My Personal Philosophical Journey
Many years ago, I embarked on a journey to discover my personal philosophy. It started with a simple question:
I felt that I couldn’t go through my life without answering this question honestly and to the best of my ability. This is just something I had to do for myself, not because it serves any purpose outside of that.
This post is about that journey and what I have discovered so far.
First let me say how fortunate I am to be able to do this. It really is a privilege and I’d like to wish that everyone who wants to do something like this be able to do it. I hope that this post motivates someone to undertake such a journey for themselves.
Now, someone else might reach different conclusions than what I have outlined below, and that’s perfectly fine. I don’t believe in one size fits all. The purpose of this post is not to try to convince you of my point of view. I’m just telling you about my journey just in case it might inspire you to undertake your own.
And of course, I’d like to hear what you think about the ideas below and my approach, so I can make improvements. I can’t afford to get this wrong, so any input is very much appreciated.
The Starting Point
Since I am a scientist at heart, I started with science. I explored some physics, some biology, some psychology, some sociology. Then I went into some philosophy, some spirituality, some religion, some poetry. I knew that I wasn’t going to find “the answer” (no, “42” isn’t very satisfying, or even interesting, frankly), at least not something that would appeal to my scientist mind, but I was looking for how far people had gotten. And that search alone has been incredibly rewarding.
To start with, as a true scientist, I broke the question above down into smaller chunks:
Here is a summary of what I have discovered so far. And note that this is all work in progress. I hope to keep updating this from time to time. Below, I will also include a long list of references that have helped me in my journey. It contains everything from books to articles to poetry to memes.
Also note that, being a scientist at heart, I have tried to keep this as close to the known facts and logic as possible. There’s not a lot of hand-waving or invoking the supernatural or anything like that here. I don’t need that to still feel in awe of the Universe or Life. Just knowing what’s already scientifically known about them is sufficient to make you worship them.
The Ultimate Truth:
Let’s just cut to the chase. No one knows the ultimate truth. Don’t let anyone tell you that they do. Still, the honest search for the truth is very rewarding. So while one should be rigorous and honest, one should also humble and flexible. (The saying here is “Strong ideas, held lightly.”)
The ultimate truth is formless (or at least beyond our reach, which is effectively the same thing.) If it can be written down or even felt, it’s not the ultimate truth. Any meme, post, poem or book you’ve read is not the ultimate truth. Even any music, painting, or any emotion you’ve felt isn’t the ultimate truth. Some people use the word “love” as a substitute for the ultimate truth. That’s fine as long as you don’t limit that concept of love to something that is knowable or even feel-able.
At the same time, one needs to realize that some people are in lower orbits around the truth than you. It is possible to get closer the truth, even if one can’t actually land on it. So one should strive for these lower and lower orbits. From time to time, one needs to be able to say “I was really stupid last year.” If I’m not saying that then I’m not trying hard enough.
As an aside, this idea of lower and lower orbits around the ultimate truth is the central idea behind the title of this blog: About the Deepest Turtle (and Highest Eagle).
I suppose it is a cliche, but really knowing myself and knowing what I want is critical. Without that, none of the rest of this matters. Without knowing that, I am only playing a role in someone else’s drama. Coming up with my own role in the universal drama is my goal. Another way to put it is: don’t lead, don’t follow, just do your own thing.
Knowing yourself is hard. Because you are not a static entity. You are a multi-faceted and fuzzy process that keeps evolving. Your environment is also a multi-faceted and fuzzy process that keeps evolving. It is hard to define yourself in isolation with all these things that are constantly changing.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. There’s an essence, but, just like the ultimate truth, it may be just a little beyond reach. So, once again, one should try to get into lower and lower orbits around it, and keep moving as it shifts over time.
Here’s one thing that, at least as I got older, helped me to know who I am: “You are what you do most of the time.” And if I don’t like what that looks like, then I need to adjust my activities accordingly.
Knowing what I want is a little easier. Basically, I am a knowledge and experience seeker. Curiosity is what gets me out of bed every day. I also want freedom to go my own way, which entails having good health and a cushion of money. So I want those. And, just like everyone else, I want to be happy. That’s pretty much it.
Most people, I imagine, want other things. My guess is the most common list includes social status (money, power, fame, relationships), impact (“make a dent in the universe”). May be leaving a legacy, as one get older. Nothing wrong with any of those, they just aren’t big drivers for me.
It makes sense to say that, if one really honestly knows oneself, then one would have to forgive oneself. To me, that’s what honestly knowing oneself means. Some people like to use the word “acceptance” for this. I prefer “forgive” because I feel it is more active, actionable. Also, sometimes “acceptance” smells of resentment. That’s not the intent.
So I need to forgive myself first. This is critical. I have to be be brutally honest to myself and then forgive myself.
And this isn’t just because “it’s all water under the bridge.” While that’s true, I’m actually making a stronger argument. I’m saying that things couldn’t have been any other way. Whatever I may have done, if I were put into exactly the same situation again with the same knowledge and same mindset I was in then, I’d do exactly the same thing again.
That’s also not to say I haven’t made any mistakes. May be there are some things in my past that I regret. But the point is, at the end of it all, I am still alive and comfortable. So, the sum total of everything I have done so far has been positive for me. So I should forgive the bad stuff.
And I can’t say I have completely achieved this, but it is an ongoing process.
Forgive the World:
The next step is to forgive the world for the way it is. This could be thought of as a logical extension of the previous point. If I should be forgiven and you should be forgiven, and everyone should be forgiven, then the whole world should be forgiven.
This is not to say that there aren’t bad people or that they don’t do bad things. But just like my point above, they don’t know any better. Moreover, as long as I am still alive and comfortable, everything that has happened in the world until then has been good for me, at least on balance. May be some things were bad and some things good, but the sum total was positive for me. So I should just forgive and move on.
Accepting this is even harder. I’ve myself have not fully achieved this, but I know which direction I am going in.
OK, but if everyone and everything is forgivable, and I am alive and comfortable, then what am I supposed to do? I still need some guidelines, some principles to follow. So let me list the ones I have come up with so far.
Worship the Miracle of Life:
Life is an amazing miracle. A biological cell is the smallest unit of life. If we look at the structures and processes that occur inside a living cell, it blows our minds. It is the most complex and intelligent system that exists anywhere. Even a multi-cellular creature, such as ourselves, can not match the complexity (at a macroscopic scale) of what happens inside every cell (at a microscopic scale). And anything man made, no matter how complex, pales in comparison, by far!
The utmost duty of every living creature should be to perpetuate this miracle for as long as possible one way or another.
So, Life worship entails:
- Following the principles followed by Life itself in your own life: sustainability, growth, evolution, diversification, efficiency (nothing gets wasted), balance, winning or expansion, bringing up the rear or survival.
- Avoiding destroying any life as far as possible. The only possible exception is when it is done in the service of creating more sustainable living organisms or structures e.g. destroying a simpler or less sustainable living cell to allow a more complex or more sustainable living cell or multi-cellular creature to grow or multiply.
- Creating or growing life, creating more complex or more sustainable life or more variety of life or more resilient life.
- When we have reached a sufficiently high level of technology, spreading life to other planets. (Caveat: We need to be careful here. I’m not saying that human beings should travel in space. I’m saying that life should be spread – which may entail sending microscopic creatures that are much more suited to traveling in space for long periods of time, which would be far more economical, and letting them take hold on other planets and evolve from there.)
- We should also think of life as a template for other entities such as human institutions or activities. Look at how life manages to survive and grow and use the same mechanisms of sustainability, efficiency, diversity, evolution etc. in businesses, governments, communities.
- Living matter should always take priority over any non-living products of our activities. This includes physical structures we build, our organizations or institutions, our dreams, even our principles. For example, always be ready to compromise your principles in order to save lives. Always know that your biggest contribution, by far, is any life you have helped to create or save. All your other accomplishments or creations fade in comparison.
- This miracle of life actually goes even deeper than that, as I will outline below.
The Silver Lining is Real:
- The Law of Entropy tells us that everything, including the universe itself, will die some day. I call it the darkest law of nature. Everything, not just you and everyone you know, but everything ever built by humans, everything on earth, including the earth itself, and the sun, and the Milky Way, and the entire universe, will cease to exist one day.
- That’s a really bleak thought! Which raises the question, why fight? What’s the case for optimism?
- That case is Life. Life is the only process that fights to defeat this dark law. It creates structures that are far away from equilibrium states that are preferred by the law of entropy. It goes to incredible lengths to continue this process.
- Theoretically, it will be possible for Life, in some very slow moving form, to continue well into the twilight of the universe. May be even all the way till the end!
- But coming back to the present, we have a huge miracle in the sky called the Sun. It produces a huge amount of low entropy energy. And it will continue to do that for a long long time.
- When that low entropy energy lands on the Earth, which is a miraculous planet, Life on earth uses that low entropy energy to sustain itself.
- So here is the case for optimism in the present: As long as the Sun continues to shower the Earth with low entropy energy, the Earth will continue to build complex, far-from-equilibrium structures such as life with that.
- A poetic way to put it is, as long as the Sun shines, positive things will happen on the Earth! It has no choice – it’s all based on the laws of Physics.
- You don’t have to be all rosy eyed and believe in mumbo jumbo to feel positive. You can be completely aware of the dark truth of nature and still expect the silver lining. Whenever things look bleak, I always tell myself that.
- On a daily basis, I should engage in activities that produce flow for as long as possible.
- I should work to add more activities that produce flow.
- I should also expand my mental models or attitude so that I can get into flow doing activities that didn’t produce flow before.
Separation of Dreams and Reality:
- Various philosophers and religious leaders have pointed to ego as one’s enemy. While I don’t disagree, I also think that the ego is a very special human quality and it would be a shame to go through life without experiencing and even enjoying it at least when one is young.
- Dreams are an expression of our egos. Human beings are animals that dream. It would be really sad to have to go through life without dreaming.
- When one is younger, striving to make one’s dreams real provides most of one’s motivation.
- But, as one gets older, one should strive for the separation of dreams and reality. Dreams are figments of our imagination, which is not as rich as the real universe. In spite of what you might think, our dreams are too simple, too crude, too “dead” as compared to reality. The universe is way more complex, real, intelligent, alive.
- So, feel free to dream and even go after them. But don’t take them too seriously, particularly later in life.
- This apparent paradox requires a lot of work to accept. This brings me to my next point:
The Law of Precession:
- This surprisingly unknown but critically important law is attributed to Buckminster Fuller. It’s described as follows:
- A honeybee wants honey. So it flies from flower to flower all day looking for honey.
- The flower, on the other hand, attaches its pollen to the bee and thus manages to spread it.
- The end result is a healthy and beautiful garden full of flowers.
- Think of the honey as the dream or goal of the honeybee. It motivates the bee to go after it. But that’s a small part of what’s really going on.
- What’s really going on is: pollination. It is orthogonal to the bee’s goal.
- This goal / effect orthogonality is the law of precession.
- What’s important are the side-effects, not the goal-seeking activity.
- Another way to put it is, you are speaking through your goals and your actions, but the universe is speaking through the side effects. And the universe is much smarter than you.
- So feel free to follow your goals, but you’d be missing the whole garden if you didn’t pay attention to the side effects of your pursuit of your goals.
Strive for Variety and Balance in Everything:
- Variety / diversity / complexity is good in every endeavor in life.
- But too little or too much of anything is bad.
- Too much freedom => loneliness.
- Too much love for someone or something => neglect of others.
- Too much money => anxiety, paranoia, inability to trust others
- Too much fame => loss of privacy
- Balance is key, which leads to the next point:
Sitting on Fences:
- On any political topic, my preferred position is, unapologetically and adamantly, on the fence.
- Only when one or the other sides kicks me too hard, then I fall on one or the other side.
- But I strive to get back on the fence again.
- Because, from the fence, you get to observe both sides. You get to rise above the fray, which helps me to get what I really want: knowledge.
- Taking sides only leads to social power or impact or legacy. Not my priorities.
Strive for Organic Living:
- Organic isn’t just about food. It is a whole way of life.
- It consists of organic timing, location, action, in everything.
- Don’t give up on your todo list, but find the most effortless time, location, conditions to do it in, by reordering their priority order.
- Such as eating local foods in season (not whatever you want, whenever you want to),
- Going for a walk when it’s sunny (even if it means rescheduling something else),
- When in Rome, doing as the Romans do. You get the point.
Happiness is Complicated:
- This is a confusing topic due to a couple of finer distinctions.
- Happiness as pleasure vs peace. Determine which one you are looking for.
- Pleasure comes with a price: Hangover or sadness afterwards. Moderation is key.
- Peace also come with a price: detachment.
- Everyone wants to make their sadness go away. But making yourself numb to sadness also makes you numb to pleasure.
- Also, there are 2 kinds of happiness: Dominant happiness vs submissive happiness
- An accomplished musician performing on stage experiences dominant happiness.
- The audience who surrenders to the musician experiences submissive happiness.
- One needs to have both in one’s life.
- Also, most people say they want happiness in life, but if you actually look at what they are doing, it does not pan out. What they are spending most of their time on is: power, ego gratification, relationships, impact, legacy, boredom-avoidance etc. This is fine, as long as you are doing it honestly and knowingly.
The Universe is Multi-Dimensional, Fractal, Rhyming, Holographic, Evolving:
- Strong patterns repeat at multiple levels,in different dimensions, in time
- May not repeat exactly, but they rhyme
- Holographic: looks different from different perspectives, all perspectives are valid
- The universe is also a process, not a thing. It keeps evolving.
- Many things in the universe can be better understood if you look for these standard patterns.
Explore, Meditate, Read or Consult (when stuck):
Keep learning / evolving. We are lucky to live in an information rich world, so getting information is very easy. Keeping focused is harder. But that’s still a good trade-off to have.
Anyway, what I am saying here is that the philosophy should remain alive and keep evolving.
(A word about consulting experts / gurus though. When I’m really stuck, I do read books / articles etc., but I like to make sure that they only serve as shortcuts to observations or insights that I could realistically have reached myself if I had the time. We only have one lifetime to do this and you can’t remain stuck forever. But these insights I gain from others, I still have to internalize and make my own. I can’t just “take their word for it”. If I do that, then I am only playing a role in their game, making the whole exercise meaningless.
Also, getting stuck and struggling with it ensures that you have formed the right questions at the right level of your understanding. If you start looking for help too early, then there may be a gap. Or you may ask the wrong question and then you’ll waste time or go the wrong way.)
Now for the hardest part of this exercise:
How to Operationalize the Philosophy:
- It is one thing to create or discover your personal philosophy. Totally different to put it into practice.
- Also, it is one thing to think about these things in abstraction. But when faced with crises in real life, all such thoughts go out the window and one tends to fall back on bad behaviors one has picked up.
- So, I need to find ways to operationalize the philosophy.
- This entails developing habits, processes, tools, calendars. Checks and balances.
- This is ongoing work.
Big Unsolved Problems:
In spite of all this, there are three big unsolved problems / unexplained “miracles”:
- Why does anything exist at all? (I have my own partial theory about this that I am working on.)
- How did life emerge in the universe? (We are making good progress here.)
- What is consciousness? (I have my own partial theory about this that I am working on.)
- Resolving the gap between Vedanta and Materialism.
Here are the resources that have helped me from time to time to reach the conclusions above. I’ll just mention the things that led to major turning points in my thinking. I’ve explored a lot more and thought about a lot more, but these are the important concepts that have stuck with me.
Speculations about the True Nature of the Universe:
- Advaita: Youtube lectures by Sarvapriyananda
- Donald Hoffman (Evolution engineered us to not see reality as it is): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HFFr0-ybg0
- Materialism is a dead end (also contains good references): https://iai.tv/articles/why-materialism-is-a-dead-end-bernardo-kastrup-auid-1271
- The Matrix (all 3 movies have lots of deep ideas)
- Quantum mechanics, eastern and western consciousness studies etc.
The true nature of the universe may be unknowable, and ideas like Vedanta still require you to make assumptions. Not only that, but I’m not sure how to use those in real life. There’s a big gap. So, until that gap is closed, you need theories / philosophies to guide you in real life.
Philosophies / Theories for Dealing with the Observable Universe:
I believe that we, as human beings, live simultaneously in 3 worlds: The world inside our minds, the physical world, and the social world. So we can look for theories / philosophies that can guide us in these 3 worlds.
- Poetic naturalism (Sean Carroll): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetic_naturalism
- Physics Theory of Life: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-physics-theory-of-life/
- Free Energy Principle (Karl Friston): https://youtu.be/NIu_dJGyIQI
- Intro to Baysian Thinking: https://youtu.be/BrK7X_XlGB8
- LessWrong (Baysian / rational thinking community): https://www.lesswrong.com/
- The living cell is the most intelligent thing in the universe: https://youtu.be/B_zD3NxSsD8.
- Also, how DNA is packaged: https://youtu.be/gbSIBhFwQ4s
- Unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html
- Unreasonable effectiveness of data: https://research.google.com/pubs/archive/35179.pdf
- BooK: Flow (Mihalyi)
- Book: Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman)
- Philosopher’s Abacus: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/06/30/the-philosophers-abacus/
- Ribbonfarm (out of the box refactoring of your brain): https://www.ribbonfarm.com/
- Meme: “Don’t tell me your priorities, show me your calendar.”
- Meme: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
- On dreams and defying reality once in a while: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Psoqb33liZE
- Movie: Ready Player One
- Meditation practices
- Epicureanism (in good times): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism
- Bhagvad Gita / Stoicism (in bad times)
- Prisoner’s dilemma (Great simulation: https://ncase.me/trust/)
- Company hierarchy (which I also view as overall social hierarchy: https://www.gapingvoid.com/blog/2009/08/12/shortlist-portfolio-number-two/,
- My own enhancement: http://deepestturtle.com/2017/09/the-liquid-pyramid-theory/
- Ideas that have been proven to work in the market can also be applied to life in general (risk tolerance, asst allocation, dollar cost averaging, indexing / diversification, periodic rebalancing.),
- Money is a form of energy (social energy): Throw money at a group of people and they start moving, everyone needs it to survive, but too much will burn you.
- Startup principles, as applied to life in general (rapid prototyping and iteration, pivoting, MVP, real profitability vs next fool theory): e.g. http://www.paulgraham.com/articles.html
- Critical Path (Buckmister Fuller: for a while, I even thought of him as my role model): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_Path_(book)
- The Grunch of Giants (Buckminster Fuller): https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B01HH77632/
- Once upon a time in Mumbai (Almost every dialog in the movie is full of meaning, dark truths about society and masculinity. The 4 types of masculinity: The good/good guy, the good/bad guy, the bad/good guy, the bad/bad guy.)
- Movie: The Wolf of Wall Street (dark truths about masculinity and money)
- Movie: Fight Club (positive and dark truths about masculinity)
- Movie: Elysium (realistic future of humanity)
- Book: 1984 (my first intro to the ideas of mass mind manipulation)
- Movie: Starship Troopers (conservative end game, but far-fetched)
- Movie: Idiocracy (consumerism end game, but far-fetched)
- Book: The Dilbert Future (many stark truths presented in a funny way)
- Old FedEx ad: https://youtu.be/zNCrMEOqHpc
- Standard bestsellers: Harari, Pinker, Gladwell, Taleb, etc
<To be updated periodically.>
Thanks for reading.