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Zen and the art of flow
Problems of too much, and too little, self-awareness: from military drill to online mobbing.
The latest essay in the Worshipping the Future series is up on Helen Dale’s Substack. It is on consciousness and coherence. Including the difference between being conscious (being not asleep or inanimate) and being self-conscious (being aware of being conscious).
Any being that sleeps has consciousness. If a being recognises itself in a mirror, it is self-conscious.
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It is clear from responses such as this that many folk are allergic to Philosophy (even though the Consciousness and coherence essay is more about cognitive dynamics than Philosophy as such and cognitive dynamics matter for social dynamics).
Nevertheless, it is an allergy I am sympathetic to (and I have a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy). I have becoming increasingly sceptical about Philosophy as a discipline as I have got older. A milestone in the development of my disenchantment being this piece by primatologist Richard Wrangham.
Philosophy has an insufficiency of robust decision mechanisms. When is Philosophy most useful? When it is tied to a field with robust decision mechanisms—such as Physics, Cognitive Science, Law.
Thus, international law is the most intellectually useless area of law, because it is not law (no remedies) and so has no robust decision mechanisms. But that very lack of reality tests makes it ideal for academic status games.
The weaker reality tests are in a discipline, the more suited it is for academic status games. The better suited for academic status games, the more suited it is to establish normative dominance within the academy. Hence the disciplines which are most based on creating mountains of bullshit out of molehills of truth have come to increasingly normatively dominate the academy.
Obscurity of prose and verbosity (particularly grandiose verbosity) are strong indicators of a lack of reality tests. As physicist Carlo Rovelli puts it:
When we cannot formulate a problem with precision, it is often not because the problem is profound: it’s because the problem is false.
Philosophy’s lack of robust decision mechanisms is why the Rousseau-Kropotkin v. Hobbes-Huxley argument (humans are intrinsically noble and cooperative v. humans are intrinsically savage) has gone around and around in Political Philosophy for centuries, yet gets resolved by Primatology. (We are both, but in different ways from our chimpanzee and bonobo cousins.)
The answer to the above Tweet about what being conscious of being conscious means is to:
observe chimpanzees not coping with their reflection in a mirror,
note that it means we have the capacity to reflect on the claim in question and express our disgruntlement with it, a capacity we have evolved for reasons,
consider the cognitive implications of our very-different-from-chimpanzees foraging strategies.
The evolution of our capacity for self-consciousness is a classic case of an interactive, reinforcing spiral of evolutionary pressure. Our getting-bigger brains created ever-more time-effort-and-attention expensive children who required ever more cooperative foraging strategies. While our getting-bigger brains developed the cognitive capacity to engage in more complex communication, and so more cooperative foraging capacities, to support our energy-hog brains.
This upward selection spiral hit limits from the risks of child-birth, given size of infant skulls passing through pelvis evolved for efficient bipedal movement, and length of (calorie-subsidised) childhood and juvenile development. It takes about 19 years for humans to reach self-sustaining foraging capacity. With further brain development continuing for a few more years.
In his classic Zen in the Art of Archery (which really is one of those books everyone should read, if only to get a sense of the limitations of the propositional), Eugen Herrigel talks about ways of achieving what psychologists and cognitive scientists have come to call the flow state. (Aka being in the zone.)
This is most definitely not a state of being unconscious. You are not asleep when you achieve the flow state. On the contrary, if anything you are hyper-aware of the world around you. The charming 2006 film Peaceful Warrior has a particularly vivid sequence of such hyper-awareness (at the 30 minute mark).
What you are not is distractingly self-conscious. Your awareness is sunk into just being so it does not get in the way of the doing. You experience the doing without your mind impeding the doing.
You are fully present in the moment. That is flow.
Historian Amaury de Riencourt (1918-2005) writes of the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), he of cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, that he:
put his stamp on the modern era of the West by transposing the medieval Christian dualism God-soul and spirit-flesh into a philosophic one by cleaving the objective world into two sharply separate entities, mind and matter.
A separation that creates a subject-object division that famously dumped all sort of perceptions we seem to experience as real into subjectivity. A result that comes from seeking an objectivity that is independent of point-of-view, yet perception is always done perspectively.
Descartes is not seeking to explore consciousness inwards (as we see in karmic cultures), but to create a cognitive base to explore and map the outward world. For instance, using Cartesian coordinate mathematics.
As I point out in the essay on Helen Dale’s Substack, cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am, should really be: scio cogito, ergo scio sum; I am aware that I think, therefore I know that I am.
The full quote is dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum: I doubt therefore I am, I think therefore I am.
Descartes’ point is that we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt. But only if we are aware enough to doubt and be aware of our doubting. Which requires not merely thought, cognition, but thought about thought: metacognition.
Merely being conscious does not provide epistemic certainty, as without the recursive quality of self-awareness, you cannot infer from the experience of being conscious. It is being aware of being conscious, i.e. being self-conscious, that both generates awareness of the problem and provides the Cartesian epistemic certainty.
The consciousness void
This failure to parse the difference between being conscious and being self-conscious points to a larger problem in Philosophy. Of us not being able to consciously think about anything below the level of coherence that enables cognition to be conscious.
Which means, as I discuss in the aforementioned essay, our conscious thought (and so our language) cannot get all the way down into either cognition or reference. Our thinking has a consciousness-void that we cannot consciously think or put into words. A problem which gets worse with self-reference, for then the consciousness void is applying to the consciousness void. Unsurprisingly, self-reference generates a whole series of paradoxes.
Note, this is a problem of consciousness, not of the structure of the universe.
With this limit to conscious intelligibility we are well into the territory of the famous passage from the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
That Chinese civilisation used a single set of ideograms for divergent, even mutually unintelligible, spoken languages (“dialects” rather overstates their similarity) encouraged thinking about the limits of language.
Self-consciousness is useful: indeed, it is crucial for deliberately packaging information of sufficient complexity so that you can transmit it to another and receive such information from them (including the process of assessing the information at either end). Being able to do so, as discussed above, greatly expands cooperative possibilities. Hence, with our increasingly cooperative subsistence and reproduction strategies, self-consciousness was selected for.
But self-consciousness is also distracting. It can dwell on past or future, and so distract from focus in the present. It can dart around about the present, distracting from focusing on doing. It can be distractingly judgemental about what you are doing, clogging up the process of just doing.
Hence Zen in the art of archery. Stilling the mind so you are free to just do. To be in the flow, in the zone.
A great deal of training, especially military training, is to make things so automatic, that you just do them, even if you are being shot at. Train, train and train so, during combat, you are in just doing mode, despite your emotional state; even as a way to better manage your emotions.
Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625) re-introduced incessant drill into European warfare. Such drill spread across Europe, as drilled soldiers (and sailors) had a serious advantage over those not drilled.
A crucial advantage for the Royal Navy was that its incentives encouraged captains to intensely drill their sailors, resulting in British ships being able to get off three broadsides when their opponents could only manage two. In a pounding action, a 50 per cent higher rate of fire is deadly. Economic historian Douglas W. Allen records some of the results:
During the Napoleonic wars from 1793 to 1815 the British lost only 17 frigates to the French, of which they recaptured nine, while the French lost a total of 229. Over this same period 166 British warships of all rates were captured or destroyed by the enemy, of which ﬁve were ships of the line. However, 1201 enemy ships were captured or destroyed, of which 159 were ships of the line. Again, a ﬁve-fold difference in total ships, and an amazing 30-fold difference in the largest rates of battleships.
Incessant drill meant that brain and body are habituated to acting in particular ways in response to particular orders. Drill enough, and you will act as you have been habituated to do, even if folk are dying around you.
The secret to the Western way of war, which had such spectacular success in both Gulf Wars, is not superior technology (though that certainly helps). It is:
incessant training, so that soldiers are habituated in what to do and so can engage in combat with much greater efficiency and steadiness of action, plus
encouraging initiative, so units can use their training to respond with fluid effectiveness to the chaos of the battlefield.
The current notion of a Thunder Run is essentially taking advantage of your troops being able to cope with chaos better than theirs. At the time of the first Gulf War, a US sergeant could summon an air-strike that only a colonel or higher could do in a typical Arab army.
In 1991, in the first Gulf War, at the Battle of 73 Easting, US troops who had never fought a conventional battle came up against Iraqi Republican guards less than 3 years after the 8 years of the bitter Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The result was a crushing US victory. A result replicated by US and British forces in connected engagements.
Both Gulf Wars demonstrated that there is nothing particularly special about the Israeli Defence Force. It is just a Western army that gets more practice.
What incessant drill and incessant training does is create a form of full-body knowledge.
One of the problems bedevilling social science (as I discuss in Essay 11: Choosing pseudo-realities and Essay 12: Theory uber reality) is not grappling fully with us being evolved, embodied, decision-makers. The academic preoccupation with propositional knowledge, knowledge that (episteme), over knowledge how (techne), knowledge of (noesis) and knowledge in (gnosis) plays a role here.
There is propositional, procedural, perspectival and participatory knowledge: all of which are activated by rituals (as I discuss here). All of which are typically activated, and embodied through habituation, by incessant drill and training.
Training us out of too much (or at least the wrong sort) of self-awareness is what military drill, military training seeks to do. But so does Zen practice. Which is an amalgam of Buddhism and Taoism structured for a warrior elite.
There is also the problem of too little self-awareness. Our self-awareness is the manifestation of the self, of being us, that is most immediate to us. But such an emergent phenomena from consciousness, which is an emergent phenomena from cognition, which is … seems a weak reed to anchor any strong notion of the self on.
Carlo Rovelli makes this point:
The experience of thinking of oneself as a subject is not a primary experience: it is a complex cultural deduction, made on the basis of many other thoughts. My primary experience – if we grant that this means anything – is to see the world around me … we each have a concept of ‘my self’ only because at a certain point we learn to project on to ourselves the idea of being human as an additional feature that evolution has led us to develop during the course of millennia in order to engage with other members of our group: we are the reflection of the idea of ourselves that we receive back from our kind.
(And you were wondering why so many people went a bit crazy from the pandemic lockdowns.)
Amaury de Riencourt expresses rather nicely the way Buddhism confronts that our self-awareness can misfire in both directions:
Buddha preached simultaneously the reality and the unreality of the ātman [self]; his eminent follower and philosopher Nāgārjuna asked rhetorically, “Now, which of these two views represents the truth?” and then proceeded to explain that Buddha preached the reality of the ātman to those who were in danger of falling into nihilism (ucchedavāda), and its unreality to those who risked adopting the opposite error, eternalism (śāśvatravada).
An impediment to self-awareness is that avoiding certain sorts of self-awareness can be socially beneficial.
Hence, as I have discussed in various essays, efficient self-deception. Self-deception reduces our cognitive load by requiring less memory and allowing us to just argue our case without an extra layer of thinking. The efficient level of self-deception is where the costs of error to the individual are sufficiently low, and the increased persuasiveness, motivation, self-image, signalling are sufficiently high, that self-deception works to our advantage.
Evolving as normative beings also meant evolving to game being normative. Such as, for example, disguising our aggression (from both ourselves and others) as moral or social concern.
Thus we so often see ostentatious compassion being used to license bad behaviour. An ostentatious compassion that is both propositional and performative. (We don’t see these folk helping in soup kitchens.) Using the very narrowness of the propositional as a weapon: hence the incessant claim that those who do not accept the propositions (upon which we base our aggression that we do not see as aggression) are bigots.
So the pattern is particularly strong among those who do not work with physical reality. For the more physical reality matters in one’s work, the more Conscientiousness matters and the less useful Openness is.
High Conscientiousness somewhat and low Openness more strongly correlates strongly with conservatism. Working with physical reality both selects for likely conservatism and reinforces that order matters, that there is an inherent structure to things that we just have to deal with.
Conversely, the less physical reality you have to confront, the more it is all about propositions: rather than physically doing, perceiving, being in. Therefore, the less the costs of error, so the higher the level of efficient self-deception.
Too much self-awareness would get in the way of such self-deception. Particularly of using moral and social concern as a cover for aggression, to increase one’s authority, status and access to resources.
Indeed, the emotions one typically sees being politically expressed by the followers of the politics of ostentatious compassion, by the politics of the transformational future, are anger, rage, hate, self-righteousness, smug condescension, moral entitlement … All of which are barriers to self-awareness.
In terms of its social dynamics, feminism is the networked social aggression of highly educated and credentialed women. One of the most toxic aspects of feminism is that encourages women to lean into their worst traits: particularly their blindness to their own aggression.
A good question to ask of any technology or institution is: what, if anything, does it scale up?
What social media scales up is relational or reputational aggression, as well as threats of violence. The online environment is made for mobbing.
Which is what cancel culture essentially is: online mobbing. The more web-connected a society becomes, the more of a problem online mobbing, aka cancel culture, also becomes. China has a real problem with such online mobbing, as various stars of C-dramas have experienced.
What gives cancel culture its distinctive flavour in the West is the development, within those hothouses of efficient self-deception, our universities, patterns of prestige opinions and luxury beliefs hostile to freedom of thought and speech. Patterns that have spread into, and increasingly dominate, the cultural commanding heights of Western societies.
Helped along by the increasing feminisation of the same, as that shifts the balance of personality traits towards higher Emotionality and Agreeableness, as well as shifting the dominant form of status away from Prestige and towards Propriety. Something seen very clearly in Shirtgate.
All of which encourages the shift towards a censorious conformity. Within the West, a particular manifestation of censorious conformity organised around Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (aka “woke”) has achieved a certain institutional dominance (for reasons that various of the Worshipping the Future essays explore).
Social media is online slivers of people reacting to online slivers of people. Self-awareness is not encouraged by such. On the contrary, the very thin information feedbacks actively encourage a lack of self-awareness while raising the level of efficient self-deception in aggression by minimising the costs of error, as well as consequences, to perpetrators of such aggression. Hence cancel culture.
As for those not enthused by Philosophy, folk should be reassured, Consciousness and coherence is very much the most philosophical of the Worshipping the Future essays. And even it is really about cognitive dynamics and the implications thereof.
Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, Penguin,  1985.
William H. McNeill, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, Harvard University Press, 1995.
Amaury de Riencourt, The Eye Of Śiva: Eastern Mysticism and Science, Honeyglen Publishing, 1980.
Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Erica Segre and Simon Carnell (trans.), Penguin,  2019.
Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell with Mind And Matter & Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, [1944, 1958, 1992] 2013.
Will Storr, The Status Game: On Social Position And How We Use It, HarperCollins, 2022.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books,  2013.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Douglas W. Allen, ‘The British Navy Rules: Monitoring and Incompatible Incentives in the Age of Fighting Sail,’ Explorations in Economic History, 2002, 39, 204–231.
P. W. Anderson, ‘More is Different,’ Science, New Series, Aug.4, 1972, Vol. 177, No. 4047, 393-396.
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, Fall 1986, Vol.6, No.2.
Chris D. Frith, ‘The role of metacognition in human social interactions,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2012, 367, 2213–2223.
Erik P. Hoel, Larissa Albantakis, and Giulio Tononi, ‘Quantifying causal emergence shows that macro can beat micro,’ PNAS, December 3, 2013, vol. 110, no. 49, 19790–19795.
M. “Lorenzo” Warby, ‘Why Ritual,’ Lorenzo from Oz Substack, Aug 14 2022.
Richard W. Wrangham, ‘Two types of aggression in human evolution,’ PNAS January 9, 2018, Vol.115, No.2, 245–253.
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