There’s a fun little game you can play with Wikipedia that nerds have known about for years. Select a random entry, for example to retest the nature of the game just now, I chose Thomas Jefferson, and then click on the first non-parenthetical link in the entry. Then repeat this process until you inevitably reach Philosophy, Theology, or GOD. From Thomas Jefferson’s current entry just now, it took me 26 clicks to reach Philosophy. Perhaps there are some that take less, and others that take longer. Some might get stuck in infinite loops at some point — Facebook does, for instance (no surprise that no matter how long you try, Facebook never leads you to GOD…)
This somewhat silly little exercise reveals a more profound truth:
Pull on the thread long enough, and eventually you reach the spool.
I have been pulling on a lot of different threads in my life, and no matter how hard I try otherwise, I keep reaching the same spool, and that spool is human nature, the great thwarter of utopian projects and grand visions, and the supreme preserver of inertia and the status quo. Human nature appears to be the Divine bulwark against excessively rapid evolution, and though for our own good, it may have been overkill — a fortress too fortified.
It may keep out the enemy, but it keeps out the ally too.
It doesn’t matter where you pull on the string. In university, I triple majored in Economics, Political Science, and Philosophy. I have read as much Theology, Literature, and Psychology as I did in my three university majors. I have been involved in the startup ecosystem and worked with AI, biotech, and renewable energy projects & research.
No matter the problem, no matter the abstract question, no matter the angle, human nature always appears as the rock bottom of any failed attempt, any stalled effort, the ultimate barrier to any progress, whatever the field, whatever the project.
Why do we have extreme, persistent, and growing resource inequality in the world?
Why are we rapaciously destroying our Natural world at-scale and bringing down on our heads the irreversible apocalypse of a mass extinction event?
Why are our public systems failing us in every arena, and our democratic institutions failing to correct course or hold the guilty accountable?
Why do we face a seemingly uncontrollable spiral of addiction, anxiety, depression, suicide, and an explosion of violence in our supposedly civilized society?
Why do we face the prospect of protracted wars between nuclear powers that were supposed to be a thing of the past?
Whatever the intermediate answers to any of these questions, whatever the proximate and superficial causes, just below their surfaces, we always find the same beast, and it is ourselves.
Of course in our present cultural climate, we are quick to blame other people’s nature, imagining fancifully that we ourselves are not the problem, but it is other people who are the problem, and if only they would change, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Having been a close observer of politics since a dangerously young age (that movie warped my fragile little mind), I have seen political adversarialism accelerate exponentially since my childhood, to no avail. Every election is supposed to be the one when “we” are delivered from “them” once and for all, the generational governing majority, the takeover of this or that institution “in perpetuity,” and so on.
Yet each of these “most important elections of our lifetimes” have failed to live up to the hype, and the rhetoric (on all sides) increasingly sounds as cracked and terrifying as the promise of a reich that will last a thousand years.
Maybe we shouldn’t want anything that lasts that long?
Maybe, in fact, it is our collective shadow that fears change, and so wants to lock in some sub-optimal certainty, as long as it’s the one of our choosing. Maybe wanting things to last is the problem to begin with.
In my last writing, I said that we cannot afford to fear anything — we cannot afford to fear even fear itself.
But the thing we most cannot afford to fear is change.
The reason is that change is inevitable.
Life is change.
To fear change is to fear life itself. I don’t mean this metaphorically. The very basis of the processes of life is motion. Without motion, there is no life. There would have never been life without motion. And all motion is change.
In a freeze-frame the universe exists in a geometric configuration of fixed relationships. Familiarity with such an image is the basis of status quo bias. We are presented with information that describes some snapshot of reality, and then, because it’s familiar, we are prone to want to keep it that way. Or we are promised some alternative snapshot, if edits are made to the image here or there, and we want things to conform to that image — to change from the current one into this hypothesized other, but then we want that one frozen. Below the surface of anyone claiming they want change is somebody who will, at the point they get the changes they desire, suddenly become defenders of the new status quo.
In order to begin changing this default mode, we must first acknowledge it, and acknowledge its inherent intractability. This does not mean that it is impossibly intractable, only that it requires a tremendous effort to overcome its inertia.
Until we can learn to tolerate change, appreciate change, even come to love change, we will not be able to dominate even the first step in our individual spiritual evolution, much less reach the elevated states of consciousness required for ‘utopian’ social evolution.
This of course is much easier said than done. Everyone, including myself, is highly predisposed to wanting to lock-in desired outcomes, create certainty around the areas of greatest fear. What we do not realize is that in doing so, we are willing to make quite extensive compromises. In order to avoid our worst fears, we are willing to give up a lot. Because other people’s fears are different from ours, they are offended at what we are willing to give up, and vice versa. This is actually the correct lens through which to see our differences of policy preference in the ongoing culture war.
I am most afraid of losing X, so I am willing to give up Y and Z.
You are most afraid of losing Y, and are thus happy to lose X.
This pits us against each other, and we think that our perspectives are based on rationality.
No, they are just based on the projection of our irrational fears that we rationalize ex post facto.
These fear-avoidance preferences are downstream of predictable patterns of root-level cognitive biases, error preferences that exist deep within our subconscious minds. They drive and dictate our subrational behavior — which is virtually all of our behavior. They account for most of our breakdowns in communication, and thus the failure of most relationships and collaborations.
I would argue that it is these same individual “error preferences” that drive our stubborn (and often counterproductive) behavioral patterns explain the vast majority of political ideology, explosion of mental illness, and underlie our inability to take the necessary collective action to halt and reverse the destruction of our planet.
There is no collective solution, only individual change. This requires an act of faith, because on the surface, it would seem “why should I go through all this effort to change myself if nobody else is going to change? It will have been a wasted effort.”
So long as everyone maintains that perspective, indeed, nothing will change.
But one-by-one, through deepened self-understanding, gradual amendment of behavior, and marginal improvement, we can open ourselves to new means that lead us to newer means.
The reason that the Machiavellian declaration that “the ends justify the means” is wrong is not only or even principally that it leads to evil means, but because in fact there are no such things as ends.
Means do not lead to ends — only to more means. Because there is no end.
Or, in the words of Charlie Wilson, “the ball keeps bouncing.”
Change continues. We die, which may be an ‘end’ for the individual, but not really. Even from a strictly materialist perspective, our bodies decompose, the matter transforms into something else — it can neither be created nor destroyed. There’s no end, just more change.
Most of the evil in the world results from fear of and resistance to change. The purpose of self-discovery and personal growth is to learn the particular reasons we resist change, and the specific kinds of change we resist the most. From there, we can unravel the private riddles life has given us, find our direction, and walk more directly in it.
To make my thesis more explicit: whatever change you want to see made in the world, logic, evidence, and rational argument are almost totally useless as tools. The world will not be changed by debate. The world will not be changed by convincing people.
Take stock of your own experience — how many times has a debate convinced you to change your mind? How often have you convinced somebody of opposite views to change theirs?
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, then debate and argument are nearly totally insane. Even this essay is practically an exercise in futility — anyone who believes firmly in the rationality of humans and the efficacy of politics will reject everything I’m saying out of hand. I know I will not convince them.
The purpose of this essay, instead, is to reach people who already have an intuitive understanding of the points I am making, but have perhaps not yet formed a coherent way of explaining those intuitions. I want to attract and galvanize those who are frustrated with patterns of failure in their own lives, and the patterns of failure we find in our collective life, and try something different, take a different approach, and open themselves to a new perspective that might nudge their (and our) efforts in a more successful direction.
As part of the evolution of WILD Studios, our membership program will be changing. Each week, in addition to my regular essays about politics, personal development, ethics, and other topics of interest to me, I will be publishing essays, videos, and conducting livestreams related to the past 10 years of my research and contemplation of patterns of cognitive bias, psychological archetypes, and similar topics for paying members.
I will also be conducting a weekly mastermind group exploring health, nutrition, and physical fitness, and the interplay between these and our decision-making & worldview formation. I have recently become keen to understand in greater depth the mindbody feedback loop, breaking down the arbitrary distinction between the mind and the body, in order to improve my own health and function on both sides of the equation. This new, exploratory format will encourage members to bring their own experiences and research into conversation, and then I will produce weekly digests of the information, conclusions, and new questions stemming from these conversations.
It has taken a while to discern the direction that this whole project could and should take, but it is beginning to find its shape and I feel increasingly motivated to write, record, and exchange ideas around these areas of interest while attracting people to build a physical community dedicated to healthy, nature-connected living. For more about this part of my journey, see my last essay.