Radimentary

"Everything can be made radically elementary." ~Steven Rudich

Category: Essays and Short Stories

Thoughts on Planning

Partially as an extension of the “Binge vs. Steady” thought from Reflections I, here are three things that worked for me to get better at planning my day and valuing the power of incremental progress.

Value a Habit as if You Reap the Rewards Immediately

In a binge-progress state of mind, you value an activity for how much value that activity provided you just then. In a steady-progress state of mind, you value an activity for how much value it provides, plus some fraction of the total value you receive from becoming the kind of person who can do this thing (or even things in general) over a long period of time. So if you spend 15 minutes grading today, value it as if you just did the work of grading for 15 minutes for the next week. Don’t be unrealistic about this, however, habits do have some extra cost every day even if you get into them.

Another useful metaphor for me is to imagine building a habit as cooperating with a bunch of copies of decision theorist you across time, so you only have to make the decision once and reap the rewards of the simultaneous cooperation immediately. Newcomb’s problem where you are your own Omega. If you expend the mental energy to cooperate on the first day, the second day, and the third day, allow yourself to expect that you will cooperate in the future. This is a fairly realistic model in the sense that the first few times are the most difficult to get started on. This idea of cooperating with many copies of future you in TDT deserves its own post. The more I think about it, the more I feel that Newcomb’s problem is a parable about becoming someone who can build steady habits. In real life, the only Omega that understands you well enough to predict your actions is you.

Plan Activities You Enjoy

Jordan Peterson talks about “planning a day you would like.” That means that whatever you were looking forwards to, plan those things as well. Just because you don’t need to force yourself to do things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan it. This should also improve your overall happiness with the idea of scheduling itself.

This is especially useful for things that you would like to do but might forget about. A lot of my enjoyment of RPGs like Diablo 3 or Age of Decadence comes from the planning of the character itself and imagining the awesome badassery that will ensue, not from actually playing the character once the levelling progression is complete.

Meta-Increment towards Incremental Progress

Incremental progress is king, and if there’s a single most important habit to increment towards, it is the habit-building habit itself. I would not start by immediately planning half a day of “chores” that you would not otherwise do. Start by planning half an hour of something, and increment the amount every week, say. Everything in the previous idea applies doubly to the “habit-building habit.” For “I planned and then executed 15 minutes of grading a day,” add the expected value gained from grading regularly, plus the expected value gained from being that much better at planning your day.

Another thing I have found useful is disentangling the “planning phase” and the “following through phase.” What I mean is that I add a regular activity to my day in two steps. I add it to my regular daily plan and don’t push myself to actually follow through with it, or maybe do much less than I plan. Eventually I ramp up to actually doing it more. Sometimes at the beginning, I would stop planning something if I just skipped it for one day. There’s no reason to do that – incremental progress is king and something is better than nothing! Just get Google Calendar out and start planning.

One more experimental planning trick I’ve tried with moderate success is what I call “planning negatively.” Instead of picking times when you “must do something,” pick times which are the only times that day you “are allowed to do something.” If you have a book or video game to enjoy, block out four hours in the evening for it, and don’t do it until then. If you have a chore that you haven’t been doing, block out half an hour which is the only time you’re allowed to work or worry about it. I find that negative planning is useful for two reasons: if the thing is fun it becomes a sort of exciting thing you can look forwards to, and if the thing is icky you don’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day.

 

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Reflections I

I’m going to try compiling some smaller thoughts into single posts. Some of them deserve their own posts but.

Post Hoc

Much of human identity is post hoc description of past or current experience. Being exposed to garbage briefly makes you more conservative. Waking up in the morning needing to pee makes you think you’re horny. I’ve been a proud slob for years – then, I start cleaning my room for a week, and next thing you know I’m looking down on my friends for not making their beds.

It is natural to systematically study the origins of the other parts of your identity. Could they also be post hoc descriptions of mere circumstance? If you knew that, would you still be attached to your identity?

Misalignment

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about misalignment within the individual – a great deal of time and mental energy is wasted when your subpersonalities work at cross purposes. What happens when there are stable long-term misalignments of goals between people?

I’m teaching a class. I want to impart the beauty of combinatorics. The students want to get A’s and win the rat race.

I’m writing a blog post. I want to teach a central life lesson. The readers want to laugh, cry, and love life.

Is it possible to describe and root out the unconscious biases and misalignments between (as opposed to within) people?

Individualism

Who said it better?

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.

– Grothendieck

One can very well eat lettuce before its heart has been formed; still, the delicate crispness of the heart and its lovely frizz are something altogether different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.

– Kierkegaard

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

– Thoreau

I would like to advance an generalized notion of individuality, roughly extending the idea of the individual in the same way that algebraic geometers extend the idea of a point. In algebraic geometry, a generalized point is a prime ideal of a ring of functions, “fuzzy” or “generic” points that behave like honest points on the one hand and yet live everywhere at once on the other. Thus the prime ideal (x-2,y-3) in C[x,y] is the single point (2,3), but the generalized point (0) is some weird thing that lives in the whole plane but at no point in particular.

In this framework, the real individual human being corresponds to the honest point, like (x,y) in C[x,y].  But there are also lots of strange consciousnesses that live spread out in groups of people. Insofar as you want to live as a single individual, you must distinguish yourself from the generic point.

Binge vs Steady

Math Olympiads train the binge model of progress. The binge model is something like: focus on one thing for half your day, every day, for a couple weeks. When you’re working on a math problem, you get a faint idea of what’s going on in the first hour, and then after that more and more pieces start to fit together. The more you get into it, the faster your engine revs up. Your gains grow superlinearly. Diminishing returns are only hit when physical constraints like fatigue and hunger set in after a long day of binge.

The binge model is great for anything with a high startup cost that is built around a continuous, snowballing narrative. Any media built around plot fits into this category. A plot-driven novel is best consumed in a few sittings – remembering characters and the chain of events gets progressively more difficult as you leave and come back. The game of Go fits into this category – often you will make local calculations about an area of the board that remains untouched for a hundred moves, but these calculations provide persistent value for your understanding of the evolution of the game. Binge activities demand continuity.

School trains the steady model of progress. The steady model is something like: rotate through all the things, one at a time, every hour. You memorize all the cell parts, then go learn about the French Revolution, then write ten five-minute essays on postmodernism. The steady model believes in iteration over the course of many days and is built around activities with rapidly diminishing returns. The world is filled with things you can only do productively for an hour a day – the trick is to rotate these things in a regular schedule to get long term gains.

The steady model is great for anything with low startup costs and highly diminishing returns. Any learning involving rote memorization falls into this category – students are known to remember most clearly information transmitted in the first and last fifteen minutes of class. Exercise is a central example of a steady activity. Plotless media fits into this category as well. You can pick up a sitcom at any episode, but things get predictable after watching more than a handful. Reading a novel that emphasizes philosophical insight and word choice requires you to stay fresh and let things sit in your subconscious for long breaks in between.

After thinking about it I think this might be some fundamental divide between how people interact with learning. Jordan Peterson is often perplexed that Big Five traits Openness (which corresponds to creativity and intellectual energy) and Conscientiousness (which corresponds to rule-following and ability to plan) are inversely correlated. I think it’s because people only learn (at most) one method of learning growing up. The binge model supports Openness, and the steady model supports Conscientiousness.

If you’re anything like me, you’re predisposed to one of the two models. You’re probably working on half of all things extremely suboptimally. Segregate your activities into binge activities and steady activities. Plan half your day out to work on steady activities. Open up the rest of your day to binge a single unspecified thing – whatever comes to mind.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cycle of Aesthetics

When you are epsilonically small, you are sheltered, you are continually discovering and exploring, there is not a care in the world. You crouch in the back yard and dig up anthills, your parents randomly take you to wonderful places with rollercoasters and loving grandparents and juicy dumplings. You lose your favorite jacket at kindergarten, but your parents take you back in the evening and help you find it. The first person of your age you meet becomes your best friend. You do everything together, hold hands when walking around, introduce each other to online games. Every night you fall asleep clutching a pillow, replaying the scene of defeating the last boss over and over again. You begin to identify this with happiness.

At two epsilon, you discover tragedy, and God forbid, malice. The other kids make fun of you for holding hands at recess. You sprint home every day after school because you’re too shy to raise your hand for the bathroom pass – half the time you don’t make it. You are shut away from the sun to sit quietly indoors for eight hours a day, hating things you would love by yourself. Your father changes jobs and you move out of state away from all the kids you grew up with. You don’t miss all the kids you grew up with. You outgrow your favorite jacket.

The tragedy becomes too much to bear. You retreat into yourself. You never leave your room, except as briefly as possible for meals. You read avidly, skipping to the good parts. You bring your books to school, partly because you can’t wait to finish them, mostly to be antisocial.

Your life stretches into one long daydream: in class, on the bus, during homework, and for hours and hours of sleepless nights. Your books, movies, and video games teach you that all you have to do is wait. One day, a wise old man will fall out of the sky, wrench you out of your dull little life, and teach you how to be a hero. You count the days and prepare to listen humbly to the wise old man’s warnings while the other would-be heroes march off arrogantly to their deaths. When you’ve paid your dues, you will be granted your wildest fantasies. You daydream about what you would ask for.

Eventually, you start to read grownup books, and your aesthetic begins to change. To your surprise, you realize that your favorite parts of the novel are not when the hero is carefree and happy, but when tragedy strikes and sacrifices are made. Your daydreams turn to loss and heroism. You are Frodo at Mount Doom, but you throw yourself into the lava to make sure the ring is destroyed. You are Genghis Khan, betrayed by your sworn brother, and you kill this man that you loved and honor his body with your own blood. There is not room on all the plains of Mongolia for two such heroes. You die for a woman who will never know your name. At the height of your powers as archmage, you throw it all away to live a quiet life as a goatherd, tending to the sunset.

The loop begins to close. You started to read because of that gnawing feeling in your heart – boredom – which you mistook for existential agony. You finally meet the existentialists, and all they write about is drab and mundane. Somehow it has so much life.

You imagine yourself sitting by the roadside with your best friend, waiting for that wise old man who will never come. “Let’s go,” you say, but you do not move. You imagine yourself flipping a coin over and over, coming up tails every time. You shrug. You imagine straining every muscle in your body, slowly pushing the boulder up the hill, only for it to roll down again. You push it up again, hoping it will be a little easier this time. It’s not. It rolls down the hill again. You set your shoulder against the rock, knowing what is coming. The boulder moves up and down, but it never gets easier. You are happy.

One day, you wake up from your daydream to check your phone. You’ve been in college for four years now. You have an epiphany: you don’t need Kierkegaard or Beckett to show you the exquisite tragicomedy of life. You think about your best friend from elementary school, who you haven’t seen for years. You think about the potential your parents and teachers saw in you, and how little you have to show for it. You look outside and see people hurry to class with expressionless faces. All you see is boulders moving up and down hills. You realize that they are happy, and want a boulder for yourself. You resolve to read less, and live the most poignantly boring life there was.

And then you meet a wise old man.

The Aesthetic Stage

Kierkegaard

I want to describe a view of liberalism which has been very attractive to me. Many of the ideas derive from processing Kierkegaard’s idea of the “aesthetic stage,” the first stage of life, which is often mischaracterized as a simple hedonism. This is kind of but not quite right – the aesthete is one who takes hedonism to its fullest artistic extreme, and revels in the art of tragedy as much as (and often more than) in the art of pleasure. Kierkegaard’s “Diary of a Seducer” is about the quintessential aesthete, who enters and constructs a perfect relationship to be maximally beautiful, and then leaves it without warning to render it maximally tragic.

Kierkegaard’s three stages of life are the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic stage is characterized by poetry and personal freedom, the ethical stage is characterized by prose and responsibility, and the religious stage is characterized by faith, faith in God or if not that at least faith in the fundamental goodness of being.

Today I will write about the aesthetic stage, and how it is a very liberal stage, and how I think one needs to live to be a good liberal in this sense. To understand Kierkegaard’s views on this stage of life, it is enough to read “Diary of a Seducer.” This is a story about a Don Juan pursuing an innocent Cordelia with the most poetic advances, but when I read it it felt like a confession from Kierkegaard to myself, so that even before Don Juan wins Cordelia’s heart I am already swooning to his every rhyme. Nevertheless, by the end of the story one feels only pity for this man whose life is so full of words and empty of content.

Why am I writing this? It bothers me to no end that I find the aesthetic stage extraordinarily attractive, that I lived in it at least until about a year ago, and that for Kierkegaard it is merely “the first stage” of life, the philosophy of toddlers. It’s one of those moments where a great thinker characterizes your worldview better than you ever could, but only as a foil to better things – at that moment you know there is something to learn.

However, I can take some comfort in this: that in any three-stage description of progress the last stage looks like “the first stage but wise.” Recall Picasso: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Terry Tao says much the same thing on the three stages of mathematical education. Scott Alexander makes the same analysis of cynicism. What I mean to say is that it would be absolutely wrong to read the rest of this essay as simply an attack on this style of aestheticism or liberalism as “childish” – at its core there is surely something wise to be retained.

Dostoevsky

A Karamazov (when you’ve met one you’ve met them all) once said:

Everything that is permitted is required.

I cannot find the reference for this exact quote, and even if it was written it may be an invention of Constance Garnett instead of Dostoevsky. In any case I am interested in the spirit of the quote. There is a very similar quote known as the “totalitarian principle” of T. H. White: “Everything not forbidden is compulsory,” although the spirit is very different. As far as I can tell things are compulsory in the White quote in the sense of “forced by the state.” The spirit of the Karamazov quote is that things are required of you as an individual’s moral obligation.

The spirit of Dostoevsky’s quote (which is not exactly its intended interpretation) is this: you cannot have a freedom without exercising it. The only way to prove you have the right to do something is to act it out. To take this principle to the extreme is ridiculous, of course, as you would have to do the most extreme legal thing all the time everywhere. I would say it requires not that you do the most extreme legal thing at every possible time, but at least that someone somewhere does something toeing the line every so often. Furthermore, your freedom is not just, or even principally, constricted by government, but also by society, by physics, and especially by psychology. If there is something you think you are allowed to do but have never done it, think again.

It is natural to define freedom pragmatically. Your rights are the convex hull of the actions people similar to you have taken recently without consequences. Probably one needs to throw in the action of some obvious symmetry group in there, but it is after all a pragmatic definition – the meaning should be clear. In whatever sphere there were consequences to those actions, in that sphere you do not have those rights. This definition also has the wonderful benefit of being agnostic to the existence of free will. The determination of one’s freedom is a matter of correctly recording and making calculations about recent history.

This definition carries with it an injunction: if you are ever unsure about the extent of your freedoms, act them out and taste the air for impending consequences. The worse it tastes, the more limited your freedoms were to begin with.

Le Guin

Here are two quotes (again possibly paraphrased) from Le Guin’s Malafrena. Often Le Guin seems to writes in direct conversation with Dostoevsky – she has admitted something like that about “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

To be a liberal one must live free.

A liberal is someone for whom the means justify the ends.

The first quote is about the choice the main character Itale makes in pursuing his love for a baroness, a choice which would ostensibly damage his reputation as a liberal thinker fighting the aristocracy. But a friend says to him, “To be a liberal, one must live free,” the idea being that to sacrifice your own liberty for the sake of the cause of liberalism would be an unpardonable offense to the spirit of said cause. Knowing this, Itale chose to pursue his love against his presumed responsibility – in doing so he was the greater liberal for it.

Put another way, the highest duty of a liberal is to live out her most genuine desires, and for a single individual to carry out that duty is a greater triumph for liberalism than any political victory.

The second quote channels Kierkegaard even more directly. The liberals of Malafrena are writers, thinkers, poets. They live passionately, as they are driven to do so, and die or fall tragically by suicide, political imprisonment, public disgrace. There is a sense in which this makes some of them regret their choices, but not the true liberals among them – those who knew all along what was coming and nevertheless found that the means justify the ends, that to live picturesquely justifies in its poetry any untimely demise.

No Desire to Write Poetry

All three writers are talking about the same man – the aesthete, the Karamazov, the liberal. All three wrote of him fondly, as if with nostalgia for lost childhood, and yet found his worldview wanting. Kierkegaard (citing Schlegel) summarized best what is so empty about being the Karamazov:

In one of the tales of the Romantic School which evinces the greatest genius, there is one character who has no desire to write poetry like the others among whom he lives, because it is a waste of time and deprives him of the true enjoyment; he prefers to live. Now if he had had the right conception of what it is to live, he would have been the man for me.

His distinction between the aesthetic and the ethical stages of life is that the first kind of life is better to fantasize or reminisce or write poetry about, but the second kind of life, a life full of shouldering the burden of being, is better to live.

It occurs to me only now that I phrased a discussion about liberty in the language of injunctions and moral responsibility, and that surely is proof that I am a little closer to the ethical stage of life.

The Fruits of Introspection

I engaged in a therapeutic exercise with a friend this Wednesday and discovered a level of introspection I’ve never had access to. This post is about what my mind feels like and a handful of unreasonable and laughable bugs that really hamper my decision-making.

Inside Out

Thinking feels like speaking to me. Whenever I am thinking, it feels like I am speaking to someone in my head. At the back of my throat I feel like I am pushing air through my voicebox in the same pattern as if I were saying those words out loud. If I am in a particularly animated mental conversation, my tongue and lips will move silently, or not so silently. I gesture at the air in front of me as if to better convey the direction, or more precisely, the shape of my thoughts. When something doesn’t come out right I repeat it several times in different ways until it does – this feels like what I imagine stuttering feels like and engenders a bit of embarrassment in me, even when nobody is in the room.

I am always speaking to an audience in my head. The closest thing I can think of is the Greek idea of a muse. Often that muse resolves mentally into the shape of a specific individual, and usually that person is someone with whom I disagree, or someone I am trying to impress or teach something to. In high school, my internal muse was usually my mother, or a teacher, or a girl I was interested in. Nowadays, it is usually my wife or the last person I had a conversation with, or someone I’m preparing to speak with. Usually, but not always, it is a woman. When I have a talk or class to prepare, the audience resolves into a group of people. Much of the time, especially when I’m walking and rambling, the audience is the generic point, the face of humanity at large.

The silent muse never responds. They are silently and condescendingly judging my words from metaphysical high ground. On occasion, when I feel as if I’ve finally seized on the correct line of reasoning or persuasion, I feel as if they have been convinced or defeated. They never admit to as much.

Sometimes I try to predict what other people are thinking or saying. This is difficult. In my head this prediction process feels like I am vocally imitating them right to their face and then asking them if it was a good impression. They never answer that either.

Thinking sharing mental room with speaking has real implications. I think better in absolute silence. When people are talking to me and I’m thinking to myself, it feels like I’m interrupting them – this might explain why I’m willing to interrupt people in real life, because I’m used to the feeling. When music or videos are playing, I often allow it to take over my internal monologue, in which case I’m usually trying to sing along or mouth the words in the subtitles. As a result I watch YouTube videos (except music) almost exclusively at 2x speed, because I speak much faster internally than out loud. Otherwise, I have to think extra emphatically in short bursts, like shouting over a concert.

The process of writing also blurs together with thinking and speaking. I have a weakness for stream-of-consciousness writing – one of the best examples is Anna’s internal monologue on the train in Anna Karenina – and because writing feels like speaking I dislike the backspace key and often prefer to correct myself – or perhaps elaborate – midway through a sentence – even if I might be better served to simply delete or revise. There are kinds of writing that don’t work so well when spoken out loud – I don’t do so well with those. Also, I find it impossible to write believable dialogue that differentiates itself from the surrounding text, because it seems as if everything I write is already dialogue.

I am usually tripping over words in my head, thinking faster than I can put words on the page, my writing style tends towards the frantic, my favorite literary device is asyndeton. Conversely, the way I speak has tended towards stodgy and pretentious because writing is bleeding back in the other direction.

Having described what it feels like in my head 90% of the time, let me turn to two mental “bugs” – roughly speaking – or aversions, which gives me a lot of clarity and optimism about fixing my bad habits.

Aversion to Collapsing Superpositions

When I make a decision like “I will write this paper tonight,” let’s say a decision between two exclusive options for simplicity, in my mind it feels as if I am collapsing the superposition of “I will write this paper” and “I will play Starcraft all evening.” As long as I don’t make such a decision, or don’t really believe myself when I make it, I retain the illusion that I can have the best of both worlds, i.e. have my paper written by midnight while also playing Starcraft the whole time.

Loosely speaking this is closely related to the notion of perfectionism and the idea that it can be paralyzing. The positive side of perfectionism is something like the old adage “shoot for the moon…”, and something like the heady old Eliezer quote (paraphrased): “I know I’m not perfect, but I’ll be damned if I act so imperfect that someone could tell.”

The negative side of perfectionism is that every time you do anything and the result doesn’t meet your expectation – which it never does – reality itself is telling you, “You aren’t what you could be.” That’s the kind of message that makes one dig a tunnel right back into Plato’s cave.

When it comes to decision-making, this perfectionism feels like “if only I were smart enough, I could come up with a way to have my cake and eat it.” I think about that, and I decide to put off deciding until later in case a better third option comes along. Instead what I should do is: make and stick to a provisional decision for now, think about better third options as long as you want later. The right way to fix the superposition overvaluing bug seems to be to value indecision as the average, and not the sum, of the values of the individual choices. Even attaching the emotional weight of the word “average” – ugh! – to indecision is enough to push me in direction of decisiveness.

Aversion to Silence

I’ve been thinking a lot about my inner monologue and its unintended consequences. In turn I realized exactly what it feels like to waste time and why I do it so frequently. I’m thinking about something difficult – a technical calculation or a sentence I’m crafting or human contact – and my inner monologue hits a wall. I’m stuck there and nothing is happening in my head. Instantly, there is a tightening in my chest – my muse is still watching and I’m just standing there silently like an idiot.

The tightening in my chest is followed by the instinct to fill the void with something – small talk, so to speak. This is what I have a dozen time-wasters lined up for at any given time, everything from reddit to Hearthstone videos to shitty fanfics to music. It’s a strange thing to admit, but my mechanism of wasting time seems to be internal stage fright from an imaginary audience, even though I’ve entirely conquered the same anxiety in real life in front of real people.

I frequently catch myself falling back on other people’s voices, and it recalls again a quote of Grothendieck that never stops meaning:

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.

It was the easiest thing in the world for me to learn to be alone, even in the presence of other people. What I didn’t realize I needed to learn, or rediscover, was to become comfortable being alone and silent in my own head.

The Proper Unit of Consciousness

One of the core ideas of the West is that the proper unit of consciousness is the individual, but people have forgotten what this even means, let alone how to defend it. This is an essay primarily about why this deeply-ingrained concept is a historically novel idea. The counterpoint, which feels foreign even to formulate, is the idea that human beings are built to be part of something larger than themselves, and insofar as they agree to such a compact to live as a part of a whole they deserve to be treated as such.

A Bit of Perspective

As time goes on, the proper unit of consciousness shrinks. In the beginning, people lived Hobbesian lives filled with drudgery and nothing could be accomplished by an individual. Work was done collectively by the tribe, the civilization, at very least the entire family unit. Identity was shared collectively by family or class or race. Things went slow and people died fast, so to consider human beings as proper individuals was properly preposterous. I think this is a genuinely important perspective that partially answers questions like “why was slavery OK back then but not OK now?” and “why was capital punishment more common and accepted back then?” with answers that are not simple-minded moral relativism.

The construction of the Orvieto Cathedral in Italy began in 1290 and lasted until 1607. Although the time frame was long, it was not unheard of. Notre Dame in Paris took nearly two hundred years to finish. Meanwhile, a European born in the 1200 might expect to live to 40, at best. That means that someone planned the Orvieto Cathedral, then people worked on it for 300 years, and finally ten generations later those plans came to fruition. Meanwhile, even the largest and worst-planned architectural nightmares today take maybe a decade or two to finish, something like a fifth of a human lifespan. We live to see our work completed, and are still young enough to enjoy its fruits.

In 1200, you don’t live to see your cathedral completed, and yet you start working on it anyway. In what sense are you a unit of consciousness? The community lives to see its work completed. The community lives long enough to enjoy the fruits of its labor. Is it not more reasonable then to compare a human engineer today with a whole community of people in 1200?

The essential difference between a human being today and a human being in 1200 is the massive difference in effective lifespan. That we live more than twice as long only scratches the surface of this gap. The invention of comfortable electric lighting doubles the amount of time we can be productively awake. Improvements in health and medicine mean most of that time is not spent in a permanent invalid state of half-life. There is a sense in which wider access to literature and media allow us to live entire gut-wrenching virtual lives in the span of hours. Most importantly, massive technological advances have probably increased the average available leisure time of the homo sapiens by at least an order of magnitude. These same technological advances have multiplied the effective power of individuals a thousandfold, whenever they deign to get out of bed to do something. Of course, it’s quite a big problem that most people have absolutely no idea what to do with this amount of leisure, a symptom of the biological incompatibility of the human being with individual personhood. Nevertheless, among the rare leaders with a combination of personality traits and luck we see what the rest of us could be: a single human being who can do the work required of an entire civilization a few centuries ago.

In Orwell’s A Road to Wigan Pier, he describes the harsh reality of life in the coal mines of industrial England, at least for all but the upper class. Every day, a coal miner’s commute consists of scurrying hunched over in dark, waist-height tunnels for several miles just to get to their posts. The work consisted of an entire day of back-breaking shoveling on their knees, because again there isn’t enough space to stand in those tunnels. The whole time they were covered from head to toe in a thick layer of coal ash that probably contributed to their untimely deaths. The staunchest libertarian today would be singing Lenin’s praises if they lived in Orwell’s England.

So this is the frame of mind: that at one point in time human beings functioned like organs or cogs – and usually willingly to the extent that organs and cogs can be willing – in families or clans or tribes or social classes, and that a great disintegration or break in history occurred when it was finally noticed that human beings had reached a point in our development where a single individual could have by herself all the rights, knowledge, and power of a collective and should therefore be immediately weaned off that overbearing teat. It is closely related to the centuries-old struggle between collectivism and individualism but supersedes, or at least clarifies, it. To flesh out this idea we tackle it from a number of open-ended directions in no particular order.

Culture Clashes

The culture clash I am privy to is the one between the Chinese way of thought and the American. The primary unit of consciousness, I would say, in the traditional Chinese way of thought is the family.

The family has a head and functions as a unit. Children are usually expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps or plans, and usually do. Men and women have fixed roles in the household that are usually followed and celebrated by all parties. The Chinese character 娶 for “marriage” combines the characters 女 for “woman” and 取 for “take”- even the sight of this character still bothers me.

Parents have the right to derive pride from the success of their children, and humble-brag of their achievements as if they were their own. In turn, Chinese children can expect much more to be done for them throughout life – everything from tuition to houses and cars to be bought for them, and to shamelessly be waited on hand and foot by their parents as long as they are healthy enough to do so. Decisions from spouses to purchases to career paths are made communally in traditional families. The family can have loves and needs and personality traits that do not derive from any individual within.

To ask a traditional Chinese family what necessitates all these duties and traditions is akin to asking someone what necessitates the tendons and ligaments that connect his bones – why not let your arms and legs walk away of their own accord? If people live together, and share everything, and depend completely on each other, are they not the same being? If the halves of your brain wanted a divorce via corpus callosotomy because the left brain was too anal-retentive, and the right brain too artsy-fartsy, would you allow it?

Waiving Personhood

I am reminded of an article from the Atlantic, about a slave Lola that an immigrant family brought with them in secret from the Philippines and kept with them all her life. It was impossible for the younger generation, brought up with Western values, to forgive their parents for keeping Lola, and simultaneously to understand her when she decided past all obligations to continue to serve, and that she would grow physically ill when she was forced away from her self-imposed drudgery.

Slavery was the default at one point in time – the word itself derives from an entire ethnic group that was summarily enslaved – and however many unwilling victims there were surely the case of Lola is unlikely to be pathological.

I have always felt that if one believes in human rights, above them all must first be the right to waive your rights. That is to say if you have the right to live then you must have the right to suicide, if you have the right to speak you must have the right to be silent, if you have the right to publicly protest atrocity you must also have the right to silently condone it. And perhaps in the very beginning one must have the right to waive one’s personhood entirely, if one wishes as is commonly the case to less an individual and more a part of something greater than oneself. It is akin to the Chinese idea of 出家, cutting all ties to one’s family to live an ascetic life as a Buddhist or Taoist monk.

All around the world and all throughout time there are people who choose to identify primarily not as individuals but as part of a whole, as slave to a family or master or religion or ideology, and this seems to me to be an exercise in the right to waive your rights. And what is to be done about such people? If someone asked you respectfully to treat them without basic human decency would that be required of you, out of basic human decency?

Mirror Neurons

What is a human being? A modern sophisticate might say that a human being is a certain pattern of neural activity, and that the brain is merely the substrate for the software. But we also know that human beings are capable of empathy and their brains have specially designed mirror neurons to model the behaviors and internal cognition of others.

A man is giving a speech to a crowd of a thousand. Every brain in that crowd has a little piece running a simulation of the man. If the person is the pattern of neural activity, and there is more of that pattern of neural activity being simulated among the crowd of thousands than within the body of the “original” – what is the man? Does he still reside in “his” body? Or is he now a disembodied spirit that possesses a bit of each person in that auditorium?

I hope these are not merely word games. It has been a long and difficult journey for the West, after many false starts and mistimed revolutions, to settle on the idea that the individual human being is the proper locus of consciousness. That when even a single individual’s freedom is sacrificed for the rights of the family or the state or the collective, something sacred is irrevocably lost. But the fight is not over, and it is certainly no rout: there are plenty of other models of consciousness that have held sway over people over thousands of years and require more than an up-turned nose to properly refute.

 

An Apology

Brunoy smiled; they walked on a little way, and Itale broke out afresh, “I admire your patience so much, Egen, – I get cross with them – How do you stay patient?”

“I have nothing but patience to fill the gap between my own ideals and my actual achievement.”

— Urusula Le Guin, Malafrena.

Here’s another idea of Jordan Peterson’s. Why am I afraid of social interaction? I am afraid someone will say to me, out loud, what everyone is constantly broadcasting to everyone else. Listen carefully – they are among the cruelest words ever spoken.

“You are not what you could be.”

Genuine insecurity can and must always be framed this way. It is not merely that others are unfairly judgmental, although this may be. It is not merely that life has been unreasonably cruel, although this may also be. I am not one percent of what I could be, by my own standards, even accounting for all the hardships I have faced.

Speaking these words I finally understand the violent disgust I am frequently overcome with when speaking to strangers and close friends alike. My disgust is two-fold. First, that you are not who you could be – that you have so much potential and have so little to show for it. Second that having achieved just as little, I have no right to judge. It is frustration enough to make a man want to take a torch to the whole world.

This past year I have become accustomed – let’s say resigned – to the boundaries of my own willpower, and that at least is something to boast about! For those boundaries are such that they would induce debilitating claustrophobia in a lesser man. I have learned that I cannot force myself to work creatively for any length of time greater than five minutes, and resigned myself to outputting what could be an hour’s worth of mathematical work over several weeks. I have resigned myself to writing a slipshod 500 words every two months on a blog on which I’d hoped to publish a serialized novel.

And so of course, I hate everyone – myself for not being sufficiently clever, moral, brave, and most of all disciplined. Others – in every dimension I perceive they lack even more than myself. Only a wonderful few, whose lives are filled to the brim with divine struggle, who live in a day what I live in a year, perhaps only these happy few do not waste the very space they inhabit.

This is an apology to all the people I get cross with – that is to say everyone. My greatest hope is that if I finally chisel my way out of the prison of my own akrasia in the next twenty or fifty years perhaps I will have learned some measure of Brunoy’s patience.