Deep Fix is a newsletter by Alex Olshonsky exploring personal growth, addiction, work, and philosophy. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:
Art by Muhammed Salah
Last week, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks and lit a fire inside me. I’d love to tell you that it was a rainbow, or sunlight glistening atop a river during golden hour. Alas, it was this tweet:
Sam Altman is the President of Y Combinator—the startup accelerator responsible for Airbnb, Reddit, Stripe, Twitch, Coinbase, and more. He’s kind of a legend. I don’t know Sam. He’s clearly a thoughtful, even brilliant guy.
I’m typically not one to dunk on ultra-influential business leaders. (I believe some absolutely deserve their due.) But I’m as susceptible to childish games as anyone. And thus—like a good yogi—I did a quick set of keyboard mudras and fired this back:
My response apparently resonated with a large number of people who forgave my hasty (and ironic) misspelling of “flair.”
At the risk of being someone who writes an essay over something that happened on Twitter, I will now do precisely that.
How leaders in our society view the Self touches on far more than philosophical reductionism.
The crux of my distaste for Sam’s tweet lies in his haphazard use of “just,” which reduces the enormity of a person—a You—into just scientific parts.
Philosophically, this conversation wades into the deep waters of free will and determinism. Let’s dip our toes in.
The reductionist mindset states we are shaped by constellations of experiences, biology, and quantum circumstances—all of which exist outside the sphere of our conscious awareness. According to this school of thought, every decision we make can be reduced back not to our agency as individuals, but instead simply to a set of neurons firing, which in turn creates our unconscious motives.
While there is, of course, truth to this neuroscientific explanation of You, it’s only a slice of the bigger picture. It’s useful to understand, but misses what is called an emergent property:
Emergence is when something unexpected arises that was not there before. Our universe literally exists because of emergent phenomena—when a whole entity has properties that the parts do not have on their own—like the way two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom band together to create a water molecule (H2O).
Space particles and gas band together to create planets, molecules band together to create a living cell, trillions of cells link together to create your body, and somehow the neural pathways in your brain bond together to facilitate conscious thought, resulting in the You that can read these words.
A living, breathing, conscious human being capable of abstraction is an emergent property. Its totality cannot be reduced to parts.
To do so denies the wild mystery of emergent phenomena. Why is it that our universe seems to posses an evolutionary impulse that creates more and more elegantly ordered complexity out of nothing?
The universe literally behaves as if it knows a more strategic sequencing of parts will lead to new and advantageous creation.
The “You” we are talking about here is one of the those creations. You are both a completely unique and ubiquitous slice of the same diamond. A consciousness becoming aware of its location in the universe, and of it significance and insignificance.
The becoming aware is happening in real-time. You are not just neurons firing with hormones flowing through them, You are a Conscious Agent of Evolution.
The Dirty Secret of Neuroscience
This is not about rejecting modern science. Rather, we embrace it! (And thank god for it ;-) The most cutting-edge science—i.e. quantum entanglement and mirror neurons—looks a lot like mysticism.
Brain science gets especially trippy.
The Buddha gleamed this no-Self insight 2,500 years ago, without any neuroscience. It can be a useful and even identity-shattering realization.
But the Buddha did not stop there. Core to Buddhism is rebirth, past lives, and reincarnation. Along with the idea that consciousness is everywhere—a popular philosophical theory now called panpsychism.
And even more bizarre evidence for such panpsychism: in near-death experiences (NDE’s), the mind still functions while the brain is “offline,” when people are flat-lined dead. (I recommend this excellent podcast with a neuroscientist and NDE researcher).
At my last job at VentureBeat, the entire company was assigned to read Measure What Matters, a book about OKR’s (Objectives and Key Results). OKR’s are processes that—in my opinion—bog down an organization by spending a lot of time talking about work, rather than just… working.
Silicon Valley is obsessed with measurement, in great part influenced by the early success of Google’s MBA-imported culture of relentless A/B testing for data optimization. In the Valley, every decision possible—even diversity and inclusion hiring—is reduced down to data. This makes sense. Businesses need measurement. I wouldn’t run one without it.
And, I’m still struggling to detach from the mindset. I no longer work in tech, but am building a business of my own and trying to establish a writing career. My measurement mind is profoundly conditioned, constantly thinking through Deep Fix LLC’s first year revenue, how many of you will click “like” on this essay, and how many new signups I might earn from some clever arrangement of words.
Measuring business revenue and online publishing is one thing. But when we apply the same tactics to the Self after work hours—we suffer. We deny the You that matters.
Okay… let’s measure
For those who insist on the measurable, quantifiable, and finite—what can be measured that helps us understand the nature of you, I, and Us?
On an individual scale, I insist that You and I are without a calculus. Yet, when we enter into the arena of Us, certain measurable quanta render significance.
I believe a crucial example of collective measurement is the far too countable rate of Deaths of Despair—drug overdose, suicide, alcoholism—in our country. There are more Deaths of Despair today than at any other point in history—killing more people than lung cancer, stroke, car crashes, and murder combined.
A Death of Despair is not a definition of Us, but it speaks to the state of Us. Airplanes are airplanes whether or not they are flying. However, it becomes meaningful when large swaths of airplanes are grounded due to bad weather, terrorism, pandemics, or poor standards of care.
Despite all of our sophisticated measurement abilities, like grounded planes, far too many of us are sick with Diseases of Despair.
The Power of the Unmeasurable
I’ll say it again. This is not about denying modern science, or measurement in general! It’s about embracing science in a way that elevates our human spirits. Because the biggest problem with a reductionist lens is that it represents a vision of humanity that’s spiritually bankrupt.
“Invisibility perplexes American common sense and American psychology, which hold as a major governing principle that whatever exists, exists in some quantity and therefore can be measured.” — James Hillman, The Soul’s Code
Here’s a “just” sentence I find more tasteful than the original tweet:
Just because something cannot be measured, does not mean it does not exist.
The most powerful forces in life cannot be measured. Like love, kindness, joy, and the invisible being psychologists like James Hillman dedicated entire careers attempting to elucidate: the soul.
Must we wait for modern science to verify the existential truths that spiritual masters and yogis have known for millennia? Can we dance with the unmeasurable now, as a means to enrich our lives?
I write this today because I worry about a future where all that matters is what’s measured.
My worry does not render me a helpless romantic. Nor a postmodern cynic.
No, I’m hoisting the metamodern banner—embracing the paradox while squeezing every drop out of existence possible. A lonely millennial raging against the dying of the light.
Community + Worthwhile Elsewhere
🌎 Dialogue. For the many new readers who joined us recently (👋!) Deep Fix is also a community of sense-makers. For over a year, we’ve held bi-weekly Zoom meetings to discuss topics that matter. Join our diverse and growing group of beautiful humans next Wednesday as we continue our dialogue around gender in today’s world. Click here for the Zoom details.
📕 Virtual Book Club. Are you looking for reading accountability, deep insights, and heartfelt conversations? We just wrapped up our second book, and are picking our third now. Join and vote on what we should read! Reply if interested.
👁 Third Eye Drops. In a world full of podcast noise, Michael Phillip’s pod will tickle your wonder pickle. The above linked pod on NDEs—“Surviving Death with Dr. Bruce Greyson”—is an all time favorite. But I like em all. Very deep fix.
8️⃣ 8 Things Right Now at 8 Years Sober. When Holly Whitaker, author of Quit Like a Woman and founder of the Tempest recovery program, writes a sobriety anniversary recap, I devour it. Sections 4 (The Secret) and 7 (Instagram) are my favorites.
🧠 Sam Altman. Despite any attempts at dunking, Sam is working on building an AI that benefits humanity—alongside Elon Musk and others. One tweet does not represent the enormity of a human.
Thanks for reading Deep Fix, my friend.
Speaking of measuring less, I’m taking some of my own medicine and taking next week off. In the meantime, HMU with your feedback, summer plans, and invisible insights.
And as always, special thanks to those who comment, share DF with friends, on the socials, and support this work. The joy I get from connecting with y’all cannot be measured.
Until next time …
P.S… if you dug today’s essay, please finger-click the heart button below, which helps new users discover it 🖤