Well, come!

The More Sensible Introduction

“You don’t make sense.”

“Sure I do!  I make my own sense.  Loads of it.  None of this second-hand crap.”

“Second-hand sense?”

“Yeah, the stuff you can pick up on any street corner.  Shared sense?  Social sense?  It’s an S word.  No, wait, I got it—COMMON sense.  That one.”

~ From an abandoned project

Ah, visitors!  Yes, welcome, welcome, do come in.  You may hang your coats over there.  I would take them from you if I could, but then who could give them back?  Yes, yes, your shoes too.  You won’t need them, eheh, where we’re going.  Ehehehe.  Yes.

We don’t get many visitors at the Menagerie, I’m afraid.  There was supposed to be an invisible man here to give the full tour, I am pretty sure.  But I don’t see him anywhere, so I’ll just show you around myself.  I would like to say I know this place like the back of my hand.  Oh yes, how I would like to say that.  But I won’t, and maybe one day you will understand.  Or maybe not.  That is always an option, yes.  You will probably still survive in that case, but I don’t like your chances.

Hm, where to begin?  Here, I suppose, since this is where we are.  On your left you will see a mighty sword, once used by a conqueror to slay his enemies in vast droves.  It hangs on the wall now.  Occasionally I will look at it.  Why, no, I don’t know if it’s slain anyone recently.  Between you and me, I do wonder, but I’m frightened to ask it such a personal question.  Now, on your right, we have have what appears to be a very nice selection of plushies shaped like alcoholic beverages.  I am not sure what they are doing there—that used to be a piano.  I never could manage to tune it properly; all of the G major chords sounded like E minor chords no matter how you arranged the notes.  Baffling.  I suppose it’s all for the best that it’s a pile of plushies now.

Me?  Oh, yes, I beg your pardon.  I am the Conductor.  There was supposed to be a train, you see, when they built this place.  See, it doesn’t go through there, and up there is a nice little bend which it doesn’t slow down to handle, and then it doesn’t loop around to the life-sized gingerbread cottage near the west entrance.  No train at all, now, yes.  So instead they hired me to conduct the train of thought.  It is much easier than a real train.  When you run into things, most people do not notice.  And people hardly ever get mad at you for losing it!  Not like the real train, no.

What brings you to the Menagerie?  Ah, yes, that is very interesting indeed.  Then you will be interested in this next corridor on the left.  Yes, yes, I think you will enjoy this corridor very much.  Mind the floor tiles.  They do not forgive.

Wait!  Stop right there!  Do you smell that?  That is what understanding smells like.  Normally it is impossible to smell understanding.  From what I am told, smell works by getting little bits of things stuck in your nose, but little bits of understanding are absorbed directly into the brain before you can smell them.  But not here.  You will learn nothing here.  That is what makes it such a good place to study, yes.  And that is why you can smell understanding.  It is a once in a lifetime smell, I am told.  I smell it once a week, when I come to soothe the poor, unreasonable floor tiles.  A life time every week.  I like to think that I am older than I am.  A life of life times, yes.  Enjoy the life time you spend here, for soon it will be over and you will have no idea what has happened.

(The floor tiles will remember—oh yes, yes indeed.  They will remember and be angry.  But I assure you, that is no fault of yours.)


The Less Sensible Introduction

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions!

~ Scott Alexander, a rationalist

There are ideas that no one will ever have.  Imagine a football field full of little scraps of paper, each with a different thought.  “There are frogs,” for example.  Imagine we can wander around the field at random and pick two of them, then come up with some kind of rule that relates them.  “Therefore,” perhaps, or “in spite of,” or “ever since.”  Something like that.  Then we put it all together, and we create something marvelous:

“Because there are frogs, the Titanic was lost at sea.”

Marvelous, I tell you!  Utter nonsense, but marvelous nonetheless!  What we have just created is a meaningful thought, despite the fact that it bears little to no connection with reality.  And perhaps you’ll object here that it’s not actually meaningful, because we live busy lives in a world full of meanings and don’t have time to bother with any but the most meaningful meanings.  The real top-shelf stuff, like Facebook puts at the top of your newsfeed.  “We lost the Titanic to an iceberg and poor foresight.  Frogs don’t enter into the picture, and you’re missing the point on purpose, you weirdo.  People died on that ship, you know.”  Woah, calm down there, friend, you’re way too invested in this.

But—bear with me for a moment—what if?  If it were true that the Titanic’s downfall (downsink?) were somehow due to the existence of frogs, then why would that be?  Perhaps, say, there is a powerful frog conspiracy with an undying hatred of large passenger ships.  If that were true, then it would certainly be true that the Titanic was lost due to frogs.  And a frog conspiracy would take measures to hide its existence—no self-respecting conspiracy advertises the fact that it exists, after all—so that would explain why we don’t know about them.  In fact, they’re so successful at hiding themselves, we don’t even think frogs are capable of conspiracy, so they probably have mind control as well, and that explains why they didn’t have enough lifeboats on the Titanic!

Of course I’m wrong.  But can you prove it?  Oh yeah?  Why does that count as proof?  Who told you that was okay?  Was it you?  Was it me?  It was me?  Why on earth would you trust me when I believe absurd conspiracy theories about frogs!?

We could have had that conversation about the question of whether motorcycles evolved from primordial Buddhists (they did), or whether there is a very tiny Terry Pratchett who lives in each of us (there is).  And they would have been incredibly different conversations from this one and from each other, because you have to jump through a lot of hoops to defend the truth of an obvious falsehood from its illogical implications.  (For example, is it only one very tiny Terry Pratchett, who must live in all humans one at a time?  Scholarly consensus is divided, and both camps have their merits.)

Yes, it’s incredibly silly, but it is also a priceless opportunity: after about the fourth absurd assumption—when we’re arguing about whether the time constraints on tiny Terry mean his residential patterns can only be described as “visiting” at best—we’re treading ground that no one’s ever covered before.  We’re being forced to defend assumptions we’ve never been aware that we were making.  We’re forcing our understanding of the world to shift, however much, to accommodate tiny Terry Pratchett.  What I should tell you here is that doing this helps you be more rational about your beliefs—but here at the Menagerie, we’re all about seeing things in the ways they aren’t seen.  And then eventually smelling them or something.  That Conductor guy was kinda weird.

Consider that, by definition, every philosophical or scientific innovation was introduced to a world that did not currently believe it, at least in the terms it was presented.  As it goes with the world, so it goes with you: you can only grow by being wrong.  If you are not able to imagine how the world looks when you are wrong, then you’ll never be able to grow.

But we will not embrace falsehood.  We will embrace madnesssystematic falsehood!  Alien views of the universe that we built simply because we could!  (We did not ask if we should because you need a working system before you can answer that question, and if the answer is “no” at that point, you’re in trouble.)  We’ll take it all.  Every contrarian impulse, every pointless platitude, every hard-earned piece of life advice, we’ll mix it into an irresistible batter and cook up opinions so beautiful that people who read them will think they explain everything, they make so much sense, I can’t believe I’ve never thought about it this way before.  “Very true,” they’ll say, and mean it.

But the truth is this: reality is nameless unless it is named.  And we’re not good at naming things.  But try a hundred different names for a day each, and eventually you’ll start to realize which ones work better even if you can’t articulate why.  This is the end of understanding and the beginning of wisdom.

Did that all sound pretty cool?  Great, then it was probably bullshit.  Welcome to the Menagerie.

Until you realize the true Way, whether in Buddhism or in worldly laws, you may think that your own way is the one correct and in order.  However, if we look at things objectively, in the light of the Straight Way of the Heart or in accordance with the Great Square of the World, we see various doctrines departing from the true Way.  What you believe often proves to be contrary to the true way, distorted as it is by tendencies to favor your own thoughts and views.  Know this well, and try to act with forthrightness as the foundation and keep the true Heart as the Way.  Enact strategy broadly, correctly, and openly.

Miyamoto Musashi, best known for evolving into a motorcycle

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