Creating a World Without Limits
[10 minute read, or an 8 minute listen here].
“The limit of my language is the limit of my world”.
John was growing weary of the Endless Cruise™. The original premise was incredible. Continually coasting around the South Pacific on a huge ship. John could work remotely and his wife and son were onboard with him. It was seventy degrees and sunny every single day. The upper decks had all the waterslides and rides that seem standard-issue on most cruise ships nowadays. Mealtimes were a gluttonous Vegas-style buffet. They had access to all the latest streaming shows and movies.
As he gained weight and wandered aimlessly between the distractions, John started to fantasize about leaving the cruise. But there was a problem. As the ship never docked in port, the only way off was jumping overboard while it was still moving. There was a whispered myth that a deep-sea current would sweep you up and carry you to a mysterious paradise island called “Nacirema.” A handful of passengers even claimed they’d been there. But nobody could ever confirm their stories and they looked a little too wild-eyed to be taken seriously.
Gradually the situation became more desperate. John’s health deteriorated. He suffered debilitating unexplained anxiety attacks. He was engulfed in a brain fog that stopped him from thinking or talking coherently. He had constant swirling pains across his entire body. And through it all he found he couldn’t stop thinking about Nacirema. He read every book he could find about it. He had to know if it was real.
One day he slipped away from the crowds. He walked to the back of the boat and climbed the railing. John looked down into the swirling navy sea, held his nose and plunged off the edge.
Overboard and Adrift
The impact knocked the breath out of him. At first the shock of the cold water was refreshing. He hadn’t felt anything but lukewarm comfort in years. As the ship obliviously chugged away, he laid back in a starfish position, closed his eyes and tried to feel the current. There was nothing. He was utterly alone. Panic crept over him.
Hours turned to days, days turned to weeks. The horizon was blank, and the boat was long gone. No planes ever passed overhead. John alternated between treading water and clutching at passing driftwood. The wood would always eventually rot and deteriorate, no longer holding his weight. He drank rainwater and ate anything curious enough to get too close. Sometimes he would even find rocky, barren islands. But there was never any food or vegetation, so he’d have to slide back into the sea or face certain starvation.
Instead of one obvious current leading straight to his salvation, there were hundreds ebbing and flowing. Every time he felt one that seemed stronger than the others he swam frantically with it. But his desperation meant his flailing always overwhelmed the gentle pull and he eventually lost the swell.
This went on for two years.
John was desperate and tired. He didn’t explicitly want to die, he just didn’t have the energy to swim anymore. By now he was sure the island was a myth. He’d been sold a lie. How could he have been so stupid!? He stopped fighting the current. He closed his eyes and let himself sink into the darkness.
When John awoke he felt warm sand on his cheek. There was a kindly woman standing over him, arms outstretched. “Welcome!” She said. John was on Nacirema.
It took him months to get his strength back. In the meantime the Naciremans taught him their language. They were an ancient, but highly sophisticated people. Their culture had access to technologies that far exceeded our own. But they were always used in service of their intrinsic, relentless curiosity. The Nacirema existed in a settled harmony with their environment. Their language hadn’t ever needed to marry science and spirituality, because the two had never been divorced. Nacireman was simply a more accurate description of our shared reality. They knew the world they inhabited was intelligent. The island could be interacted with and connected to. Their language allowed them to speak to it, and for it to speak back. It bestowed unexpected gifts upon them. Through learning their language John started to see this harmony unfold in his own life.
After a year he was back to full health. His life was truly idyllic: challenging, rewarding and energizing. He had forgotten what it was like to be bored. But he desperately missed his wife and son. And he felt a burning desire to tell the others on the cruise about what he’d learned on the island. He waved a tearful goodbye to the Naciremans. They blindfolded him and secretly dropped him back on the cruise under cover of night.
When he returned to his family, John was overjoyed. He started manically telling everyone the story of his journey. Some feigned polite interest, as they slowly backed away. When others asked him for simple instructions on how to get to the island he realised he had no idea. The current had only taken him there when he stopped fighting it. But he had retained the mindset, the calm joyfulness of the Nacirema. The problem was that there was no English equivalent for any Nacireman words. Everything he said was either a spiritual cliche or a dry scientific term.
“Try to work on an area where there’s no words for what it is that you do… When you are ahead of language, that means you are in a spot where it is more likely you are working on things that only you can do. It also means you won’t have much competition.”
– Kevin Kelly
Futurist Kevin Kelly has recently talked about the fact that the most interesting fields to work in, often exist before the language that’s needed to describe them. His advice to young people is to find work in those fields.
One of these areas is particularly exciting. There is a new synthesis of science and meaning emerging right now that holds the potential to be stunningly impactful. It can help alleviate our existential crisis. It can finally give us all a shared reality. It might even help return us to a place of stewardship and co-creation with our environment.
But the fundamental problem of this new worldview is that the necessary language for it doesn’t exist yet. Science is too dry and alienating, spirituality is vague and triggering.
We need to invent a “Nacireman” language.
The Western world is currently ruled by “left-brained” engineers, CEOs, politicians and intellectuals. But that also means a new temple of meaning built on scientific foundations will be stronger than anything we’ve ever built before. And it will be accessible to anyone.
This new worldview describes a two-way relationship with something we still don’t fully understand yet.
Wisdom, Belief, Hero, Creativity, Myth and Love are all words that are deeply misunderstood or insufficient (see the Appendix below). I’ve spent much of the last few years explaining why they’re so important, but “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” If you need to explain why a word doesn’t actually have the definition society typically uses, that word cant be all that useful!
These words are all misunderstood because they describe that relationship to something hidden-but-real outside of us. I call this something “the flow.”
They are “two-way” words:
- “Wisdom” is how well you orient yourself towards what’s important, but also how the flow signals that relevance back to you.
- “Belief” actually derives from the word for love. It’s not about accepting a fact, it’s about putting your faith in the flow but also having that faith justified.
- “Creativity” is about offering your gifts to the flow, but also seeing what you get in return.
- “Myth” communicates of the deeper truths of the flow but also shows you how to align with it.
- A “Hero” is someone has connected directly with the flow.
- “Love” is the force that connects us with the flow.
Obviously the biggest problem of all is how to describe “the flow” itself. This is where science falls short with cold, abstract terms like The Universe, Emergence, Complexity and Evolution. All of them are necessarily insufficient. “The flow” cannot be named because it is a process. More verb than noun. It is always changing, always evolving. It is mysterious and unpredictable by definition.
The entire purpose of language is attempting the most accurate communication of our shared reality. As they also flow, stories, poetry and metaphors have always been more effective than facts. There will always be a gap between language and reality. But closing that gap also takes us into closer relationship with reality.
As I wrote in my last piece, a new language might even give us intellectual permission to have the kind of direct experiences that change our lives. You’re learning the language of a world that’s constantly trying to speak back to you.
“You cannot enter a world for which you do not have the language.”
- Listen. Talking Billions with Bogumil Baranowski and Christopher Mayer- A Guide to Thinking Clearly About Wall Street (1 hour 12 minute listen).
- Why listen? This is an incredibly timely interview in the context of today’s topic. Chris Mayer introduced me to the field of General Semantics. He also made me think more deeply about leaving my language more open so my mind stays more open, for example by avoiding definitive superlatives like “everyone knows that.” For investing specifically, he makes the shrewd point that more and more assets are going into products with inaccurate labels. For example, when the underlying investments in a thematic ETF don’t actually reflect exposure to that theme. The gap between labels and reality is a significant source of investing alpha.
- Article.The Way of Mediocre Man by Paul Millerd (15 minute read). To me, Paul represents someone who has crossed the bridge and is describing life from the other side. He “speaks Nacireman”. This piece is a description of professional wu wei, effortless action. To me, a life like this is intrinsically desirable, it is living in “the flow.”
- People have a hard time believing that an attitude of lightness and ease can be compatible with work because they have so deeply internalized the idea that doing anything good must involve extreme effort.
- We have convinced far too many people to chase things that are not aligned with their ideal states of being, and it has robbed them of their own belief in their potential.
- Article. No One Turns to Science for Comfort by Dr. Mona Sobhani (11 minute read). Dr Sobhani’s work and her recent book (Proof of Spiritual Phenomena) is a profoundly valuable bridge. She’s a former rationalist neuroscientist whose own existential crisis connected her to something far deeper. This excellent article discusses how her prior persona needed the science to get to the spirituality. I do too.
- “The strict materialist scientist – required a long complex explanation of precisely how the Universe could be meaningful.”
Appendix- Old Words and New Definitions.
If you’re interested in some alternative ways to see these terms, here are some interpretations I’ve found meaningful.
Dictionary definition: “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.”
When people talk about creative work it often comes across like your fingerpainting hobby. Instead we should think about creativity as an attitude towards the world. It is intrinsically about using our unique gifts in service of the whole. What is critical to this definition is that the world rewards us for this act. It just tends to be in unexpected ways.
Dictionary definition: “an intense feeling of deep affection.”
One of my favourite [even possibly true] facts is that Sanskrit languages have 96 words for love. But in our culture we use the same word for people we are physically attracted to for the way we feel about our labrador. It’s problematic. But it’s more important than that.
In real life, evolutionary “emergence” feels like “love.” The heart is ubiquitously referred to as the organ of love. Why not the kidneys? Or the liver? My suspicion is that the heart’s literally central to this energetic orientation process.
The key point here is that love is relational and it represents a connection to an emergent force outside of us.
Dictionary definition: “a widely held but false belief or idea.”
The current usage is synonymous with fantasy or falsehood. Instead myths are what Erik Hoel has called “more real than real.” Myths encode generalised instructions using specific stories. The tightest single explanation I’ve read is from a short piece by Karen Armstrong:
A myth is an event which, in some sense, happened once, but which also happens all the time. Mythology points beyond the chaotic flux of historical events to what is timeless in human life, helping us to glimpse the stable core of reality.
Dictionary definition: “hold (something) as an opinion; think or suppose.”
I really struggled with this idea during my own nervous breakdown. I felt abandoned, forsaken. And my only way back to the world was through forcing myself to “believe” that a certain arrangement of events from 2,000 years ago had literally happened. A recent interview between Tim Ferris and John Vervaeke made me feel a lot less guilty for my failure to believe:
I’m a non-theist. And this is the idea that there are a shared set of presuppositions of modern theism. Ancient theism is a very different form of theism, but modern theism and modern atheism share presuppositions. And they go like this, something like God is the supreme being, the ultimate being, the super thing. And the best way to relate to God is by having beliefs about him/her/it. And that sacredness is to have true beliefs about this super being and to govern your life accordingly. And the theist and the atheist both agree to that definition.
And the theist says yes, and the atheist says no. And the non-theist says, “I reject all of those presuppositions.” I don’t think of ultimate reality as a thing… And that we can enter into a profound relationship with that no-thingness. Let me give you an analogy. I love my partner. She’s an amazing woman, and I’m fortunate to be with her. I do not think I will ever completely grasp or understand her because there is something about her that always is transcending herself and transcending my understanding of her. There is something in that sense properly mysterious about her. Any frame I put around her, she shines into it, but she also withdraws from it further into the mystery that she is. And that’s why I continue to fall in love with her, right? And so that mystery of no-thingness is something into which we can fall deeply in love.
Iain McGilchrist talks about how the word belief has roots in the word for love, not about the propositional knowledge of facts.
Nowadays belief is often viewed as simply a feeble form of knowing, as in “I believe (but am not certain) that the train leaves at 6:13.” But this has not always been the case. The word “belief” has nowhere buried in it the idea of signing up to a proposition, certain or uncertain. It is not a matter of cognition, but of recognition. It comes from the same root as the word “love,” a sense preserved in the now archaic word “lief,” familiar to us from Shakespeare, with which one once described one’s friend, sweetheart, or lord — someone in whom one believed.
Similar considerations apply to the German glauben (related to lieben, to love), and to the French croire and other derivatives of Latin credere, a word which meant originally to “entrust to the care of” (the sense lingers, in reduced fashion, in the idea of “credit”). Belief is about a relationship, in which by definition, more than one party is involved. The believer needs to be disposed to love, but the believed-in needs to inspire another’s belief. Whether this amounts to being worthy of that belief cannot be fully determined in advance. It emerges through commitment and experience. [Emphasis added].
This leads to another redefinition. The ‘religio’ Vervaeke proposes, as opposed to conventional religion, is a living path, not just a philosophy or a dogma. And the living path is an ‘ecology of practices’, geared toward flow, insight, and illumination—engaged in embodied more than propositional knowing.
Dictionary definition: “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”
We often think of heroes as the soldier storming a gun turret or a firefighter rescuing a child from a burning building.
The definition we should consider is instead of the person who has harmonised with the world. As Campbell said: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”