SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Brain Management
Wherever your brain may be, call it home.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, no hermeticism required.
Brain in a Vat — Everything is normal. You run, you talk, you eat your favorite food, you worry about your future, something smells bad, something smells good — your brain works. Without your brain, there is nothing; our body can fail but so long as our brain remains unchanged, our core identities do too.
What if you were nothing but a brain? A brain in a vat, your senses replaced by the supercomputers of the future that can provide the same electrical impulses your brain needs do to its brain work. How would you know the world you perceive and the thoughts you think reflect your true surroundings and aren’t an I Can’t Believe It’s Not My Own Body’s Electrical Impulses low-fat substitution fed to your brain as it sits in its vat, sweet vat?
You’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve heard Descartes ubiquitous line, cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore, I am — but what about the mother of all these do-I-know-what-know philosophies? That would be माया, maya, from the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, the Vedas:
पतंगमक्तमसुरस्य मायया हृदा पश्यन्ति मनसा विपश्चितः ।
समुद्रे अन्तः कवयो वि चक्षते मरीचीनां पदमिच्छन्ति वेधसः ॥१॥
पतंगो वाचं मनसा बिभर्ति तां गन्धर्वोऽवदद्गर्भे अन्तः ।
तां द्योतमानां स्वर्यं मनीषामृतस्य पदे कवयो नि पान्ति ॥२॥
अपश्यं गोपामनिपद्यमानमा च परा च पथिभिश्चरन्तम् ।
स सध्रीचीः स विषूचीर्वसान आ वरीवर्ति भुवनेष्वन्तः ॥३॥
The wise behold with their mind in their heart the Sun,
made manifest by the illusion of the Asura;
The sages look into the solar orb, the ordainers desire the region of his rays.[…]
— Rig veda X.177.1-3
The sun is a symbol of truth/light and Asura refers to demons that create illusions. Determining what’s really real is an ancient struggle. Vats and supercomputers are just a modern adaptation of an ancient question — how do we know reality is real?
The tyranny of self-created illusions can weigh upon us more heavily than any real boulder could.
Original art for Spiritual Soap By Luis Colina
Let’s get real (hope you appreciate that one): who actually worries whether we’re all just brains in jars on the shelf in Alcor’s warehouse? Your experience is real to you — you feel your suffering, your angst, your love, your joy — it’s all real enough, whether or not it’s a fabrication of your brain.
Philosophy is incomplete without grounding its arcane thought experiments into our real lives. Brain in a Vat matters because it reminds us that perception is not fact. We might agree it’s unlikely you and I are the imaginings of our vat-housed brains but it’s not so easily agreed that your perception of a situation as negative/positive is accurate.
Pause and question your judgment of the seemingly concrete reality around you; it’s not so much a singular experience as it is a collaboration between the world and your own unique understanding of it. Like the parable of the Chinese farmer teaches, good and bad are not as obvious as we believe, rather, we impose these values on our world, making us both the author and audience of our lives. Be slow to judge — you never know if you’re just a brain in a vat worrying over nothing more than a synthetic electrical impulse.
Perception is not always reality.
Problems & Values Worksheet — I love worksheets so much I’ve dedicated 2 editions of the newsletter to this single worksheet. If you didn’t catch the previous edition that explains how to use this worksheet, don’t spoil it for yourself — go here before reading this section.
If you did complete the worksheet as per last week’s instructions, now comes the important part. Compare your entries under Problematic Thoughts And Feelings to your entries under Values. You’ll likely find that your Values entries will be what is lacking in your Problematic Thoughts And Feelings entries. On my own worksheet, one of my problematic thoughts was “I am uniquely bad at this” and it perfectly corresponds with one of the values I listed, “confidence.” This trick occurs unconsciously but makes total sense — we crave those values whose lack we suffer over. I highly value honesty but later realized I didn’t list it in my values because I don’t struggle to strive for it. Similarly, your Problematic Actions column will reflect the absence of the entries in your Goals & Actions column.
So now that you know what the hell’s wrong with you, what do you do? This is where cognitive behavioral therapy beats a lot of the other psychological philosophies; CBT gives you strategies you can actively use. With this worksheet, you’ve outlined what you need to pursue to bring balance to your life. Refer to your Goals & Actions column to choose tangible changes. For example, in my Problematic Actions column I wrote, “not attempting projects I want to do” and in my Goals & Actions column I wrote, “challenge myself.” Question answered.
No, there’s no magical epiphany that will suddenly alleviate your obstacles, but you will have everything you need to overcome those obstacles when you know what they are and why you want to overcome them.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.