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On the Large and the Small

I love a one called Re. As of this writing I have spent only a few dozen hours, in my life, with Re. Yet a life’s worth of meaning is wrapped up in my memories of those few dozen hours. The more I recollect them the more vivid they become.

Even if I never saw Re again, I suspect that Re would not die in my heart, but would only grow stronger and stronger. Re is inexhaustibly strong in my heart, and yet Re is a little person with whom I rarely talk, who is terribly frail and a bit naive. Casually and accidentally, and yet quite intentionally and with the greatest of seriousness, Re lit this fire in me that grows without limit.

Most memories fade over time. But if a memory is strong enough, instead it can grow stronger over time. After recalling it enough, the recollections become part of the memory, so that finally more and more is recalled every time. Five minutes can wind itself out into five years of meaning as the recollection winds deeper and deeper into itself, so that finally the recollection of the moment means far more than what the moment meant to begin with.

I have a similar story about Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein wrote a book of several thousand words. I read a few dozen of those words and they instantly laid bare to me the meaning of all I had been struggling with philosophically for months. Overnight I had to change my mind about everything, and I did not go back. I did not need to read those words again, and if I read them again it would not have made a difference. Most of that book I still haven’t read.

Two years later I read another book by Wittgenstein. I opened up the first page, and something bright and glistening leapt up off of it. It involved the word “blue,” and something about how it was used gave me a moment of shattering insight in the wake of which all my philosophy crashed and dissolved and was melted away in the soft morning glow of reality. I had a whole system of thought instantly transmitted to me, a whole paradigm of vast scope xand staggering beauty and tautological obviousness, so perfect it rendered every other philosophy meaningless. Recalling that moment’s realization gives me truer philosophical food than anything I can read in any book I know of.

If I go back to that same book, I don’t at all grasp what point Wittgenstein is trying to make in those pages. They feel like a tedious and pointless, and often flatly wrong, series of logical machinations. I get the general impression that there isn’t any point. I feel that I learned everything he was really trying to say in that one moment, reading the word “blue” on the first page, and all the rest of the book is line noise. The book is useless to me, but my recollection of that single moment of realization is inexhaustibly useful. I do feel that Wittgenstein taught me in that moment, and taught me more truly than any other philosopher was able to do.

Passion Pit wrote a song called “Little Secrets.” That song has brought me joy again and again and again over time, more times than I can count. How many dances, how many intimate moments, were undergirded and buoyed up by the melody of that song! I know that that song gave voice to some exalted moment of ecstasy which the composer felt; and his ecstasy has been beamed across space and time and come to live in me, to repeat itself again and again and again, perpetually renewing itself.

The pattern I have been painting is this. It seems that something of immense value can come out of something very small. A tiny thing can stretch itself into something huge and inexhaustible. The universe exploding out of the head of a pin.

And, on the other hand, how many times has something enormous been of terribly little worth? How many gigantic projects get undertaken, how many trillions of dollars and hundreds of man-years are expended, that end up not meaning anything to anybody? Analogously, how little do the millions of light years of empty space mean, compared to that little space called planet Earth, on which humanity lives and suffers! How puny are those cosmic balls of gas, compared to the single-person mattress on which I lay with Re! The distinction between the large and the small starts to waver, when something so small can be so huge, and something so huge can be so insignificant.

What could my puny existence mean? I could be the king of the world, and my puny existence might mean nothing. But I could be a peasant who never spoke to anybody, and my existence could mean the whole universe. It could mean the whole universe, and never end up in the history books. It could be an event of Earth shaking importance, even if nobody ever knew, even if nobody ever recognized, the profound worth of what I was living!

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Research Projects in the Foundations of Mathematics

Here are some ideas for research projects in the foundations of mathematics:

  1. Sets are not the only data structure which could serve as a substrate for the axiomatic foundations of mathematics. One possible alternative is binary trees. Define isomorphisms between binary trees and all major mathematical concepts, and create a first-order theory of binary trees which can prove most of mathematics.
  2. Axiomatize statistics in ZFC.
  3. Construct a super-Turing machine by using real numbers. Define a variant on a Turing machine which uses real values instead of symbols, and functions over the real line instead of strings. Figure out what its properties are.
  4. It seems intuitive that all of logic should be reducible to first-order logic. For instance, the set of first-order theories is isomorphic to the set of second-order theories. The only objection I have come across to the idea that second-order logic is not reducible to first-order logic is as follows. By the Lowenheim-Skolem theorem, every first-order theory has more than one model, whereas this has not been proven to be true of second-order theories. Do any important second-order theories have only one model? Is it a problem that first-order theories have more than one model? And, finally, is second-order logic reducible to first-order logic?
  5. Category theory resists being formalized in axiomatic set theory, because of its need to talk about things like “the category of all sets.” Figure out how to formalize category theory.

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Quit, Die, or Switch

Recently I switched to electronic cigarettes. There was an “oh shit” moment when I realized that in 20 years, e-cigarettes will have almost entirely replaced conventional cigarettes. The overriding reason for this is that e-cigarettes probably do not cause cancer, emphysema, etc. This means that a smoker essentially has three alternatives: quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes. I realized that this is a device which will save many, many lives.

What is an e-cigarette?

An e-cigarette is a vaporizer which vaporizes a fluid, called “e-fluid,” to create an experience like smoking a cigarette. The e-fluid usually consists of glycerin and/or propylene glycol, nicotine, and artificial flavorings. Glycerin and propylene glycol are synthetic sugars. Except for nictonine, all of the ingredients of e-fluid are common food additives.

An e-cigarette consists of three things: a cartridge, an atomizer, and a rechargeable battery. These are joined into a device that looks like a cigarette. The cartridge is a container for e-fluid. The atomizer is a heating element which vaporizes the e-fluid. The battery powers the atomizer. Usually the cartridge and the atomizer are joined in one replaceable container called a “cartomizer.”

Some e-cigarettes use cartridges pre-filled with e-fluid, which have to be replaced when the e-fluid runs out. (Usually they say that one cartridge is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.) Other e-cigarettes use empty cartridges, which you fill with separately sold e-fluid. In the latter case it is possible to use e-fluids which come in thousands of different flavors.

Why do we care?

E-cigarettes probably do not have the health risks that cigarettes have. This would mean that a person could smoke e-cigarettes for their whole life without incurring any health problems. This provides a third alternative to smokers. Smokers can quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes.

Are e-cigarettes really safe?

Except for nicotine, all of the ingredients in e-fluid are common food additives. This means that they probably do not carry any health risks.

Nicotine is a toxin. But, it is only one of many toxic chemicals in cigarettes. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including 19 known carcinogens, some of which are radioactive carcinogens. It is generally believed that most of the negative health effects of cigarettes do not come from nicotine.

We do not know for sure that e-cigarettes are safe, and we will not know this until some good studies are published on the topic. The really conclusive studies probably will not exist for 50 years or so, since we will probably need to actually watch people smoke e-cigarettes for decades and see what happens to them, to know for sure.

But our existing knowledge is enough to say that e-cigarettes probably are safe. Perhaps the really interesting question is not, are e-cigarettes safe, but why are we inclined to assume that they are dangerous?

Notice that, in scientific terms, e-cigarettes have almost nothing to do with cigarettes. The similarity is a purely human one: they look similar and serve a similar function. They feel similar to us, though in reality they are not similar things.

The fact that they feel similar leads to a psychological phenomenon where we propagate our fear of cigarettes to e-cigarettes. This “transference of fear” is the sort of thing that would have been useful in our ancestral environment. If your friend gets bitten by a snake and dies, you will learn to fear any unfamilar snake. Perhaps if you had never seen a garden hose before, you might be afraid of it.

So we find a situation with e-cigarettes where our instincts tell us to fear them, and science tells us that there is little to fear.

How much do they cost?

To start smoking e-cigarettes, one has to buy a “starter kit,” containing a battery, a charger, cartomizers, etc. Then one periodically needs to buy new cartomizers and/or e-fluid.

The startup costs of e-cigarette smoking are higher than cigarettes, but the costs over time are lower. Starter kits range in cost from around ten dollars to over a hundred. Cartomizers typically cost two or three dollars.

Do they taste like cigarettes?

E-cigarettes do not taste like cigarettes, despite the efforts of manufacturers to make them as close as possible. This is the biggest complaint I hear from people about e-cigarettes. People don’t want to smoke an e-cigarette; they want to smoke a cigarette.

I think, however, that this is mostly a matter of what people are used to. When I first smoked an e-cigarette, I didn’t like it. But I got used to it. Now when I smoke cigarettes, I wish that I was smoking an e-cigarette. In other words, the phenomenon has been turned on its head. So I think that it is familiarity and habit that makes people want their smoke to taste like a cigarette.

What’s the catch?

Right now there is a glut of brands of e-cigarettes, all of which are startup companies, and all of which sell incompatible components. (The e-fluid is the exception: it is cross-compatible between all e-cigarettes.) I have personally had trouble getting ahold of replacement components for my e-cigarettes.

This is the sort of problem that one runs into by being an early adopter. It will go away over time. Within several years, all of the gas stations will carry e-cigarette components, and a set of brands will emerge as dominant.

So, smokers, I present you with your options: quit, die, or switch.

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Haiku, on Performing Tai Chi

I am a puppet
God tugs at muscles and bones
Dancing, mind is dead.

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Right now I’m frustrated and disappointed with my life, because it’s not as good as I would like it to be. I’m not having as much fun, or doing as much good, as I would like to be having and doing.

I’m trying really hard at the three main things I care about: mysticism, philosophy, and romance. In all of these spheres I’m meeting with a lot of failure. I’m failing at mysticism because I have no idea how to achieve enlightenment. I’m failing at philosophy because other people aren’t convinced that my ideas are true, and I’m not convinced that my ideas are true. And my love life is, and always has been, plagued with complex issues.

I don’t think I’m unique in this regard. I think nearly every person who engages in these activities suffers from these very problems. But the disappointment remains.

I’ve noticed that I tend to set impossibly difficult goals for myself, and then I’m upset when I don’t achieve them. I do this because I expect a lot out of myself, and have high standards for myself.

I do the same thing with other people. I tend to divide people into “worthy” and “not worthy.” I don’t expect anything out of the “not worthy” people, and I expect a lot out of the “worthy” people. Then I’m surprised when the “worthy” people don’t deliver what I expected out of them.

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Bodily Impulses

Let us consider bodily impulses such as desire, fear, pleasure, and pain. Each of is learning some lessons surrounding these impulses. For instance, for a long time I have had habits of eating sweet foods and smoking tobacco. In the case of sweets, I wanted to stop myself from eating them for quite a while; but I found myself unable to prevent this. Eventually my failure to stop led me to question whether or not I should be trying to stop at all.

Other lessons I am learning have to do with sexuality and romance: my attractions to women, my anxiety when I feel I have a chance with a woman, my attachment when I am with a woman, the pain and despair I feel when I lose a woman, etc.

For a long time I felt that it was appropriate to deny all of my bodily impulses: all desires, anxieties, pleasures, and pains. I now believe that this is not helpful.

Every one of our bodily impulses has something helpful to offer us. If we did not become afraid when standing at the edge of a cliff, for instance, it would be more difficult for us to stay alive and continue to learn the lessons which we incarnated in order to learn. If we did not desire sex intensely, then a similar problem would occur.

More profoundly, pleasurable experiences such as sex, eating, and smoking help us by shedding light on the joyous, sensual, and loving aspects of the Creator, greatly accelerating our ability to learn about these things.

Sex and everything connected with it — relationships, marriage, children, etc. — offer us one of the greatest opportunities which we have to learn the lessons of love.

Pain and suffering can speak volumes of poetry on the love and light of the Creator to one who is able to listen. The hardest, darkest experience can be transformed into the light of the brightest day, if it is worked with in the proper way.

Pain and suffering are challenges; they are an opportunity to learn very quickly and intensively, and accelerate our growth into more joyous regions of being. Without suffering it would be much harder to learn.

So every bodily impulse has something helpful to offer us. But we also know that they create numerous problems. Pain hurts, while pleasure results in attachment that tends to lead to pain further down the line, and operates as a distraction from the Creator. The problems created by bodily impulses reach the peak of their complexity in romantic relationships, where we weave elaborate webs of emotions in which we can get very lost and hurt.

My previous solution to these problems was to deny my bodily impulses. It is easy to find recommendations to do this in the spiritual literature. But I now believe that this is not the appropriate solution.

As I see it now, denying one’s bodily impulses illustrates wisdom without love; while indulging to excess in one’s bodily impulses illustrates love without wisdom. The trick is to accept one’s bodily impulses, and allow oneself to feel these things, while remaining detached.

Denying one’s impulses prevents one from learning anything from them; while indulging in them fully, without any attempt at balance, also prevents one from learning anything from them. One can use one’s bodily impulses as a tool for learning by attempting to approach them balanced between love and wisdom, facing each situation — among the manifold learning opportunities created by a given impulse — with an eye towards taking this next step in the dance in the most graceful manner possible.

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Logic and Emotion as Bases of Beliefs

It is a basic premise of Western thought that we should decide our beliefs based on logic. This is not the only option that we have. The primary other option that I will consider is that of deciding our beliefs based on our emotions. (These two options are obviously not mutually exclusive.)

Why would we decide our beliefs based on logic? The justifications fall into two primary categories.

The first category of justifications are the logical. These justifications say, in essence, “it is logical to decide my beliefs based on logic, and it would be illogical to do otherwise. Logic tells me to follow logic.”

The second category of justifications are the pragmatic. These justifications say, in essence, “it is useful to decide our beliefs based on logic. Doing this works; it brings about positive, practical results.”

Why would we decide our beliefs based on our emotions? Again, the justifications fall into two primary categories.

The first category of justifications are the emotional. These justifications say, in essence, “my emotions tell me to follow my emotions.”

The second category of justifications are, again, the pragmatic. Does deciding our beliefs based on our emotions bring about positive, practical results?

The logical and emotional justifications are, as we can see, somewhat circular. This, however, does not detract in any way from their power. Logic and emotions have the inherent power to sway us, and do not need to call on any power outside of themselves to accomplish this.

I argue that there is no objective, universal law which says that we should always decide our beliefs based on logic. This is not a law, but a belief. One can accept or reject this belief. Some choose to accept it; others choose to reject it. It is very popular to accept it; even people whose beliefs are not based on logic tend to attempt to make it appear that their beliefs are based on logic.

I am thus making an unpopular choice in choosing to reject the belief that my beliefs should always be based on logic. This choice may seem wrong to some people. I argue that it is not wrong, but merely unpopular.

I am familiar with all of the standard things which make people believe that we should decide our beliefs based on logic. I know about the scientific method, Occam’s razor, deductive logic, and the whole bit. I know about all of the times that people have followed logic and been right, and about all of the times that people have followed their emotions and been wrong.

I am highly fortified with all of the tools that would tend to make me accept the belief that I should decide my beliefs based on logic. And yet I reject it. Why? Because of mysticism. I cannot pursue mysticism while basing my beliefs on logic.

Mysticism is what gives meaning to my life. There are powerful emotional and pragmatic considerations which lead me to hold mystical beliefs. These considerations are simply powerful enough that they overwhelm the conflicting logical considerations. That is all there is to it; it’s a matter of what is capable of exerting more force on my psyche.

To explore this further, I will take one belief in particular which I hold based on emotional considerations. This is the belief that the universe is ethical. In other words, everything that happens should happen; nothing happens that should not happen.

One can argue that I do not really hold this belief; that I merely want it to be true. I feel good about the idea of the universe being ethical, and I feel bad about the idea of the universe being unethical, so I say that the universe is ethical. But this is not what is happening.

I actually do believe that the universe is ethical. I can attempt to explain the psychology of this. I think about the possibility of the universe being unethical, and if I think about it long enough, I reach a point where I think to myself, “no, that can’t possibly be true.” I try harder to make myself take the idea seriously, and I feel progressively worse until I once again reach the point of firm rejection. Stewing for long enough in the emotions which the idea inspires in me eventually causes me to reach a point of absolute denial of the idea. This doesn’t feel like a dislike of the idea; it feels like a real certainty that the idea is false. Once the point of rejection is reached, there is no longer any negative emotion; there is just a calm feeling of certainty about the way things are. So I don’t merely want to believe that the universe is ethical; I actually do believe that the universe is ethical.

The process I have described is perfectly repeatable. I am perfectly capable of doubting that the universe is ethical. When I engage in such doubting, there is a predictable onset of negative emotions. I can drag out the process for as long as I like, by continuing to prod myself with skepticism. But at some point I stop actively doubting, and some time after this happens, there will come a moment when I reach the point of firm rejection. Even having described the process, I seem to be unable to change its course. It predictably follows this sequence, no matter what I do, with a deterministic inevitability that amazes and vaguely frightens me. I’ve tried to get out of the idea via exceedingly clever mental gymnastics, but nothing makes it go away. I literally can’t not think this.

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Several bullets to choose from regarding aliens

If other people have had a given experience, we can learn more about the world by taking that experience into account as if it were our own experience. For instance, many people have experienced cancer, and learned from this that having cancer sucks. We take these experiences into account by forming the belief that having cancer sucks. We do not need to experience cancer ourselves in order to form this belief.

Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses a related idea in Making History Available, where he argues that we should treat the events of history as if we had experienced them ourselves.

“The inverse error is to treat history as mere story, process it with the same part of your mind that handles the novels you read. You may say with your lips that it is ‘truth’, rather than ‘fiction’, but that doesn’t mean you are being moved as much as you should be. Many biases involve being insufficiently moved by dry, abstract information.”

We can extend Yudkwosky’s idea from history, to everything that happens to people not ourselves. It seems that we will gain a more accurate picture of the world if we treat others’ experiences as being of equal weight to our own experiences — if we are moved by others’ experiences like we are moved by our own. This seems impossible to achieve in practice, but it is an ideal to which we can aspire.

There exist numerous reports of subjective experiences of being abducted by aliens. The foregoing comments suggest that we ought to be moved by these experiences as if they were our own. Each of us ought to feel as if we ourselves have subjectively experienced being abducted by aliens. And this ought to factor into our decision to believe or disbelieve that aliens are in contact with humans. This line of reasoning leaves us with several options:

1. We can reject the principle that we ought to give others’ experiences the same weight as we give our own.

2. We can believe that aliens are in contact with humans.

3. We can pre-commit to the position, “if I ever subjectively experience being abducted by aliens, after that event I will still believe that aliens are not in contact with humans.”

4.. We can argue that to the reports of being abducted by aliens, there correspond no significant number of subjective experiences of being abducted by aliens.

Which of these bullets do we bite?

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Why philosophy appears to be useless

I just realized the reason that it seems like every philosophical idea is false or useless. When a philosopher comes up with an idea that’s true and useful, it gets picked up by humanity at large, people forget who came up with it, and it’s no longer considered philosophy.

Here are some things that philosophers invented, that are true and useful, and are no longer considered philosophy: systematic reasoning (the Greeks), the scientific method (Bacon), democracy (the Greeks), communism (Marx), much of basic music theory (Pythagoras), the concept of human rights (Paine, Mill, Hegel), and formal logic (Frege, Russell). We can see that most of these true and useful results are in the areas of epistemology, political theory, and ethics. It is interesting to note that I can think of nothing true and useful that has come out of metaphysics or ontology.

Philosophy seems to have a problem similar to the one that artificial intelligence has. In AI, whenever an accomplishment is made, people redefine the concept of “AI” so that what was just accomplished is no longer AI. Similarly, whenever philosophy accomplishes something true and useful, it ceases to be considered philosophy. This creates the illusion that philosophy has had no significant accomplishments.

That said, it seems to me that the vast majority of philosophical ideas fail to meet the “true and useful” criterion. Philosophy’s successes, while powerful, seem to be quite rare. This is perhaps due to the nature of philosophy. Since philosophy addresses such large problems, (a) it is very hard to make progress on the problems, and (b) when any progress is made, it is a fairly significant event. So perhaps philosophy has a bit of a “strike out or home run” dynamic, where the overwhelming majority of thinkers do not hit any home runs.

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Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus: Public domain translation

I wanted to write an analysis of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus for my book, but I couldn’t find a public domain translation. Here is a translation by me, from the Latin by Chrysogonus Polydorus, in 1541. I hereby commit it to the public domain. I apologize for the poor quality.

I wanted to write an analysis of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus for my book, but I couldn’t find a public domain translation. Here is a translation, from the Latin by Chrysogonus Polydorus, in 1541. I hereby commit it to the public domain.

1. Truly, without error, certainly and most truly:
2. That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below, towards the performance of the miracle of the one thing.
3. And as all things come from one, through the meditation of the one, so all things are born out of this one thing, through transformation.
4. Its father is the Sun. Its mother is the Moon.
5. The wind carried It in its belly. Its food is the earth.
6. The father of all consecrated things is this.
7. Its power is whole if it is turned into earth.
8. Separate earth from fire, subtle from coarse, lovingly, with great intelligence.
9. It ascends from earth into heaven, once more descends into earth, and receives the power of things above and things below.
10. Thus you may govern the glory of the whole world.
11. Thereby you may leave behind all obscurity.
12. This is the true power of all powers, because it conquers all subtle things, and penetrates all solid things.
13. Thus is the world created.
14. From this will be miraculous transformations, of which this is the method. Therefore I am named Hermes Trismegistus, having the three-part philosophy of the whole world.
15. My speech about the working of the Sun is finished.

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