Where American Transcendentalism Meets Russian Mysticism

In some Youtube of a Berlin event, Chelsea Manning, a political prisoner at the time of this writing, after being pardoned once by a state actor, said we’re all machine learners, or learning machines.

In the home country of Kraftwerk, such “we are the robots” admissions are not out of place. She merely meant that we’re like devices equipped with Bayesian algorithms. Which means what again?

The Bayesian feedback loop, often coupled with Markov chains, applies weight to prior beliefs, then modifies them depending on how freakishly anomalous an event was, based on prior belief predictions.

“If someone with your beliefs would be unlikely to predict events that are happening more often, maybe these specific beliefs of yours are unlikely to hold water, so give them slightly lower weight.” And repeat. Over time, you’ll fine tune, as hindsight wisdom piles up. That’s if you don’t selectively ignore specific feedback. Blind spots remain a challenge, no matter whether you’re a Bayesian or a Frequentist or somewhere in between.

“If these anomalies keep happening, it’s time to jump ship, paradigm-wise, but then that’s a big if.” That’s not an unusual way to think, right?

How did those priors (existing biases) get established in the first place?

Not against a gale of counter-evidence we might surmise.

Sometimes we take a wild guess, knowing full well we’re likely wrong. “You’ve gotta start somewhere” is the mantra for this approach. Field workers appreciate this flexibility, is it matches reality. We start out in different places but then converge in our ability to predict outcomes. We’re able to synchronize without needing to start with identical, or even similar, assumptions.

“The inertia of the establishment” simply means we’re not prepared to jettison a treasured model of reality based on one or two black swan sightings. The mantra is (not original with me): “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But then there’s that slow chipping away over time.

Remember Catastrophe Theory in mathematics? That could have been called “Camel’s Back” plus could be applied equally to “benestrophe” (not a real word) meaning positive, yet sudden, synergies, wherein “it all comes together” (in ways we like or enjoy, the opposite of a catastrophe — I’m saying the math is equally about stuff like that).

There’s that day when the same thing happens one too many times and this pillar of belief you had, holding up a lot else, buckles and gives way. The house of cards tumbles. You’re left standing in the rubble of some former belief system. No matter how much you wish you could still believe in that structure, you no longer can. Belief is not always an act of will, even though we have “leap of faith” as an idiom. We can’t force ourselves to believe what we know cannot be true, as a rule of thumb anyway.

By the way, I used to think “black swan” meant “unicorn” in the sense of non-existent… until I met my first black swan. My belief system shifted. I realized I didn’t know idiomatic English quite as well as I’d imagined.

Now I realize they’re not that uncommon. I’ve seen white tigers too, under sad circumstances. The poor guy was in a cell (zoo cage).

In American literature, we have a fair amount on the robotic nature of man. The Russian mystic and erstwhile student of Gurdjieff, one P. D. Ouspensky, native of Moscow, was pretty out about it, hoping to wake people up to their own robotic nature. We could better appreciate freedom from the fringes, as epiphenomenal observers. “Man cannot do” was his mantra.

The Scots Jungian, Maurice Nicoll, picked up on Ouspensky’s work and brought it deeper into Anglophone depth psychology. I only found out about him rather late, having already investigated a ton of second generation Freudians and third generation Jungians. I thought I knew it all.

Then one day I find his multi-volume Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky at a book sale in our Quaker meeting house on Stark Street.

As such, we regained more of a driver’s seat, as chief alchemists, a step up from sorcerer’s apprentice (a more Mickey Mouse role).

Bucky Fuller, a fan of Ouspensky, picked up on a kind of satirical slant. He anticipated Planet of the Apes and DEVO both, claiming we had it backwards about the ascent of man. We were becoming more and more specialized, and thereby ape-like (monkey see, monkey do) over time. I took that as mockery (satire), posing as pseudo-science.

We may understand our own heritage better by connecting these dots. The philosophy lectures a lot of Americans got came not from the universities, but from est, the two weekend training.

Here again, the Ouspenskian concern with mechanical, unaware behavior, became a focus. Liberation was not in overcoming our reflex conditioning, but in accepting and embracing it, which meant taking responsibility for it.

“It” was “the Mind” in est shoptalk (machine world, samsara), versus Being (nirvana).

In the vein of “a mind is a terrible thing to waste”, I was dubious that dissing Mind would work over the long haul, and that version of est discontinued. A lot of people seem satisfied with The Landmark Forum and the possibilities it opens, so I’m not saying the whole enterprise was a failure. It grew through chapters.

Werner Erhard became an earnest student of Bucky Fuller’s, in public settings. In Synergetics, the dichotomy was more Brain versus Mind. Brain was the seat of conditioned reflexes and automatic responses. Mind was more like Divine Grace, greater than the individual ego and entering awareness more as an otherness, say a Muse.

Fuller’s lineage goes back to his great aunt Margaret Fuller, a contemporary of Emerson and Thoreau, an international correspondent and editor of The Dial.

He dedicated his last non-posthumous work, not counting Synergetic Stew, the highly literary Grunch of Giants to Margaret, and to Marilyn Ferguson of Aquarian Conspiracy fame, and to Barbara Marx Hubbard, who ran a campaign to be Vice President of the United States. My dad worked on that campaign briefly, during an interlude based in Washington, DC (I joined my parents there too).

This might be history you don’t know? I invite you to explore my other writings on the internet. I’ve got curriculum materials galore.

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