The Philosopher’s Revenge

The Philosopher’s Revenge

Contention: the humanities are just as important as STEM fields for the progress of humanity. It is good for everyone to have experience with both, because they work much better together than separately. Of course, I understand that everyone must specialize—but philosophy majors should spend time in the field applying their thought, and computer scientists need to take a step back and consider the ethical implications of their code (example).

I’m working on a much longer piece on the humanities, so the purpose of this short essay will just be a cursory glance at some concrete values the humanities have. As it turns out, that means name dropping a lot of books.

The Wisdom of Finance, by Mihir Desai (professor at Harvard Business School) is a book that illustrates the power of the humanities to illuminate and redeem other fields, in his case finance. Throughout the book, he introduces various concepts in the field of finance, like the principal-agent problem, and examines them through the lens of a story that features that concept. In the case of the p/a problem, he uses the play The Producers.

(I recommend clicking on the link to the book and looking at the table of contents in the preview. It tells you which problems and which associated stories are covered in each chapter.)

Stories and literature, fully the province of the humanities, make technical concepts more accessible. They also wargame the concepts in a fictional reality, giving readers, listeners, and viewers concrete examples of the concept deployed in the world—useful for neophytes and old hands alike.

But stories don’t just do wonders for explaining concepts in STEM (or finance), they can also illuminate thornier issues in other humanities like philosophy. Many times, it is easier to watch individuals play out a scenario that involves ethical issues than it is to read an ethical treatise, although treatises have their place. Two of my favorite books also illustrate better ways to think that are directly applicable to real life (Atlas Shrugged and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality).

And if you still don’t think the humanities are important, consider the autonomous car. It will have to be coded to make decisions in scenarios like: “if a group of people jaywalks in front of the car, and you have the option to avoid—and save—all of them by slamming into a light post, seriously injuring or killing the driver, do you?”

Even if you think that scenario is easy, there are many more. Ethics, the branch of philosophy that is relevant here, is an applied field in the age of autonomous cars, inseparable from, and the guide for, STEM fields. It always has been, but now it’s harder to ignore that fact. I sometimes refer to this scenario—ethics and wider philosophy being ignored and dismissed as impractical, until we suddenly have urgent need of them— as the philosopher’s revenge. In general, dismissal of the humanities will incur this revenge in some form.

And beyond STEM fields, the humanities—and their cousins, the social sciences—are useful because they are the way of the world. To quote a science fictional character from the book Red Rising (although it could very well come from Machiavelli): “What we must study is humanity. In order to rule, ours must be the study of political, psychological, and behavioral science—how desperate human beings react to one another, how packs form, how armies function, how things fall apart and why.”

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

What I Mean When I Say “Love”

What I Mean When I Say “Love”

The word “love” is not used carefully in English.

  1. It is used to refer to the emotion that new parents have for their newborn.
  2. It is used to refer to the filial emotion that children have for their parents, and that siblings have for each other.
  3. It is used to refer to the potency of aesthetic preference (e.g., I love Beethoven’s music).
  4. It is used to refer to a general benevolence one has for all mankind.
  5. It is both something that many people say you have to do (love your family) and something that is voluntary (pursue someone you like and make them your spouse).
  6. And it is used to refer to the emotional state that is the end result of deliberate choices made by an individual to cultivate a relationship with another human they like, in both platonic and romantic forms.

I don’t think the above things (and there are more than those) are the same emotion, but they all receive the same label, “love.” This isn’t to say that each emotion isn’t significant, or that several of them can’t apply to the same relationship, but that each is sufficiently distinct to warrant either its own word, or adjectival clarification.

The English philosopher J.S. Mill had a similar grievance with the word “natural” in his time that could equally be applied to “love” now:

“…but it is unfortunate that a set of terms which play so great a part in moral and metaphysical speculation should have acquired many meanings different from the primary one, yet sufficiently allied to it to admit of confusion. The words have thus become entangled in so many foreign associations, mostly of a very powerful and tenacious character, that they have come to excite, and to be the symbols of, feelings which their original meaning will by no means justify, and which have made them one of the most copious sources of false taste, false philosophy, false morality, and even bad law.”

Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ve had an atypically large amount of conversations about love—I’m not mad about this, it’s an interesting concept. One of the most interesting.

But the conversations easily become derailed because the term “love” is so ill-defined and vaguely used. I’m always upfront about what I mean when I say the word “love.” This essay isn’t an argument about what “love” should mean, it’s just an explanation of what I mean when I say it. If you don’t like what you read, that’s OK. I generally don’t insist that someone define words the same way that I do, but I do generally insist that they define the words they choose to use. Maybe you mean something different when you say “love.” Fine. But here’s what I mean.

What follows is a summary explanation of what I mean when I say the word “love.”

The verb “to love” means the emotional state resultant from sustained interactions with another person who embodies your values. This also means that love is conditional. For example, if I were to ever marry, I would only marry a man that I loved, which means he would act with integrity, courage, discipline, ambition, and some other things (or maybe he’ll surprise me with a combination of virtues and actions I didn’t anticipate I’d like—either way, he will be the embodiment of things I value). If he started to change in a permanent way that I couldn’t reverse, such that he no longer embodied those things, I would eventually stop loving him.

I think when I say “love is conditional” many people think that I’m talking about a quid-pro-quo situation, or that I mean love flits on and off like an electrical circuit. Based on the above paragraph, clearly that is not the case.

For me, love is something to be earned from you, and that you have to earn from someone else. It is very much an exchange of value for value, and something you have to live up to. Here again, a common response is: “you shouldn’t have to earn love. Always having to prove yourself is a toxic thing.” This response conflates “earning” with “always having to prove yourself.” When I say “earn love,” I mean that you should generally act with virtue, which makes you worthy of the affections of someone else who also acts with those virtues. This doesn’t mean constantly proving yourself, which would be toxic (I imagine demanding to go through a partner’s cellphone to “prove their honesty” as a scarecrow of my explanation here). It just means: live out your values. Do your best to uphold them, and to make sure they’re the right ones. Don’t expect that you can not do that and still earn the love of someone who does.

For me, love is something that I do on a voluntary basis. The emotion isn’t under direct rational control (what emotions are), but it is directly tied to—and provoked by—the things I consciously adopt and practice as my values, so it’s far from random. Love does not come automatically, it is not given out of duty, it is conditional, and it is a prize to be earned by others and for you to earn from others.

As I’ve given it, my explanation of “love” does not cover most of the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Again, the purpose of this particular essay isn’t to argue that those things are or are not love (although I do have thoughts on that). It’s just to explain what I mean when I use that word.

I love some former strangers who I’ve since adopted as my friends. I love my mother, not simply because she is my parent, but because she embodies the values and virtues I prize. I admire (another word needing definition, but take it here as a less potent form of love) several colleagues at work. If I ever have a child, I would say that I have a hopeful love for it—this doesn’t mean that that particular emotion isn’t potent and powerful, just that it is different than the love I exchange with another adult. And I have a general benevolence for mankind, which I frequently extend to strangers, and extend in even more potency to those who I know a little, but not a lot.

To everyone, Happy Valentine’s Day.

I listened to this song as I wrote, which, for me, has an aural sweetness I associate with my fondest loves:

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Wisdom does not come with Age

Wisdom does not come with Age

I’m still on the younger end of the age distribution in the workforce, but I’m no longer on the youngest end, and as time goes on I will only ever move toward the right in the age distribution. As I make that move, one of my primary goals is to not repeat the mistake that has been, in my experience, common among my colleagues: assuming that age brings wisdom. This includes the assumption’s corollary, with youth comes lack of wisdom.

This assumption takes many forms, some consciously held and some unconsciously held: “They’re older so I suppose they know better than my idea.” “That kid has a lot of nerve questioning company protocol.” Or something like these.

This assumption does two things: it discourages young people in the face of more aged opposition, and it makes older colleagues blind to improvement opportunities just because they originate in a younger mind.

When I float this idea, the immediate pushback I receive is that older people generally do know more, because they’ve had a longer time to accumulate experiences and knowledge. After all, in many industries and crafts it simply takes time to develop as a practitioner. I don’t immediately disagree with that pushback, and I also don’t think it’s actually pushback. It fits with my preferred rework of the age/wisdom assumption: wisdom does not come with age necessarily, and wisdom does not avoid youth necessarily.

Wisdom is a set of thinking processes that more consistently generates outcomes that correspond with reality, and these outcomes tend to be integrated into an increasingly consistent whole body of knowledge. Time allows an individual to accumulate more knowledge and improve one’s thinking processes, but it does not guarantee that this will happen. The accumulation and improvement (“growing in wisdom”) only happens if an individual works at it.

Age—the passage of time—does not bring wisdom, it just potentially facilitates it. Whether an individual takes advantage of the facilitation is another matter completely.

In my view, I assign people “wisdom points.” You get a wisdom point if you improve your rational faculty, for example, by recognizing a logical fallacy you make and correcting for it.

Assuming that you don’t deploy knowledge in a mental state that is distorted by a terribly incorrect view of the world, you also get some wisdom points for accumulating knowledge and integrating it into your total sum. Clearly, the passage of more time potentially allows for more wisdom points to be accumulated, but the rate at which individuals accumulate wisdom points varies.

Using arbitrary numbers: if someone accumulates wisdom points at a rate of 1 per year after they turn 20, and someone else accumulates wisdom points at a rate of 3 per year after they turn 20, it’s clear that, even if the first person is much older than the second person, they will be outstripped in wisdom by their younger counterpart.

If someone who is 30 years old has spent all of their adult life reading 40—60 books per year (assuming they are good books that improve thinking and present well-ordered knowledge), trying different things, and generally engaging in active thinking all the time, I think that person will be wiser than a 50 year old who has read perhaps two books in their life and never engages in active thinking.

Potential pushback to the point above: but the 30 year old might still have things they could learn from the 50 year old. Even if the 50 year old has been accumulating wisdom at a much slower rate, they will have some experiences and beneficial insight that only (usually) come with age, like raising children to adulthood, experiencing the death of parents, &c. Again, I don’t disagree with this. But it doesn’t dispel my contention that age doesn’t guarantee special or superior wisdom. In general, any human can learn from any other human—there is so much knowledge generated by human society that a good insight can come from anywhere, since no one human can possess even close to all of it. So, yes, the 50 year old can still have things to teach the 30 year old, but the 30 year old might very well have more things to teach the 50 year old.

Even if you could measure the wisdom levels of different age groups, and you found that, in general, wisdom increases with age (which wouldn’t be surprising, given that the passage of time potentially facilitates wisdom), this still doesn’t tell you how wise any individual is based on their age. As with any statistical aggregate, it cannot be applied to individuals—each must be examined alone to learn about its particulars. To do otherwise would be like a man saying to a woman, “I have more upper body strength than you because I am a man.” Perhaps this is true in the aggregate, but one cannot possibly apply the aggregate trend to all men and women individually. There’s a large area of overlap where many women are stronger than many men. And, just as it would be sexist for the man to say that to a woman, it would be ageist for an older person to say, “I am wiser than you because I am older” to a young person.

Really, the only way to know if someone is wise is to talk with them and examine the products of their mind, whether those are creative products or perhaps a certain professional/vocational methodology. And some people, even if they seem unwise in various endeavors, might have very silo’d wisdom; they learn how to do something really well, but have either failed to generalize the principles from that thing to their life, or have just spent much more time with one particular craft or idea. For example, a lawyer who makes partner at a firm might know the law extremely well, and have great insight into structuring certain kinds of contracts—but this same lawyer will fail to carry over the “if x, then y” type of thinking that could improve their thought in a variety of other areas.

The point of this essay isn’t to say that the young should disregard the relatively older, or that the relatively older should give more deference to the young than they sincerely judge to be correct. It’s that everyone should recognize that wisdom is a process that proceeds at a certain rate, and that rate is different for individuals. Keeping that in mind, in addition to the fact that anyone could learn something from anyone else (potentially) because of the immense scale of total human knowledge, wisdom and age should lose their affiliation.

If you are wise or have better insight than someone else, justify it by demonstration or explanation. Making an appeal to age doesn’t prove anything, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what wisdom actually is.

A different take on this topic appears in the introduction to Dear Wayne County.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Where the Lemons Blossom

Where the Lemons Blossom

When my mind isn’t busy, whether with to-do lists, the contents of my phone, or major worries (and sometimes even with these), I can find joy in almost anything. But this joy is not warrantless, and its ease does indicate lack of depth. Most often and easily, the joy has the same provocation: I think about what had to happen in order that I should pick an item up at the grocery store.

This week, I picked up a lemon.

A few times a month, I’m possessed of a mood to cut up a lemon and set it on a plate while I go about cooking dinner. While the lemon’s taste is sour, its olfactory properties are the opposite, and a freshly cut lemon will pour itself into the air with surprising, but welcome, potency. Everything you wouldn’t want from an onion.

So, when I was shopping for food, I saw that lemons were fifty cents each. I knew I’d like the fruit’s aromatic bouquet for my evening, so I picked it up, and away I went.

Citrus fruits don’t grow in New England (not well anyway), and especially not in February. The lemon I held had come to me by way of some warmer climate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles away. It was picked, cleaned, packaged, and then transported across those miles, then unloaded, unpacked, and displayed in the grocery. So many intermediaries had interceded across days, miles, and man-hours to yield the display of lemons in wintry Cambridge.

And even after all of that, the owners of the store were allowing me to separate them from one of their lemons for two quarters—an amount so low I wouldn’t even miss it if it left my checking account.

In a previous century, this wouldn’t have been possible. The very idea that I could afford a lemon as an aesthetic impulse in the middle of a New England winter would be absurd, no matter my income bracket.

But human society has progressed so much in such a short amount of time that, now, a lemon is within reach of nearly everyone. And not just the lemon, but perhaps the vast majority of most of the grocery store, especially the fruit and vegetable section. What a deliriously joyful thing to witness!

I suspect some might call my lemon “one of life’s small pleasures.” I would never. That would be a disservice to the achievement the lemon is and represents, and which provides me my joy: such improvement and efficiency of civilization that I can pluck it from across the country (and other things from across the world) in the dead of winter, without prior planning, for fifty cents—that is no small pleasure. In any other age it would have been so unthinkable that it would have been called miraculous.

Well, I took the lemon home with me and cut it crossways, opening it like a small flower on a plate. It performed—perfumed—wonderfully, and then lent its juice to my after-dinner tea.

As I wrote this I listened to Johan Strauss II’s “Wo die Zitronen blühen,” a waltz that in English is called “Where the lemons blossom.” 

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

When My Mind Turned On

When My Mind Turned On

In my life so far, there have been exactly three stories that I’ve read that served to radically transform or reorient my worldview. I’ve met many individuals who have never had an experience like that with books, and, although I would expect that the great diversity of human beings means that not everyone would have one, I think many more people would if they read more.

Two of the stories were books, and they came later in my life. But the first was a short story: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. I read it in elementary school under the guidance of a wise teacher.

If I had to describe the nature of the transformations that accompanied the two books, I would call them a revelation and a call to arms, respectively. “Harrison Bergeron,” on the other hand, was when I “came online.” Before that story, I don’t recall thinking much about philosophy or ethics. Keep in mind, I was only eleven or so when I read it, so the thoughts that I might have had would have been quite preliminary.

But after I read it, my mind would never be the same. The experience is vivid in even now.

“Harrison Bergeron” is a satirical science-fiction dystopic short story. In its world, everyone is legally equal, and literally equal. However, there is one man, the story’s eponymous protagonist, who is a god among men: the most beautiful, the most athletic, the most intelligent—quite simply, the best. He is outfitted with various handicaps to bring him down to the baseline of everyone else, but eventually he shatters all of them. He defies the government and society by doing so, and it is a glorious moment. He is then immediately killed by government agents, and the story ends.

Reading that story provoked a violent rage in my barely-adolescent self that has hardly seen any rivals since—this is even considering that one’s capacity for rage grows with age as one’s mind is increasingly able to grasp the world.

The destruction of the best of humanity, simply because it was the best, all told in Vonnegut’s short and fast-paced story, overwhelmed my burgeoning mental faculties. I recognized elements of the story in the world, even as little of it as I had witnessed at the time that I read the story, and from that point forward I thought concretely and with conviction about certain rules of ethics, politics, and philosophy. These first thoughts were not sophisticated, but they were extant, and that is the point.

“Harrison Bergeron”, unlike the other two books that would come later, did not transform my worldview. It turned on the apparatus that would generate it in the first place.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Cargo Cult Marketing

Cargo Cult Marketing

One of my favorite thinkers is the physicist Richard Feynman. He was a man who wouldn’t bow to majority opinion, and he was famous for being in the business of “Finding Things Out.” I highly recommend his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. In a commencement lecture he delivered at Caltech in 1974, he described what he called “cargo cult science.” When I first read it years ago, it clarified many immediate conceptual problems I’d been wrestling with, and it continues to be valuable to me every day, especially at work.

From the lecture:

“I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call Cargo Cult Science.  In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people.  During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now.  So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land.  They’re doing everything right.  The form is perfect.  It looks exactly the way it looked before.  But it doesn’t work.  No airplanes land.  So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

The error that the cargo cultists are making could broadly be described as “mistaking some of the processes provoked by a thing for the thing itself.” Feynman goes on to explain how the scientists of his time, and indeed still today, are making the exact same mistake. Instead of rigorously testing hypotheses with the scientific method, scientists go through the motions of setting up equipment and taking measurements, without properly evaluating their setup or the data they derive from it.

I’m not in the sciences, but Feynman’s observations are relevant for me every day, and for most people, I’d wager. My current work involves several different fields, but one of them is marketing. As a result, many of my co-workers have heard me rambling about “cargo cult marketing” for a while now.

To correctly market something, you first have to understand the preferences of your audience. In the course of doing market research, conducting data experiments, and more, your audience profile slowly starts to get built. You learn its preferences, and the best way to engage with it that is productive for all parties involved. That best way is not universal among audiences, and you will often find that many things vary from audience to audience.

But the mediums of audience communication overlap. Flyers, social media, and more are all used to communicate with many different audiences in many different kinds of marketing campaigns—but keep in mind, the medium is not the marketing. The marketing is the message. Apple’s “think different” was its message, and the channels it beamed that message out across were the mediums.

Cargo cult marketing means eschewing rigorous market research and getting to know your audience–and not really building a message. It means, after not doing those things well, simply pumping out information across a variety of channels, either online or in physical form (or: flyers = marketing). This process mistakes the medium for the message in the same way that Feynman’s islanders mistook the direction of causality between planes and runways.

Marketing mediums are determined and crafted once an audience profile and a message are established, and are, at best (although rarely) accidentally successful without them. You can’t have good marketing if you don’t know where to find your audience, and yet still insist on putting flyers and other physical promotional materials up just anywhere.

The lessons of “cargo cult [anything],” as I first encountered them through Richard Feynman, are useful to professionals across industries. Using the cargo cult lens allows me to more readily detect proper, well-defined processes, and ones that just superficially resemble them. I also became a better worker myself after internalizing the cargo cult lens—Feynman’s lecture continually reminds me to understand why I do what I do, and to never work blindly like the cargo cult did.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.