Ran Prieur

"I was a peripheral visionary. I could see the future, but only way off to the side."

-Steven Wright

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January 15. Continuing from last week, I'm going to try to give a taste of Owen Barfield's book Saving The Appearances (1957). You've probably heard of Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). By "consciousness", Jaynes means the introspective mode of consciousness that modern humans have, and his big idea is intriguing without being threatening: that ancient people lived in a different reality than modern people -- but only inside their heads, where they heard the literal voices of the gods.

Barfield thinks that ancient people lived in a different reality outside their heads. This gets the book mostly ignored or classified as philosophy of religion, even though he insists that he's not writing about metaphysics, only perception. Rather than try to summarize his subtle argument, I'm going to jump to Chapter 14, and this passage inspired by the observation that art did not have perspective until the 1400s.

If, with the help of some time-machine working in reverse, a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man in the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our 'figuration' the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time at a photograph through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. 'Oh!' he would say, 'look how they stand out!'

We must not forget that in his time perspective had not yet been discovered, nor underrate the significance of this. True, it is no more than a device for pictorially representing depth, and separateness, in space. But how comes it that the device had never been discovered before -- or, if discovered, never adopted? There were plenty of skilled artists, and they would certainly have hit upon it soon enough if depth in space had characterized the collective representations they wished to reproduce, as it characterizes ours. They did not need it. Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved.

In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of -- what shall we say? -- of 'meaning', if you choose. It seems the most adequate word.

January 11. Weird links, starting with a scientific article about why you should go barefoot, The effects of grounding on inflammation:

Multi-disciplinary research has revealed that electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing) produces intriguing effects on physiology and health. Such effects relate to inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Stanford scientists boost hypnotizability with transcranial magnetic brain stimulation. This could be big, because hypnosis can be really powerful, except that a lot of people are immune to it. In the future they'll wonder why we were always competing with placebos, instead of just making placebos better.

Exploring the psychedelic mirror. There's a common belief that it's bad to look at yourself in a mirror when you're tripping, but this study looked at a bunch of Reddit posts, and concluded, "the positive affect to the experience was statistically significant compared to negative affect."

Fun thread on r/Psychonaut, Anyone here smoked enough dmt to know why we're here and wtf is going on? Personally, I don't want to see through the veil. I just want to feel at home in the world. Of all the effects people report from psychedelics, the one I most envy is the feeling that whatever happens, we're safe.

And some music. I've been listening to them for 40 years now, and this week I put together a sub-200 minute Hawkwind playlist on Spotify. Also there's a guide to Hawkwind albums at the bottom of my albums page.

January 8. Today, a long philosophy post. I thought I was too old to have my mind blown by a book. But after two of my favorite idea books, Physics as Metaphor and The Reenchantment of the World, both cited Owen Barfield as an influence, I bought Barfield's book Saving the Appearances. I'm only halfway through, and his big idea is too radical for this post, but one of his supporting ideas fits right in with my recent posts about propositional knowing.

Defined by Wikipedia, "Propositional knowledge asserts that a proposition or claim about the world is true." Following Barfield, I now think that no propositional statement is true. Words cannot be true or false, they can only be more or less useful. That includes these words.

I'm going to go ahead and say that nothing is true, because the kinds of things that are claimed as true cannot be true, while the things that are actually true are better described as real. One thing I think is real is often believed to be unreal: your sense experience in this moment. Edward Abbey said, "Appearance versus reality? Appearance is reality, God damn it!" This right now is the only thing you have to work with. If you die and go to heaven, it will still be this right now.

Another thing I think is real is what Charles Fort called the "universal" when he wrote "that only the universal can really be." Barfield calls it the "unrepresented". Beatrice Bruteau calls it the "infinite intercommunicating universe". Stephen Wolfram calls it the Ruliad. Theologians call it God. One thing everyone agrees on, is that it's too big and complex for us to possibly understand.

So, to mediate between direct experience, and the incomprehensible universal, we tell stories. These stories influence, and are influenced by, the way we perceive, creating the layer of reality that Barfield calls representations. He argues that ancient and medieval people knew they were working with representations, and only modern people think our representations are literally true, thus the book's subtitle, "A Study in Idolatry".

One useful thing, about framing propositions as useful and not true, is that you don't have to pick one and stick with it. You can use acceptances (not beliefs) as tools. If I start to care too much what people think, I can become temporarily a solipsist, and those people aren't real; if I start to think I'm better than other people, I can become temporarily a determinist, and even moral superiority is only luck.

Another useful thing is that you can go outside of science. I don't mind that science can't explain everything. What I don't like is when science says that anything that can't be pinned down in a laboratory, anything that can't be made the same for all observers, anything that "can't work" if conceived mechanistically, is forbidden territory.

For example, karma. One thing I like to do, when I'm walking around the city, is pick up litter. Usually it's just the most convenient pieces, but the other day I stopped outside the library to pick up a bunch of litter around a bus stop. Five minutes later, walking home, I spotted an ice cream carton in the middle of a busy sidewalk, and leaned down to snag it so I could throw it out. To my surprise, it was unopened and still frozen, a $7 pint of Haagen Dazs Cookies and Cream. I took it home to eat it.

Now, mechanistically, a certain percentage of picked up litter will turn out to be valuable. But the timing! Even the ice cream was lucky. Modern metaphysics is usually called "materialism", but another good term would be anti-psychism: whatever it is, from evolution to the movements of the stars, there's not supposed to be any mind behind it.

One practical advantage, in conceiving the world with mind behind it, is that life doesn't feel meaningless. One danger is, what if it's an evil mind? When things go wrong, am I being punished? If I see the number 4 everywhere, are the 4s out to get me? Then it's prudent to retreat into meaninglessness. But it's like shifting into neutral in a car -- you can't stay there forever.

I wonder if anti-psychism is correlated with an adversarial culture. If your lived reality is "every man for himself and God against all," then it's less stressful if you factor out God. The Scientific Revolution emerged from the late Middle Ages, a time of terrible plagues and wars. If we can make the late modern age friendlier, there may be more willingness to see meaning everywhere. Related: What are the craziest signs you've ever gotten from God/universe?

January 5. Another thing I'm optimistic about, in the near future, is creative work. Last week I saw Poor Things, and I can't believe something so weird and courageous came out of Hollywood -- although it's probably not going to make money, leaving The Witch (2015) as the only great and profitable film of this century.

And for music, Could we have found the best album of 2024 in the first few days of January? It's a review of Letter to Self by SPRINTS, self-described as "Garage noise from Dublin, Ireland". The singer has power in her voice that I haven't heard since the 90s. Favorite song: Up and Comer.

January 3. Moving on, this year I expect to write more about philosophy. A few weeks ago on the subreddit there was a short thread about physics without causality. There are more links in the thread, and when I looked into this subject, I was surprised to find out that professional physicists, in their papers and textbooks, avoid claiming causality at all, because they can't define it. At the same time, popular science is causally fundamentalist, believing there's no such thing as an uncaused event.

If I think really deeply about this, I can get into a mental space where causality is an illusion. Even in the obvious case of a domino knocking over another domino, really it's not one event causing another, but two aspects of one big event, which we view in terms of causality because we're inside the illusion of time and space.

The practical value of acausal metaphysics, is the ability to see and use correlations, which you would otherwise have to ignore because there's no mechanism for causality. For example, astrology. There's no realistic way that the positions of the planets can influence your life. But the course of your life, and the positions of the planets, could be two views of a deeper thing, where one can tell you something about the other.

I try to cultivate synchronicity in everyday life. For example, if I read or write a word, while hearing the same word, I don't dismiss it as meaningless, nor do I think it's a mind-blowing miracle, nor do I get paranoid about evil spirits. I just feel grateful that I've briefly tuned into the normal way that reality works. Related: my 2022 post about bibliomancy.

January 1, 2024. For the new year, some predictions. I'm very pessimistic about one category of the near future: events that are covered on the news. Climate disasters are going to get worse -- here's a short video of giant waves in California -- while climate change denial will not get any better.

Wealth inequality will get worse, while the political will to fix wealth inequality will not get better until our whole culture changes how it thinks about money, from "Poverty sucks but you can climb out of it if you're not lazy," to "We have to make poverty fun because we're stuck in it forever."

There will be more and more homeless people, but that will make the world of homelessness better, because more functional people will be pulled into it.

Worst of all, the world is entering a phase of authoritarian politics and military conflict, which will not end until the generations that have not experienced that stuff find out how shitty it is. Here's a depressing Reddit thread (removed because the internet is also getting worse), What would be the ramifications if Ukraine aid is stopped and Russia wins and takes over Ukraine? Basically, if international cooperation fails to keep the peace, every country will build up their military to try to stop invasions, or to do them. This is looking a lot like right before WWI.

Here's where I'm optimistic. If you add up the death tolls of WWI, WWII, and the Spanish flu, it was about seven percent of the world population at that time. Seven percent of the present world population is more than half a billion people. I don't expect that many deaths, because humans are no longer mean enough to do that many murders -- although nuclear war is still possible.

I'm confident that we will neither go extinct, nor colonize space. We're going to be stuck working shit out on Earth for a long time, without cheap resources, and I think when we get used to that, life could get pretty good.

Where I'm most optimistic, in my lifetime, is in the normalization of psychedelics, and the effect of all that tripping on culture. Posted to the subreddit, The zeitgeist is changing. A strange, romantic backlash to the tech era looms.

I think western culture bottomed out in the 1700s, in terms of how little of reality we saw as alive. For a while after Descartes, you needed propositional cognition to even exist. Emotions weren't real again until Romanticism. The word "ecology" was not even invented until 1873. I predict that by 2200, the Pope will say that trees are people, as the old religions retool for bottom-up theology, and we rebuild participating consciousness from scratch.

December 25. Some nice links to close out the year. Why scientists are making transparent wood: "In tests measuring how easily materials fracture or break under pressure, transparent wood came out around three times stronger than transparent plastics like Plexiglass and about 10 times tougher than glass."

'Green Roads' Are Plowing Ahead, Buffering Drought and Floods. This is mostly happening in the third world, positioning those places to eventually surpass the present first world, which is too set in its ways to reinvent infrastructure.

How a Cartographer Drew a Massive, Freehand Map of North America

Having a Game I'm Really Into Makes Every Day Incredibly Enjoyable. I've noticed that during times when I'm gaming a couple hours a day (either video or tabletop) I'm no less productive than when I'm not gaming. I think it's because games get me in a mindset of being active and decisive.

This strange vine can mimic other plants. Specifically, its leaves take on the shapes of other leaves, and we still don't know how. Related, an article from October about plant intelligence.

And some music, two ambient albums from 2023. I haven't been following Big Blood lately, but Big Blood's sonic architect, Caleb Mulkerin, has been mastering albums for The Floating Mountain Band, and my favorite of those is called 204, especially the track "B", which reminds me of Symphonies of the Planets, but more complex.

And Soundtrack from an Imaginary Western reminds me of the Heroes of Might & Magic IV Soundtrack, but smoother.

December 21. Posted to the subreddit, a fascinating essay about the occult origins of tech culture. "I'm suggesting that the once-transgressive ideology underpinning the Western esoteric tradition -- that our purpose as humans is to become as close to divine as possible -- has become an implicit assumption of modern life."

This touches on a lot of stuff I've been thinking about. I don't feel smart today, so I'll just say that I think modern technology is totally a manifestation, a giant magic spell, and not only that, it's dark magic, because as the essay points out, it's about bending reality to our will. Reality doesn't like being bent to our will, any more than another person does. We're running out of room to dominate nature, so our culture, which still romanticizes domination, is now turning inward. Millions of people who can't imagine a meaning of life other than seeking power over others, are getting increasingly frustrated, and I expect it to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Music for the holidays, and instead of posting the usual stuff, I have just one obscurity, a great honky tonk piano version of Auld Lang Syne.

December 18. I'm saving the heavy stuff for the new year. Today, drugs. The r/psychonaut thread on Matthew Perry's death disagrees with blaming ketamine: "When someone dies in a drunk driving accident, or falls off the side of a balcony drunk, they don't say they 'died from acute effects of alcohol.'" Also, a lot of people think it was suicide, since taking that much ketamine in a hot tub is more likely than not to lead to drowning.

This is interesting: Ligare, a Christian Psychedelic Society

And back to r/psychonaut for a long post arguing that Psychedelics do not cause hallucinations, but increased sensory sensitivity. Skip to the end for a great video game metaphor. If there's too much data for your video card, you can get stuttering and visual artifacts that are not that different from hallucinations. This also explains why a strobe light helps with closed-eye visuals.

I find it fascinating that people get such different effects from substances. Alcohol makes me dumb and chatty, but it doesn't make me feel better in any way. For a lot of people, it makes them feel so much better that they can't stop. And while I haven't tried any hard opioids, the prescription stuff has never felt good enough to make it worth the dehydration.

I'm guessing that serious addicts, to whatever drug, are getting the same effect that I get from LSD. Sobriety feels like trudging through a hostile and meaningless world. Cannabis makes the present moment beautiful and important. Meditation is forcing my attention on the present moment even though it sucks -- and yet some people love it. On LSD, and no other substance or practice, I feel like I am at home in a living world. I've never had an abundant source, so I only do around a tab a year, but when I do, I always think of the line from Bob Seger's Fire Lake: "Oh Lord, am I really here at last?"

December 15. Music for the weekend. My song of the year is by Grian Chatten, the front man of Fontaines DC, an Irish band with some great songs including Liberty Belle from 2018. His first solo album, Chaos For the Fly, is quite good, and contains one masterpiece, All of the People. It's a hymn to introversion, with cynical verses about human relationships, and a transcendent chorus about being alone. The sound recalls old-time crooners, but none of them had lyrics like this.

A few more from 2023, all of them quiet. High On a Rocky Ledge is a cover of a Moondog song by Ghost Train Orchestra and Kronos Quartet. Even more dreamy, Beach House - Holiday House. And a video from the album I mentioned a few weeks ago, forestlike - sinking stone.

The best old song that I discovered in 2023 is Souvenir by Pretty & Twisted, a 1995 project of Johnette Napolitano and Marc Moreland. It sounds a lot better if you play it loud. And a very uplifting song from 2008, You! Me! Dancing! by Los Campesinos. I've stuck it in at the climax of my Spotify Aughties playlist.

December 13. Matt comments on boredom:

Your post made me think about how actors deal with the boredom of doing the same show dozens or hundreds of times. One, we start playing games. There's Pass the Quarter, where you have to find a way of giving a quarter to another actor, and the quarter is never supposed to leave the stage. Then there's the less rule-bound game of trying to crack other people up. In comedies, there's the game of trying to get laughs on lines that don't usually get laughs, trying to push a scene into maximum funniness.

The other main way of dealing with boredom is being present and paying such close attention to what the other actors are doing that you're not anticipating and therefore become willing to follow the scene into different nuances of emotion. And if your scene partner is going through the motions, then that itself can become fodder for the scene.

For me, there's no other way to get through a long run than to make the performance a meditation.

December 11. Today, practical psychology. I've written before that the word "boredom" points to two things: the pain of having nothing to do, and the pain of having to pay attention to something uninteresting. I noticed this distinction because I'm good at entertaining myself inside my head, so I like having nothing to do. But that makes it even worse when I have to listen to a boring speech or watch a boring movie. And now I have a better definition to explain why.

Boredom is hedonic blowback from entertainment. The longer you are entertained, the more pain you feel in its absence. Modern people are haunted by boredom. We are so loaded with entertainment that we live in fear of the emptiness when it stops.

It's often said that cannabis "makes you ok with being bored." What it really does is turn your own perspective into a beacon of interesting, so that whatever you focus on, you're entertained. That's not being ok with being bored, it's being immune to it.

The cure for boredom, of course, is embracing it. A few years ago, I was watching a spare and slow-paced movie called Shell (2012). I could tell it was good, but the lack of explosions or conventional plot gave me an increasingly desperate urge to switch it off. Having already experimented with completely feeling anxiety, I decided to completely feel boredom, and to watch it all the way through. I felt like the kid in Dune who has to hold his hand in a box of fire -- a scene brilliantly parodied by Elmo.

Anyway, in hindsight, that was a key moment in my mental health. Since then I have not felt that intensity of boredom, and now I'm using it as a meditation instruction, to seek, and expand into, the pain of non-entertainment.

December 7. Stray links, starting with a new issue of The Whippet, with a discussion of "aha moments". Studies show that the experience of suddenly understanding something, makes you more likely to believe that thing is true. This leads to a strategy where, if someone wants you to believe something, they give you hints instead of telling you straight out.

Lots of cool stuff in this r/Psychonaut thread, Weird events take place when you are tripping, right? There's a big sub-thread about electronics malfunctioning, and I've read elsewhere that people who have had near-death experiences, often have continuing problems with electronics. My crazy theory is that modern technology is not just miraculous, but literally miraculous, and a different mental state can break the spell.

From r/AskOldPeople, a thread about the world getting better, What generational trauma have you ended?

More getting better, Results are in from one of the world's biggest experiments in fighting poverty. A charity gave different versions of an unconditional income to villagers in Kenya, and results suggest that universal works better than non-universal, unconditional works better than conditional, and a lump sum works better than a gradual payment.

The UBI is often misunderstood as a way for everyone to do nothing all day. But most people love being busy, and a UBI would allow more people to be busy on their own terms. Related, from r/AskReddit, People who wouldn't quit their job even if you won the lottery, what's your job?

I don't do an RSS feed, but Patrick has written a script that creates a feed based on the way I format my entries. It's at http://ranprieur.com/feed.php. You might also try Page2RSS.

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. John Tobey's independent archive is down. Email me if you're interested in running your own.

I've always put the best stuff in the archives, and in spring of 2020 I went through and edited the pages so they're all fit to link here. The dates below are the starting dates for each archive.

2005: January / June / September / November
2006: January / March / May / August / November / December
2007: February / April / June / September / November
2008: January / March / May / July / September / October / November
2009: January / March / May / July / September / December
2010: February / April / June / November
2011: January / April / July / October / December
2012: March / May / August / November
2013: March / July
2014: January / April / October
2015: March / August / November
2016: February / May / July / November
2017: February / May / September / December
2018: April / July / October / December
2019: February / March / May / July / December
2020: February / April / June / August / October / December
2021: February / April / July / September / December
2022: February / April / July / September / November
2023: January / March / June / August / November