AI and Bicycle of the Mind

I don’t have the same optimism that Thompson does here, but it’s a good read and worth the thought time!

The Great Flattening – Stratechery by Ben Thompson:

What is increasingly clear, though, is that Jobs’ prediction that future changes would be even more profound raise questions about the “bicycle for the mind” analogy itself: specifically, will AI be a bicycle that we control, or an unstoppable train to destinations unknown? To put it in the same terms as the ad, will human will and initiative be flattened, or expanded?

On Darwin and Sapolsky

I’ve just finished Robert Sapolsky’s (excellent) book, Determined. You should read it for yourself, obviously, but Sapolsky does an expert job of providing the argument that our conception of determinism and what we colloquially call “free will” are to be examined under a much stricter microscope society-wide.

These sorts of philosophical arguments rarely escape the ivory tower of The Academy. However, Sapolsky is a masterful speaker and has attracted a good deal of attention in the mainstream for his seemingly outlandish idea that we do not, in fact, possess free will. 

I think he’s right and on to something monumental. If we took his admonishment with intention and began to examine the structures our society (especially our educational systems) place on behavioralism, exceptionalism, and perceived meritocracy… our society would look quite different. Dare I say it would be more just.

I picked up Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) this morning and began reading. The beginnings of Chapter 4 here lay out a very similar thought construction about where we gather our conception of morality and sympathy in the context of what he labels natural history. 

I was taken by his statement that:

“We are indeed all conscious that we do possess such sympathetic feelings, but our consciousness does not tell us whether they are instinctive, having originated long ago in the same manner as with the lower animals, or whether they have been acquired by each of us during our early years.”

Reading both of these texts together is an incredible thought experiment!

Curiosity and Stoicism

If you ask why incessantly, something strange starts to happen to you. You begin to notice the nuances and subtleness of the creation and life. Your eyes, ears, and senses open up to new sources of insight about what is happening inside and outside you.

There is no secret or formula to happiness or even success. Curiosity can help you achieve those goals, but curiosity can also bring anxiety, doubt, and apathy if not coached well. When paired with ethical empathy, curiosity is the root of actual paths to concepts such as happiness or well-being.

Unceasingly and insanely, always pursuing root causes, hows, whys, whens, and wheres will overcome generational trauma and an individual’s perceived limitations. Curiosity is a gift from God meant to wake us up to the way of intentional being.

Stoicism teaches us (me, at least) that virtue is the only good and that our characters are entirely in our power to shape and improve. In this context, curiosity becomes a tool for self-improvement and understanding the world. It aligns with the Stoic principle of living according to nature (where we derive the word physics), which involves understanding the nature of the universe and our roles.

Consider this quote from Marcus Aurelius: 

“Look within. Within is the fountain of good; it will ever bubble up if thou wilt dig.” 

This highlights the Stoic belief in introspection and self-awareness nurtured by curiosity.

Ethical empathy, in Stoicism, is closely tied to sympatheia, the mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. The Stoics believed that realizing this interconnectedness leads to a natural inclination to act virtuously and empathetically toward others.

Here’s a thought from Seneca that encapsulates this idea: 

“We are members of one great body planted by nature. We must be helpful to one another, remembering that we were born for cooperation, like feet, hands, eyelids, and the rows of the upper and lower teeth.”

Therefore, when guided by the principles of Stoic virtue, curiosity transforms from mere inquisitiveness into a tool for personal and ethical growth. Through this lens, we begin to see the subtleties of life not just as isolated phenomena but as interconnected parts of a greater whole. This perspective fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of life’s complexities, allowing us to find joy and contentment in pursuing knowledge and wisdom.

However, without ethical empathy, curiosity risks becoming a self-centered pursuit, detached from the greater good of humanity. The Stoics remind us that our actions and inquiries should not only serve personal growth but also contribute to the welfare of others. As Epictetus said,

“What ought one to say then as each hardship comes? I was practicing for this. I was training for this.”

Thus, curiosity becomes a form of life training, preparing us to face challenges with resilience and empathy.

Curiosity and ethical empathy, when aligned with Stoic virtues, curiosity, and ethical empathy lead us to a deeper understanding of the world and toward a more fulfilling and meaningful existence. They awaken us to the potential within ourselves and encourage us to live in harmony with others and the world.

I uploaded this post into ChatGPT-4 and asked DALL-E to create an image reflecting my words and the concept of curiosity related to ethical empathy and Stoicism. I think it did rather well! If you have no idea what any of that means, that’s ok… but you will soon!

Music and The Hero’s Journey

There’s a reason there are always songs and music in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and even Star Trek…

Music to Raise the Dead: The Secret Origins of Musicology:

By the way, this book could perhaps be described as the result of my own personal quest. For many years now, I have built my research and writing on a very simple statement of purpose—which I repeat, almost as a mantra, on every possible occasion, in print or public lectures: Music is a source of enchantment and a catalyst in human life, and my vocation is to celebrate its often forgotten power, not just as music history but also as a latent potentiality in our own day-to-day surroundings. In other words, songs are not just songs, but agents of change for individuals and societies.

My 12 Problems

Here are the “12 Problems” I’ve built my current life around. These are non-negotiables, and they are also the focus of everything I do. If a situation doesn’t fit into one of these problems, I’ll generally relegate it, delegate it, or ignore it. 

I don’t generally recommend this practice for everyone. It’s a very difficult ethical standard to hold, and it can be cumbersome to run the mental math of “which problem am I trying to solve?” at any given time.

However, this approach’s clarity and focus far outweigh the negatives.

Here are my 12 Problems. I highly urge you to come up with your own:

  1. How can I have a positive impact on this world?

  2. How can I thrive while operating contrary to the dominant social or cultural trends?

  3. How can I inspire young people to appreciate learning as a practice?

  4. How do I provide for my family while remaining true to my calling?

  5. How can I live with the most ethical sustainability while not sacrificing my enrichment in balance with the Creation?

  6. How can I be the best role model for my espoused ideals and ethics as presented to my children and students?

  7. How can I live according to nature (kata phusin in Stoicism)?

  8. What does it mean to really be an effective teacher who can make connections and expand the worldview of my students?

  9. How can I be a good Dad, and what does that mean?

  10. How can I be a good partner, and what does that mean?

  11. How can I explore my own self and brain and express that in my life?

  12. How do I always maintain my own curiosity despite the challenges that the outside world might present?

A Stoic Teacher? Lessons from Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus

Recently, I’ve been delving into a philosophy that’s been around for centuries but feels incredibly relevant to our modern times: Stoicism. In particular, I’ve been engrossed in the works of Marcus Aurelius, his ‘Meditations,’ (there are free versions out there on the web, but this Gregory Hayes version is my favorite), and Epictetus with his ‘Discourses (again, there are free versions available on the web that are easy to find, but this is a great version that I use personally).’ It’s been a transformative experience, which I am compelled to share, as it’s begun to significantly shape my perspective on parenting and teaching.

For those unfamiliar, Stoicism is a philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC but became especially popular in the first couple centuries of the Roman Empire. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means to overcome destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish feelings but instead transform them with a resolute ‘askēsis‘ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm.

Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor wrote ‘Meditations’ as a source of personal guidance and self-improvement. It’s a collection of thoughts, musings, and reminders to himself about the virtues he strived to cultivate—patience, humility, and understanding.

One of my favorite quotes from Aurelius is: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This concept, often summarized as “the obstacle is the way,” has profoundly reframed challenges in my life. As a parent and a teacher, numerous unforeseen obstacles arise. Rather than viewing these as setbacks, I now see them as opportunities for growth and learning—for myself and the young minds I’m shaping.

Epictetus, a formerly enslaved person turned philosopher, taught that our reactions are the only things within our control. He said, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” This insight has shifted my approach to parenting. When my child gets upset, I can’t always control the situation causing the distress, but I can control my reaction. I can choose patience, understanding, and compassion.

In the classroom, the Discourses of Epictetus have also inspired me to shift my focus from the outcomes of my students to their effort and growth. This approach aligns perfectly with the Stoic emphasis on controlling what’s within our power. I can’t control the grades my students receive, but I can encourage their resilience, their determination, and their love of learning.

Stoicism, focusing on inner strength, self-control, and accepting what we cannot change, provides a robust framework for navigating life’s challenges. As I continue to study and incorporate these principles into my life, I’m better equipped to respond to the demands of parenting and teaching.

My journey into Stoicism is ongoing, and I’m excited to share more insights as they come. If you’re interested in exploring this philosophy, I recommend starting with ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius and ‘The Discourses by Epictetus (and pick up Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel if you want a deep-dive). Their wisdom is timeless and, as I’ve found, profoundly applicable to our modern lives.

How You Frame Content Determines How You Perceive It

I do love Epictetus’s Enchiridion!

τῶν ὄντων τὰ μέν ἐστιν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, τὰ δὲ οὐκ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν should be the opening line of every textbook, Driver’s License manual, Facebook user agreement, and marriage certificate as we move through life. It’s the opening lines of Epictetus’ Handbook (“Some things are up to us, and some are not up to us.”).

Plato, TikTok… skydiving? Yale’s Gendler gives ancient texts a modern spin | YaleNews:

We spent about half a class discussing a pair of images, both of which featured the Serenity Prayer: one was a delicate ceramic plate where the text was surrounded by morning glories and puppy dogs, and the other was the same text in the form of a bicep tattoo surrounded by American flags and tanks. Epictetus’s point is that how you frame content determines how you perceive it. And here we had, with the text of Epictetus, two cases of literal frames, one of which made the text seem gentle and available to those who might feel soothed by it, and the other of which made it seem macho and available to those who self-conceive in that way. So that conversation offered three different weavings of meta in the same place.

42 Year Itch

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

My mom has always been highly allergic to poison ivy. I remember her having severe reactions to the plant after she would spend hours in her beloved gardens while I was growing up. I felt that I was immortal because I could basically roll in the stuff and never suffer a breakout or rash.

Then I got older.

And now I, like my mother, suffer harshly from interacting with poison ivy, sumac, or poison oak. The frustrating part is that as I get older, I enjoy gardening even more and that has been especially true over the past year during the Covid pandemic. My asparagus is now 4 years old and pretty amazing, btw. Thank God for Tecnu.

According to Genesis, we were created in a garden to enjoy the fruits of nature (plants, not animals… being omnivores wasn’t part of the created order, which is a point I like to make when people press me on literal interpretations of Genesis. Enjoy that steak… you’re betraying the created order. Don’t get me started on shrimp or wearing cotton and nylon together). Our created selves were breathed into by a God that walked in the Garden during the evening, looking to commune with us.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’

Poison ivy, like mosquitoes, is one of those realities of living in South Carolina that reminds you that you are mortal. From dust, we came, and to dust we shall return.

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.’

This past weekend I was working in our yard and removing the inevitable weeds and unruly plants that have popped up over the last few weeks of a South Carolina spring. They always come suddenly and ferociously this time of year. Our well-trimmed and manicured winter lawn becomes a weed-filled garden of poison delights within a few weeks every April. I always remember to put on my gloves and long sleeves and identify plants at the beginning of May when I attempt to tackle this new growth from the earth.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Eliot

And now I’m reckoning with two armfuls of poison ivy rashes despite knowing I’d been tapped by those slick and sticky strands of green creation that always cause me to catch my breath. I quickly applied a good helping of Tecnu, thankfully. But still, here I am with two arms covered in red itchy bumps.

April is the month of reckoning. We must step back and examine the steps we made over the winter (even here in SC where the winters are milder than the Starnbergersee). We take stock of the first few months of the new year and we make plans for the rest of the year. There’s a reason Easter comes this time of the year.

There’s a reason we are reminded of our mortality and weakness to a simple plant while attempting to grow new food or beauty for our family and neighbors and communities. Gardening is not easy. It involves risk. Especially for those of us allergic to urushiol oil and too stubborn to remember to wear long sleeves when tending potatoes in the ground or Iris beds or clearing a path to show our children where the snake who shed a 5 foot long skin in our backyard last week probably lives.

The Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

We are all on our journeys outwards, East of Eden. Those paths are not simple highways, but meandering roads that are filled with opportunities and options and trees of fruit and weeds of poison. As we travel, we grow and we learn. We are able to identify the poisonous plants and discern which fruits are good to eat. Through it all, we learn and gain knowledge from the trees. The wisdom of our humanity is not a curse, but a blessing.

Poison ivy blisters and all.

David Bowie’s Station To Station and Art as Literature

David Bowie had an immense and long-lasting impact on me and I’ve been revisiting his music (even more than usual) lately as it has been 5 years since his passing on.

I first dove into Bowie because of Nirvana (I know, I know). Nirvana was the first band that I discovered early for myself, and that music has also shaped much of my own aesthetic. Their cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on their Unplugged album immediately caught my fascination. I had known about Bowie and knew of him from “Let’s Dance” and his role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, of course.

But as a child in the ’80s and then a pre-teen and eventual teen in the ’90s, Bowie’s 80’s music was reminiscent of what I felt we were all pushing against. His ’70s material was almost off-limits in the same way KISS or Black Sabbath was to me… there was something secretive and occultist and just weird to my Southern conservative Baptist straight-laced white boy type. Nirvana was almost a bridge too far (indeed, a high school teacher spent a number of days having us analyze why Nirvana’s music was so terrible and destructive to “Western Culture” … turns out that turned us all on).

When I started doing a deep dive on Bowie because of Nirvana’s (masterful) cover in 1994, the persona had been reinvented again and he was associating with Trent Reznor and moving away from his 80’s MTV friendliness into industrial rock. I was just beginning to explore this area myself and Nine Inch Nails played a big part in that (I bought one of their t-shirts around this time having never heard them, but figured I should give them a listen). That led to me first experiencing Bowie through Earthling, which is a weird way to hop into Bowie.

Eventually, I explored his 70’s material (and then his 60’s works) and was blown away. Where had Low and the Berlin Trilogy been all my life? Ziggy is an amazing piece of work, of course. Hunky Dory is still one of my favorites. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) comes just before Let’s Dance and hints at what would become industrial rock in the ’90s. It was all a revelation.

Station To Station was in there, plodding along with its otherworldliness. It took me some time to even listen all the way through in one sitting. It was only after I also earnestly began studying religion (modern and especially ancient versions) that I was finally brave (?) enough to hop in and attempt Station To Station.

I try to “read” music as literature. Now Station To Station is one of my favorite Bowie albums and this write-up from 10 years ago is one of the most effective descriptions of this piece of art…

Bowie constructs the most grandiose of love songs, the most overblown, epic ballads, mouthing hollow romantic clichés as if, by saying the lines with enough simulated passion, he will actually come to feel them. And yet, of course, all of this is just a construct, too- he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s not a cynical act, because the desire to feel remains genuine- in its way, this is as stark and troubled a record as anything from Neil Young’s contemporaneous ditch trilogy, the musical polish and role-play only thinly veiling a soul on the edge, battling with addiction and paranoia and with what he, at least, genuinely believed were dark mystical forces just waiting to drag him forever into the abyss. “It’s the nearest album to a magical treatise that I’ve written,” Bowie has said, though perhaps a ritual spell of protection would be a more accurate description.

Source: The Quietus | Features | Anniversary | Exploring Notions Of Decadence: Bowie’s Station To Station, 45 Years On

“Persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false…”

Must read here. I won’t summarize the article as you need to read the entire piece for yourself, but the implications for things I care about very deeply (such as marketing, politics, technology, religion, and education) are serious.

Take some time and read:

Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.

Source: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds | The New Yorker