Monday, February 07, 2011

The hardest part of getting what you want...

Over the weekend I got a very flattering but somewhat bizarre request in the comments of a post I wrote nearly a year ago. Someone who goes by the handle lordbap asked me to write a book about my "take on politics, and hints toward conspiracy theories." It's very gratifying to know that someone out there cares what I think about politics, but writing a book is a non-trivial undertaking, and writing a book about a topic about which I don't actually know very much would probably suck up the better part of a year. So if I were going to take seriously lordbap's request to write about conspiracy theories I would first cast a very jaundiced eye towards the request itself and start to wonder about what sinister ulterior motives might be lurking behind it.

Which brings me to the topic of this post.

In the ongoing battle between the forces of rationalism and faith my natural sympathies tend towards the rational. From my privileged vantage point near the top of the socioeconomic ladder (at least when measured on a logarithmic scale) I can see the positive effects that rationality has on the material well-being of me and my fellow humans. It is natural then to wonder why irrationality (a.k.a. faith) seems to be so resilient. One theory is that faith is an effective palliative against existential angst and other psychological (and even physical) maladies, and it derives its resilience from the same source as other drugs: it's addictive. I still believe that, but in the nearly two years since I first advanced that theory I have come to believe that there is something much deeper going on.

In terms of Darwinian evolution, humans are the caretakers of at least three different kinds of replicators: genes, memes, and, in the last decade or so, computer viruses. (I say "at least" because it is not possible to rule out the possibility that there are other replicators resident in ourselves whose nature is not quite so apparent.) Even leaving aside computer viruses for the moment it is apparent that we serve the reproductive interests of both ideas and DNA. Sometimes those two replicators are symbiotic (like when memes invent antibiotics and sanitation), but not always. Promiscuous sex, for example, can be a very effective reproductive strategy for genes, but having to raise a few dozen kids doesn't leave much time for scholarly pursuits. Memes have since responded by inventing contraception and pornography, which for the moment seems to have given them the upper hand in the eternal reproductive arms race, at least in certain circles.

If one opts to travel the rational road, that is, if not the final destination, at least a major truck stop along the way.

Having reached this place, one can for a while bask in the warm glow of understanding, revel in the power of being able to manipulate one's environment, and enjoy the hedonistic pleasures that become available in an industrialized world of material plenty. But after a while one comes face to face with a very thorny problem: having freed ones self from the constraints that guided the existence of one's ancestors one must now make a weighty decision: now what do I do? Hang out on the beach? That gets old surprisingly quickly (at least it did for me). Write? Write what? Novels? Screenplays? Essays? Code? A book? That seems like it could be interesting, but is that really what I want, or is that just the part of my brain that has been parasitized by my memes manipulating me into frittering away the rest of my life on serving their interests? (I actually hate writing because I hate reading the crap that most of what I write turns out to be. But I love having written.)

Then too, I love learning new things, which seems like an honorable pursuit (but again maybe that's just my memes talking?) Maybe I should take a class? (I sometimes toy with the idea of going to law school.) Oh, but it's so much easier and faster to just look things up on the web. In fact, it's so much easier and faster that I can quench the desire to learn, at least for a while, by skimming a few wikipedia articles. Maybe it's too easy? Wikipedia seems like scholarly pornography -- you get the endorphin rush without having to go to the bother and risk of seducing an actual woman or doing some actual research work.

Write some code? Start a company? So much easier (and more fun) to just pot shots at the people who are actually doing it (but getting it all wrong of course) and justify it to myself as bestowing the benefits of my wisdom and experience on all those green aspiring entrepreneurs and angel investors out there. And how is that so different from what I'm doing right now? Well, the person I'm taking pot-shots at right now is me, and I'm doing it because someone asked me to instead of on my own initiative, but is this really what I want out of life? Am I really so unsure of my own self-worth that I need cultivate a pack of ass-kissing (lordbap's description, not mine) sycophants to make me feel whole? (Note to lordbap: you asked me not to edit. Careful what you wish for.)

Deep understanding and financial independence are not the panacea they may appear to be. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade my problems for anyone else's. But even nice problems to have can still be real problems.

The hardest part of getting what you want.... is figuring out what it is. And the more options you have the harder that becomes. Which is, I think, why beyond a certain point money really can't buy happiness.

When it comes to choosing a direction in life the rationalist is truly adrift. He has no god to turn to. He cannot blindly follow the dictums of society. He has nothing to rely on but himself, the data, and Bayes' theorem. It works for a while because there are clear immediate needs to attend to that both genes and memes can agree on: vanquishing disease, increasing crop yields. But, like I pointed out earlier, once basic needs are met the agendas diverge. And here the rationalist has no choice but to peer into the abyss, because this is a fundamentally irreconcilable conflict as decreed by none other than Darwin himself.

The reason religion is so resilient is not just that it helps deal with existential angst, it's because it provides a goal. Rationality can provide the tools for making decisions, but it cannot provide a quality metric, at least not for an individual. "What do you want out of life" is a question that only you can answer. The problem with rationality is that it eventually leads you to wonder who -- and what -- "you" are. Is it really "you" who wants to start that business? Write that book? Surf that wave? Fuck that woman (or man)? Vote for that candidate? Argue for that position? Or is it some gene or meme complex that has hijacked your brain for its own soulless purpose? (For that matter, do you really have "free will" to make decisions about what "you" want? Do you even exist, or are you just a butterfly dream or an artifact of quantum decoherence?

It's very easy to get wrapped around the axle over such questions. I think it's a rare human being who has fully grappled with them and not either decided to punt or gone insane. When you gaze into the abyss...

For the other seven billion of us it is very tempting to just hand that kind of heavy lifting over to God and let Him deal with it. And, on those occasions when God isn't available, the Republican Party is there ready to pick up the slack.

Well, lordbap, that's the result of five hours of unedited (except for typos and grammar) writing. Not the twenty you were asking for, but I'm afraid that's all I have in me right now.


Don Geddis said...

"What is the purpose of (my) life?" may be a meaningless question, in that there really isn't any "purpose", as such.

You accept that at first, and attempt to just sit on a beach. And you find that you are bored. So you return to the (meaningless) question of, what is your purpose?

But you could have a different response to getting bored on the beach. You could simply treat your body and mind like a machine for which you have only a very simplified and imperfect model. Your goal is to construct your environment, such that this mysterious machine is generally happy and fulfilled.

There is no deeper meaning here. There is only an accident of evolution, particular genetics, and upbringing. But none of that matters. You are a particular machine, at this point in time. It is a matter of fact, how happy you feel given different uses of your time.

So. Perhaps you just need to start running some experiments. Try writing a novel for a month. Try traveling for a month. Try volunteering in the Peace Corp. During (and after) every experience, your brain will report its reward signal, about how happy you are in the moment (and in reflection).

Over the course of many experiments, you can hone in on what particular circumstances bring you the most satisfaction.

There's no need to think that there's any deep purpose or lesson here. You're a particular machine, and there will be an optimal set of circumstance (among those which are achievable by you) that maximize your long-term happiness. So: search for those circumstances. The answer is likely to be mostly an accident, providing surprisingly little insight into the general human condition. So what?

I guess I'm not sure whether the question is: (1) how can I figure out what I want out of life; or (2) what direction "ought" a rationalist seek?

I don't think that (2) is a useful way to frame your task. The answer to (1) is the same answer that science brings to investigating any phenomena that is not yet well understood.

Ron said...

> "What is the purpose of (my) life?" may be a meaningless question, in that there really isn't any "purpose", as such.

No, I disagree. That is an easy question to answer. The "purpose" of your life is to replicate. The fundamental problem is: replicate what? Your genes or your memes?

But notice that "what is the purpose of life?" is a different question than "what do I want?" The latter is a much harder question to answer.

> Perhaps you just need to start running some experiments. Try writing a novel for a month. Try traveling for a month.

That strategy won't work. You run headlong into the problem of induction. Smoking crack is (am given to understand) a much more enjoyable activity than novel writing when one first takes it up. But very few people (again, I am given to understand) find it fulfilling in the long run. The best way to learn that lesson is not (ibid) through firsthand experience.

Dealing with the question of what to do with your life by delegating (at least parts of) that decision to someone else is a defensible strategy even on purely rational grounds.

Don Geddis said...

Sure, I agree with you. One of my favorite quotes:

A fool does not learn from his mistakes. A normal man does learn from his mistakes. But the exceptional man learns from the mistakes of others.

I guess my main point was that: searching for the particular answer for you, may not have any larger ramifications. It's a different (and simpler) question than searching for the right answer for humanity in general, or even from "people in circumstances similar to mine".

As for "purpose", I still think that a device having a "purpose" requires an intelligent, deliberate designer who was trying to achieve a particular goal. I suppose you want to put evolution in that role. But evolution is more a description of what is, than what is attempting to be. For example, evolution can't really "fail" at its goal, in the way that a civil engineer might design a bridge that falls down under wind harmonics.

And in any case, even if you were designed (perhaps by evolution) as a vessel to spread your genes, there's no reason that your conscious brain needs to adopt evolution's goals. Replication may be why you're here now, but it has almost nothing to do with what you "ought" to do in the future.

I think of it more like a black slave brought to America from Africa, suddenly freed due to a train accident. If he asks "why am I here?", the answer is "to pick cotton in the hot fields for a white master". That is the reason why he finds himself in America instead of in Africa. But that has basically nothing to do with how he should now act, escaping from the train crash where everyone else died. "What should I do?" is a question basically unrelated to "how did I get to this point?"

Ron said...

> evolution can't really "fail" at its goal

Of course it can. Happens all the time. Dinosaurs. Passenger pigeons. Neanderthals.

Evolution itself may not "strive" for anything, but the creatures it produces sure do. And they can -- and regularly do -- fail.

> there's no reason that your conscious brain needs to adopt evolution's goals

But it does, whether I "want" it to or not. Take this very discussion. I'm engaging in it because I enjoy it, but the reason I enjoy it is not because I "decided" to enjoy it, it's because evolution has wired me to be a social creature, because my potential ancestors who weren't able to find a place in the social structure didn't survive.

> I think of it more like a black slave brought to America from Africa, suddenly freed due to a train accident.

That's actually not a bad analogy. A slave thus "freed" wouldn't be very free. He would likely sympathize with his fellow slaves still in captivity, but feel pretty powerless to help them. He would also likely fear being recaptured. Deciding what to do in a situation like that would not be easy.

(Just for the record, in no way would I compare my situation to that of a slave. The only dimension along which I would draw the analogy is that of a person suddenly and unexpectedly finding themselves with options they didn't previously have.)

Anonymous said...

That was awesome to read. Thanks!

Ron said...

Thanks, anonymous!