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My Codex Vitae: Beliefs

Buster Benson, behavior change junkie and creator of 750 Words, maintains a catalogue of his beliefs as a version-controlled document. Inspired by his example (and Shawn Blanc’s Core Curriculum) I started doing the same. Until now, I’ve kept my own privately and reviewed them weekly. On re-reading today, I see no reason not to share. So here you are: my own beliefs, acquired through reading and experience, subject to revision, and situated on the boundary between universal and instrumental truths.


I want to solve more problems than I create, clean up more messes than I make.

Consciousness is immanent in the mind and body. There is no separate “soul-stuff” transcendent from the material universe. The sense of self is a process enacted continuously.

A human life has no cosmic, unambiguous purpose: we have the opportunity and responsibility to find and make that choice on our own, between ourselves.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
– Stanley Kubrick

But meaning and choice are constrained by our physical and social environment: the skills we learn and the communities of practice we inhabit shape the possible sources of meaning available to us.

I think “do what you love” is useless advice when it comes to making a living. I’d recommend looking at what the world needs, thinking about what you have to offer, and working hard to build a skill set so that you can fill that void.
– Austin Kleon

Humans are the products of evolution, inhabiting an environment that is far from any kind of equilibrium. Your instincts are optimized for propagation of genes and no more: for sustainable happiness in life, do not take your impulses as truth. Instead, be mindful of how small choices accumulate over the long term.

1.01^365 = 37.8
0.99^365 = 0.03

Satisfaction comes from fulfilling our responsibility to others, from learning new things, from challenging ourselves, and only marginally from experiencing pleasure.

The arrow of time is real. Although microscopic dynamics are time-reversible, the universe is a system at the thermodynamic limit and the second law of thermodynamics gives time a directionality. The laws of physics may be deterministic, but the future is not determined (See Ilya Prigogine’s The End of Certainty for a detailed technical argument).

In general, question any conclusions derived from extrapolating to macroscopic situations the results of clean-room, microscopic, spherical-cow style thought experiments. Everything is situated in contexts that violate the assumptions of your typical thought experiment.

We must often gain experiential knowledge of a theoretical system’s virtues before we can develop our full understanding. We find and embrace strategies that help us achieve equanimity and construct the discourse to explain those strategies. Even a fully developed philosopical/spiritual theory has to be taught and learned via spiritual exercises (See Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life for an extended version of this argument, relating to Platonic Christian theology and the Stoics). Before we can believe, we must act. The experiental knowledge that produces motivation often fades within days, unless reinforced by ritual and practice. Action precedes motivation.

The self is not sharply bounded by my skin: mind is embodied in my environment (See Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind for a survey of the embodied cognition argument). When I speak to another human, we become a distributed cognitive network through the sensory connections (sight, sound, smell) between our nervous systems.

Long-term satisfaction in life depends at least partly on discovering what your values are and trying to live in conformity with those values. But remember that there is no true, eternal, stable self. You and your values are path-dependent and dynamic – so choose your paths well.