Two good exercises from ESR

If nothing else, as blogfodder.

If you read any amount of history, you will discover that people of various times and places have matter-of-factly believed things that today we find incredible (in the original sense of “not credible”). I have found, however, that one of the most interesting questions one can ask is “What if it really was like that?”

That is, what if our ancestors weren’t entirely lying or fantasizing when they believed in…say…the existence of vampires? If you’re willing to ask this question with an open mind, you might discover that there is a rare genetic defect called “erythropoietic porphyrinuria” that can mimic some of the classical stigmata of vampirism. Victims’ gums may be drawn back on the teeth, making said teeth appear fanglike; they are likely to be photophobic, shunning bright light; and, being anemic, they may develop a craving for blood…


I’m not writing to suggest any particular thing we should do about this. What I’m encouraging is a variant of the exercise I’ve previously called “killing the Buddha”. Sometimes the consequences of supposing that our ancestors reported their experience of the world faithfully, and that their customs were rational adaptations to that experience, lead us to conclusions we find preposterous or uncomfortable. I think that the more uncomfortable we get, the more important it becomes to ask ourselves “What if it really was like that?”

Eric Raymond
What if it really was like that?

Applications that jump to mind in fifteen seconds…mythical creatures, magic, demigods, sanitation practices, diet. (Not a bad list, but maybe a little…dry?)

There’s a Zen maxim that commands this: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”

There are several closely related interpretations of this maxim in Buddhist tradition. The most obvious one is that worship of the Buddha interferes with comprehending what he actually said – that religious fetishization is the enemy of enlightenment.

While I completely agree with this interpretation, I’m writing to argue for a more subtle and epistemological one…

Find the premise, or belief, or piece of received knowledge that is most important to you right at this moment, and kill it.

That is, imagine the world as it would be if the most cherished belief in your thoughts at this moment were false. Then reason about the consequences. The more this exercise terrifies you or angers you or undermines your sense of self, the more brutally necessary it is that you kill your belief.

Erik Raymond
Kill the Buddha

Fifteensecondsgo! God, the Catholic church, my own intelligence and perceptions, modern physics. Interesting progression there, eh?

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