Reflections on Aphorisms #25

Aphorism 42

If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

When the philosopher Montaigne was asked why he had such a close relationship with his best friend, Étienne de La Boétie, he gave the explanation that it was “because he was he, and I was I.”

The best friendships don’t need a concrete reason to exist. They should come to provide mutual benefit, but not from any particular interest.

By this I mean to say that a good friend doesn’t just appreciate their friends for what their friends do for them. There’s a mutual benevolence best summarized as the idea the everything that everyone does is beneficial for their friends.

When one friend triumphs, so should their other friends.

The best way to see if a friendship is true or not is to check if there is compulsory gift-giving or debt involved in the friendship. Everything that people do should come out of voluntary desire to help their friends and be in community with them.

Otherwise, you end up with less of a friendship and more of an association. The relationship becomes one of indebtedness rather than one of working toward the benefits of belonging to a group.

I also think that it’s not possible, or at least not something that is a good used of people’s time, to figure out exactly what makes a relationship work. There should typically be no one factor. The complexity is something that does not mesh well with cognitive limitations.

My Life

In my own friendships, I find that my relationship with any individual differs from my relationship with any of my other friends. With some friends, my relationship may seem on its surface to be vitriolic (with the recognition that this is all in good fun). With others, it is respectful and traditional.

One of the other factors here is that while friends fill needs, I don’t make friends because they feel my needs. A friend is a friend because they’re worth being with in their own right. It’s an association with other people who seek to pursue the good life, and are willing to cooperate in that interest, but who don’t necessarily help me out all the time.

The relationship is reciprocal. My friends benefit me and I hopefully benefit my friends. Much like with my students, I desire that my friends become better tomorrow than they were today. This isn’t out the spirit of condemnation, but rather an Earnest desire that everyone become part of a better world.

Resolution

Stay in touch with my friends.

Every day, ask myself how I can be a good friend to someone else. Then do it.

Do everything for the sake of improvement.

Aphorism 43

The intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, the sensible man hardly anything.

Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

One of the things that I find interesting is the relationship between intelligence and success. In my experience, it is not those who are celebrated for their intelligence who are the happiest.

Now there is an exception to this, of course. People often say that those who are incredibly successful must be incredibly smart. I think this is not a bad premise to work from, but I don’t think it would match the sort of IQ testing that we use to determine intelligence. I’m not entirely denying the value of IQ test here, but there’s a danger to them, because they fail to account for the whole of the individual and should not be used for most judgments (there are extreme cases which may differ, but they don’t matter to 95% of people).

One of the things about intelligence (as measured on paper) that contraindicates success is that it is often accompanied by arrogance. Intelligence leads to certainty that one who lacks the ability to call up massive amounts of information lacks.

The problem is that intelligence is not necessarily accompanied by sound judgment. The ability to use information well can suffer when too much information is gathered, and what we consider to be intelligence is prioritized over the ability to think deeply.

Goethe was one of the early Romantics, though he had a schism with the movement later in his life. One of the philosophical tenets of the Romantics centered around the role of emotion-linked intelligence, sometimes referred to as “genius” by the Romantics, as the proper guide of human life.

I believe it was in Jonathan Haidt’s work that I read about some research conducted on people who had no emotion due to brain injuries. What they found was that being emotionless does not lead to good decision-making.

Reason and sensibility is emotional. This is contrary to how we often think about it, but really what we considered to be success or failure is always associated with happiness. It’s also worth noting that this is a failure of reason, but since we don’t ever comprehend enough to be truly capable of reasoning with pure logic it is probably better to reason with gut feelings.

Reason based on intellect is going to be flawed. Pursuing an objective universe based on the work of brains that fail to be anything of the sort will always fail. We don’t value things inherently; we only value things because of what they mean to us. Figuring out a process is not the same as figuring out a value.

Intellect tends to be more about ruling out events than predicting events. The smartest people will be wrong about things more than a few days in the future more often than not, unless (and sometimes even if) they have the humility to appreciate the limits of their own predictive capability.

My Life

I would much rather lack intelligence but accept sensible limitations than have unlimited intelligence but no sense of my own nature.

Some of this is because previously I functioned in the opposite mode. I never claim to have great intelligence, at least not without a twinge of irony and a sardonic tone. However, I definitely wanted the world to work in the way that I understood. Growing older and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to appreciate that that is not sensible.

I think of it this way:

How many people woke up on December 7th, 1941 thinking that United States would enter World War II as a result of events that would happen that day? How many people expected the economy to crash in 2008?

There were people who saw the likely outcome, but they would not have predicted the specific events that lead to those more extensive outcomes unless they were looking at them personally.

Intelligence is limited by the senses, one of which is emotion. It’s also limited by perspective. We have one fixed vantage point at any time. We are unaware, regardless of how intelligent we are, of such a vast majority of the universe that what we know is hardly worth mentioning. We would think of ourselves as mewling infants if we had the right perspective.

In that sense, the sensible expect only one thing: that they cannot be certain.

Reflections on Aphorisms #7

Another day, another bunch of aphorisms.

I’m moving up to four, because I think that’s a good number for a day. I don’t know if I’ll keep this pace forever, but today’s a day I feel like doing more writing than usual.

Aphorism 11

To understand how something works, figure out how to break it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One thing I remember from a book on psychology is that there is a tendency to ignore that which works as expected.

Many of the things which we observe are the product of processes that are opaque to us.

When something breaks, we get to see inside it in a special way. We do not even need to break it entirely, but just contemplate the breaking, anticipating what the consequences of an unusual event would be on something we otherwise take for granted.

My Life

I tend to be prone to anxiety, so I maybe have an alternate side of this equation: I obsess over how things can break, and that means I don’t always even see how they work.

However, I think there’s also something to be said for my life being a product of a comfortable routine. I tend to do the same things day after day.

One of the things that also could be applied to this is that I’m so prone to rigidity that I don’t permit myself a chance to consider what could otherwise be if something were to change.

We often think of people who view the world as opportunities for the strong to triumph over the weak as cynical, but there’s also something to be said for looking for vulnerabilities so that they can be healed: this is the origin of all reform.

Resolution

Don’t fear chaos.

Subvert my expectations.

Search for weakness everywhere.

Aphorism 12

A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Much of what we regard as innovation comes from trying to do something without following previous paths.

For every person who has managed to invent a new technology by incremental improvement, there is another person who has found the way by going through a paradigm shift from others’ approaches.

For a darker twist, prophets don’t have the good sense to leave good enough alone. The saying that no man is a prophet in his own country is because the prophets get killed in their own countries.

Also, Taleb’s known to be something of a contrarian, and one could probably point out that seeing differently does not necessarily differ from seeing in a special way.

My Life

A friend of mine told me that I was a man of vision the other day.

I’m not entirely sure what that means.

I do, however, identify with the being blind to what others see.

I’ve never felt a need to follow others or conform (aside from the agreeable part of my personality, which is strong; the difference is that I hate confrontation, not that I like conforming), and that may have something to do with it.

I also have a spirit of “I’ll do it myself.”

Like, as a game designer I want to make my own thing. I’ve occasionally built off of something someone else created, but only for smaller projects.

When I take inspiration, it’s often from the most minute of sources. I’ll borrow a dice mechanic, but not a lot of the intervening structure.

That’s not to say I throw everything away and strive to be different, I just have no qualms with ignoring how other people do things. Often I blend a bunch of little pieces together.

Resolution

Go against the flow.

Look beyond conventional wisdom.

Never forget that what you know to be right is not necessarily right.

Aphorism 13

The man who listens to reason is lost: reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.

George Bernard Shaw, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

I think that this ties in to the things that Taleb said about approaching from vulnerabilities in the sense that we tend to look at things from a very fixed perspective.

Shaw is an interesting figure, given that he tended to be a bit of a political loudmouth in his day, and he was perhaps one of the people who we would consider a defender of reason, which makes this quote seem paradoxical.

Chesterton would argue that Shaw just doesn’t have any consistent worldview, and the two were frenemies in that way, but I think there’s maybe something more deep here.

Shaw isn’t saying that logic is bad, but that we have a tendency to rationalize. Our reasoning is easily bent to corrupt purposes, rather than the best path.

My Life

I am someone who tends to be what I would describe as “rational” in focus.

I don’t have the hubris to believe that everything I believe or think is correct. This may not be clear to an outside observer (after all, I write prolifically about my life and what I think), but keep in mind that most of my writing is more of an exercise in holding myself accountable than an exercise in proclaiming mastery in wisdom and knowledge (when I write a book, that’ll be the statement of mastery).

I was thinking about this the other day, because my intuition is really repressed. It’s not that I don’t get feelings about things, it’s that I’ve become so used to just squelching them that I ignore what could be good opportunities to break out of patterns (e.g. not applying for freelancing work for basically forever until it just fell into my lap).

Resolution

Don’t justify things. If they can’t stand on their own, they shouldn’t stand.

Break the mold and throw it away.

Follow passion.

Aphorism 14

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

For most of my life I’ve thought this was sort of self-serving.

However, now I think I interpret it differently.

This is perhaps history’s most profound way of saying “Don’t be an idiot.”

We like to see this saying as a cornerstone of Western philosophy, but I don’t think that the Greeks necessarily thought of their philosophy in the same way that we do.

I think they were going after better ways of life (this is non-controversial), but that there wasn’t really any elevation to it. Being a philosopher was just another way to say that you were prominent in public morality and ethics, not that one was set apart.

My Life

I like to think that my life’s pretty well examined.

Of course, I don’t know how true this is, strictly speaking. I’ve got a lot of things that I have to work through, and I’m pretty self-reliant in my efforts.

I’ve often thought about psychoanalysis. I’ve never been psychoanalyzed, and I don’t (believe myself to) have any symptoms of psychological disruption. That’s not to say that I’m particularly free of vice, but my vice is natural and mainline (e.g. I’m typically pretty lazy and I don’t resist the temptation of sweets well).

I’ve read a lot of Jung (relative to the average person), and also some of his followers’ work, a little Freud, and other modern psychology books, and not just the pop psych stuff. This has just been for casual enjoyment, not as a student or future practitioner, but I find it interesting.

I often find that I’m more interesting than I think I am, and my motives are more complex than I believed them to be. I often have vivid dreams that I’m willing to say are my subconscious, and I’ve often seen recurring symbols and patterns in them. Not just the common “Oh crap, I’m late to class!” anxiety dream, but some really surreal things.

For instance, I’ve noticed animal symbolism; the cat seems to represent some aspect of my subconscious, and mythical and realistic cats feature prominently in my dreams as guides. Birds are another recurring symbol, often of chaos or naive desirous destruction (think of the depiction of Frankenstein’s monster accidentally killing an innocent–something which is a later invention and not in the original story–I often play such a role, often to a hawk or eagle).

There are places that feature prominently in my dreams as well; my childhood home (no surprise there), but also places that I know but have never seen. I was told as a child that nobody could invent something wholly from their own mind and would require a stimulus to invent something. This bothered me quite a bit, because my vivid dreams, which my studies of Jung have convinced me are a function of the subconscious, have been with me most of my life, and have indeed dwindled and fallen off over the years.

When I was a child, I was often convinced that these dreams had a prophetic quality, that there was something about the dream world that could reflect unseen elements of a larger reality. I only raised these beliefs once or twice, and both times the response was such that I never mentioned them again.

The story of Joseph, who interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh, was one that resonated strongly with me for this reason. As a devout Christian, I follow the orthodox position that God sent Joseph the gift of interpreting dreams, but that does not mean that the Jungian method of viewing the dream as a channel to the subconscious is necessarily incorrect, and psychoanalysis may actually have a very similar practical effect.

Of course, fortune tellers can always be right if you wait for the situation to fit the prediction.

Resolution

Don’t do anything I can’t explain (though I don’t have to justify it).

Look deeply at things.

Never run when a walk suffices.