Metaphors & Philosophy

September 1, 2010 — 4 Comments

Daniel Boorstin wrote that throughout history, philosophers have looked for new handles by which they could grasp the world around them. Technology and advancement became the source of new metaphors, new analogies, new explanations for who they were and why. The clock, for instance, became a vehicle through which they could explain a world that seemed to allow more and more autonomy—God as the clockmaker, who created life that could operate on its own.

The Epicureans, in 300 BC, developed the theory of atoms. Though they stumbled, primitively, on the physics of matter thousands of years before modern science, they weren’t what we’d consider today to be scientists. They were humanists. Epicurus used the theory to explain the degradation of the human body—why we age and die and what that means for our lives. Atoms helped explain dissolution. They explained infiniteness and placed man in his place, in the context of a world that was bigger and more complicated than he was.

Montaigne, for his part, loved to read about the recently discovered tribes of South America. He read whatever he could get his hands on, not because of some misguided notion about noble savages, but because the material showed the absurdity in all kinds of traditions. His essays are full of anecdotes from travelers and books that put the perspectives from the “cannibals” to good philosophical use.

Last week, I attended a dinner with a group of prominent people in the paleolithic health community. Though I’ve begun to question some of my initial skepticism towards the ideas behind it, it still struck me at moments how much focus and energy people are willing to spend on this field. To see grand theories reduced to comparatively minor personal actions just seemed like a misappropriation.

What I’ve started to wonder is what the ancient philosophers would have done had they know about evolution (which is also to point out how little our modern “philosophers” have done with it). Would they have obsessed over trivial improvements to our health or our sex lives? Would they have used it to justify or rationalize or pretentiously “discover” things we have always known to exist in human nature? I’m thinking of attempts to explain altruism or sex differences that are nothing more than common sense dressed up in jargon. What philosophers have done throughout history is to use the advances in science and technology to properly communicate better ways to live our lives. What we do now is fill up our time discussing the implications of theories in their least applicable way—or worse, apply them only in relatively meaningless settings.

I think they would have made much of natural selection as a metaphor. The concept of “shared ancestors” conjoins nicely with the philosophical notion of unity in nature, in addition to making a empathic case for humility and perspective. The same goes for themes like extinction, random mutation, tit-for-tat, and so on. Philosophers, especially the Stoics, registered early warnings against the Naturalistic Fallacy and and I think it goes without saying that they’d have benefited even more from knowing what makes us act the way we do. But the difference in practice: they wrote to contemplate death, not whether drinking or not drinking helps you live a little bit longer.

Ironically, paleolithic lifestyle advocates are guilty of the same inconsistent application as the scientists they criticize. Just as biologists originally accepted that other species were shaped by evolution but not humans, and then that all human organs were but not the brain, paleos seem to only question whether our eating and exercise habits are natural. But what of the rest of modern life? Maybe jobs or cities are well-intentioned but toxic inventions. That we subject ourselves to barrages of information that our minds can’t possibly break down properly, for instance, is an obvious missed metaphor for a movement that came to the same conclusions about food.

This is what Seneca said when he criticized how people tend to read. What does it matter whether Odysseus was in Italy or Sicily when he was hit by a storm, or whether early man ate many vegetables, when we have worse storms in our own lives. The key is to read and learn and study in a way that the words can become works. To use whatever you study, be it science or health or literature or mathematics and, use it to address the larger issues that we face. He meant that what mattered was what made you a better person—not physically or rhetorically, but spiritually and emotionally. And to be careful of the line where curiosity and self-improvement transition into wankery.

Projecting Rules

August 25, 2010 — 7 Comments

One thing I’ve noticed that happens on feminist blogs is that they have a peculiar way of phrasing their questions. A common one I’ve seen (or been asked) is that they’ll ask “how is this empowering?” or “is this subversive?” Of course, this is to demand adherence to a standard which no one ever agreed to meet. In other words, to continually set yourself up for disappointment and frustration.

Consider the logic in applying the “Bechdel Test” to Christopher Nolan movies, or to any movie for that matter. The fact that it’s often also called the “Bechdel Rule” is illustrative. Essentially, this is to assert an arbitrary benchmark, apply it retroactively and then angrily wonder why it wasn’t respected. Such behavior is voting on reality.

This is different than disliking something or having an intellectual issue with some practice or form of art or whatever. One is to disagree, or perhaps better yet, propose an alternative. The other is an entitlement that will always leave you perturbed and upset because you’re expecting to see your personal views reflected back by the world around you. The difference between the two is the difference between asking “Why” or “How come?” and “Why are you doing this TO ME?”

There’s no reason to live like that (unless your goal is to gin-up pageviews). It’s miserable and exhausting. And when we look at most of the sources of frustration or disappointment in our lives, there’s a good chance that this kind of attitude is behind it. Each time you can get rid of it, you feel a little bit better.

Empathy & Perspective

August 18, 2010 — 9 Comments

One of the critical functions of empathy is the ability to understand foreign situations—the things outside your self. This paves the way for pragmatism. As opposed to most “strategy” which is idealism or retroactive wishful thinking.

-Yahoo doomed themselves when they became a media company. Ok, now what?
-The record industry responded poorly to technology, we get it, what now?
-I knew the war in Iraq was going to be a mistake! And…?

Much of the discussion of these types of problems is best categorized as flippant analysis. Simplified is another word. I tend to interpret it as condescending too. It all stems from an inability to understand and place yourself in a reality you may not approve of or even care about. That is, to empathize.

Yahoo is a 20 billion dollar company. What are they supposed to do? Quit? The people in the situation are real, they wake up everyday and show up at an office and are expected to do something. They have quarterly filings, signed contracts, relationships and expectations. What are they supposed to do? In our lives, we’re much more likely to find ourselves as one of these people—just trying to maintain in a situation whose constraints we had nothing to do with—not the rebel billionaire with a chance to make things over completely.

Edwin Hutchins found, in his book Cognition in the Wild, that however organizations ultimately come to be organized determines how they think and process collectively. The factors and the personalities that formed the organization, in other words, formed and are the terrain. They matter more than just about anything else.

Since Kuhn philosophers of science have wondered if it’s even possible for a generation educated in a new paradigm to understand the assumptions taken seriously in the paradigm that came before. In a way, this is exactly the kind of gap empathy is aimed to bridge. Can you (or are you willing to) temporarily internalize a perspective you know to be flawed in order to understand the reality of someone else? This is what Hutchins wanted us to see, that to grasp why an entity makes a decision has as much to do with the choice itself as the way the group is structured. We’re missing a large part of the equation if we pretend the only thing that matters is the merits of either side of the decision.

It appears that this was the case with Cicero. Although wonderfully articulate and astute, he constantly misread the political situation because he was clueless to what went on in other people’s heads. His calculatedness, his ideals, his vision, it was always turned upside by some action he had not anticipated—as though it was some shock that Caesar had become convinced that only bold action could save Rome or that Octavian would eventually tire of being a pawn.

Because it doesn’t really matter what you think. It matters how they thought. People often confuse concept empathy with the concept sympathy. As they relate to emotions, sympathy is to agree, to share and to approve of how someone else feels. Empathy is the art of acknowledging those feelings without having to take them on yourself. Maybe this occasionally means thinking “it’s just too complicated for me to reduce to a couple sentence summary” or “I can only imagine the headspace that guy must be in” and leave the pronouncements to the charlatans and fools.

Finally, empathy gives you the perspective to “start from where the world is, as it as” as you look to change it into what you want it to be.

Schemes & Scams

August 4, 2010 — 59 Comments

During recessions there is almost always a rise in the reports of scams. People get sucked into get-rich-quick schemes and fall for outright cons. Sometimes it’s greed or laziness, and sometimes it’s more complicated. But it’s generally motivated by a sense of just

It’s really easy to assume this only happens to dumb people. The reality is that we fall for scams all the time, they differ only in name. And there are so many…

-Your ‘start-up‘ is a scam. Especially yours, you, the self-described “entrepreneur.”
-Reading Malcolm Gladwell articles is a scam
Traveling is a scam.
These colleges are a scam. Grad school is a scam.
-Ebooks are scams. Reading and writing.
Productivity blogs are a scam.
-Blogging is a scam.
-Adwords/SEO/Passive income/Multi-level marketing businesses are a scam. Wait, sorry, they are pyramid schemes.
Umair is a scam.

What I mean to see is that they are mostly bullshit. Promises we’ve been sold that simply cannot and will not deliver. Scams exploit the special confidence we place in our own judgment but have never actually earned. The critical ingredient is that a victim thinks they’ve found a loophole or advantage that the rest of the world missed. Because it’s this little confirmation of their sense of superiority that carries them over any doubts or objections. (Which is why you got all indignant when I called your start-up a scam)

One of the last steps in a con is called the “cool off” and it’s how an insiderman pacifies the mark after he’s been fleeced. For instance, they might arrange to be raided by a fake cop and let the mark flee thinking he is narrowly avoiding arrest. Or they might tear up the check as a token of their honesty, only to find later it was a duplicate and the original had already been cashed. The point is that a truly masterful conman never lets the gaffe know that he’s a victim. In fact, the idea is to part ways with them thinking they’ve walked away on top.

Of course, this is also key of so many of the scams above. What’s bold about them though is that most don’t even bother with the pretense of a specific payoff or an explicit promise. Who do you even hold accountable? The reward is so vague – “we’re creating thick value” – that you’ll never know you’ve been fucked. And you’ll never have anything to hold up as proof that you were besides the uneasy feeling that you were sold a bill of goods that wasn’t quite right.

The most disappointing part of internet has been watching young people breathlessly “discover” the same scams and charlatans that have always existed and convince themselves they are a revolutionary. It’s like a rookie reporter congratulating themselves for writing a trend piece that they’re too self-absorbed and young to know gets written every single year.

We should wonder why instead of getting more cynical, we’ve become wide-eyed optimists. Stop pretending its a “transition.” It is a CONTRACTION. Things are going away that will never come back. You will not own a house. You will not get Social Security. You will not get health insurance. Not the way your parents did, at least. Sure, the technology lowers barriers to entry in many ways, but they are much much higher in the ways that matter most.

A generation that’s been coddled and then suddenly kicked in the stomach should question what it finds attractive. At least believing that you won the Nigerian lottery has a naive innocence; it’s refreshingly free of the pathetic entitlement in living with your parents while you’re ‘building your personal brand.’ Now is not the time to travel or weigh your options but to get serious and acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster we woke up into and are stuck with.

Resist the temptation of get-rich-quick schemes. There is no easy way. Avoid what makes you feel like you’re onto something that makes you smarter than everyone else (see: Gladwell articles). That’s what the bait tastes like.


July 14, 2010 — 6 Comments

Try not to get upset by people’s rudeness. Notice: how it never seems to come from someone who has ‘earned’ the right to be rude. In other words, this attitude (or stupidity) has not served them well. It has held them back and punished them. So you pity it, place it properly in context with the costs, or pretend not to care but don’t feel resentment if you can help it. Because they’ve borne more of the burden than you.