Why I do what I do.
[10 minute read].
The pause in my writing as my new firm Sapient Capital went independent has given me some valuable time to think about what I’ve been trying to accomplish over the last few years.
Why do I write what I do for a wealth manager?
I get that question less often than you might suspect, but it’s one I often ask myself.
Sapient’s new motto is “We know what’s important.” It’s a tribute to the definition of wisdom as “knowing what information is important.”
I believe that stable personal foundations give us the priceless luxury of asking meaningful questions. Where we chose to direct our attention is equivalent to how we chose to spend our life. I am infinitely grateful that I’ve slowly grown an audience that seems to agree.
I think today’s topic is important and meaningful.
“What’s the Point?”
“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”- Oliver Wendell Holmes
A few months ago I promised that I’d explore the thrilling new worldview emerging from a community of thinkers at the frontier of contemporary science and philosophy.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been focused on distilling the thoughts of remarkable people like Dr. Iain McGilchrist, John Vervaeke, Bobby Azarian and Brett Andersen.
The least charitable interpretation is that this is all just nerds groping backwards to old spiritual truths using abstract terms and long words. But I now think that misses the point entirely.
This is my first attempt to simplify the message down to something I can understand. I also wanted to provide you with some exciting rabbit holes to explore yourselves.
What’s the point of anything?
The prevailing scientific worldview for the duration of my life has been that the universe is doomed to end in indifferent heat death. Our existence is a random accident resulting from a blind process of competitive trial-and-error. We are nothing more than a collection of atoms; “dancing dirt” that’s going to be around for the blink of an eye then be dead forever. We don’t matter.
This nihilistic worldview has contributed to a “meaning crisis” that is taking an extremely real toll on our lives, especially our children.
The problem is that our society can’t seem to go backwards to the belief systems that brought comfort to prior generations.
The really exciting realization emerging from this community of thinkers is that we don’t have to. This is because there is a new worldview unfolding that might finally help reconcile reductionist science with human meaning.
This is not some fresh fantasy we’ve concocted to explain things we don’t understand. It’s a more accurate and vibrant map of reality than the dangerously depressing one we’ve been using. I would go further and suggest that this model can give us extremely practical clues as to how to live a meaningful life as individuals.
What the point of the universe?
It turns out that perhaps we don’t really understand thermodynamics or evolution as well as we thought we did. If I interpret this new worldview correctly (and there’s no guarantee I do), the universe, and therefore evolution, increasingly seems to have a tendency to it. This direction is towards greater complexity.
The human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe. Brendan Graham Dempsey notes that the total “free energy rate density” is 0.5 for galaxies, 2 for stars, 75 for planets, 20,000 for animals and 150,000 for human brains! We’ve now connected all of our brains together, at a literally inconceivable pace, through tribes, societies, nations and now the Internet.
The more complex something is, the more conscious it becomes. The more conscious something becomes, the better it gets at extracting energy from its surroundings to combat entropy.
If you place a bacterium in a sugar solution it will “learn” to navigate itself towards the food source. We do the same thing, but on an infinitely more complex level. You do it every day when you decide where to get your salad for lunch. But if your colleague walks up to you and tells you the salad place is closed you can mentally reroute your way to another deli. That is a unique feature of consciousness! Holding a highly sophisticated map of the world in our heads allows us to extract the maximum amount of energy from our environment with the minimum amount of effort. As neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it:
“Just as the plant seeks sunlight and the bacteria seeks sugar, the brain seeks information. It tries to constantly change its circuitry to maximize the data it can draw from the world. To that end, it builds an internal model of the outside, which equates to its predictions. If the world proceeds as expected, the brain saves energy.”
What’s the point of our lives?
The propensity of evolution is to create increasingly complex systems.
That means if there’s one process worth exploring it’s how things get more complex. One of the big insights that came out of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory was that every stage of development transcends and includes the previous one (see the great article on “Holons” below). A complex system is one where the individual parts are differentiated, but it works as an integrated whole. Your body is full of an incomprehensible number of differentiated parts, but they come together to create something more than the sum of those parts: you. Molecules become cells, that become organs, that become people. The inclusion into an organ doesn’t destroy the cell in any way; it just becomes a part of something more complex.
Consider this article you’re reading right now. An individual letter “O” becomes a part of a WORD, that becomes part of a sentence, then a paragraph, then a story. The letter “O” completely retains its own integrity by being included in a word, but it also becomes part of an increasingly complex structure.
In evolution, we are each being drawn to become a completely unique letter, so that the whole story can become ever more complex. Instead of 26 letters to tell its story, the Earth has 8 billion. The more unique we get, the more complex the world gets. It’s an elegant idea!
Complex, interconnected groups create more opportunities for differentiation into niches specific to our unique skills. Finding these niches describes the nature of a positive-sum game, or a win-win. It follows that a healthy society is where each individual is maximizing their individual abilities, but in service of the whole. Within this context it’s easy to see why claiming our unique gifts and resisting conformity is central to every fairytale, Disney movie and modern myth. Myths encode the most important evolutionary instructions and evolution drives us to individuate and integrate.
Modern technology now provides us all the opportunity to seek that niche, and energy, in the impossibly massive landscape of the internet. We are now each connected to 5 billion other people, up from just 250 million people in 1999. The internet is our sugar solution. We are currently stumbling blindfolded through BY FAR the largest information supermarket in history. It’s still early, so we often get stuck gorging in the fast food aisle because we can’t find the fresh produce. But we will surely learn to use the tools associated with mass distraction for rocket-fueled personal evolution.
What’s the point in asking these questions?
Looking at where we are now as a society, the next stage of consciousness is currently transcending scientific reductionism, but including it in a new worldview that incorporates this mysterious drive towards greater complexity. It’s meaningful because it’s a model that places our own personal evolution at the center of the direction of the universe. And as the most complex known entities we are at the frontier of creation.
Moreover, like a butterfly in a typhoon, the perfectly integrated individual can also have a disproportionately massive impact on the whole system.
These emerging worldviews often carry slightly unwieldy names; Neoplatonism, Metamodernism, Emergentism. I’d prefer something like “The Endless Path.” It’s still pretty clunky, but at least it reflects the necessary transition in perspective from goal-oriented to process-oriented.
The direction of the path is relatively simple (which doesn’t mean walking it is easy).
Pursue information that makes you more conscious. This information has a higher energetic signature to it; it feels meaningful. It means orienting ourselves towards what we love. But this path requires a high tolerance for dissonance and discomfort. You need to be able to constantly adapt to new information. This pushes us through into the next level of more integrated, complex consciousness.
Within this worldview, what’s a meaningful pursuit? One path is amplifying information that helps others understand themselves and the universe. This means finding a way to use your unique skills to tell this new unfolding story to the world. Importantly- this also justifies the insatiable curiosity to ask these kinds of deep questions. The reward is the transformational simplicity beyond complexity, rather than the complacency of simplicity before complexity.
There’s a final idea worth considering here too. A dolphin or an eagle looks the way it does because it reflects the niche it has evolved to occupy. Our own attention directs us to the right energetic information to evolve us. Thus, in a very literal way, we become what we pay attention to. As we allocate the precious minutes of our lives, contemplating the source of all intelligence and meaning of the universe seems like a solid strategy.
What’s in it for me?
There is no known limit to how conscious we can become. Wisdom is an endless process of getting more effective at extracting energy without wasting energy.
Wisdom tightly correlates with flourishing, happiness, connectedness, and meaning. It’s precisely the tangible reward you would expect if the path was indeed the “point of evolution.” It’s an infinite game worth playing for its own sake.
“If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.”- Anatole France
Recommended Rabbit Holes.
- Essay & Podcast. Intimations of a New Worldview by Brett Andersen (90min read). As I’ve said many times, this essay is complex and long, but also the best thing I’ve read in years. Brett and I went onto Jim O’Shaughnessy’s Infinite Loops podcast in December to discuss (1hr 28min).
- “Human beings are at the pinnacle of the expression of complexification in the universe. This means that what we do actually matters in the grand scheme of things. We are not insignificant specks of dust in an indifferent universe. We are, instead, key players at the cutting edge of a participatory universe. To the extent that we enact and embody the process I have described in this essay, we are playing a non-trivial role in the ongoing creation and complexification of everything.”
- Book:The Romance of Reality by Bobby Azarian. A scientific exploration of all these ideas. I’d also recommend Bobby’s appearance on Joe Rogan last year (2hr 9min listen). I am simply not qualified to assess the scientific validity of these claims, but I appreciate the immense option value in considering them, as Bobby describes on his substack, The Road to Omega:
- If this emerging paradigm—which can be called the paradigm of emergence—suggests that life does in fact have cosmic significance and is not destined for transience, then that is a discovery that must be shouted from the rooftops. One could argue that it is a more profound paradigm shift than those associated with Newton and Darwin, because it places life at the center of everything, though It is actually an extension of the Darwinian paradigm, as it applies evolutionary logic to every scale of organization in nature, including the cosmos as a single system.
- Book:Emergentism by Brendan Graham Dempsey is an admirable attempt to turn this scientific worldview into a cultural movement. Bobby and Brendan discussed this in a podcast episode called The Awakening Universe (1 hour 54 minute listen). Brendan described the benefits of the path on a podcast with Jim Rutt:
- “It’s not just that you become more conscious and get more phi, you also become more free. You have higher degrees of freedom and agency. You are more powerful. There’s more energy coursing through my body.. we become more complex, more conscious, more free, but also more moral. Like the moral sensibility widens, the expanding scope of moral regard occurs through this process as well.
- Article.20 Tenets of Integral Theory by Sloww (22min read). This is a cracking guide to Ken Wilber’s audacious theory of everything. Obviously in an evolving universe no worldview can ever be final or complete, but Wilber’s focus on holons is incredibly valuable in the context of understanding the evolution of complexity. We are all holons, made of other holons and parts of larger holons!
- “The wholeness of the holon is not found in any of its parts, and that puts an end to a certain reductionistic frenzy that has plagued Western science virtually from its inception. Particularly with the systems sciences, the vivid realization has dawned: we live in a universe of creative emergence.”
- Podcast & Video Series. It was extremely gratifying to hear John Vervaeke on the very popular Tim Ferriss podcast recently (2hr 45min listen). I’ve consistently found Vervaeke to be the best contemporary thinker on wisdom. One of the struggles I had with his earlier work was that it was aimed at an exceptionally intellectual and conceptual level, with lots of references to dead philosophers and cognitive science terminology. But his latest video series After Socrates is structured around his “ecology of practices” to aid in your pursuit of wisdom. It’s a good starting place.
- “This is why I advocate very strongly for, and I was fortunate to be taught, an ecology of practices… practices that have complimentary strengths and weaknesses that are constantly checking each other and calling each other out and constraining each other and pointing out errors in each other like an ecology, how you have the checks and balances in a biological ecosystem. That is how it had a huge impact on how I try to cultivate wisdom and virtue and how I recommend to others how they should do it.”
- Article/Book. I get it. Even though it’s comfortably the best book I’ve ever read, only a small fraction of you are likely to tackle Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s 1,600 page masterpiece The Matter with Things. So I was excited to read this superb interview in Beshara magazine.
- “I believe this process is profoundly the purpose of the cosmos – to produce forever more individuated beings out of the whole that is One. And to do this without in any way threatening or impinging on the integrity of the whole. “
For blindingly obvious reasons my understanding of all this is flawed and evolving. All misrepresentations of the ideas of smarter people are my own. So please share your thoughts, criticisms and inspirations.