On Gratitude and Death

On Gratitude and Death

a two part post by James Radcliffe

Hi James

A lot in what you write, and a few assumptions in there that seem to me to be major limitations on the classes of possibility that may occur.

I completely agree that our experience of existence is only a very tiny fraction of the possibilities present. As you are aware I have written extensively on that elsewhere – a small selection are:
https://tedhowardnz.wordpress.com/2016/06/26/intelligence-and-robotics/ is one look at how complex we are;
https://tedhowardnz.wordpress.com/2016/06/11/can-we-honour-all-religions/ looks at illusion in the notion of truth;
https://tedhowardnz.wordpress.com/on-being-human/consciousness-venn-diagram/ gives a graphic representation of one view of how our conscious experience seems to be of a subconsciously created model of reality, rather than reality itself.

We align very much on those aspects.

Where we part significantly is in relation to death.
Certainly there are aspects of alignment.
Watching an oncologist write “palliative care only” on my file notes was not in my life plan. Accepting that had a profound aspect. Accepting that it was only his opinion, his best guess, allowed me to look for alternatives, and to recently celebrate 5 years clear of tumours, by application of intention to diet and being more generally.

And I agree with hrobertson2013, that it does seem possible (however improbable) to live for the rest of eternity.
In this sense, death is not certain.
From the cellular perspective, all life alive today on this planet seems to be part of a continuum of cellular life some 4 billion years old. Certainly, the vast majority of cells ever to have existed have perished, and all those alive today have not. All cells alive today are, in a very real sense, some 4 billion years old.

I expect indefinite life extension to be a real possibility for these large collections of cells we call human beings in the very near future, and I have been confident since 1974 that such was a logical possibility (though still not a certainty).

I have had more than my share of experiences that took me very close to death.
I appreciate life, and the diversity it offers, the richness it has.
A cup of coffee, a pencil, any of the tools we take as common involve many actions by many people and machines. Those are indeed profound contemplations, and can deliver profound appreciation for existence.

And there is another line of enquiry entirely – the nature of value.
It seems that all of our values, genetic and culturally inspired, are some function of survival over deep time.
Evolution in this sense is an amazing concept, infinitely deep, infinitely recursive, infinitely fractal and cosslinking in extremely subtle ways.

__ So in this sense, all of our emotions, all of our default sets of genetic and cultural values seem clearly to be some function of survival over deep time, and as such, not necessarily relevant to our exponentially changing present. __

Please go back and read that 3 times, and pause and contemplate it anew for at least 10 seconds each time.

I have spent many hours traversing the fractal arms of the implications of that realisation.

A world devoid of historical precedent!

Having just done a course for decision makers in our legal system, I am profoundly aware of just how antithetical to culture such an idea is.

So for me – I am left with two chosen values, individual life, and individual liberty – applied universally; both of which come in contexts of social and ecological responsibility, and of course in the wider context of the physicality of our cosmological reality (whatever that actually may be).

Enjoyed reading most of what you wrote.
We seem to align on much.

And for me, death has assumed all the characteristics of a disease – something real, something present, and something to be cured if at all possible.

[followed by]

Hi James,

In one sense, all words are stream of consciousness, the nature of the stream can say something about the territory through which it flows.

In another sense, what I wrote was intended as a logical and coherent response to what you wrote, and all the comments existing at that time, and is to be read in that context.

In that context, it is attempting to point at a third level set of strategic abstractions of our current situation and a path to a future with the highest levels of benefit I have found likely in the 40+ years I have spent considering such things in detail.
In a sense, I am not worried about specifics, as they are too complex to have any real certainty over. What most interests me is the context of contexts (most specifically sets of values) one uses when making strategic choices – at all temporal scales.

Does that make anything clearer, or murkier?

[followed by]

Perhaps I just need to live with Murkier, and perhaps not.

Consider that in my world, what I wrote is a simple expression of something that is profoundly not simple.

I opened with “A lot in what you write, and a few assumptions in there that seem to me to be major limitations on the classes of possibility that may occur.
I completely agree that our experience of existence is only a very tiny fraction of the possibilities present. As you are aware I have written extensively on that elsewhere.
We align very much on those aspects.”

I know you have read some of my writings – so I left it simply as that.

I am clear that our experience of being is not of reality, but of a slightly predictive, and highly simplified, software model of reality, that our subconscious brains assemble for us, based upon the experience of our past, the habits and distinctions we have learned, and on the various levels of filters present in the genetic and cultural systems that are present at that subconscious level.

I have written extensively on such things, and your site removed the links from my original post – which did severely interfere with the structure I had created. As you don’t allow links, then all I can say is search my site for :
“consciousness-venn-diagram” gives a graphic representation of this view;
“can-we-honour-all-religions” looks at illusion in the notion of truth;
“intelligence-and-robotics” is one look at how complex we are.

The ideas present are all important to the deeper level of abstraction I am pointing to, and for the sake of brevity, I inserted links, rather than typing anew – but it was removed.

I continued with “Where we part significantly is in relation to death”.
What I wrote there stands, and it stands in a deep context of evolution.

Evolution is both simple and complex.
A profoundly simple idea – differential survival of variants in different environments.
A profoundly complex reality of recursive exploration of new domains.
Evolution is recursive – it folds back on itself, creating new levels as it does so.
Evolution starts with differential survival of variants.
One way of viewing evolution is in terms of strategies. How does that specific set of strategies work in practice in the specific sets of environments present.
Evolution always works through the specific individuals present (at chemical, cellular, organism and higher level groupings) and at every level those individuals (atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, etc) can come and go and be part of higher level associations.
Evolution works on all levels present, simultaneously.
Time is an important dimension to evolution. Strategies exist across different time scales at different levels of association – this can be profoundly important when considering the impact of very rare but highly selective events.

So it is true, that in one sense, evolution is about survival, and competition is often a big part of survival.

And there is a whole “other side” to evolution that is about cooperation, and that hasn’t had much press.

It is accurate to characterise all major advances in the complexity of evolved systems as the emergence of new levels of cooperation.
And raw cooperation is always vulnerable to cheating.
To be stable, cooperation requires attendant strategies to prevent cheats from dominating.

When one looks at evolution, one can see many levels of such strategic systems.
Chemical – atoms leading to molecules; RNAs replicating with the aid of other groups of RNAs; Even larger groups of RNAs allowing the production of proteins; RNAs and proteins working together to develop sugars and lipids; leading to cells.
And on and on it goes.
By the time you get to us, there are about 12 levels of such chemical/physical strategic systems present – with vast arrays of subtle and not so subtle stabilising strategies present to prevent cheating (including the amazing complexity that is our immune system, and our emotional systems).

When you get to people with complex brains, then the process recurs at new levels in the sorts of associations of behavioural strategies we see in levels of cultures.
So in the average human adult, there are at least 20 levels of such strategic cooperative systems present, every one of which has its sets of attendant strategies that work, in practice, to some degree, in the contexts present in the deep time of our genetic and cultural past.

I tried to say that simply in the sentences “And there is another line of enquiry entirely – the nature of value.
It seems that all of our values, genetic and culturally inspired, are some function of survival over deep time.
Evolution in this sense is an amazing concept, infinitely deep, infinitely recursive, infinitely fractal and cross-linking in extremely subtle ways.”

I am clear that all of our feelings, our desires, our default sets of motivators – genetic and cultural, are selected and tuned by differential survival over deep time, and are deeply interlinked with both cooperative and competitive contexts of our past.

The key insight, that is so difficult to get, is that our exponentially changing present can create conditions where none of that selection from our past is relevant.


We face conditions of such novelty, such complexity, such chaos, that none of the systems of our deep past can possibly prepare us.

Logic tells us that it is unpredictable.
Logic tells us that in a very real sense, the most appropriate response to some classes and contexts of complexity is the purely random.

But how random can we be?
How much is our ability to create the random constrained?
How much does our living in a model constrain our ability to perceive the truly novel?
If we relax the boundaries on our models, how much of what occurs has any reality to it?
How much time must one spend in such conditions of degraded confidence before one’s intuitions start to reliably adapt?

These are not trivial or simple questions.
One needs to get to a place where one is willing and able to ask such questions.
That cannot be a comfortable journey – I know of no way to make it so.

[followed by]

Guys like Tony Robbins and groups like Landmark Educationn teach something real, about authenticity, about feelings.

I am not in any way suggesting that we deny our feelings, or deny our authenticity.

I am suggesting, in the tradition Buddhism, that our fundamental nature has a profoundly cooperative aspect.

I am suggesting that it is possible to be true that that profoundly cooperative aspect that is fundamentally in service of ones own needs, and the need of all others in society; and that amongst those needs are the needs for both life and liberty, and all the tools and resources reasonably required to sustain those things.

No hard boundaries.
No fixed rules even theoretically possible.
Truly complex systems, with boundaries that can be flexible in any dimension.

What I am explicitly saying is that our default sets of feelings, the ones supplied by genetics and culture, can often be dangerous in our exponentially changing present.

It takes real work to create such awareness.
It takes persistence to generate new habits.

It is a fundamentally uncertain approach to existence, and as such is directly opposed by our early (cultural and childhood) desire for simplicity, for ideas like right and wrong, true and false.

What can one see of a rainbow viewed in black and white?

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) with reasonable security, tools, resources and degrees of freedom, and reasonable examples of the natural environment; and that is going to demand responsibility from all of us - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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