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Working backwards from 42

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This is going to be a long post.

kxcd #701, follow link for original cartoonI want to write down, as clearly as I can, how I see the world. I want to do this because I have the dumb but unshakeable belief that thinking about things clearly is a kind of magic: that if we try to understand a little harder, draw distinctions a little sharper, lay it out from the top on down, that we can transcend the limitations that exist in the normal course of life. I program computers, as a hobby and right now for a living, and with computers, if you think about the problem hard enough and frame it the right way, you can pretty much make anything happen. By thinking hard enough, you can accomplish in a day what a naive approach might accomplish in a year or even a lifetime. In the real world, though, for the most part, we still interact point-and-click mode. Although it’s exciting to explore randomly and see what we find, I also think it would be cool to be able to switch into command mode, get behind the scenes and start programming in the native language. I want philosophy that compiles.

Science, at its best, is a form of this exploration. Instead of just doing stuff, a scientist stops to learn the rules, and starts to create the logical connections that exponentially magnify her ability to make cool things happen. However, we’ve only really cracked the code relative to certain physical systems, which allows for some neat technological effects but is still a step away from the total programming experience I imagine. Although we can blast things through the air, communicate around the world instantly, and manufacture everything from silly putty to new species of plants, most of the really important problems, like people achieving their potential and dying happy, true political freedom throughout the world, overcoming tragedy-of-the-commons situations like environmental pollution, or even something as simple as a healthy global economy, are still as opaque to us as they were to people who died a thousand years ago.

The primary unsolved system between where we are today and where I imagine we could go is the human mind, specifically the realm of values and choices. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we want and where we are going? Right now these questions are not subservient to the realm of logic in any systematic way. We basically live in the dark ages. Half of us believe in stories passed down from our parents and from our parents’ parents that originated back in the day out of tribal myths. Half of us don’t really believe in them but pay them lip service because we don’t know what else to think. Another half (oops, are we past 100% yet?) define themselves mostly in opposition to said myths, and a final half don’t really think about it much at all. It’s no wonder that solving anything that requires an understanding of not just how things work in the physical world, but how they ought to work, is completely beyond our civilization’s ken.

There have been minor revolutions going on for the past few decades attacking the problem of the mind from the inside, via cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and from the outside, via behavioral psychology. This is great and will bring much power, but by itself it is inadequate. Science is fundamentally a descriptive discipline. It can tell you what things are, but it can’t tell you how things should be. But “should” is exactly what we need to get our arms around to solve these problems. What we need, in addition to science, is a normative discipline.

The great normative discipline is design / engineering. When you are designing a house, you are accountable to physical laws, but not determined by them: your house needs to respect gravity if you don’t want it collapse, but the law of gravity won’t tell you how to build your house. I think human nature is like building a house in that regard. Humans aren’t fixed; we are programmable creatures that can rewrite our own source code via new ideas. But there are also laws and constraints that govern our operation. If you try to rewrite human nature without understanding the chipset, like Lenin did in Russia and Castro did in Cuba, you get Windows 2000 and a blue screen of death.

I want to write the Linux kernal for the human mind. I want an operating system, the basis of our conception of what we are and why we are in this world, that’s open, robust, and serves as a platform for infinite expansion. Like any good programmer, I’m starting from the work that other, more talented people have already done. Above I said that we live in the dark ages. That’s actually not true. People have been thinking about these questions for thousands of years, and I think that we are on the verge of breakthrough. I don’t think I have much in the way of new ideas here, nor do I think I need them: what I aim to do is pull together the best that already exist and combine them together via an engineering mindset. This is a big problem, and I don’t expect success on day one. Rather, I’m putting this out here with the hope that it will push the ball closer to the goal, and that others will join in and help me slam it into the net.

The gameplan is to start by working our way through, from the fundamentals on up, what we know — and more importantly what we don’t know — about what we are and what this universe is that we live in. Right now, this is a draft: there’s a lot of legwork to do, especially once we get into the space of things that we can actually test empirically. I want to start by getting the ideas all out on the table, and and going on from there. Although I have visions of this coming together into something book-like, I’m going to start by writing it as a series of posts which will link together into an overall whole. Right now I have the material for 6 or 7 posts half-drafted, and I figure that there’s never a better time than the present to get started, so here goes. This is chapter one. Stayed tuned…

Next: Assumptions

Written by jphaas

July 31st, 2011 at 3:11 am

Posted in philosophy

Words are bullshit

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I’ve always been very suspicious of words. When I was in high school I was on the debate team, so I constantly had to practice arguing both sides of an issue, and one of the things I noticed was that I could work myself up to a state of passionate conviction that I was right, even though thirty minutes ago I was equally convinced of the other side. I was raised in a family of Democrats, and raised to believe that the Democratic party was right and the Republican party was wrong. My parents would even half-jokingly say “Republicans are evil.” After a while, though, this started to seem a little silly; how could half the population of the United States be right and virtuous and the other half be wrong and evil? On the debate team, I would be arguing from a conservative position one minute, and a liberal position the next, and honestly sometimes both seemed right and other times both seemed wrong.

In all this mess of wrongness and rightness, one distinction that emerged for me was the difference between value judgments and statements of facts. Value judgments seem very subjective; it’s pretty much impossible to prove using any kind of logical argumentation that something is good or bad, or wrong or right, if the person you’re talking to doesn’t accept the premises that you’re arguing from. On the other hand, facts are something you can rely on: they’re objective statements of what is, untainted by any subjective notions of what ought to be.

In theory, anyway. In practice, “facts”, I’ve learned, tend to be value judgments masquerading in disguise. In any complex situation, there are a million little details. What you leave in and what you leave out come down to what you see as relevant, and “relevant” means, “related to your goal or purpose in talking about this situation”, which puts you back in the realm of the subjective. A candidate walks into a job interview with two interviewers; the first walks out seeing the candidate as intelligent and straightforward; the other thought the person was obtuse and rude. It happens all the time.

Even the very simplest, most basic things, contain an element of subjectivity. Let’s take the statement, “there’s an apple on the table.” What’s an apple? Well, without getting too scientific about it, it’s a fruit whose parent was an apple tree. But what if that apple tree had some mutations, and the apple is a little larger, a little bumpier than your typical apple? (Keep in mind that every living organism has mutations… the only question is, how drastic are they?) Is it still an apple? At what point does a sufficiently mutated apple become a new species? There’s no hard-and-fast rule… what ends up happening is that interested parties (biologists, apple farmers, Whole Foods, the USDA, etc.) hash it out and come to some kind of an agreement.

We don’t see the subjectivity in our everyday facts because humans have a natural tendency to socially converge on a set of common values, a consensus reality. If I’m in a room with you looking at the apple, most of the time neither of us are apple experts, neither of us are thinking about mutations, and both of us are hungry: we accept “there’s an apple on the table” as self-evident fact. And this is by-and-large a fine way of operating: if we really thought about the fundamental accuracy of everything we said, we’d be completely paralyzed.

That said, at the end of the day, all the word “apple” really is is a short-hand for a complex biological phenomenon. Moreover, it’s an imperfect shorthand. There is no one-to-one mapping between our concept “apple” and a set of things in the real world; there are always border cases. We can keep on revising our concept of “apple” til the end of time and there will keep on being border cases. And our concept leaves out the majority of what there is to know about apples. For instance, did you know that apple seeds contain cyanide? Take anything you take for granted, drill into it, and there is always a world of complexity there that you’ve never thought about.

My conclusion from all of this is that in fact there is no such thing as a true statement about the world. Words and the concepts they represent are functions of the human mind, and the human mind is incapable of wrapping itself around reality. It’s like trying to paint a picture by singing a song: music can suggest images, but it can’t actually convey them.

In many ways this is a liberating observation. People spend a lot of time worrying about being right. People stake their entire careers on trying to convince other people that they are right, and that others are wrong. When I hear politicians speak, for instance, no matter what side of the political spectrum they’re on, I tend to hear “blah blah blah blah” — a lot of claims, emotions, rhetoric, all of which can sound better or worse or resonate with me more or less strongly but at the end of the day, often mean completely nothing.

When you drop the pretense of “right” and “true”, in a black-and-white way, what you’re left with is flexible adaptation of your concepts to experience. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more I’ve actually experienced something, the less opinionated I am about it, or at least the more skeptically I treat my own opinions. It’s easy to be opinionated about something that you’ve only engaged with on a conceptual level: in fact, most people, myself included, are almost frighteningly opinionated across a vast range of subjects that honestly they know nothing about (What’s your opinion on the government’s health care policy, for instance? Do you have a strong one? Are you sure you’re right?)

This seems counterintuitive — the more you’ve experienced, the less opinionated you are — but in fact it’s very logical. Concepts are compelling things, and we’re in love with our own. The more a concept relates to a sense of self, the more in love with it we are — if our sense of self is strongly based on us being an American, for instance, woe to anyone who dare criticize America in front of us! For American, substitute Republican, Democrat, black, white, gay, Jew, engineer, lean startup practitioner, housewife, businessman, artist… the list is as infinite as human culture. But the more experience we have, the more we are forced to confront the fact that our concept is just an approximation. The real world is always happy to teach us that things are more complicated than our mind is capable of wrapping into our world view. For instance, if you’ve learned to drive, you’ve probably been taught at some point that if you start skidding you need to turn your wheel in the direction of the skid. That’s probably good advice on average, and if you started skidding and didn’t know what else to do, that’s as good a thing to do as any and probably much better than turning the wheel in the other direction. But I bet you $5 that if you talked to someone who’s had extensive experience skidding — say, a professional race car driver, or someone who drives an ambulance in an icy climate — the conversation would be substantially longer than “turn your wheel in the direction of the skid”. Life is always more detailed and rich than our mental sketch summary of it.

It’s comforting to hold on to concepts, because it gives a sense of security to feel like you understand the world around you, that you’re in control, that you know what’s right and what’s wrong. But the ability to let go of those concepts is the ability to learn and grow. Uncertainty is the precondition for insight. In a sense, holding onto concepts is like keeping yourself in a cocoon… it feels safer, but it narrows the horizon of your world. So, what I like to tell myself, is that words are bullshit… I say stuff, but even as it comes out of my mouth, I know at some level it’s not really true, it’s just me expressing what I feel in the moment to the best of my abilities. That way, I can make strong statements and get things wrong, because I know that even if I tried to be really careful and always be right I wouldn’t be successful. And oftentimes, being creatively and aggressively wrong can lead to more interesting places anyway.

Written by jphaas

June 14th, 2011 at 12:01 am

Posted in philosophy

Nutrition, Psychology, and Reductionism

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I have the most ridiculous 2 am thoughts.  Like, why am I thinking about this right now?  It’s totally random.  Anyway, here goes:

So there’s an ongoing debate in the sciences about “reductionism”.  If I’m a reductionist, I believe that psychology and nutrition are just applied biology, that biology is just applied chemistry, that chemistry is just applied physics (and is physics just applied math?)  Note that you can remove the word “just” and make the reductionist position sound less condescending, depending on your taste.  If I’m not a reductionist, I believe that there are facts / laws about psychology + nutrition that can’t be paraphrased / explained in terms of biology.  These facts “supervene” on the underlying physical facts, or perhaps they “emerge” from a sufficiently complex system, whatever that means.

It’s an unsolved debate right now.  On the reductionist side of things, you have chemistry, which (as I understand it — chemists please jump in) reduces to physics fairly nicely.  For instance, the interactions of the periodic table can be explained in terms of the mixture of protons, electrons, and neutrons in an atom.  As you get further and further out from chemistry, though, our ability to deductively reason about things gets weaker and weaker.  I think (oh god I’m sure I’m getting this totally wrong) that RNA folding into proteins is currently partially reduced to chemistry: we can explain why any given protein structure is stable by reference to chemical bonds, but on the other hand, we can’t reliably calculate in the other direction and figure out what combination of RNA will fold into any given molecular shape (though we’re working on it).

If you zoom out to psychology and nutrition (which I’m picking on because a) they are generally labeled as being “science” vs something like sociology or economics where people feel obliged to qualify it as being a “social science”, and b) because I find them interesting), we really know stunningly little, and our ability to make meaningful predictions at the level of the whole human being is pretty much, despite all the research that has been done, garbage.  That’s a strong statement, but let’s look at the state of the art.

In psychology, for a large part of the 20th century, the establishment took Freud’s theory that the mind could be subdivided into the id, the ego, and the superego seriously.  In terms of scientific rigor, I’d put that as roughly comparable to Hippocrates’ theory that the human body consists of yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm.  Over the last 40 or 50 years, things have gotten a bit better, and we know now things such as: if I fry brain region X, you lose ability to do Y, and if I feed you drug Z, this will stimulate brain region Q.  There’s also been a plausible effort done mapping out a lot of the more automatic circuity of the brain: we can tell a reasonable story, for instance, about how incoming light becomes representations of objects becomes emotional reactions, or text becomes sound becomes words, and back that story up with descriptions of the way neural networks grow and interact.  But when you move past the stuff that happens more mechanically, and start trying to understand personalities, creativity, intelligence, etc., it’s basically a giant mystery.

There’s a fair amount of literature on those topics, but my strong sense is (and I want to write a longer, better researched entry backing this assertion up because it’s definitely my opinion) that that research is essentially psuedo-science, in a very particular way.  It sounds like science, because the researchers form hypotheses, do proper controlled experiments, and find statistically significant results, but if you look at the theories that those experiments are testing, they’re somewhere in between “begging the question” and “making shit up”.  For instance, (citation needed) there was a study that found that of a group of nuns, the ones who were more optimistic tended to live longer.  Okay, nice, so a journalist reports “psychologists prove optimism is good for your health”.  But although that makes a nice headline, we haven’t actually learned anything, because “optimism” is just a word for people who got a certain score on a survey that some researcher made up (in fact, a lot of psychological research consists of building such surveys to provide definitions for various terms).   We don’t actually know if “optimism” is a meaningful description of the way people’s minds work, or whether “optimism” is just the symptom of something else, like a runny nose could mean a flu or it could mean allergies.    We don’t have the power to deduce anything about optimism in general.

Likewise nutrition is in the same basic state.  Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food does a really good job laying out exactly how little we actually know about nutrition.  Quiz: is margarine or butter healthier for you?  Answer: not sure, but I’d bet on butter.  And yet margarine is successfully, to-this-day, marketed to people who would prefer butter but feel obliged, for health reasons, to pass it by.    The big problem with nutrition is similar to the big problem with psychology: you can do a study that demonstrates a correlation (feed rats more of a particular nutrient, see how many develop cancer), but we don’t have a theoretical framework powerful enough to draw conclusions about the operation of the entire system.  Quiz 2: suppose I show you that feeding rats antioxidants reduces cancer risk, and suppose I show you that feeding rats fiber reduces cancer risk.  What happens if you feed rats both antioxidants and fiber?  Answer: trick question — not enough information!  What if — and this kind of complicated interaction happens all the time in cell biology — the antioxidants trigger cellular processes that, combined with the fiber, release a third chemical that actually increases cancer risk?  We can’t answer that question without performing another experiment.  So when you step back and try to answer the big questions that people care about, like “is vegetarianism healthy?  is veganism?  how about low-carb diets?  how do I lose weight?”  you get a lot of conflicting, confusing information, which is why people keep on successfully writing and marketing diet books.

So, back to reductionism.  Because psychology and nutrition have not been succesfully reduced to biology, it’s an open question about whether or not they can be.  The question is important, because whether or not you believe the answer is yes determines to a certain extent how you set about doing research.  For instance, if you’re a reductionist, you probably want to know if “optimism” can be mapped to something in the brain, such as a particular configuration of neurons, whereas if you’re a non-reductionist, you doubt there’s a clear mapping and so treat it as a basic element of research (or come up with your own theory instead — I kind of like “yellow bile” as a basic element of human psychology).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the answer is “none of the above”.  I think it’s very likely that concepts that we care about, such as “optimism”, “healthy”, “happiness”, etc., don’t map neatly to underlying physical phenomenon.  The reason I don’t think we’re going to be able to find neat mappings is because those concepts are in part descriptions of reality but in part value judgments.  One person’s definition of healthy might be longevity.  Another person’s definition of healthy might be “able to benchpress 300 lbs”.  Most people are going to have a mix of those things, with millions of little factors thrown in, such as “how do I feel?” “how do I look?” “how energetic am I when I get up in the morning?”  You can try to nail down and quantify pieces of that, but you’re going to lose the gestalt of healthiness.  To me, I think “healthy” and “happy” are like “beauty” — you can debate whether or not something’s beautiful, and there is some element of an objective character to the discussion because people will agree or disagree with each other based on physical evidence, but at the end of the day you can’t prove anything.

So, I don’t think you can “reduce” the kind of questions that nutritionists and psychologists are interested in.  But neither would I say that they are scientific facts in their own right (yellow bile!)  Rather than thinking of psychology and nutrition as sciences, I think a better paradigm is to think of them as a branch of design / engineering.   People think of them as science because the human body and mind already exist and we want to learn about them, but if you think about it, it’s just a coincidence that we have a starting point that already exists… we can still imagine redesigning them from scratch (in theory… in practice, not any time soon…) and, more to the point, we can modify them.

So why do I think psychology and nutrition should really be a branch of engineering? Consider the similarities:

-There is more than one right answer in engineering.  Is an iPad better or worse than a Lenovo laptop?  Neither; or rather, it depends on what you’re using them for, and even then it is still subjective.  Likewise, there are plenty of examples of people with radically different diets living long, healthy lives, and people with radically different psychological makeups and life experiences being happy.  I’ve read so many flame wars between proponents of one diet vs another, or one set of beliefs vs another, that would just go “poof” if both sides recognized that there is more than one right answer.

-Certain things don’t work.  If you ignore the laws of physics when architecting a house, it will fall down.  A laptop produced today runs much much faster than a laptop produced ten years ago. Likewise, certain diets will kill you, as will certain psychological attitudes & beliefs.  Engineering is subjective, but it’s not relativistic.

-Engineered systems are complex, and must be understood as a series of interactions and tradeoffs.  The human body and the human mind are considerably more complex than anything engineers have ever architected, so assuming that there are simple laws for describing them seems naive, when you look at the amount of judgment and detail that goes into, say, designing a car engine.

-There is a design / aesthetic component.  When evaluating the tradeoffs of different solutions, people are going to weight them differently based on their individual values, and that’s totally legitimate.

-You can apply the scientific method to do benchmarks on a design, but a benchmark only tells you so much.  Examples of benchmarks in engineering:  How many pounds of pressure can a given structure hold?  How fast can a database system perform a join of two large datasets?  Both questions can be answered via the scientific method, but neither will tell you the answer to “is that a good design for your structure / database?”  For me, this is the most important consequence of thinking in terms of “engineering” vs “science”.  Much of the research being done in psychology and nutrition seem to be along the lines of benchmarks.  “What is the correlation between nutrient X and effect Y?”  “How do people who journal regularly rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10?”   You would never design a car through those kinds of tests; at best, they’re useful for evaluating your designs after the fact against a certain narrow set of criteria.  But that’s really what we want out of those sciences: the ability to design diets, make smart life decisions, be healthy and happy.  So why are we treating them like a science?  If you think in terms of engineering, then research becomes about building prototypes, sharing best practices, critiquing design decisions, debating aesthetics.  You try things, you see what works, when something doesn’t work you ask “why”.   That seems more productive to me than putting a rat or a psych undergrad into yet another controlled study…

Written by jphaas

April 12th, 2011 at 8:20 am

Posted in philosophy

How do you think about how you should live?

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Lately I’ve been thinking about the yardstick problem in regards to how to live a good life. The problem is basically, how do you measure what good is? What’s the standard you use to compare one way of living life to another way of living life?

At some level, it’s pretty obvious that if you have to ask the question, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. I don’t know all that much about the true nature of happiness, but I’m pretty sure that any frame of mind where you’re rating one life against another is not conducive to it — that kind of comparison, weigh-and-evaluate mindset is pretty radically disconnected from the things I associate with wisdom and happiness, such as living in the moment, acceptance, spontaneity, and the like.

But there’s a practical problem with ignoring the question, which is that pretty much anything you choose as the direction to go in requires some commitment and effort, at least if you’re talking about living a life that’s more than just being a coach potato. You can arbitrarily pick something, I suppose, but I find that at least for me I have to have some amount of conviction that my direction is “right” or else I find myself wavering and reversing. I’m not talking about the difference between, say, deciding to help people by becoming an environmental activist versus becoming a doctor, which I think is just a matter of finding the best alignment between your talents, interests, and opportunities; I’m talking about the foundational view of reality that makes “deciding to help people” a worthwhile or worthless path to pursue.

The way I see it, there are a few different competing frameworks for how to even think about what makes for a good life, all of which are compelling and hard to reconcile. (There are also some more-or-less obviously shitty ones, such as trying to acquire as much money / fame / power as you can, drugging yourself via mindless entertainment and idling the years away til you die, etc.) I won’t try to give a fantastic taxonomy, but to give you the flavor of what I’m thinking about, here are some that come to mind:

-The heroic. Good = good; the fulfilling life is adopting a righteous cause, and then taking some names and kicking some ass. There are a lot of variations on this, depending on what you think makes a good cause, and depending on whether your view of a hero looks more like Martin Luther King, Jr. or like Jack Bauer. But the commonalities are that fulfillment comes from being on the side of the angels, and success is measured in outcomes (number of [people/species] [helped/saved/converted/liberated]). I think this context has a lot of deep-rooted psychological power… e.g., Joseph Campbell’s ideas in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

-The artistic. Good = creation, expression, authenticity, beauty. The fullest expression of your humanity is to bring things into being, to create new patterns and forms never before seen, to rise beyond the mundane by creating meaning. I think one of the best expressions of this I’ve encountered is in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

-The spiritual. Good = transcendence, oneness, bliss, seeing the interconnectedness of all things. Peace, meditation, insight, and wisdom.

-The evolutionary. Good = growth, self-improvement, achieving your desires and by doing so helping creation expand. Life is a series of outcomes, which are neither good nor bad intrinsically; joy is learning the patterns behind the outcomes and adapting your behavior to get more and more efficacious as you grow in intelligence, power, and wisdom. This is one of the most compelling contexts for me, and a lot of my thinking about the yardstick question comes from seeing myself over the last two years adopt this more and more, and wrestling with the incongruities between this context and my old patterns of belief. A lot of my thinking around this context has been shaped by, as well as by my current employer.

-The rational. Good = knowledge, wisdom, understanding. Related to the artistic, in that the primary good is the output of your mind, not the way you live your life. It’s the philosopher versus the painter, or the scientist versus the novelist.

I’m sure there are others, but those are the main ones that I personally find compelling. They’re also damn hard to compare, both in terms of framing up the contrast and in terms of the actual decision. How do you stack writing the great american novel up against curing cancer? Is the life of mind what’s important, or the life you lead every day? You can sometimes evaluate the achievements of one context in the currency of another, as in when art is defended in terms of its political or human impact, but that always feels like it’s at least somewhat missing the point.

Of course, they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, which to me actually makes it even messier: you could — I guess — evolve and grow more powerful via art, or do good via a spiritually practice. There are also values that cut across the different contexts, interacting with each of them in different ways: freedom, rising beyond the mundane, fitness-for-a-purpose, and finding universal principles, to give some examples. At the end of the day, though, my experience is that I find the different contexts mutually undermining. When I’m in an evolutionary mindset, I feel like I’m giving something up in terms of the heroic and the artistic; if I’m studying and writing philosophy, I wonder if it’s worth anything if it doesn’t make my day-to-day life better.

Moreover, all of the perspective seem vulnerable to the “so what?” question. The heroic falls apart pretty quickly: okay, so you saved two people’s lives, but in eighty years they would be dead anyway. Likewise, you created a great piece of art, but at the end of the day, it will be forgotten. Evolution, whether you’re thinking on the personal or species level, has its own encounter with entropy. Spirituality doesn’t hit the all-things-will-end wall as obviously, but there seems something sterile about deriving value from an experience that from the outside is indistinguishable from someone in a coma.

Or anyway, that’s the cynical perspective. I’m not saying it’s right, but what it does show is that there are certain premises you have to take for granted to make any of the contexts stand up. That isn’t surprising to me, since one thing I think I believe is that all “truths” about existence and the meaning of life are created by people in conjunction with reality, not derived from reality without one’s active participation. But it does beg the question, okay, so on what basis would you choose to believe one or more of those premises? Why choose to have faith in any of them?

The answer I’ve assumed since I first started thinking about it — and this is the heart of the matter — is that you want to have faith in premises about reality because that’s the path that leads to happiness. It’s a natural conclusion to reach, because the way I think most people get here is that they notice they are unhappy, ask themselves why, start thinking about the meaning of life, realize that you can’t just logically deduce it, and conclude that you need to take on faith some empowering, happiness-giving, view of reality because otherwise you’re going to spend your life as an existential wreck. So then, when you think about which premises and which context you want to adopt for yourself, it becomes a question of picking whichever one makes you happiest.

That sounds pretty logical, and I don’t doubt some people do fine by it, but in practice it just hasn’t been clicking for me. The problem with it is that happiness, which is the meta-context I’ve been using to evaluate the various premises, actually really sucks as a basic thing-to-want-out-of-life. Now to be clear, “happiness” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but I’m using it in the most generic, inclusive sense: that of everyday experience having some kind of a positive quality to it, whatever exactly that positive quality really is. This kind of happiness, is bad as a meta-goal because asking “what will make me the most happy?” is pretty much guaranteed to make you unhappy at the end of the day. By making the primary criterion the quality of your experience, you’re assuming a solipsistic reality: “your experience” narrows the universe to the contents of your own head. Although I’m not making an ethical claim that solipsism is bad (because ethics comes much further down in the figuring-out-the-meaning-of-life stack than the level we’re talking at right now), I think it’s a fundamentally sterile perspective. Without a sense of “other”, happiness is boring — there’s no appeal to me thinking in terms of just my own experience. Also, happiness is finite: you only have so many instants of experience in your life, and as soon as each one is gone, it’s gone for good. You can remember it, but all memory is is just another instant. There’s no flavor of the infinite, no transcendence when you think in terms of happiness, and when you narrow yourself to the limited range of human experience over a finite time span, that too induces, at least in me, the feeling of sterility.

So happiness doesn’t help me sort out what context I want to adopt, although it certainly motivates thinking about the question. At the end of the day, I think any of the contexts above can make someone genuinely “happy”, however you want to define happiness, if they’re adopted sincerely. The thing I’m looking for, though, is something to help me think that one of the contexts is right, because as long as I can ask the question “why is this right?” and not come up with a good answer, it undermines my sincerity when I try to adopt one. Right doesn’t have to be an absolute truth, to be clear. A “practical” right is fine with me too, and there’s nothing structurally unsound in saying that one is right because it makes me happy… the problem I have with that argument is simply that “happiness” isn’t a criterion that moves me strongly enough.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday, and the answer that popped into my head was “gift”: rather than seeing the meta-goal of life as happiness, see the meta-goal of life as “giving”. I’m not sure I can completely intellectually defend that as answer, but when it came to me it felt very right, so I want to play with it for a bit and see where it gets me.

Immediately, thinking in terms of giving breaks me out of the sterility of happiness. A “giving” universe is not solipsistic, nor is it blandly monist. Rather, there is an I and a thou, a giver and a receiver. Moreover, it’s not just a duality (always an intellectually suspect condition): the giver can be the gift, the receiver can be oneself: identity can ebb and flow, merge and separate. The essence of giving is a dynamic, a motion, an aliveness. Along the time dimension, giving is a verb, whereas happiness is a state. The duration of a gift can be instantaneous or infinite, finite or unbounded. So as a basic thing-to-want-out-of-life, the notion of giving immediately feels more right to me than happiness, even though functionally there is overlap (since “to give is to receive”).

The next question is how “giving” relates to the original contexts that I’ve been trying to decide between. At first blush, it seems more fundamental, which is what you’d want. You can ask “Why create art?” and answer “to give of yourself to creation.” You can also ask, “why evolve, why strive to improve yourself?” and again answer “to give of yourself to creation.” Same goes for the heroic and the rational modes, and as for the spiritual, I think “giving” is really a certain way of cashing out what spiritually really means, a way that happens to be, in my opinion, a really good one.

Does it favor one over the other? Not really, but I’m okay with that: I wasn’t hoping for a knock down victory of one context over the other. I’m satisfied with a basic meta-context in which the varied modes can be justified, played off against each other, merged and recombined. It makes an impossible problem to solve into a merely difficult one, one that I think can be resolved on the level of day-to-day choices about where you spend your time. Getting to that point — the point where the big questions in life are best solved by just living — is great victory. I suppose you can get there by not asking the questions to begin with, but asking and answering and then being able to move forward for a time without their burden is really worth something, at least as far as I’m concerned.

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Written by jphaas

July 26th, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in philosophy