Book: The Need for Roots

The true definition of science is this: the study of the beauty of the world…

That being so, how should there be any opposition or even separation between the spirit of science and that of religion? Scientific investigation is simply a form of religious contemplation.

Simone Weil

Just about done reading this book (written by Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills). It’s a fascinating book for a bunch of reasons: Weil packs a ton of insights into a fairly unstructured text, often without much justification. And yet, the whole thing hangs together in a remarkable way. It would be easy to bore oneself by picking nits with the wild leaps of intuition every other sentence, but as soon as you get on board then you find yourself looking back at a path whose every step was actually correct, given the whole picture. Perhaps it is simply history being kind in validating many of Weil’s intuitions after the fact, but that does not detract from the fact that, justified or not, she speculated correctly on many facts of human nature and social behaviour which are only recently being proved out.

I am willing to cop to some significant bias in that the topics she discusses (the nature and construction of healthy human communities, and how people needs roots in such a community to be happy), are under-served in modern discourse in my opinion. And there are definitely claims and sections long past their best-before date which would not survive modern scrutiny. Still, The Need for Roots goes up beside The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt), and The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) as a book that more-or-less captures another critical aspect of human nature.

Oddly, the book it reminds me most of is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, or more accurately the non-fiction summary Beyond Civilization that Quinn wrote a decade after exploring the ideas in Ishmael more fully. What’s also oddly fascinating in The Need for Roots is the extent to which the political and socio-ethical concerns Weil presents are just as evident today. Widening economic inequality, the urban/rural political divide, and a general dissolution of national spirit are maybe not as new as I’d previously assumed.

This has been a rather unstructured summary, but I think I can wrap it up fairly succinctly anyways: Simone Weil was exactly my kind of crazy.

Narrative Distress and Reinvention

This is the third post in what has been a kind of accidental series. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, and Where the Narrative Stops.

While my previous two posts on narrative identities were fairly broad in scope, exploring some general cultural patterns, I now want to focus in a little more closely on what it feels like to not have a narrative. Unsurprisingly it can be quite distressing, so I’ve been referring to it mentally as “narrative distress”. This is importantly distinct from “narrative dissonance”, where you have a narrative but decide to do something counter to it, although dissonance can also be distressing in its own right.

In Where the Narrative Stops I wrote a lot about how the default narratives are breaking down under modern society’s emphasis on individualism, and how that can be harmful for young adults who haven’t yet discovered an overriding passion. When I wrote that post I was a step away from the problem; I knew a lot of people in this situation, but I had been living the same narrative for most of my life at that point so it was all a bit abstract. In the six months since I’ve had the most peculiar experience of, in some ways, running out of the narrative I was living. Every story has an end, and when you unexpectedly achieve that ending (or, as in my case, realize you no longer want that particular ending) then you suddenly find yourself without a narrative at all.

Finding myself without a narrative after so long living in a very specific direction was a remarkably weird feeling. It felt in a lot of ways like being burnt out; general disengagement, ennui, etc. Unsurprisingly it produced a very existential feeling of “now what”, but more surprising to me it also produced a significant amount of anxiety, because without a narrative to guide me, every single decision became the seed of a new identity crisis.

Fortunately, once I finally realized what had happened it wasn’t terribly difficult to reinvent my narrative in the shape of something that was still ongoing. This was reasonably easy for me because I’d already done a lot of thinking about what I value in the abstract, but of course that can be a major project in its own right.

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as just picking a new narrative and pressing “play”. As I discussed in Narrative Dissonance, our life narratives are tied up in our identities and every single one of our choices; it takes time and commitment to gradually shift something like that. So that part of the project for me is still ongoing. But such is life: a constant process of change and growth.

Naming Feedback Loops

I’ve often thought that the terms “positive feedback loop” and “negative feedback loop” are poorly named. The words “positive” and “negative” have such strong emotional valences that it’s hard not to get confused when trying to talk about, for example, the positive feedback loop of a being in a bad mood. Instead, I’d rather use the terms “explosive feedback loop” and “stabilizing feedback loop”. They seem to capture the relevant characteristics more clearly.

I care about these words because I’ve found myself stuck in a couple of explosive feedback loops recently due to meta-emotional worries. I notice myself feeling bad for one reason or another, and this worries me, and the worry makes me feel even worse. Rinse and repeat. I’ve poked at this behaviour before (primarily in my post on worrying two years ago), but it’s reared its head again recently, and I’m finally noticing the same general pattern in other aspects of my life. For example, I’m not typically a hypochondriac, but as soon as one aspect of my health comes to my attention it’s a short spiral to internalized histrionics.

Typically self-awareness is counted as a positive trait, but there is a very real sense in these situations where it is an active problem. I’m self-aware enough to send myself into these meta-emotional spirals, but not generally self-aware enough to pull myself out of them. The fact that I’ve noticed it as a pattern now produces some measure of hope, but honestly I noticed it two years ago in that other post as well, and I don’t think I’ve applied it once since then. In a lot of ways, half-way up the mountain is the worst spot to be.

I meta-worry about all my worries and then I worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then my head explodes.

Me

A Living Wage

A couple of unrelated trends clicked together in my brain this afternoon in an unexpected way and I thought I’d share. In case it needs to be said, this is interesting but wild speculation and not meant to be taken very seriously.

One trend is the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family over the last several decades. Another is the more recent economic anxiety in the era of Brexit and Trump. And finally, we have a push from liberals in the last twenty years to raise the minimum wage to what is known as the “living wage“.

As a single adult with no dependants who keeps a comprehensive budget of my finances, I know both what I spend each month, and roughly what it would be possible to live on if times suddenly became tight for me. Interestingly, a full-time job at the minimum wage where I live would be more than enough for a pretty decent single life, since until recently I was living below that line more-or-less by accident. However, it’s also clearly not enough for a family, nor even necessarily enough for a family with two income-earners at that level given the costs of transportation and child-care.

My core speculation is as follows: what if the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family has increased the “supply” of single workers and decreased the “supply” of workers with families, thus driving down the market price for labour and making it even more difficult to have a family. This would be a very unfortunate negative feedback loop, if true.

Maybe somebody with more economic/demographic expertise can dig into this more or tell me where I’m making an obvious error?

3(ish) Rules for Life

I realize I’m quite late to the party with this one, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. My initial verdict is that it’s neither quite as insightful nor as ethically terrible as the controversy around it had let me to believe. Peterson has a very flowery writing style, with extended metaphors and a lot of repetition. I’m sure the joke’s been made somewhere already, but this really could have been just a list of the twelve rules, with maybe a paragraph of explanation each and a few footnotes to the relevant studies.

All that said, insight is somewhat a matter of perspective. I’ve dug enough into philosophy and psychology already that some of his points which I took as given are probably surprising to a good chunk of the population. And per the title of this post, I did take away three ideas that genuinely changed how I think in minor ways. Not that two of them were actually from the titular rules, but still.

Rule #1: Risk violence to assert your preferences.

This is not one of Peterson’s twelve, and the wording is distinctly counter-intuitive, but it captures two related ideas that Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on throughout his book (largely in rules #1, #8, and #10). First, it captures the idea that all conflict is founded on the threat of violence. Without that threat looming in the distance, there is never any incentive to back down, and no way to escalate. No conflict would ever resolve.

Second, it captures the idea that people need to assert their preferences to be happy, and thus occasionally cause conflict. This is, I think, fairly trivially true, though of course Peterson goes into some depth on the psychological problems that occur when somebody never asserts their preferences and becomes a complete and total pushover. It was still interesting to me, because despite being fairly obvious-sounding, a lot of the examples and verbiage he used to back up his point didn’t harmonize with how I view myself. So this one triggered an examination of how often I stand up for myself and assert my preferences, which has been interesting.

Rule #2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

This is straight from Peterson (and in fact it is conveniently his rule #2 as well). This is the only one of the titular twelve that directly made me sit up and metaphorically smack myself on the forehead in dramatic fashion. For those of a slightly more analytical bent, he also rephrases this as the idea that the so-called golden rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) in fact works in both directions. This one is straight from the text, so I won’t elaborate here.

Rule #3: Be prepared to change your goals.

This isn’t straight from the titular twelve, and it isn’t really a theme throughout either, it’s just a throwaway mention in the middle of Peterson’s rule #8. He’s talking about lies, and the concept of a “life lie”, and writes that “a naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie”. This is just mumbo-jumbo for the idea that the goals you set yourself today might not actually be goals you still want to accomplish in five years, and that clinging to those goals eventually results in simple unhappiness as you push yourself to do things you don’t really want to do.

Again, it sounds fairly obvious but the extended examination of it in the book made me re-examine a few of my own life goals in a slightly different light.

Bonus

I’ll leave you with a bonus extract which isn’t really a rule so much as a pithy paraphrase of an observation that Peterson makes off-hand in the midst of rule #10: a happy couple is two people animated by a shared adventure.

There’s a lot more that I could write about this book, but this post will have to do for now.

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.