Tao Te Ching, ch 3: duality in governance

Tao Te Ching, ch 3: duality in governance

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I haven’t shown you Legge’s unadulterated translation yet, and for good reason. But maybe I could be more transparent about my process. And in doing so, demonstrate why you can’t just trust one translation.

Here is Legge’s original translation, without any influence from me:

Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to
keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles
which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming

thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is
the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties
their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens
their bones.

He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without
desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them
from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from
action, good order is universal.

Maybe I have a bad brain, but I cannot make any sense of that. Anyway, let me show you my massaged translation plus further explanation of what I’m doing and how.

Chapter 3: duality in governance

Do not hold the wealthy and famous in esteem,
and the people will not form rivalries among themselves;

Do not horde riches and treasure,
and the people will not become thieves.

Do not flaunt wealth and desire,
and the people will be clear-headed.

The Master leads by emptying their minds, filling their core, weakening their ambitions, and strengthening their resolve.

The Master tirelessly helps people forget what they know and let go of their desires;
and confuses those that presume they are intelligent

Practice not-doing, and everything gets done.

– Lao Tzu, Chapter 3 of the Tao Te Ching (translated by Legge/Davis)

There! Hopefully that’s more comprehensible. Before we get to the commentary, let me explain my translation methods. I don’t read Ancient Chinese, so I’m definitely not going back to the original source material. Instead, I am using a collection of existing translations to observe the myriad of ways a given stanza/line/word is translated to find better ways to phrase it. I personally hold Mitchell and Le Guin’s translations in high regard, but I’m typically working with about 5 or so different translations.

My goal is not literal accuracy to the original script (like Legge, though he failed in his goal), it is to capture the ideas in a way that so-called “Western” people alive today could hope to make some sense of it.

Opposites create each other

Just as we saw in chapter 2, opposing concepts literally create each other. They are interdependent. And so, much in the same way that it works in your personal life, so too these concepts can be applied to governance. This is general leadership advice, too, and not just for heads of state. As leaders in our own domains of life, we have important choices to make. Typically; we are taught to hold the powerful in esteem.

How to make thieves

At any given moment, there are leagues of people on social media lauding the likes of Elon Musk (of the apartheid emerald mine, knocking up his own step-daughter Musks) for being extremely wealthy. I suppose they think of their veneration as a type of prayer, hoping that they too will be rewarded with fame and riches. And the societal emphasis on material gain only encourages this kind of behavior. I think Lao Tzu was probably talking about petty crime when he mentioned thieves, but the same applies to the mega-rich. There is no such thing as a “good” billionaire, because they made their money by exploiting other peoples’ labor. They stole their wealth from the people that did the work. Jeff Bezos himself acknowledged it after he drifted weightless of a minute. In other words, they’re thieves.

And so many people, in chasing this illusion of wealth and fame, dedicate their lives to the hustle, the accumulation of wealth and material pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy material pleasures, too! There’s nothing wrong with finding joy in life. But it’s very easy for this to become an obsession, because that is what we are encouraged to do from every angle. The “American Dream” is material gain. Wealth. Fame.

Have you ever met a famous or wealthy person that has a better life because of their wealth and fame? Of course, those without resources need resources to have a chance at health and happiness. I’m talking about excess compared to enough.

You ever look at those fawning pseudo-news articles about the habits/routines of wealthy and famous people? They dedicate a large portion of their days to trying to feel ok. They do intense workouts, strict diets, expensive massages, and so on, for hours a day. I don’t think they’d do all that work if they were actually happy from their excessive wealth and power. What would *you* do if you had all the money in the world? I like to think I’d sit on a beach, and I have noticed that none of the mega-rich seem to be able to do that. Funny thing is, that you don’t have to have any money to sit on a beach in the first place.

Back to leadership: as leaders, we must discourage this kind of thinking. We can’t, and don’t want to, control other people. But when we make decisions, those decisions have implications. Do you praise your eldest child’s achievements in baseball, or do you praise your eldest child for their dedication and focus? Which is a more important life lesson: being a second base player, or learning how to apply yourself to mastering a skill? Because what you praise is what you will enforce, and encourage others to pursue.

What about this metaphysical stuff about filling cores?

Nothing metaphysical happening here, it’s metaphorical. So, typically that line is translated as filling “bellies,” which is both literal and metaphorical. Mitchell goes with “cores” here, and I like that one more because it invites you to contemplate the metaphor instead of risking someone only reading it literally.

Showing off wealth and fame is pointless when people go hungry. Not only is it pointless, but it makes people agitated. I don’t know if I need to convince you of this point, given the state of inequality in contemporary America.

But filling the core goes beyond a good meal, it is also emotional and spiritual fulfillment. There is no end to learning, knowing, thinking, or yearning; so trying to fulfill people this way is going to be unsuccessful. Let them navigate that on their own, when possible, and instead focus on their wellbeing.

Is Taoism anti-intellectual?

We’ll see this come up several times: Lao Tzu seemingly disparaging intellect and intelligence. I don’t understand him to be speaking out against intelligence itself, but the value we place upon it. This is both at the personal and societal level.

Intelligence, when practical, is useful and important. But an over-reliance on intelligence is the path to misery. So continue to learn and grow, but not out of lust of knowledge but because it serves a purpose. Intellect unto is useless until it’s tied to action.

Intelligence is a myth

To make matters worse, it’s seemingly impossible to define human intelligence. Any and all IQ-type tests only reveal how well the person takes the test, and those tests are written by people in a particular place with particular values and standards. The tools to measure “intelligence” mimic the societal values of the people that made it.

Let me put it to you this way, using an intentionally gross example: based on IQ tests, I am in one of those upper percentiles. I have a masters’ degree, and I’m about to finish my PhD. The point is that I have a collection indicators, based on our societies’ standards, of “intelligence.” On the flip side, consider someone that failed out of high school and has a below-average IQ. They work with their hands, repairing cars. They lack societal standards of intelligence.

Both of us can function in day-to-day life. Both of us share the same depth of emotion and profundity of experience. We both have passions, and derive meaning from connecting with and helping those around us. It’s pretty hard to find a difference so far, isn’t it?

Your car breaks down, though. It’s not as simple as a flat tire, dead battery, blown fuse, or any of the myriad of simple fixes. It’s a problem with your transmission. Even if you put me in the same shop with the other guy so we had access to the same tools, one of us is going to fix your car and the other is going to ruin it. That’s because I don’t know shit about fixing a transmission, engineering, maintenance, or how to use those tools. Hell, I’d probably sooner injure myself than fix the car.

You get my point, yes? Intelligence is too slippery to base your life or society on it.

What about “intellect”?

Thinking, thinking, thinking. So much thinking. Thinking about what is, what is not, what could be, what was, and so on. Every time we think, we imbue ourself onto the situation. Of course we do! It’s our experience, after all. Thinking–intellectualizing–has its place, but we live in the real world, not the world of ideas. It’s terribly easy to get lost in the intellectual world. It’s normal, too. Imagining the future is important. But often times we emotionally react to our imagination of how the future might be. And even worse, we map our imagined of future onto the present. Even if what we imagined comes to pass, we are not experiencing it in the present. And, we risk mistaking our imagined future with the real present. But more on that later…


Think less, do more.

Josh

Tao Te Ching, ch. 2: the first grasp of mutually-arising

Tao Te Ching, ch. 2: the first grasp of mutually-arising

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If you haven’t yet, I highly suggest you read my post about Chapter 1. As stated before, I am using Legge’s translation due to copyright concerns, though I am working it over a bit to make it more comprehensible.

If the first chapter is the preface and summation of Taoism, then this chapter is perhaps the most important introduction to Taoist theory in a way that is a bit more appreciable to newcomers.

People have an idea of beauty, which in turn creates ugliness;
people have an idea of goodness, which in turn creates evilness.

In the same way, existence and non-existence create each other;
Difficulty and ease are related in the same way;
And so too are long and short;
High and low.
Individual notes have no meaning by themselves but are harmonious in relation to each other;
and before and after only exist together.

The Master completes tasks without doing anything,
and teaches without talking.

The world is full of life, events, and things;
But the Master claims no ownership yet has everything;
They do their work with no expectations of reward.
And when the work is done, they let it go.

This is what makes accomplishments eternal.
– Lao Tzu, translated by Legge/Davis
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There’s a lot to say here. Lao Tzu bats us back and forth like a cat playing with a toy. The front half over-explains examples of mutually-arising phenomena, then pivots into something that sounds impossible: working without doing? No ownership but “having” everything? Moving on from the work you did makes for an eternal accomplishment? We’ll get through this!

The Master is you

The “Master” (others have translated it as “Sage” or even just “Wise one”) may sound special or even maybe a little mystical. Who is this Master? What makes them special?

When Lao Tzu is talking about the “Master,” he’s talking about someone who has fully incorporated Taoist philosophy as a way of life and seeing the world. Anyone can be a Master. I think we’re used to hearing terms like “Master” applied to studied, hard-worn old men. Someone with the years of experience to become a “Master.” But that’s not true: mastering Taoism is simple, and living it even more so. The hard part is ejecting all of the attempts to intellectualize these concepts.

Rigidity of thought

I’m an American, and a scientist to boot. I am rewarded at every turn to endlessly intellectualize things, make them abstract and universal. These skills have their place, but it is not so useful as a way of life because not everything can be solved by intellectualization.

There is no formula or debate that will solve the climate crisis. There is no statistical model that will dismantle racism. No PowerPoint presentation, regardless of the number of snazzy transitions between slides, will overthrow the chains of capitalism. That’s not to say that intellect has no role in solving the world’s problems, but it is simply one tool among many. It is important to know which tool to use for which task and when.

People prone to intellectualization (or any one tool), such as myself, tend to have a hard time wielding other tools. This can get to the point where intellect may seem like the only tool. The same could be said of spirituality, feelings, or any other ways of thinking. Humans are relatively simple, in that once we find a successful tool/tactic/approach, we tend to prefer to use it every time. It is energy efficient, or at least it seems that way.

But sometimes we expend so much energy trying to make the circumstances fit our tools that we end up working not only harder, but in vain. It’s far easier to have a dreary 3-hour meeting every month about solving homelessness in our community than actually addressing homelessness. The meetings will go on forever, but are easy. Actually solving the problem is hard, but once it’s done it is done.

Mutually-Arising

What we consider to be beautiful is subjective. Take a look around you, think about the art you see and the music you hear. Look at people on a date in a fancy restaurant. Look at people on a date at a goth bar. There is no one definitive notion of beauty. In fact, I may find something beautiful and you find it ugly. As such, ugliness is subjective.

But not only are these concepts subjective, but they are also describing a relationship and only exist together. If you could only eat your favorite dish from now until forever, how long do you think you would describe each meal as delicious? Perhaps for a while at first! But then you’d probably get bored with it, and maybe even hate it. More time passes, and you learn to accept that every meal you eat is identical. It becomes neither delicious, nor worthy of scorn. It simply is.

When there is no variation from the established norm, there is no concept of better or worse. How could things be better or worse when they’re all the same?

And so food is delicious or disgusting in relation to the norm. The same for beauty, length, height, and the rest. I think this is fairly intuitive and part of our cultural consciousness. But Lao Tzu pushes us to think beyond that, and consider the implications.

A different approach

What the Master does sounds like magic, in a way. Completing tasks without doing work? It’s a sudden shift in focus, but this flows from discussions of mutually-arising phenomena; and our first glimpse of Lao Tzu’s wry sense of humor.

It’s not that “completing tasks without doing anything” is supposed to make sense. It’s a puzzle! Part of the value of presenting it as a puzzle is that when you solve it, it is more personal than simply being told. In a sense, I am doing you a disservice by sharing this commentary. But also know that this is my commentary. You will develop your own relationship to the text, and very likely form different opinions than I present here.

Anyway. Like I said last time: there are no contradictory statements in the Tao Te Ching. Statements appear contradictory because of our perspective and understanding, not because they actually are irreconcilable. Let’s recall that the first half of this chapter is all about how comparing things creates distinctions between them; and also that for every good comparison (“beautiful”), a negative one also arises (“ugly”). It is not simply a matter of finding “good” chores, because everything contains both good and bad.

Instead, stop appraising your tasks and just do them. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like going to the grocery store if there’s nothing to eat for dinner; what matters is that you get something to eat. Do not intellectualize your enjoyable tasks because you will look forward to them and grieve when they are over. Instead, work when you need to work and eat when you need to eat. Play when you need to play, and sleep when you need to sleep.

In the end, the results are exactly the same, but the first scenario has all sorts of suffering associated with it. Much of suffering, perhaps all suffering, ultimately stems from a refusal to accept reality as it is.

This doesn’t solve all problems

That is not to say that with the right perspective, a broken arm is painless. Of course not. But by accepting a broken arm, there is no need to grieve the social function you’ll miss while recovering, or how hard it will be to get around with a cast on, and so forth. These things will happen regardless of your opinion of them; they occur because of the material conditions of the present. They simply are, and you can’t change the present, only how you react to it. Or, more specifically, how to not react to it.

Being in the present, without appraising reality but living in it, means we can focus on what is important. It doesn’t matter if I love hammers and hate saws, what matters is that I need a screwdriver to get this particular job done. And when it’s done, just the like the process of doing the job itself, I stay focused on what I am doing in the present. Having completed my task, I simply move on.

Taoism as a coping mechanism

None of us can hope to live in a world free of suffering, pain, or disappointment. That’s not me being a pessimist; it’s a prediction based on the whole weight of human experience. And as Lao Tzu notes in the first half of the chapter, the only way to shield yourself from ugliness is to also shield yourself from beauty. That sounds miserable to me. Could you imagine?

Instead of attempting to deny ourselves joy as part of an effort to minimize suffering, what if we learn skills to accept and cope with suffering?

It’s sort of an inversion of stoicism: the stoics of antiquity believed that they best way to deal with the bad parts of life was to simply ignore them. They practiced increased rigidity in the face of difficulty. There is some logic to this, too. Rigidity, as a property of a thing, helps maintain its form in the face out outside forces. I can’t bend a rock, for example.

But there is a limit to the benefits of rigidity: when a stone is flexed it does not bend, but it will break. And when it breaks, it shatters in a spectacular fashion as it releases all of the kinetic force at once.

Taoism, instead, posits that maximum flexibility is the better path. It means giving up a rigid form to become unfazed by external forces.

Ok, now I’m getting ahead of myself. Stick with this, because it only keeps getting more interesting!

Josh

Tao Te Ching, ch. 1: the Tao that can be named

Tao Te Ching, ch. 1: the Tao that can be named

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Hi. In this post, I’ll share the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, and offer a commentary on it. Over time, I intend to post all 81 chapters. My goal is to help other people try to make sense of a text that can seem cryptic at times but with the right perspective, it starts to unfold and become perfectly comprehensible.

Because of copyright concerns, I’ll be sharing chapters from my least favorite translation, Legge (1868). However, I will re-interpret Legge’s stodgy and dubious translations as needed.

Chapter 1

I think of this chapter as a sort of preface for the whole text. Making sense of it is crucial to understanding the rest of the text, though we can’t expect ourselves to understand it on our first read. Between the radically different cultural contexts between us and the text, but also its radical ideas.

As Le Guin notes in her superb version of the Tao Te Ching, this chapter defies adequate translation because the whole book is in this one chapter. So it is both preface and summation, all at once. If it overwhelms you, that’s ok.

The tao (way/path) that can be followed is not the enduring and
unchanging Way.
The tao (name) that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging Name.

Reality is unnamed, and consistent.
Names create differentiation, inconsistency.

The dispassionate person sees wonder and consistency.
The seeking person sees differentiation, inconsistency.

Whether seen through dispassionate or seeking eyes,
The wonder of the universe is present.
This is the Mystery.
Where the Mystery is the most profound
is the gateway to all that is subtle and wonderful
– Lao Tzu, translated by Legge/Davis
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Commentary

“Tao” is a difficult word to translate because it carries so many meanings and implications. I believe it was Alan Watts that said that “Tao” essentially means “the way things are.” It is a term to describe reality, reality as it actually is without our intellectualizations and differentiations.

As humans, we can never be without out intellect. Similarly, our minds are designed to seek differentiations, patterns, and perceptual boundaries. We can never hope to stop these process, nor should we even try. If we succeeded, we would cease to be human. There is nothing wrong with being human!

What Lao Tzu tasks us with, then, is to understand the difference between what is and what we think is. But the first lines are a clear proclamation: we will fail to see things as they really are, even if we devote our entire lives to this goal. This is because we are humans, bounded by our limitations and our language. But in working towards this goal, we will be closer to experiencing reality and thus better equipped to experience it and accept it.

Reality, actual reality (the Tao), is ineffable. Describing the ineffable reality in words is impossible because living in reality is an experience, not a topic of discussion. It also serves as a warning: this book contains no answers because the book only has words at its disposal to communicate these ideas. But through these 81 chapters, taken together, we can begin to peel away some of the layers.

Think of it this way: can you, in words alone, describe a color in such a way that accurately captures the exact hue? Of course not. One might get close through specific shades (“goldenrod”), but even within that is endless variation. The name of the color that can be named is not a substitute for the color itself.

In this opening chapter, Lao Tzu invites us to explore and live in the wonderful mystery that is reality because it is present whether we admire it or not. If we can learn to live in reality, we can learn to cope with difficulties with far greater ease. Ultimately, we will lead happier lives; aware of the wonderful, consistent, ever-changing, ever-flowing experience that is living in reality.

This is a playful, silly book. Lao Tzu had quite the sense of humor. It’s also a very literal book, but it takes some effort to understand how Lao Tzu is speaking to see the bluntness of it. In fact, that’s sort of the whole thing: the concepts are so painfully simple that most of the effort is placed in learning to see the simplicity of them, free from intellectualizations.

There’s no magic, no mysticism, and nothing supernatural. It is a philosophy of reality and existence, not ideas or fantasy. As such, it doesn’t matter what your religious convictions are because they are irrelevant to Taoism. Taoism has something for everyone to share in, freely.

It can be a confusing text because it seems to go all over the place, and maybe even make contrary statements. So let me posit this: there are no contradictory statements in this text; the contradictions exist in our ideas. If you feel a contradiction, it represents a challenge to make sense of it.

But we’ll work on this together, and over time we’ll figure it out.

Until next time,

Josh

The hack frauds of evolutionary psychology

The hack frauds of evolutionary psychology

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Updated 9/30/21: Addendum to discuss Pinker’s upcoming book (bottom), in addition to correcting typos and altering layout for readability.


Where does morality come from? What about language? How do we deal with interacting with media? The answers to these kinds of questions have immense implications for the nature of humanity and evolutionary psychology aims to answer them. But, how do we study something like that? How do we track down origins of morality?

History isn’t useful here, because all of these things predate historical record. And contemporary psychology isn’t suited to look into the past, only observe what is happening now. Sure, some researchers strap people to giant magnets to see under what conditions a few cubic centimeters of brain matter receive increased blood flow, a supposedly objective way to indicate how brains work. But even that doesn’t answer how these things came to be.

A false hope

Enter evolutionary psychology, a subfield of psychologists that consider how evolution helped shape the psychological reality of human beings. It goes without saying that evolution must have impacted our psychology, so why not consider evolution when studying psychology? It’s a natural combination, and very sexy too. Suddenly, there are oodles of explanatory power behind how and why humans got to be human.

But there’s a problem: when starting with the present day and working backwards, it requires the researcher to hold a plethora of assumptions about the nature of humanity and human cognition. Or, conversely, it requires the researcher to be an expert like no other in psychology, evolution, biology, neurology, anthropology, and critical studies at the same time.

Now, get ready for this one: it’s not possible for one person to be an expert in all these categories. Instead, the field is populated by psychologists that dabble in evolution, often with little or no training. Sometimes you’ll find biologists in the field, too, that dabble in psychology. Same thing. The point is that they aren’t experts in the human condition, and they carry assumptions with them.

The star of evolutionary psychology

A picture of Steven Pinker having dinner with Jeffrey Epstein and
Steven Pinker at a nice dinner with nice people.

Steven Pinker is the closest thing to a household name as there is in contemporary evolutionary psychology. He’s a rockstar of the field, and a prolific writer. He might benefit from some more evolved capacities for picking friends, though, eh? He’s written books on language, “how the mind works” (didn’t know we’d settled that one already!), and more.

Steven, a totally not guilty of anything and very normal person, allegedly hired a “data scientist” to constantly scour Twitter and block people that ask Steven about the kinds of people he has dinner with.

It’s pretty rare for a serious thinker in an esoteric field to connect to the masses. Typically, I am excited to see scientists cross that divide and actually speak to society writ large. We need more of this. But Pinker serves as a cautionary tale: he’s a fraud. Despite opining about the role that evolution plays in our psychology, Steven has exactly zero training in the fields of evolution or biology. He’s a cognitive psychologist, who serves us stories that serve as palliatives for the awfulness of the world around us. Stories that preserve the current power structure, that coincidentally place people like him at the top.

The perspective lacks

Let me outline the dangers of evolutionary psychology through example: hunter-gatherer societies divided labor by gender, because man are strong and women are nurturing. The men go hunt, the women gather berries and nuts while caring for the young. This is evidence to support the claims that sex = gender, men are from Mars, and women belong in the kitchen.

In other words, evolutionary psychology works backwards, starting at the conclusion (ie, the way division of labor is gendered in America) and searching for an explanation for why that is under the guise of evolutionary psychology. The way things are, they claim, is because we evolved to be like this; not history, not economics, not the structure or superstructure of society, not religion, not environment, not material conditions, and not any choices of any kind.

Pinker, and his ilk, invite us to wash away the sins of our current reality by claiming “it’s just how we are.” There’s no better way of doing things, this is the better way. Stop criticizing the status quo! Stop trying to make things better, because ahhhhhhhhhhckshully this is it. (Notable evolutionary psychologist bravely step forward as a proud centrist, surprising no one.)

The Books of Steven

  • The Language Instinct: the one where Steven baselessly argues that there is a global conspiracy among social scientists to not discuss the roles of genetics in human cognition, which is weird because that’s a whole field called Cognitive Genomics. Though even in that field, experts are very quick to point out that genetics are a factor among many, not a determinant of much of anything.
  • How the Mind Works: the one where Steven, a cognitive psychologist, offers “definitive” claims about vision, emotion, feminism, and the meaning of life. Jerry Fodor, one of the originators of cognitive psychology, reviews Steven’s book with a big ol’ “yikes.”
  • The Blank Slate: the one where Steven claims that humans aren’t blank slates (tabula rasa) when they’re born because that would be very scary. Notably, positive reviews for this book come from other evolutionary psychologists; while negative reviews come from biologists, anthropologists, and behavioral psychologists. You know, people that are actual experts in the fields that Steven loves to dabble in.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: the one where Steven says that actually neoliberal policies are good, and we’re good and so much more enlightened than our ancestors and wow we’re so smart and good. I can’t even begin to summarize the criticisms of this book, so go ahead and read here if you’d like. Suffice to say, numerous experts (in evolution, statistics, history, etc) collectively say “wow, Steven, this is a very bad book.”
  • Enlightenment Now: the one where Steven rants about Social Justice Warriors while also saying that there was nothing wrong with things like the Tuskegee Experiments (that time the US Army knowingly infected Black people with syphillis and didn’t tell them, just to see what happens). Enlightenment, indeed!

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.

– Polonius in Hamlet; Act 2, Scene 2

Are you seeing a pattern emerge? Steven writes books that tell us we’re doing great, and that the status quo is very good. He’s got more in common with a self-help guru than a serious or honest thinker. And when actual experts weigh in, they point out glaring flaws in Steven’s books, which he dismisses as some kind of conspiracy instead of contemplating that maybe he’s wrong. And while I’m using Steven as a case study, please don’t think he’s unique in this in the field of evolutionary psychology.

The dangers of evolutionary psychology

For a serious and very valid field of inquiry, it sure is almost entirely populated by white cis men. You’d think that, if it’s just good science that people of all types would flock to it. Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist-turned-supervillian, loves the stuff! And, obviously, as Pinker and Peterson have both claimed, the “woke left” is ideologically opposed to evolutionary psychology and their criticisms can be dismissed as such. On the other hand, one might wonder why this field of research seems to only attract the same kind of person over and over. Good science brings honest scholars from all walks of life.

Evolutionary psychology is a refuge for scared white men who, instead of examining their own roles in societal problems, prefer to take the route of “actually, I’m very good and everything is good so stop complaining and also if you disagree with me it’s because you’re an ideologue.” Remember, actual experts in biology, evolution, anthropology, and so on, pretty much universally disagree with the kinds of claims Steven and other evolutionary psychologists make.

Hunters, gatherers, and honest inquiry into the topic

It’s also a way that these men will reject people trying to make the world a better place. Let’s go back to the oft-repeated hunter-gatherer thing: men hunt, women gather. It’s a story we tell ourselves all the time, because when we look at the way the world is organized now, we see what could be vestigial remains of that “original” division of labor. The only problem is that it’s not true.

Sure, some hunter-gatherer societies were or are organized that way, but others weren’t or aren’t. Some didn’t or don’t even use sex or gender to divide labor, instead focusing on factors like age. The point is that when we study the supposed evidence, we quickly find that dividing labor by gender is one way to do it, among many. If it were due to evolutionary differences, one might expect to see a more uniform application of that means of organization.

Instead, we find that there any many ways to do it. Yet we are all the same evolved species, so whatever determines how a society structures its division of labor, we can be confident and say that it’s not evolution. This “division of labor” argument is favored by people who deny the existence of trans people, because it (supposedly) demonstrates that there are two genders and they’re fundamentally different.

This is the evolutionary psychologists’ dirtiest trick: the “just so” stories of evolution. Starting at the end of the story and without doing any research to back up this claim; the evolutionary psychologist makes up a story about why things are the way they are and presumes that it’s evolution and not anything else. Next, show these “just so” stories to people that benefit from them (white cis men love stories that justify why white cis men are at the top of the social ladder), and you’ve got a cult. I mean sham science. I mean… yeah, I mean sham science. Made by hack frauds.

Or, actually, let me revise my claim. It is human evolution that determines, in part, how we divide our labor because evolution/biology/psychology/etc help determine what is possible. There are no societies that divide labor among flying and flightless humans, because no humans can fly. Our status as flightless mammals is a consequence of evolution, and this limits the possible ways humans structure societies. But that’s not the kinds of arguments people in evolutionary psychology typically make.

It’s only mostly awful

See? I can be nuanced. There are ways to do evolutionary psychology responsibly. And there’s value to it! Consider this: Reeves & Nass (1996) use a just-so story about evolution to explain the fundamental ways people interact with media: media is brand new, and our minds haven’t had enough time to evolve capacities to deal with media specifically. Are Reeves or Nass experts in evolution? No, but they are making a claim about evolution that is easily corroborated: the timescales we observe that constitute evolutionary shifts are so much longer that the history of media, by orders of magnitude.

Or, even more confusing: just-so stories can be dead wrong and still useful. Consider Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which makes dubious (at best) claims about the evolution of the central nervous system to better understand how trauma impacts and shapes the psychology of an individual.

The story is wrong. There’s no clear evidence of a “polyvagal” anything, and plenty of counter-evidence. But, at the same time, therapies derived from Polyvagal Theory are useful at helping people cope with PTSD, chronic pain, and other kinds of trauma. Treatments such as listening to processed music to help with pain management or hypervigilance are the result of this wrong theory. (Note: I used to work in a lab doing research on Polyvagal Theory, just so you’re aware.) So the story is wrong, but the outcomes are useful.e

Don’t drink the Kool-aid

Given all my criticisms of evolutionary psychology, it may surprise you to learn that I think it’s a valuable, if not dangerous, tool for researchers. Here’s something important to consider about science: the difference between hypotheses and theories. A hypothesis is a claim that is testable, which can be supported or falsified by research. A theory is the result of lots and lots of research, and provides some aspect of the “why” or at least “how” all of these different findings are related, and also is a useful tool for generating additional hypotheses.

I think that evolutionary psychology is a fruitful (if not haphazard) approach to generating provocative hypotheses. Going back to our pal, Steven Pinker: he once claimed that music is auditory cheesecake, something that we are not evolved to do or listen to–much in the way we didn’t evolve to eat cheesecake, yet both are quite satisfying. I, and many others, find this to be a startling and provocative claim. But we can test this claim, and when tested we can determine if this claim is accurate or not.

But, and here’s the big one, we must not take claims from evolutionary psychology at face value. They are claims to be tested, not conclusions. And the prominent minds of this field seem to be drinking the Kool-aid, confusing their hypotheses with conclusions or theory. Good science doesn’t happen with armchair hypothesizing, it happens when people test hypotheses. Because of the nature of the research necessary to test ideas like Steven’s, there’s very little evidence to support these claims, and even less that isn’t nakedly falsified.

Tread lightly

As I said above, I think there are real benefits to evolutionary psychology when used carefully and with a clear mind. But it’s all too easy to turn it into a sort of religion, a faith-based system that conveniently supports and reifies the way things are. It also requires a breadth of knowledge that few, if any, people actually contain in themselves; thus, it is a field that requires teams of people if the desire is to use evolution to explain a specific social phenomena.

Further reading

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of criticizing evolutionary psychology. In fact, I’m pretty sure the wiki article of criticisms of evolutionary psychology is longer than the article about evolutionary psychology. At any rate, it’s a great place to start for further reading.


Addendum

Steven’s cool new book

What a headline.
Steven is not well.

Just so we’re clear, Steven Pinker is claiming that:

  • 1) “Reason” or “Rationality” is the commonality between all of humanity’s greatest progresses
  • 2) However, kids these days don’t like rationality (?) because rationality is “uncool” (???)
  • 3) To emphasize how “uncool” rationality is, Steven says it is also not any of a series of terms derived largely from African American Vernacular English, such as “dope” and “phat.”
  • 4) In other words, things that are “dope, phat, chill, fly, sick or da bomb” are not rational. What he’s implying is: words that Black people use describe irrational things.

And then he goes on to take Prince (“Let’s go crazy!) and the Talking Heads (one surmises he’s referring to “Stop Making Sense”) in a surprisingly literal way. Maybe he’s not listening to much auditory cheesecake these days. His brain is too full of Very Good Ideas, music is a waste of space!

The Tweet and The Story of The Tweet

I debated including this story originally, and didn’t because it felt like a detour. But now that I’m adding an addendum for Steven’s new book anyway, why not?

I didn’t have a clever tweet or anything. I was mostly curious about the boundary for getting blocked. It’s interesting to me because I made sure to not be specific in my tweet. But even more interesting is what caused me to tweet at him in the first place.

The (Alleged) Ballad of Steven’s Data Scientist

At the time, Steven allegedly hired a data scientist (???) to semi-automatically block people that tweeted at him about paling around with Epstein. Music Academia Twitter was talking about it.

He was doing PR damage control, not wanting there to be a flood of tweets asking him about why he hung out with Epstein, defended him in court (seriously!), and even allegedly discussed some interesting theories with him–doing the kind of work Steven typically does: justifying the status quo by making up stories to say evolution made us this way. And allegedly the topic of these interesting theories was related to the kind of sex crimes Jeffrey did.

Anyway. So my tweet isn’t original or a good tweet, but it was vague. I was trying to see how specific you could get before getting caught in the grasp of the “data scientist.” Turns out not very:

Within moments, I was blocked.

What’s extra weird – and I’ve dug to try and find the receipts and I can’t find them, apologies – is that some people would post additional tweets like “why did you block me?” or whatever, just to draw more attention to this very normal thing for an innocent person to do.

And they’d get contacted by one of a few different accounts–all the same username–suffixed with a different number, claiming to be a data scientist that was hired by Steven to block people on Steven’s behalf. The account claimed it was for some kind of legal reason since the claims of his relationship to Epstein are salacious, even implying people could get sued for tweeting at Steven (lol). It was weird.

Why a data scientist? Why ever reply at all? The only way anyone knew about the data scientist is that they revealed themselves.

And why multiple different accounts to reply with? What was the logic that motivated which burner account to tweet from?

Why, if the process is automated with a script, is there someone around to reply to tweets in the first place? Why not just hire an assistant to go through your @s?

WHY?!

Like I said: data scientist or not, these are very normal things for a totally innocent person to do. Or maybe it was someone else playing an elaborate prank, in which case: bravo, this is very funny. Either way, it seemed worth talking about.

The big lie about Academia

The big lie about Academia

Published

You’ve heard this lie before, though there are a few iterations on it: Academia is run by liberals/leftists/Marxists/”postmodern cultural neo-Marxists.” I had to put the last on in scare quotes and I’ll get into why later. The evidence provided is often vaguely convincing if you don’t think about it at all, or if it serves to reinforce pre-existing beliefs. It’s also a ubiquitous lie, told by people all over the spectrum of the American political landscape, which is mostly populated by right-of-center to far-right ideologies.

Contextualizing American politics

But before we get to the important stuff, I need to talk about definitions a bit, because so many words have different meanings. First, let’s discuss political alignment. In the context of American politics, we often label our right-of-center authoritarian party as “liberals” because they are to the south and left of our far-right and rabidly authoritarian party of “conservatives.” In American political discourse, we use these terms as relative positional indicators, not absolute position indicators. Relative to Republicans, Democrats are left/liberal. But when we consider what these words mean and imply, we quickly discover that the Democrats are not left at all, even if some members do hover around the center, and maybe a couple even inch to the left. Our “radical leftist” politicians wouldn’t be suited for left-leaning parties elsewhere in the world, because they’re far too moderate, and most often have more in common with centrist parties.

Even the home of America’s vaguely socialist grandpa, Bernie Sanders, is still in the Authoritarian / Right category

The image above is sourced from The Political Compass. Vermont, under Bernie Sanders, is as far to the left as I could find in this dataset. Supposed liberal bastions like California and New York are thoroughly to the right and squarely in authoritarian territory, and of course Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky is way out there. It’s worth noting that I’m not cherry-picking Kentucky, this was a readability choice. See below for what I’m talking about.

See what I mean?

You can see exactly what states I selected to make this version here, but my logic was to include every state in the dataset that had two Republican senators. Not a lot of diversity in the party of open markets and free speech, oddly enough.

While there is a measurable difference between parties, it’s more like the measurable differences between dog breeds: surface-level differences that can appear profound (consider the humble mastiff and the mighty chihuahua, for example), but in actuality they’re one and the same in every way that actually counts. These mostly cosmetic differences can appear exaggerated, too, when they’re all we know.

Examining the claim

Other than in your schools of business, economics, and other extra-miserable places (that, it should be noted, hold disproportionate amounts of sway over the academy because they tend to be the money makers for the school), it is true that most professors are registered Democrats. In some departments, even radically disproportionately Democrats. This is often the crux of the claims regarding who runs academia, if any evidence is presented at all. But, as we’ve just established above, this means that professors (as a group) are right-wing authoritarians of various flavors that range from extreme to mild.

“But what if professors harbor personal views that are different than the candidates they vote for? What if they’re being strategic and voting for viable candidates?”

Absolutely, I think (and know from experiences) that some professors do that. But this is not the action of a radical; supporting and voting for a candidate that fundamentally opposes their supposed interests. This is the action of someone who prides themselves as being pragmatic about not effecting any change while enjoying a sense of moral superiority. Insufferable? Yes. Radical? No.

But this is all a red-herring anyway, because professors have little, if any, say in how academia is run, its policies, and its goals. That power is held by administrators, Presidents, whatever the hell a “Chancellor” is, and the shadowy “Board of Trustees.” The latter is a group of CEOs, politicians, and the mega-rich; not exactly a collection known for liberal or even compassionate ideologies. And University administrators are keen to disrupt any enclaves of leftists that may form.

Case study: a history of Communication departments at IU

In the olden days, there was one big communication department at Indiana University, with scientists, media production-types, and cultural scholars working side-by-side. They didn’t get along, and I have sympathies for all groups in this conflict. So, the department splintered, leaving the scientists and media production in one department, and the cultural scholars partitioned off in another. This split brought peace; allowing the social scientists to grope in the dark, totally disconnected from humanity and meaning-making; and it allowed the cultural scholars a chance to retreat from even attempting to communicate with society writ-large, and far more time to hole up in their ivory dungeon to write needlessly complex texts.

The cultural scholars, as a group, were far more left-leaning than run-of-the-mill Democrats, and they collected others like them in their new department and created a space for leftist scholars. Years later, then-President “I need a body guard with me at all times because I live in a fantasy land where I’m very special” McRobbie unilaterally decided to recombine these departments, along with the lucrative school of Journalism, to form The Media School.

Curiously, when these three departments were combined, all of the Journalism faculty were brought to the Media School, along with all of the social scientists and media production faculty. But, gosh, it’s the darnedest thing but somehow not all of the Communication and Culture faculty qualified to be part of The Media School, despite all of them studying media and communication. The whole point of The Media School was, supposedly, to consolidate everyone that studied media and communication together. Some were cut loose entirely, others where pushed into departments far from the limelight of the shiny new Media School, forced to toil in obscurity in a department that they don’t fit into. In other words, all of the authoritarian-right professoriate were combined, and the ones that leaned left were scattered to the winds. Many ended up leaving IU all together.

I’m not saying I think The Media School was created specifically to disrupt a leftist space on campus. No, the creation of The Media School was simply motivated by money and power: the old communications departments were under the College of Arts and Sciences. The lucrative Journalism department was its own school, meaning it had far greater autonomy and control. McRobbie’s move infused money into the beleaguered College of Arts and Sciences, a basic book-keeping shell game that addresses nothing but makes for some nice press releases. And perhaps more importantly, it removed a Dean of the School of Journalism that had power more or less equivalent to the Dean that oversees the whole College of Arts and Sciences, and replaced them with a Dean-in-name-only of The Media School, who served under the College of Arts and Sciences Dean.

This newly formed school-that’s-actually-a-department did not need friction, it needed compliance. It needed a very small man to be its new Dean, who was pleased with bullying the people under him instead of pushing upwards. A stooge, if you will. And to that end, McRobbie’s formation of The Media School was wildly successful: his shell game made the numbers of the College of Arts and Sciences look better after absorbing Journalism, he further eroded the tenuous amount of political power of the faculty, and he got to chase out anyone that might cause too much trouble for him.

McRobbie may well be a Democrat, I don’t know. But suffice to say that his actions at IU are in no way identifiable as furthering the even the basic goals of left-leaning politics. IU doesn’t even have a faculty union. Graduate workers, thanks to the hard work of a dedicated team, are closer to having a union than faculty. Instead, IU under McRobbie’s paranoid guidance has become a technocrat’s dream. IU truly has a fantastic technology infrastructure, and McRobbie oversaw the building of it. It’s paid dividends back to IU, too, through lucrative military industrial contracts that keep pouring in. Unless “helping the military murder brown people for oil and lithium” is somehow now a liberal or leftist goal, we’re pretty far removed from anything that even most Democrats support, or at least the closer-to-the-center Democrats.

But what about the LGBTQ+ centers, the free condoms, and other social programs?

I don’t know how to explain this, other than saying that putting a rainbow sticker on something doesn’t make it “leftist.” It’s more like a veneer of social awareness and compassion. It’s true that universities such as IU do have more robust social programs than most places in America, but they also perpetuate policies and programs that run counter to those social programs. They are their own antagonistic force here, putting on a show so that the students hopefully stay distracted.

Let me put it this way: a student can go to campus and get access to very basic and underfunded mental health resources, many of them for the first time in their lives. This is a good thing, even if the program is ultimately inadequate. Then, the student can go to class where the professor can espouse any number of obviously hateful and false things. The student must appease this professor to pass the professor’s class. God forbid the student is of an identity that the professor openly despises. And if the students complain enough to get university administrators to take notice, the “punishment” that this professor is given is being placed on paid vacation. The Provost that commented on this matter claimed their hands were tied! It’s so odd that conservative professors get put on vacation for saying racist lies, but universities have no problem finding ways to humiliate moderates for reporting factual information about racism.

Aside from classwork, many students struggle to make ends meet or even feed themselves. A big part of this is the cost of rent, since students have the opportunity to go to college on credit and let their future selves deal with that mess. But why is rent so high? Why, it’s the policies and structure of IU and its relation to Bloomington, the town it is situated in.

IU works hard to attract wealthy students, because wealthy students pay more for college than poor students. And the parasitic leeches that offer no benefit to society; sorry, I mean “landlords;” are pleased by this arrangement, and price rents and build units to attract those wealthy students. It’s not at all uncommon to pay around $1500 a month for a one bedroom in Bloomington. Why does this matter? Because poverty is a leading cause of mental health issues.

The university makes it possible for students to pay for basic mental health to support students struggling to cope with attending the university. Logically, wouldn’t it be better to make the university less of a miserable place? Of course! An eighth of prevention is worth an ounce of treatment, as the saying goes. The problem is that addressing the issues themselves means changing how the university operates, which threatens its goals, such as self-enrichment for the administrators that make nearly-or-greater-than a million dollars a year to write documents like this one, full of errors (if we’re being charitable) and flaws in logic so plentiful that if an undergrad had written it for a 200-level class, they would probably not get the grade they’d hoped for.

And on top of it all, those social programs are funded directly from student fees and tuition. So while using that money to create programs that benefit students is desirable, IU has no proverbial skin in this game. If enrollment drops, so does the funding for these programs. Furthermore, because of the funding model, IU is not incentivized to spend this money efficiently. Instead, they are incentivized to spend all of the money they receive, regardless of the necessity. You truly haven’t seen rows of perfectly maintained racquetball courts (19 year olds love the 80s fad sport of racquetball!) until you’ve been to a university rec center, full of student workers that can’t afford more than instant ramen for dinner.

Ok, but what about these Marxists?

I’m sure they exist somewhere in the university faculty, but I haven’t met any in any of the 4-7 departments that I spend time in (depending on how you define departments). To complicate things, “Marxist” doesn’t mean what grown men wearing bowties on TV seem to think it means. Marx (and Engles, but no one ever evokes him in their disparaging rants) revolutionized economics because he dared to consider the human component of economy.

Lithium, a resource that Elon Musk thinks we should do a coup for whenever we want, doesn’t do anything. Lithium is an element in the ground. To be able to do anything with it, human beings must do work to extract it, purify it, maybe do a little overthrowing of democratically elected governments, and so much more, before it becomes a battery that runs your phone, laptop, or car. It is because of this, Marx argues, that labor is the true fundamental resource of any economy. Tools and resources don’t do work, people do work with tools and resources.

Marx and Engles also observed prior attempts at communal living, such as the one in Paris that lasted a little while before the army rolled through and killed everyone for having the audacity to work for each other instead of making bosses and aristocrats rich. They claimed that anyone that isn’t an aristocrat or oligarch needs to band together, because there is strength in numbers, and workers could resist and even gain control of the very systems originally meant to keep the workers in line, and turn them against the aristocracy. Back in their day, the military couldn’t simply kill everyone instantly and anonymously with drones like they can now. Times have changed.

The reason I’m going through this explanation is to illustrate two points: there’s nothing really that exciting or radical in Marx and Engles writing; they wrote it a long time ago and it’s hard to disagree with, at least the economics part. The other point is that when people say “Marxist” or “communist” or “socialist,” most of the time they mean “boogeyman.” It’s just a label that means “thing I don’t like.” Even more funny, in the I’m-lauging-so-I-don’t-cry-instead way, often times pop critiques of supposed Marxism are really direct results of capitalism. (Scroll that linked thread for examples.)

So in other words, are there some professors in academia that agree that labor is the fundamental resource of any economy? Yes, at least a few. So what, people are upset that some professors (not in right wing enclaves like economics departments, funnily enough!) recognize that labor is what makes things, or at least labor makes the machines that make things? Or are they maybe just lying, because conservatives see their children leave their tightly controlled home environment and meet a more diverse group of people, and they learn things that make them realize their parents had lied to them. It might be that latter part, I think.

Well what about all those leftist-cultural-postmodern-neo-Marxists?

Jordan Peterson, a major star in the alt-right, decries this group all the time. When asked to simply identify one example of who he’s talking about, he couldn’t. That might be enough to convince you.

Žižek asked Peterson to name him personal names of “postmodern neo-Marxists” in Western academia and from where he got the statistical numbers because according to him the over-the-top political correctness is opposed to Marxism, on which Peterson did not mention any names.

Wiki article on the “debate” between two supposed titans

It’s not just that Peterson was famously unprepared for the “debate,” it’s also that they don’t exist. Let’s start here: postmodernism is a critique of modernism; they are antithetical. It’s like trying to have a hot ice cream cone; the two things literally cannot go together, because one undoes the other. Marxism is absolutely a hallmark of modernist thought, it cannot survive postmodernist analysis because postmodernism is about deconstructing anything and everything, and Marxism requires a whole hell of a lot of structure.

And as we peel the layers back, we find that this is just a new costume for a very, very old conspiracy theory: that “the Jews” control the world. No really, I’m serious. Ask someone lamenting about these leftist postmodern cultural neo-Marxists, ask them to explain what that is and where it comes from. Inevitably, they’ll point back to The Frankfurt School as the originators of Neo-Marxist thought. This was a real group of scholars; ranging from the thoughtful, to the the provocative, to the downright annoying. Most of them write in needlessly complicated prose to say very silly things, like Adorno’s infamously stupid take on music. So, why do the alt-right thought leaders of today care about very dead and largely irrelevant scholars such as these?

Well, dear reader, it’s because several of the members of The Frankfurt School, while engaging in their masturbatory writing about social criticisms (how dare they challenge the status quo!), did so while being Jewish. See, there’s this utterly fabricated book that claims that “the Jews” are working together in a coordinated fashion to control the world. And here’s a group of Jewish scholars in The Frankfurt School, questioning authority. That’s the connection. They’re supposedly “evidence” to support the claims of this book, as if professors writing obscure texts have any means to actually produce change.

This is only the beginning

In this post, I aimed to debunk the big lie, but there is so so much more to consider, like how state legislatures (overwhelmingly controlled by far-right wing politicians) shape the policies that determine how the university can function, or the role of the Board of Trustees at a university, and more. People far more thoughtful, well-read, and well-spoken than I have written on this topic, too, and I encourage you to read them.

You may be unaware, but Teen Vogue has recently become a real powerhouse in thoughtful analysis. Check out this article by Asheesh Kapoor Siddique, explaining more depth about the power structure of the university.

Michael Parenti delves into the sham that is the University Board of Trustees in Contrary Notions.

John Warner provides another case study of a different university, UNC Chapel Hill.

Marshall Steinbaum’s article for Boston Review demonstrates how the university serves conservative interests.

A team of academics, lead by Gildersleeve, analyze how conservatives have reshaped higher education.

Taoism and Pointing at the Moon

Taoism and Pointing at the Moon

Published   Updated

Above, in this the ~15 second TikTok, famed movie and TV director David Lynch kinda sums up the whole philosophy of Taoism. No really, I’m being serious! I don’t know if he intended to do that–I don’t know the context of the video any more than what’s presented above. But he did it!

Ok, let me back up a bit. I’ve put the punchline before the horse or something. In 571 BCE, Lao Tzu (if he existed at all) was born. He never ran a school, but he had many students. As the story goes, after working as a librarian/scribe for the local feudal lord for a while, he got fed up and decided to head to the untamed wilds to the west. On his way out of town, as he was riding a water buffalo, a guard stopped him and asked that Lao Tzu write down his teachings, to preserve them. He did, and that text has more or less survived since then. I think he probably got off the water buffalo to write them down.

What he wrote is often referred to as the “Tao Te Ching,” and is the founding text of Taoist philosophy. A lot of other writings have expanded on (and at times, perverted) the ideas presented in the Tao Te Ching. To make matters more confusing, over time Taoism evolved into a religion despite Lao Tzu and and the few other foundational Taoist texts’ clear hostility towards religion.

When they lose their sense of awe,

people turn to religion.

When they no longer trust themselves,

they begin to depend upon authority.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 72

This isn’t unique to Taoism, of course. The teachings of Jesus barely resemble Christianity, for example. It’s hard to imagine Jesus walking by a megachurch and thinking “nice!” or spotting a cop with a cross hanging around his neck and thinking “now you’re getting it!”

When I tell people about my interest in Taoism, I tell them I’m interested in the philosophy and not the religion. It feels like an important distinction to make, because I think most people in America have a very specific idea of what “religion” is, and nothing in the Tao Te Ching or so-called primordial Taoism resembles religion.

Recently, I learned that contemporary scholarship claims that there is no difference between the philosophy and the religion, in terms of how Taoism is practiced both presently and historically. This made me uncomfortable. Save a few minutes where I renounced my strictly materialist views to try and please a suitor (a true low for me), I have never prescribed to religious or spiritualist thinking.

The good news is that my definition of religion was wrong, and highly based on my understanding of religion in America, Europe, and the Middle East. Turns out the concept is bigger than what goes on in my tiny corner of reality. Who would have thought! Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

Religion is a socialcultural system of designated behaviors and practices, moralsbeliefsworldviewstextssanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements;[1] however, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.[2][3]

Primordial Taoism has beliefs, texts, and ethics that relate humanity to spiritual elements. I don’t know if that’s enough to call it a religion, but I don’t think I really care anymore if it is or isn’t. I still say that I’m interested in the philosophy because I think most people I interact with have the same limited understanding of what “religion” means.

The elements I’m considering as spiritual probably aren’t even actually spiritual, because there’s no god or supernatural force that humans are trying to emulate. But it does point to something greater: the whole of existence. As a Taoist, I am encouraged to seek truth in all things, a truth deeper than the surface. Taoism contains few, if any, answers. Instead it is a framework that you are entrusted with.

That’s probably enough of history and dithering about labels for now. Let’s get to the substance of the matter, eh? From here on out, when I say “Taoism,” I’m referring to primordial Taoism. I don’t know anything about Taoist rituals, alchemy or longevity; all that stuff came later and is clearly at odds with the original texts.

Taoism is a fundamentally materialist philosophy. It’s hard to summarize it in any meaningful way, since the Tao Te Ching is only 81 short poems (or at least poetic prose), each often only a couple of stanzas. You can read it in an hour, and ponder over it forever. So instead of summarizing, I’m going to highlight a few points that are key to me. When you read the Tao Te Ching, you might latch onto something else.


Key point #1: Taoism is an early example of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. More specifically, Taoism serves as a reminder that the signs and symbols that we prescribe to the world are not real. Look at the picture below. What’s in the center of the frame?

photography of tree
Photo by yugal srivastava on Pexels.com

If you said “a tree,” that’s very good! If you said “an orange-brown pixel,” then you’re pedantic. But, consider this: there is no such thing as a tree. I’m not being metaphysical or playing a shell game here. You swing an axe in that direction and you’ll hit it. What Taoism says, though, is that “tree” is a label that we affix to part of reality. We’re taught in school that a tree consists of roots, a trunk, branches, leaves, bark and so on. Cognitively and linguistically, we separate “tree” from its environment, and time. The tree pictured above is different now than when that picture was taken. It might even be dead or chopped down. You know that saying about how you can’t step in the same river twice? That’s Lao Tzu. And it’s not only that the river has changed, but so have you. Nothing is static; the only constant is change.

But there’s a problem with this label: can a tree exist without its environment? If we plucked a tree from the ground and placed it in an empty void, it would promptly die. And more importantly, trees don’t spontaneously pop into existence. They grow in an environment. They grow from seeds, in soil with nutrients, water, sunlight, time, and so many other factors.

It is our convention to differentiate “tree” from “not tree.” We choose where to draw the boundaries. But, sadly, reality does not conform to our cognition. A tree is the result of so many interconnected systems and circumstances; it cannot exist without them. The label we affix to this interwoven and temporally sensitive event-object is useful, helpful, and even necessary to navigate the world. But that doesn’t make it true.

In short, Taoism tasks us to not confuse the sign for what it signifies. A tree is not really a tree. Everything on earth, and the universe, is literally interconnected and interdependent. We choose where to draw boundaries, but that doesn’t make those boundaries real.

Now, don’t get me wrong; there’s no moralizing going on. You aren’t a bad person if you look at a tree and think “hm, yes, a tree.” The reason it’s important to think about this stuff is because often times, and arguably always, the root of our suffering is in confusing our ideas with reality. There’s a lot to say about that, which I’ll explore in later posts.


Key point #2: Wei wu wei. That’s the romanization of the original Chinese. A lot of times, it’s rendered that way because it’s an incredibly tricky concept to translate, especially across temporal and cultural gulfs. I’ll riff on a few different ways to translate it.

“Do not doing” is perhaps the most literal way to translate it. I think you can see the problem. Rendered that way, it’s cryptic as hell. Am I supposed to not do anything? If so: nice, because there are some dishes in the sink I’d love to be philosophically opposed to scrubbing. Sadly, Lao Tzu won’t help me get out of chores (except he totally does, but not how you’d expect–more on that later).

“Action through inaction” starts to maybe sound like something, but again we’re told seemingly conflicting things. Throw a ball without throwing it? Huh? How can an action occur by not acting? Is everything the result of happenstance? I think Lao Tzu would say yes, but that’s missing some crucial conceptual framework. Taoism isn’t a tool to excuse the horribleness of the world, or just sitting around hoping things turn out ok.

Here’s how I’ve come to understand it: “go with the flow.” “Doing” carries a lot of semantic weight. When I do something, like vigorously scrubbing the remnants of homemade pizza sauce from a supposedly non-stick pan, there is intention there. I’m imposing my will on myself and my environment. If I can instead act without doing, then it’s a lot easier to act. Still kind of confusing, huh? But surely you’ve experienced wei wu wei before!

Have you ever gotten so focused on the task at hand that you lose sense of time and self? You’re so focused on what you’re doing, that when you look at the clock, you are surprised by what it says? That’s wei wu wei! That’s acting without intention. Water flows downhill. That’s what it does. Lao Tzu wants us to spend less time acting and more time doing. Less time dreading doing the dishes and instead just do the damned dishes. And when they’re done, stop doing them and stop thinking about it. Don’t plan the future in excruciating detail, don’t dwell on the past. Live where you are, the only place you can be, the present!

Speaking of, I’ll be right back.

Ok, where were we? Ah yes. Don’t fret about what you need to do, just do it. Trust yourself, trust that you’re capable, trust that you’ll recognize when you aren’t, and trust that you’ll make good decisions in the moment. Stay in the moment! There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll revisit this in future posts.


Key point #3: Radical acceptance. My hopes, dreams, wishes, gripes, desires, and so on, are mine to cope with. They might play out the way I want, or they might not. Often times, I don’t have control over the determining factors. What if, when I set a goal, I focus on accepting how it turns out, regardless if it’s something I want or not?

I was in the best shape of my life going into the COVID pandemic. I felt great. Now that we’re on year 2 (or is it 300?) of the pandemic with no end in sight, I am not. In the past, I felt a lot of shame and embarrassment about my physique (thanks, dad!), even though it was always totally fine. Right now, I’m farther from the physique I want than I’ve been in over a decade, but it barely causes me any suffering. Why?

Because I can’t control all the circumstances that lead to this. And it is the way it is, regardless of how I feel about it. My suffering was not from my physique, it was from my idea of how my physique should be.

And isn’t that a bit presumptuous? “Should be” according to whom? My father, I suppose, along with cultural messaging about ideal physiques and so on. But, ok go with me on this one: fuck all that nonsense.

Worrying about my physique has only ever made it harder to do something about it. Too much wei, not enough wu wei. By accepting my current reality, and not placing morals or values upon it, I can act with a clearer mind. I know what I need to do, so I don’t need to think or plan about it, only do it. Along the way, I’ll stumble and that’s ok. Circumstances will change along the way, too, and that’s ok. Whatever happens, if I focus myself on accepting it then I am empowered to make useful choices in that moment that are unclouded by my expectations. If I stay in the planning, worrying, judging mindset, it’s a lot harder to accept changes. And here’s the thing: everything, including me, is constantly and always changing. Literally. So how can I make an ironclad plan, or expect a certain outcome? I can’t predict the future.


Key point #4: Let’s bring it back around to water. Water is one of the primary metaphors of Taoism. Water is amazing, David Lynch! But why? Water is perfectly yielding, meaning it simply takes the shape of its surroundings. I can break a stick or splinter a rock. I can’t really do anything similar to water, because it doesn’t resist my actions at all. And yet despite being totally yielding, water is incredibly powerful; even aside from the whole “sustaining life as we know it” part. Water carved the Grand Canyon. No intention, just action.

Being soft and yielding is an important concept of Taoism. Rigid things, when placed under stress, break. You can’t un-break a stick, but if you forcibly separate a body of water, it will return to its original form without any damage done. This is why water is the ideal. There’s no expectation to ever achieve that ideal–we’re only 70% water, so how could we be exactly like water? Also, it’s only a metaphor.

The more flexible something is, the harder it is to break. If I am a rigid person, outside forces can and will break me. Maybe not irreparably, but certainly in the moment. If I build up my hopes to get a certain job, when I get that insultingly impersonal copy and pasted email saying “while we were impressed by your credentials…”, it can hurt a lot. If I free myself of the rigidity of expectation, I become impossible to break. If I accept that I did what I had domain over: wrote my resume, applied to the job, and interviewed well; then I have already done all I can. The rest is out of my control, so why suffer for it? By accepting reality as much as I can, I minimize my suffering and start going with the flow.


All of what you’ve read above is me pointing at the moon. By that, I mean I used words, symbols, and ideas to indicate something real and true. But none of what I’ve said or even can say will contain the truth. A picture of the moon is not the moon, but it points to it. It gives you some idea of the moon. Lao Tzu said that the Tao that can be named is not the Tao. Nothing anyone has ever written, or likely ever will write, will accurately capture the concept. How can our communication–an expression of our limited ability to perceive and make sense of reality–ever truly express something actually real?

Eagle-eyed readers will note that I have not attempted to define Tao yet, so I’ll give you this as a parting thought: Tao simply means “the way things are.” Taoism is about grounding yourself more firmly in reality, and appreciating that our language, concepts, and society and so on are all important and useful things, but they are ultimately predicated on our limited and painfully human perceptual and cognitive abilities. If we aren’t careful, we’ll start thinking trees exist because we have named them as such, and not the other way around.

I think he was talking about something else when he said this, but I’ll close with a Frank Zappa lyric that fits nicely.

Keep it greasy so it’ll go down easy,

Josh

Life of a Recovering Academic

Life of a Recovering Academic

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Recovery is a serious thing. Disentangling yourself from old habits, old ways of acting, thinking, and feeling is a lot of hard work, and I need help along the way. It’s an ongoing process, but it’s going well.

After migrating my blog to a different hosting service, I accidentally broke a lot of links and pictures. I don’t have any plans to correct this, because I don’t particularly see any value in them. Still, it seems wrong to delete them–they were a part of my life, and I worked hard on them.

This is basically how I feel about my academic life. It was a part of my life for a long time, and still is to an extent. I don’t want to throw it away, but I’m not going to invest myself in pointless work for the sake of appearances.

I can say that I learned a lot in academia, and was exposed to new ways of thinking. Pretty much everything of value that I learned, I learned outside of my home department or even coursework in general. There are some shining counter-examples, of course. I’m a better person for having gone back to school, but not because of the pieces of paper I’m accruing.

This is what I mean by “recovering academic.” It’s a term I first came across when reading some Michael Parenti, I think it was in his book Contrary Notions. I’m trying to hold onto the useful, and jettison the useless and harmful. And I don’t use the term “recovering” lightly: I have habits that I need to break, and harmful ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that I need to stop.

Of course, academia isn’t all bad. Let’s start with the good. When I came to grad school, I finally had access to mental healthcare. I had time and space to actually think instead of being trapped in the workaholic rat race. I got challenged in ways that my day-to-day life rarely managed. I learned that it’s impossible to reform a broken system from inside. I learned that professors, as a group, are petite bourgeoisie. And I learned when to walk away.

The useless stuff isn’t really worth spending too much time on here, things like “the cardiac orienting response is indicated by a slowing of the heart rate before returning to normal over the course of 6 – 10 seconds” (Potter & Bolls, 2011). Or that rats remember the paths they took when they navigate mazes. Lots of other things like that; things that atomize cognition and experience to make them meaningless, and also don’t actually lead to more in-depth understanding.

And the bad stuff? Well, let’s just say that academia is run by some of the most classist, ableist, racist, transphobic, misogynistic, and frankly cruel people I’ve ever known. It’s people that felt powerless all their lives, and now have pieces of paper that give them power. And boy, oh boy, do they wield it. There’s a lot of talk of hazing rituals in fraternities and sororities, but academic hazing rituals are seldom acknowledged.

I’m not interested in perpetuating that system, and I’m no longer foolish enough to think that I can be “one of the good ones.” You can’t be “good” when the whole structure is the problem. What’s a “good” way to structure the tenure process? Where’s the justice in exploiting graduate workers and adjuncts? What is a kind way to perpetuate class divide? Where’s the honor in turning the university into Highschool 2: The Sequel? Can you be a good person and work in a field whose whole backbone is predicated on disproven and vicious racist mythology? Perhaps I’m digressing here. I’ll expound on these, and more, in time.

Recovery is a long process. For me, it’s taking an incredible amount of listening and learning. Ironically, academia is what gave me the chance to listen and learn. I’m not sure I would have ever encountered ways of thinking that can’t be found at Target if not for the academy. So for that, I am eternally grateful. Academia helped connect me with all of the tools and experiences necessary to learn how awful and futile academia is. I learned how to begin to step outside myself, and learn how to learn. And how to actually integrate things I’ve learned into myself.

The day that I decided to leave academia, it was like taking off a heavy, ratty, and ill-fitting winter coat I’d been walking around in. In July. In Tucson. It was the day I fully reclaimed myself, free from the pressures to conform. Free from the expectation to fall into the pervasive conservative ethos and ideology of the academy. Yes, you read that right: academia is not liberal and it is abso-fuckin-lutely not leftist. Again, more on that later.

I think that’s enough for now. How many of these “rebranding, rebuilding” posts can one blog have, anyway?

Be like water,
Josh

The Modern Prometheus

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus turned 200 last year. There’s probably literally no way to overstate its importance and relevance in both shaping science fiction and horror genres, women in literature, the novel, countless adaptations, and faithful spinoffs, and so on. In fact, Brian Aldiss claimed it’s even the first “true” science fiction story. That’s a bit above my pay grade to make those kinds of calls, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is both very cool and very important.

As part of the celebration, a friend of mine – Russell McGee – spearheaded an effort to adapt Mary Shelley’s novel into a radio drama. A radio drama that would be performed live in front of an audience. With live foley work. Oh, and with a score. I did that last part. In this blog post, I’ll share how I approached writing the score, examples of composition techniques I used, and to what effect. It’s not out yet, but a “studio” version of the radio play will be available soon, featuring all of the original cast. (I’ll do my best to update this post once it’s released.)

(If you can’t access it on Spotify, the score is also available on all major platforms.)

Why does it sound the way it does?

Let’s start here, because it’s easiest to understand and also where I started as the composer. In creating this score, I first spent time cultivating an aesthetic or “vibe,” if you prefer. This is essentially everything you hear that isn’t the specific pitches being played: the selection of instruments, how they’re arranged together or in contrast, and the overall sense of space and place.

The very first thing to do, however, was to begin imagining how it would sound. What is Frankenstein about? On what does this specific adaptation focus? When I read the script, what do I see in my mind’s eye and how do I turn those impressions of visuals into sounds? How can I use both the instruments and the notes they play to convey emotion, place, and meaning? How can I use music production techniques (as in, mixing and producing) to enhance this aesthetic?

So I spent time just rolling these ideas around. Envisioning this in my mind’s eye. After reading the script, I felt like the interpersonal relationships were emphasized in this adaptation with particular attention paid to the themes of isolation, artificiality, loneliness, and (self) alienation. (Wait, is this script about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or grad school?) Not just the Creature and Victor but everyone – at least at times – was isolated, ignored, or shut out. Often times people were at odds with themselves more than they were at odds with each other. And while the Creature wasn’t in all that much of the actual script, its presence hung over everything.

The world of this script is a stark, contemplative place where everything is uncomfortable with itself and with its surroundings. I had to build this into the score. So I did.

Often times people were at odds with themselves more than they were at odds with each other.

With some exceptions, this score can largely be understood as a series of accompanied solos and duets. And the whole score is “performed” by virtual instruments. That is to say, the flute and clarinet in Ship 1 are programmed by me but the performance comes from a database of recordings of individual notes. The use of virtual instruments was necessary due to space, time, and budget. But I tried to turn that limitation to a strength to sell the ideas of artificiality and isolation. The flute is instantly recognizable as a flute, but in subtle ways it doesn’t act like one. The performance is somewhat aloof, as if it’s unaware of the synthesizer accompaniment. And the buzzy, fluttery synthesizer accompaniment is anachronistic to the romantic and flowing flute / clarinet duet. These sounds are not often put together because they don’t quite belong. Serious Orchestral Music™ has never really fully embraced electric or electronic instruments. So immediately, by putting the two together, there is something off. And by having very few different instruments playing at a time, each stands out as distinct, which emphasizes the solitary nature of it all.

To add to this sense of disparate elements, I used patently artificial reverberation and echo sounds – the sounds that help create a sense of space. This is exceedingly common in popular music idioms for the singer’s voice (or what-have-you) to sound like they exist in a room with some kind of impossible sonic character. But again, Serious Orchestral Music™ emphasizes real spaces much in the way it emphasizes acoustic instruments. I mean, have you heard the Schermerhorn in Nashville? What an incredible sounding room! But to further the sense of the alien or the impossible, I chose overtly synthetic sounding reverbs and echos. It’s not “in your face” or really out there. I didn’t want it to be distracting. It’s subtle. You might not have noticed it, but your brain did.

So already and without talking about specific music composition techniques, you can see (hear?) some of how I cultivated the aesthetic of this score to make things seem alien, out of place, and uncomfortable in subtle ways. I honestly have no idea if this is the dominant way to think about creating a score. Probably not? I don’t know. My background is in music production and not music composition, so it’s easiest for me to start there. Making these quasi-arbitrary choices first creates constraints, and constraints encourage creative thinking.

What music composition techniques did I use?

Naturally, I employed a variety of techniques to create this score. I’ll hone in on a select few: some obvious, others more subtle. Starting with the most obvious: I used musical motifs to cue the audience on where/what/who. I say motif instead of leitmotif because a leitmotif is specifically a very short phrase. Instead, each of the “Love” pieces of music are basically the same melody, but the arrangement is different each time.

Each time you hear “Love” it is recognizably “Love” but also notably different: a different instrument is playing the melody, the tempo is different, and even reharmonized to change the feeling of the melody. The “Love” themes, to be more specific, are actually about the loss of that Love. For Love 1, the Creature realizes it is alone in the world, spurned by Victor. Love 2 and 3, respectively, are about the death of Victor’s younger brother William and his wife Elizabeth; each at the hand of the Creature. Going back to my reading of the script: it emphasized tragedy instead of wrath. That’s why the score is somber and introspective instead out outward and destructive.

Making these quasi-arbitrary choices first creates constraints, and constraints encourage creative thinking.

In addition to using motifs to reinforce ideas, spaces, and moods; I want to highlight the use of an Overture and Finale. I chose to use these mostly as a nod to the traditions of days gone by. Overtures and Finales are passé at this point, but that was kind of the point. Frankenstein is so overwrought and grandiose by today’s storytelling standards. There are long scenes of people talking and very little punching and no superheroes. But since doing a fairly faithful adaptation of Frankenstein is, in itself, a callback; why not emphasize that with an overture and finale?

The Overture is kind of a music preview of the different musical themes in the soundtrack, thus also a sort of foreshadowing. It’s to help establish the mood and aesthetic before the radio drama even begins. And the finale is similar in that it revisits the themes of the radio drama and the score, a sort of conclusion.

To briefly zoom in on the finale: not only does it revisit old themes, but also has a few new subsections – notably a raucous piano section that is not at all related to the rest of the score. This was to invoke the Creature fleeing across the ice and snow, chased by Victor. Of course, the Creature eventually self-immolates and dies alone. Here, at the end of the finale, the music slows and the instruments take on a different role: a musical interpretation of an EKG. The chirping and whirring of the sonified EKG slows, signifying the final End of the Creature. On the nose? perhaps. But radio drama, conveyed only through sounds, needs to be on the nose sometimes.

Jumping around a bit, there’s one last technique I want to highlight: my rendition of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” As per tradition, the piece is played on a church pipe organ. What’s unique about this take is I got into the guts of the virtual pipe organ I was using and gradually detuned the organ over the course of the piece. I’m convinced that it’s super obvious, but other people have told me it might be too subtle. You be the judge. But even if it’s subtle, it’s another one of those “you might not have noticed it but your brain did” moments. As the wedding march proceeds, it becomes increasingly gloomy and discordant. Of course, the Creature threatened to attack Victor and/or his loved ones on his wedding. Victor tried to put it out of his mind, but the thought was weighing on him. I wanted a way to represent that pervasive, creeping dread. So, a pipe organ gradually but notably going out of tune in the span of a minute or so seemed to fit the bill. That sounds just wrong and makes everything a bit dreadful.

All in all, this was an incredible learning experience for me. There’s plenty more I could say about my process but I don’t want to be a bore. I just know that finding candid explanations for how and why an artist made the choices they did are few and far between. Hopefully this can illuminate at least how one person approached writing a score. Thanks for reading.

Me, I Disconnect From You

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As a certain green-blooded alien once said: “if there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.” This summer I completed my second album, Reprise. It was wonderful and cathartic, and I’m proud of what we made. (You can find it on Spotify, YouTube, and so on; if you feel compelled. It’s under my name.) But now I’m adrift, and disconnected from making music. This isn’t the first time – it happens every time I finish a project of some sort. But it certainly is a self-made purgatory. I need time to gain perspective and distance from Reprise before I can try working on something new.

This isn’t meant to be a “o, woe is me” sort of post. (Ophelia definitely had it worse!) It’s more about trying to shine some light on something common among creative-types that isn’t discussed often. Growing up – back when I had the time and emotional energy to read for pleasure – I would sometimes read essays by some of my favorite authors. Amidst their various missives, I noticed a pattern. Invariably, each author seemed to claim that writing was not fun, or even characterized it as miserable. A thing they felt compelled to do. In some strange way, their very existence was wrapped up in writing. It’s taken me some time to appreciate this notion, and I can’t say it’s a pleasure to understand it. What am I even doing if I’m not working on music?

Another common theme among creatives – I’ve observed this more with musicians – is that they feel that music helps them express themselves in ways that words alone cannot. (I wonder how many musicians would turn writers with a better command of language? Or what if Kurt Vonnegut learned to play piano – would he write?) So that’s where the Tubeway Army track comes in. In a time of disconnect from music, I’m left without my preferred method of self-expression. It’s a troubling time, and it’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s best described as a vacancy in my life, an empty room for rent. It’s not a pit of despair, it’s more like everything is subtly off. There’s some kind of opacity in me. I become a stranger to myself, even.

Of course, life is multi-faceted and there is more to life than creative expression. There’s plenty of joy to be had, and work to be done. And at the very least, other people make music that I can find comfort in. So thanks to Gary Numan and the rest of Tubeway Army.

The alarm rang for days
You could tell from conversations
I was waiting by the screen
I couldn’t recognise my photograph
Me, I disconnect from you

I was walking up the stairs
Something moved in silence
I could feel his mind decaying
Only inches away from me
And I disconnect from you

Please don’t turn me off
I don’t know what I’m doing outside
Me and the telephone that never rings
If you were me, what would you do?
Me, I disconnect from you

 

Did you know you know more about music than you know you know?

Did you know you know more about music than you know you know?

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That title is a bit of a tongue twister, so let’s condense it down to an easy to remember anagram: “DYKYKMAMTYKYK?” There! That just rolls off the tongue, right?

Word play aside, this is a somewhat serious post. If you’re reading this, you’re someone that knows a good bit about music. Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket or have never touched an instrument, you still have a wealth of knowledge about music. By merely existing in a culture where music is ubiquitous, you have an implicit understanding of how it works. Even more, that understanding of music is so deeply rooted in your mind that it is incorporated into your fight-or-flight systems. This is a pretty big claim, but first I need to hit you with some concepts that are crucial to the argument I’m presenting to you: orienting response, statistical learning hypothesis, and musical interval.

I’ll start with the simplest one: musical interval. A musical interval is a name given to the pitch distance between two notes. In Western tonal music (read: pretty much all music you hear in your day-to-day life if you live in the West and even more places than that thanks to cultural colonialism), intervals are measured in semitones. There are 12 semitones in an octave. We more or less hear octaves as being equivalent, meaning a “C#” is a “C#” regardless of the octave it is. See the list below for all intervals by name and number of semitones.

  • Unison, 0 semitones
  • minor 2nd, +1 semitone
  • Major 2nd, +2 semitones
  • minor 3rd, +3 semitones
  • Major 3rd, +4 semitones
  • Perfect 4th, +5 semitones
  • Tritone, +6 semitones
  • Perfect 5th, +7 semitones
  • minor 6th, +8 semitones
  • Major 6th, +9 semitones
  • minor 7th, +10 semitones
  • Major 7th, +11 semitones
  • Octave, +12 semitones

You don’t need to learn or memorize that list for the sake of this article, but it’s there so you can just see what I’m talking about. The big take away is that musical interval describes the distance between notes.

Next is the statistical learning hypothesis of pitch class acquisition. This one is sort of buck wild, and painfully un-romantic. The hypothesis states that people learn how music works but just by being around it. In Western tonal music, we have those 12 semitones in an octave but other cultures have different subdivisions of octaves. In other words, the scales you hear all the time are quasi-arbitrary and based almost solely on the culture you grew up in. And even someone with no musical experience whatsoever can tell when a piece of music uses a different scale than the scale they’re used to hearing. They might have a hard time articulating what is different about it, but they can tell! As for the learning part, have you ever heard a song that sounded off, or did something weird? That’s because you have an implicit understanding of how music works. When you hear a IV chord, you’re used to hearing it go to a V or a I (for example), but if it goes to a flat-III chord, it would be pretty unexpected. Now, if you’ve never studied music theory, very little of that made sense and that’s kind of the point. You don’t have to study music theory to hear when a song does something weird. That’s because – per the statistical learning hypothesis – you are used to hearing IV go to V or I, so that sounds “right” and when it goes somewhere unexpected, like flat-III, it sounds weird. It really might be that simple.

You’ll note that I’m calling it the statistical learning hypothesis and not a “theory” or “law.” That’s because, at present, no one has figured out a way to test the hypothesis in such a way that makes it falsifiable. Falsifiable means that an idea needs to be tested in such a way that it could be proven wrong. Right now, there isn’t really a way to see if the statistical learning hypothesis is wrong because it claims that this is a slow process that happens over someone’s lifetime by being exposed to society. A way to test it would be to raise a baby from birth and totally isolate it from society then expose it later in life to music and see what happens. But thankfully, we have ethical standards and expectations of our science. Some clever person will, some day, figure out a way to test the hypothesis in an ethical way. But until then, we have a hypothesis that isn’t falsifiable. However, there is a mountain of evidence to support it, some of which I’ll get into later. Anyway, enough about philosophy of science and back to it!

Finally, the orienting response is an automatic reaction to novel or relevant stimuli in our environment. It goes all the way back to the work of Pavlov, and can be understood most simply as a “what is it?” reflex and is tied to the fight-or-flight response. Fortunately, we orient to all sorts of things and only a few illicit that response. What is particularly interesting about the orienting response is that we can measure it by observing someone’s heart rate. Let’s say you’re at your desk and your cat suddenly leaps onto your lap. The moment you begin to perceive a sharp, fuzzy mass on your legs, your heart rate slows and then returns to the baseline after 6 – 10 seconds. If you were particularly startled – let’s say you don’t own a cat, but suddenly a cat jumped onto your lap – your heart rate would likely decelerate from its baseline, then accelerate above the baseline before finally returning to the baseline. The point being is that your heart responds to changes in your environment because your mind sends different signals out when orienting. That, in a nutshell, is psychophysiology: using physiology to gain insights into cognition.

So now that we’ve got a good baseline on each of these concepts, we can get to the juicy part: DYKYKMAMTYKYK?

There is a wealth of solid research that shows people orient at the onset of a structural feature in a media message. A structural feature is a change in a message that isn’t inherently semantic in nature. Think of things like a cut in a video or the beginning of a new song on the radio. For example, Potter, Lang & Bolls (2008) found eight different structural features that people would orient to in the context of radio broadcasts: a phone-ringing sound effect, commercial onset, funny voice, station change/dial tuning, jingle onset, silence onset, voice changes, and laser sound effects. That means when one of those things happen when you’re listening to the radio, you’re likely to orient to it, and your heart rate will change accordingly. It doesn’t matter if you know you’re listening to the radio, your mind treats media as real. (For more on this notion, let me strongly recommend Reeves & Nass’ The Media Equation.) Similar research has shown that people orient to the onset of a song. The thought is that regardless of the context, the beginning of a message – song, jingle, station ID, etc – is novel enough for your mind to respond with “what is it?” and orient to it accordingly.

Setting aside radio for a moment, I think it’s easy to see why such a cautious mindset is helpful from an evolutionary standpoint. Imagine if our ancestors’ minds didn’t automatically orient to novel stimuli in the environment. Do you think they would survive in the wild? Obviously radio never killed anyone and no aural assault from a morning shock-jock can’t physically harm anyone. But it’s still real enough to warrant a “what is it?” The point being that this is a hardwired evolutionary response!

Radio is, in fact, a victim of murder.

Hey, wait a minute. The Buggles guy – remember that 1979 smash hit music video? – tried to tell us all about a murder, but no one took him seriously. Radio was a victim of murder! Spurned, he turned to a life of eco-terrorism, bent on destroying the corporeal world he once sought to warn of the evils of technology.

Fortunately the Planeteers were able to stop him.

After a setback, he changed focus (and name) yet again to deliver an overly-long monologue about a convoluted plot for revenge or something before being ultimately destroyed. Such a tragic tale.

Definitely the most thrilling scene from Captain America: Winter Soldier, in which the heroes stood and listened to digitized consciousness of the guy from the Buggles talk about revenge.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right.

Hard-wired evolved responses to novelty in the environment. And that’s where my own research comes in. There are a couple of really fascinating studies by Krumhansl (1979) and Krumhansl & Kesller (1982) that found people rate the notes in certain intervals as being more similar than notes in other intervals. An off the cuff guess might lead to you think, “sure, the notes that are closer together will be more similar sounding than distant notes.” But that isn’t what they found at all. They found that the more similar-rated intervals were the intervals that would form chords – notes played together that form a new texture – and the smallest intervals were some of the least similar rated ones. Though sort of surprising, it kind of makes sense: if people understand music implicitly through statistical learning, people are going to be exposed to a whole heck of a lot of chords in day-to-day life. But that made me wonder: would the “similarity-ness” of an interval impact whether or not people would orient to the beginning of the next message?

It does, much to my surprise. If the last note of a song and the first note of the next song forms an interval that Krumhansl and Krumhansl & Kessler found to be one of the “more similar” intervals, people did not orient to it. Mind you, this is in the context of a simulated radio broadcast of a Top-40 radio station. As The Weeknd starts to fade out, BAM! The next song begins. It’s hard to miss, but it seems that the musical content of the two songs could mean you don’t automatically attend to it. And this goes for more than just songs, but jingles and station IDs too. All of these messages are designed to be as attention-grabbing as possible.

So draw a fine point to it: did you know you know more about music than you know you know? You know so much about how music works that when something musically logical happens between the end and beginning of the next song, it overrides millennia-old systems designed to keep you alive despite everyone’s best effort to grab your attention with the start of their song, jingle, or station ID. You know so much about music that you have an implicit understanding of how music works. Isn’t that neat? Music isn’t just a thing for people with specialized knowledge or training. It’s for anyone that wants it.

References

Krumhansl, C. L. (1979). The psychological representation of musical pitch in a tonal context. Cognitive psychology, 11(3), 346-374.

Krumhansl, C. L., & Kessler, E. J. (1982). Tracing the dynamic changes in perceived tonal organization in a spatial representation of musical keys. Psychological review, 89(4), 334.

Potter, R. F., Lang, A., & Bolls, P. D. (2008). Identifying structural features of audio: Orienting responses during radio messages and their impact on recognition. Journal of Media Psychology, 20(4), 168-177.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. I. (1996). The media equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Cambridge university press.