Tag Archives: philosophy

The Source of Happiness

When, after twenty years of mar­riage, Laura Munson’s hus­band told her “I don’t love you any­more. I’m not sure I ever did.”, she chose to not believe him. Not because it didn’t hurt or that she wasn’t tak­ing it per­son­ally, but because this wasn’t about her – it was about unmet expect­a­tions.

In yet anoth­er touch­ing Mod­ern Love column (is there any oth­er type?), Mun­son tells an enthralling story of mar­it­al and famili­al dis­quiet, but also man­ages to cut to the core of hap­pi­ness: that the source is not to be found through extern­al val­id­a­tion.

I’d finally man­aged to exile the voices in my head that told me my per­son­al hap­pi­ness was only as good as my out­ward suc­cess, rooted in things that were often out­side my con­trol. I’d seen the insan­ity of that equa­tion and decided to take respons­ib­il­ity for my own hap­pi­ness. And I mean all of it.

My hus­band hadn’t yet come to this under­stand­ing with him­self. He had enjoyed many years of hard work, and its rewards had sup­por­ted our fam­ily of four all along. But his new endeavor hadn’t been going so well, and his abil­ity to be the bread­win­ner was in rap­id decline. He’d been miser­able about this, felt use­less, was los­ing him­self emo­tion­ally and let­ting him­self go phys­ic­ally. And now he wanted out of our mar­riage; to be done with our fam­ily. […]

I saw what had been miss­ing: pride. He’d lost pride in him­self. Maybe that’s what hap­pens when our egos take a hit in mid­life and we real­ize we’re not as young and golden any­more.

When life’s knocked us around. And our child­hood myths reveal them­selves to be just that. The truth feels like the biggest suck­er-punch of them all: it’s not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us hap­pi­ness. Those achieve­ments, those rela­tion­ships, can enhance our hap­pi­ness, yes, but hap­pi­ness has to start from with­in. Rely­ing on any oth­er equa­tion can be leth­al.

My hus­band had become lost in the myth.

The Virtues of Rationality

The name Eliez­er Yudkowsky imme­di­ately con­jours in my mind the word ration­al­ity (thanks to his addict­ive piece of fan fiction, Harry Pot­ter and the Meth­ods of Ration­al­ity). On a recent vis­it to his site, this con­nec­tion has now be strengthened after I saw his excel­lent essay on the twelve vir­tues of ration­al­ity:

  1. Curi­os­ity: A burn­ing itch to know is high­er than a sol­emn vow to pur­sue truth.
  2. Relin­quish­ment: Do not flinch from exper­i­ences that might des­troy your beliefs.
  3. Light­ness: Sur­render to the truth as quickly as you can.
  4. Even­ness: You are not a hypo­thes­is, you are the judge. There­fore do not seek to argue for one side or anoth­er.
  5. Argu­ment: In argu­ment strive for exact hon­esty, for the sake of oth­ers and also your­self […]Do not think that fair­ness to all sides means bal­an­cing your­self evenly between pos­i­tions; truth is not handed out in equal por­tions before the start of a debate.
  6. Empir­i­cism: Always know which dif­fer­ence of exper­i­ence you argue about.
  7. Sim­pli­city: When you pro­fess a huge belief with many details, each addi­tion­al detail is anoth­er chance for the belief to be wrong.
  8. Humil­ity: To be humble is to take spe­cif­ic actions in anti­cip­a­tion of your own errors.
  9. Per­fec­tion­ism: The more errors you cor­rect in your­self, the more you notice.
  10. Pre­ci­sion: More can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world. The nar­row­est state­ments slice deep­est.
  11. Schol­ar­ship: Each field that you con­sume makes you lar­ger.
  12. The Void

I believe that the ninth vir­tue, per­fec­tion­ism, is the most eleg­ant and I implore you to read the full essay if only to read that descrip­tion in full (and, I guess, to dis­cov­er what The Void is). How­ever the elev­enth vir­tue of ration­al­ity, schol­ar­ship, almost per­fectly describes why I write here and may go some way to explain­ing my diverse read­ing habits:

Study many sci­ences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you con­sume makes you lar­ger. If you swal­low enough sci­ences the gaps between them will dimin­ish and your know­ledge will become a uni­fied whole. If you are glut­ton­ous you will become vaster than moun­tains. It is espe­cially import­ant to eat math and sci­ence which impinges upon ration­al­ity: Evol­u­tion­ary psy­cho­logy, heur­ist­ics and biases, social psy­cho­logy, prob­ab­il­ity the­ory, decision the­ory. But these can­not be the only fields you study. The Art must have a pur­pose oth­er than itself, or it col­lapses into infin­ite recur­sion.

Understanding Wisdom

In a review of Steph­en Hall’s Wis­dom, Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin asks ‘Can we under­stand wis­dom?’ and looks at the evid­ence for and against.

Wis­dom is not the same as know­ledge, and so it seems odd it has attrac­ted the atten­tion of sci­ence. There is such a thing as “wis­dom stud­ies” now, and in his book Hall talks to research­ers and neur­os­cient­ists in a search for the latest inform­a­tion about wis­dom. Sci­ent­ists treat wis­dom the way they treat any­thing else. They break it down into its smal­lest com­pon­ents to identi­fy and test, and they attempt to fig­ure out how it works, how to obtain it, and what it is. [Hall says:]

To be wise is not to know par­tic­u­lar facts but to know without excess­ive con­fid­ence or excess­ive cau­tious­ness. Wis­dom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a cor­pus of know­ledge or inform­a­tion in some spe­cial­ized area, or a set of spe­cial abil­it­ies or skills. Wis­dom is an atti­tude taken by per­sons toward the beliefs, val­ues, know­ledge, inform­a­tion, abil­it­ies, and skills that are held, a tend­ency to doubt that these are neces­sar­ily true or val­id and to doubt that they are an exhaust­ive set of those things that could be known.

Accord­ing to Hall and the research­ers he has spoken to these are the eight “attrib­utes of wis­dom”:

  • Emo­tion­al Reg­u­la­tion
  • Know­ing What’s Import­ant
  • Mor­al Reas­on­ing
  • Com­pas­sion
  • Humil­ity
  • Altru­ism
  • Patience
  • Deal­ing with Uncer­tainty

via Intel­li­gent Life

Facebook’s ‘Like’ and Conspicuous Consumption

Won­der­ing why we freely and often make our tastes pub­lic (spe­cific­ally, our brand pref­er­ences through Facebook’s ‘Like’ mech­an­ism), Nic­olas Bau­mard dis­cusses how we pur­chase goods to dis­play our good taste:

In a way, Face­book can be seen as a handy device to send a lot of very pre­cise sig­nals about your opin­ion and your val­ues! (The aver­age user becomes a fan of four pages every month, accord­ing to Face­book). Note that this the­ory of mar­ket­ing is just a form of hon­est sig­nal the­ory, advoc­ated pre­vi­ously by Veblen in social sci­ences and Zahavi in evol­u­tion­ary bio­logy. The dif­fer­ence is that, instead of being focused on the dis­play of wealth, this bour­dieus­i­an explan­a­tion is inter­ested by oth­er qual­it­ies that also need to be adverstised by indi­vidu­als such as intel­li­gence, social con­nec­tions, mor­al dis­pos­i­tion, etc.

To con­clude, people may buy razors advert­ised by Beck­ham not because they think that these razors made Beck­ham suc­cess­ful or because they trust Beck­ham is such mat­ters but because buy­ing a razor linked to Beck­ham con­vey a cer­tain mes­sage about their dis­tinc­tion.

I feel that the ‘Like’ func­tion­al­ity is an expense-less meth­od of con­spicu­ous con­sump­tion: sig­nalling your likes and brand pref­er­ences without hav­ing to actu­ally pur­chase any­thing (we are say­ing “I aspire to be the type of per­son who likes x, y, z” or maybe more accur­ately “I want you to think I’m the type of per­son who likes x, y, z”).

I par­tic­u­larly like the intro­duct­ory sec­tion on how Facebook’s ‘Like’ func­tion­al­ity has doubled brand integ­ra­tion on the site, com­pared to the old ‘Become a fan’ meth­od. It has appar­ently reduced the men­tal bar­ri­ers (lowered the “threshold”, they say) for users to sig­nal their brand pref­er­ences, mak­ing shar­ing easi­er. And that last bit is key for Face­book.

via The Browser

On Being Wrong: Estimating Our Beliefs

Fol­low­ing the forced retire­ment of Helen Thomas fol­low­ing her con­tro­ver­sial com­ments on Israel and Palestine, Felix Sal­mon dis­cusses how being wrong–and more import­antly, the will­ing­ness to be wrong–is an admir­able trait that should be applauded.

In dis­cuss­ing this, Sal­mon points to a con­ver­sa­tion between Tyler Cowen and Wil Wilkin­son, where Cowen pro­poses:

Take whatever your polit­ic­al beliefs hap­pen to be. Obvi­ously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that some­thing like 60–40, where­as in real­ity most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of prob­ab­il­ity that it is cor­rect. Or if you ask people what is the chance this view of yours is wrong, very few people are will­ing to assign it any num­ber at all. Or if you ask people who believe in God or are athe­ists, what’s the chance you’re wrong – I’ve asked athe­ists what’s the chance you’re wrong and they’ll say some­thing like a tril­lion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest argu­ments for athe­ism are cor­rect, your estim­ate that athe­ism is in fact the cor­rect point of view shouldn’t be that high, maybe you know 90–10 or 95 to 5, at most.

Sal­mon con­tin­ues:

I try hard to believe […] that many if not most of my opin­ions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most inter­est­ing and use­ful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkin­son noted to Cowen, an easy intel­lec­tu­al stance to hold: he calls it “a weird viol­a­tion of the actu­al com­pu­ta­tion­al con­straints of the human mind”.

via The Browser