Dharma dog piano therapy

I was trying to remember where I heard this story and I finally found it. It’s from Warrior King of Shambhala by Jeremy Hayward.

During Rinpoche’s visit to New York, an event occurred which is a beautiful illustration of Rinpoche’s use of humor to break through to the heart of his students. Madeline Bruser, a talented young concert pianist and piano teacher, was already a student of Rinpoche, though she had not yet met him. Madeline tells this story of the first time she met him:

I had offered to play for him during his stay in New York and he accepted. So, one evening, I went to his suite, where about a dozen of us were gathered. When he entered the room, I felt so relaxed in his presence that I walked right up to him and said, “Hello, I’m going to play for you tonight.” And he said, “Oh! You’re going to play with me!” After several minutes of silence punctuated by a few bits of conversation between him and all of us, he walked slowly over to the piano, sat down, and started slapping at the keys as though it were a big joke. I began to feel quite nervous. Then he said, “Now YOU play,” and he stood up. I sat down at the piano, but he remained standing. Aren’t you going to sit down?” I asked him. And instead of sitting down, he picked up his little dog and stood next to the piano, waiting for me to begin. Since he was standing, everyone else had to stand also.

I launched into a dramatic performance of Beethoven’s deeply serious “Sonata in A-flat,” Opus 110. The lid of the piano was slightly raised, and soon after I started to play, Rinpoche put his dog—a very cooperative and furry lhasa apso—on the piano. Over and over, the dog slowly slid down the slanted lid as I continued to huff and puff my way through Beethoven’s intense, lofty, lyrical first movement. At times, instead of putting the dog back onto the piano, Rinpoche beat the time with one hand, making more of a joke out of the music. The twelve guests giggled, and I felt humiliated yet exhilarated. At one moment I tried to challenge him by looking directly and boldly at him, but he just peered over his glasses at me and left me feeling completely powerless.

Suddenly, a minute or so into the rollicking second movement, something switched. I found myself playing with an amazing freedom and energy that I’d never known was possible. The music leapt out of me and burst brilliantly into the room like a force of nature. It was tremendously liberating, and I noticed that Rinpoche was now holding his dog and listening attentively. I played with this total abandon for about two minutes, but it was so disorienting that I reverted back to my habitual overblown approach, and Rinpoche gave the dog more rides down the piano lid. Thus went a twenty-minute performance of one of the most profound pieces of music ever written. Beethoven and I had come into contact with an enlightened audience. The next day, I could no longer play the old way. I had received the best piano lesson of my life from a man who never played the instrument.

Postcolonial yoga, appropriation and humanism

This article by Susanna Barkataki is one of many in a new wave of recognition of the downsides of the current wave of popularity of Eastern-derived practices such as meditation and yoga. I don’t think of it as a “backlash”, quite, and I don’t think she would either: “Powerful practices that reduce suffering persist, despite all attempts to end them.” Hardly what you’d expect to read in a “backlash”. Instead, I think there is a growing sense that our cultural tendency to jump thoughtlessly on the latest bandwagon, our “irrational exuberance”, could once again give us trouble if we don’t stop to think. We need to be more mindful about mindfulness, as it were.

Barkataki describes how Indians suffered the repression of their own culture under centuries of colonialism. “To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land.” And now, Westerners’ shallow appropriation of parts of that same culture is echoing the harms of colonialism. “As a desi, this is the feeling I get in most Westernized yoga spaces today.”

“If someone from the dominant culture completes a yoga teacher training that is primarily asana based, and remains blissfully unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga. By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it by stripping its essence away.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think the main point of Barkataki’s article is so incontrovertible that I’m just going to leave it without further comment and focus on a philosophical side issue that is more up my alley.

Here’s a statement of one item of my own personal moral belief system: One culture or person is not “better” or “worse” than another. To make someone the “other” is equally dehumanizing, regardless of whether you imagine them to be savages, or noble. To be a humanist is to recognize our universal shared humanity that transcends any shallow and momentary sense of “better” or “worse” and to love all merely for being human, not because each human is uniquely important, but merely because they are human. 

In my belief system, the reason it’s bad for the dominant culture to appropriate and marginalize other cultures is simply because it hurts people. It steals from them and leaves them uncompensated. When you instead start to think that it’s all about other cultures being naturally Noble, Pure and Perfect, you’re dehumanizing them just as much as you are if you think they’re savages. Humans are human: flawed, alive, complicated, beautiful. Humanism is to love and respect all people simply because they’re human, not because they’re better or worse.

Myself, I practice Hatha Yoga from the Patanjali tradition, and meditation and yoga from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I do these things because my experience is that they are uniquely beneficial to me; I also have observed them being beneficial to others. So there’s some real value there. And, I make an effort to learn as much as I can about their roles and contexts in their original homes, and how those changed over time. I’m well aware that throughout their own histories these practices have been used and abused, preserved and scrambled, worshiped for historical authenticity and updated with contemporary relevance. And in some ways what we are doing now in America is just a continuation of this process. Are we losing the “essence” of yoga, or meditation? Well, maybe in some senses we are, and in other senses we aren’t. Some techniques and principles are being preserved, because they appeal to us; and others are being lost. Some of these changes will turn out to be for the better, and some will turn out to be for the worse.

As quick examples, I would say that one change for the worse is that “meditation” is often practiced abstracted from a great deal of context, including social support, body practice, ritual and tradition, ethical framework, and other diverse supportive techniques. Us Americans don’t have the experience with this collection of practices yet to have any kind of reasonable sense of what might be affected by the parts we’re stripping out. On the other hand, a change for the better is that it is now entirely possible to practice these techniques without first learning classical Sanskrit or Tibetan. Those are not easy languages to learn, and (I think) there is nothing inherent about the practices that should require anyone to jump through that enormous hoop before getting access to them.

As for cultural appropriation, that genie is already out of the bottle, the train has left the station, and the ship has sailed. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. By way of a comically ironic allegory, there is an old story about how the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, and thanked the buffalo for helping them live. This story itself is a prime example of the kind of “noble savageism” I’m discouraging here, but that doesn’t diminish its usefulness as a mere allegory. In some sense it appears that our culture is inherently carnivorous; we must eat the traditions of other cultures to survive. We may not  ever stop doing that, but we can at least try to do it with respect. Treat other cultures with respect. Appropriate with awareness and gratitude. Ask ourselves, would someone from the source culture be pleased to see us respectfully keeping their traditions alive? Or will they look at us and see something like an old blackface performance? Better yet, ask them. If you’re teaching a yoga class for Susanna Barkataki, listen to her. Pay attention. Be very open to learning that you’re “doing it wrong.”

Another genie that is permanently (I hope) out of the bottle is global communication. Cultures are henceforth aware of each other and appropriation is the new normal. An open and optimistic eye, looking around, sees many examples of how incredibly enriching this is. Artistic and spiritual exchange has created tremendous beauty. I dream of a future where we continue to create this beauty, and we exchange respectfully, as friends and colleagues.

Edit: My buddy Joe points out this video that sensitively summarizes the whole issue:

(note: just kidding, it’s hilarious!)

Confederate flag

I just saw a discussion thread rehashing the whole “But the confederate flag also has other meanings” argument. As usual with these emotionally loaded political issues there wasn’t a lot of communication between the discussants. I thought I’d write a brief and hopefully clear analysis to help people think about the topic.

My approach to this kind of question is based on the premise that there is a whole big world out there that exists whether you know about it or not. Since all that stuff exists even if you don’t know about it, it’s useful to understand the cause-effect relationships in that world, because they affect you even if you don’t know about it.

The argument some people are making is that it’s OK to display the Confederate flag because in addition to negative connotations for some people, it also has positive connotations for other people, associated with the culture and tradition of the South. I’m going to describe a parallel example where this argument is unquestionably valid. Then, having established what it takes to validate that argument, we can compare it with the situation with the Confederate flag in the US.

The swastika is an ancient holy symbol in many traditions of India and dates back to the Neolithic. It is indisputably a symbol that has a rich and ancient history and many deep meanings for people of that culture. In fact, in India, you will see it all over the place.

In India, for the vast majority of people, the only significance of that symbol is the traditional positive spiritual symbolism. India was largely unaffected by Nazi Germany and WWII so the newer significance of that symbol is essentially unknown to most people in India, and if they do know about it, it is more of a curiosity of foreign cultural anthropology and history than an emotionally laden issue.

Based on these facts, it’s clear that there are essentially no negative consequences of the display of this symbol in India. It’s also clear that an individual in India who chooses to display this symbol almost certainly has positive intentions, because they are unaware of anything negative about the symbol.

It’s common in moral and ethical philosophy to consider the consequences of, and/or the intention behind, an action when determining the value of that action. In this case, neither one of those things is negative, so regardless of the ethical calculus you’re using, there’s just no problem.

Now consider the case of an Indian individual who is proudly displaying the swastika, and then later learns about the significance of that symbol to some other foreign cultures. Does this new information bring a new obligation to take down the symbol? Not necessarily. They may choose to take down the symbol out of solidarity for the others who would be offended if they were there to see it; or they may enrich their knowledge of the vast diversity of human cultures and experience and leave it at that. In any case the consequences are unchanged, because it is still true that the vast majority of people who observe the symbol will have positive associations with it. Also, the knowledge of a counterfactual (i.e., if this symbol were somewhere else instead of here it would have different consequences) does not mean that the intention is automatically changed; neither logic nor emotion works that way.

(Hopefully any, say, American visitors with different values will have the maturity to avoid trying to impose their own cultural values on their host country.)

That establishes an ethically and morally convincing scenario where it’s OK to display a symbol that has both positive and negative connotations. Now let’s compare with the Confederate flag scenario in the U.S.

Is it possible that an American displaying the Confederate flag has only positive intentions? Yes, that is certainly possible. Although it probably seems strange to most of the people reading something I wrote (because you’re all probably some kind of liberal intellectual) the reality is that there has been enough of a historical revisionist effort in some circles that it’s possible someone in, say, the South might honestly not be aware of the association of the Confederate flag with slavery and oppression. That person could well be displaying the flag entirely out of a harmless sense of cultural pride.

However, for a flag being displayed at a major institution, whether public or private, it’s very unlikely that every single person with any authority in that institution is unaware of the negative associations.

Now consider consequences. When a Confederate flag is displayed in America, if it is only observed by people with positive connotations, then it will only have positive consequences. (In a limited emotional sense.) However, a flag that is displayed publicly will be observed by a wide range of people, and some will have positive, some negative connotations. Will the proportion of people with negative connotations be vanishingly small, as with the swastika in India? I suppose in some contrived scenario that could be the case, but I think that a careful demographic survey would demonstrate that a Confederate flag displayed on a major public building will be observed by a significant number of people who will primarily be reminded of slavery.

So I think it’s clear that public display of Confederate flags in the U.S. is likely to have negative consequences for a significant number of people.

Putting this all together, I would suggest that this means that when the Confederate flag is displayed at an institution, either: a) some of the people involved have negative intentions, in that they want the negative consequences, they want to evoke the association with slavery and oppression; or b) some of the people involved, although they have positive intentions in a certain sense, are also knowingly choosing to disregard the negative consequences.

As far as individual rights go, this is an open-and-shut case: The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to free speech, and the single most important principle of freedom of speech is that the protection of offensive speech is precisely the point. If you want to be a jerk and display the Confederate flag on your t-shirt or your private property or whatever, then you absolutely have the right to do that.

How about government institutions? Should the Confederate flag be displayed at a state capitol? Well, it’s not completely clear to me what the exact legal justification would be for arguing that governments aren’t supposed to intentionally hurt their citizens, but even without knowing the exact legality, I think basically everyone would agree with that. Even the people who are choosing to display the Confederate flag on a courthouse or whatever, would almost certainly agree with that principle.

In short, when a government institution displays the Confederate flag, then they are intentionally causing negative consequences for a significant number of their citizens. The fact that there are other citizens who are happy about it does not change this fact.

Anyone who believes that governments should not intentionally hurt their own citizens must conclude that public institutions should not display the Confederate flag.

The fact that individual citizens have a constitutional right to do so is irrelevant.

The fact that this action doesn’t hurt all the citizens is also irrelevant. If you want to make that argument, just try on parallel logic in other circumstances: “It’s OK for the sheriff to shoot some random people as long as they don’t shoot everyone.” “It’s OK for IRS agents to just randomly decide to take all your money to line their own pockets, as long as they don’t do it to everyone.” “It’s OK for the Mayor to go on TV and insult people’s mothers, as long as he doesn’t insult everyone’s mother.” Clearly that’s all nonsense.

Why do we die?

I wrote this in response to a thread on Quora.

To answer this question, first I have to point out that someone asking “why” something happens could be asking a number of different questions. What are the mechanisms by which that thing happens? (The mechanistic “why”, also known as “how” instead of “why”.) What is the immediate, or proximal, cause that triggers that thing to happen? What is the big-picture, or distal, cause that leads to that thing happening? What ends does it serve for this thing to happen? (The teleological “why”.)

Many people have replied with answers to this question; answers have appeared to almost all of the different kinds of “why”. I’m pointing this out because I think it’s important to realize that an explanation of a proximal cause and an explanation of a distal cause and an explanation of a biological mechanism are not necessarily contradicting one another even if they are very different stories.
So, yes, we die because we’re going to die anyway (Ian York) and because it’s cheaper (William Pietri). Those are distal causes. Also, we die because our cellular reproduction peters out (Kevin Moore and Matt Langley), that’s a much more proximal cause. There are degrees of proximal-ness; an even more proximal cause of death would be “because our tissues are no longer perfused with oxygen and nutrients because the heart stopped beating” and an even more proximal cause would be “because our tissues kicked in their hypoxic apoptotic mechanisms and that process went far enough that too many tissues were damaged for the system to remain integrated and self-regulating once perfusion was restored”. That latter statement is the closest I know of to an ultimate proximal reason for death; as usual, a very proximate cause also overlaps with a mechanism.
Also, we die because it makes life so much more precious and wonderful (Rick Bruno); this is a teleological “why”.
Finally, note that most of what I wrote above, and most of the answers here, are biological answers about the body. But if you instead think of “you” as the self-consistent stream of information integration we call mind or consciousness, then the proximal cause of death (and, in a sense, the mechanism) is that the system that instantiates the processes necessary to represent that information has stopped functioning. In other words, your mind dies because your body dies, and it has nowhere else to go.
Many people speak these days of a kind of “immortality” based on “uploading” your mind into a computer. I have no idea if this is actually plausible in practice, but it’s very hard to come up with a convincing argument that a mind’s stream-of-consciousness could not IN PRINCIPLE be transferred to a different processing substrate. If this principle ever became a reality, it would enormously change the way we think about death. In that world, death would be like losing a file on your computer that wasn’t backed up. Losing a file that IS backed up is no big deal; likewise, in that world, the death of one physical body, or the destruction of one computer, would only constitute death of the mind(s) it hosted if their information wasn’t also present somewhere else.
As to what that would actually feel like for the mind in question…  I have not the slightest clue, and neither does anyone else!

Psychology is important for research on quantum mechanics, but everything in the first half of this sentence is a mess

A fellow Caltech alum posted this article on Facebook:


This is a much better article than most others I have read on this topic, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a Caltech person is the one I saw it from! I have no criticism for these authors at all.

However I think that many of the researchers addressing this topic are suffering from a pretty fundamental misconception: namely, that “weirdness” is a real thing. When people say that quantum mechanics is “weird”, that means that it predicts things that don't match your expectations. That is the only thing that “weird” means in this context! Of course different people have different expectations; I think it's clear that a lot of the “shut up and calculate” camp are people who either aren't so attached to those expectations, or didn't have them in the first place. (Some of them are probably people who just get off on the feeling of weirdness, too.)

Whenever you have a line of inquiry that is fundamentally driven by people's expectations rather than observations, I think there are a lot of things that can go wrong. I think that if all the physicists on this line of research took a day off and went to the beach or the forest or the mountains and asked themselves, ok, if I really force myself to be brutally honest with myself and set aside all of my own expectations, and instead ask the question, what are the shortcomings of the theory in terms of its ability to predict observations, rather than what are the shortcomings of the theory in terms of its ability to match my own expectations, then I think they might choose to alter their research priorities a bit.


In other words, if you are being as precise as a scientist ought to be, then it is simply false to say “quantum mechanics is weird”. The correct statement is “I feel weird about quantum mechanics”. So, what kind of physics research program does the corrected statement motivate? Well, it doesn't, but it does give you the opportunity to keep thinking more deeply about what is wrong with the theory, and to keep asking yourself every step of the way how your assumptions are basing your observations and theorizing.

Why I don’t have strong opinions about a lot of science/politics issues anymore

I wrote this in response to a thread on Facebook comments about GMOs. I guess the meta-story here is that I don’t like getting politically worked up any more; I just like intellectually pontificating.

I have given up having strong opinions about these issues anymore because I spent a lot of time thinking about them and came up with so many good arguments either way that I realized I was never going to settle on anything. But what I can offer is, a few reasonable, prudent, scientifically valid ways of thinking about things. This collection of ways of thinking doesn’t come down conclusively on the side of GMO or anti-GMO or climate change or climate denial; I’m just presenting it as some ways of thinking.

1. Large-scale, long-term complex dynamic systems are very complex, it’s very hard to make predictions (it’s going to rain next Tuesday) or meta-predictions (we are 90% certain about what the weather will be next Tuesday.) The kinds of behavior they present can include both a surprising resilience to perturbation, and threshold effects where perturbations beyond some threshold (which might be a magnitude-of-change threshold, or a rate-of-change threshold) suddenly become very important. Examples: a) Resilience example: Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima, both at the time seeming earth-shakingly catastrophic, actually the earth ended up keeping its shit together pretty well after all. b) Threshold example: Climate change. Humans have been putting carbon into the atmosphere for as long as our species, and our ancestor species, have been engaging in oxygen-based metabolism, which is several billion years if I remember correctly. However, post-industrial-era, the rate of atmospheric carbon emission has, or may be about to, pass some thresholds (we think?) that will lead to massive attractor-basin shifts. c) Currently under debate: GMOs versus thousands of years of genetic manipulation. Rate of genetic change with GM can (although may not in a specific case) be higher than with selective breeding, even though slow, steady changes through breeding have led to greater *total* change than GM. Is this destined to be a “resilience” scenario or a “threshold” scenario? I have not the slightest clue. I believe that there are valid, scientific facts available suggesting that the magnitude of genetic changes that have so far been released into the wild are “small” by various plausible standards, which is reassuring. But this does not mean someone is unscientific or foolish for pointing out that the technology offers the potential for much larger changes, and that ecosystems are potentially capable of experiencing threshold effects based on the magnitude and rate of these changes.

2. It is not adequate to consider only these kinds of scientific questions when making regulatory decisions. If you bona fide believe that a new technological something-or-other will help lift a billion people out of poverty, it is absolutely worth very seriously considering the value of that thing even if there is some abstract potential for harm. You never know everything for sure. Probably even if you don’t try very hard, 9 times out of 10 those things will work out neutrally or better than neutrally. It’s that 1 out of 10 that we’re wondering what to do with. (or whatever ratio, I mean those numbers metaphorically, not literally.) Should we never do anything new because something bad *might* happen? We’ve done pretty well for ourselves so far by doing new things, also there have been some problems, but in general the vast majority of normal people all over the world think it’s mostly been good, which is why if you actually bother to get to know personally people who are very poor in developing nations, they mostly want to move to America. As Hugh Howey points out, there is a real existing strain of elitism that runs through a lot of these politicial/scientific debates. We have to let ourselves (i.e. the global 1%, which everyone on this thread is almost certainly in) have all the Lasik and tooth whitening lasers and cell phone towers we want, but when it comes to technology that might provide diffuse benefits for all the less fortunate, you do often see much more awareness of all the risks among many people. I’m not saying anyone here is actually this kind of elitist, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that good old fashioned middle-class NIMBYism isn’t a powerful force.

3. Personally I think a lot of what *really* matters comes down to “don’t be a dick”. Enron may or may not have had some good points about efficiencies in energy markets that were being suppressed by government regulations, but the reality is that they were the worst of the worst of greedy shitbags and were totally consciously choosing to ruin millions of random people’s lives for their own profits. And now all reasonable people who have human brains that work the way human brains do, who are aware of the actual objective facts, reasonably are suspicious (to say the least) of anyone trying to make those points about energy technology and deregulation. Likewise, Dick Cheney is (as I understand it) personally responsible for legislation in Texas basically subverting everyone’s *fundamental* property rights for the benefit of fracking companies. I’m about to say some blasphemy here, but: modern fossil fuel extraction technologies are not actually as evil as everyone makes them out to be, if they are done by companies that are actually trying to not be dicks about it. Yes, what is actually happening now involves a lot of clueless, greedy, and/or irresponsible work and there is a lot of harm being done, but this isn’t actually an indictment of the technology per se. So reflecting this back to the topic at hand, even if an idealized scientific analysis of GMO agricultural technology shows that it’s “definitely OK”, are the companies implementing it actually intrinsically motivated to act definitely in the public welfare? Or are they dicks? And even if they are dicks, what then? Regulation is an extremely blunt and clumsy instrument when it comes to new technologies, especially ones that involve a lot of money. This is true if we’re talking about regulations on carbon emissions to stop climate change, and it’s true if we’re talking about regulations on GMO agriculture to stop the GMOcalypse or whatever. The technologies and the markets are moving and changing much faster, and with more power, than anyone can keep control over. Honestly I have no idea what the answer is; since I have no idea what the answer is I’m certainly not going to *personally* take any strong stands on the issue. I’m willing to go on record saying that my personal opinion is that the evidence, as well as the mechanistic understanding, regarding atmospheric carbon and climate change is clear enough that I think it’s justifiable to wade into those murky, blunt waters of regulation and at least try to do something constructive, although I have only about 10% confidence that that effort will be successful. On the other hand, when it comes to GMO agriculture, if we limit our consideration to the small genetic changes involved in current actual products, the evidence is that it’s probably not seriously ecologically harmful. However, our understanding of the mechanisms of how specific genetic changes relate to large-scale ecosystem effects is essentially zero. This zero understanding doesn’t really give us much to go on *either* for asserting safety, *or* for wading into those nasty regulatory waters. I hate to say it, but the status quo looks not-entirely-unreasonable in that respect: careful scientific review, doing the best we can, approving a few products after rigorous testing and review, hoping for the best. I’m not really a fan of just doing nothing, maybe that’s just a personality preference and not really rational, but I am vaguely satisfied with the current balance of progress and caution on that front.

Unwanted sexual attention in the digital age and other inequalities

Since I went back to being a (grad) student at a university, my friend group has come to include people in the “college age female” demographic. And by being close friends I’ve had the chance to hear about what their lives are like at a personal level. And I have to say, even with widespread awareness-raising media about catcalls and so on, there’s a depth and intensity to the pervasiveness of unwanted sexual attention that’s really beyond anything I ever would have imagined, even with the intellectual understanding and sympathy that goes along with me being a more or less stereotypical progressive intellectual type. For example, the hidden camera catcalls video that circulated widely a few months ago might leave one with the impression that the phenomenon is compartmentalized, that certain neighborhoods or times of day or functional divisions of life might be worse or better. But electronic communications erase a lot of those boundaries. Drunk sexts from now-married male friends waking you up in the middle of the night when your mind was supposed to be anywhere else from that, being the most current example of a story I heard. It reminds me (dating myself here) of how when I was growing up in the 80s, there was literally never any moment of time ever in anyone’s life when one could completely take one’s mind away from the threat of nuclear war. And now for some people there is literally never any moment when one can take one’s mind completely away from the threat of unwanted sexual attention. It just becomes a part of the background noise of cognition, emotion and awareness. Sorry to anyone who feels that the analogy to nuclear war is overly melodramatic; the point is just the pervasiveness and inescapability of it, and that’s the first analogy that came to mind. And of course, just as the understanding I get from being personally close is beyond anything I was ever capable of through intellect alone, I’m aware that the understanding that comes from the lived experience is beyond anything I could grasp from hearing about it. I’m not one for glorifying victimhood; in fact I think that is an actively destructive tendency that comes up a lot on the Left and seriously inhibits social progress. But it’s important to know about–not glorify, not criticize, simply know about–the range of different kinds of experiences that people are having; to know that the experiences farther from your own are much more extreme than you probably imagine them to be. We all know that our own experiences are intense and serious; as the distance from our ego-center increases we naturally attenuate our evaluation of other experiences. But that’s not real.

Relatedly, there’s an odd irony that goes with the other contemporary narrative of disconnection. Just as some people are receiving way too much sexual attention, others are receiving way too little. I have an intuition that the connectedness of the modern world has an unexpected side effect of exacerbating unequal distributions of all sorts. Everyone talks about unequal wealth distribution nowadays, but it seems that a lot of other irksome phenomena are also characterizable as unequal distributions. I could describe a simple economic model of why this makes sense but I’ll leave that for another post.

Why didn’t the Native Americans ever advance technologically over thousands of years, while Europe and Asia advanced dramatically?

Excellent rejoinder on Quora to the question ""

Answer by Anonymous:

Quora seems to have a thing for these loaded cultural comparison questions, which is kind of unfortunate because they're really bad questions. I don't wish to assume evil motives on anybody's part: it's just that these  questions are never going to generate much more than dubious high school debating points. 

The inevitable implication – visible in many of these answers –  is that one society or another is 'better' than another, which begs  questions like  better for what, or better at what. It pretty much completely obscures any actual descriptive information that might let readers form more subtle judgements on their own.   

You can see this dynamic pretty clearly in this question. We start with an impossible premise: of course, indigenous Americans  progressed over time:  people everywhere learn how to solve the problems their environment hands them and build a little more than that as well.  Big,  prosperous cultures discover and invent things all the time (if they didn't they would be neither big nor prosperous).   If that's all you wanted to know, the simple answer is "Of course they advanced: look at Macchu Picchu or Cahokia or read up on Mayan astronomy — there were plenty of people pushing the limits of what they knew how to do and learning new ways of doing things."   You could supply lots of links on cool things done up and down the Americas.  Well and good.

The comparative part, however, turns reasonable questions bad.

It's one thing to ask "Did native americans have wheeled transportation?" and to answer "No, they never invented wheeled transportation because they didn't have domesticated draught animals" (cue the angry but they had wheeled toys! hence: transportation). Simple question, simple answer.  Once you convert it to the form "Did Native Americans Have Transportation As Advanced As Europeans?", though, you'll end up comparing five or six thousand years of continuous innovation, going back to Assyrian and Egyptian charioteers, to… well… nothing. Of course it makes the folks on the receiving end look bad.  The fact that Americans never invented the wheel is no more surprising than the fact that the Bedouins never invented the kayak. But, if you're some stuffy 19th century colonialist you can twist it around to  suggest "these people can't run their own affairs".

Which, of course, is going to bug the people on the receiving end. Inevitably,  we slide from technological suprematism right  over into defensive  nationalism, which involves flipping all the value judgments around so your side comes out on top. The ideas that living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is more 'advanced' than being able to circumnavigate the globe by celestial navigation, or that Europe needs to take lessons in morality from, excuse me, the freaking Aztecs – a hateful conquest empire that practiced human sacrifice on an staggering scale,  boil down to "my side good, your side bad" with very little left over.  Add in some patriotic exaggerations and you've got  the dreary reality of nationalist arguments everywhere.  This is not a personal reflection on the posters: the whole suprematist/counter-suprematist discourse is just hopeless.

There are a lot of ways to explain the different evolution of the old and new worlds: from eco-determinism of the Guns, Germs and Steel variety, to techno-determinism of the "the modern world arises from these  4 key discoveries" ilk, to economics (no coinage !),  to information theory ( how many new memes reach a Patagonian vs a Parthian every year?), even philosophical explanations (it's all about Confucius, Buddha, Moses and Socrates).  They're all worth discussing, and any one could elicit lots of details that are valuable even if you don't buy the theory. But once the question turns to winners and losers, instead of interesting theories with supporting facts, we get back to comment-section sniping.  Personally, avoiding that sort of thing is what I like best about this site.

I apologize for the crankiness of the reply, but there have been a raft of these questions lately and I'm grouchy.

As a dead white male once said, all comparisons are odious.

Why didn't the Native Americans ever advance technologically over thousands of years, while Europe and Asia advanced dramatically?

New study shows “Life After Death”?

OK, so this paper published just recently is getting a lot of interesting but confusing press. It’s being reported that they found evidence of “life after death”. Having studied this for a while, I want to clear things up a bit. The reality is that a) yes, this is calling into question something that is widely accepted as established scientific truth; but b) as is so often the case, the new truth is actually not ZOMG ITS A MIRACLE, it’s just an adjustment of some parameters. To wit, the “accepted truth” is that (roughly speaking) no awareness or cognitive processing is possible more than a few seconds after the onset of “cerebral hypoperfusion”, i.e. no more blood flow to the brain. The thing being implied here is that some kind of conscious (or conscious-like) awareness is actually possible for (at least) minutes at a time during cerebral hypoperfusion, and that this consciousness can occur without any external signs (i.e. the people look like they’re unconscious.) This is a pretty big an interesting finding, but it’s also not as miraculous as it sounds; it’s more one of these things where scientists are going to have to reverse their absolutism about a misconception that only ever existed in the first place because a previous generation of scientists put it in place. Notably, the researchers here attempted to explicitly test the possibility of disembodied awareness by having a secret image on top of a high shelf, which the patients couldn’t see from their beds, but they did not find any evidence of anyone seeing this image. So this is a very exciting finding because it opens the door to a lot of neuroscience work on how neural processing might be happening at some sort of lower-energy state of metabolic activity; not because it implies anything miraculous. Also this is probably not news to a lot of people like Mélanie Boly who do research on EEG and minimal states of consciousness.