I hope you have all been doing well and that my letters are making a humble contribution to this. Aside from well-being and our ability to enhance it in others, I see no real basis for meaning in this life. Fortunately, this is more than enough.
"Happiness is compatible with the laws of nature"
To me, this belief is all you need to live a fulfilling life.
How wonderful is our circumstance?
Fredrick the Great of Prussia was very, very keen for the Germans to adopt the potato and to eat it because he realized that if you had two sources of carbohydrate, wheat and potatoes, you get less price volatility in bread. And you get a far lower risk of famine, because you actually had two crops to fall back on, not one.
The only problem is: potatoes, if you think about it, look pretty disgusting. And also, 18th century Prussians ate very, very few vegetables -- rather like contemporary Scottish people. So, actually, he tried making it compulsory. The Prussian peasantry said, "We can't even get the dogs to eat these damn things. They are absolutely disgusting and they're good for nothing." There are even records of people being executed for refusing to grow potatoes.
So he tried plan B. He tried the marketing solution, which is he declared the potato as a royal vegetable, and none but the royal family could consume it. And he planted it in a royal potato patch, with guards who had instructions to guard over it, night and day, but with secret instructions not to guard it very well. Now, 18th century peasants know that there is one pretty safe rule in life, which is if something is worth guarding, it's worth stealing. Before long, there was a massive underground potato-growing operation in Germany. What he'd effectively done is he'd re-branded the potato. It was an absolute masterpiece.
The above is an excerpt from the TED Talk Life Lessons from an Ad Man by the wonderful Rory Sutherland. I highly recommend that you take time out of your day to watch it (it is ~17 minutes).
In it, he argues that we put too much effort into the messy business of changing reality. More often than not, changing perception is all you need. He makes the case that advertising is creating perceived value. That is to say — intangible value, subjective value or badge value.
Many would scoff at the enterprise, but Rory makes a clear case:
" If you think about it, if you want to live in a world in the future where there are fewer material goods, you basically have two choices. You can either live in a world which is poorer, which people in general don't like."
"Or you can live in a world where actually intangible value constitutes a greater part of overall value, that actually intangible value, in many ways is a very, very fine substitute for using up labor or limited resources in the creation of things."
All value is subjective. What we seek is in the mind. We don't really care about wealth, convenience, comfort, job security, relationships or social status, what we really care about is happiness. Everything else is a means.
Let me repeat this. What we want is happiness (and not just our own).
At the very bottom of all our efforts is that we want everything to be okay. Never forget this.
As the excellent Peter Singer once said, we should be looking at cost-benefit trade-offs in regard to well-being. Everything else is just a means, and we are all too prone to getting lost in our means. This is what moral reasoning from first-principles is.
If we acknowledge that this is what we wanted from the beginning, the logic of our efforts shifts immensely and we have many more strategies available to us. Which problems make sense to solve at the level of the world? Which problems make sense to solve at the level of the mind?
These are important questions to ask ourselves. It is my view that the issues we should be tackling in the physical world are the threats to our survival. All else, which pertains to the quality of our existence can be worked with at the level of our minds.
The sage Shantideva even remarked at the efficacy of changing minds over changing the world over a thousand years ago:
"To cover all the earth with sheets of leather — where could such amounts of skin be found? But with the leather soles of just my shoes, it is as though I cover all the earth!"
All in the mind
What does a solution that deals with perception look like?
In his bestseller Sapiens, the historian Yuval Noah Harari raised controversy when described human rights as a fiction.
"There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings."
All of these are examples of solving problems at the level of tweaking perception.
Think about the example of money for a moment — why is it that you or I value it?
It is because we can exchange it for goods and services we would like.
Why can we do this? Because other people value it.
Nations are imaginary lines we drew on the ground, laws are rules we have made up and are willing to enforce, governments are a bunch of people who have earned the right to make decisions on behalf of us because they have won a popularity contest. Illusions are the lifeblood of societies.
In fact, even the concept that we are fundamentally a part of something called a society — and have a debt to it — is itself an illusion that we have adopted.
What makes an illusion is that it is not real in the way that it is perceived to be. These are not necessarily bad. A rainbow is an example of such a phenomenon — there is no such entity in the world as it appears. But as Richard Dawkins has said many times; the beauty of the rainbow is not contingent on our failure to understand it.
I want to bring to your attention the useful distinction between illusion and delusion:
- Illusion: That which is not real (or at least not in the way it seems)
- Delusion: Taking that which is not real as real
When we are deluded we mistake the means for the end. We take our heuristics and methods as if they were sacred law. To see an illusion as an illusion, to see our methods as methods, means not be tied up in them.
It does not mean that we avoid them, but rather that we use them if and when necessary and abandon them when they are not.
"Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Emptiness is none other than form, form is none other than emptiness... There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue..."
This is from the most famous of all the Buddhist sutras — the Prajnaparamita Sutra — beloved by many throughout the world. Prajna translates from Sanskrit to wisdom, and paramita translates to perfection. The Perfection of Wisdom sutra.
I once watched a YouTube series on the Prajnaparamita sutra by the eminent Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, where he remarked on how in Buddhism there is no formal ceremony for marriage.
He joked about how a ceremony might be run from the point of view of emptiness...
"Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, there is no husband, no wife, that is just a piece of paper, today is an ordinary day, nothing is actually happening."
This sounds like it would be a lot of fun.
You know, I have spent the last few hours typing this up. It doesn't feel like it though. I really enjoy typing up these emails as well as reading your responses to them. When the end of fun has been realised, the means of the time and effort spent means very little.
I feel like I say this every week, but I am very grateful to have people interested in what I have to say. Thank you again for reading another email. On the basis of my own experience I can testify — happiness is compatible with the laws of physics.
An update for you: Hunter has responded to my email
Please read it to hear his perspective on what AI Safety entails and expect more from our conversation soon. If you are interested in the topic, let me know if you have any questions you would like me to ask him.
Also, I have started an online meditation group using the Waking Up app. We meditate together every day at 7 am AEST for 12 minutes. If you are interested in participating, please join my discord channel.
That's all from me this week — I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.