Weird & Güd - A Curse You Can Believe In
Life is more sci-fi than science.
A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
We are rational, educated, well-informed, and evidence-based.
We laugh at TV dramas that put adults in darkened basements where they ask the air to reveal its paranormal identity. We marvel at the oddities of past generations’ superstitious beliefs—the tingling ear that signals on-going gossip, a swift scolding for placing your purse on the floor.
There is no synchronicity, only serendipity; the gut feeling that turns out to be right is a primal instinct at best or pure random luck; even the kind of love that feels like floating on a cloud stolen from the heavens is nothing but a biology-based mirage.
And yet, I won’t sleep with a book about the devil on my nightstand. I tell myself it’s just mythology, it’s just a book, be rational, be logical, but some part of me where words are reduced to muffled whispers isn’t convinced. The cost of this superstition is small compared to the ominous unknown my irrational weariness warns against.
I’m not religious, rose quartz is nothing more than a decoration to me, I’m purposely ignorant of astrology, I’m educated in wielding suspicion against the same science that taught me how to wield suspicion, I’m the first to repeat the hymn “correlation does not equal causation.”
I’m a good little skeptic in public, yet in the dark of night, alone in the confines of my room and mind, sometimes the irrational still speaks clearest.
Have I disgraced my rationality by sharing my lapse into magical thinking?
Humans are ritual-loving beings, but we aren’t alone—chimps dance at the start of a heavy rain or the discovery of a waterfall. Crows, dolphins, and orcas show obvious awareness and sensitivity to the death of their own. Elephants, whose intelligence and lifespan make them more like us than their appearance suggests, go so far as to bury their dead under leaves and even return to the gravesite, as if paying respect.
Perhaps the elephants and their irrational rituals just need a good dose of human-made nihilism.
It seems that the more intelligent a being is, the more it observes and seeks to understand the world around it.
While avoiding the cracks on a sidewalk or not opening an umbrella indoors might seem like irrational customs, many carry histories that lead to more logical origins.
Expecting bad luck over spilled salt stretches thousands of years back to a time when salt was as precious as our salary, a word derived from the Latin salarium: a Roman soldier’s allowance to buy salt. Even the superstition around umbrellas may stem from how accident-prone umbrellas were in the 1800s after metal and a folding mechanism were introduced.
The sensical origin of a superstition still doesn’t make it real, though—but does our belief?
You know what the placebo effect is, so think of the nocebo effect as its unpleasant opposite: when our belief in the harm something will do yields a harm that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred.
The nocebo effect has been observed in research, where people were told phone use caused headaches and reported headaches after phone use, even though the phone they used was a fake.
The idea that expecting suffering can cause the suffering we were expecting is so well documented it’s been boiled down into everyday reminders like “You get what you expect.”
There’s no doubt the human mind is strangely well designed for inventing and indulging in spooky stories about the world around us. Yet, I’m skeptical of the certain dismissal that skeptics hold toward our ancient unscientific ideas.
Just like any art, fiction can still tell a truth.
I know nothing will happen if I sleep with a book about Satan on my nightstand. I don’t think a fiery demon will shoot out of the book in the night or that I’ll become bewitched. Yet, something feels irrationally wrong about treating a book emblazoned with a time-honored symbol of evil like any old magazine.
My irrationality feels more like a call for reverence toward an idea that’s encapsulated humanity’s fears and suffering for thousands of years. If I didn’t treat such a deeply serious book with cautious respect, it wouldn’t be the book, but my attitude, that would curse me.
Perhaps some of our superstitions are warnings that contain a truth we’ve yet to name.
The distance between us and the natural world has never been wider.
Civilization is like a home that keeps the harsh winter cold locked outside. For those who’ve never left home, safety and comfort can feel deceptively like the rule, rather than the exception.
Building a society is uncomfortably similar to parenting; people are molded by the boundaries and expectations placed on them. We squirm knowing a parent who doesn’t teach their child the value of their toys is creating the entitlement that makes adults throw tantrums over parking spots.
A society that doesn’t consider the cost of its own actions flirts with the destructive lessons that catch up to those who make one-too-many entitled choices.
Nature doesn’t take IOUs or payment plans. Nature doesn’t waste.
The most efficient system to ever exist perfected economics long before humans took the credit for it. Yet, as we experiment with and edit nature’s laws, we bear the risk of a failed experiment exploding in our faces.
Unlike the safety of a lab (or rather, exactly like…), errors in our societal experiments always come home to roost.
To avoid the fatal Icarian errors of youthful exuberance, keep one eye on the natural world when you put one foot forward in progress.
There are some natural laws humans aren’t meant to escape. These recurring rules show up as observations in ancient quotes and cultural quips.
One of these intractable laws is coated in classically American verbiage:
There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
This phrase got more of the limelight when the big daddy of economics, Milton Friedman, used the phrase in naming one of his books. Yet, the quote carries enough truth to have reached over into other fields with the least room for ignoring natural law: science, finance, and statistics.
This quote once conveyed nothing but a simplistic political aim to me.
The idealism and naivety of youth make you resent whatever dampens your worldview with that pesky thing called consequence.
What I didn’t realize in my previous ire for this phrase was that its roots stretch far beyond any economist’s reach.
The saying “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” in its exact form can be followed back to the days of saloons. Taverns or saloons really did offer free lunch from the late 1800s up to the Depression, which marked end of a lot more than just free lunch.
Humans can turn anything into a moral panic and free lunch is no exception. It’s because these lunches weren’t quite free that some prohibition-flavored moral unease was stirred.
In exchange for your free lunch, the establishment that offered it required you buy at least one drink. These free lunches were usually a good deal, but they still weren’t free.
While a salty lunch that requires you to buy one drink and encourages you to buy a second isn’t the most sinister exchange, it’s a simple example of an idea that goes back to the era of Epictetus and the Stoics: you can’t get something for nothing.
This idea seems simple, but there’s a reason it recurs in different times and cultures—it’s one of those lessons humans seems doomed to understand only through experience.
Pagan myths, biblical stories, and even certain politics all have their own warnings against those who bear the scars of losing the naivety that believes in “free.”
Epictetus had his own, more formal version of there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch:
“…nothing is acquired for free, and necessarily must cost us some thing.”
Not as catchy in my opinion, but just as clear.
In most ways, our escape from the brutality of nature brings us closer to the garden of paradise: most children survive into adulthood, violence isn’t a constant facet of our daily lives, food is plentiful and has even become more pleasure than survival, we live longer and live better.
Perhaps I suffer from that human tendency to find the next problem before it finds you. I’ve seen enough movies and read enough myths to know our civilization’s success is flirting with a fatal arrogance.
History has no shortage of kings who destroy their kingdom for just one more victory.
Humans aren’t good at measuring what’s not against what is. We’re well designed for a life of struggle and scarcity, but today our efforts at more don’t come with the quick consequences nature levies upon foolish animals.
Even the most simple choices, like procrastinating or not exercising, aren’t free of consequence. What we don’t pay for today is placed as a debt upon our future. The ominous debt we burden our future with applies to a society just as it does to an individual. What feels conveniently free today usually hides a steep cost for tomorrow.
Just like a free lunch that comes at the cost of a single drink, sometimes a deal is just a deal.
The problem isn’t that something never costs nothing, but that something we believe costs nothing is a decision with a cost we haven’t calculated.
There is no waste in nature; every effort has an outcome and every outcome has a cost. We’d do well not to let the comfort of civilization trick us into forgetting what a cold wind feels like.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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