Everything Looks Like a Nail

I just finished (about ten minutes ago) Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Everything looks like a nail now, because I have a bunch of new mental “hammers” to play with. I cannot recommend this book enough. Go, read it, I’ll wait.

I think the concepts here will likely influence several future proper essay posts, but I want to just dump an unsorted list of points on which this book has fundamentally changed my mind, added a whole new tool to my mental toolkit, or just articulated something that I’d never really been able to explain before.

  1. Moral relativism. Although I don’t think I’ve ever formally articulated it on this blog before, I used to philosophically identify as a moral relativist. At a certain abstract level this is still true; Hume’s Guillotine remains as sharp as ever. That said, relativism as commonly elaborated includes a particular claim which this book has changed my mind on. Specifically, I now believe that there are universal moral values, shared of necessity not just by all human beings, but potentially by all living beings with sufficient intelligence that have survived a few rounds of evolution.
  2. Group selection in evolution. Group selection is fairly widely rejected by evolutionary biologists, and so the popular view now (and one I used to hold) is that it just doesn’t happen. Haidt cites a number of more recent studies to argue that it is still conceptually useful, though in a much restricted sense from the original version that books like The Selfish Gene worked to demolish. (Interestingly, Dawkins et al. reject even this restricted version, but I don’t understand why; the rebuttal language gets very technical.)
  3. To any reader of some of my past writing, it should be clear that I am sometimes torn between a fairly liberal mindset and some conservative intuitions. Haidt neatly unpacks where those come from in terms of axiological values, and why. While I profess to value truth and beauty, the reality of my psyche is more complicated. (Interestingly in hindsight, I hit the nail on the head in an off-hand addendum to this Other Opinions link. I wish I’d recognized the power of that dichotomy sooner.)
  4. Speaking of unpacking moral intuitions, Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory is a fantastically useful mental model for me to systematize a bunch more of human behaviour. I’m still exploring the implications, and making adjustments to my understanding.
  5. I have a very old, dear friend with whom I have had an on-again-off-again philosophical/political debate for several years now. While we’ve been respectful and have managed to resolve some of our differences, there has also always been a fairly substantial nugget of remaining disagreement. I believe I now have a far better and more charitable understanding of that friend’s positions and moral intuitions.
  6. I also believe I have a far better understanding of recent changes in political polarization. While I’ve always understood the basic nature of polarization (people are tribal, and reasoned debate gives way before team-membership-signalling), I’d never had a great explanation for why polarization has increased so much in the last couple of decades. The best I could do was make vague gestures at “the internet”. Haidt gives a much better explanation.

In summary: fantastic book, and I still have a bunch of it left to process.

Life Advice, In Summary

  • How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
  • Make promises to yourself, and keep them.
  • Start each day with a win.
  • Truth, beauty, and service.
  • Invest in your flywheel.
  • Need, and be needed. No-one is an island.

I have a hand-written copy of this list stuck to my fridge.

Sources: Annie Dillard, Stephen Covey, John Donne, some previous posts.

Narrative Dissonance

In my previous post, I mentioned something I was trying to get better at:

I grew up with a lot of specific cultural narratives about how a lot of parts of life were supposed to work. This has left me with some weird subconscious expectations that don’t really materialize except as cognitive dissonance when they aren’t being met. Noticing these is extremely difficult, but weeding them out tends to be rewarding.

I want to expand on some of the stuff in there.

Scripts

A huge portion of our regular social interactions run on scripts without meaningful deviation. In North America, “How’s it going?” as a greeting is universally answered with “Fine”, “Good”, or maybe “Not too bad”. When you run into an acquaintance on the street, there are rules for that conversation depending on exactly what kind of acquaintance they are. Even within closer, more intimate relationships we often build up our own little set of custom scripts: habits, in-jokes, little snippets of call-and-response.

While a lot of these scripts are developed through practical experience and explicit teaching, they are also woven through our culture. Recall your parents teaching you to say “Please” and “Thank you”, and then realize that you also had that behaviour modelled for you in books and television, by neighbours, by teachers, and by random strangers in the grocery store. This is how children are socialized.

While “Please” and “Thank you” form a simple, consistent script that is relatively easy to apply, many scripts are much more complicated. Perhaps they’re simply more complex, and are used less often. Perhaps there is disagreement on how the script should go, depending on which segment of society you ask.  Perhaps we are even socialized into the script before we are given the opportunity to practice it.

Narratives

Everything that applies to scripts also applies to narratives: the stories we tell about ourselves and others that help us make sense of the world. Whether you believe conscious will is simply post-hoc justification or not, everyone narrates their life in some sense. “Everyone is the hero of their own story”.

As children we are presented with various narratives we can adopt for our lives. Broadly painted examples of these could be an academic narrative, an athletic narrative, a religious narrative. Every person tells their story differently, piecing together parts of the socially “standard” narratives and shaping these around their actual experiences in order to create a unique whole.

We may make the choice of our narrative, but our narrative then dictates the rest of our choices to us. While many people probably believe that they’ve thought long and hard about all of their major life choices, the truth is somewhat more mundane. As Sartre pointed out, humans have a rather radical form of freedom (assuming you believe in free will at all). Consider making a wild and unexpected major life change: quitting your job/education in favour of a radically different field, going to live on the other side of the world, or whatever it may be for you. The reason you aren’t making that change today is probably something about consequences and risk and how the life you have isn’t so bad. But you could do it. Whether you do it or not, you probably hadn’t even considered the option until you read this paragraph. In practice nobody actually evaluates all their options on a regular basis; there’s just too many of them. Instead, we only evaluate the things that fit in our narrative. In this way our chosen narrative guides our life much more concretely than we might believe.

Dissonance

All that said, sometimes life calls for extreme measures. Maybe you’re one of the few people who reached a breaking point today with their life and are actually considering making a major change to their narrative. Of course it seems scary.

It’s also hard. Forcing yourself to do things counter to your current narrative produces all kinds of crazy cognitive dissonance. You’re actively threatening your own identity, and the fact that clearly part of you wants to make that change ends up setting you at war with yourself. Unless you’ve fully bought into a new narrative at an emotional level, this can be extremely destabilizing both mentally and emotionally. (Tangentially, this is the fundamental flaw in stoicism for me – our minds have very limited control over our emotional buy-in to our own narrative).

This isn’t to say it’s impossible. People definitely do sometimes have epiphany moments where their whole outlook on life shifts at a fundamental emotional level. But it’s not nearly as simple as declaring it will be so. If you’re clever, and patient, you can make big changes slowly. A river can change its course dramatically and gradually, one pebble at a time. But if you get impatient and try to throw a big boulder in your river? You’ll just end up wet.

A Little Emotional Maturity?

2019 has been a very interesting year so far. I haven’t really blogged much, being consumed with the real world, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot. In May last year I said I wasn’t necessarily happy with how I’d changed recently. I’ve definitely changed again, and while it’s definitely a bit early to say, I think I’m going to be happier with this one.

At the very least, I’ve learned a lot and have an improved understanding of myself, people, and the world. Some of this has been updated mental models, and some of it has been emotional journeys toward things that my brain has known for a while already. For better or worse, a lot of those journeys are still incomplete. At any rate, here’s a sampling:

On Emotions

  • Model emotions as a collection of separate values (a la “Mood” in the various The Sims games), not as a single specific value (“I am happy/sad/etc”).
  • Model the emotional impact of experiences as velocity changes rather than position changes. The concrete example is stupidly obvious, but: something can make you happier without making you happy.
  • Trying to figure out how I feel about a given thing in abstract is actually weirdly difficult because of the above two points. My emotional state at any given time is a complex tapestry of recent experiences and biological signals (hunger, etc), and only truly exceptional stimuli will manage to dominate all that. Most things still move the needle, but expect it to be subtle and hard to pick apart.

All of these are somewhat embarrassing to admit to because I certainly played The Sims as a kid, so you’d think at the very least I’d have better absorbed its model, but clearly it’s taken me some time to realize how complicated emotions can be. I’ll class this set not exactly as new knowledge, but something I’m trying to remember not to over-simplify from now on.

On Expectations

  • It relieves a ton of pressure on all sorts of things to ask yourself “does this make me happy happier” instead of “is this universally optimal in all possible futures”. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  • I grew up with a lot of specific cultural narratives about how a lot of parts of life were supposed to work. This has left me with some weird subconscious expectations that don’t really materialize except as cognitive dissonance when they aren’t being met. Noticing these is extremely difficult, but weeding them out tends to be rewarding.
  • I am an introvert, so all people take energy to interact with, despite my occasional expectations to the contrary. Immediate family may be the exception that proves the rule? There’s probably a whole blog’s worth of content here on trust vs familiarity and the interaction of those two things.

My emotions are mostly on board with this set, but my brain still needs to give the occasional reminder.

On Relationships

These ones, on the other hand, are mostly things where my brain has been quietly at odds with itself for a while. Recently my conscious brain has been attempting to drag my emotions through that journey kicking and screaming. Very much a work in progress.

  • There’s no such thing as “The One”. Technically you could take the distribution of “compatibleness” for all people and point to the person at the far end of that distribution, but you’re so statistically unlikely to meet them they might as well not exist.
  • Infatuation is not love. Infatuation has obviously never been sufficient for a happy relationship (c.f. Romeo and Juliet), but neither is it even strictly necessary. People emotionally bond in all sorts of interesting (and sometimes even positive!) ways that don’t require mutual insanity.
  • Piggy-backing on the last one: relationships should not be all-consuming. Even if you somehow meet the person at the very far end of that “compatibleness” distribution, losing yourself so completely in somebody else is not healthy.

This post needs some sort of pithy closer, but I got nothing. The changes I’m aiming for may be positive, but they are not easy. This year has already been stressful and tiring for other reasons (work, etc.), but I guess there’s never a perfect time to do stuff like this.

*shrug*

A pithy quote

I was writing an internal thing about execution within software engineering, and Parkinson’s law, and ended up with the following pithy quote I wanted to share.

Within an engineering organization, all real work of note is in the form of making decisions. The rest is just typing.