Questions on a Very Long Life

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis]

Dear Hamuel,

About 10 years ago my grandmother and I leaned on a balcony under moonlight in Florida. The black ocean licked sand so white that beneath the pale moon the sand glowed like an enormous, bioluminescent eel, a littoral Jörmungand waiting to be scratched by the bare toes of vacationers. My grandma said to me that summer night, “You know though I’m 68, in my heart I still feel like I’m 17.” When she was 17, she had her first kid, and thus that was the year of her adulthood. The implication was that the body ages but the soul still savors life, still loves youth and laughter, friends and song. If the eyes didn’t dim, and the mind didn’t go, and the knees didn’t ache, would we want to retire to eternal rest? Or would the sweetness inherent in life keep us here?

You and I discussed at length previously the passage in De Anima in which Aristotle posits that it is not vision which fails, and the soul does not grow old, and the intellect has the capacity to be eternal.

The case of mind is different; it seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. If it could be destroyed at all, it would be under the blunting influence of old age. What really happens in respect of mind in old age is, however, exactly parallel to what happens in the case of the sense organs; if the old man could recover the proper kind of eye, he would see just as well as the young man. The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle, as occurs in drunkenness or disease. Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassible. – De Anima 1.4 408b

As per our previous conversation about the immortality of the soul, I have some follow up questions about long-livedness. Let’s imagine, as an intuition pump, that you will live out your body’s 40’s over the course of about 500 years, during your last 50 years of life you will age normally. (A small population of people also partaking in the thought experiment may also live this long, but not very many as we don’t have FDA approval for mass testing). Given a much longer life span what would change?

  1. Would you change your behavior in life? If so, how and why?
  2. Would the nature of the good life change? No? But the requirements you would need to procure a good life would change, right? And if the necessary accidents for securing a good life change, then in what sense are they accidents if they are necessary? There’s a bit of a puzzle here.
  3. Do you think human psychology can adapt to deal with such an extended lifespan? Why or why not?
  4. If you could adjust the number of years you will live in those long 40s to any round number what is farthest you would be willing to go?

As always, I cast the questions in the most misleading and equivocating manner I could. Avoid the traps and hooks and take the best bait you can without getting reeled in.

Good swimming,

Building a Little Letter Republic

[This is an experimental project in letter writing as a renewed art form. You can read CeltAtom’s reply here.]

Dear CeltAtom,

You wrote to me recently mentioning what a pity it was that your friend was pulled in to the “California rationalists.” The implication, of course, was that this was a misuse of his great intellectual talents. Whether or not it was a misuse, I think, is a question worth pursuing at some other time (as you know, I’m more optimistic). But if we consider the likely causes of an intellectual move into the Less Wrong crowd, I think we can discover important lessons for ourselves and our own goals of building community in St. Louis.

The Rationalists come together in digital and sometimes physical space to engage in discoveries, projects, and conversations. And while most of this activity takes place online, nonetheless, the majority of participants are curiously located in the same geographic area. The reclusive rightly guided caliph of the rationalist blogosphere Scott Alexander moved to the Bay from Michigan. Even he needs community. Tyler Cowen, who is intellectually adjacent to the rationalsphere, mentioned that his Emergent Ventures applicants are dominantly from the “usual places” especially the Bay, even though there is no geographic barrier to entry. I think the lesson is that geography matters for community — even open, digital intellectual community.

Your puritanical commitment on the geographically local perplexed me for years. Yet considering that you coined the term “California rationalists” and I knew exactly what you meant speaks louder than my manifold protestations that community can easily be geographically agnostic — the word ‘easily’ was greatly mistaken. Yes, you are correct. I see that if we are to build ourselves an intellectual home it will be local. It must be here.

On the other hand, what good is a community that can’t attract people like your friend? Would I want to be part of a community which can’t be discovered and joined by great people, people filled with potential, who will keep me sharp and help draw out of me a better version of myself? This is another lesson. People leave their native lands for Oakland, not for Oakland, but for the community they discovered and engaged with digitally. They received some benefit from its open output, and now they will make a home there physically. I think the lesson is clear: agglomeration is key to community.

A paraphrase of Marshall’s economics text makes the point.

When a [community] has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same [mode of existence] get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in [community], in processes and the general organization of the [institutions] have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas. And presently subsidiary [groups] grow up in the neighbourhood, supplying it with implements and materials, organizing its traffic, and in many ways conducing to the economy of its material.

Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, 1890 – bracketed terms are mine

What the Bay Area has done is created an agglomeration of different types of rationalists and rationalist adjacent people through precisely these effects.

When you read the works of Seneca, Cicero and St. Augustine, you might notice that much of their work is actually in the form of long discursive letters. These letters, like Seneca’s on friendship were both public and private. On the private side they were motivated by the conversation with a particular person; they are addressed to that person; and they are written to persuade that person. On the public side, the author expected the letter to be shared, shown, distributed, copied, and forwarded to anyone who could benefit from its contents. This is why we still have these letters today.

Similarly, the Enlightenment era Republic of Letters allowed people from the salons and clubs of Europe to stay in touch, receive encouragement, hear of latest discoveries, and, importantly, extend its reach to promising new members. Most of the American Founders were were part of a community of letters: Benjamin Franklin had David Hume, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Condorcet internationally, but locally he had his Junto, which was probably important for development in Philadelphia in many not-so-obvious ways. Letters and local community however were separate affairs in that era. Nonetheless, Franklin brought the value of an international community to his local community by founding a library which housed the latest volumes. He tried to build the culture he wanted to see in the world.

These Antique and Enlightenment era letters also revealed a certain code of conduct, a morality of the scholar, which was built upon a level of courtesy, (the Newton and Leibniz episode excepted), scholarly integrity, and open-handedness combined with rigor and a critical eye.

I submit that if we are to build community in St. Louis, its existence should be discoverable online, but its activity and direction should be local. If we are good, we will attract new good people – like your friend – to us. Nonetheless, our focus should be geographically constrained, because the thing to build and improve is a community here.

You, CeltAtom, are my primary audience. But if others can benefit from this communication, I want them to.

Cheerfully yours,

At Wendy’s Near an Interstate

He sits slumped over with a Where’s Waldo scarf

Slowly sucking down salty Wendy’s fries.

Slowly drooping over like an overladen branch

Slowly shutting down his eyes like a sun eclipsed.

His limp wrist dangles his five purple thumbs

Suspended by an elbow planted firmly on the table.

By that planted elbow a notepad sits with some ink.

The booth is overflowing with his girth, with his mass. 

“Is he breathing?” question the people as they pass.

I return to that notepad, which somber makes me think

A suicide note, or manifesto of a dream gone down the sink,

Or it could be a wish that’s at last been fulfilled.

Is that body breathing? Has he been killed?

His alarm beeps every five, for some meds or is it work?

He doesn’t stir or answer, but his fingers twitch and jerk.

It could be diabetes, a seizure, or a stroke.

Perhaps Lazarus is sleeping, the normal weary folk.

I creep to observe, as the alarm goes off again.

And sure enough he’s breathing, his life goes on and then,

My thought return to that notepad. Alack! What does it say?

Perhaps he’s dying very slowly, and the notepad points the way

To save him from this process of very slow decay.

Closer yet I get and entitled on the page.

3/15/21 it reads, a journal entry of a sage!

Do I dare read on, this man’s soul which laid bare?

I dare not, I dare not, for fear of what lies there.

I get my Wendy’s order. And awake the sleeping man.

“We thought it was a heart attack.”

He wakes, “Long week. Pretty sucky.

“No, not a heart attack – I’m not that lucky.”

Science and Technology Read 2020

The Devil’s Doctor by Philip BallTerribly meandering book. Had very little to do with Paracelsus, mostly because the author realized that Paracelsus is an incomprehensible charlatan. However, The book offers a very pleasant overview of 16th century flavor. And has good references to more interesting vistas, namely De Re Mettalica.
De Re Metallica by Georg AgricolaA thorough and systematic treatment of metals from finding the ore, to setting up the company, to digging, refining, and crafting. I wish more books were like this! This is a true science and engineering text. Perhaps the first truly comprehensive one in history. The Hoovers were wise to translate this and promote its place in the history of science.
Every Tool’s A Hammer by Adam SavageInspirational anecdotes about creating things.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua FoerJournalist adventures into the art of memorizing. This volume while filled with stories, had just enough information for the reader to figure out how to start crafting memory palaces, and begin their own adventures in memorization.
Speed Reading in a Week by Tina KonstantI wanted to investigate the speed reading literature because even a modest improvement in my reading speed could mean an extra book or two read per year.
Evelyn Wood Speed ReadingBut it turns out that speed reading only kind of exists as a learnable skill. Most of the techniques are actually just extensions of the methods for reading well found in How to Read a Book, which is a far better use of one’s time.
Nuclear 2.0: Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, Mark LynasMark Lynas is environmental activist who advocates nuclear and GMO proponent. In the book he talks about the anti-nuclear myths held by a lot of green activists which are holding back the fight against climate change.
I didn’t know about these myths, but somehow I had come to believe some of them, especially the idea that nuclear waste is a BIG PROBLEM holding back scaling up nuclear power production. Turns out it’s not.

People are the under the impression that if a reactor goes bad or is hit by an earthquake it will explode killing hundreds of people and damaging the environment for centuries. But a Japanese Nuclear Plant close to the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake took no damage, and while Fukushima melted down, 1 person died and there was some environmental contamination.

But other sources of power contaminate the lungs of workers, spill in the oceans, and spread CO2 in the atmosphere (or as the other alternate fuels are – inefficient and are NIMBY’d to death). To the bigger political point though, nuclear energy summons great fears in the minds of people; the grassroot support isn’t there.
Wiring CompleteVery helpful guide in how to wire things around the house! Highly Recommended!

Philosophy and Economics Read 2020

De Anima Commentaries by Themistius, Avicenna, Therese Corey, Averroes. Reading De Anima and the history of commentaries upon is like watching the same movie as imagined by many different directors. This philosophical tradition is so thorough in its discussion of questions that anything short of this method feels inadequate.
Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen. He’s not Aristotle, but he offers a fresh take on what it means to be a worldly philosopher, in other words, a philosopher interested in the good of the world. Although I still have no idea what the title of this book means, I can tell you that content concerns a eloquent apologia for making sustainable economic growth as moral concern, something we should care about. I would be sold but moral concerns and logical arguments only work on honest and virtuous people.
The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior by David C. Rose considers the basic decalogue that must be secured in order for there to be economic behavior. Inspired by his rule-based vision of moral foundations, I wrote a little list of seven rules that match it with the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Painting and Reality by Etienne Gilson. You can’t recreate the Sistine Chapel without the Michelangelo’s dyes! Beautiful reflection on the unique aesthetic qualities of painting.
De Rhetorica by Aristotle plus a few commentaries by Adam Smith. How is that one mind can speak so well on so many topics? In this blockbuster Aristotle instructs the eager philosophical public on how to bend the mind and emotions towards truth through the power of language. Adam Smith offered a pleasant insight in his Belles Lettres lectures when he cautioned that when the audience is positively disposed be like Aristotle, when they are negatively disposed be Socratic in one’s speech.
Age of the Infovore by Tyler Cowen. This was pleasant dose of encouragement on how to survive in the age of information and noise and to be more accommodating to people who differ from me. The book is really a call for magnanimity. But most importantly it pointed me in the direction of Das Glasperlenspiel.
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. The book on social capital, but do I even recommend it? It was solid, but soulless.
Big Business A Love Letter to an American Antihero by Tyler Cowen. While the author sees this book as a failed project, I came away with some important data and hard to rebut counterarguments to some common cultural assumptions about how business works. Some arguments I thought were quite weak or unappealing (I would prefer if businesses unrelated to culture did not become the arbiters of culture and orthodoxy…), but the chapters on CEO pay, inequality, and big tech made up for the small weaknesses. To me it was a huge success. Recommended.
Creative Destruction: Globalization and the World’s Cultures by Tyler Cowen. Look on the sunny side of globalized culture… there are Swedish musicians who specialize in Americana and Blues Rock, and Turkish musicians who make rap. But it cuts the other way too. I get to listen to Turkish folk music and Finnish pop and All of Bach! Demand for all genres is actually up, and musicians can access a global audience.
The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat. A rhapsody on American culture. I like Ross’ writing.
A Time to Build by Yuval Levin. A fairly light read, it is more of a sermon than a serious treatise. The thesis of the book is that institutions are supposed to form each of us into a particular type of person. They ought not be mere platforms for self-glorification and expression. The goal of an institution is to coordinate people around certain ideals and mission, not merely to apply intelligence and efficiency to solving problems, but to apply character and integrity in the fulfillment of obligations and responsibilities. (It’s some timely moralizing, I’d say!) Here is a nice quote from the book:
“Many Americans are not lucky enough to have the benefit of a flourishing family, or the opportunity for rewarding work, or an uplifting education, or a thriving community, or a humbling faith, let alone all of these at once. But some combination of these soul-forming institutions is within the reach of most, and the work of reinforcing them, sustaining the space for them, and putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible is among our highest and most pressing civic callings. All of these institutions now need us, and we can help by taking them seriously.”
Russian Conservatism by Paul Robinson. “There are more types of Russian Conservatism, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Revolt of the Public

Ex-CIA digital media analyst, Martin Gurri, explored the politics of negation in 2014 and updated his thesis in 2018 in The Revolt of the Public.

The Revolt comes in pink.

The major thesis is that while the public becomes more highly networked and integrated with each other, elites have remained about as removed as they were pre-internet. This high visibility highlights their many failures, creates widespread distrust in their authority, and enables various revolts against the status quo in the form of (usually unreasonable) demands. The typical elite response is bewilderment and indignation. The savvy elite response is joining the public in blaming the leaders, the bureaucracy, or whatever malevolent force it is, and denouncing the system they are apart of.

Chesterton’s quip about love gains new meaning when the concept of neighbor becomes everyone we encounter on and because of the internet. “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people,” (Illustrated London News, July 16, 1910). This is why Christians are known for their calm and loving presence in the midst of Facebook flame wars…

The key, I believe, to getting the most out of this book, is to avoid thinking about the book in terms of our own favored political armies, and instead to focus on our personal self-adaptation. A noisier world is upon us. Living well within it is the challenge. The movements of today flash out like solar flares. Suddenly a mass of people can turn against an election, or a particular company, a particular minority, a city government, a court, a religion or a statue, a sector of the economy, or a nation. Indeed, anyone can be a besieger and anyone can be besieged by a suddenly formed public. And since criticism is cheap and available, we tend to engage in it too and judge ourselves vigilant and intelligent for seeing all the wrong.

Chesterton’s response is that “what embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism,” (“On Bright Old Things and Other Things,” Sidelights on New London and Newer New York). For if we fail to see our own failures, we will fail to forgive others their own. Martin Gurri’s response adds a little more detail than this. Building trust across a nation built on traditional brick-and-mortar hierarchies requires humility, integrity, and openness. He spells this out as the only way forward for systems to appear legitimate in a highly connected world.

I am concerned with how to build trust in an age of distrust. How to build well and offer a positive vision despite all noise, much of it vile. Martin Gurri’s book lays out a solid analysis of one level of the forces at work, but there are many others. Ideology, economy, laws and culture still matter. However all of these are influenced by the lightning fast information age.

Fortunately integrity in the internet age is about the same as integrity has always been, we just have to use the new tools to fulfill it. At the personal level: never lie, explain your reasons for what you’re doing/believing, be open about the good you wish to do, be open for input, strive for virtue, take responsibility for your actions. In your organizations, serve your clients and colleagues, take responsibility for their good, encourage them to also strive for virtue, be open for input, create goals (and be led by them!), and never lie.

Religious Works Read 2020

Populorum Progressio by Paul VI
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis by John Paul II
Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation by Joseph Ratzsinger
Witness to Hope by George Wiegel
Gaudium et Spes by Paul VI
Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil
Code of Canon Law 1983 Vatican, Pope John Paul II
Saint Louis Jacques LeGoff
Fratelli Tutti by Pope Francis
Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great
Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict

Fiction Read 2020

Milton by William Blake. Wild bright eyed prophetic mythopoesis by the great seer of the Romantic era. Illustrations by the author are grand and delightful.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. With the first chapter featuring the persecution of a physicist during the Cultural Revolution in China, we have the set up of a solid novel. Coming from the perspective of an author whose country has come from killing scientists to enthroning them within a generation, optimism and belief in the possibility of progress pervades the story. This novel can stand alone without reading the next two books! Thus it’s not a huge commitment.
There Once Was A Mother who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back in by Ludmilla Petruvaskaya. From a Russian translation, comes three stories about the depressing psychology of desperate people. My wife and I read this in the hospital after childbirth. Our child has moved in, may he not move back in!
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. The megalopsychoi war against decadence.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu. What is progress? We begin with environmental degradation on earth and end with environmental degradation of the universe. “Make time for civilization, because civilization doesn’t make time.” A wonderful meditation on the relationship between progress and civilization. In our novel, the quest for unyielding progress can diminish civilization. But civilization without progress leads to decadence. Ultimately only self-gift can save us.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Inspiring philosophical novel blending music and philosophy into a rarefied community. Since I am a total sap for intellectual coming of age stories and this one is framed in the ironic mode of a well-researched biography, from the onset the philosophical musings of the book pulled me. The dialogue form did not survive Plato, instead it was elevated into the philosophical novel. Here is a philosophical novel without reservation. The book also features some wonderful poetry, translated from German, such as “After Dipping into the Summa Contra Gentiles.” This was the best novel I read this year.
The Man in the High Castle by Phil K. Dick. Unsettling escher-like look at the reality of history. Ultimately, however, I found the most interesting part of the book to be PKD’s notion of economics. He presents a world in which Nazi economics is doomed to inefficiency caused by centralization but stands superior to Japanese traditionalism. He also thinks New Deal economics would have worked well, or does he? That’s the question.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Want to be punched in the gut by depressing and potent visions of a failing America? This is your book, though it’s ultimate message is hopeful. I enjoyed it, but really stopped feeling strong emotions after the first half of the book, when circumstances improved. I am undecided on whether I will continue to the next book, Parable of the Talents. Though, I do love a good parable.

The Child of Generations Responds to W. H. Auden’s “Under which Lyre”

‘Productivity Cult’ maligned
“A tumor on the consciousness of modern man defined
To drudgery to dredge away retail, data, ‘sembly lines.”

Proclaims my pastor poetaster
Hopped up on Hopkinisms, calling congregants to master
Shelley’s shoaly Naples verse: et al. Romantic disasters

In their cosmic solipsisms
Steering clear of beneficence, blessing with rarest chrisms
One gaudy bird. Lost in endless aphorisms.

I deserted Mercury?
I saw a city, heavenly yes, and amidst the endless artifice,
Sat the child of generations who told me this:

“Quicksilver cures our shaking knees, 
Of syphilis, but rots the teeth, like Eve’s hollow candies.
Banned in Plato is he, because Aristophanes.

“Although his wit is clever,
He can dodge Apollo, and is caught nigh-never,
He lives a bitter retreat in a container lost forever.

“Apollo, as Auden alleged in school,
Is rude, base, vulgar, a fraud through and through.
Teaches technai, forsakes Truth. Only mundanity for him will do.

“Smash these idols! This idle chatter
Odious dichotomy between form and matter
Obscuring the obvious with vain plather.”

Thus, “Produce!” I shout. “Propagate!
Ensoul matter, ye rites rational!” For in utility’s gallant gait
Truth is put to use of soul and matter transubstantiates.

The productivity cult is mine.
Raising up to consciousness of modern man the fine,
Raising all the goods of man toward the One sublime.