Tuesday, January 19. 2010
Monday, January 18. 2010
Malcolm Gladwell's latest New Yorker article, "The Sure Thing," follows his trademark formula: find a truism and turn it on its head. In this case, the truism is "entrepreneurs are risk-takers." American culture lionizes the entrepreneur for taking risks that others wouldn't take, by staking huge amounts of money, time, and energy in something totally new. Gladwell finds, though, that extravagant risk is something the most successful entrepreneurs scrupulously avoid. He cites several famous entrepreneurs – Ted Turner (Turner Broadcasting), Sam Walton (Wal-mart), and Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA), among others – who distinguished themselves by their superior insight and exhaustive research, and not their cahones. Hedge-fund manager John Paulson, who made billions of dollars betting against the U.S. housing bubble, may seem like a high-stakes gambler, but in fact he did months of research before he would so much as touch a credit default swap. The successful entrepreneurs took every opportunity to avoid risk, by shifting it onto outside investors, or leaning on cash reserves within a family or a family business, or simply making astute choices of business deals where they couldn't lose.
I can say that Gladwell's thesis holds up well in my own experience. I had the distinct privilege for working for Augie Turak during the early years of his startup Raleigh Group International (RGI) which sold and marketed software develop tools. His motto of entrepreneurship might have been: "Live to fight another day." "Business is very simple," he said. "A successful business has more money coming in than going out. All you have to do is remain solvent, one day after the next, until you find your niche." Turak started his venture with $10,000 and never sought outside loans. He was ruthless about controlling costs. For the first two years he didn't draw a salary. The employees took turns cleaning the office instead of hiring a cleaning service. He shunned most paid advertising, which was expensive and of questionable worth, and instead mastered guerrilla marketing tactics – direct mail to lists he traded for, email subscriptions, and all the editorial coverage he could squeeze from the trade magazines. All his sales reps were paid on straight commission, so he never had to worry about unprofitable employees dragging the company down. When he finally found a niche with a promising future – bug-tracking systems – he found a silent partner to front most of the money for the project, and found an enormous marketing partner – Microsoft – to piggy-back on for the marketing. When he finally sold the business to another software company, he held most of the equity and profited handsomely . . . because he had avoided financial risk rather than taking it.
Gladwell pointed out that entrepreneurs were willing to take social risks, even though they avoid financial ones. That fits Turak to a T. He was a master of telephone sales, and telephone sales reps risk social rejection on a minute-by-minute basis. He taught his sales force to be aggressive, to take risks, and most of all to persevere in the face of rejection and failure. He was famous for making over-the-top, impassioned sales pitches, doing things others would never dream of doing to get the sale. Once, he was pitching a quiet Japanese prospect who told him: "Prease, understand – I Japanese. We vely conservative and careful." "Conservative?" Turak bellowed. "The heck you say. What about the samurai? BONZAI! BONZAI!" Turak didn't get the credit card on that call, but everyone in the sales pit knew he had pulled out all the stops. And then, later that day, he got a call back from the "cautious" Japanese prospect: "You . . . vely good saresman. I buy."
Gladwell is only demonstrating what most performers already know: through discipline, training, and preparation, you can take something that looks dangerous and risky (like, say, a triple somersault on the trapeze, or investing billions of dollars) and make it an everyday occurrence.
Friday, January 15. 2010
It's Friday, and I'm tired, and moreover I'm strung out on all the hyperlogical arguments of the last couple of weeks. I have tried to follow logic where logic will lead, without regard to the outcome, and with faith that somehow it will get me closer to the truth. But I don't much like where it leads, and I have only so much tolerance for existential dread.
So, as an antidote, let me offer an extended passage, one of my favorites that I take out and read at least once or twice a year. I don't know how, exactly, it relates to the discussions we've had, but it resonates with me, and never ceases to move me. This is from The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. LeGuin, which is widely considered to be one of the classics of high fantasy. The characters in this scene are Ged, a powerful and wise wizard, and Arren, a young prince. They have travelled together to the literal ends of the earth, hunting another wizard who is on the verge of destroying the world in his quest for immortality.
They followed the lowest, outmost range of hills, mostly within sight of the ocean. The grass was dry and short, blowing and blowing forever in the wind. The hills rose up golden and forlorn upon their right, and on their left lay the salt marshes and the western sea. Once they saw swans flying, far away in the south. No other breathing creature did they see all that day. A kind of weariness of dread, of waiting for the worst, grew in Arren all day long. Impatience and a dull anger rose in him. He said, after hours of silence, "This land is as dead as the land of death itself!"
"Do not say that," the mage said sharply. He strode on a while and then went on, in a changed voice, "Look at this land; look about you. This is your kingdom, the kingdom of life. This is your immortality. Look at the hills, the mortal hills. They do not endure forever. The hills with the living grass on them, and the streams of water running . . . In all the world, in all the worlds, in all the immensity of time, there is no other like each of those streams, rising cold out of the earth where no eye sees it, running through the sunlight and the darkness to the sea. Deep are the springs of being, deeper than life, than death . . ."
He stopped, but in his eyes as he looked at Arren and at the sunlit hills there was a great, wordless, grieving love. And Arren saw that, and seeing it saw him, saw him for the first time whole, as he was.
"I cannot say what I mean," Ged said unhappily.
But Arren thought of that first hour in the Fountain Court, of the man who had knelt by the running water of the fountain; and joy, as clear as that remembered water, welled up in him. He looked at his companion and said, "I have given my love to that which is worthy of love. Is that not the kingdom and the unperishing spring?"
"Aye, lad," said Ged, gently and with pain.
They went on together in silence. But Arren saw the world now with his companion's eyes and saw the living splendor that was revealed about them in the silent, desolate land, as if by a power of enchantment surpassing any other, in every blade of the wind-bowed grass, every shadow, every stone. So when one stands in a cherished place for the last time before a voyage without return, he sees it all whole, and real, and dear, as he has never seen it before and never will see it again.
Thursday, January 14. 2010
A reminder to all "Abandon Text!" readers: if you're not reading the comments, you're missing half the fun. (Maybe even two-thirds of the fun, since Kenny can usually say twice as much as I do in half the space.)
Imagine that you see a rock, teetering on the edge of a cliff. There is no one below the cliff, who might be hit. There is, in fact, no one around but you. It's not a particularly big rock, not part of any structure, etc. So you can go put the rock back on the cliff in a more stable place, or you can throw it off the side of the cliff, or you can just leave the whole thing alone. Here is my question: do you have any moral or ethical reason to do any of the above?
Well, sure you do, if you imagine that the rock is trying to launch itself off the cliff. That's what it looks like, when you look at it that way: like Tantalus, it keeps straining for the edge, but can't quite get there. Life is probably a lot better down at the bottom of the cliff, it reasons. So you really ought to help it out and give it a toss.
But of course, all that is completely fanciful. Really, the rock doesn't care one way or the other. You get no ethical high marks, or demerits either, no matter what you do.
And here's the point of this unnecessarily-lengthy analogy. In a purely material world, everything and everyone is just like that rock. A small child is "trying" to get some food? Not really, that's just a fanciful way of putting it. What's really happening is a complex series of mechanical, electrical, and chemical reactions that all lead the child to move its legs, hold out its arms, and act for all the world as if it really matters if it gets the food. Those physical events are the whole story: anything else we add to them is self-indulgent anthropomorphism. Maybe the child gets the food and lives, maybe it doesn't and dies, and as Dr. Manhattan says, a dead body contains roughly the same number of molecules as a living one, so what's the diff?
If nothing matters, then nothing matters.
Ok, this is good, because we've teased out something that wasn't in the original description of Felder's Wager. Let's break out the argument into pieces:
This argument has some problems.
Wednesday, January 13. 2010
To all those who have provided your comments over the months and years -- thank you!
To all those who have tried to provide their comments, and failed because the stupid captcha features weren't working correctly -- my humblest apologies. I turned on the captchas because I was getting overrun by comment spam, but only later learned I was losing legitimate comments.
I have made some adjustments to the anti-spam features that I hope will resolve the difficulties some of you have had in posting comments. Please feel free to write to me at georg [[[at]]] selfknowledge [[[dot]]] org if you continue to have problems posting. If you forward your comments to me I am happy to post them, and even happier to help troubleshoot the issue so I never have to apologize for my blogging software again.
Good philosophers, like good scientists, should share their raw data, warts and all. (Yes, that's a dig at Phil Jones.) In the interests of full disclosure, what would change about my life, were I suddenly to become a materialist?
Pursuing my own pleasures would suddenly take a higher priority. If physical death is the end of life, then one's calculations for deferral of gratification could change significantly. No more "laying up treasure in heaven," doing good deeds with the thought that one will be rewarded in the afterlife. I wouldn't even wait for retirement, much less death; I'd make darn sure that I had rewarding experiences along the way, since tomorrow might be the end. As Kenny put it, more chess and movies, and less meditation. But again, I don't think that necessarily changes my lifestyle much – I deliberately developed a life in which my work and my play were pretty close to the same thing.
I think what we might term ordinary morality -- a basic respect for other human beings, generosity towards your immediate friends and neighbors, an aversion to crime -- is totally intact. No one needs a God in order to naturally do these things. I would still be trustworthy, give blood every couple of months, and help out a stray dog now and then.
What takes a real hit is the superrogatory goodness -- goodness above and beyond the call of duty, goodness that involves sacrificing my own self-interest. I would not "give 'till it hurts," as the Red Cross asks. I would be a decent person, but most likely I would not be a saint. It would still be possible for me to give generously to causes in which I or my family had a vested self-interest (like volunteer work at the school) or in which I had a personal intellectual interest (like technology work at the school or the SKS) or which provided other compensations like interesting friends (school and SKS again). But I wouldn't consistently put those causes ahead of my family's interests, or if they got to be unpleasant or felt unrewarding I would probably drop them.
Or, to put it another way: I would stop doing good things that I thought I ought to do, and only do those good things that I felt like doing.
The loss of the prospect of sainthood is significant. I'm currently reading David McCollough's history 1776, and I am acutely aware of how much I owe to people who made extraordinary sacrifices to establish the society I live in. I'm not sure if our way of life could have come to be, or be maintained, without people who live and die for something outside their narrow personal interests.
Oddly, and ironically, all good deeds (those I do for others, and those others do for me) would be imbued with a greater significance than if I was counting on a spiritual reality. If a Christian does you an unexpected good turn, it's nice, but you know they are just investing in their immortality 401k plan -- it's just a rarified form of self-interest. But when an atheist does you an unexpected good turn, it means a heck of a lot more. That person just gave you time and energy they will never get back again, for no other reason than they really wanted to. What a gift. What a pure act of self-expression. I am reminded of Angel, Joss Whedon's vampire-with-a-soul who discovers that no amount of good deeds can win him ultimate redemption, and who still does good anyway, because, in his words, "What else are we gonna do?" When he faces despair and has an epiphany that leads him back to life, he sums it up thus: "If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do -- right now." Somehow it makes more sense to me when he says it, instead of Nietzsche or Sartre.
Tuesday, January 12. 2010
Here is one argument against Felder's Wager. (I have others.)
Felder's Wager depends in part on the assumption that meaning and purpose cannot be found in a purely material world. So let's run a thought experiment to test that assumption.
Assume for a moment that you came to the firm, unshakeable conclusion that materialism is true: there is nothing in the universe but matter and energy, all mental phenomena are emergent properties of matter and energy, and when you die, "the mind doth perish with the house that hoards it." (Let's not worry about how you come to that conclusion; that's not relevant to the argument.)
So, now that you're a materialist: how does that change your life? Specifically, what do you do differently? How does your notion of a good, meaningful, worthwhile life change?
I had initially expected (like Kenny) that losing spiritual reality would change everything. If life is just a random swirl of order passing through an ocean of chaos, and the universe has no purpose or direction or grand design, then of course life is meaningless. Logically, rationally, that is the inevitable conclusion.
Yet, when I run this experiment, for my own self and my own life, I find that things don't change nearly as much as I expected. In a totally material world, my desires for my own life are pretty much the same: I want to do work I enjoy and find interesting, enjoy the company of my peers and my family, be a respected and valued member of a community, and enjoy a moderate level of physical comfort and security. My notion of goodness doesn't change much, either, nor my desire to be a good person: I still want to be kind, generous, thoughtful person whose life has a positive effect on his fellow human beings. And I still recoil at the notion of being a bad person: murder, theft, selfishness, thoughtfulness are still just as bad. A shallow existence (watching reruns of Friends and eating lots of potato chips) still looks shallow and unsatisfying to me. A deep life, full of contemplation, conversation, and challenging tasks still looks appealing.
True, things are not exactly the same. I can't deny that my sense of confidence would be shaken. Without some spiritual plan or order, some eternal framework to hold existence, I would feel forced out into the open, exposed to the horrors of tragedy with no refuge. I would feel the overwhelming bitterness of being robbed of an enormous fortune. And yet . . . goodness is still good, and evil still evil. I would still "love that which is worthy of love." My rational calculations about the nature of the cosmos do not seem to put a dent in my convictions here on the ground.
So . . . if my notion of goodness doesn't change much, and my idea of a good life doesn't change much, and my actions don't change that much, once I become a materialist, in what sense can I say that meaning is dependent on a non-material, spiritual reality? If my instinctive, core sense of what is good and right is unchanged, even when all hope of spirituality is removed, then I can't say that there is no meaning without spirituality. The meaning might be different, but it's still there.
[Even if you're skeptical of the argument, go ahead and run the thought experiment for your own life. What would you change about your life, in a totally material world? Be as specific as possible, and as honest as possible. Ask yourself: would you still love your children? Would you still admire people who were generous and kind? Would you still have the same job you have now? Would you vote the same way in the next election? Would you try to be a different kind of person?]
One could explain these results away, and many an apologist does. "There, you see? Your moral convictions persist, in spite of your rational beliefs, so there must be a God somewhere, putting those moral ideas in your head!" Or, "You say you don't believe in a non-material reality, but you've just buried it beneath some abstractions. I bet if we dig deep enough we'll find out you still believe in something transcendent." Or perhaps the Ernest Becker, Denial of Death answer: "You still act like there is still meaning in the universe because you are in abject denial. Your mind simply refuses to acknowledge meaninglessness, because if it did, it would totally crush you. So you pretend there is meaning, even when there isn't."
Perhaps. Perhaps I'm just not that imaginative, and I would become a hopeless, helpless, despairing, despicable wreck without the hope of spiritual reality. But somehow I doubt it. I know lots of good people -- people more virtuous than I, by any measure -- whose virtue and meaning is not impeded by their materialism.
Felder's Wager attempts to use reason to overturn meaning, but in the end the contradictions can flip the other way: the persistence of meaning and morality invalidate reason. You can never argue away our sense of meaning, because it was never rational to begin with.
Monday, January 11. 2010
I find the scientific world empty of the things I want most, which are purpose and certainty. In terms of purpose, we always say things like "It's better to be good to people than to hurt them," or even "It's better to know the truth than to live with superstition," but if science is the only basis for truth, then those statements are utterly meaningless: they can never be scientifically proven, right? In terms of certainty, science bases everything on logic (which we can't prove works) and the evidence of our senses (which in fact we know lie to us all the time), so nothing in science is ever certain beyond "that's the best we have so far."
So where does all that leave me? Certainly, I don't meditate because I have any certainty that it will lead to ultimate truth of any kind, although I am quite convinced that it has led me to a better understanding of who I am than I had before I started. But I meditate because, if I can't find real truth that way, then it just seems hopeless that I can find it in any way whatsoever.
So, as Kenny sees it, a purely physical universe, knowable only conditionally and devoid of values, is inherently meaningless. Therefore, if you want to have a meaningful life, your best bet is to turn your attention toward the Mind. Mind, for all its baffling nature, is at least directly apprehensible, and therefore offers a certain existential certainty. Of all the things you know, the only thing you know for sure is that you exist, and that you experience. Many spiritual teachers hold out the hope that if one pursues the mind deeply enough, one might eventually arrive at complete certainty about one's own nature and the nature of the universe – that is, enlightenment. Mind also seems to be the only place where a moral reality can be found, since science can only tell us what is, but not what ought to be. Like Pascal's Wager, this isn't a proof that spirituality inquiry is true. Rather, it says spirituality is the last refuge for meaning and certainty to exist, if it exists at all.
I like Felder's Wager, primarily because it's pretty close to where I've place my own existential bets. Like Kenny, what I want most out of life is moral certainty – clarity that I am living my life the best possible way, and doing the right thing. And like Kenny, I don't see any way to achieve that end without arriving at some certainty about my nature and my place in the universe.
Unfortunately, like Pascal's original version, Felder's Wager is dependent on certain premises that are open to attack. More on that tomorrow.
Friday, January 8. 2010
I turn 40 today. In our youth-worshipping culture, today is the day I'm supposed to bemoan the loss of physical vitality and attractiveness. Truth is, I kind of like being this age. Consider the benefits:
Thursday, January 7. 2010
As a side-note to our discussion on consciousness, I should point out that while Kenny and I and lots of others have strong intuitions about awareness as the seat of identity, there are some others who consistently fail to have the same intuition. I'm thinking especially of the computationalists who dream of uploading the entire contents of one's brain into a computer or robot (or, in the case of Dollhouse, another human brain), as a strategy for immortality.
I always find these schemes to be enormously frustrating, because they smack of such a wrong-headed identification – even if the computationalists are right about the mind being reducible to patterns of information. Let's say you sit down in the mad scientist's chair with the hat full of wires, and he reproduces all of your brain's thoughts, feelings, memories, and other mental capacities and puts them in a robot sitting in the chair next to you. Well, it's more like a cyborg, really – the brain is replaced by a near-indestructible chip, but the rest of the body is real flesh, created with cloning technology to be an exact replica of your body. Let's even skip over the enormous questions of qualia and consciousness, and assume that he can even reproduce those in his cyborg brain.
The question is: what will your experience be when the process is done?
I think that some people imagine that they will wake up in their new immortal robot body, still themselves but now ready for lots more life and love and happiness. Drinks are on me!
But . . . I don't think that's what happens. What happens is that you wake up in the same old body, just like before. Only now, there is a perfect copy of you sitting in the chair next to you. He's just like you – same face, same hair, same smug smile. You feel uncomfortable self-conscious watching him, just like you do when you watch a videotape of yourself. You never realized your hair looked that way from the back. The mad scientist is shaking his hand, telling him that the procedure was a complete success, and wishing him the best of luck. You watch your doppelganger walk out of the lab, ready to take over your life, go to your home, make love to your wife. And then the mad scientist turns to you, pulling a .38 caliber revolver from his pocket, saying, "We won't be needing this old body any more . . ." And you scream, "Wait! No! I'm still here! This is still me! That's not me!"
A perfect copy of yourself is now walking the street, enjoying himself, dreaming new dreams, making plans for his immortal life. So . . . are you immortal? Maybe your thoughts and feelings and ideas and hopes and dreams are alive and kicking . . . but what good is all that, if you don't get to experience them? Someone else is experiencing them – and if someone else is experiencing them, what does it matter that that person is just like you? You might feel proud to have given birth to an immortal, and happy that someone will carry out your lifelong mission of perfecting fusion reactors . . . but are you immortal?
Yes, I know, I'm ripping off dozens of sci-fi stories with this scenario. That's kind of the point. I'm not the only one who has thought this through, and concluded that copying yourself is not the same as being immortal. And yet people keep bringing it up . . . some of them really, really smart people. I used to think that people who thought that way were just not subtle enough to understand the argument . . . but now I'm starting to wonder if some people are just wired differently, that they really don't have the experience of observing experience the same way I do. Maybe there really are philosophical zombies, who don't care at all about consciousness when planning for their eternal persistence.
By the way, if I ever start a garage band, I'm going to call it the Philosophical Zombies. You heard it here first.
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