Podcast: Buddhism and cognitivism

The Cybersyn ops room

The Cybersyn ops room

This is a 19 minute audio monologue about the intellectual history of some interactions between Buddhism and cognitive science, prompted by a blog discussion of doubts about modern meditation systems.

It’s a podcast, sort of? It’s an experiment… I deliver pedantic rambles like this practically every day, hours in a row sometimes. Rin’dzin recently started recording some and encouraging me to make them public. I’m reluctant because I want to be careful, and when I’m ranting off-the-cuff I say things that are false and/or offensive. On the other hand, I often cover material that’s unusual and could be useful or interesting for someone, and which I’m never going to have time to write up properly.

The Cofounders

Prithi and Carlos

Image courtesy Sajjad Hussain M

Meta-systematicity manifests as the forefront of all domains of meaning, including in personal psychology, rational understanding, social organization, and culture. Observing meta-systematicity across these domains reveals structural parallels, so that insight from each domain illuminates the others.

This page braids together three purposes:

  • It casts light on meta-systematicity in general by showing its dynamics specifically in self-understanding and in relationships;
  • It illustrates meta-systematicity in relationships with an example of tech startup cofounders;
  • It gives a glimpse of meta-systematic social organization through the case of technology companies; by analogy with meta-systematic relationships; and by application of the understanding of meta-systematicity in general.

Post-apocalyptic life in American health care


  • Much of my time for the past year has been spent navigating the medical maze on behalf of my mother, who has dementia.
  • I observe that American health care organizations can no longer operate systematically, so participants are forced to act in the communal mode, as if in the pre-modern world.
  • Health care is one leading edge of a general breakdown in systematicity—while, at the same time, employing sophisticated systematic technologies.
  • Communal-mode interpersonal skills may become increasingly important to life success—not less, as techies hope.
  • For complex health care problems, I recommend hiring a consultant to provide administrative (not medical!) guidance.

Epistemic status: impressionistic blogging during a dazed lull between an oncologist and an MRI. No attempt to validate with statistical data or knowledgeable sources.

Interlude: Ontological remodeling

High-resolution MVIC image of Pluto in enhanced color to bring out differences in surface composition.
Object #134340

We have arrived at the midpoint of In the cells of the eggplant. In its first part, we saw how every attempt to make rationalism work failed, in each case because it denied ontological nebulosity. The second part explains how meta-rationality works with ontological nebulosity to resolve the problems rationalism encountered.

Formal rationality usually works within a fixed ontology, unquestioned and often implicit. That works well so long as the ontology is good enough for the job at hand. When it isn’t, total breakdown can result, because rationality has no way of repairing the breach.

Meta-rationality stands outside any particular ontology. It treats ontologies as malleable, and manipulates them explicitly. It evaluates, selects, combines, modifies, discovers, and creates alternative ones.

Ontological remodeling—the reconfiguration of individuation criteria, categories, properties, and relationships—is a relatively advanced meta-rational activity. Ideally, we would build up extensive conceptual prerequisites before discussing it. The topic might be best left to the end of The eggplant—or, in fact, to some other text.1

Except that we need this idea to explain what sort of thing meta-rationality is. Namely, meta-rationality is itself an ontological remodeling of rationality.

Upgrade your cargo cult for the win

Cargo cult plane made from sticks and straw

If you create a good enough airport—the cargo will come.

What does it take for an individual to do innovative intellectual work, such as scientific discovery? Mere mastery of methods is not good enough.

What does it take for a community or institution to address a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world effectively? Mission statements, structures, principles, and procedures are not good enough.

What they don’t teach you at STEM school

What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School (book cover)

What they do teach you at STEM school is how to think and act within rational systems. What they mostly don’t teach you is how to evaluate, choose, combine, modify, discover, or create systems. Those skills are actually more important for social, cultural, and personal progress. Learning them is also rarer, and more difficult—currently!

This post sketches a hypothetical curriculum for developing these meta-systematic capabilities. It’s preliminary; perhaps even premature. There is no existing presentation of this subject that I know of, which makes it more difficult than it should be. My understanding of the topic draws on a dozen academic disciplines, each written in its own unnecessarily obscure code. Both my understanding, and the pedagogical structure I’m proposing, are tentative and incomplete.

Partly this presentation hopes to inspire some readers to pursue meta-systematicity; partly it is a plan for a large project that I hope to pursue myself; partly I hope you will give feedback, make suggestions, or contribute ideas to the project too!

Tribal, systematic, and fluid political understanding

You may possibly have noticed that politics is afflicted with irrational emotionalism, culture wars over meaningless symbols, and insane hostility between mutually-incomprehending tribes.

You may also have noticed that many who try to develop a more sophisticated and principled political stance often wind up arguing that some implausible system like communism or anarcho-capitalism would solve all the world’s problems.

You may have been tempted to reject politics altogether, as it seems a battle between blithering berserk baboons.

Here I aim to diagnose these three ailments, and to offer remedies. I draw on two conceptual frameworks: the Meaningness analysis of eternalism, nihilism, and the complete stance; and the adult developmental theory of Robert Kegan.

Renegotiating self and society

Christians against greed: protest rally
Image courtesy Ben Cumming

The failure of social and psychological systems propelled the 1960s-80s countercultures. Societies had required selves to conform to modern, unnatural systems of employment, government, and religion. These arrangements were invented and imposed with little regard for individuals or local communities.

They were founded on economic, political, and theological theories that were mainly abstract and rationalistic. They ignored innate human needs, desires, and proclivities. It’s a wonder they worked for as long as they did.

Hippies and Evangelicals: monist and dualist countercultures

Francis Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer, hippie guru and architect of the modern Religious Right

“The counterculture” generally refers to the youth movement of the 1960s-70s: rock and roll, anti-war protests, psychedelics, the New Left, hippies, and the sexual revolution. While puzzling out how these elements cohered—to understand the counterculture functionally and structurally—I had a peculiar realization.

A second movement shared “the” counterculture’s abstract features—its structure and function. Based in Christian Fundamentalism, it might be called “the Moral Majority,” after one of its main organizations. It too offered “a new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational system.” This was the same mode of relating to meaningness, even though its content was deliberately opposed to most of what the hippie counterculture stood for.

This page explains how these two countercultures adopted the stances of monism and dualism, respectively. This is key to understanding their workings, as detailed in later pages.

Both countercultures had broken up by 1990, but the current American culture war is fought from floating fragments of their wreckage. I believe that a better understanding of how the two countercultures related to each other, and how both relate to subsequent modes of meaningness, may help resolve unnecessary contemporary conflicts.



General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays, not part the book.

Subscribe to new content by email. Click on terms with dotted underlining to read a definition. The book is a work in progress; pages marked ⚒︎ are under construction.