alex petralia

2019-04-08

eastern philosophy (part 2)

Hey all -

In a commencement speech made to the graduating students of Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace opened with the following parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning boys, how’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other, and goes: “What the hell is water?”

If you grew up in water, you may not notice that you’ve been swimming in water your whole life. Water is all you know, and water is all there is. It’s only once you notice the water that you open up to the possibility there could be something else besides water.

This newsletter touches on something which has, for me, long been water. It’s a newsletter about noticing.



+ mental models


* Eastern philosophy

If I had to distill Western thought down to just a word - a word that’s so embedded into the deepest fabric of our very existence here in the West - it is that of reason.

Western thought probably started with the Greeks. You had Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. They were very logical. They tried to define everything, and understand everything, and stamp out contradictions when things didn’t make sense.

In a word, they were reasonable. They were able to be reasoned with. Reason was their language, and maybe, it was even their religion.

Western thought probably hit its version of the industrial era during the Enlightenment. Reason became mass-produced and mass-distributed. Reason scaled. Reason became the law of the land, holier than any religion before it. This was, after all, the “Age of Reason.”

Since then, we in the West have moved quickly. We’ve applied reason anywhere and everywhere, with a sort of fanaticism that perhaps even the most fervent evangelists would admire.

And like any good religion, we’ve framed good and bad in terms of reason. If it’s not reasonable, it’s unreasonable. If it’s not science, it’s superstition. If it’s not statistical, it’s anecdotal.

Each of these are, immediately and instinctively, invalid ways of thinking. If something is on the wrong side of reason, it is also on the wrong side of truth. Reason is the truth.

The parallels to religion are a little uncanny. Many of the most devout rationalists - myself included - practically worship at the altar of reason. We reasonable people don’t like unreasonable people, and we apply a degree of moral disgust which closely resembles that of religious puritanism. We implore the non-believers: “Can’t you just be reasonable?” We warmly welcome our new converts, and quietly lament those lost souls condemned to eternal damnation.

We reasonable ones have been on our own Crusades. We made it our mission to spread reason - the hallmark of a “civilized” society - to the less civilized areas of the world. And just like the Crusaders before us, we too have colonized and imperialized and, dare I say, even enslaved. All in the name of Reason. Always justified, always rationalized, by Reason.

Because if it is reasonable, it is also right. We Crusaders have wielded a weapon far sharper, far more cutting and far more divisive than merely the sword. We’ve wielded Reason: the sword that scales.


    ~

There’s a sort of implicit assumption baked into reasonableness, which is that it presupposes knowledge of a system.

After all, something is only unreasonable in comparison to what is reasonable. And in order for us to say what is reasonable, we must know about the system.

Think about that: the only way you can say something is reasonable is because you know something about the system. You’ve made some assumptions about it. You’ve said that, because you have a boss and you need to earn some money or whatever, this is a reasonable thing to do.

But if I dropped you five million miles away and said “Go” - then what? What’s reasonable now? You don’t know because you don’t know the system. Reason only makes sense in the context of what you know.

Five million miles away, there is no concept of reasonableness. To even ask if things make sense, or if they don’t make sense, isn’t the right question. Five million miles away, you simply do not know enough about how the system works to evaluate if anything is reasonable or not. Reason presupposes knowledge.

Of course, we don’t have to travel five million miles away to figure out that there’s a lot more that we don’t know than we do know. When it comes to our own mind, life, the world, the universe - this stuff is just so incredibly complex that, for the most part, we simply do not know. And without knowledge, reason does not make sense.

Reason, however, is very tempting.

Because with reason, we can control the world, subdue it, bend it to our will. After all, if you’ve reduced the entire world down to engineering problem - carefully mapping all its inputs and outputs and dependencies - you can always, of course, re-engineer it.

You might then see urban planning as an engineering problem, and that nature-stuff is really kind of a hassle, so why don’t we just get rid of it? Or you might see food supply as an engineering problem, and so the solution is probably to throw more chickens and cows and pigs into a warehouse, then pump them with hormones so that their meat is a really consistent - and of nearly mechanical - quality.

Or you might see architecture as an engineering problem, and so we need more straight lines and shapes and symmetry and order. Or you might see business as an engineering problem, and so we need more resources (oops, “people”) to throw at it. Or you might even see your life as an engineering problem, an elegantly partitioned sequence of hours which must be carefully milked for every last drop of output.

Make no mistake: these are all products of reason. They’re the engineer’s world, a world of science and empiricism and measurement and data. There was an Almighty Watchmaker after all, and it was Man.


    ~

Now, poetic license aside, I like the watchmaker’s world. I like having air-conditioned buildings and eating gross pizza and sitting on my IKEA chair and walking the unnaturally parallel streets of New York City. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more staunch defender of modern civilization than me - knowledge, reason, warts and all.

But I love reason within limits. I love reason when we have knowledge. Which, unfortunately, is not very often.

Think about it: just how much do we know today about the world that we could possibly ever know in the future? .01%? .0001% maybe? And yet, here we are whipping this sword of Reason around like we run the place! If we’re just a bit overeager, we might get caught like a fish out of water.

Now once you admit that we may not have perfect knowledge about the world, suddenly, things don’t always have to make sense.

Well, to be more precise, they just don’t have to make sense to you. On a grand scale, the world makes sense. But the likelihood that this tiny sliver of the world we happen to understand today is perfectly consistent seems quite low, to be honest. It’s like pulling 8 pieces out of a 1,000,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and wondering why they don’t line up properly. It’s because you’re not seeing the whole picture.

In fact, I think confusing those 8 pieces for the entire picture has led to a lot of unnecessary suffering.

We became conditioned to think that the world from our perspective needs to make sense. We got confused into thinking that reason is everything - and so everything is reasonable - and before you know it, we’ve already broken out the engineering tools.

Like any engineering problem, we first set the goal. We specify what we want: the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect body, the perfect time-management skills, the perfect discipline. Then, quite simply, we work backwards.

And why shouldn’t we! With enough knowledge and enough reason, we can achieve anything - even perfection!

Except, of course, that it doesn’t work. Not only do we know it doesn’t work, we can literally feel that it doesn’t work.

It’s that feeling when you bite into a tomato that’s so unnaturally big and plump that you wonder just how much of that thing is actually tomato. It’s that feeling when you see beautiful people on TV and wonder why, no matter how hard you try, you can never look just like them. It’s that feeling of never being smart or rich or hardworking or attractive enough. It’s that feeling of not being good enough.

When you see life as an engineering problem, you fall prey to the illusion that perfection is achievable. And imperfection is failure.


    ~

Let me clarify that I have no problem with striving. Striving is about doing the best you can given what you know. Striving is about the journey of living, the process of discovery.

Perfection, on the other hand, is about an end state. It assumes complete knowledge of the world, and you - the engineer - know the right thing to do, so just do it, otherwise you suck.

Those are two different things, and conflating them offends the logical part of my brain. Our lives are not an engineering problem. Therefore, we don’t yet know The Right Way™ to do things, but maybe in a million years, after we dig up the remaining 99.999%, we will. Until then, we’ll be wrong about things, and that’s okay.

Now, if you’ve stuck your head out of the water this far, maybe you’ll come just a little further. Surely, you must be wondering, if I can’t see the world through reason, what else is there?

And so I offer another lens to the view the world - and that is the lens of unreason.

Unreason is neither bad nor good. Just like reason, it is a tool. While reason is selective, wedging our ideas through the laws of reality, unreason is generative, allowing us to imagine What if?

In the world of unreason, things don’t always have to make sense. The world of unreason is zany and artistic and creative and speculative and ridiculous. It’s the world where you’re free to wonder if 2+2=5, or if E=mc². It’s the world where your doodles in high school end up becoming the schematics of your Feynman diagrams.

It’s the world that defies reason - for now. It’s the world we perceive, but can’t yet explain. It’s the world that refuses to be labeled, and resists being controlled. It’s the world of the make-believe, the spiritual, and the unknown. And like dark matter, it’s out there, and there’s a lot of it.

Even for us reasonable ones, we interface with the unknown far more often than we realize. Where, of course, do all of your ideas come from - those intuitions, hunches, emotions, instincts? From the depths of your soul? From the abyss of your subconscious? Certainly not from reason. From unreason, I say!

If you try and shoehorn the entire world through the lens of reason, you might drive yourself crazy. You wouldn’t be the first.

Robert Pirsig was a very smart man who tried to be reasonable about all of this, failed, went to a mental institution, and then wrote a book about it called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig sacrificed himself on the Cross of Reason so that we wouldn’t have to.


    ~

I don’t want to tell you that reason is wrong - just that it’s not the whole story.

If you do think it’s the whole story - that we can know everything, that we can reason about everything, that we can control everything - I can say that that story does not tend to end well for us humans.

Just ask Oedipus. Or Tantalus. Or Icarus. Or Prometheus. Or Achilles. Or Narcissus.

I think we humans have always wanted to play God, and God does not appreciate that very much. If there’s one thing that reliably earned the wrath of the gods in Greek mythology, it was always and forever hubris.

Hubris: that arrogance, pride, self-righteousness - that supreme confidence that you are in fact better than the gods.

And time after time, the gods smite you. They smite you in Greek mythology, and they smite you in every other major religion you can think of.

It’s not hard to imagine why this is. Every single time man thought he could outsmart nature, he got rocked by an earthquake, scorched by a fire, drowned by a tsunami or starved by a famine. Our ancestors sought to instill a very important, seemingly timeless lesson in every ancient text: Do not try to outsmart nature.

Now you don’t even have to go your local library to figure out that hubris is a universally detestable trait. If you’ve lived a day on this earth, you’ve probably spent time on both sides of hubris. Either you’ve been hubristic, in which case people hated you, or you’ve been around hubristic people, in which case you hated them. Neither side is an enviable position to be in.


    ~

So what now?

Well I think the answer is humility. I don’t mean humility in the sense of having low self-esteem, or fetishizing low-status, or being weak-willed. I mean it in the sense of being intellectually humble.

In other words, we don’t know everything, and that’s okay.

Just accepting this, I think, changes a lot.

Since we don’t know everything, we can’t possibly achieve perfection. Nor can we possibly be infallible, and so maybe we’ll make mistakes from time to time. Nor can we possibly control everything, and so maybe it’ll be okay when good things come to an end, or when the people we love die, or when things don’t always work out the way we planned.

We won’t get everything right, and that’s okay. We’ll realize that we’re not God after all, and that we’re just humans trying to figure things out[1].

By now, you probably know where I’m going with all of this. This is of course the foundation of Eastern philosophy.

We suffer because we are fixated on getting everything right, perfect, understandable, controllable. We confused our knowledge of the world with the world itself, and saw before us an open landscape to be conquered by reason. And so we tried, and so the world resisted.

But bad things still happen to good people, and good things still happen to bad people. In other words, things still don’t make sense. And the more we try to make sense of this, the more we suffer.

I’m not going to pretend like I’ve achieved some sort of spiritual enlightenment, or that I’m particularly humble, or that I’ve magically controlled my ego. Far from it. In fact, I definitely have a bigger ego than you.

But this does help clarify for me the direction I want to move in. It’s one that’s less obsessed with understanding and more open to feeling. It’s one that’s less about declaring to the world how smart or disciplined or capable I am - to prove of course, like any good engineer, that I figured this thing out - and more about admitting that I haven’t.

It’s one that’s less judgmental of other people, because they probably don’t know either, and more tolerant of our differences. And it’s one that’s less about speaking and more about listening, because how much can you really talk about 8 puzzle pieces compared to the 999,992 still out there?

The world can in fact make more sense by making less sense. We can’t know everything, and we can’t control everything, and that’s okay.

In the words of Tyler Durden, one of my favorite film characters from the movie Fight Club, I try to remind myself: “Stop trying to control everything and just let go.”



+ parting thoughts


I realize this is probably one of the more provocative and controversial newsletters I’ve written so far. I don’t deny that I’ve painted in broad strokes, and as a result, probably misrepresented things, mostly because I don’t fully understand them.

But even though I don’t think what I’ve written is exactly right, I don’t think it’s exactly wrong either. It’s just food for thought, which to me is what mental models are: lens of viewing the world. If it’s useful, keep it; if not, discard it.

A lot of this stuff is simply my opinion, and if you disagree, that’s okay too. And so I’ll end with one more quote from Tyler Durden, which is this:

I say never be complete. I say stop being perfect. I say let’s evolve, let the chips fall where they may. But that’s me, and I could be wrong, and maybe it’s a terrible tragedy.



Thanks for reading, Alex

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[1] Most of us, anyway. Is it any surprise that Kanye West came out with a song titled “I Am a God?” I’ll be patiently awaiting the first album by Kanye East.