MJD 59,169

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Captain's Log

If you remember your high-school physics, free energy is the energy available to do work. Energy is conserved, but free energy is not. For example, when a heavy ball drops from a height, the free energy stays roughly constant (ignoring drag) right until the moment of impact. The amount of free energy lost via inelastic collision is proportional to the height lost at the peak of the bounce. The rest is turned into useless heat. With each bounce, more free energy is lost, until finally all of it is lost. In a world without non-conservative forces like friction (which lower free energy), a ball could bounce for ever. Satellites orbiting earth approximate this: orbital motion is useful work that can be continued indefinitely for free.


Work in physics is defined as distance moved in the direction of a force, so technically a falling ball does work (transforming energy in the earth-ball system from potential to kinetic form), but our everyday intuition of work actually corresponds to loss of free energy: work done against a non-conservative resistance forces like friction, which drain you of future potential to do more work.

In human life, non-conservative resistance forces (which I’ll simply call resistance) comes in two main varieties: between living beings who recognize each other as persons, and between living beings and non-living objects with which one does not have a harmonized relationship (such as a tool you haven’t yet learned how to use with fluency). Following Martin Buber, we could call the two kinds I-you and I-it resistance.

Humans are also capable of explicitly adversarial actions towards each other which go beyond ordinary resistance to a different category we might call existential resistance. This is when you when you want to weaken or destroy the self-recognition of personhood and/or material existence of another living being, ie “kill” them so an I-you relationship is replaced wholly or in part by an I-it relationship. This doesn’t analogize well to physics, and I won’t talk about it in this post (truly adversarial existential resistance is actually fairly rare in normie middle-class life, and this rarity is almost the definition of middle class). Here we are only concerned with ordinary resistance patterns that stay within a two-way I-you/I-you regime or a one-way I-it regime.


I-you resistance is what we think of as responsibility and comes in two main sub-varieties: inner and outer. When the other persons you feel responsible to are your own past or future selves, you get inner resistance. When the other persons are literal other humans or animals, you get outer resistance. Either you’re getting in your own way, or others are.

I-it resistance emerges from sources that either choose not to see you as a person (usually, but not always, an adversary), or cannot see you as a person (such as gravity or a virus). Your sense of personhood, your carefully maintained boundary of self, and your capacity for mutuality with other persons, is irrelevant to the interaction. A nice person can choose not to be rude to you, but if you step on a tack, it will puncture your skin. It cannot choose not to. It’s neither nice nor nasty. It’s a tack. The correct response to the possibility of tacks on the sidewalk is to wear shoes, not deliver sermons.

I-it resistance tends to manifest as either solved ongoing-management problems calling for skilled behaviors (such as attending to injuries) or impossible problems in human life (such as trying to survive a fall from a tall cliff). I-it forces do not create a meaningful inner/outer partition in patterns of encountered resistance. I-it forces tend to create survival pressures where I-you forces create self-recognition pressures.


Our understanding of concepts like freedom and sovereignty are derived from understandings of free and non-free energy as it applies to human life.

Human work is work against any of the three kinds of free-energy-lowering sources of resistance: I-you (self, internal), I-you (others, external), and I-it (impersonal).

Human energy is primarily psyche self-energy: an energy generated through ongoing self-recognition of personhood, by “being alive” in short. The greater the integrity of the personhood, the more such energy is generated. This, I suspect, is what Bergson meant by élan vital. It is this energy that is drawn down when you do life-work against resistance.

Since physical energy output rate is measured in watts, perhaps we should measure élan vital output rate in whats: you are no longer suicidally asking why you should live (if you ever did), but are asking the question what you should do with your life. A 60-what person has 50% more élan vital than a 40-what person.

Physical energy is usually a trivial secondary problem under modernity: we eat food to sustain it, and use machines when we require more physical energy than the human body can generate.

There is an analogy to physics-work under the operation of conservative (in the physics sense of conservation principles) forces that do not lower free energy. This is work that feels like play or uninhibited creative self-expression. This is the frictionless “flow” of poiesis. A key marker of this kind of work is accelerating change: things like compound interest or network effects. Things that go brrr. A free-falling ball, for instance, covers distance in proportion to the square of the time: about 5 meters in the first second, 15 in the second, 25 in the third, and so on, until it hits a terminal velocity where drag can match gravity. Another kind of free work, like satellite orbits, can also feel harmoniously rhythmic and ritualistic, a near-frictionless unconscious habit is an example (the two cases differ only in whether or not you suddenly hit a wall of resistance: a satellite is merely a falling ball on a trajectory that curves less than the surface of the earth).

A sense of ego-expanding abundance arises from such free-fall work; the psychological equivalent of the wheee feeling of sledding downhill (whee is the sound of increasing what bandwidth, or whattage). In humans, such work also grows personhood and creates a larger supply of élan vital. This is not necessarily a good thing beyond a point. Without resistance, you might get too much ego expansion. This is the origin of such ego-diseases as narcissism and megalomania. Increasing whattage overpowering the resistance in your life too quickly.

Work against (non-conservative, friction-like) resistance is in a sense “paid” work, since there is irrecoverable loss of free energy; an unavoidable ablation of the self. Free-fall work against no resistance, which grows the ego — understood as available whattage — is “free” work. So long as the two are in some sort of balance, you can be healthy. If there is too much paid work, your psyche energy runs down, your sense of personhood gets worn down, and you are reduced to an I-it relationship to yourself, a meatbag wondering why it’s worth living on at all. If there is too little, the growing whattage might be too much for you to handle, and you might blow apart. Free work keeps you alive, but paid work keeps you real.

Play, artisanal (but not artistic) self-expression, ritual, and other forms of low-resistance free work, work which goes brrr, is necessary. It is soul food. But one can have too much of a good thing. Work against meaningful resistance is just as necessary (Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, argues that what distinguishes art from craft is the addition of inner resistance elements).


In politics, terms like freedom, sovereignty, and liberty are generally about freedom from I-it oppression from tyrants or bureaucracies, especially for weak and oppressed people. But in everyday middle-class life, they are generally postures towards responsibility. How much resistance you can deal with, and at what locus (internal or external) is perhaps the essence of personality.

I suspect all humans, correctly modeled, tend to follow the path of least resistance. The path is just different for different people. Individualists find it easier to work against inner resistance. Mutualists find it easier to work against outer resistance.

When individualists succeed in overcoming a pocket of inner resistance, they grow in sovereignty, and in responsibility towards past and future selves. If that path eventually exhausts their energy reserves, they reach an equilibrium at a certain safe distance from mutuality. If they degenerate from there, they unravel into individualized pleasure-seeking patterns: free work that unravels personhood.

When mutualists succeed in overcoming outer resistance, they grow in freedom, and in responsibility towards others. If that exhausts their energy, they reach an equilibrium enfolded in a collectivity. If they degenerate from there, they unravel into collectivized pleasure-seeking patterns.

Degeneracy is the constant threat. The only way out is to continue growing by tackling resistance at the locus that is not natural to you. This unnatural resistance is what feels like a conscious responsibility. It can feel like striving, but it can also feel like the new path of least resistance for a next version of you. One might define growth as the normalization of new paths of least resistance. That would make degeneracy the unraveling of the self through the channeling of energy surpluses down a dead end that’s too small to contain it.

For the individualist, conscious responsibility is responsibility towards others, which does not come naturally. In the best case, an individualist who has achieved a degree of stable sovereignty can strive further for what feels like nobility — non-reciprocal responsibility towards others, freely undertaken with surplus psyche energy, but requiring a degree of conscious self-regulation. To get there, you have to decouple what you must do for others from what you think others deserve or don’t.

For the mutualist, responsibility is responsibility for oneself, which does not come naturally. In the best case, a mutualist who has achieved a degree of stable freedom within a collective can strive further for self-actualization — responsibility towards oneself, freely and consciously undertaken with surplus psyche energy, but requiring a degree of conscious self-regulation. To get there, you have to decouple what you must do for yourself from what others might think you deserve or don’t.

The rejection of either kind of responsibility, when the time is right to shoulder it, is the acceptance of pain. Or to put it another way, this is the rejection of the imperative to grow into a sense of self where the path of least resistance naturally goes through what currently feels like unnatural work against unnecessary resistance.

Individualist pain in all its forms is a manifestation of alienation from others. Collectivist pain in all its forms is a manifestation of alienation from oneself.

Humans can endure a good deal of sustained psychic pain, so most people typically stop growing where it is easier to endure pain than to grow to a condition where it is eliminated in favor of an interesting newer kind of pain, caused by an a novel kind of resistance. The equivalent of terminal velocity for humans is a painful equilibrium between the ego-growing forces of acceleration under the gravity of “free” work, and the attrition drag forces of rejected responsibility. Like a meteoroid, you might either burn up in the atmosphere, turning into a meteor, or make it to a crash-landing as a meteorite.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This is the kind of STEM-coated psychoanalytic bullshit I associate with peak Raoism. And it’s a big reason I keep circling back through the temple of Ribbonfarm in the course of my restlessly-rotating present-proprioceptive meditations. No, mom, I’m not dead yet; I’m just working *really* hard at relaxing more comfortably

  2. hey now, this is well post-peak and not bullshit 😇

  3. The Rao that has peaked is not the peakiest Rao.

    If you want that much control over your legacious narrative then you’re gonna have to preach it louder for the choirboys at the back. But it’s for the best you’ll end up watching tv instead.

  4. “The greater the integrity of the personhood, the more such energy is generated.”

    I guess it depends what means by personhood. The ego mental structure, some argue, is inherently draining. It requires immense regular input of psychic resources to maintain the rigid boundaries the ego depends upon for its exsitence. Julian Jaynes noted that schizphrencs with weak egoic boundaries often have boundless energy.

    He used this as a point upon which to conjecture about why the bicameral mind, a particular form of bundled mind, was able to achieve great architecture like pyramids with small populatons, no slaves, little infrastructure, and even less technology. There is constant stress from what some call Cartesian anxiety but might better be called Platonic anxiety or post-bicameral anxiety.

    But we don’t need to look to archaic civilizations to understand this. Many tribes still following traditional lifestyles exhibit great physical and mental health. Some tribes have zero evidence of anxiety, depression, suicidality, etc. They also maintain their health into old age. Tribal people typically reach their physical peak in their 50s and the elderly can keep up with teenagers in long distance running.

    Maybe this isn’t only about a healthy diet and lifestyle. It could also have to do with their mental structures being more efficient in conformance with the conditions under which the human brain-mind evolved.

  5. I was waiting for a “War of Art” reference, and there it was!

  6. Yes, and? I was waiting for a call to action or a point or something?

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