in what state, and to what end we view reality. No worldview is capable of perfectly understanding all of reality at once. So as we continue to operate with and within a worldview, those things which our worldview neglected cause stress which over time can spill over and become too much.
Sometimes ‘digging in’ with your existing worldview really does solve problems. If your boss is an asshole or there was some sort of catastrophe, and you just need enough gas to make a transition out of an obviously bad situation, then accepting the stress and trying harder isn’t always a bad idea. But the problem with digging in when we don’t feel right is that we’re just hammering the very same strategies that half-assedly got us to where we already are.
If we want to explore other ways of being, but only have one way of understanding… we are in a bit of a bind. Something feels bad, but our current way of understanding has blinded us to the necessary aspects of reality we need to feel better, or even worse, is able to talk about those aspects — often with a sense of superiority — such that instead of inhabiting another perspective we instead talk about that perspective from our current one. One way of overcoming this trap is by being confronted with experiences which our current worldview doesn’t seem to have any way to talk about meaningfully… essentially encountering impactful nonsense.
But the perfect piece of impactful nonsense is hard to find, and so we need to be aware of our defense mechanisms, especially social ones, which get in the way of visiting other worlds. Sometimes we flinch away from other perspectives because we want to quickly explain away as a triviality anything which we are woefully unprepared to discuss. Or because we actually have encountered something akin to whatever experience has knocked us and had a bad time. It could even be a tribal defense mechanism of not want to cede territory to what feels like the ‘other’. Regardless, it’s useful to recognize our own flinching or shoving under the rug something we didn’t fully grok.
To checkout another worldview you have to be willing to set your reasons aside and try on someone else’s set of reasons and see how they fit. Charitably.
As Thomas Kuhn of the infamous Structures of Scientific Revolutions puts it, you have to:
“… study the opinions of that group from the viewpoint — usually very different from that of modern science — that gives those opinions the maximum internal coherence and the closest possible fit to nature.” (from Page 3)
You have to actually try meditation, chakra yoga, proof based math, dance, storytelling, chemistry, religious prayer, computer programming, and cold showers if you want to figure out what’s going on there. In order to do so you must be prepared to accept that one worldview often doesn’t address the concerns of another. In fact that’s partly why it’s useful to be able to move between worldviews… some are more apt for particular concerns or contexts than others.
But the real beauty of moving between worldviews, aside the constant reminders of humility, is the enhance in interpersonal connection, communication, and understanding. We are all a gigantic jumbled mess of ontologies, beliefs, experiences, genetics, and social situations. Sometimes we share enough that we feel confident we’re talking about the same thing. But just as often in order to understand someone else you have to try, however futile it may be, to see through their eyes, and believe that you’re both human.