July 4th will be the three-year anniversary of Ribbonfarm. I normally celebrate with a retrospective-plus-roundup, but this year, I thought I’d do something different. I am not entirely sure what you guys get out of my writing, but for me, the act of writing this blog has clarified, reinforced and (for better or worse) hardened a certain philosophy of life. This philosophy is a set of coupled choices on a set of either/or spectra. The best visualization I could come up with is something I call the philosopher’s abacus. Here’s a picture (feel free to share, pass along etc.)
I believe the abacus represents fundamental genetic constraints that define a life-philosophy design space. I believe it is nearly impossible for humans to transcend the abacus. Let me explain how it works.
How the Abacus Works
I share with Lord Kelvin an inability to visualize ideas except in the form of mechanical models. The abacus is a set of spring-linked beads on a curved wire frame. If you move all the beads to one end or the other, you get a set of relaxed springs: there is no internal tension or conflict to manage. If you choose any other configuration, the effort it will take to maintain that philosophical stance is proportional to how much you stretch the springs.
I am reluctant to label the left and right sides, but I suppose you could call them “manic-depressive truth-seeking” and “deluded happiness-seeking.” The left is creative-destructive, cat-like, Nietzchean, Dionysian, Taoist and Saivite. The right is preservation-focused, dog-like, Aristotlean, Apollonian, Confucian and Vaisnavite. The great divide I am trying to capture has occupied philosophers, comedians, bureaucrats and dictators of all ages, so there is very little original here.
Rather satisfying to me is the fact that I feel comfortable classifying, towards the right, anyone who claims the abacus can be transcended. So from where I stand, towards the left (the picture roughly reflects my own position), the abacus is unfalsifiable, and therefore self-contradictory, since it could be metaphysically delusional. It also makes me doctrinaire, and incapable of listening seriously to the abacus-rightists. I have spent a couple of decades trying earnestly to be open-minded, and am starting to enjoy being close-minded, hidebound and narrow for a change. I suppose I’ll be among those headed for the guillotine when the revolution comes.
By the way, right and left here refer to the abacus drawing. The political right/left divide does not correlate at all to this picture. I have met both Democrats and Republicans who are abacus-left and abacus-right.
Where does the abacus come from? I believe it comes from genetics. Darwinism manifests itself in human behavior as an uneasy balance between our social natures and our competitive natures. Everything we do comes down to it. Genetics even drives our philosophical imagination. I know a lot of you will itch to challenge both this foundational premise and the specific ideas I have baked into the abacus visualization. The idea that truth and happiness are fundamentally opposed, and that happiness rests on a foundation of delusion, is a position that a lot of people will strongly object to. But let’s not have that argument on the Ribbonfarm birthday week, okay? I have written, and continue to write, in defense of this picture. This whole blog is in a sense an ongoing defense of this picture. So we can continue the arguments as we go along (the next Gervais Principle piece is going to be about this stuff in particular).
I just picked seven spectra to put on the abacus, but there are others you could add obviously. For example, if you wanted to throw in a couple of more biological spectra you could add (reading left to right), promiscuity-monogamy and fasting+gluttony vs. moderation on there. Slightly higher up, you could add introversion-extroversion. But I am primarily interested in the structure biology induces, many degrees removed, in philosophy.
I’ve placed the control-pleasure “primary drive” spectrum in the middle because it is the force that enslaves you to your true nature. That bead, I believe, cannot be moved much by nurture. All the other beads also have default at-birth positions, but can be moved around a bit by nurture. If you are control-driven, you will end up living a truth-seeking life in some sense. If you are pleasure-driven, you will end up living a happiness-seeking life. Wherever you position the beads, you pay an ongoing cost through some mix of manic-depression and delusion.
I spent a long time fighting the abacus. I believed there are achievable states of Buddhahood that allow you to transcend the abacus; that truth is reconcilable with happiness or some acceptable cousin (such as ‘transcendental calm’ perhaps). I’ve concluded that the there isn’t. I believe you’ve got to pick a side. Those springs get loaded with unbearable tension otherwise. As you age, your ability to move the beads diminishes. It also takes less effort to keep the beads in a configuration that contains some tension. Perhaps you could view that as the wires rusting with age, so the beads get locked in place by friction rather than deliberate effort.
And there is a certain kind of peace in this acceptance. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think it is the same kind of peace that all those who flock to ashrams and spiritual retreats seek, and sometimes claim to have achieved.
If you want to compute with the abacus for yourself, go right ahead. You don’t need instructions. The thing is easy enough to sketch. Just sketch your own. Ponder, don’t take too seriously. You can temporarily escape the tensions in your internal springs by laughing at your sketch.
Happy Third Birthday, Ribbonfarm
It’s been a good year. I moved from the D-list to the C-list, got my first Google $100 advertising check, crossed 2000 subscribers, incorporated as a business, started my second product (the Be Slightly Evil email list) and made great progress on my book. But most importantly, Ribbonfarm is starting to fulfill the purpose I hoped it would. There was some deliberate symbolism in my choice of July 4th, 2007 as the launch date. In three years, Ribbonfarm has become my main source of philosophical independence. It has helped me escape partly from the condition Thoreau described as “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”
If you like writing, you should blog. Writing has never been a more philosophically rewarding activity in history.