Category Archives: Philosophy

Pascal’s Wager

There is a famous theological argument known as Pascal’s Wager which, rather than making the usual appeals to morality and intuition, instead tries to show that believing in God and the afterlife is the logical, rational thing to do. While Pascal admitted that it is not always possible to “make yourself” believe in God (the Christian God, that is–what, you thought we were talking about some other God?), you should at least act as though you do until you are convinced. The core argument frames the question of whether one should be religious as a “wager” that you can’t opt out of: even if God isn’t likely to actually exist, the possibility of an infinite win (eternity in Heaven) justifies the merely finite cost of devoting yourself to religion–even if that cost is a lifetime of self-denial and asceticism. (This was back in the 1600s, when most folks thought getting into Heaven was really difficult and unpleasant, but the argument applies equally to anything a religion requires you to do that costs you time, effort, or money.)  Sounds pretty impressive, huh? Let’s go over the argument in a bit more detail–this time, with a few superficial modifications.

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What You Really Want to Do

What do you want? It seems like a simple question, but it can be deceptively difficult to answer. Even when you do have an answer, “wanting” something doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that it’s possible, or if it is, that you’ll actually do it. How can you reconcile the things you want to do, and the things you are capable of doing, with the things that actually get done? There is no easy answer, but it can help to think of your wants as distinct from your wishes–and to realize that you can wish for making better choices, not just for having better choices available. Continue reading

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“What Am I Getting Out of This?” Is the Wrong Question

As a procrastinator, and in particular a procrastinator who is easily addicted, I frequently find myself in the middle of some activity or experience of questionable value.  At that point, my usual response has been to ask myself “what am I getting out of this?”  It’s good to ask something: every second I spend doing one thing is an irretrievable second spent not doing something potentially more valuable.  However, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that “what am I getting out of this?” is the wrong question to be asking.

The problem with asking what you’re “getting” out of something is that it places the burden of responsibility on you.  By suggesting that if you only worked a little harder, you might be able to get more value out of something, it makes you culpable for wasted time.  It characterizes your relationship with media and experiences as exploitative, as though every time you read an article or attended a concert you were trudging down into some Experience mine in order to extract the raw Value ore therein and shape it into…something (swords?)  If you’re not getting enough out of some experience then you could find another, richer vein, sure–or you could just work harder to get more out of what you’ve already got.  This thrifty attitude is great for material possessions, or experiences you’ve already had or cannot avoid, but it’s entirely the wrong way to think about time and art.  There is a cost to getting better possessions–there’s no cost to finding something better to do with your time.

The other problem with asking what you’re getting out of a given experience is that it encourages the idea that you might be “missing out” on something if you stop.  It reinforces the mine fallacy by implying that there might be some hidden, gleaming gem of precious value buried under all that rock that will languish, forever hidden, if you don’t personally unearth it.  This idea is especially problematic for perfectionists like myself–it’s the same impulse that makes me want to 100% every videogame I play, or watch all the bonus content on DVDs, or spend hours on Wikipedia or TV Tropes accumulating mountains of useless trivia.  “Sure, the first half of this article was 98% crap, but there was that 2% I really liked!  What if there’s another 2% in the second half?  If I don’t finish it I’LL NEVER KNOW.”

Time for a reality check: you are always missing out on something.  You can only do one thing at a time, and there are an infinite number of things you could be doing at any given moment.  That’s just how time works: you are always, constantly, continually not doing something of potential value.  So to ask yourself what you’re “getting” out of whatever experience you choose at any given moment is to implicitly task yourself with getting the most possible value out of everything.  It can’t be done!  There are an infinite number of experiences that might be more valuable, any one of which you could be doing instead.  The task of creating value from an experience is not your responsibility–it is the responsibility of the experience.

Don’t ask “what am I getting out of this?”  Instead, ask “what is this giving to me?”–and if the answer is “nothing” or “not much,” then move on!  True, some experiences require an investment if you want to get their full value–a difficult book may be harder to read than a pulp novel, yet give you more to think about in return.  But this is true of all experiences, because if nothing else they at least require the investment of your time.  By focusing on the value the experience is giving to you, rather than the work you’re putting in to derive that value, you place the burden of responsibility back where it belongs: on the experience in which you have already invested.

Your job is to decide what art and experiences to spend your time on; once you’ve decided it is not your job to “make” those experiences work.  If it bothers you that you have to read through two dozen tweets on your timeline before you see one that’s interesting, unfollow some folks!  If you’re halfway through an article and you’re reluctant to read the second half, don’t!  And if you keep giving a videogame your time (and/or money) because you want something from it that it seems reluctant to give you (story, content, “fun,” whatever), then get rid of that sucker!  There are plenty of other experiences out there that will treat you with more respect–your time is valuable, and you should expect a high return for it.

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What Is Consciousness?

In one of my previous essays, I described Jeff Hawkins’ theory of intelligence. This essay relies heavily on that theory–if you’re not familiar with it, I recommend you read my other essay first.

The question of consciousness–of what it means to be “self-aware”–is one of the longest-standing unsolved problems in human history. It has showed up in practically every field from philosophy and theology to literature and the arts to multiple scientific disciplines including psychology, biology, programming, and even mathematics. Like the nature of sleep and dreams, it is one of those tantalizing problems that has resisted all solutions for millennia, despite being a fundamental part of our daily lives. Yet intelligence was also considered such a problem, and Hawkins’ theory tied a neat bow on it. Might the problem of consciousness be similarly solved? Continue reading

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Personal, Social, Material: The Three Domains of Education

Current conventional models of education place heavy emphasis on the material and intellectual aspects of our world: the realm of facts and figures, action and reaction, of the basic functioning of our external, physical reality.  Even our country’s politicians can agree that this system is in grave peril and needs serious reform, but while reformers debate how best to fix its intellectual shortcomings (which certainly do exist), no one seems to be concerned with the far more serious deficits in our system’s personal and social aspects.
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My New Year’s Resolution: Being, not Doing

It’s no secret that most new year’s resolutions fail.  The reason is less well-known: most people resolve to do something differently in the coming year (e.g. lose weight, improve their relationships, get a raise), but make no concrete or detailed plans for how to do it.  The most effective new year’s resolutions are not vague aspirations, but commitments to specific habits.  The reason this works is threefold: first, specific goals are better than vague ones because they let you measure your progress.  If you resolve merely to “eat better”, it can be difficult to tell if you’ve succeeded.  (Better than what?  What does “better” mean?)  If you resolve, on the other hand, to lose 10 pounds (and keep them off–another common pitfall of new year’s resolutions), you have a specific measure of success.

The second reason specific habits are better is the habit part: changes are more effective if they’re consistent.  In addition to specific measures of success, goals that can be broken down into smaller pieces and made into a routine are more effective, because once they’re routine you no longer have to spend conscious effort on them.  Defaults have incredible power for this very reason, and making a commitment into a routine takes advantage of that power.  A new behavior done once is an exception–a new habit becomes part of who you are.

This leads me to the last, and possibly most important reason why commitments to specific habits work better than vague promises of improvement: they act to alter not just your behavior, but your self-image.  This is the same thing that makes hypnosis (and, to a lesser extent, self-affirmations) effective: it changes not just your behavior, but your fundamental conception of who you are.  This is deep magic: a behavior or commitment affected for someone else’s sake will never be as strong as a change in belief.  The most effective way to make a change in your life is to start thinking of yourself as the kind of person who makes that change.  In that sense, then, the most effective resolution is not to ask yourself what you want to do differently, but who you want to be differently.  To that end, here’s my new year’s resolution for 2014:

I resolve that I am an

  • Attentive
  • Hardworking
  • Ambitious
  • Creator[1]

I chose to be Attentive because I’ve noticed recently that I tend to operate on autopilot a lot, not paying full attention to whatever I’m working on.  Sometimes that’s okay, if I’m paying attention to something else (presumably something more important) instead.  But more often these days, I find myself running on autopilot just because I can, and that’s simply lazy.  So, I am resolving to be someone who gives my full attention to whatever it is I’m working on at that moment.

I chose to be Hardworking for similar reasons.  In college, one of the biggest lessons I learned was how to procrastinate on a deadline–to my misfortune, I discovered that I could often get away with simply not doing a lot of the work, as long as I did well enough on tests and other assignments to keep my grade up.  Unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works: if I miss a deadline at work, the project doesn’t just go away at the end of the semester.  So, I’m resolving to be someone who works hard to accomplish whatever I commit to, and to do my best to get it done on time.

I chose to be Ambitious because I want to make an impact on the world someday, and because I look up to and admire people with similar ambitions.  It may be idealistic to want to singlehandedly change the world for the better…but then, only idealists ever have.  So, I’m resolving to be a person who has high expectations for myself, and who’s never satisfied by the status quo.

Finally, I chose to be a Creator because I wanted to re-affirm my commitment to art and invention.  When I was a small child I wanted to be an inventor–someone who brought their imaginings into the world of reality.  As I got older I realized that literally being an inventor was not the only way to do that: it was possible with art and science as well.  What’s important to me is not necessarily the method by which I influence the world around me, what’s important is merely that I do.  So, I am resolving to be a person who uses their mind and hands to make their thoughts visible to the rest of the world, to actively change it for the better.  In other words…to be an artist.

What are your new year’s resolutions?

Notes:

[1] Yes, I’m aware that this makes me “A HAC[K]

Digging through some old emails I found an article I’d read years ago that said basically this same thing, only better.

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Always Be Testing

I recently came across an article by Jeff Atwood (of Coding Horror) on how to be successful. It opened with a line of advice that I really liked: “Always Be Jabbing. Always Be Shipping. Always Be Firing.” The idea behind this advice is that as long as you keep moving forward, no matter how much you suck you’ll eventually be successful.

I’d like to add another word of advice along these same lines: Always Be Testing.

My problem (and I’m guessing there are many of you out there who share this problem) is that it can be very easy for me to trick myself into thinking that I’m making something when I’m really not.  The degenerate case of this is errands like doing laundry, taking the dog for a walk, writing thank-you notes, organizing your desk, etc.  These are all legitimate things to be doing and they can be fairly important, so it feels much less like procrastinating than just sitting around on your butt playing videogames or watching TV.  But if you’re doing them in order to avoid other, more important work, then it’s still procrastination–only worse, because you feel like you’re getting something done.

Unfortunately, there are even more subtle ways to procrastinate while still feeling productive.  Perhaps the most insidious of all is the type of procrastination where you’re producing like crazy, but you’re not doing any testing.  Maybe you’ve written a 500-page book but are afraid to read it (let alone give it to anyone else to read).  Maybe you’ve been practicing an instrument in your basement for months, but you won’t let anyone listen to you play.  Or maybe you’ve written a few hundred lines of code without once actually running your program.  There are a number of reasons people do this, but probably the most common is fear of failure or rejection.  Well, the bad news is that you will face failure and rejection.  Your writing will be torn apart, your playing criticized, and your code broken in a dozen different ways.  Here’s the problem, though: without testing, producing is just an errand.  It’s something that has to be done, of course, but it’s not the most important part of building something.  Just as the most important part of writing is reading what you’ve written, and the most important part of architecture is construction, the most important part of programming is testing your code to make sure it works.[1]

What I really like about the “Always Be Testing” aphorism is that (along with the other three Jeff mentions) it’s applicable not just to writing or programming, but to life in general.  If you’re not making things, you’re not improving and you will never be successful–and if there’s no chance of something going wrong, then you’re not really making things.  Anytime you suspect you may be procrastinating by doing something that feels like work but really isn’t, ask yourself “what will happen if I mess this up?”  If the answer is, “basically nothing”, then you are procrastinating.  When you make something, you introduce a permanent change to the world–which means mistakes are permanent, too.  This can be scary, but it’s a necessary tradeoff: without the possibility of failure there can be no such thing as success.

So what does that mean in practice?  It means you should always have something that’s ready for an audience, even if that audience is just your closest friend, or you as your program’s first user.  For writers, it means constantly getting feedback on new revisions.  For architects, it means making scale models at each stage of the design process.  And for programmers, it means always having some small program working and complete enough that you can run it and see if it does what it’s supposed to.  Again, this isn’t just good programming practice, it’s good practice for life: start small with something tangible, then work your way up from there.

In the end, that’s all success really is.

Notes:

[1] Obviously, you still have to write the code first, and buildings need to be planned before they’re built.  My point is not that planning and preparing aren’t important, my point is that until your code works or you have a standing building or your art has an audience, you have not actually made anything–you have merely prepared to make something.  A shoddy building that’s nevertheless standing is infinitely better than a building that never gets made, no matter how perfect its design.

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