Reflections on Aphorisms #59

Cut back on caffeine today. Feeling a lot better (at least until the headaches start), but also really kinda drowsy and tired. Please forgive any silly spelling mistakes, because I’m typing with my eyes falling closed.

Upside: I’m not tempted to stay up late watching videos on YouTube.

I should just delete my YouTube account.

Aphorism 93

It is useless to close the gates against ideas; they overleap them.

Klemens von Metternich

Interpretation

One of the ideas of history is that there are times when certain ideas and expressions will be heard regardless of the individuals; a collective guides humanity in a certain direction and nobody can really claim to have enough control to stop changes or force things along a certain path.

I don’t know that I agree with it wholesale, because it’s a little too teleological for me to accept as a historical method, but it’s also true in a sense.

There’s a prevailing spirit of the times (not in the spiritual sense, but in the zeitgeist sense), and eventually it gets going along a certain path.

I was recently thinking about the movie V for Vendetta, and the notion that there’s something very archetypal about a rogue rising readily repelling regression (or, that is, people rebelling against tyrants).

If we buy into Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, or the more traditional notion of a fundamental nature of humanity, it goes to follow that there are times when the conditions that people are exposed to will lead them to act in certain ways.

These expressions of human volition are not necessarily predictable, but they’re nonetheless reproducible (in a scientific sense, though it is practically impossible to set up the same events twice).

This is one of the functions of the historian: they look into the past and see how people act in certain conditions.

Ideas are the most powerful expression of the zeitgeist. Actions may speak louder than words, but both flow from ideas. Without an idea, there is no action and no speech.

The great problem of ideas is that they’re contagious. We are social animals, and we spend our time trying to figure out other peoples’ ideas. At best, this is just a primal instinct, and at worst this can be deliberate sabotage or usurpation. In either case, it’s a necessary process. If we don’t look into the other, we will never fully know the self. The eye sees not its own reflection.

If you have an idea, a great idea, it cannot remain silent. There’s a Christian children’s song, familiar to me from my youth, that has the following song:

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”

I’ll spare the repetitive verses that have now come echoing back into my head, but the actual meaning here is quite sublime.

The way that cultures live and die is by ideas. The song I just mentioned carries a meme that encourages the spreading and sharing of ideas. Technically, it actually has a few separate memes in just the sentence above, but we won’t worry about that.

Von Metternich’s point is this:

An idea can penetrate anything when it’s given the chance to do so.

Resolution

Give ideas the space to grow.

Look for the idea that is common and the one that is not.

Don’t think you can control the hearts of others. That’s hubris.

Aphorism 94

All rumors about a public figure are to be deemed untrue until he threatens to sue.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I would like to think that even if I didn’t understand anything Taleb has to say I could still appreciate his pithy style.

I probably understand very little of what Taleb is saying. That’s never stopped me before and I won’t let it stop me now.

One of the best things that any good thinker keeps at their disposal is Occam’s Razor. It’s a very simple rhetorical device, and it’s been simplified to the following:

The simplest solution tends to be right.

Typically, when I look at anything said by or about public figures, the rule is: “They’re saying it to get something.”

The veracity is not significant. The truth of the matter, especially in politics, is that people say things specifically for the point of what the saying gets them.

Whether or not words have any bearing on truth is insignificant.

There’s something that Jordan Peterson once said, and I’m too tired to look it up so I’m gonna just paraphrase it and butcher it:

If you say something that you know to be true, you’re pitting your wit against the reality of a complex universe.

One of the outcomes of this is that a mature person won’t give statements which are motivated lies (or at the very least motivated stretchings of the truth) more than a moment’s notice.

So I almost fell asleep in front of the TV not too long ago, and I had the news on. I can guarantee that 80%, maybe 90% of what I heard was basically just bloviation, and about 1% of it will have any impact on my life. Not even my daily life, mind you, but my life in general.

One of the nice things about reality being so complex is that a lot of the moving pieces aren’t really moving all that much in the grand scheme of things. This is untrue in the individual’s life, but very true in the sphere of politics.

To get back to the point, look for the things you can’t say, because those are the things people don’t want you to say.

If those things are true, run.

Resolution

Say the uncomfortable truth.

The tongue is the weakest muscle. This isn’t because of a lack of physical power. It’s due to a lack of character.

Never open the mouth if the tongue tastes untruth.

Reflections on Aphorisms #58

Ugh, I’m falling back into a rut.

I’m going to make myself go get some serious exercise tomorrow morning and cut back on caffeine to try and make things easier. I’m just having issues focusing on anything, which is not a good recipe for being productive.

With that said, let’s begin.

Aphorism 92

In summary, modernity replaced process with result and the relational with the transactional.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Newton sparked a shift in our understanding of the world toward a modern empirical “rational” model.

Jung’s work with archetypes has become so significant in our day and age, because the change is so fundamental that we left a lot of things behind in our haste.

Now, it’s worth noting that the modern view probably presents a better objective picture of the world. It’s blind to everything outside our senses, and as a result it tends to result in less bias.

However, the shift from the classical and ancient to the modern also deprived us of things.

Alchemy, for instance, when understood psychologically, provides a series of changes and alterations that can impact the mind. The four steps of classical alchemy (darkening, whitening, yellowing, reddening) each reflect a life process; losing innocence, finding virtue, and so on and so forth.

Now, there were alchemists who believed in literally making things into gold, but even they were enlightened to the psychological nature (or willfully blind to it) of the field because of the notion of “as above, so below” that pervades alchemical thought.

This “as above, so below” is what we lost in the transition to the modern age.

The alchemists associated everything with great mythical and religious mysteries. Nothing existed without a will guiding it, a divine spark of being that led it to act in the way it did.

The work of Newton and Einstein serves us a whole lot better when we wish to accomplish things, but it lacks the integration with a cohesive worldview that the alchemists enjoyed.

When Taleb says we have replaced the process with the result, he refers to how we have stripped the psychological valence from everyday things.

The word “profane” actually serves as an antonym to the word “holy” in its function. We have stripped the mysteries of life of their sacred meaning, and we do so at our own peril. Think of the mystery of conception and child-birth (now considered little more than a biological process) or the mystery of the sun and moon cycles. These dominated myth, and are often given value by even relatively secularized and ecumenical religions.

A diagram showing an overview of common sacred and profane elements over time. Made by me. The faded colors on the modern side indicate increased individual variance.

The concept of the sacred and profane still exists, though it is hidden in different language and the responses have changed. We have some common elements between them (namely, social elites are always associated with being sacred figures, outsiders or ignorant people are considered profane), but the actual functioning of this is different.

Some of this stems from the fact that individuals have a greater latitude for independent moral judgment in the modern age, creating a greater variance in what is classified as sacred or profane. Part of it is also simply down to the fact that reason-based worldviews, though often flawed, should not require as much dogmatic conviction as, say, a faith-based worldview would. In thepry, dogmatic conviction is supposed to be diametrically opposed to rational thought, though it is never too far off in practice.

One of the things that has also changed here is the relationship. Some of this has to do with increased size of social circles, but it also comes down to what is sacred.

Most “sacred” (here referring to both religious and secular cultural expressions) traditions place a strong value on the family, and this is what archetypal thought goes back into. The family serves as a model for future interactions outside the family, because it is the most familiar unit of relationships (see the etymological relation?) but also the earliest that most people have conscious experience of.

A strictly rational worldview, however, doesn’t necessarily view relationship as being terribly important. So long as one fulfills obligations, and obligations are fulfilled in return, the transaction is completed to mutual benefit.

Falling more in the ancient than the modern camp in this issue, I think that this was a defining reason for my stressed relationships with many of my more modern-minded family members. Coming from a position that I have always held where certain things are expected in a relationship (with some degree of flexibility to respect the individual; i.e. you wouldn’t ask the same things of every mother or every brother), the fact that many of my family members felt and experienced love in a more transactional way was lost on me as a youth.

Now, I don’t want to condemn this; the people that I find to be like this are often great role models, but the difference in communication creates perceived deficiencies.

I think it’s also fair to say that we’re not wholly modern. Or, perhaps, that the modern worldview has not wholly dominated the collective conscious expression of humanity.

Resolution

Be patient with those different from myself.

Don’t forget to speak the same language as other people.

Reflections on Aphorisms #49

Good day today. Not perfect by any means, but I was a lot more productive than usual and didn’t feel like I was stressing myself out to do it.

That’s a good place to be in.

Now I just need to get around to doing some final formatting and posting some of the writing I’ve been doing.

Aphorism 79

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don’t say about themselves.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interpretation

One of the things that Carl Jung talks about is the notion of the shadow and the idea that there’s a large part of us that we just don’t see.

An experience I recently had was a reflection upon my life in which I realized that a lot of what I’ve done in the past has been lost to me, to the point that I just don’t remember it.

The deepening of my appreciation for Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels notwithstanding, one of the things that feeds into this is that we really are poor judges of ourselves.

Our brains seem to function through comparison a lot of the time. We use schemas and heuristics that are based on having a concept of something, and then taking individual instances of those concepts and finding the similarities and differences (e.g. we would refer to a cat that has lost a leg as a three-legged cat, though it is not fundamentally less a cat and more a biped for the absence).

In our lives, these idiosyncrasies don’t tend to be the primary way we think about ourselves. We may be incredibly aware that other people are not like us, and deeply conscientious, but even then our methodology for comparison is mediocre.

Some of this is because we’re not fully capable of understanding ourselves (can a brain understand a brain?) but also because our whole context is centered on personal experiences, with rare exceptions stemming from literature and arts.

Another part of this is, in line with the Jungian way of thought, that we don’t really want to know ourselves. To see ourselves in total objectivity may liberate us, but more likely it would annihilate us because we’re not as good as we desire ourselves to be and I suspect that a lot of people don’t have the will to confront who they really are. That’s why people burn out before seeking radical change in their life.

Resolution

Spend time looking for my own unseen qualities.

Remember that the self is impeded and bolstered by hidden factors within it.

Embrace change when it is promising.

Aphorism 80

The strength of a man’s virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts.

Pascal

Interpretation

Following a path isn’t about a two-minute sprint.

Life has no fixed destination; every minor change will cause a different outcome.

The problem with this is that it is impossible for a single action to set the moral current of a life (or, for that matter, almost any other major defining factor in life). Even things that seem to be a single action may indeed be a product of a bunch of different factors.

For instance, you’ll often hear people say that getting married is the most important event in their life.

However, the impact that a good marriage has is not centered on a single event; there’s the initial meeting, dating, engagement, actual wedding, and life together that all come together to make a marriage good.

The relationship will in that case be built up of countless small actions, often not even the result of conscious decisions, rather than a single large action. There may be symbolically significant moments, often those that have the highest conscious valuation, but these are not the defining elements. Nobody has a happy marriage because their wedding ceremony is fantastic. There may be an association, but it is not a causal one.

There’s a second element of Pascal’s statement that should not be overlooked.

People often do one thing that earns them the disgust and hostility of everyone around them, or have one moral flaw that seems to tarnish everything about them.

Of course, generally the people who let themselves be overcome by their vices have not done a very good job of cultivating their virtues. There is also another point here: as with a good marriage, a descent to the worst crimes and immorality may be made up of several small and seemingly insubstantial and unnoticed elements.

Ive lost the trail of where I was going with this, so I’ll just state it clearly:

It’s always possible to redeem oneself by pursuing the right path, but it’s a constant, conscious effort.

Resolution

Do not foster in yourself little vices; they grow up into large and ugly creatures.

Remember that existence is a marathon, not a sprint. One achievement can’t sustain a lifetime.

Look for the hidden virtues and cultivate them; eradicate the hidden vices.

Reflections on Aphorisms #40

Another day of just a single aphorism. I need to get better about my aphorism sources, because I’m not keeping up with them very thoroughly. It’s harder to find good aphorisms than one would think. I’m tempted to get the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, but it’s kind of expensive for someone whose income will drop dramatically in a month or so while his outflow will be becoming unbearable relative to that.

Aphorism 63

Be polite, courteous, and gentle, but ignore comments, praise, and criticism from people you wouldn’t hire.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One of the greatest problems that people have is falling victim to others’ perceptions.

I don’t think that there’s anything predatory in how most people look at others, but there’s something in our psychological makeup that makes us adopt others’ positions.

There’s a part of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that comes to mind:

Scene in question occurs at 10:40.

Decius Brutus: Never fear that: if he [Julius Caesar] be so resolved [to avoid the Senate on the Ides of March],
I can o’ersway him; for he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betray’d with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers;
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.
Let me work;
For I can give his humour the true bent,
And I will bring him to the Capitol.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: Act II Scene I, 826-835

One of the challenges with our lives is that we fundamentally want to fit in. This isn’t necessarily a conscious fitting in, but rather “fit” in the sense that we want to be prepared for our world (i.e. “fitness”), and as a result we think about what others say and do a lot. This can take a negative form, where people actively reject others’ choices because they are perceived as unfit (teen rebellion, anyone?) but it’s predominantly something that happens subconsciously and can be challenging to weed out.

I was reading an article the other day about desire. Desires spread like beliefs; you just need to see other people express them. However, unlike beliefs we often don’t really have a conscious understanding of our desires (though the roots of our beliefs may lie deeper than we are capable of understanding).

When I walk through a mall and see someone drinking a Coke, I want a Coke. There are bright red and white machines scattered throughout the mall to help reinforce this, and even the feeds for cash or credit cards (call me old fashioned, but I’d never trust a machine with a card of mine) have lights that blink in a motion evocative of inserting money.

Desires are contagious because we want to achieve fitness, and we figure that if there are other people who don’t seem to be burning flaming messes we should want what they want, because it’s worked well for them.

This is part of the reason why most advertisements feature beautiful people. It’s not that they couldn’t sell us on products with average looking or even ugly people, it’s that when you have a thirty-second spot you’re probably not going to be able to make a deep enough case.

So you need bright colors, delicious food, or sex appeal to really make the viewer want things. It’s a process of association rather than ideation that leads to desire.

The problem is that we don’t know when to turn this off, when we are being influenced.

I often hang out with people who enjoy less success than myself by the means in which I measure success. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but often I find myself wondering why I take their advice if I want to send myself on a different path than they are on.

I think what Taleb is getting at here is this:

You don’t want to take advice from people who don’t achieve your goals. Look for the people who you would say have done what you want to do, and seek their approval.

Or, basically, “Just because your mother loves your work doesn’t mean other people will.”

I’ve often heard the adage: “Hire people who are smarter than you.”

I think you should apply this to who you are listening to in daily life. You want to be polite–people have dignity and they are usually worth listening to and giving the time of day–but you can’t change your life’s direction and second-guess your decisions based on what everyone says or you’ll end up in free-fall.

The solution: Look for the people who you respect deeply, and seek their opinions. When you get an opinion from someone you don’t have conscious respect for, make sure you really want it and that it’s really good. Maybe they’ve got brains and wisdom you haven’t seen in them before.

Then, be conscious of what desires you let into your life. The influences people exert on you can be difficult to understand, but you shouldn’t get paranoid and avoid people because they change you. Rather, just be conscious. Take time to clearly communicate your goals and guiding stars to yourself, so that you can’t be led astray lightly.

Resolution

I will make sure to seek the guidance of those I respect.

Never listen to noise, only to signal.

Remember that the statement which seems urgent and profound may actually just agree with your shallow self.

Reflections on Aphorisms #37

I made significant progress toward getting into a master’s degree program today, so I didn’t have much time to write (outside the requirements of that; I spent several hours on the phone and more working on what will hopefully be some finalities), but at least it was a productive day instead of an unproductive one.

I like Taleb’s aphorisms, so I’m going to use another today, in part because it happens to be a reflection of my own life.

For the classics, philosophical insight was the product of a life of leisure; for us, a life of leisure can be the product of philosophical insight.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes
Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay.

Interpretation

I guess I can kind of call myself a philosopher now, since I’ve been writing about stuff and I read a lot of philosophy. I’m kind of a piddly one, and I haven’t contributed much, if anything, to the field at large, but there’s something about experiences that eventually means that you have to accept or reject a label as part of your being.

An earlier me would have raged against that as an offense to individualism, but now I see it as a path to individuation, and one needs to know who one is in terms that one can understand before they can fully become themselves.

To get to Taleb’s point, I’ve been happier in the past year than I’ve been ever before, despite being under at least as much stress in many ways. I figured out how to crack the code, and it’s pretty simple:

It turns out the philosophers might know what they’re talking about.

I’m a fan of the Stoics, and I’ve learned a lot from some of their very simple doctrines:

  1. Mentally walk through the worst scenario, then steel yourself for that loss.
  2. Remember that having virtue is better than having a single success; virtue sets you up for all future successes.
  3. Don’t sweat adiaphora and other little decisions.
  4. Avoid the expedient unless it is actually the correct path (and don’t be taken in by it).
  5. Accept the things which are outside your control.

These things go quite a way to making life better.

Another thing I’ve learned is to know myself as a person, but always strive to improve.

This is a tight-rope act, but I think I’ve finally hit a point in my life where I will consider myself successful if I break even, and even if circumstances outside my control cause me harm I would be happy with less than I have now.

Part of this is that I’ve learned to exert influence over myself. It’s not perfect, and I still have a lot of things to work on, but I’ve changed more and in better ways than I have in almost any other year of my life. I’m exercising regularly, back on a diet, writing more, and doing some freelance writing.

What I’ve found is that even when I work now, it rarely feels like work, and I think that’s Taleb’s point. When you align yourself with your goals, and you truly and honestly aim for them, you find great satisfaction and value in that. I’m about half-way through Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link), and it’s basically déjà vu for me to hear him echo thoughts that are similar to my own.

It occurs to me that almost every experience I considered odiously strenuous in my life has been met by a reward at the end that would have been commensurate with the actual effort, had I not made the task ahead worse than it had to be.

Reflections

Do not make things worse, either in perception or substance, than they already are.

The heroic struggle usually bears fruit worth the cost.

If in doubt, ask whether something is virtuous or expedient. Choose the virtuous option.

Reflections on Aphorisms #36

I got through a lot of miscellaneous writing, but nothing finished. I’m working on reflections on the Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, and reviews of a couple books, plus things for the Loreshaper Games blog.

I also went for a fairly long walk, and I don’t think I anticipated how long it would take because when I finally got home I’d burned through most of the time I had been planning on writing. Oops.

Aphorism 59

Conscious ignorance, if you can practice it, expands your world; it can make things infinte.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

The other day I wrote something that a lot of people responded to when I said “I believe in the immensity of the unknown.”

A lot of people took that in a different light than I meant it.

I don’t necessarily mean that there’s a vastly interesting universe around us full of exciting and novel things that aren’t common knowledge (though that’s certainly true too), but rather that what we know can only be a infinitesimal amount of the knowable.

Taleb’s point about conscious ignorance ties into this: you understand how what you know works, but you will never know everything.

This gives a learning attitude.

One of the things you learn in education college (though many of the things you learn in an education college are useless, so perhaps it’s better to use the fact that I can verify this with anecdotes) is that it’s better for a pupil to perceive themselves as knowing some things, but not everything.

This creates humility (and a desire to learn more) but doesn’t create the discouraging effects of knowing nothing.

When philosophically minded people express uncertainty in their knowledge, they don’t mean that they have base ignorance.

Rather, we’re (and I include myself here cautiously) self-aware enough to know that what we know can be wrong.

It’s actually okay to be certain. Convictions are not bad.

However, our brains work on heuristics and abstract conceptions, not reality.

What works is associated with truth, whether or not it actually is true. If divine favor brings healing, then God must smile upon cleanly people who recover much better from getting sick and avoid infections for diseases.

Of course, we can’t necessarily rule this out, but we’ve come to the conclusion in the modern age that germs cause disease and forestall healing, so the link between cleanliness and good medical practice is a result of germs being kept away, rather than the cleanliness necessarily pleasing God.

As someone who’s mildly obsessive about cleanliness (the prospect of hand-shakes and high-fives fills me with dread), I like to think that proper hygiene earns God’s approval, but that’s beside the point.

Knowing that we can’t know things leaves them mysterious, and fills us with hope.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

This image stuck out to me among all of the images I was looking for. I was actually hoping to find an image of an aurora in the night sky, or else over-exposed stars that gave a cool vibe, but I find this image to be something that could illustrate this point.

We see through clouds (the apostle Paul’s “mirror darkly”), and only where those clouds do not exist can we see anything. Even then, we have limited sensory capabilities, and there may be things that we mistake for others (by mental or physical limitations) or things that we simply cannot grasp.

The movements of the unseen all around us are also difficult to track.

We like to make assumptions because we can’t see things, so we merely project ourselves into the void. For instance, we like to assume that every bad driver is a jerk, because when we drive poorly we’re probably being jerks (or at least that’s what I like to tell myself, since I prefer to think of myself as a pain in the butt rather than a bad driver).

What we can’t see is as much a defining factor in our lives, and as someone with religious conviction and a belief in free will (insomuch as there is no ordained course we must follow, though I also think that we generally respond to stimuli predictably and rarely exercise our will) I think that it’s in this unknown space that God lives.

As a youth, I often wanted to make everything knowable. I had formed working frameworks of everything, even if I had to make an assumption on partial evidence. To my credit, I was usually pretty quick to change in light of new information, but even so the lack of willingness to accept the value of conscious ignorance was crippling.

We can define four stages of knowledge:

  1. Not knowing something and lacking understanding of that. (Base ignorance)
  2. Not knowing something and having understanding of that. (Conscious ignorance)
  3. Knowing something and lacking understanding of that. (Practical knowledge)
  4. Knowing something and having understanding of that. (Deep understanding)

Conscious ignorance is the second stage of knowledge, and not particularly desirable in and of itself, but the great thing about it is that you can develop it simultaneously for everything which otherwise may be base ignorance.

The value of having conscious ignorance about the vast number of things which we cannot know (or cannot easily know, like mathematics for those of us who didn’t particularly care for the subject in school) is that it’s a great way to avoid the great harms that base ignorance can breed.

It also leads us to encounter the sublime. We know what we don’t know, and we know it when we see it. Lacking the self-awareness of one’s ignorance makes it difficult to see the wondrous and inscrutable.

Resolution

Peer into the clouds; there is a chance they may yield fruit.

Steer clear of base ignorance.

Work to turn ignorance into knowledge, but don’t overlook the value of humility.

Reflections on Aphorisms #33

Going to try to write as much as I can and still be coherent. I’ve been going to bed late because of poor self-discipline, and then sleeping in for the same reason (one of the bad things about not having a fixed daily schedule). Today I forced myself to get up early to go on a nice long walk, but I’m in something of a sleep deficit now, so this will be shorter than usual so I can get to bed early.

Aphorism 56

Mathematics demands an uncontrolled hunger for abstraction, philosophy a very controlled one.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Mathematics is something that I struggled with as a child, despite being relatively adept in many ways with the subject. While I certainly didn’t enjoy learning math and I have a propensity to make errors in mental math (solution: write it down and use calculators), I find many of the concepts to be tremendously easy, at least in terms of visualizing and comprehending them.

As a game designer, I’m a fan of math for the simple reason that it leads into good clean designs.

I think that some of this is because it’s abstract. When you’re making a game, you’re really searching for the platonic ideal of something, and it’s not always even something that really exists.

The result of this is that you create broad overarching systems so that each individual event can be represented within those systems. Of course, you don’t necessarily need to do this with great resolution (I write tabletop roleplaying games, so for me I leave almost all of the specifics to the people who play my games), but you do need to have it be coherent in the final picture.

In reality, this coherence is absent. There are broad overarching abstracts (for instance, the concepts of honesty and entropy which illustrate both philosophical and physical abstract concepts), but there is no individual “ideal” because there is no individual who fits the rule.

Even those who fit the rule may actually be nothing more than the creation of a new and individual rule; there is no path to guarantee anything because the universe has never been the same as it is in this moment.

Don’t mistake this for there being no paths; there are paths, and they generally lead in the direction they are supposed to. However, a great hero can be felled by a tragic flaw, and the wicked may be saved by some virtue that is hidden in the depths of their hearts waiting for the right call.

In philosophy, one can’t pass judgment on the basis of abstraction. Montaigne is great about this, because he will find the “general path” (i.e. where something usually leads) and then present both examples and counter-examples in his essays.

I think that there’s a commonality here with the concept of squaring the circle.

Image of squaring the circle, image courtesy of Wikimedia, originally in the public domain. Rasterized by me.

The problem with this is that it’s a matter of precision. You want to try and get a square whose length is equal to the square root of pi, but pi is not something which can be neatly calculated as such (it has infinite length, unless our understanding of it is incorrect).

Squaring the circle is one of the great classical problems of geometry. It has also taken on mystical connotations over the years, as a perceived impossibility, and was one of the common goals of late medieval and Renaissance alchemy.

I think it’s a great illustration for a key point:

Sometimes you have to accept the limits of knowledge.

I want to clarify, because I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

One of the distinctions between an alchemist and modern scientists (and the rational scientism that many espouse) is that the alchemist sought out cosmic mystery (“as above, so below”), and was aware that much of what they knew was unknowable.

There’s something of value to this, because when I say one should accept the limits of knowledge I don’t mean that one should stop dreaming of greater knowledge.

At the same time, it’s simply not always possible to achieve the results one desires dearly. No alchemist successfully completed their magnum opus (and likely none ever will, unless we see people start using particle colliders for alchemy in some weird future), and if they did they were wrong about what they created from a chemical standpoint.

The best example we can get here is that in mathematics, you can hit a “good enough” for the problem of squaring the circle, especially with modern computer-based calculations. It won’t be perfect, but it’ll be within tolerance for all but the most demanding applications (and then the better course is error correction as needed, or merely increasing the precision until it’s satisfactory).

In philosophy, however, you can’t get around the abstraction. Squaring the circle is an important concept for a philosopher because it represents the pursuit of the unknowable. The medieval alchemists were trying to find God (at least, the later ones) as much as they were trying to find gold; their texts were esoteric to protect them from a society which failed to appreciate the independent contemplation of the divine and to force them out of comfort in their understandings. They saw in terms of value, not particles.

Philosophy always must in the end pursue the individual. It cannot be abstracted, because within the individual lies meaning.

Resolution

Know when to follow the rule, know when to see the exception.

Don’t be afraid to try either way to square a circle.

Remember that every outcome, good or bad, is unique. Be thankful for the good, overcome the bad.

Reflections on Aphorisms #30

Forced myself to write a little more today to make up for some previous short entries. I’ve now been doing this for basically a month straight, and it’s been really good. I think it’s helped me find my compass a little better than I had been.

Aphorism 50

In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

We falsely praise compromise as a virtue because we associate it with the ability to change one’s mind when better evidence is presented. This doesn’t necessarily mean that compromise is worthless, but I think people don’t understand what a good “compromise” really is.

It is difficult to actually realize an improvement by moderating one’s values. It is much easier to achieve such a thing by remaining true, but being realistic. To permit one’s values to be breached, even in part, will only lead to resentment.

Settling for a compromise only leads to two unhappy parties, rather than one.

Compromise leads to a decreased ability to adapt.

Instead of accepting the fact that one’s values may not actually improve the world, and that they should be reconsidered, instead the half measures are blamed rather than a flaw in their foundation. We can see this in basically every political issue in modern American politics. The compromise only creates a further point of contention, and both sides claim the success of their views and the failure of the other’s.

The solution to this is to concede rather than to compromise. Of course, one should never sacrifice one’s highest values lightly, but it may be better to have a short-term defeat then a long-term compromise that adds up to be equally bad. Don’t take a half-measure if the half-measure is not substantially better than having nothing.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not calling for extremism. Go only to the point at which desired effects are achieved, not further. Going too far for the sake of avoiding compromise is not any better than compromise.

Rather, one should fight vociferously to achieve their goals until those goals are achieved.

One should also think carefully before forcing others into a compromise that will breed resentment. This is a great way to amplify every ill, and should be avoided.

Resolution

Identify what would satisfy.

Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not continue past that point.

Never sacrifice a value for expedience.

Aphorism 51

For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.

Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

I value humility highly. I believe that being humble is a great way to guard against being wicked.

I do not think that Goethe (especially the Goethe of his later life) disagrees with this. However, being humble in and of itself is not necessarily a goal.

There are those who assert that the biblical injunction to be meek is more properly rendered as being able to use power, keeping it restrained. It is not a virtue to be harmless if one has no other choice.

So it is that being humble means recognizing one’s potential and capacities but not fooling oneself into believing that one is living up to their potential. Otherwise, it is just a lack of confidence.

I think that this is what Goethe is referring to when he says that someone must regard himself is greater than he is to achieve what is demanded of him. He must see that he has what we would call a heroic potential, I must be willing to struggle to bring that into being.

In my own life, I have been struck by the need do this. As someone who would happily think of himself as ordinary, I need to keep in mind that my potential is incredible and constantly move it forward. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, I don’t think I would have believed you. At the same time, it was the striving that I did five and ten years ago that has gotten me where I am. Where I will be in five years is a direct result of what I do today.

It is necessary to blend many ideas of the self together. The past self, weaker and less experienced but also with more potential, the future self, who will reap the rewards of today’s labor, the current self, who must act in accordance with both the past and the future, and the hero, who represents the fusion of all three into one personage, must act as one.

This is a tremendous force, and it requires faith and will to bring it to bear.

Resolution

Bring myself into balance with my past and my future.

Do those things which fall into the domain of the hero.

Live as if I could one day command millions.

Aphorism 52

No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

People have a problematic relationship with the truth. Even those with the best intentions often have difficulty figuring out what it is, and emotions can complicate things. We generally consider sticking to the truth as a moral good, but it is a good which we are oft-tempted to subordinate to other purposes.

The most natural thing in the world is to defend self. Even someone who holds themselves in low esteem still grates at the offenses of anyone else.

We like to defend ourselves against criticism, even if it is deserved. In this ironic fashion, we impede our own growth.

I find out that I work as a freelance or independent game designer my first response to any criticism of something I have done is to come up with five thousand justifications as to why it is the best thing to do. Many of these justifications will be things that only occur to me once it was time to defend my work. While this is not such a grievous falsification, it shows this general mood well, and it also lets me to see if myself into thinking that I am better than I am.

A more honest response would be to internalize the sort of polite response that one gives a well meaning critic. To accept others’ feedback, and then immediately compare it to your own original motives, is to listen to what has been said. Otherwise, you get defensive and then you lie.

It is also worth noting that takes cultivated personal virtue to ward off other indignity without resorting to deception. Too often, we see people whose first response to criticism is to slander someone else. This shows weak character, and not much of a mind. This sounds harsh, but I will admit that I am of this tendency myself. I simply rarely get a chance to use it.

To remain honest under pressure is a sign of integrity, the ability to always act in accordance with one’s guiding values. Acquiring this integrity provides one with a bulwark against making expedient but destructive choices.

I’ve been listening to Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Amazon affiliate link), in which he recounts his time living under a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. One of the things that I find interesting is that he is able to discern how his critics are responding emotionally and falsely accusing him because he has disturbed their quietude, not because he has actually done the things that he is accused of (whether or not he had).

Resolution

Act with honesty, even in the face of shame.

Don’t attack others because I have been hurt.

Never assume that I will be virtuous.

Aphorism 53

Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This ties in, to a degree, with the subject of our previous aphorism. There is the potential for a great deal of self-contradiction in the human mind. One of the most powerful forces that can lead to this error is belief. As such, it is important to always examine whether a belief is being held in line with truth.

This is a difficult thing to do, as it requires earnest discussion with those who disagree with you. This makes it unpalatable to most people. It is much easier to pretend to debate, or to debate those who are in agreement with the conclusion you have already reached, than it is to enter at your own risk. It requires a respect for the person you are talking with which exceeds the strength of your own stubbornness.

I find that when I believe something I have a hard time rationally assessing the surrounding details. This isn’t a novel phenomenon, but it is something that is pretty common. There’s a really low-level breakdown of it in more detail than I care to go into here:

A great simple breakdown, if a little over-simplified.

There are various reasons that people give for this tendency: an evolutionary biology perspective that says that you will believe what you believe in light of conflicting evidence because it is better to remain with your in-group, traditional abstract vices like hubris, psychoanalytical concepts like the ego and superego.

However, the truth is this:

Everyone is willing to die for their beliefs, they just might not realize that they’re the ones killing themselves.

This is why all major religions have a large tradition of faithful doubters; people who challenge the assertions of the faith but do not leave it. They’re necessary for the health of any large group. I’m fairly orthodox in my perspective, but I see the merit of constant questioning in all things.

Resolution

Build my convictions on solid ground. Test the ground first.

Pay attention to emotion. It can be easily overlooked.

Be careful with beliefs, they cut like knives.

Reflections on Aphorisms #28

I’m changing up the formula for these. I’m merging the sections that I had previously split for interpretation and talking about how I felt the aphorisms applied in my life. They were contributing to rambling because I’d forget something here or there and just go on and on.

Aphorism 46

I recently had a meal in a fancy restaurant with complicated dishes with fancy names ($125 per person), then enjoyed a pizza afterward, straight out of the oven, $7.95. I wonder why the pizza isn’t twenty times the price of the complicated dish, since I’d rather have the former–at any price–over the latter.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

It is easy to forget that cost and value are not one and the same. It’s a simple enough thing to remember on paper, but in practice one will always find themselves more attracted to something which is expensive than something which is cheap. The exception is in rare cases, like shopping for the best deal or when there is some loyalty to a particular brand or fond memories associated with a particular product.

Remember that value is what we would buy something for and price is what they would sell something for.

Some of this is because we live in a society now where it is easy to create near arbitrary volumes of anything. Barring at the very low end of the market in terms of price, most products don’t get a whole lot better as they increase in cost. Most people buy what meets their needs, and may occasionally splurge on versions of these things that are more pleasant than the alternative. As such, the best possible option is usually not that much more than the standard price, at least within the field of a single standardized good (as opposed to luxury variants of the same thing).

A good example of highly differing performance variants within a field can be found in electronics, but even then the average user gets as much utility from any particular example of a given object.

Take, for instance, a computer.

Computers cost anywhere from around $200, if you insist on buying them new and won’t wait for a sale, to as much as $40,000 for what might be considered the standard “personal computer”. Anything beyond that point leaves the frame of reference. It is either strictly a luxury product, using its price as a source of prestige (probably featuring diamonds or some other useless extravagance), or it has become a more specialized type of machine and ceases to be the sort of thing that we are talking about.

At the very bottom end of this range, you have devices that may not be able to do everything that one would expect a computer to do. It may have limitations in terms of substance, lacking particular hardware (like, say, wireless networking capabilities) or not being powerful enough to run particular software, or it might offer a subpar experience but generally be capable of completing most tasks.

The actual difference of value that a user receives depends on them using the computer to complete tasks that are more difficult on cheaper computers. You could have someone who never uses a computer, but wants to have one so they don’t feel left out, someone who uses it only rarely for correspondence, someone who uses it to play graphically intense video games, and someone who uses their computer to render advanced computer graphics and physical calculations.

A $200 personal computer would not be suitable for all these tasks, but the $40,000 computer may be. However, for the average user, $4,000 could almost always build a PC that would meet their demands and those of every other average user.

Of course, cheaper machines tend to specialize, optimizing their price by sacrificing the elements that a particular target market is not interested in.

We could classify anything above this $4000 point as a luxury or professional example of a computer, with the noteworthy copy out some applications do require more powerful computers. These computers are probably not what we will consider personal computers, being servers or workstations which we have separate expectations and standards for.

This is one of the more extreme scales. Take, for instance, food. Where I live, for between $5 to $8, I can eat dishes from almost anywhere around the world that fit almost any dietary criteria. If I’m not picky, I can get enough food to fill my stomach and a cup of tea for $3 and a little tax on the side. This is before we get into the concept of preparing my own food, which cuts out preparation costs, so we could say then. A meal costing over $8, in the area in which I live, is a luxury. I am not anti-luxury. I don’t seek the adoption of any sumptuary laws or even to guilt-trip anyone who enjoys the finer things in life.

However, luxury is not value. At least, it’s got the diminishing return on value. Wise people don’t buy a sports car if they can’t afford three months rent. The value provided by a car that easily can go faster than the law provides for in most jurisdictions is only a marginal increase in value above that provided by a more humble car, but the cost increases dramatically.

The economy is not a zero-sum game. Since I technically create goods which are entirely luxuries, working on games (to a lesser extent education may be considered a luxury too), I often feel a need to point this out.

The challenge with the luxury is this:

A luxury can be pleasurable, or it may simply be a status symbol. In the case of experimental dining, the cost of luxury can often not buy something which rivals the pleasure of simple comfort food, or even marginally pleasurable but more modestly priced offerings.

In this case, it becomes a simple status symbol. I do not understand the purpose of status symbols like experimental gastronomy in the realm of food (which all winds up the same way in the end), and will not cast premature judgment against them. I would have to try them first, and I am not willing to spend the money to do so.

However, I see them as the food equivalent of paying hundreds of dollars to go to a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, in which an orchestra does nothing but sit around on stage for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

There are critics who can write wonderful and entirely meaningless treatises on the purpose and value of such a song, if you can call it a song. I don’t find it personally offensive. I have some concerns, perhaps, about the postmodern value structures that it represents, once again with the caveat of asking whether or not one can really call them value structures, but the real flaw that I see in it is that it fails to bring pleasure.

I would listen to anything else first. Heck, if I wanted silence, I’d go with the store brand. However, it’s worth noting that I don’t extend this to the entirety of what’s known as mother. I can appreciate even the very simple and abstract, if it is not entirely devoid of substance. For instance, I appreciate color studies, in which colors are painted without defining characteristics upon a surface. At least this is someone saying “Here, let me show you this color!”

However, I have gotten onto a tangent. To return to the point, any luxury is only as good as the pleasure it provides relative to the price. Anything else is just pretentious. There are, course, aspirational luxuries. I don’t begrudge these to people; they’re those things that you dream of as a kid that you may eventually become successful enough to have as an adult. That has real value to a person, does it represents the fruition of a dream.

However, I’ll close on this:

To hell with the fear of missing out. I have had more pleasure drinking a $0.20 cup of tea and sitting on a $20 plastic chair next to my cat than I’ve had in experimentation with the sorts of novelties that will be impossible to find in 20 years, going in and out of vogue as quickly as it was thought up. I’d take that $8 pizza with Taleb.

Resolution

Don’t waste money on something that you’re only buying because of a name.

Be content with what is good, but humble.

Don’t be afraid of missing out, be afraid of waste.

Aphorism 47

If there is any good in philosophy it is this: it never inspect pedigrees.

Seneca, as quoted in the Viking book of aphorisms.

Interpretation

I give very little thought to people’s reputations. Of course, if someone is notorious for something or other I make sure to adjust appropriately. However, there is an expression that no man is a prophet in his own land. The unspoken corollary is that in his own land the prophet is a dissident.

This is one reason why pedigrees can be dangerous. There are many great people who are virtuous, but who don’t meet the particular performance metrics of the day.

The other reason, of course, is that pedigrees are often bestowed upon those who have not really earned them.

I work in education, or rather once did and plan to again, and one of the things that struck me about many of my classmates in college is that they were not the sort of people one would trust with a room full of children. Of course, this may be uncharitable since my judgments are based solely on what I understood of them from my brief acquaintance with them, and I had no knowledge of how effective they were in the classroom barring practice sessions prepared for classes which none of us were overly concerned with.

However, while educational licensing is perhaps up there with medical licensing in terms of importance (namely, one of a few fields where one can even justify it), I do have to say that it seems at times too easy to get a license to teach.

Of course, in principle it would be nice to be able to do away with licenses and simply inspect people on their merits. I am skeptical that such a system will really be any improved over the current model.

The point is that one can become an English teacher with little knowledge of English, a teacher of history with little knowledge of history (or at least the objective and practical application of history, not just canned interpretations), and so forth. I haven’t had as bad an experience with my colleagues once I graduated as I did with many of my classmates, so there is a chance I merely judged too harshly, but I found the licensing tests and requirements to be insufficient to bar the path for the unworthy.

What I found among my colleagues, most of whom were more veteran teachers than I, is that they tended to be much better than most of my classmates. Perhaps some of that is molded in the student teaching process which takes place during the final semester of the teacher preparation program. This also happens to be the point at which you stop connecting with your fellow students, since it is a full-time position to the exclusion of other classes.

All the same, then it goes to show that the actual education side, that is to say the education one receives in the classroom, of our program was mostly meaningless for us. Ostensibly, we got grades for these classes (mine were rather impressive and probably undeserved) as a sort of pedigree, but save for a couple classes which I remember fondly they dealt mostly with theories. Some of these theories had already been proven wrong when we were taught them, to make the matter even worse!

As a result of this experience, I can’t help but feel that many people are overrated, at least in the sense that they have pedigrees that they do not deserve. Rather, I don’t think it’s that the people don’t deserve a pedigree.

It’s just that the pedigree is meaningless. And this, I think, is Seneca’s point. It’s hard to give a one word label that indicates actual ability.

Even the best possible option, which I would think would be to call someone virtuous, is not descriptive enough in its own right. Someone may be virtuous in one context, but not universally so. They may be perceived to be virtuous but really just lack the power to be anything else. In such cases, the approval of those around oneself is more important than following one’s own compass and even the unscrupulous turn to virtue.

It is for this reason that Seneca’s statement rings true. By isolating itself from arbitrary displays, philosophy can become greater than any other field. I do not think Seneca would enjoy the state of modern philosophy, but then who does? The laypeople interested in philosophy remain true to Seneca’s vision and satisfy his criteria, even if those who consider themselves professional thinkers do not always appreciate the true nature of labels.

Resolution

Don’t worry about the label if the contents are good.

Always watch out for pretense in myself.

Accept that on a certain level everyone is equal.

There are diamonds in the rough.

Aphorism 48

Nature does not bestow virtue, to be good is an art.

Seneca, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

I think of virtue as being that which exceeds the standards.

In the Bible, there is an account in which Christ says something along the lines of “Which father among you would give his son a snake if he asks for bread?”

This line, from the Gospel of Luke, is the bottom threshold above which one must rise to be considered virtuous. It’s not virtuous to do a good thing for someone if doing so is in your interest. It’s not woefully wicked, but it’s not virtuous

Virtue is doing things that make life better for everyone. However, it goes a step further.

One who is virtuous makes the world a better place for everyone else. They themselves may or may not be included in this improvement.

Someone who is virtuous may have such an incredibly positive impact that without self-interest they manage to transform the whole world so that it is better for literally every person. Whether this has ever happened, I do not know. Of course, if one has a virtuous mindset, which cannot be acquired from nature since it requires self-sacrifice (sacrifice is natural, self-sacrifice is not), perhaps one could argue that death and incredible suffering is still an improvement for oneself if the reward is a significant benefit for everyone else.

And this is where it is important to note that virtue cannot be a natural process (in the sense of coming from the world rather than the spirit).

I think that it can be cultivated through self-evident outcomes, that is to say that one does not need divine inspiration to be virtuous (though it sure helps), but it would never be mistaken for acting according to one’s natural impulses.

The 20th century bears this out in crimson letters. When confronted with the greatest atrocities mankind has ever perpetrated, humanity was largely silent. We have actually chosen to do away with virtue rather than the horrors, at least if the postmodernists have their way.

This is because virtue can never be impulsive without the gift of conscience.

Virtue must be striven for, must be intentionally brought into being. It cannot suddenly exist following a sort of Big Bang of goodness.

One virtuous moment, a single virtuous impulse, does not create virtue. The good life, if consistent, creates virtue. Compromise destroys it.

Resolution

Wage a conscious war to pursue virtue in lieu of my nature.

Deliberately examine moral choices.

Do not be fooled by randomness; only accept as virtuous that which consistently bears the fruit of virtue.

Aphorism Reflections #27

Had something of a long/short day between church and then having a D&D game with some new players in the afternoon. I spent longer than I should checking out E3 stuff, so I’m just kind of a mess.

Aphorism 45

General principle: the solutions (on balance) need to be simpler than the problems.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

I have become convinced that simplicity is a virtue.

One of the reasons for this is that there is a relationship between the lack of simplicity and the presence of hubris. As such, it could be said that simplicity is not necessarily a virtue, but rather is a sign of virtue.

From a strictly practical perspective, simplicity is better than people give it credit for. We have a tendency towards action, but there are times our instincts hurt us more than they help us. For all the strengths one can attribute to gut feelings, one need also remember that things have changed a lot in the past thousand years, and the world we live in is primarily cultivated rather than natural.

Over-complication is actually the instinctual thing for humanity. Knowledge is generally better than ignorance, but when knowledge is not available sometimes your guess works just as well. If we are smart and remember that we are uncertain, our antidote to that is to make things more complicated than they need to be, because we actually deal with finding solutions to a number of guesses, rather than one accurate prediction.

If taken to its final extent, this leads to the moral flaw of hubris and to believing that every possible problem has been solved. Another problem here is that what one considers to be only partially certain may be taken as another to be a statement of absolute faith as it is communicated from person to person. Given enough time to stew, a misjudgment can grow into a more toxic thing than it originally was. Misconception grows while the correct parts of any observation may not be passed down.

From a practical viewpoint, it also stands to reason that solutions must be simple. Being able to actually execute a plan is as important as considering a plan. The more complicated something is, the more likely it is that the plan will fail to be executed properly, and that unforeseen factors will arise inhibit its success.

Difficulties in communication become exponential quickly, as do the possibilities that misplaced assumptions will interfere with plans. The failure in any part of a large mechanism can bring it to a halt. The best solution to this, given the tendency of the universe, is simply not to plan on anything dependent on factors that have too many unknowns.

My Life

I am a game designer, and I have found that anyone with the term designer in their job title, with the exception of the visual arts (and then not always), tends to over-complicate things while missing the big picture. This is true of anyone who works in planning as well. When you work with ideas, it’s tempting to be complicated because that’s how you justify being better than anyone else. If you can’t show that you’ve been working, how do you prove that your work is meaningful?

I am by profession an educator, and if you want an example of over-complication you need look no further than the education system. Some days I’m not even sure that anyone in the education system has a clear idea of the problem they’re trying to solve, myself included.

Of course, this would require a venture into philosophy.

However, if we start with the basic premise of education as being that people are ignorant about the world and need to be given the tools to become less ignorant, it is hard to see how the modern education system simplifies that problem in any way.

If we wanted to be more critical, we could ask if education even answers the problem. Note that I say answer instead of solve, and that’s deliberate. The chance that any attempt is successful is probably pretty low, but there’s always room for improving so that at least instead of an abject failure we have a partial one.

I find that I am susceptible to over-complicating my daily life. There is only one thing that protects me from this trend taking over entirely, which is that I am averse to anything which seems wearisome and burdening. As a result, only the simple can survive for long.

Resolution

Make a goal. Achieve a goal.

If you cannot say it in few words, do not express it solely in many words.

Do nothing out of hubris.