Technical Debt of the West

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt. This is the finale of his residency.

Here’s a recipe for discovering new ideas:

  1. Examine the frames that give structure (but also bias) to your thinking.
  2. Predict, on the basis of #1, where you’re likely to have blind spots.
  3. Start groping around in those areas.

If you can do this with the very deepest frames — those that constrain not just your own thinking, but your entire civilization’s — you can potentially unearth a treasure trove of insight. You may not find anything 100% original (ideas that literally no one else has ever seen), but whatever you find is almost guaranteed to be underappreciated.

In his lecture series The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts sets out to do just this for Western civilization. He wants to examine the very substrate of our thinking, in order to understand and correct for our biases.

So what is the substrate of Western thought?

Well if you’re a fish, water can be hard to see. Same thing here. In order to see our own thinking, we’ll have to triangulate it from the outside.

Watts does this by using the Chinese mindset as a foil for the Western one. He argues that the main cognitive difference lies in the preferred metaphor each of these cultures use to make sense of the world.

Westerners, he says, prefer to understand things as mechanisms, while the Chinese prefer to understand things as organisms — and these are two very different kinds of processes.

Mechanical vs. organic thinking

So what’s the difference?

Mechanisms come together by assembly, when a creator arranges raw material in just the right way to serve a particular purpose. They’re typically made out of discrete parts, each with its own purpose that fits into the overall structure. And they’re cleanly-factored and globally-optimized: the result of a far-sighted design process.

Organisms, on the other hand, aren’t assembled from the outside. Instead they start out small and simple, and expand outward while gradually complicating themselves. In other words, they grow. The result is a hacky mess of tangled parts, vestiges, fuzzy boundaries, and overlapping purposes: the hazards of a short-sighted, local optimization process.

“What is it for?” and “How does it work?” are the essential questions to ask about a mechanism. “What is its nature?” is the question to ask about an organism — a way of coping with its illegible complexity.

Another way to highlight the difference is to take a page out of feminist theory. We can characterize mechanisms as objects, which exist mostly to enact the desires and wills of their creators, versus organisms as agents/subjects, with desires and wills of their own.

Now let’s illustrate with three quick examples.

Creation myths. The story told in Genesis is an exemplar of the Western mechanical mindset. God assembles everything piece by piece out of raw materials, very purposefully, then brings Adam to life by breathing into his nostrils. Here God is portrayed as the Celestial Engineer, and the universe, his animatronic invention.

The Chinese, as if to provide a dramatic contrast, have no creation myth. (OK, this is a slight exaggeration, but the gist is true enough.) The Chinese view of the universe is that of spontaneous growth, without any external agency or overarching purpose. “Nature has no boss” — and therefore no role for a Creator. It’s just the physical world, doing what it does: falling forward forever.

The human body. The Western view of the human body is rooted in anatomy. We see the body as an assemblage of parts, each with its own purpose. On the other hand,

The tendency of Chinese thought is to seek out dynamic functional activity rather than to look for the fixed somatic structures that perform the activities. Because of this, the Chinese have no system of anatomy comparable to that of the West. — Ted Kaptchuk, via Wikipedia (emphasis mine)

Gardens. This isn’t a particularly important example of the different kinds of thinking, but it is vivid. Notice how the West prefers an “assembled” look even in its arrangement of nature:

French vs. Japanese gardens
French vs. Japanese gardens

So that’s the main difference. The West tends to see purposeful design where the Chinese see spontaneous growth. This is the key to understanding both the strength and weakness of the Western worldview.

Darwin’s refactor

Darwin’s theory of evolution is arguably the lynchpin of Western thought.

Essentially it gave us license to use our preferred (mechanical) mindset in trying to explain the natural world, but without the embarrassment of having to invoke God. Specifically, Darwin said it’s OK to treat living things as designed artifacts — as mechanisms assembled for a purpose — as long as it’s not God’s design or God’s purpose but the Blind Watchmaker’s.

Now this was an amazing breakthrough, and it precipitated an explosion of insight. Darwin deserves all the praise we care to lavish on him. Unfortunately, in our exuberance, we’ve largely failed to notice that he left our worldview in an inconsistent state, full of dangling references.

Remember this is a legacy worldview. We’d been building all sorts of dependencies on the idea of God. You can’t just s/God/evolution/ and expect a 3000-year-old codebase to compile.

What do I mean? I mean we’re still dualists. We still think mind is separate from matter. (Even where we’ve learned to say otherwise, we still act as if it’s true.) In our hearts we still hope that consciousness is somehow ontologically separate from matter, just as we still fancy that humans are in an ontological class above the animals. We still imagine ourselves as souls, i.e., as homunculi: little people sitting inside our heads, controlling our vehicular bodies. (Notice how we say, “I have a body,” rather than, “I am a body.”) We still pine for a version of free will that gives us uncaused causality, prime movement, a little slice of divinity. Some of us even hold out hope that quantum mechanics will miraculously justify these prejudices — but by all accounts no such miracle is coming. And so again and again we fail to appreciate the organic nature of things, because although we’ve exorcised the ghost, we’re still left with a machine.

Specifically, we’re limited in how we see ourselves and our creations because we intuitively reject the idea that we are natural organisms. We insist on treating our minds as subjects, while simultaneously (and without fully realizing it) treating our bodies as mechanical objects.

Whenever we try to “reduce” our minds (and their creations) to natural processes, it comes out sounding strange or surprising:

  • “Our societies belong to the same general category as the societies of wolves or ants — groups of animals living together, interacting and depending on each other for their survival.” — Axel Kristinsson
  • Intelligence, like beauty, is a property of the human physical organism. — paraphrased from Mills Baker
  • “[Religions] are natural entities, like atomic systems, molecular systems, organ systems, neural systems, and the rest, which have emerged by natural causes in the creative process of cosmic evolution.” — Loyal Rue
  • Referring to humans: “They’re made out of meat… thinking meat.” — Terry Bisson
  • “For many people ‘nature’ means the birds, the bees, and the flowers. It means everything that is not ‘artificial’…. The ‘natural’ state of the human being is to be naked — but we wear clothes, and that’s ‘artificial.’ We build houses, but is there any difference between a human house and a wasps’ nest or a bird’s nest?” — Alan Watts
swallow mud nests; Cappadocian cave houses; an Egyptian apartment complex
swallow mud nests; Cappadocian cave houses; an Egyptian apartment complex

These statements sound strange, and yet they’re straightforward corollaries of what we know to be true about the world — from science.

“Surprise is the measure of a poor hypothesis,” says Eliezer Yudkowsky. “A good model makes reality look normal, not weird.”

So if science sounds strange, it points to something wrong with our intuitions. The problem is that while God is dead, we haven’t finished refactoring our worldview.

The antidote

And now the antidote: an exercise in organic thinking.

I invite you to consider mechanisms and organisms not as fundamentally different kinds of entities, but as two poles at opposite ends of a spectrum:


What this means is that mechanisms and organisms are really the same kind of thing. They’re both just arrangements of matter. It’s therefore not a category error to say that a human is a machine (or that a computer is an organism). It just depends on what perspective you want to take.

It’s like analyzing a business decision. You might wonder if it was a “tactical” or a “strategic” decision. The answer is probably both, though it may have been dominated by one or the other. But you can still ask, of even the purest “strategic” decision, what “tactical” factors went into it.

In the same way, it’s often productive to ask about the “mechanical” properties of things that are clearly “organisms,” or vice versa. If someone is doing surgery on me, for example, I’m happy that he can draw on the mechanical perspective of the human body, even though I am fundamentally an organism.

But generally, here in the West, our problem is that we tend to favor the mechanical perspective to the exclusion of the organic perspective. This is true regardless of the type of objects we’re considering — whether they’re on the organic or mechanical side of the spectrum.

And it follows that the prescription (for counteracting our bias) would be to take the organic perspective as often as possible. In the rest of this essay, then, I’d like to show some examples of how to use the organic perspective, and the kind of insight that can result from it.


The Western bias is to treat governments as the engineered artifices of human design — a folly no better illustrated than in the West’s many disasters at third-party state-building over the past hundred years.

(In America this folly may be understood, if not forgiven, in that our government was intentionally designed, nearly from scratch. It’s just that this isn’t the case with other countries.)

We should therefore spend more time trying to understand governments as organisms. As natural phenomena that arise in all human societies, taking similar form at similar scales. As independent processes with their own agency. As creatures who aren’t controlled by humans, but who rather use humans as tools to achieve their own purposes.

If we imagine government as an organism — as something “wild” or in need of “domestication” — we get Hobbes’s Leviathan, along with the libertarian critique of government as a parasite growing on top of our societies.

If we imagine government as an already-domesticated organism in need of “cultivation” — well for one, we’d get a far healthier model for how to practice third-party state-building. We would immediately think to ask about Afghanistan (say) whether its institutional soil is rich enough to support the kind of government we’re attempting to plant there.

It’s not that government can’t be construed as an intentionally-designed mechanism. It’s just we should round out our understanding of it by occasionally treating it as an organism — as Venkat did in excellent detail a couple weeks ago.


If Darwin’s insight was to show that it’s productive to treat organisms as mechanisms, then there’s a complementary/opposite insight arguing that it’s productive to treat mechanisms (technology) as organisms.

This is Kevin Kelly’s insight, articulated in his books, Out of Control and What Technology Wants.

His point is that tech artifacts can be understood, in a sense, as living creatures. They can move around, metabolize energy, even replicate themselves. Sure they need our interventions to accomplish most of these things (for now), but biological life needs help from its environment too. No creature is an island.

Moreover, technology evolves just as life does. In fact, life and technology have been interrelated processes for all of human history, symbionts locked in a coevolutionary tango, bootstrapping each other ever upward in complexity.

Today most of the things we call “technology” are assembled in factories, as part of a process over which we command breathtaking precision. So it’s easy to forget that some of the most important early technologies were truly wild things that we had to domesticate for our own purposes. First we domesticated fire, then wild grains for agriculture, then animals. After struggling against rivers for thousands of years, we finally managed to tame them too.

It might sound silly, but there’s a sense in which even rocks needed to be domesticated. We have a stereotype that rocks are lifeless, inert — just lying around waiting to yield to our will. But there’s also something stubborn and intransigent about them, and it took untold generations of our ancestors to break their ‘will’ and bend them to our own.

When we imagine technology as something “wild,” something that grows on its own, then we’re prompted to think about grey goo, Unfriendly AI, and Ted Kaczynski’s critique. A natural reaction, from this perspective, is to think that if technology will continue to grow on its own, out of our control, then we need to act first and kill it (or subdue it) before it’s too late.

Whatever you think of these arguments and proposed solutions, they’re worth hearing out.


Here’s what no one tells you when you graduate with a CS degree and take up a job in software engineering:

The computer is a machine, but a codebase is an organism.

This should make sense to anyone who’s worked on a large software project. Computer science is all about controlling the machine — making it do what you want, on the time scale of nano- and milliseconds. But software engineering is more than that. It’s also about nurturing a codebase — keeping it healthy (low entropy) as it evolves, on a time scale of months and years.

Like any organism, a codebase will experience both growth and decay, and much of the art of software development lies in learning to manage these two forces.

Growth, for example, isn’t an unmitigated good. Clearly a project needs to grow in order to become valuable, but unfettered growth can be a big problem. In particular, a codebase tends to grow opportunistically, by means of short-sighted local optimizations. And the bigger it gets, the more ‘volume’ it has to maintain against the forces of entropy. Left to its own devices, then, a codebase will quickly devolve into an unmanageable mess, and can easily collapse under its own weight.

Thus any engineer worth her salt soon learns to be paranoid of code growth. She assumes, correctly, that whenever she ceases to be vigilant, the code will get itself into trouble. She knows, for example, that two modules tend to grow ever more dependent on each other unless separated by hard (‘physical’) boundaries.

(Of course all code changes are introduced by people, by programmers. It’s just a useful shortcut to pretend that the code has its own agenda.)

Faced with the necessity but also the dangers of growth, the seasoned engineer seeks a balance between nurture and discipline. She can’t be too permissive — coddled code won’t learn its boundaries. But she also knows not to be too tyrannical. Code needs some freedom to grow at the optimal rate.

She also understands how to manage code decay. She has a good ‘nose’ for code smells: hints that a piece of code is about to take a turn for the worse. She knows about code rot, which is what happens when code doesn’t get enough testing/execution/exercise. (Use it or lose it, as they say.) She’s seen how bad APIs can metastasize across the codebase like a cancer. She even knows when to amputate a large piece of code. Better it should die than continue to bog down the rest of the project.

Bottom line: building software isn’t like assembling a car. In terms of growth management, it’s more like raising a child or tending a garden. In terms of decay, it’s like caring for a sick patient.

And all of these metaphors help explain why you shouldn’t build software using the factory model.

The brain

And finally we come to the brain.

For years I’ve been a strong advocate of the computational model of the brain, but more recently I’ve started to worry that it’s doing us a disservice. It’s not that the brain isn’t a computer — in fact it can be extremely productive to model it that way. It’s just that we may have taken this model too far, to the point where we’re now locked in the mechanical perspective.

When applied to the brain, the mechanical perspective tells us that all we need to do is map parts to purposes and we’ll have it all figured out. But if we’ve learned anything from this essay, we should be skeptical that the brain will yield to such a mechanically-minded reverse-engineering effort.

Why? Well the brain is an organ, literally part of an organism. It’s something that grows (by expanding outward while gradually complicating itself). If it ends up in a weird or wrong configuration, it’s because of a growth mistake (which is very different from an assembly mistake). Its ‘parts’, such as they are, aren’t discrete and separable, but rather tangled, tightly-coupled, and hacked together, and they serve multiple purposes simultaneously — the predictable result of having evolved through a sequence of local optimizations. Even the material out of which the brain is built — neurons — are themselves better modeled as organisms than as mechanisms.

As Dan Dennett says,

We’re beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy…. We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model.

So we would almost certainly benefit from switching, at least on occasion, to the organic perspective.

We might start to wonder, then, what it would be like to treat the ‘self’ not as a feature of our brains but instead as a growth. We’d be prompted to ask questions like:

In what environment does a self grow best? What conditions make it stronger or weaker? What does it grow in response to? What does it compete with (or trade off against) as it grows?

Could the self be like a parasite? A virus? Is it contagious? How might the presence of a self in one mind (e.g. a parent) induce one to grow in another mind (e.g. a child)?

What else besides the self might be growing in the brain?

Yes, we can still ask mechanical-mindset questions like “What is the purpose of the self?” or “How does it work?” These are the questions Darwin showed us how to ask (and answer) — and I’m not trying to deny their importance. I’m just saying they need to be complemented by a different set of questions.

Final thought

Stepping back for a moment, it’s odd that I’m even having to make this argument. Our thinking has been so dominated by the Western mechanical mindset that we’ve forgotten how to treat the brain — an organ — as an organism. Of course the Western mindset is dominant in part because it’s been so successful on so many hard problems. But it constrains our thinking all the same.

If we want to finish the refactoring project Darwin started 150 years ago — to fix up the holes left by removing God from our worldview — we can’t just continue to apply mechanical thinking. If we do, it will seem like we’re making progress, but eventually we’ll reach a dead end where it becomes clear (if it hasn’t already) that there are deeper structural problems, and further opportunistic fixes won’t get the thing to compile. Better to stop now and go a little against the grain, revisit a few of our long-held and little-questioned assumptions, and hope we won’t have to do as much backtracking in the future.

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About Kevin Simler

Kevin Simler is a writer and technologist. You can follow him on Twitter or over at his home blog, Melting Asphalt.


  1. There is one thing you indirectly touched on briefly, but I think is of huge importance in moving to the organismic world-view: accepting the role of death. One of the things that stands out to me most in comparing organisms to machines is that even though both decay, organisms can be thought of as a process of which life and death are essential parts. Oswald Spengler, one of very few Western thinkers to truly escape the mechanical view, acknowledged this in his grim belief that when a civilization is in decline, the role of its citizens is to manage the decline, not prevent it.

    In the case of software engineering, there is a point where one has to decide that even though more optimizations will eventually lead the codebase to entropic death, the software will work well enough for its purpose and therefore doesn’t need to grow and only needs to stay alive for a certain amount of time. Similarly, one has to accept the need for refactoring based on the idea that we cannot fully anticipate what obstacles will come up and trying too hard to do so may result in arrested development. Perhaps the mechanistic view is why there was never a word (until recently) that was the opposite of “fragile.”

    • Andrew Hay says

      An excellent point with regards to the importance of death. Perhaps you could go even further to say that the more an object is an ‘organism’ as opposed to a ‘mechanism’ the more the object embraces death as a process and tool to reduce entropy rather than death as simply a final state that the object falls into over time. Any multicellular organism uses cell death to grow itself, then to maintain itself. Same could be said of cells and the proteins that make it up. A tool on the other hand, slowly falls into disrepair unless an outside force intervenes.

    • Yes, totally agree (and with Andrew Hay’s comment as well). I touched on some of this, briefly, over at my home blog (

      But on the whole, I have to admit to being absolutely baffled by the “Eastern”/Buddhist/organic approach to death. I’m not talking about tool death or civilizational decay, but actual human death. Every time I read about death from anything resembling a Buddhist perspective, I can’t fathom where the cavalier attitude is coming from. Why shouldn’t I fear death? I can understand how one might want to cultivate a sort of resigned acceptance to the inevitable, but shouldn’t we also fight it where we can? Am I just so utterly trapped in egoic/mechanistic thinking that I can’t see what’s going on?

      An illustration: all the modern scientific attempts to fight/cheat death — cryonics, life extension, mind uploading, etc. These attempts are all laughed/sneered at by ~organic thinkers, while the people who actually devote themselves to the efforts are some of the purest ~mechanical thinkers out there. What’s going on?

      Finally, here’s one of those classic Alan Wattsisms that I can’t make heads or tails of: “You are just as much the dark space beyond death as you are the light interval called life.” Any help deciphering this issue would be much appreciated.

      • I’ve never heard that aphorism, but I actually did have a thought that, if I’m correct, was along the same lines:

        What is it like to be a non-existent version of Kevin Simler? Well, I know what it feels like, since I do not exist as Kevin Simler. Same goes for myself with regards to Andrew Hay or Venkatesh Rao. So if I think of myself as any person who is not me, then I know what it’s like to be dead. It’s simply negative space: not a null value but an undeclared/uninstantiated variable.

        There are an infinite and uncountable number of ways in which I do not exist. Life could be seen as those declared variables.

        I also can’t help but notice the irony that I’m using the most cliched and tired of mechanistic metaphors, but can’t be helped I suppose.

      • Andrew Hay says

        I think I can answer this, with the proviso that we may be reading different Buddhist texts.

        Ultimately fear is an aspect of aversion to what Is, you desire the world/reality to be different. In this case, to desire not to die yet with reality that you will cease to exist sometime – for now lets not quite get rejuvenation medicine, uploading, tech ways to avoid tradition organic death. The whole point of Buddhism is that suffering is not necessary and you can end it. What do you need to do? cutting a bunch of steps out, you cease clinging to a model of reality in your head that does not match Reality. We desire personal existence to not cease, this desire is actually the very last delusion you get rid of before you ‘complete’ the Path. If you don’t, you’ll continue to experience suffering – which is bad, badder than I’m probably making it seem. That is compared to the sublime happiness that you experience when you remove most/all of your suffering.

        On the plus side, you replace motivations driven by delusions about reality struggling to change, yet faced with the constant evidence that they (the delusions) are wrong. This is replaced with compassion for all beings, including yourself. So rather than fear death, rather than suffer when contemplating your annihilation, you can feel extremely strong compassion to extend life. Why? it reduces the suffering of people who can still experience suffering, and in so far that living is Good and not living is Bad, those that don’t suffer continue to not suffer for longer :)

        Problem. I think many eastern people who subscribe to Buddhism often have not achieved much in terms of personally changing their models of reality. Statements like “do not fear death, accept it” become rituals, ways of affirming group identity. And even people who HAVE achieved much in the Path, in changing the model of reality in their heads, may come out to say the very same things! Their achievements don’t give them special access to technological knowledge such as the possibility of uploading, rejuvenation. If they still falsely believe that death (and taxes) are inevitable, impossible to surpass, then well… at least they wont suffer. People with high achievements in the Path might have extremely large motivations to help others due to compassion, but they still are limited by their knowledge about HOW they can help. Most seem to end up just spreading the Path knowledge about….

        • thanks Andrew… that actually hit the sweet spot for me, in terms of providing an answer that’s as satisfying as one can give to such a question.

        • Your second-to-last paragraph fascinates me, because this is something I’ve thought about a great deal but very rarely seen articulated (maybe because I’ve been reading the wrong things): that after you alter yourself through meditation or Buddhism or occultism or whatever route you take, you may still have the same goals that you had before, but now they will be motivated from a place of compassion rather than one of fear or hatred. I’ve been calling this dichotomy “fighting for” vs. “fighting against”.

          This is what I’ve always taken Crowley’s statement “Love is the Law, Love under Will” to mean: once you have completed the path and found your True Will, you will have reached a point where you are no longer driven by negative emotions, only by compassion.

          • Andrew Hay says

            Absolutely. Same/similar goals, motivation coming from another source. Why do we act in the first place anyway? If your ultimate goal is to be happy, then its best to know how your mind makes happiness, and allow it to be max happy all the time. You might object that then, you’ll just sit on the floor all day, obviously drool coming out of your mouth cause why bother cleaning it. Why would you object to that? it’s because your ultimate goals are not JUST to be happy, but perhaps… helping your family? you’ll keep that goal but now, be far far better at it. That is, if you no longer need to struggle to fill the void in your heart. But the training of the mind required to achieve this state of full internally generated happiness (freeing you to achieve your OTHER ultimate goals more effectively) comes pre-packaged with a bunch of cultural-norms and intellectual ideas. Let me explain.

            The problem with Buddhism as it came to the west is -at least- two fold. First, it turned into a tool for removing stress produced by a society that’s moved far away from spirituality and towards materialism: working hard to get things and acquire status makes you happy c.f. understanding your mind and how it makes itself happy. People are disaffected with being a worker bee in western society, and seek something to ‘cure’ or ‘help’ them.

            So when psychology incorporates Buddhist teachings, you get mindfulness-based cognitive therapy; translation: you are broken in your mind, this will restore you to society-defined normality and then return to being a good worker bee. Ultimately this path leads not to true happiness because, you’re just plugging away at some of your worst demons. Enough so that the psychologist runs the standard tests and you pass – except that you’re now just back to a regular member of western society, still craving things to make you happy.

            Second, Western Buddhism teachers who DO instruct you in the techniques of training your mind properly. That is, internally generating max happiness. These teachers transformed Buddhism through the cultural lens of the West. This Western Buddhism comes pre-packged with a bunch of cultural norms and intellectual ideas. Which? I haven’t heard it said explicitly but to my eye, they look like a combination of (American) Social Liberalism and Environmentalism. This makes sense if you consider the characteristics of people who eventually find Buddhism are mostly disaffected people. Disaffected with Western Society and its rampant materialism-as-a-path-to-happiness. Such people find comfort in the Social Liberal anti-capitalism message; where capitalism is completely and utterly misunderstood. Environmentalism of course has a similar message that the woes of society are we are not trying enough to be sustainable, be one with nature etc etc. So Social Liberalism and Environmentalism is a bit part of Western Buddhism. Intellectuals in academia churn out plenty of work trying to ‘combine’ Buddhism with these ideas – not so much trying to combine it with capitalism! As you are undergoing mind training, you receive instructions ‘dharma talks’ from teachers who espouse these cultural ideas. So, simultaneously, you learn about your mind and more wholesome ways of achieving happiness. AND you are indoctrinated with Social Liberalism and Environmentalism + anti-materialism and definitely anti-capitalist ideas.

            Ultimately, the end of such path is you don’t need things to be happy. But either your goals are substantially altered and/or you’re intellectually fooled into thinking the way to achieve those goals is the whole, sustainable, socialism, green way.

            I myself am somewhat along the path of mind training. But I certainly don’t want my goals taken over, so remain vigilant against naive intellectual ideals taking over when the teacher suddenly switches to talking about sustainability in our ‘capitalist’ society.

      • “Am I just so utterly trapped in egoic/mechanistic thinking that I can’t see what’s going on?”

        Might I suggest you read some Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton? They will help.

        And yes, it’s your ego preventing you from thinking (and living) non-dualistically.

      • Well, you aren’t anything, or at least, nothing well-defined. The meanings of pronouns like I and you are up for grabs. The Wattsism is encouraging the recipient (“you”) to identify with the entire cosmos, not merely your normal individual “light interval”. Given that selves and the pronouns that point them out are slippery, this is as valid as the ordinary view.

        At least that’s my interpretation of what he is saying; not sure I buy it.

      • Personally I never saw the buddhist attitude towards death as cavalier, instead it struck me as pragmatic and truthful acceptance of the enevitable. I think though it is emphasized to such a great degree because of its potential to allow a person to loosen identification with the body and then reorient at much larger scales of time, dimension, with the ultimate goal being identification with an eternal base level of awareness.
        Not quite certain what Alan Watts was alluding too in the dark space beyond death (how does he know there is a dark space after death to begin with??), but seems like he is in general suggesting we are much more than just the temporal body we identify with.
        Your observation that the best mechanical thinkers are obsessed with life extension through mechanical means is really interesting. Organic thinkers have something similar going on though in the pursuit of nirvana, the tao, its just they’ve discarded identification with the body and instead seek for an unchanging eternal state awareness. So neither has resigned to death its just the eastern/buddhist has identified awareness as the most basic vital thing to life and doesn’t cling to changing form.

        I’d also add that from my little pieces of disjointed reading it seems taoism has developed a wholistic mode of thinking about dynamicly balanced polarity, while Hindu and buddhist yogas in general focus on the idea of obtaining a complete state of still oneness.

        Doubt those muddy thoughts help, but anyways found this post to be most interesting, thanks for the excellent writing!

      • Oh man, I only just saw this thread of discussion, but I have so much to say about this topic. My perspective, while probably informed by Eastern ideas, is very much not Buddhist: I am interested in affirming and embracing all aspects of existence, even the darkest and most painful ones, but based on what David Chapman and Joseph Campbell have written, I’m under the impression that Buddhism involves rejecting the world for being so full of suffering.

        I definitely understand the fear of death; I spent my early teenage years constantly and viscerally terrified of death. I’m not sure I ever thought death was an objectively bad thing that needed to be solved using life extension or cryonics, but I really really didn’t want to die. Over the last few years, though, I’ve come to have a really strong appreciation for the role that death plays in the circle of life, and I think I came to that appreciation by learning about emergent structures. In our individualistic, reductionist Western culture, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as isolated units, instead of as parts in some larger system. If you think of yourself as an isolated unit, then a great deal is lost when you die. But if you think of yourself as a part in some larger system, it doesn’t seem like quite as much is lost; the system goes on without you, and your death might even be necessary for the system’s continued thriving, as Andrew Hay observed above when he said “Any multicellular organism uses cell death to grow itself, then to maintain itself.”

        Joseph Campbell observes that when humans lived close to the earth, it was obvious that death was necessary for life to exist. Anyone who hunts is viscerally aware of the death that makes his own life possible. And people who grow food know that something must die to put nutrients in the ground so that new life can grow. In some occult/mystic traditions, death and birth are taken as equivalent, and this is why. This is also the meaning of the widespread myth of the dying-and-rising god, that death is necessary for new life. I’m opposed to cryonics and excessive life-extension (at least if all humans remain on earth) because it implies stagnation. In my mind, the earth is living in so far as it is continually changing; if we halt those changes by preventing our own individual deaths, then in some sense, the earth (and human society) becomes less alive. (This seems like a fairly weak emotional argument, and I could probably be convinced that cryonics is fine after all, though I’m still not sure I would want it for my own life.)

        In the modern world, scientific and technological advances have made it so that we are less close to the earth, and don’t understand these things so viscerally. But these same scientific advances have shown us that the universe is bigger and more ancient than anyone ever imagined; thinking about the immensity of the universe can give us a better sense of our place. I think that the more you think of yourself as an individual, the more you will fear death; the more you think of yourself as just one tiny piece in the vast emergent structure of the cosmos, the less scary death will seem, and the less final. Your existence and consciousness may vanish, but the atoms of your body will go on to be part of other lifeforms; the ideas that you generate, and any descendants you might have, will carry your legacy onward through the ages. You, as a living being, belong to an unbroken chain of organisms that have survived long enough to reproduce. This chain started with the very first organism that ever lived on earth; if you continue this chain, it may yet persist for hundreds of millions of years. A similar sort of chain exists for your ideas’ philosophical ancestors and descendents, though at a narrower timescale. Basically, I think that by focusing on this continuity, rather than thinking about the abrupt start and stop of every human life, it becomes much easier to accept death, because the death of one individual does not seem to have the same finality when the ideas and genes continue on. And even when those end, the solar system (of which you are a part) will continue on; when our sun explodes into fiery dust, the galaxy will continue on; when the galaxy ceases to exist, the universe will continue on and on forever. And since you as an individual are part of all these emergent “organisms”, then in some sense, the life of a body you’re part of will continue past your death.

        I have found these ideas very useful for coming to accept death philosophically. But even though I think about this stuff all the time, I still sometimes fear death, just because there’s so much in life I want to accomplish. If I died tomorrow, I would never accomplish my goals, and this bothers me tremendously. But in my favorite series of books, A Requiem for Homo Sapiens by David Zindell, the main character is at one point so driven to complete his goals that he is willing to undergo immense amounts of suffering for them, and yet despite this, he isn’t afraid to die while trying to complete his goals. I spent a lot of time thinking about how this might be possible, and eventually came to the following conclusion:

        Suppose you alter your temporal discounting function so that the only time that matters to you is now. If you have such a discounting function, then you won’t fear death (until you’re actually undergoing it, I guess). So that’s a plus in my view. But if you have this kind of discounting function, then you’ll also be fairly likely to sit around eating chips all day and watching TV (or whatever you do to slack off) instead of pursuing your goals, which seems undesirable. But if you alter what you enjoy so that at any given moment, the thing you want to do most is the thing that will best help you achieve your goals, then there’s no need to actually think about your goals ever. You can just go around doing whatever you feel like, and your goals will get accomplished, and you won’t fear death. This is what I take the advice “live in the moment” and “focus on the journey, not the destination” to mean, and it’s something I try to implement in my own life, with varying degrees of success. I do believe I attained this state for like two straight weeks back in 2012, and it was awesome.

        …. wow this comment got really long. Sorry about that. Also, I figure that most of this stuff is not new to you; I mentioned the vastness of the cosmos precisely because I assume you’ve thought about it a lot. But I also figured it might be useful to know that these are the ideas that led me to stop fearing death so much. (And I should also give some credit to meditation and taking a lot of deep breaths.)

        • If I might channel David Chapman for a moment, I believe he would say that some versions of Buddhism involve rejecting the world, but others do not, and he prefers the latter.

          • Thanks for the correction, and many apologies to David Chapman! I should have known better; I wrote that comment far too hastily. Now I am wondering whether the Buddhist ideas discussed in this thread fall more into sutra or tantra. I was assuming the former, but I know so little about Buddhism that this could easily be false.

  2. Ric Phillips says

    There is some merit in the organic / mechanical dichotomy. And it generates some interesting reflections here.

    But it is simplistic – and in a fatal way. Not in the sense that we can find mechanical thinking in eastern culture and organic thinking in western culture – we can and in spades.

    Rather the fatal simplification rests in the old joke – “there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.”

    One could as easily consider the difference between western and eastern world-views as a dichotomy between atomised and systemic thinking. Or focus on the metaphysical self-sufficiency of the object in the east and the valorisation of form that leads to – in contrast to the object-attribute essentialism of western thought.

    Then again one could recast the ‘mechanicalism’ here as an insight into the nature of causality and the way thinkers like Lucretius jettisoned the idea of an intentional causality – where in the east the idea that the nature has intentions remains in a way that it doesn’t in the west. (And surely Aristotle while in many way a patriarch of the mechanical world nonetheless could not conceive of change without intention which after Lucretius’ reductive causality looks decidedly more ‘eastern’. And we should note it is the path Lucretius tool that led eventually to the scientific method.)

    Also the interest in what is really a ‘gestalt’ view of our own existence the author seeks here is not derived from the dominant themes of eastern thought. These are ideas that arose from post-Heideggerian metaphysics and psychoanalytical theory of perception and consciousness – a viewpoint that reconciles itself to the natural world through the ‘mechanical’ science of ecology and in ’emergence’ theory in systems thinking. All of which are mechanistic – in that intentionality is not a cause of the system, but rather an epiphenomenon.

    The organic / mechanistic dichotomy upon which these reflections are based is a rhetorical sui generis. Organic does not mean not-mechanistic, and mechanistic does not mean not-organic.

    Take the Chinese idea that ‘luck’ can be a characteristic of a person, the way intelligence or athleticism can be. This is a difference in a view on cause and effect not over part-whole relationships or the vivification of systems. The nature versus machine dichotomy is essentially western.

    It is one thing to say there can be mechanical and organic ways of understanding the world. And it is fine to examine the ramifications of those perspectives and how they influence different cultures – or different moments in history.

    It is, however, pretty shallow ‘orientalism’ to argue that such a binary one-dimensional analysis identifies a definitive characteristic of two vast and diverse cultural domains.

    • You make a good point. It certainly wasn’t my intention for this to be a rich/nuanced portrayal of either civilization, and especially not of the Chinese. My intention was simply to use Chinese civilization (or some caricature of it) as a foil for the West.

  3. Ben Mahala says

    An excellent post, you are quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.

    I’ve sort of come to the conclusion, in my thinking, that although the brain may be computable (be able to be simulated on a computer) it is probably not a computer itself (in the sense that it is fundamentally equivalent to a Turing machine). Even if it is, it is so radically different from our everyday computing experiences that the metaphors that work on those domains probably do not work for it.

  4. So the obvious question is what kinds of problems are more naturally amenable to “growth” than to “design”. For example, why don’t car manufacturers try to “grow” a car? Or why don’t architects try to grow a building (I guess Christopher Alexander is an exception)?

  5. The fundamental challenge of our time is reconcile our tremendous ability to understand and manipulate mechanisms, organisms, information, and systems of limited scale with out inability to understand large and dynamic complex systems as a whole and how our manipulation ripples through. It is mechanical vs. organic.

    We think we understand how our actions will impact our climate because we can predict what future temperatures may be. But we don’t. The climate is a complex organic organism and weather patterns will become weird before they get hot.

    We think we understand how the introduction of genetically modified organisms will impact the environment. But we don’t. We have just begun to crack open the human (and animal) micro biome. Until a few years ago no one would have even though to ask the question of whether these are impacted, however we have / had already determined that such products are safe. The biological world is a complex place.

    I could go on and on. Great post!

    • Yeah… I used to think science was capable of re-engineering everything (the human body, the biome, etc.), and I still think it is _capable_ of doing that — in theory. It’s just that, in practice, we’re farther away than one might naively think. And if my 18-year-old self is at all a representative instrument in sensing what ideas are held by Western/American culture, we’re still pretty deluded.

  6. Terrific finale. I wonder to what extent the fundamental attribution error is a result of the mechanical view. I’ve seen cross-cultural studies where Western results weren’t replicated in things like the Ultimatum Game and certain optical illusions (terrific article here:, but I don’t know how extensively the FAE has been studied outside of WEIRD culture.

    For more “man as body” it’s hard to top The Somnambulists by Jack London

  7. I feel some dissatisfaction with the mechanism / organism dichotomy as it is introduced. It just looks like the mechanism is simply something which is top-down constructed whereas the organism grows from the bottom up. A simple dichotomy i.e. one which is almost obviously wrong. Shouldn’t we find a point of indifference where top-down construction and bottom-up growth are equally viable options and act as the mechanical forces [1] shaping a whole with all of its complex internal differences?

    For example a code base can always be extended and appropriated in unregulated ways but it can also be unified and standardized by means of protocols, exchange formats, frameworks etc. Those usually lead to an atrophy of the less dominant protocols, formats, domain specific languages and so on. We seek for top-down interventions in order to cultivate a code base. A code base is not an end though. We see protocols, frameworks … going public, we see normative specifications which determine the future of a whole industry and other code bases will be retrofitted into the new schemes and when a fresh code base is coming up it is likely one which implements some public spec or an algorithm from the book not a means of creative solution finding. Also public specifications can go away and once common languages and protocols are fading. Hero-centric historical narratives get traction, sentimental stories about geniuses told to men children together with institutions and for-dummies books about TCP/IP , HTTP, XML, SEPA, … Next to this we see an endless refinement and recombination of supporting tool chains which are the new sprawl. Tools themselves begin to grow on platforms or “stacks”. They become plug ins for Eclipse or Jenkins, or they grow as libraries for popular programming languages which eventually lead to some retroactive standardization on its own. There are always shared macro narratives being complementary to the project and code base centric micro narratives which are about the efforts of development teams.

    Is there really something we miss, a hidden Zen garden which was overlooked? Isn’t this just the old longing for transcendence which appropriates other cultures in the service of our own desires? Isn’t it just a cliché that we present ourselves as cold, Cartesian rationalists, evil imperative language using bureaucratic high modernists who can overcome bias by an infusion of hot, eastern spirituality, which is most likely entirely made up?

    [1] What has happened to the history of thought when the mechanical sublime had entered the picture earlier by an exposition of its object to the naked eye?