A World With No One In Control « how to save the world

A World With No One In Control « how to save the world.

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard

“There’s an implicit presumption, in everything the media reports on, in our whining about governments and elites and bosses, that as civilization culture has grown ever larger and more global, the power and control of those at the top of the pyramid has grown correspondingly larger, and that they’re still in control, still worthy of praise and re-election and multimillion dollar bonuses when things go right, and still worthy of blame and overthrow and opprobrium when things go wrong.

“But there’s plenty of evidence that if that ever was the case, it isn’t the case now. One of the key attributes of complex systems is that, unlike merely complicated ones, because of the huge number of variables and moving parts and interactions and effects between and among them, we can never hope to understand what’s really going on in them, or predict or significantly influence what happens in them. They become larger and larger black boxes, ever more mysterious, until suddenly they produce great depressions, peak oil and runaway climate change, and no one knows how, or why, or how to mitigate or change them. Like Charles Barsotti’s cartoon above says, in complex systems nobody knows anything. And no one is in control.”  Read the rest…

[I agree with most of Dave’s epiphany about complexity, but another aspect of reality is proximity–we do know a little about a little, and we can predict or control a little about a little. So there is a place for small hopes and puny efforts, even in the context of the grand complexity and absurdity which Dave Pollard portrays most eloquently. The ego that wants to control or save the whole world is the same one that wants to renounce the world and absolve itself of all duty and responsibility. –PR]

:: Pema Chodron – On Shenpa :: (being “hooked”)

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xTopia

The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden) by Hieronymus Bosch. (Wikimedia) (Note: You can click the image, then click again on the image in the new window for a VERY magnified view)

“Welcome to your introductory tour of xTopia University.”

The emphasis of xTopia U is on the YOU— the student, faculty member, staff person, or other valued member of the xTopia University community!

My name is Podkayne and I was born here on campus, in the xTopia U-Natorium! And I’ve lived here all my life–15 years (that’s a bit over eight Martian years)!

Visitor #6: Podkayne, if you were born and raised here, and you’ve been in this place all your life, don’t you ever want to get away from it?

Podkayne: Oh, I like to explore other places, but I always want to come home to University. I feel more alive here than anywhere I’ve ever been. We are told that our project was named University because our purpose is to facilitate a universe of possibilities. xTopia University started as one of those possibilities, a project conceived and carried out by, for, and of a conscious community of artists, engineers, scientists and philosophers. I grew up in this community, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

We learn in the histories, and know that in many places still today, education has been separated from general life, often made compulsory and relegated to specific times, places and procedures. Corporations took on the tasks of research and product development for a profit, while politicians were responsible to craft projects of benefit to the community. At University projects are constantly being started, executed, sent out to find those who can now benefit from what has been accomplished. Someone or ones snag onto an idea and start to figure out the steps from here to there. A call is given out to anyone who is interested or has relevant skills to join in. We learn what we need to know each step of the way and bring in others as the project progresses. We have the background structure of xTopia University to draw upon, where learning of all kinds is constantly in session.

From the time I was very young, from my first moments of remembered consciousness, I knew any of my questions would find serious response at University. There are the libraries, record chips of any subject imaginable, everything explained from the simplest child’s vantage point up through the most learned of scholars in the field, fully illustrated in animation and live action, as appropriate. More importantly, there are the people, the scholars, engineers, scientists, artists, each with their passions that they are so very happy to share.

University is the busiest, bubbliest, energized and enthusiastic environment to grow in. No one says: “it can’t be done.” It’s always: “well, what’s the next step we need to get there?”

Well, are you guys ready to get started?

[Nods, grins, eager murmurs, and a few blank stares]

OK. But before we actually start the tour, I want to give you some background on the beautiful and somewhat exotic  name of our alma mater. (BTW that’s Latin for our bountiful mother.)

If you don’t have your Google-eyes on, please put them on now so you’ll get the video and hyperlinks and stuff as I talk.

Ready? OK. The name of xTopia U is derived (obviously) from the word Utopia.

Sir Thomas More coined the word from the Greek οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”), or “no place” for the title of his 1516 book.

The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (“good” or “well”)  and τόπος (“place”), means “good place”. The identical English pronunciation of “utopia” and “eutopia”, gives rise to a double meaning– a good place that is no place.

Thus a Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect social, political, economic and legal system . . . that doesn’t exist.

Utopian societies don’t exist on terra firma, either because they are places described only in works of philosophy, fantasy, or satire; or because the Utopian communities which have actually been founded from time to time here on planet earth have utterly failed to thrive or to persist.

“Chronologically, the first recorded utopian proposal is Plato‘s Republic. Part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, it proposes a categorization of citizens into a rigid class structure of “golden,” “silver,” “bronze” and “iron” socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the “philosopher-kings.” The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear.”(Wikipedia/Utopia)

Utopias in Economyland

Among the many varied species of Homo Utopianus, some have invented perfect economic systems that never existed, or which existed in humanity’s distant, romanticized past.

“[C]apitalist utopias do not address the issue of market failure, any more than socialist utopias address the issue of planning failure. Thus a blend of socialism and capitalism is seen by some as the type of economy in a utopia. . . .  According to the Dutch philosopher Marius de Geus, ecological utopias could be sources of inspiration for green political movements.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Holy Utopia!

Yet other Utopian visions have been based on religion, science, or a combination of both.

“Inter-religious utopia is a condition where the leaders of different religions accept science as a part of human life and agree to abolish all baseless superstitious beliefs. In more extended theories it goes up to the level of different religious leaders setting-aside their differences and accepting harmony, peace and understanding to unite all religions within one another. . . .

“Intra-Religious utopias are based on religious ideals, and are to date those most commonly found in human society. Their members are usually required to follow and believe in the particular religious tradition that established the utopia. Some permit non-believers or non-adherents to take up residence within them; others (such as the Community at Qumran) do not. . . . In the United States and Europe during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century and thereafter, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which all aspects of people’s lives could be governed by their faith. Among the best-known of these utopian societies were the Shakers . . . . (Wikipedia/Utopia)

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Scientific Utopias are set in a future day when science and technology have created all manner of wonders and cured all human maladies.

“Buckminster Fuller presented a theoretical basis for technological utopianism and set out to develop a variety of technologies ranging from maps to designs for cars and houses which might lead to the development of such a utopia.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Extropianism, also referred to as the philosophy of Extropy, is an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition.

“Extropianism describes a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactive approach to human evolution and progress.

“Originated by a set of principles developed by Dr. Max More, The Principles of Extropy,[1] extropian thinking places strong emphasis on rational thinking and practical optimism.

In 1988, Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought was first published. This brought together thinkers with interests in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, life extension, mind uploading, idea futures, robotics, space exploration, memetics, and the politics and economics of transhumanism.” (Wikipedia/Extropianism)

Where does xTopia University fit in all this?

We have taken this historical sidetrack so I can put xTopia U in context and explain what it is and is not. It is not a Utopia. It is not based on a preconceived idea of perfection. There is no preset formula, blueprint, or master plan. Instead, the ongoing evolution of xTopia University is symbolically represented by the mathematical variable “x”, which also stands for “experimentation“.

“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake)

But xTopia is not a single experiment– it is an evolving place and resource base through which we cultivate an endlessly-developing and diversifying ecosystem of experiments, observations, discoveries, connections, and production processes. One metaphor for this physical and intellectual ecosystem and its ever-spreading,  interweaving networks of roots, branches, and nodes is the great Tree of Life.

Yggdrasil – The Tree of Life (Wikipedia)

The scientific method and the art of empirical experimentation was first pioneered in ancient times by gifted individuals. It gradually developed into a systematized and teachable craft, and then evolved into a science and a technology. I don’t refer to technologies employed within particular experimental fields but to the evolving and recursive science and technology of experimentation itself. By experimenting on experimentation xTopia extends the science of science. At xTopia, continuous improvement applies to the methods as well as to the products of science.

On the other hand, from the outside xTopia doesn’t look or act much differently from other communities centered around a large college or land-grant university. In ancient Rome a collegium  was roughly analogous to a corporation, a club or society, or a group of persons living together under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”).

“Land-grant universities …are institutions of higher education in the United States designated by each state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering (though “without excluding … classical studies”), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on [Religious or] abstract Liberal Arts curricula. Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities. However, some land-grant colleges are private schools, including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” (Wikipedia)

In addition, xTopia U has intentionally copied many of the features of the University of Virginia, the school established in 1819 by the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. More than 200 years later UVA is still considered one of the best universities in the US.

University of Virginia (Wikipedia)

On January 18, 1800, Thomas Jefferson…alluded to plans for a new college in a letter written to British scientist Joseph Priestley: “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

Other universities of the day allowed only three choices of specialization: Medicine, Law, and Religion, but under Jefferson’s guidance, the University of Virginia became the first in the United States to allow specializations in such diverse fields as Astronomy, Architecture, Botany, Philosophy, and Political Science. Jefferson explained, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

(Wikipedia/University of Virginia)

Keep that last sentence in mind. I’ll be coming back to that after I say just a little more about Jefferson’s approach at UVA.

Jefferson centered UVA around the “Academical Village” consisting of a vast, terraced green surrounded first by the residential and academic buildings and then by the gardens, The Range, and the larger university. The common bonding of faculty and students in residency is considered integral to establishing peer discourse. And of course Jefferson’s university was originally surrounded by extensive lands which provided local sources for many of the economic necessities of life.  xTopia U is  fortunate to have adequate land holdings of our own. When we purchased our campus (then it was called the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) from The State in 2019, we were able to acquire nearly 22,000 additional acres surrounding the property. Much of the area around xTopia U still remains largely undeveloped and rural. In addition to the pre-existing towns nearby, a number of Eco-villages have grown up around us.

In all these ways xTopia U is very similar to Jefferson’s vision which in some respects may have been a pretty darn good approximation of a Utopia. The big difference is that xTopia might have started in almost any arbitrary configuration because its core principle is innovation, adaptation, and evolution. It doesn’t hurt to start with a great foundation, but the emphasis is not on a preexisting design–the emphasis is on continuous improvement.

Colleges and schools

xTopia’s initial organization was patterned after Jefferson’s UVA in the arrangement of its colleges and schools.

  • College of Liberal Arts
  • College of Arts & Sciences
  • School of Architecture
  • School of Business Administration
  • School of Commerce
  • School of Continuing and Professional Studies
  • School of Education
  • School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • School of Law
  • School of Medicine
  • School of Nursing
  • School of Leadership and Public Policy
  • Center for Chemistry of the Universe and Radio Astronomy Observatory

Of course we continuously extend and improve all the curricula and add new schools and centers of our own design which I will go into a little later on.

Now, when The State put Alabama A & M up for sale it was a historically black university with a lot of history. It was originally established by an act of the Alabama State Legislature in 1873 as the State Normal School and University for the Education of the Colored Teachers and Students. By the time it was purchased by us, it had about 6,000 undergraduates and graduate students from 44 states and 11 countries and a faculty of about 300. Quite a few of the A&M faculty and staff are still here at xTopia U, but now there are about 10,000 students, 2,000 faculty, 5,000 people on staff, and about 10,000 other independent free-lancers and family members in residence. The folks here now are of every imaginable ethnic, cultural, and national origin.

We’ve done a lot of new construction but we also retained some of the original Alabama A&M facilities. The original Learning Resources Center is a 75,000-square-foot building with over 50,000 real paper books. There were originally half a million hard-copy books in there but we had to get rid of most of them to make room for the necessary digital equipment and facilities  like the interactive Distance Learning Auditorium and the conference rooms, study lounges, labs, multimedia production studios, etc. We also kept:

  • The State Black Archives Research Center and Museum, housed in the James H. Wilson Building, a national registered historical structure.
  • The Small Business Development Center (now specializing in incubating Co-operative enterprises)
  • The Agribition Center, designed to host almost any kind of event, including trade shows and agricultural events.
  • The Campus Health and Wellness Center
  • Louis Crews Stadium is now the home of the xTopian Olympic Association and the Better Angels Football Club. The multi-purpose stadium seats 21,000 and is the sixth largest stadium in Alabama.

Credit: Wikipedia

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System which was based here when we bought the school back in 2019 is still here working in partnership with xTopia U. They work with our scientists, farmers, and foresters on developing and testing sustainable, organic practices and providing research, education, and technical services around the world. We are a major permaculture center and there are so many other sustainable and ecology things I don’t even have time to talk about it on the tour. You can get the details that interest you online.

Solar Power Station (Wikipedia)

We have also added some things Jefferson’s UVA or Alabama A&M never dreamed of. We have two concentrating solar-thermal power stations that supply all the power for the campus. We produce the bulk of our own food and forestry products. We have our own water wells and rainwater catchment systems. We have a variety of cottage industries and light manufacturing facilities that make things like electric vehicles, solar roofing tiles, and photovoltaic films and coatings.

xTopia has become a leader in the production of ethanol from grasses and waste cellulose. We not only sell ethanol in our local market but we also export our ethanol technology around the world.

Visitor #2: “My brother in law is a rocket scientist, and he told me it takes more energy to make ethanol that you can get out of it.”

(Rolling her eyes) We don’t have time to get into that side track right now, but when you get a chance, look at this debate between Doubting Thomas and my father, Poor Richard: Fermenting the Ethanol Debate.

Democratic Economics

A large number of xTopians from many disciplines participate in R&D for sustainable, ecological economic models. Consistent with our experimental approach to everything, we test a hypothesis with controlled trials in real-world situations. We often experiment on ourselves because the entire xTopia campus is a laboratory, wired for massive data collection, and we carry on a wide variety of economic activities that provide convenient test-beds for new ideas. (For a quick intro to sustainable, scientific economics, check this link: Escape from the Planet of the Economists.)

xTopia is, in part, a federation of co-operatives.  Many of xTopia’s tangible and intangible assets are collectively owned by  members of its cooperatives. In many cases workers participate in collective bargaining, although in some cases (such as certain xTopia faculty and staff positions) the pay scale is computed according to an algorithm (I’ll explain in just one minute).

A janitor who has worked at xTopia for 10 years may earn considerably more than a janitor in the mainstream economy, so many people might want to compete for the job. What keeps xTopia from firing a highly paid janitor and replacing her with a low-paid janitor? Something akin to a tenure policy. Most xTopia labor contracts permit firing only for “just cause” as determined by democratically governed labor councils of working xTopia peers. Labor councils also deal with issues of labor standards, job descriptions, workplace conditions, etc.

Although our experimental orientation leads to a lot of diversity, fringe benefits are often provided through member-funded mutual benefit associations. A fringe benefit that everyone loves is the sabbatical. For every five years I work, I get a year of paid leave. We consider this as much a benefit to the community as to the individual.

xTopia is a also a leader in the development of alternative and complementary currencies and banking methods. Many xTopia members and contractors who work with xTopia have agreed to be compensated in xTopia Happy Hours (HH) for their labor. Several coops use a scheme in which each hour worked earns one HH (plus an additional .00033HH times the total cumulative number of hours a person has worked for xTopia in their lifetime), up to a maximum hourly rate of 30 times the hourly rate of the lowest paid member,  regardless of the nature of work performed. Thus each successive hour worked earns slightly more HH than the hour before, and the rate doubles approximately every three years (6,000 hours). The maximum rate is reached in about 15 years.

Additional HHs may be paid for certain finished products, goods, or services over and above the labor involved. These rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. HH credits can be exchanged for a great variety goods and services on the xTopia campus, at many places in the surrounding communities, and at numerous sites online.

Naturally other schemes are constantly emerging and evolving as much (or more) through trial and error as by design.

(BTW, at xTopia U we are constantly developing the art, craft, and science of the experimental method itself. In other words, we even experiment with the process of experimentation, so new and different experimental methods and styles are always emerging and evolving here.)

Advanced Social R&D

The last thing I’ll include in this part of the tour is just a brief mention of some of xTopia’s unique social R&D centers. In addition to basic research, these centers help to develop new pedagogic methods and curricula and provide guidance for public policy:

  • The Center for Intentional Community
  • Center for Cognitive, Social, and Cultural Re-engineering
  • Center for Self-Study (study of, by, and for the self)
  • Center for Ecological Economics and Re-localization
  • The Center for Open Source Government and Culture
  • Center for Peer-to-Peer Process and Organization (C3PO)
  • Center for Social Entrepreneurship

So that’s the bird’s eye view of the xTopia campus with some of our history and organization in the physical sense.

The xTopia approach

The group that started xTopia, including my father, Poor Richard, came from many walks of life: Occupy Wall Street, MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, The Wikipedia Foundation, Google, the Integral Institute, the AHA! Foundation, the Gurdjieff Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, and too many others to list. They were a community of collaborators with expertise in psychology, linguistics, media studies, education, neuroscience, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, and innovation design.

A few minutes ago I quoted Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” That’s really the key to xTopia U. We don’t know what a Utopia might look like or how it might work, but here we are working towards a happy and sustainable future, as close as we can come to Utopia perhaps, one day and one experiment at a time. You might say its an enlightened trial and error approach.

Of course we always have lots of experiments going on all at once. Its a massively parallel multiplayer game. And almost everyone here at xTopia is a volunteer guinea pig, including the faculty and the families. Every school, college, research center, and every other organization and individual on campus is both a conductor of research and a subject of research. At the same time that we study math or science or music, or work in the labs, farms, or other facilities, we also study ourselves. We capture, analyze, and experiment with everything about ourselves– everything we do, everything we say, and a lot of what we think and feel– all the time.

This approach evolved out of various “Extreme Life Logging” projects back in the 2000’s. In 2003 it was estimated that as much new data was being generated about every two days as had been accumulated in all of history up to that year. By 2015, the rate of accumulation reached about 8 zettabytes (1 ZB = 10^21 bytes) per year, or about 18 million times the total digital assets held by the Library of Congress just five years earlier. At our current logging rates the xTopia community is generating that much new data on a monthly basis.

Such volumes would have been utterly toxic to the Metanet 20 years ago, yet it was the expanding “data deluge” (or “Great Flood”)  that initially lead to major advances in artificial intelligence and turned the scientific method on its head for about a decade while machine learning systems churned through growing backlogs of undigested data. This was called the Fourth Paradigm of Science. In those days about the only “science” that could get funded in the Corporate States of America was experimental data mining methodology and new human-readable presentation techniques. Until fairly recently the financial return on investment for improvements in data utilization remained orders of magnitude higher than for data collection.

The Virtual xTopia

The Google-eyes we use here are our own special design. We call them “peepers”. They do all the things your regular Google-eyes do and a lot more. They constantly record what I look at and what I say, and they record my brainwaves,  blood pressure, pulse, temperature, galvanic skin resistance, and lots of other bio-metric stuff. We call it the quantified self. They also record things going on around me for context.

Visitor #5: “Don’t you ever have any privacy, Podcayne? It sounds like Big Brother is always watching. How can you stand that?”

It isn’t like that, really. All the information my peepers collect is psuedo-anonymized. That is, recorded under an encrypted account. The audio and video that is collected of me, and other people around me, is stored in a way that protects the real identities. If a scientist views the data from my peepers today, or from any of the other millions of recording devices around campus, she will see and hear realistic, computer-generated, anonymous avatars instead of seeing and hearing the actual people. The body language, facial micro-expressions, voice metrics, bio-metrics, etc. will be equivalent but she won’t be able to identify the actual people involved unless she has access to the encrypted reference data in someone’s personal profile to compare it with. That personalized data is very carefully protected, and personal identities can only be accessed and used with each person’s permission. I’m sending your Google-eys some of the computer-rendered video of us right now so you can see what its like.

Visitor #8: “Wow, Podcayne. I love your costume!”

(Grinning) Thanks! I designed that Avatar myself.

Visitor #1: “Doesn’t that give away your identity, then?”

Only to you guys right now and other people who know me and know how I have customized my avatars. A lot of us do it. But our customized avatars are only used when and in ways we allow.

BTW our hypergrid is the best three-dimensional virtual world in the known virtual universe. Its a lot like the Star Trek holodeck, but with our peepers we access it from anywhere. We use it for recreation, research, and education. We have a hypergrid version of the whole campus, and most of our distance learning is done “in-world”.  After our tour is over, you’ll be able to continue exploring xTopia U in-world all you like.

Visitor #1: “Hey, I look like a dork!”

Podcayne looks at an image that her peepers project on the floor and makes a few gestures: How’s that?

Visitor #1: “Ahh, sick! Thanks.”

With virtual reality we do a lot more than teaching and learning (or goofing off). Its more like coaching, training, and practicing. There is only so much you can get from a text or a lecture. You sure can’t learn how to play basketball from a book.  But with VR we can put you on location and in the action. You don’t just get information, you develop skills. One of my favorite xTopia massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) is the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The whole setting, including the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the surrounding area of 1482 Paris, represents the landscape of the mind. All the characters are potentially parts of your own identity. Playing roles in the game helps you to to see yourself in others and others in yourself.

For kids of all ages we have some fun things like the Virtual Fables. These are based on classic fairy tales and folk tales like Aesop’s Fables, Tales of Br’er Rabbit, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One of our most popular games is Animal Farm 2.0, based on George Orwell’s classic allegory. The players can become any of the characters in the stories. The stories that we select to make into games all have important morals, lessons, cognitive skills, or social skills for the players to discover and practice.

Our role-play games all give individualized feedback on the players’ social and cognitive skills, cognitive biases, implicit associations, etc. This feedback helps players develop skills and capabilities very rapidly.

xTopia’s secret sauce

That brings me to the point where I can explain the special mission of xTopia U. The recipe of our secret sauce: self awareness. xTopia is founded on the belief that humanity does not face a crisis of the environment or energy or population or even a lack of ideas. Technical solutions to our economic, political, and environmental problems have been sitting unused on the shelf for a long time. Instead, humanity faces a crisis of human nature.

Human nature is a product of evolution. The Origins of Human Nature are found in the evolutionary contest between individual and group selection. We also have a lot of cognitive idiosyncrasies, such a tendency towards certain kinds of predictable irrationality.

Human culture has always evolved more rapidly than our anatomy. But even the rapid progress of our culture in the past few centuries has begun to fall behind the pace of changes and challenges we now face in our crowded societies and  our ravaged environment. Rather than rising to meet these challenges, our social institutions show signs of actually breaking down and becoming less effective. Increasing competition over land, water, food, and other resources is likely to favor increasingly authoritarian institutions. While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of highly authoritarian corporate neofeudalism (privatized government).

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Paul Gauguin

Faced with such prospects, some of us should be choosing to explore the boundaries of the brain’s ability to examine and extend itself and to accelerate the evolution of culture with the same kind of intensity and effort that it takes for the military occupation of the Middle East or sending a spacecraft to the Moon.

If we live or work together long enough and closely enough we may begin to establish what we call human broadband connections. This may evolve further as we keep house, interact with nature, travel, solve problems, share adventures, meet challenges and survive crises together, until we can finish each others sentences. We are beginning to realize that such intimacy can gradually change the chemistry and structure of the nervous system and allow for progressively increasing inter-personal communication bandwidth and synchronization. One example is menstrual synchrony.

Neural connections in the brain – bigthink.com

Some might consider this an interpersonal spiritual connection, but it is a natural phenomenon that we call bio-cognitive development (bio-cognitive = body + brain) and psycho-neuro-synchronization.

To achieve continuous improvement and positive quality control, we systematize and instrument our intentional community of self-study and self-development. We consciously formalize our group dynamics in a context of systems science and rigorous experimental design.

In addition to the shared activities mentioned above, some of the possible tools and techniques for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization include:

These and many other tools can be used for increasing adult brain plasticity and promoting emotional and physiological states that enhance learning, memory, and neural network integration. Conducted in groups they can also promote  psycho-neuro-synchronization and bio-cognitive group intimacy.

“Self Observation”

All this provides a matrix for accelerated cultural and cognitive evolution that is independent of gross  brain anatomy. (Lets face it, we aren’t getting bigger brains any time soon.)  Nonetheless, there is good reason to hope that radical self-knowledge, bio-cognitive development,  neuro-physiological practice, and psycho-neuro-synchronization may all work together to promote developmental changes in the brain’s micro-structure and its operational patterns. In other words we can re-engineer and re-program the brain’s operating system and its “apps”, even though much of all that is unconscious. We can try to examine and consciously modify various aspects of our irrationality, automaticity, implicit associations, cognitive biases, etc. With all these tools and techniques we may have a shot at developing a kind of persistent group consciousness capable of hosting perceptions and representations of reality and establishing behavioral innovations and capabilities well beyond the confines of the mainstream culture and language.

Micro-cultural Exchange

We need a diversity of experimental colleges and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

“Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”)” (Wikipedia: college)

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, at xTopia U we see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard

[Portions of Podkayne’s dialog by libramoon.]

Related PRA 2010 topics:

Additional Resources:

a quiet revolution unfolds

Virtual Worlds, Avatars, free 3D chat, online meetings in Second Life

RSA Animate – The Power of Networks (YouTube)

Atheism 2.0

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Alain de Botton is a philosopher with some very constructive suggestions for improving secular society by selectively plucking  useful heirlooms from the traditions, practices and organizations of religion while leaving the rest. He surveys the cultural and social capital of three major religions– Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism– and suggests some assets worth salvaging.

Leeds Student Radio Web page article about the...

(credit: Wikipedia)

Botton isn’t asking atheists and agnostics to kiss and make up with religion. He is a non-believer. He may not be the confrontational type, but he’s no double agent with a secret religious agenda, as some atheists might fear. His mission is to initiate a humanistic renaissance in secular society that will bring us up to speed in some areas where religions may have superior social and cultural know-how.

“The starting point of all religions is that humans are weak and vulnerable and needing direction, but as I look at secular society, I see how we’ve been abandoned to make our own way through life and how challenging that is.”

“Religion has a lot to say about how to live and love, caring for others, handling suffering, dealing with death and all the other universal experiences that make us human.”
“The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.”

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Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it—because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.(Amazon.com)

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Religion for Atheists

“It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.”

Note: I have not read the book (so it could be awesome or awful), but based on the interviews and articles below, I like this guy. I think he is measured, pragmatic, and non-polemical; and he has one of the most constructive arguments I’ve heard in a very long time.  It strikes me that the approach taken by Botton could go a long way towards ratcheting down the hostility between atheists, agnostics, and our superstitious brothers and sisters :). It is the kind of thing that might be a useful balm for folks in the Occupy and 99% movements who struggle to maintain solidarity with each other despite differences that are sometimes deeply rooted.

Interviews

My favorite interview is from C-SPAN’s Book TV. You can view the whole 58-minute  After Words interview with Chris Hedges here or watch a ten-minute segment below, followed by other interviews from You Tube.

BookTV: Alain de Botton and Chris Hedges

Alain de Botton on atheism 2.0 and what secular ideologies can learn from religion

Alain de Botton: Religion for Atheists

Philosopher and author Alain de Botton says non-believers can learn a lot from religion – without believing in God.

1. Believers 2. Religion 3. Atheists 4. Science

1. Believers 2. Religion 3. Atheists 4. Science

 

Normal Schnormal

The older I get, the crazier I realize that I am. Despite some evidence that I am getting smarter at peeling back layers of reality and seeing more of the big picture, the more clearly I see myself, the worse I appear in my mental bathroom mirror– full of neuroses, false narratives, revised memories, self-deceptions, obsessions and compulsions, unconscious associations, and cognitive biases.

If I’m right that each age and each age group suffers from its own set of individual and collective self-delusions, the only rational behavior would be for all of us to abandon our faith in normality, whatever we currently think it is, and work together in multi-generational, multi-disciplinary groups to re-explore the world and to prospect for new nuggets and veins of reality together.

Homer statue at the University of Virginia

Homer statue at the University of Virginia (Image via Wikipedia)

Prospecting for reality…

I think this is what Thomas Jefferson hoped would happen at the University he established. He doubted the value of simply handing out degrees as certificates of competence. He wanted to create an ongoing, living experiment–a diverse demographic of people living and laboring together in a common cause: questioning normality and learning something new about reality every day. I don’t think the University of Virginia has lived up to that hope over time, but time isn’t all over and done, yet.

When I suggest abandoning normality, I’m not proposing anarchy. I’m really talking about “beginner’s mind“. Of course, there may be some babes worth saving from the dingy bath water of normality and tradition. But normality is  missing something we need to keep the whole bathtub from going over a cliff: We need a diversity of experimental colleges* and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, I see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard

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* “Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”); indeed, some colleges call their members “fellows”.” (Wikipedia: college)

Related PRA 2010 posts:

The beginning of wisdom 3.0

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece (Image via Wikipedia)

According to the Bible’s Psalms and Proverbs, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Solomon expresses a similar sentiment in the book of Ecclesiastes.

But long before the Bible was written, the greatest men and women in ancient times (times in which travel could be difficult and dangerous) journeyed from all over the world to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi seeking answers to their most burning questions.

Over the door of the temple they found the inscription “Know thyself”.

“Know Thyself”

The phrase “Know thyself” has been attributed to Pythagoras, Socrates, and a number of other Greek sages, but it is thought to have originated in pre-history, perhaps from the time of the Mother Goddess and the Gaia religion. It has been found in many other places, including ancient Icelandic runes.

In fact, it has been suggested that this phrase sums up the whole of ancient philosophy.

What does it mean?

The implication of the inscription’s exact placement above the entrance to the Temple at Delphi is perhaps that self-knowledge is a pre-condition to all further knowledge. In other words, “Know thyself before thou entereth in here and bother the Oracle.”  Without meeting that prerequisite, further inquiry may be pointless. You just might be wasting the Oracle’s precious time and your own.

The seat of consciousness? (Click image for full size)

But what is self-knowledge and how is it obtained? What is the self? Is it the body, the mind, the soul, or is it all of these? At least in the case of the ancient philosophers it was probably a combination of all three. The distinctions were not as clearly drawn then as they can be today. However, in the context of our modern perspective, it may be safe to say that the ancients were not really talking about knowing human anatomy. It is more likely that they were thinking about consciousness.  People still differ about the “seat of consciousness”, whether it be the soul, the brain, the universe, or any number of other things.

According to modern opinion, human beings (homo sapiens, from the latin “wise man” or “knowing man”) are thought to be self-aware by nature. Is this natural self-awareness the same as self-knowledge? Surely the whole of ancient philosophy would not be dedicated to exhorting the need for something that all human beings already possessed!

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but how many of us really knows how to examine our lives? I think we assume we’d know how to do that if we chose to, but do we? The brain evolved in some very idiosyncratic ways, and self-examination was apparently not high on the to do list for natural selection.

Nevertheless, we modern humans, especially the best and brightest of us, tend to assume that our own personal self-knowledge is something we come by automatically in the course of all our experience and all our spontaneous and natural thoughts and feelings about ourselves. 

The small percentage of us who have studied psychology or participated in some kind of psychological counseling or therapy(such as Freudian analysis, aroma therapy, or the currently popular cognitive behavioral therapy) tend to assume that we are especially knowledgeable about ourselves. We may even have become self-conscious.

“Self Observation”

On the other hand, the really sophisticated philosophers among us (we know who we are) may believe that self-examination, self-observation, introspection, mindfulness, meditation, and other forms of psychological mindedness prescribe specific kinds of education, work, or practice that one must pursue in order to acquire greater insight into and mastery of the workings of ones own mind.

Those willing to explore the outer limits of knowledge may also believe that a guru, an extraterrestrial intelligence, or an altered state of consciousness has conferred special self-knowledge upon them mystically.

Some may have come by their heightened self-insight chemically.

Though having belonged at some time or another to all of the above groups,  I have recently settled down to the more pedantic pursuit of following the research on cognitive neuroscience.

“fMRI Brain”

Be all that as it may, however, what all of the above paths to self-knowledge tend to have in common is the problem of motivation and discipline, or the lack of it. So I was delighted with myself when I hit upon the following idea: what if the video game industry could be induced to produce exciting, psychologically addictive video games based on some or all of the above methods for increasing self-knowledge?

Lo and behold a few days later I accidentally found this:

The “Know Thyself” game

A Lost Soul. An Unruly Subconscious. A Second Chance. A Role-Playing Game.

What if you were suddenly without any memories, held in a dream prison by your own subconscious, and the only hint you have of who you might be is a single statement repeated over and over in your head?

Know Thyself is a game for three to five players for an evening’s entertainment. One person plays an amnesiac in a fever dream hell and the others play that person’s subconscious & people from their past. The game features bizarre, unreal play due to a special deck of playing cards.

This is not actually a video game, and there are no photo-realistic, kick-ass action avatars, but it seems like a small step in that direction. For more information (but not much) see Tomorrow the World Games.

Could this at last be the true philosopher’s stone, the long sought-after secret to transforming unemployed couch potatoes into enlightened beings, the key to awakening the dormant wisdom we need to save the world?

First there was the beginning of innate, natural wisdom in human pre-history, the first dawning of wisdom in the world (beginning of wisdom 1.0). Then there was the beginning of conscious, formal wisdom in individual cognitive development and human culture (beginning of wisdom 2.0). Now begins the promulgation of that most radical and fundamental form of wisdom, self-knowledge, by the new and improved process of electronic video game addiction (beginning of wisdom 3.0).

Video games that promote self-examination and good mental hygiene? Gee whizz, Batman! That could be the beginning of a whole new age of wisdom and enlightenment for humanity.

The current “Known Universe” of video games is relatively flat…

Go now and carry this eureka-quality epiphany to the four corners of the video game world!

Poor Richard

ADDENDUM 9/15/2010

In reply to a post called

______________________________

Mind change – a moral choice?

______________________________

at the Open Parachute blog , I posted the following comment:

In “The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0” I argue that brain changes or cognitive influences caused by video gaming could, if the games were appropriately designed, be very constructive. In fact, I suggest video games as a delivery system for a whole spectrum of positive cognitive re-engineering efforts addressing such issues as “predictable irrationality”, “cognitive self-defense”, cognitive self-assessment, cognitive therapy, etc.

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

As we all know, video games can be extremely compelling (if not addictive), and users can obsess over them for hours and days at a time. If a game meets enough of the criteria needed to make it compelling to a target audience, users can be expected to gladly consume any educational content embedded int the game. This is well-established and has already been extensively exploited in a broad range of educational software and interactive video products.

I advocate robust research and development efforts aimed at producing state-of-the-art video games designed to teach actual cognitive skills and abilities, with or without explicit, factual educational content.

At the simplest level, games might be designed to train users in critical reasoning skills such as the use of sound logic and argument or the recognition of logical fallacies.

On a deeper level, games might be designed to reveal a user’s implicit associations and unconscious cognitive biases and even to assist the user in altering such biases.

On a deeper level yet, information gleaned from cognitive neuroscience might be applied to correct pathologies, compensate for deficits, or improve a wide variety of targeted cognitive or neural processes.

The psychological and neural consequences of using video games may very well be undesirable or even harmful if some or all of the impacts are arbitrary, unintended, and unexamined. On the other hand, if the impacts are intentional and constructive, video games might help us fix a whole panoply of thorny problems. They could become a virtual panacea for any and all correctable neuro-cognitive disorders of thinking, reasoning, and behavior.

Video Game themes that could be adapted for cognitive skills/hygiene

These projects have a potential to be made into video games or other spin-offs that could be designed not simply as entertainment products but also as educational tools–both pedagogical and dialectical–perhaps the first of their kind.

An Economical Bestiary (PRA 2010)

PRA 2010′s “Economical Bestiary” is a work of  hypertext literature — a blog-based book– about economic myths and facts. The work analyzes economic myths and political misconceptions and  in many cases relates the misconceptions to irrational cognitive biases. A video game based on the Economical Bestiary could be designed to teach critical reasoning skills, propaganda self-defense, logical fallacy detection, discovering and altering implicit associations, etc.

One object of the game would be to take-over the status quo government/economy, based mainly on accumulating economic and political points–but some violence is inevitable… and good for suspense.

I suppose it would have to go all “Global”, with economical and political beasties from multiple nations slugging it out.

The ultimate ULTIMATE objective might be an egalitarian, steady-state civilization that would solve global warming, etc. At the very least, the players would have to prevent and/or survive any number of possible catastrophes, regardless of who was in power.

If it were done right it might be a fun game for business- and politically-minded people of just about any age, and it might get some people to think harder and smarter about how to save the world at the same time.

The game could continue to evolve, becoming more realistic, until it actually started spilling out into reality with people creating real alliances and institutions.

The Inner Hunchback (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: In Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notradame, each character has its own individual point of view, drawn from trusted sources such as religion, academic or political authority, kinship, popular culture, traditions, etc.  Hugo  leads the reader through each character’s reality, giving us privileged vantage points from which to glimpse the insights, errors, and cognitive biases of each and providing us an opportunity to assemble a “bigger picture” of our own.

Animal Farm 2.0 (A nail-biting modern sequel to George Orwell’s original novel) (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: Over a course of  years, an average family farm is gradually transformed into a corporate animal death camp, complete with an ersatz animist-fundamentalist theocracy that secretly serves the human corporate overlords. There will also be sinister, mad scientists doing gene-splicing experiments on plants, animals and humans alike….Too scary for young readers? Don’t worry–it all comes out right in the end!

The Illustrated Treasury of Cognitive-Bias Fairy Tales and Folk Stories (This project will be posted shortly on PRA 2010)

Poor Richard

Related Information:

Virtual Reality Won’t Just Amuse—It Will Heal Millions (wired.com)

The Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers–a catalog-in-progress of all the self-tracking tools out there

Dozens of tools are listed in  14 categories. Some tools gather and analyze data collected by mobile devices and sensors. A sampling:

Mood

ButterBeeHappy
CureTogether Anxiety, Depression, Mood Tracking
Facing Us
Gotta Feeling
Gratitude & Happiness
GratitudeLog
Happiness for iPhone
Happy Factor

Productivity

1DayLater
BaseCamp
Blueprint HQ
BubbleTimer
EtherPad

Stanford  Encyclopedia of Philosophy Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Introspection , as the term is used in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a means of learning about one’s own currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes.

Self-Knowledge In philosophy, ‘self-knowledge’ commonly refers to knowledge of one’s particular mental states, including one’s beliefs, desires, and sensations.

Introspective People Have Larger Prefrontal Cortex

Lumosity “Brain Games –Scientifically designed brain fitness program. Lumosity is designed by some of the leading experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology from Stanford and UCSF.”

NASA-funded game aims to make science more appealing

Last week a curious, free release popped up on Steam: Moonbase Alpha, a NASA-funded game where up to six players can team up in order to save a near-future Lunar base crippled by a meteor strike. The game is just the first release from NASA’s Learning Technologies program, which aims to help raise interest in the space program through gaming.

“The US is facing a crisis in technical fields,” explained Laughlin. “There are not enough students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill our national needs in those areas. NASA literally cannot function without STEM graduates. The big goals for NASA Education are to get more students into STEM fields of study and graduating into STEM careers. It’s also the president’s goal with the Educate to Innovate initiative. Moonbase Alpha was developed in support of those goals.”

Gamers beat algorithms at finding protein structures (ArsTechnica.com)

Today’s issue of Nature contains a paper with a rather unusual author list. Read past the standard collection of academics, and the final author credited is… an online gaming community.

Scientists have turned to games for a variety of reasons, having studied virtual epidemics and tracked online communities and behavior, or simply used games to drum up excitement for the science. But this may be the first time that the gamers played an active role in producing the results, having solved problems in protein structure through the Foldit game.

Starting with algorithms, ending with brains

Foldit uses some of the same conventions typical of other computer games, like a few simple structural problems to give new users a smooth learning curve. It also borrows from other online gaming communities; there are leaderboards, team and individual challenges, user forums, and so on.

Though very few of those who played Foldit had any significant background in biochemistry, the gamers tended to beat Rosetta when it came to solving structures. In a series of ten challenges, they outperformed the algorithms on five and drew even on another three.

By tracing the actions of the best players, the authors were able to figure out how the humans’ excellent pattern recognition abilities gave them an edge over the computer. For example, people were very good about detecting a hydrophobic amino acid when it stuck out from the protein’s surface, instead of being buried internally, and they were willing to rearrange the structure’s internals in order to tuck the offending amino acid back inside. Those sorts of extensive rearrangements were beyond Rosetta’s abilities, since the energy changes involved in the transitions are so large.

The authors also note that different players tended to have different strengths. Some were better at making the big adjustments needed to get near an energy minimum, while others enjoyed the fine-scale tweaking needed to fully optimize the structure. That’s where Foldit’s ability to enable team competitions, where different team members could handle the parts of the task most suited to their interests and abilities, really paid off.

The Nature article makes it clear that researchers in other fields, including astronomy, are starting to try similar approaches to getting the public to contribute something other than spare processor time to scientific research. As long as the human brain continues to outperform computers on some tasks, researchers who can harness these differences should get a big jump in performance.

Science gleans 60TB of behavior data from Everquest 2 logs (ArsTechnica.com)

Researchers ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists have wondered for some time whether online, multiplayer games might provide some ways to test concepts that are otherwise difficult to track in the real world.

Jaideep Srivastava is a computer scientist doing work on machine learning and data mining—in the past, he has studied shopping cart abandonment at Amazon.com, a virtual event without a real-world parallel. He spent a little time talking about the challenges of working with the Everquest II dataset, which on its own doesn’t lend itself to processing by common algorithms. For some studies, he has imported the data into a specialized database, one with a large and complex structure. Regardless of format, many one-pass, exhaustive algorithms simply choke on a dataset this large, which is forcing his group to use some incremental analysis methods or to work with subsets of the data.

Srivastava then gave a short tour of the sorts of items the team is trying to extract from the raw logs. He apparently has graduate students working on non-traditional figures like the “monster composite difficulty index” and an “experience rate measure.”

Noshir Contractor described how the data was allowing him to explore social network dynamics within the game. He described a variety of factors that are thought to influence the growth and extent of social networks, such as collective action, social exchange, the search for similar people, physical proximity, friend-of-a-friend (FoaF) interactions, and so on. Because these are well-developed concepts, statistical tools exist that can extract their signature from the raw data by looking at interactions like instant messaging, partnerships, and trade.

Williams pointed out one case where having access to the server logs allowed the researchers to identify some serious skewing in the responses to the demographic surveys. Older women turned out to be some of the most committed players but significantly under-reported the amount of time they spent in the game by three hours per week (men under-reported as well, but only by one hour). The example highlights the risk of using self-reporting for behavioral studies and the potential of the virtual world data.

Blizzard [World of Warcraft] negotiating with researchers for virtual epidemic study (ArsTechnica.com)

A strange phenomenon struck the virtual inhabitants of World of Warcraft. A disease designed to be limited to areas accessed by high-level characters managed to make it back to the cities of that virtual world, where it devastated their populations. At the time, Ars’ Jeremy Reimer noted, “It would be even more interesting if epidemiologists in the real world found that this event was worthy of studying as a kind of controlled experiment in disease propagation.” The epidemiologists have noticed, and there may be more of these events on the way for WoW players. There were a number of features in the virtual outbreak that actually mimicked the spread of and response to real-world epidemics.

Modeling Infectious Diseases Dissemination Through Online Role-Playing Games, Balicer, Ran D. (Epidemiology: March 2007)

As mathematical modeling of infectious diseases becomes increasingly important for developing public health policies, a novel platform for such studies might be considered. Millions of people worldwide play interactive online role-playing games, forming complex and rich networks among their virtual characters. An unexpected outbreak of an infective communicable disease (unplanned by the game creators) recently occurred in this virtual world. This outbreak holds surprising similarities to real-world epidemics. It is possible that these virtual environments could serve as a platform for studying the dissemination of infectious diseases, and as a testing ground for novel interventions to control emerging communicable diseases.

Neurobiology of Meditation

How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain Max Miller on October 6, 2010 (BigThink.com)

—”Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence,” (2009) by Antoine Lutz in The Journal of Neuroscience [PDF]

—”Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation,” (2007)  by Michael Posner in the journal PNAS

Know Then Thyself

by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

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