The Labyrinths of Reason
Finding your way to—and through—The Abyss.
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Whenever I receive a long and thoughtful email I always intend to get back to the person who wrote to me with an equally lengthy and considered reply. Thusly: I ‘star’ the email and set it aside for a time in which I have the time, alacrity and wit to reply. Of course, no such time ever arrives and the lovely considered emails pile up. And so what in effect I actually do is simply add to the growing psychic burden I continue to accrue in this life. These unanswered emails weigh heav and like phantoms tsk, titter, tut-tut and ‘smh’ at me, in the penumbra of my knowing.
But when—a week or so ago—I received a 1,209 word comment in response to my post “subversive [something]” I thought—upon a whim—fūck it, I might just break character and respond!
What follows is my gallant attempt. Indulge me as I wax pseudo-philosophical (with inadvertent sophistry) in an attempt to share subjective elucidation in response to what I can only imagine as someone on the path to finding their way betwixt the labyrinths of reason.
Also if you were intending to book me to speak at your next event, host a fireside, facilitate a leadership offsite or assist you in leading a quest—fret not! I am well versed in meeting folks where they are at. What follows is a solipsistic indulgence, a sidestep removed from my regular work.
And to the lovely person who asked the many questions in the 1,209 word comment: I am effectively going to taking your questions for an unsolicited adventure. If we were in a private wizardly sparring session of course our conversation would be much more anchored to your particular context, and I would be asking a lot of questions of you. Instead, I am effectively responding to a hallucinated apparition of my own conjuring. In other words: I’m kinda answering this for you, but also for myself and the many others who might read this. I genuinely appreciate this opportunity to introspect.
Also, remember: I am the Archwizard of Ambiguity; I do not do ‘clarity’. Gird yourself appropriately.
Okay, shall we?
Here is the full comment
Who is more heroic - Frodo or Wonder Woman? Which platform is better - Twitter or LinkedIn? Which mode - Centralised or Decentralised? Which leadership advisor - Jason Fox or ChatGPT? Both? Neither? Other? Which way forward, pass all these riddles in the dark?... With so many plausible-sounding expert opinions, hot-takes, buzzwords, bandwagons, best-selling authors, how does one choose? Around the time COVID started, I spent the ensuing years studying logical fallacies. I was surprised to learn that almost every logical fallacy I had learned through popular critical reasoning teaching was effectively wrong, or at least far more complex than I first thought. Different fallacy authors had different ideas about what the heart of the issue was, and the nature of good/bad reasoning. Different taxonomy structures. Different emphasis. It was hard – very hard for me – to work my way through the complex logical terrain and doing so fundamentally made me doubt my own sense of intelligence and self-worth. I am no genius. The problems are above my pay grade. However, I discovered a few interesting things along the way. For instance, there was some agreement among the fallacy experts who study this area deeply that most mainstream fallacies are wrong – dead wrong – and this has been written about in the field of Informal Logical and other areas, but is yet to be widely appreciated. The problems are complex and not easy to summarise in plain language. They are dark, scary, tormenting things, like something out of H.P. Lovecraft. They keep me awake at night. Part of me thinks they should keep every intelligent person awake. But that part of me is probably my ego. Interestingly, there is no underlying unification of fallacies - effectively meaning that it is very hard for anyone to support their argument (or counter another’s argument), on practically anything. Ask enough Socratic questions, ask enough childlike “whys”, provide enough counter examples, subvert their assumptions enough, thrust a long sword into the heart of people’s philosophical centre and their frameworks will scatter to the winds. Confident arguments collapse into disarray. Why? Well - it’s dark and strange and “you’re-going-to-need-a-bigger-boat” scary. And I don’t have the answers. Apparently (and this is the implication) – nobody does. It’s a profound implication, I think. For it would effectively render every opinion, every philosophy, every notion of what we think of as heroic, or true, or valid, or logical, or reasonable – as moot. Dead in the water. Nobody, not Einstein or Aristotle, not Aragorn or Obi-Wan, not Marie Curie or Mary Shelley, not Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor, no character, in any human realm, anywhere, at any time in human history, has a well-justified opinion on practically anything important. At best, you can get to “maybe,” “plausibly,” or “probably” in a particular context. But “valid”, “true”, “fact”, “proof”, “I know” or “I’m right” on any big subject (the ones we have equal and opposite experts debating over) implies something much more robust. Like a framework. A unified framework. One we don’t have. One that our best geniuses haven’t figured out yet. And I think everyone suspects this deep down. That our systems of leadership are essentially all fake. Like the leaders. Playing out a shit show – because there’s nothing much really behind all these equal and opposite experts. They cast shadows on the wall, and Plato cannot not save us because he hasn’t figured out the deeper problem either. But he points to it. The deepest hard problem appears, not to be the “hard problem of consciousness” or anything to do with A.I. (what is the relevance of that, anyway?). Rather, it appears to be one of value, or ethics, or morals, or good/bad, or right/wrong, or relevance, depending on how you want to view it. Our leaders have not given us a robust theory of ethics. Moral consequentialism appears to be the strongest of the available forms, in my soft (non-expert) opinion. And so then, Mr Wizard - how am I, the non-expert, the simpleton creature, assaulted by value judgements from birth, by people with higher IQs, from more prestigious universities, with more credibility, more likability, more charisma, better educated, better read, holding better command of the written word, meant to choose which Quest to undertake… or what leader to follow… what opinion to “like”. Do I follow you, Mr Fox? Or is your humble expert opinion effectively indistinguishable from everyone else’s humble expert opinion? That is, on equally confused footing? From what I can see, behind all these opinions, there is a value-judgment that connects to a larger ethical framework. It’s lurking behind everything you say. It’s implied everywhere in people's language but rarely - I would say practically never - made explicit in a logical, sensitive, intelligible form. Is it ethical to believe anything you say Jason when you don’t have a robust framework behind it?... Or do you? (Please, gimme. I wants the precious.) Logically, isn’t that your top leadership priority? (i.e., moving towards a unified logical-ethical framework) – Isn’t that what a heroic leader really should be interested in – solving the big problems others can’t, or won’t? Isn’t that what your strong or mild or weak judgments of what is right/wrong in the world – about A.I. or leadership or business or viable town squares or whatever interests you next week – really entails? Jason, I don’t know you. I haven’t read everything you’ve written, or most. Perhaps obviously. I see maybe 0.1% of you, which I probably distort through my own clouded biases anyway. Maybe these problems also keep you up at night. I don’t know. Maybe this will come across as an extremely arrogant opinion flowing into an appeal to ego or vanity in an attempt to help “win” you over to see my distorted version of reason, but all that being said - I genuinely love what you do. You are among the best of us. Among the brightest of lighthouses I can see at the edge of the horizon. If you can’t solve these complex leadership problems in troubled times, who will? We could all use more of your intelligence, sensitivity, humour, wit, quirkiness, and good heart. And above all, movie references – please don’t forget those. Keep doing what you’re doing. Or, I don’t know, don’t. Denounce this foolish leadership business, kick back with some popcorn on the couch, enjoy what little time you have before Skynet becomes self-aware, and cheer on Frodo and the pro/counter A.I. fellowship as they journey into the heart of darkness, if that’s the better way. But for me to say what you should or shouldn't do with your life would require a good framework of value – which I don't have. And that is why I am here, submitting my thoughts to the wizard. I suspect most people won’t have an underlying interest in or understand the practical relevance of what I’m saying, or - I mean - the implications of what I'm really getting at. But I hope you might. So, with this long comment boarding on crazed and unbalanced I suspect in the eyes of most, I would be interested to know, Mr Fox – Do you have a theory of value/ethics? Or some thoughts in this direction?
Whew. And here’s my response—albeit a bit haphazard and pellmell. What was meant to be a 10-minute video essay turned into a 59-minute monster. What have I done?
I also spent five hours—five whole hours—painstakingly working through the transcript to edit up the mangled words and gramma (auto-captioning cannot keep apace with my prolixity)—only to accidentally close the window before saving it.
Suffice to say, I have now invested more than a full day and on this endeavour (which was only ever meant to be a quick response to a detailed comment). I would like to pretend the effort has been fruitful. Enjoy the video (sans captions).
And now, here are the references alluded to for each of the main elements of the enquiry. You’ll also not that the video itself has been divided into ‘chapters’, as it were (very handy).
The nebulosity of choice
- Making Life Wonderful – Marshall Rosenberg
- Finite and Infinite games – James P Carse (not sinek)
- The Wisdom of Insecurity – Alan Watts
- “relevance realisation” – from John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis
- “meaningful progress” – from How to Lead a Quest
- “enjoyable usefulness” – from David Chapman’s meaningness book
- Wit’s End – James Geary
- “weak views, strongly held” – from The Cactus and the Weasel by Venkatesh Rao
- matters pertaining to “truth” – from David Chapman’s meta-rationality book
- “protosynthesis” – Hanzi Freinacht
Don’t choose: ‘entertain’
“Better to operate with detachment, then; better to have a way but infuse it with a little humor; best, to have no way at all but to have instead the wit constantly to make one's way anew from the materials at hand.”
― Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art
Fallacies, all the way down
- metamodernist manifesto – Luke Turner
- the nihilist abyss – David Chapman
- Poetry Unbound – Pádraig Ó Tuama
A poem by the late Tom Christensen, shared in a private message forum, dubbed “Metamodern #3”—
We discovered the emptiness of belief.
The debris of contingent truths,
our honored chaos,
gave us only stillborn visions.
that was achievement,
for those leaving certainty behind.
For us in the mess created,
the loss of all foundations,
what was there to do?
Some of us still live in the debris,
honoring it as liberation,
and it is, liberation from.
But liberation to,
is what calls the others of us.
Freedom to build on nothing,
ending up with fabricated truths again.
This time though,
we know its Maya,
and know that Lila cannot dance,
Oh, lovers of illusion,
creators of tomorrow,
weave, sew, lay on the strokes,
build the roads that are not there
and lead us into the tomorrow
we love for.
Hello Abyss, My Old Friend*
- Overcoming post-rationalist nihilism + what they don’t teach you at STEM school (I offer these as partial explanations)
- The Evolving Self – Robert Kegan
- Dąbrowski's theory of “positive disintegration”
- The ‘Choose One Word’ Ritual of Becoming
- The Labyrinths of Reason by William Poundstone
- * whenever I say ‘my old friend’ I am secretly quoting ‘Fantasy Man’
A Philosopher’s Solemn Duty
“It is the solemn duty of the philosopher to piss on all that you hold dear and sacred, to show you that your gods are false.” – Hanzi Frienacht, The Listening Society
Disenchantment is the precursor to re-enchantment.
A Moot Dispute
A make a bit of word salad of this. My main point being that, collectively—as the self-organising complex intelligence to which we each be a part of (that exists at an emergent order of complexity beyond our reckoning, to which we can only discern via an acuity to pattern, maybe)—it doesn’t so much matter that none of us really have a well-justified opinion. Somehow, amidst the cacophony of it all, “the development of reality does have directionality,”—as Hanzi Freinacht writes—“it’s just that we are always blind to this direction; hence the metaphor of “stumbling backwards”.
Thus: do not let the pointlessness and inevitable mootness detract from the will to opine. Or do! Either way, it will contribute to our collective unfurling.
Don’t fake—make believe
- I casually mention Indigenous knowledge systems here—this paper does a better job of framing it
- I reflect on the narrative violations I have experienced in my own journey, along with the bullshït artistry on display across most social media platforms
- I also talk of the notion of ‘post-achievement’—a wonderful stage to arrive to wherein you have nothing to ‘prove’ to yourself or strive for
- This is a rambly section; feel free to skip, it fills me with Minor Cringe (a level 0 cantrip).
Whims, not ‘wizards’
Yeah, verily: don’t follow me. I am a fool wizard. My hat is a dunce hat. Brimless. I am simply seeking that which may lead us closer to a world more curious and kind. A world in which life may flourish at higher orders of complexity. Or: something like that.
I call myself a wizard partly because it is ‘infinitely to be preferred’ to what the term ‘thought leader’ (or even ‘expert’) has come to represent nowadays.* Not to say there are legitimate experts out there. I would rather heed the advice pertaining to pandemics from respected epidemiologists moreso than a teenage tiktok influencer or social media pundit.
* But mostly because I am, in fact, a wizard. (Also, btw, you are evidently no simpleton creature.)
I think back to the people that I enjoy following, it is mostly whim-based. There is no rational explanation except for after the fact. I simply follow those whom I suspect may be interesting. And I do so not as a disciple so much as a fellow infinite player who enjoys the company of those who likewise seek. Or, as Sir Terry Pratchett once quipped (within Monstrous Regiment):—
“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they've found it.”
I mention Taleb’s taxonomy from Antifragile here, in that a ‘robust’ framework would resist shocks (and stay the same), whilst a ‘fragile’ framework would crumble under scrutiny. But better yet to pursue frameworks with an antifragile. To quote directly from the book:
“The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means— crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.”
The quest is more important than any of particular ‘answers’ we find along the way. Questing for better questions, as it were.
Which brings me to another of James Carse’s wondrous works: The Religious Case Against Belief. I highly recommend this to you. In this book, Carse essentially posits that religion is not about believing in a set of doctrines or dogmas—or robust singular unified frameworks. Rather, it is about participating in the shared human experience of mystery and ‘transcendence’. Carse argues that when people focus too much on their beliefs, they can become closed-minded and intolerant of other perspectives. He suggests that instead of trying to convert others to our beliefs, we should focus on engaging with them in a spirit of openness and curiosity. In other words: infinite play.
Furthermore, Carse suggests that the pursuit of truth is a never-ending journey, and that religious traditions can be valuable guides in this journey. However, he also emphasises that we should approach such traditions with a spirit of skepticism (rather than blindly accepting their teachings). In this sense, we might approach it with the mercuriality* of metamodernity, which dances betwixt and beyond ‘irony and sincerity, naïveté and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt’—all in pursuit of ‘a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons’ (to quote from ‘the’ metamodern ‘manifesto’ itself).
* Mercury, of course, having its origins in the Roman tricker god ‘Mercury’, derived from Hermes.
If all of this mercurial oscillatory jazz has managed to inspire you, you might enjoy ‘The Oscillator’s Stone’ by theory artist Scout Rainer Wiley.
My top leadership priority
Nah. I quest to cocreate a world more curious and kind. More specifically, to coordinate amidst higher orders of complexity (at scale). Or more aptly: to cultivate the conditions for emergence. A kind of organic emergentism, I guess.*
* I have this book on my to-read list, as I admire the author’s disposition Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World.
But not a unified framework—unless the framework itself is dynamic, porous, complex and self-adapting enough to encompass the polyphonic pantheon of possibilities. But then, it would likely be so vague as to be rather useless (as per Bonini’s paradox). Still: better vague hand flapping post/para/meta-rational sincere-ironic hand flapping than the tyranny of something unified, specific and concrete. Fine to oscillate to such, but not to stay there. My friend Bruce McTague sometimes talks of ‘lily pads of certainty’, which is quite apt. “The world is complex and, yet, to navigate its understanding we need some simplistic lily pads of certainty. Therein lies heuristics and insights.”
Anyway, if forced to at gunpoint to choose a unified ethical framework it would likely be the framework of ‘finite and infinite games’, which is encompassing enough.
No heroes, no solutions
I do not ‘believe in’ heroes* (though I do believe in acts of heroism). It may be that I have had an unhealthy level of exposure to folks touting ‘The Hero’s Journey’ as if it were some sort of ‘monomyth’ (it isn’t, though I admit it is very, very popular).
* Of course, there are exceptions. Matt Langdon’s take on heroes is useful, compelling and apt.
I know this was not quite the thrust of your question—but it actually gets to the heart of the more masculine archetype that has dominated our noösphere (thinking space) for far too long.
The Hero’s Journey is overdone. It’s a boy-archetype story. I get why folks like it: it’s a proven formula. It works for blockbusters. It works for individuals who want to ‘centre’ themselves, or to have an authority figure to appeal to. But it’s a tired and overdone, predictable and limiting in its linear arcs and archetypes.
“The introduction of a singular hero… replicates a very specific and historical power relation.” Writes Ursula Le Guin. “The pioneers and the saviors: likely male, likely white, almost certainly brimming with unearned confidence. The veneration of the hero reduces others into victims: those who must be rescued. ‘The prototypical savior is a person who has been raised in privilege and taught implicitly or explicitly (or both) that they possess the answers and skills needed to rescue others,’ writes Jordan Flaherty in his book No More Heroes. To be a hero is fundamentally privileged, and any act of heroism reinforces that privilege.”
I am a fan of the works of Ursula Le Guin, and the many authors who subvert the neat linearity of the hero’s journey. I also relish in Hayao Miyazaki’s more ‘ecological’ storytelling, and any attempt storytellers make to complexify; venturing beyond ‘good/bad’ and ‘right/wrong’.
I suspect the other word I am not so keen on is ‘solutions’. To approach a open complex living system looking for solutions is to render it into a closed, complicated and mechanical system in need of ‘fixing’. We are—within, of and from—complex systems; thus we cannot truly attain any external vantage point so as to make it closed. Ergo, we cannot treat an open system as if it were closed—and all of the big challenges relate to open and complex systems.
And yet, having said all of that there is a role for the masculine archetype: the hero, the fixer, the one come to ‘save the day’ with the solution, the one come with the sword, spear, lance or phallic device to dispense with the ‘evils’ of this world. There is actually a time and place for swift and decisive action, for resoluteness, firm boundaries, protectiveness, and so on. It’s just that: even kings ought bow to queens—so too ought the masculine need to fix, solve or otherwise make ‘right’ be tempered with relational sensibilities more aligned to the living and complex.
Nothing is true; everything is permitted*
I do think we ought align ourselves to the bigger collective challenges in life, yes. And yet... the meandering towards what might be—at least temporarily entertained as—‘meaningful progress’ is non-linear.
- * I’m quoting from the Assassin’s Creed franchise here, which took this maxim from the 1938 novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol.
- I mention Anthony Weston’s concept of multicentrism, and again do a poor job of conveying the vastness of Indigenous knowledge systems (Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta is a very good entry point).
As I write this I recall the phenomenal essay by Dr Martin Shaw on Navigating the Mysteries. Here is an excerpt:
“It means attention to not this or that but possibly both or some other way entirely. This isn’t necessarily easy, being so conditioned as we are to yes or no, black or white. And sometimes that third position is not what many would call a logical response.”
A good habit, I find, is to always expand our sphere of consideration whenever presented with a binary option; there almost always lie myriad paths betwixt and beyond.
Protosynthesis + emergence
Not any one of us will ‘solve this’ and yet: collectively proto-solutions will ‘emerge’ (and establish, and decay).
- I mention Jim Rutt’s now half a decade old article In Search of the 5th Attractor
- I mention the notion of ‘Relative Utopia’, which I first gleaned from Hanzi Frienacht
- I allude to ‘the metacrisis’, to which Daniel Schmachtenberger provides an apt introduction and overview on the green pill podcast.
- I reference ‘The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols’ paper, which has a most ground and rather uplifting introduction:
“Complex coordination problems have an air of doomed intractability about them. We speak in fatalistic terms of economics being a ‘dismal’ science, of sociological phenomena being dominated by the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ of organizations being hopelessly ‘captured,’ and of complex problems being ‘wicked.’ Even our simplest mental models of coordination and cooperation problems, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory, are built around default expectations of obviously worse outcomes dominating obviously better ones, and worst-case behaviors driving systemic outcomes.Yet, in practice, we routinely solve coordination problems reasonably well. Workable solutions materialize, pushing through the gloom and doom which often accompanies theoretical views and cultural commentary. In light of this foreboding context, the outcomes appear almost suspiciously lucky, or serendipitous.”
- I reference John Vervaeke’s video essay “AI: The Coming Thresholds and The Path We Must Take”
- I also reference Hanzi Freinacht’s notion of ‘the fabric of hurt and bliss’, expanded here—
“We fail to take responsibility, to act productively in the interest of ourselves and others. And in our attempts at a better life, we are often severely limited or thwarted by the immature and socially inept behavior of ourselves and others. There is a great fabric of relations, behaviors and emotions, reverberating with human and animal bliss and suffering, a web of intimate and formal relations, both direct and indirect. Nasty whirlwinds of feedback cycles blow through this great multidimensional web, pulsating with hurt and degradation. My lacking human development blocks your possible human development. My lack of understanding of you, your needs perspectives, hurts you in a million subtle ways. I become a bad lover, a bad colleague, a bad fellow citizen and human being. We are interconnected: You cannot get away from my hurt and wounds. They will follow you all of your life—I will be your daughter’s abusive boyfriend, your belligerent neighbor from hell. And you will never grow wings because there will always be mean bosses, misunderstanding families and envious friends. And you will tell yourself that is how life must be. But it is not how life has to be. Once you begin to be able to see the social-psychological fabric of everyday life, it becomes increasingly apparent that the fabric is relatively easy to change, to develop. Metamodern politics aims to make everyone secure at the deepest psychological level, so that we can live authentically; a byproduct of which is a sense of meaning in life and lasting happiness; a byproduct of which is kindness and an increased ability to cooperate with others; a byproduct of which is deeper freedom and better concrete results in the lives of everyone; a byproduct of which is a society less likely to collapse into a heap of atrocities.”
― Hanzi Freinacht, The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One
I am not sure how fully I agree with the Nordic Ideology behind metamodern politics, but I appreciate the sentiment and directionality.
Denounce This Foolish Leadership Business!
Oh how frequently I denounce this foolish leadership business—and how frequently I returned, so enamoured I am as to how we can effectively cultivate for emergence (and coordinate at higher orders of complexity, at scale). It fascinates me. I can’t keep away from the field, much as I frequently lament the domain (and how easily it is captured by platform economics).
In this section I once again reference enjoyable usefulness and relevance realisation—along with the notion of glimmers, inklings, hunches and whatnot.
Perhaps we might embrace the poetic?
Ha, I don’t have a clear framework no—but evidently I have some thoughts in this direction. And whilst I do harp on about nebulosity, complexity and whatnot, the conversation around values and ethics is vital. And yet also: such conversations must be living things (not fixed) and guided by frameworks that are adopted for as long as they serve—and then respectfully discarded in favour of whatever may serve better.
I mention Dr Martin Shaw (whom I noted above). There’s a particular interview that really spoke to me (an extension of the essay I linked earlier), pertaining to the mythopoetic.
Related—perhaps we might cultivate the poetic sensibilities that may enable us to live and lead amidst complexity with a semblance of efficacy, grace and aplomb?
To quote from poets.org, the characteristics of a poetic sensibility include:
- a keen sensitivity to the surrounding world (multisensory perception);
- an ability to ask questions of that world;
- identifying patterns;
- being able to make both logical and intuitive connections;
- a facility and passion for finding just the right word or phrase to express feelings and meaning; and
- the use of the imagination to connect the above in unexpected ways.
This seems a good disposition to me.
Thank you, once again, for the comment and the questions laced throughout. I don’t often get a chance to reflect in this manner at such depth. It was a joy. And—like you—I suspect most people won’t have an underlying interest in or understand the practical relevance of what I’m saying. Or rather, the implications of what I'm really getting at. But I hope you, dear reader, might.
So, with this long post boarding on crazed and unbalanced (I suspect in the eyes of most) I would be interested to know—what, if anything, has resonated with you?
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