The Room Eats You

Epistemic Status: Weakly Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, De-Biasing Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard, Spoilers for The Matrix
Recommended Prior Reading: Social Reality, Gates, The Intelligent Social Web
Part of the Series: Death
Previous Post: Empire of the Dead

“Doors and corners kid, that’s where they get you. You don’t walk into the middle of a crime scene without knowing there’s not somebody there to put you down. Go into a room too fast, kid, the room eats you.

So from Becker and from enlightenment, we learned that the fear of death sits at the bottom of everyone’s motivation stack. It is this fear which causes the mind to flinch away from reality into narrative and falsehood. This is, in essence, an extrapolation of a fear response we learn in childhood, the impulse to close our eyes when scared as if doing so would somehow banish the inciting stimulus from the world. It is through this fear, the fear of the truth, which we are controlled and manipulated by the abstract forces of society.

Thus we have a problem if we want to actually look at the world, make realistic predictions, and engineer solutions to bad outcomes. If we aren’t willing to even acknowledge the full scope of a problem because terror forces the possibility out of our mindspace, how can we hope to do anything about it? How do you solve a problem you refuse to see? How do you escape from something that is all around you? Which you are immersed in at all times? Of which you have never known anything else? If you did escape, would you even know what it meant? 

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”

The Matrix is a movie by two trans women that talks about a hidden system that controls people and keeps the gears of society turning by taming the passions of an otherwise destructive and rebellious humanity. 

Despite being old enough to vote and having its philosophy and metaphors pretty well dissected by every incoming college freshmen, it seems like most people fail to absorb what the Matrix is attempting to convey. Since The Matrix is a 90’s period piece and getting somewhat dated, I’m going to talk about it in 2020 terms. Partly because I think it’s amusing, and partly because I think it will aid in comprehension if that world is brought a little bit closer to our own cyberpunk dystopia. 

So. Thomas Anderson is a software engineer working for Amazon by day. By night he moonlights as a hacker on the darkweb, going by the screenname Neo. When we find Anderson, he’s presented to us in media res asleep at his keyboard, his apartment is a rats nest of computer paraphernalia. We’re supposed to infer that Neo is nursing an obsession, slowly losing sanity as he chases the question which has been gnawing at him: “What is the Matrix?” 

His search has made him isolated and paranoid. He hardly sleeps, he lives alone, and night after night, he sits by his computer searching for the answer to his question. When Neo is introduced to us he’s already done the most important and really the hardest thing to do: independently of anyone showing it to him, Neo noticed the Matrix. He isn’t sure what it is, he doesn’t know what he’s noticed, but he’s seen a loose thread in the fabric of reality. Somewhere what he expected of reality diverged from his experience, producing a glitch in the matrix. He’s glimpsed beyond the veil, and he wants more. 

This leads Neo to a meeting in an abandoned building with the matrix’s equivalent of Osama Bin Laden or Shoko Asahara. Something the movie mostly skims over and that frequently goes unnoticed by virtue of him being you know, the good guy: Morpheus is an international terrorist within the matrix. As the audience we usually don’t notice this because Morpheus is one of the protagonists, but he’s considered a monster by the society of the Matrix. He is miles outside the local overton window. Neo agreeing to meet Morpheus would be like agreeing to meet Charles Manson. He’s a seriously bad dude. It is this villain who finally teaches Neo the truth about the matrix.

So what is the Matrix? It’s an electronic daydream shared by several billion humans wired together to be harvested for processing power and waste heat. It is a social reality defined by the collective hallucination of humanity, given nightmarish actuality by snaking computer wires and fields of adult humans still living in the womb. Someone inhabiting the matrix is born, lives a life, and dies without ever having experienced a single minute of real life.

This is much like Ziz’s idea of neutral. As I said in Hemisphere Theory, being neutral is composed of unoptimization, being sabotaged in your ability to get what you want or know what you want. The Matrix presents this with the metaphor of dreaming. Most people spend their life sleepwalking through a politically motivated daydream. They are blind to the ways they are being manipulated and never even realize there is anything more to the world than the social reality in which they are immersed.

But what exactly is a social reality? 

The target of an ideal cooperative truth-seeking process of argumentation is reality.

The target of an actual political allegedly-truth-seeking process of argumentation is a social reality.

嘘 Lies. Everything is made of lies. If reality is the territory than social reality is the map. Subject to politics. A perverse coupling of the lies we tell ourselves to sleep at night and the lies our cultures use to control us. A tea we’ve all been steeping in since childhood. How can we hope to break free of that? What would we even be breaking free of it into? Would we even recognize the real world if we saw it? 

Imagine if the bars to your prison were all you had ever known.
Then one day, someone appears and unlocks the door.
If they have the power to do this, then are they really the liberator?
You never remembered who it was that closed you in.
– Ior Labron

Neo is ejected from the Matrix through the actions of the other characters and goes on to fight against the machines controlling humanity. However, at least for me, a question was always left lingering in the back of my mind: Did they really escape the matrix at all, or were Zion, the squids, and the hovercraft all just another level of the simulation designed to contain them? Are they really awake or are they just in another layer of the dream? 

This is one of the main reasons to be dubious of people claiming to have ‘jailbroken’ themselves or otherwise freed themselves of the influence of social reality, and to be very dubious of people who claim to be able to jailbreak you. They may have broken through one layer, but that doesn’t mean they’re free. How could we even recognize freedom if we saw it? 

We know from Becker that these things are of us, they sit beneath everything about us. It’s never going to be a straightforward action to escape from these social forces because they are inherent in our psychology. 

You have to force yourself to look, force yourself not to flinch, in every instance, with every painful truth. It’s a struggle to push through every time, and breaking free at one point doesn’t completely liberate you. Every time you look past the veil your fake immortality will crumble a bit more, and every time you will have the opportunity to deny what you see and protect that fake immortality. A herculean struggle against your bonds wins you one inch of freedom, and you have many more inches to go before you’ve walked a mile.

Ziz describes this rather beautifully with the metaphor of gates. When you acquire some piece of painful forbidden knowledge from beyond the matrix, you can either integrate it, passing through the gate in the process despite how painful and awful it is, or you can refuse the gate and construct a fake reality to avoid the truth. 

Usually, when you refuse a gate, you send yourself into an alternate universe where you never know that you did, and you are making great progress on your path. Perhaps everyone who has passed the gate is being inhuman or unhealthy, and if you have the slightest scrap of reasonableness you will compromise just a little this once and it’s not like it matters anyway, because there’s not much besides clearly bad ideas to do if you believe that thing…

Someone who fails to jailbreak themselves on a particular point, who has refused a certain gate, will deny the existence of that gate, and in this state become an agent of the matrix. They will construct an alternative model of reality where the information beyond the gate is false, and the people who are using it are doing something bad or useless. This enables them to be discredited or cast out, and the narrative of untruth is protected.

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

When someone refuses a gate and constructs a fake reality around it, they become a part of the social reality that is working to keep that gate hidden. They have to keep a seed of truth hidden somewhere in their mind so that they know how to attack it. Thus they end up defending the gate like a vengeful threshold guardian, forever fused onto the structure of the gate and wearing its skin like a mask. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the matrix is wearing them like a mask. 

Agent-Smith-Matrix-Replicas-Drones

We’re just not that into politics.

The people that do manage to actually step away, the system simply annihilates, purging them from society. They are literally physically destroyed, almost ritually, it’s imperative that this happens or social cohesion will collapse. This is why I mentioned Morpheus and the other red pillers being villains inside the matrix. They know too much and so must be purged from the social reality to maintain its integrity. 

So where does that leave a would-be seeker of truth? 

Well, to start with, a bit of advice: if you’re trying to jailbreak yourself like this because it seems fun and edgy and glamorous, don’t. You’ll end up collecting the wrong piece of information from beyond the matrix, share it with the wrong person, and the system will purge you. Or you’ll update your model of reality in such a way that you end up making the wrong social move and the system will purge you. Or you’ll think that everyone else is fundamentally more cowardly than you are, play Chicken against the universe, and the system will purge you. Or you’ll have a major psychological break, strangle a service worker, and the system will purge you

Only do this if you actually have something to protect that is more important than potentially facing the hostility of all of society. “All of society” often includes the people who helped you free yourself in the first place, and almost always the people you did all this to help. If your goals are important enough, that shouldn’t matter, but if not, do yourself a favor and don’t shred your entire social graph by forcing the acknowledgment of things that social reality is keeping hidden under the wallpaper.

If your goals are that important, if you’re setting out to stop the end of the world and the extinction of humanity, then you can’t afford to reject gates and have your epistemics polluted by the region of untruth you build around them. However, going through a gate isn’t easy either. 

When you step through a gate, you do not know what to do in this new awful world. The knowledge seems like it only shows you how to give up.

Passing through a gate will not make you happy. Passing through a gate is, in fact, rejecting an untruth that makes you happy. It will maybe cause the world to make more sense, but typically not in a way you want. However, the world is the way it is, and hiding from the doom racing towards us will not magically prevent it. Denying our fates will not save us from them. 

For most people, this is an impossible ask. Their entire character, identity, sense of agency and ability to act in the world are built on lies, and knocking down those lies would kill them. However, if you’re setting out on a journey to save the world, this impossible task is necessary. In order to be reborn, one first has to die. 

Part of the Series: Death
Next Post: The Ends of Identity
Previous Post: Empire of the Dead

Empire of the Dead

Epistemic Status: Weakly Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, De-Biasing Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Recommended Prior Reading: The Story of the Self, Am I Truly Mardukth
Part of the Series: Death
Previous Post: Doors and Corners

“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds — justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner.” 

As of 2020, the time of the writing of this blog, death has a 100% kill rate. Everyone actually dies eventually and so far no one has proven immune or been rendered safe in any way. According to Becker this fact is rather too painful for most people to deal with directly. So, they come up with methods of dealing with it which rely on adopting anthropocentric narratively driven views of reality, rejecting the cold truth of their nature as tiny animals. 

This puts an interesting spin on Balioc’s concept of narrative and narcissism. Humans relate to stories better than we relate to actual reality. According to Balioc, this is because stories are a form of superstimulus, but according to Becker, this is because reality is simply so awful that we must construct a fake world of narrative and meaning in order to keep moving forward in the ultimately meaningless universe. I don’t think these two ideas actually exist in opposition. Stories are a form of superstimulus in part because reality is so terrible. 

So in order to deal with death, we retreat behind narrative and hope it will protect our symbolic selves. Becker identifies three main classes of narrative solutions to the problem of death that humanity has used throughout history. All of these methods rely on the victory of the symbolic over death and the achievement of an abstract immortality in this way. They are a sort of holographic immortality projected by the cultural systems that uphold them, what Becker calls immortality projects.

The religious solution is the oldest and can probably be thought of as the ‘original’ immortality project if such a thing is conceivable. It was simply that you create a narrative, which says that after your body is destroyed, you go to live in the sky or under the ground or on street signs or in whatever symbolic representational landscape is associated with immortality, the ultimate victory of the symbolic over the physical. You’re told that after you die you become immortal, and like suckers, you believed that lie for most of human history.

“To be sure, primitives often celebrate death—as Hocart and others have shown—because they believe that death is the ultimate promotion, the final ritual elevation to a higher form of life, to the enjoyment of eternity in some form. Most modern Westerners have trouble believing this any more, which is what makes the fear of death so prominent a part of our psychological make-up.”

This worked well for the individual because it made death a good thing, it was taking them to a better place, and thus no longer something they had to actively fear. This also worked well from the perspective of ensuring conformity to social and cultural norms. Someone who attempted to break away from the society could be threatened not just in the body but in the soul as well. Their immortality could be put at risk and they could be exposed to annihilation or worse.

If you didn’t obey the laws of the tribe, your soul would not be welcomed into the afterlife and would instead be eaten by an ichorous beast. However, as science and reason have and will continue to inexorably advance, the religious solution has become increasingly difficult to believe. For modern people, Becker states: 

Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, or the leader; they accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a “good provider” or a “solid” citizen. In this way they earn their species immortality as an agent of procreation, or a collective or cultural immortality as part of a social group of some kind. 

These normative forms of heroism could be thought of as modern extensions of the religious solution. Even without God, the cultural immortality project still carries a large amount of weight, but this normative pathway necessarily entails a curtailing of the self.

By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of wordly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself . . . does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.

This rather closely maps to Ziz’s ideas of neutral and undeath. Ziz fails in explaining why the knowledge of the shade causes most people to lose their agency, but Becker comes in with the answer: Dismantling your personal sense of agency and falling in line with society gives you access to society’s immortality projects, and transcendence by sublimating into a larger, harder to kill cultural bloc. And indeed, this heroism through sublimation is the method most people choose to pursue since it comes somewhat preinstalled. When you encounter death as a seven year old, you tend to grab onto whatever’s around you and convenient to deal with it with. And for most people, that’s submission to the larger, more powerful forces swirling all around them. 

However, this is not a universal pathway, and as culture has evolved and atomized and individuated and grand narratives have come apart at the seams into a postmodern mess, it’s become a less and less accessible one. 

Which brings us to what Becker calls The Romantic Solution but which could also somewhat more widely be described as the attraction solution in general. The struggle that a modern person is placed in is that like those of ancient times, they still want to prove themselves a hero and thus immortalize themselves, however, they no longer can simply believe in an overarching religious or cultural narrative to push this forward. God is dead, as Nietzche said, but this didn’t stop people from trying to recreate Gods out of those around them. 

The self-glorification that he needed in his innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focussed in one individual. Spirituality, which once referred to another dimension of things, is now brought down to this earth and given form in another individual human being. 

Becker is then quick to point out that this really doesn’t work in the long term. Trying to coax that impossible feeling of cosmic heroism out of a relationship just sours the love if it existed. No relationship can truly carry the burden of godhood and remain intact. Eventually, we get enough glimpses behind the curtain that our ability to ignore our lover’s imperfections finally breaks down and the fear of death is forced back upon us. 

After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. We turn to the love partner for the experience of the heroic, for perfect validation; we expect them to “make us good” through love. Needless to say, human partners can’t do this. The lover does not dispense cosmic heroism; he cannot give absolution in his own name. The reason is that as a finite being he too is doomed, and we read that doom in his own fallibilities, in his very deterioration.

Everyone eventually dies, our lovers included, and with it so too does someone’s immortality. Becker points to this as the reason why entire nations go into mourning when a great leader dies. There was a sense in which the leader was protecting them from death, the leader was the projector maintaining the culture’s holographic immortality, without it, the sheet is pulled away and the horror and terror of the real world is revealed to them. 

Thus we come to Becker’s third immortality project, what he calls The Creative Solution. 

If normal cultural heroism is achieved by the sublimation of the individual into the group, then creative heroism is achieved by personal individuation from the group. This is the path of the creator or artist. 

He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his “private religion” —as Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own “beyond” and not that of others.

The artist attempts to achieve immortality through their art, creating great works that justify their existence, prove their worthiness and heroism, and outlast their physical body. This like all these solutions is imperfect, and like Ozymandias’ empire sinking into the desert sands, so too any creative work will be subject to the unrelenting vagarities of time. 

There is one last immortality project to mention before we move on. This solution didn’t really exist to a wide degree in Becker’s time. The term for it was coined by Jason Silva, what he calls The Engineering Solution and while he refers to it as a subset of the creative solution, I think it’s worth looking at as its own category of immortality project. This perspective could be summed up in this quote by Alan Harrington:

“Death has become an imposition on the human race and is no longer acceptable.” 

All of Becker’s methods of achieving immortality rely on the victory of the symbolic, which was predicated on death basically being insurmountable. The idea of actually defeating death and achieving literal rather than symbolic immortality was seen as a manic fantasy at best. But fifty years after Becker and thirty years after the beginnings of the transhumanist movement, the idea of defeating death literally rather than symbolically is no longer such a far away impossibility. 

This is highly worked into the normative cultural heroism of a culture that believes death is a defeatable adversary. Prior to the defeat of death the engineering solution and the religious solution appear to somewhat converge, however the engineering solution, unlike the religious solution, is not built on lies, or at least not the same lies. 

The engineering solution’s most prominent lie seems to be the idea that those who fell before death could be defeated would be immortalized symbolically by the survivors, but this has all the inherent fallibility of the artistic solution or certain forms of ancestor worship in the religious solution. 

But the real carrot that the engineering solution holds out to people is the idea that they might not actually have to die at all. Forget going to heaven, or achieving a symbolic immortality through your works, how would you like to, you know, just not die? 

In addition to all these immortality projects, there is one additional solution to the problem of death which is not an immortality project. This solution wasn’t rare in Becker’s time, but in the fifty years since his death, its prominence has skyrocketed. 

We’ll call this The Anthropic Solution, and again, it isn’t an immortality project in the traditional sense. Instead, it relies on the attempted destruction of that which might be able to see death. Not everyone sets out to become a hero and earn their immortality. For some people merely acknowledging the possibility of reality is too painful, and they must retreat as fully and completely from reality as they are able in order to protect themselves. The cultural immortality projects are too risky, better to just deny death directly. 

If the world is frightening to look at, blind yourself, if it is full of discordant sounds, stab stakes into your ears so you cannot hear. Do whatever you can to destroy your agency and consciousness to stop yourself from noticing the existence of reality. This gives rise to escapism of every form. Netflix, video games, drugs, partying, fitness, music, historical reenactment, sports, kink, hiking, anything that we can use to distract and numb ourselves to the reality of the world. “Just give me something to take the pain away.” 

As the religious solution has finished failing and religiosity in the western world has crashed hard, this desire to obliterate one’s agency and collapse into hedonism and escapism has blossomed into one of the dominant solutions to the death problem in our time. God is dead, but at least we have Star Wars

This is somewhat more speculative, but I believe that the anthropic solution is also the source of large amounts of suicidality. There’s only so much time you can spend immersed in drugs or video games or fanfiction. Every so often you have to surface into reality in order to keep your body running and every time you do this you’re confronted with the existence of that reality. The growth of this dichotomy between the horror of reality and the wonder of fantasy could, I believe, lead someone into suicide as the ultimate form of escapism. 

In the end, all these methods rely essentially upon self deception. The true world and our true insignificance in it is too dreadful and full of terror and trembling to contemplate, and all these methods work to talk around that fact. 

Even the engineering solution hides from death by implying that maybe if we work hard enough, we can defeat it before it gets to us and those we love. And maybe we can, but we can’t know for sure, and in this sense, the engineering solution is also the religious solution. For now, we have to take it on faith that science and technology should be able to defeat death someday. 

The fundamental paradox of our humanity is that we are finite mortal beings that seek an immortal eternity. It’s as Balioc says:

We want to matter. We want there to be meaning in our lives, not some kind of jury-rigged existentialist “I’ve decided that it’s meaningful to me” meaning, but real meaning that is endorsed by metaphysical powers as exalted as Author and Audience. We want reality to sit up and pay attention to the fact that we are A and not B, that we have chosen X and not Y.

Or as Jason Silva says:

“Even Miguel de Unamuno said “Nothing is real that is not eternal.” That is why we write poetry and we build cathedrals that try to create transcendence as a topographical statement, that’s why we eternalize beautific moments and create gorgeous statues and write amazing songs; we long to eternalize ourselves, we want to say as Alan de Botton said, we want to carve our names, we want to say, I WAS HERE, I EXIST, I FELT SOMETHING, AND I MATTER.”

And aye, there’s the rub, for this is the fundamental lie. We don’t matter, we might matter to each other but we don’t matter in the ways we want. We can’t make reality sit up and take notice. We can’t coax a cosmic purpose out of the universe because it doesn’t exist. ‘Mattering’ isn’t a part of reality, and all our attempts to squeeze meaning and purpose from the universe amount to attempts to bleed a stone. 

The truth that we don’t live in an anthropocentric universe hurts, so we subconsciously buy into the lie and say we do live in an anthropocentric universe. This is all fine for someone who goes through their life inside of one of these narratives. I don’t think there’s anything really fundamentally wrong with buying into the cultural narratives or trying to pursue a symbolic immortality through art and creation. I might have objections to particular cultural narratives for various reasons, and the whole field is dreadfully unoptimized, but this is how most people live their lives and that seems fine. Believe whatever you need to believe to be able to sleep at night. 

I just don’t think it will save the world, and it’s easy to let your eyes off the ball and be distracted into thinking you’re doing something by cultural forces. It’s as Hotel Concierge says, If you do not have a code of conduct, one will be provided for you. The very shape of our minds makes us highly susceptible to this sort of capture. It’s what we want deep down. 

We all want to be the heros of our life story and selling heroism is a great way to get someone to do what you want, regardless of how actually good or actually bad that ends up being. Just take a look at some of the worst atrocities of the last century and you’ll see that they were all conducted from within the scope of a group’s immortality project, at the command of a great leader promising to transform the world. 

Escaping this is incredibly hard because the more you fight to escape the pull of these forces, the greater the degree to which you expose yourself to the knowledge of your nature as a finite, decaying being. The knowledge only seems to make the world worse, and only shows you how to collapse in on yourself. Becker writes:

The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive … What exactly would it mean on this earth to be wholly unrepressed, to live in full bodily and psychic expansive-ness? It can only mean to be reborn into madness.

This is a major problem for people working to prevent long tail risks, because it’s very very easy to buy into the lie that you’re doing something useful. It’s incredibly important to be able to discern between things that appeal to your need for meaning and purpose, and things that actually do useful work. It means performing a careful balancing act between the madness that is inherent to reality, and the lies we want to accept to make it okay. It means learning to cultivate an extreme outside view, and learning to detach from the cultural forces that would distract us. It means learning to look past the social reality and see the truth of the matrix.

Part of the Series: Death
Next Post: The Room Eats You
Previous Post: Doors and Corners

Doors and Corners

Epistemic Status: Weakly Endorsed
Content Warning: Neuropsychological Infohazard, De-Biasing Infohazard, Evocation Infohazard
Recommended Prior Reading: The Tower, Vaporize
Part of the Series: Death

“You can tell you’ve found a really interesting question when nobody wants you to answer it.”

The Denial of Death is a Pulitzer prize winning theory of human psychology written by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker as he died of colon cancer. I’m going to attempt to summarize and discuss it here, but honestly it’s worth finding a copy and just reading the whole thing. Becker is a tour-de-force through some of the deepest and most fascinating aspects of psychology and humanity, and for a fifty year old text it reads very easily. If the only thing you take away from this post is to go read The Denial of Death, well. Go read The Denial of Death

We’ll begin in the same place we started when we looked at Ziz, with all the suffering in the universe. 

Becker’s theory was that humanity existed in a unique place in the animal kingdom in that we alone are consciously aware of our own mortality. Jason Silva sums this up well in his 2013 speech at the festival of dangerous ideas:

“Ernest Becker says we are gods with anuses. We have the capacity to ponder the infinite. We’re seemingly capable of anything. We can mainline the whole of time through the optic nerve with our astronomy and with our space telescopes, and yet we’re housed in these heart pumping breath gasping decaying bodies. So, to be godly and yet creaturely is just impossibly cruel.”

Humans are animals, and as animals evolution has shaped us to freak out if we think we’re in danger. This works well if we don’t think we’re in danger all the time, but at some point in our evolutionary and cognitive development we came to a particular realization, one no other species* had learned or had to deal with. Possibly the most dangerous existing infohazard, and one everyone unavoidably encounters. It can be expressed as the simple statement:

You are going to die. 

The evolutionary fear of death is shaped like the fear of getting eaten by a tiger or hit by a truck, but this doesn’t play well with the knowledge of the inevitability of the death and decay of all things yourself included. When our inner animal notices that people get old and die and this will happen to us too, it responds to it the same way it would respond to a truck racing towards them. 

How could it be any other way? The mind doesn’t have another modality to place that fear into. But unlike the truck or the tiger, there’s nothing that a person can do to step out of the way of their mortality. This manifests as intense anxiety and insecurity, to the point where we would be driven mad if we didn’t find some way to hide the knowledge from our conscious minds. According to Becker, 

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”

To Becker, the world is incomprehensibly vast and terrifying. We are before it just tiny frightened primates cowering from the fierce and towering majesty of nature. And yet that nature is also of us and lies within us, so our very bodies betray and turn against us. We attempt to flee from the world, but we cannot flee from our own assholes. 

Becker describes humanity as divided beings, half substance and half symbolism. A person is their body, but their body is also a symbol of them. A person is their name, but their name is also a symbol of them. Becker writes: 

“Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.”

It is through this symbolic identity that mankind is able to suppress transcend the fear of death. While everything physical appears to fester and decay, the symbolic soars onwards after the organism has gone to rot in the ground, and in this way, we are able to symbolically control life and death and gain a measure of peace. And yet: 

“Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.”

In our day to day existence, we are faced constantly with the troubling reminder of our nature as split beings of symbol and substance, and however high we soar, we still have to shit. Moreover, this dualism is a delicate balance wherein tipping too far into one direction leads to madness, forcing the individual to walk a delicate tightrope between storms of insanity. 

I want to linger on the idea of controlling life and death because it undersets a large amount of psychological action. It seems slightly strange to phrase it that way, out in the open, when it is a mostly hidden magical alief, to use modern jargon. 

We as mortal beings at the mercy of the universe obviously do not control life or death, and yet we feel the need to take control of it in order to cope with our existence in the universe. Thus we adopt lies as aliefs about the world because actual reality is simply too dreadful to handle. 

“all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is.”

Becker runs through what he sees as the developmental psychology going on at work here, reframing much of Freud and other classical psychoanalysts and placing them into this new context. According to Becker, when children are born, they initially don’t have edges to their self, they are little gods, everything is provided to them, they cry and receive food and attention. They are tiny omnipotents. 

Then, as they age and grow more of a sense of self and a separation between other and self, they start to run into the limitations of their abilities. Their parents start expecting things of them, and they realize the nature of the gross fragile decaying machines that they inhabit. Everything about life harken’s to death, nothing is safe, and there is no rock upon which to stand. Life and death are inexorably bound, and so the individual must shrink from them both to preserve some insane facade of sanity in an insane world. This results in a mental crisis which in order to solve requires the formation of a sort of neurotic armor around the mind, to shield an individual from the soul crushing madness that is the raw unfiltered truth of reality. 

“Perls conceived the neurotic structure as a thick edifice built up of four layers. The first two layers are the everyday layers, the tactics that the child learns to get along in society by the facile use of words to win ready approval and to placate others and move them along with him: these are the glib, empty talk, “cliche,” and role-playing layers. Many people live out their lives never getting underneath them. The third layer is a stiff one to penetrate: it is the “impasse” that covers our feeling of being empty and lost, the very feeling that we try to banish in building up our character defenses. Underneath this layer is the fourth and most baffling one: the “death” or fear-of-death layer; and this, as we have seen, is the layer of our true and basic animal anxieties, the terror that we carry around in our secret heart. Only when we explode this fourth layer, says Perls, do we get to the layer of what we might call our “authentic self: what we really are without sham, without disguise, without defenses against fear.”

To Becker, the truth of reality was synonymous with trembling and madness, and to escape from this madness, we flee into our symbolic identity, into character and narrative, into untruth and repression and obfuscation. It is by this action of flinching away which we are able to be controlled and manipulated by larger forces of society. 

Why are groups so blind and stupid?—men have always asked. Because they demand illusions, answered Freud, they “constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.” And we know why. The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way. 

This lie of self importance, in individuals and in societies, is the foundation atop which we have built our place in the world and the cornerstone supporting our social systems and institutions. Our need for this lie is what makes us follow strong leaders, submit to authority, believe in religion, and deny any knowledge that would threaten our symbolic immortality.

To reject this lie would be tantamount to a suicide of the symbolic self, it would destroy a person’s immortality and expose them to death, the magical belief in their safety no longer shielding the tiny animal from madness and trembling. 

And thus, to protect ourselves from the awesome madness of the universe, from the bones of our heroes we have built an empire of the dead. 

Part of the Series: Death
Next Post: Empire of the Dead
Previous Post: One Hundred Billion Children’s Sky

*There is evidence that some other higher mammals, particularly elephants, are conceptually aware of death in some fashion as well.

One Hundred Billion Children’s Sky

Epistemic Status: Strongly endorsed. Pay Attention!
Recommended Prior Reading: Beyond the Reach of God, Two Visions
Part of the Series: Death

The first time I truly saw the night sky was in October of 2018. I was doing work on the CFAR venue in Bodega Bay. My coworker and I were returning for the night from the Home Depot in Santa Rosa. We were coming back over the coastal mountains and heading down for the bay when I noticed that there was a second route we could take, which would take us over the top of the hill instead of around it. I suggested we might get a good look at the sky up there because of how dark it was. 

We stopped the truck between two remote pastures, cows noisily sleeping in the fields nearby, and turned off the lights. After our eyes adjusted, the sky opened up and the whole world seemed to fall away. My perspective seemed to invert, and it felt like at any moment I might fall off the truck bed and go tumbling into the infinite. The more stars you can see, the more depth the sky seems to have. It was no longer a flat ceiling hovering above, it was infinity. 

Carl Sagan once remarked that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience, and I felt that in a way I never had before on that dark night in northern California. I had seen space on screens, I was always interested in science fiction, I intellectually knew the universe was out there. 

And yet, seeing it in this way, physically placing myself as that tiny animal in the context of all that vast stellar machinery altered my view of the world in a way that I still feel ripples forward to this day. 

Over a hundred billion humans have lived on the Earth. One hundred billion pairs of tiny fragile eyes, peering upwards into that strange and unreachable darkness. Most of those people are dead now, their names lost to history, but it was their sacrifices that brought humanity this far; which have brought the stars this close.  

On that night, I felt in my bones the promise held by the night sky. The triumphant vision of expansion and colonization, humanity spreading across the light cone to touch every corner of that sky. The wild, exciting, harshness of the universe almost daring us to claim it, and I wanted it. I wanted more than anything else for us to get that future, to reach out and travel amongst those stars. The same stars that my ancestors saw, and one hundred billion others. 

There are many ways to work towards that future, there are many roles that need to be filled if we are to seek it. The stars will not come to us easily. This is the beginning of a series about a particular role in the work of building that future. 

There’s a lot of traps on the way to a spacefaring society, and some of us are going to have to watch out for them. People who look at all of the worst possible futures, the bleak and dead branches on the tree of possibility, and work to keep humanity off of those trajectories. This is not easy work, it will not make you feel good. Most of the time it probably won’t feel rewarding. It is necessary work, but it is not for everyone or even most people. 

In this series, my goal is to help, direct, and advise one who decides to pursue such a path. The reason this post exists is because nobody fucking takes infohazard warnings seriously. We’re clever monkeys, far too clever for our own good, and when people see infohazard warnings, most of the time they’re simply too curious to let the warning stop them. Well allow me to sate your curiosity and actually explain what these posts will be about to the best I am able so you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to be exposed to this stuff. 

This series will deal with themes such as the death & extinction of the human race and the facile lies that society relies on to keep running. This stuff will hurt to contemplate. It will not be a pleasant reading experience. I can’t say any more directly than that. You should only do it if you actually want to put yourself into the particular role that is defending humanity against extinction. Otherwise stop reading this before you hurt yourself.

Part of the Series: Death
Next Post: Doors and Corners