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.
Category Archives: Philosophy
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
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
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
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?
Digging through some old emails I found an article I’d read years ago that said basically this same thing, only better.
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.
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.
 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.
When we watch scary or touching (or exciting or funny) movies, we claim to be actually feeling the emotions the medium is meant to inspire. When Anna Karenina dies, we say we feel sad, in the same way we would feel sad if a friend told us their mother had died. If we later found out the friend had been lying, however, we would become angry instead of sad: this implies that we must believe in the truth of a situation in order to feel genuine emotion. Yet we know that Anna Karenina does not exist–her tragedy is a falsehood, but we still say it makes us feel sad. This presents a contradiction: either we are lying when we say we feel sad, or the kind of sadness we feel when we hear of the death of someone we know is a qualitatively different emotion than the one we feel when we witness the death of a beloved character. This seems to be supported by the fact that we do not engage in behaviors that would normally be associated with emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness when engaging with fiction: we do not run screaming from the movie theatre in terror when we see the monster approach the screen; we do not call the police when a character in a book is murdered; and we do not climb on stage to seek revenge if a character we like has been wronged in some play.
In short, the problem is that the emotions we feel when we engage with fiction seem to be different than the emotions we profess to be feeling. Normally I would work up to my refutation gradually, but this is–I’m sorry–an incredibly stupid “problem”. The so-called “paradox” of fiction can be completely dissolved with just a few simple counterexamples. Continue reading
The ideal “from each according to ability, to each according to need” continues to be held as an unquestionable good, despite repeated failures to make it a reality. Even if this ideal is in fact impossible to attain (due to human nature, poor planning, or the corrupting influence of other cultures), we should still strive for it–or so the thinking goes. But what is it that makes this ideal so desirable? “From each according to ability, to each according to need” paints a picture of a world where everyone’s needs are met: a utopia. But what if there were a different way to achieve that world–one which takes advantage of our basic human nature, rather than trying to “improve” it? A world in which those who give the most to society receive, rather than sacrifice, the most in return? The Objectivism of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged suggests an alternative path to utopia: it suggests that “from each according to ability, to each according to need” may not only be an impossible ideal, but also an immoral one–and that the creation and “selfish” exchange of value is not just the best way to get yourself ahead, it is ultimately the truest possible act of respect, charity and compassion a human being can perform.