Nefarious Agendas

A reader has shared an article with me, and before I get into why I found this article fascinating and my response to it, let me say – thank you! Getting people to share interesting things with me is 90% of my motivation for maintaining this blog, so when it happens I’m thrilled. Please, always send interesting and thought-provoking things my way!

Here is the article – not too long, and definitely worth a read.

I happen to share the author’s relatively dim view of Postmodernism. I believe in ultimate truth (however impossible it might be for me personally to even approach it) as well as the importance and value of socially-constructed beliefs, even as I shout from the rooftops the value of individualism and free thought.

As an aside: I don’t believe you can fundamentally “win” an argument, and I think if you approach arguments like they’re win/lose propositions you’ve already lost the greater impact of the search for knowledge. I don’t like to argue – I like to discuss. I’m not out to change anyone’s mind by force. I’m out to learn, and if you want to learn too, come along! We can do it together, it’ll be fun.

Now, back to that article. Something that stuck out for me was this bit: “I wanted to know what underlying values and beliefs were motivating his critique so I asked him to describe his worldview. He responded, ‘I have no worldview.'” Allow me to respond to that the way you should respond to anyone who says they have no worldview:

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Claims of neutrality are preposterous. It always strikes me as funny when people complain about news media being biased. Because… of course it is? Literally everyone is biased, everyone has an agenda, everyone has a worldview. It would be impossible to operate otherwise.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as truth or that everyone is a scheming manipulator. People can be honest and good even with agendas and biases. But all thought and action must have a starting point. You must have something that motivates you to choose one course of action over another. If you’re diligent in your search for self-improvement and you have a good moral code, then over time your biases and agendas may adjust. You might be careful to keep yourself from going so deep into any given position that you can’t even see the other side, let alone a path to get there. You should be able to pass Ideological Turing Tests. But you will never be without an agenda, and neither will anyone else.

So what should you do with this information? Can no one be trusted? Don’t be absurd. Some people’s agendas will line up neatly with your own, and life is all about finding as many of those win/win scenarios as you can. A car salesman has an agenda to sell me a car. But if I want to buy a car, that works out. He also has an agenda to maintain a good reputation and repeat business, and I have an agenda to seek out reputable sellers of automobiles. Our agendas don’t compete. Now, a more unscrupulous salesman who has no plans to remain in the business might have the agenda of unloading a sub-par car no matter what, and then we do have conflicting agendas, but determining which is which is part of life.

I have many agendas. I want to be successful in my career and provide for my family, so I may prioritize my career over other things. But I also have an agenda to be a moral person, so I won’t rob a convenience store even if I thought I could get away with it and it would be lucrative. I have a strong bias towards personal freedom, and so I’m likely to be swayed more easily by arguments in favor of less government control than more. I have a worldview that says that people are better when they’re more free, more empowered, and more loved – and that worldview will color my decisions and individual points of view.

I make no claims otherwise. I don’t claim absolute certainty that any of my worldviews are objectively correct, but I do claim to sincerely believe them based on the information I have available to me, and I claim a sincere attempt to gather new information every day, even if such information would lead me away from my current beliefs.

“If I listen to your lies, would you say 
I’m a man without conviction
I’m a man who doesn’t know
How to sell a contradiction?”
– Culture Club, Karma Chameleon

By the way, a phenomenal comic about the whole “we can’t know anything so your argument fails” style of debate can be found here, if you’d like an extra laugh today.

Open to Suggestion

After blogging for a while, I’ve started to notice that there tends to be a lot of asymmetry in the communication.

I want to provide value to others, but I also want to learn and listen. So for this post, rather than trying to talk about things I know, I’m going to just write down a lot of the kinds of questions I tend to think about, or the things I’d like to learn. I’m going to talk about the things well outside my wheelhouse!

  1. What are good ways to discover your natural talents? You can’t hope to try even a fraction of all the things you might be good at in your limited lifespan. What are good ways to discover your passions? I love to hear stories where people discovered their calling in life in unusual or serendipitous ways.
  2. Is your mid-thirties too late to learn to play the piano? I love piano music and have always had tremendous respect for people who play well. That’s true of any musical talent, really, but I’ve always thought the piano was especially awesome.
  3. What makes people complain? Is there some evolutionary reason some people are inclined to do it, or have they been conditioned to believe it will help their situation somehow? I almost never complain about things, but it isn’t because I’m somehow more noble or anything, it’s just because I can’t envision a series of events where me complaining leads to anything improving – and I can imagine many series of events where it makes things worse, because people will want to interact with me less. So what causes that impulse – nature or nurture?
  4. Advanced mathematics is so fascinating to me. I read Michael Huemer’s Approaching Infinity last year, and while it was endlessly interesting, it was also one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a while, since I have zero background in mathematics. But just knowing how vast and deep the field is makes me want to plunge in.
  5. I’d really like to learn more about religion and its history. Due to my endless fascination with anything people care deeply about, this topic holds a lot of appeal to me. But I’ve always felt like something of an outsider looking in when it comes to religious topics. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.
  6. What other questions should I be thinking about? The search for truth and wisdom isn’t really the search for answers – it’s the search for better questions. That’s why I love philosophy – what new ways can I stress-test my thought patterns?

There’s a glimpse into the kinds of things that just run through my mind on a regular basis. There’s so much to learn.

What kinds of questions do you love?

Big Rocks

Imagine a large glass jar, maybe 10 gallons. You get some big, melon-sized rocks and you put them in there until you can’t fit any more. Is the jar full?

Well, you can’t fit any more of those rocks in there, but that doesn’t really mean the jar is full. Go ahead and take some gravel and pour it in around the rocks until it reaches the top, maybe shake it a little so everything settles down neatly in there.

But guess what? Still not full.

Some fine sand will pour in nicely around that gravel, filling in every nook and cranny, until now the jar is finally full.

Except… wait, you could pour some water in. Slowly but surely, the water would fill in around the sand until it reached the top of the jar. Now it’s probably full for real, unless there’s something about physics I’m not aware of that lets me fit something in between the water. Maybe you could dissolve some sugar in there without raising the total level of the water?

This is a metaphor about time management, but maybe not the one you’re thinking.

See, the wrong lesson to take from this is that no matter how full your schedule is, you can always fit in more. That might be true, but there’s a cost there – for instance, this very full jar is now very heavy and no light can get through it. That might be an important metaphor about the spiritual burden of too full of a calendar, but that’s not the point I’m making.

The point I’m making is that if you don’t put those big rocks in first, you’ll never ever fit them in. As soon as you start pouring the gravel (let alone the sand or the water), the ship has sailed on getting those big rocks in place.

Put the important things on your calendar first. Do them first. Front-load them. Don’t organize your tasks based on how much time they’ll take or how much you enjoy doing them – organize them based on which ones need to be done. Your total life satisfaction will thank me for it.

Ideas in Action

What do you want your ideas to do?

All great change and progress in the world starts with ideas, but not all great ideas become change and progress in the world. The vast majority of ideas sit idle and never take form in the world. They languish in the minds of the few and don’t take root where they could become real.

I want the values I care about to help my fellow humans. I want them to be more free, happier, and more successful. In fact, that’s the reason I have the values I do – I care about things that will accomplish those goals.

But it’s not enough to have the idea. It has to be given shape. It’s like the difference between a great idea for a new invention and seeing the finished product on the shelves.

Visualize the world you want, and work backwards to your idea. Can you find a connection – a viable path that leads from your idea to that vision? If so, it’s time to act. If not, it’s time to evaluate: is there such a path, but you need help to see it? That’s fine – enlist that help! Network, hire, and communicate to make the idea a reality. And if after doing all that, no one can see a path that leads from your idea to the better world you envision, then maybe the idea needs to be taken back to the drawing board. This constant revision process is healthy to your thinking; it will sharpen you.

When you find that right idea and that right path, don’t sleep. Change the world.

Adventure!

It’s important to have a guiding principle in life.

You won’t always have time to analyze every decision you make. You wouldn’t have the mental processing power to do so even if you wanted to. There will be many times in your life where you’ll have to trust your gut instincts.

Guiding principles and foundational values are worth thinking deeply about, because they’ll inform your gut instincts if you internalize them into a solid foundation. It’s all too easy to avoid ever seriously thinking about them and to end up with a guiding principle of “always be lazy and complain” or “take whatever you can get.” Those are lousy guiding principles.

A great guiding principle is “always adventure!”

When in doubt, choose the good story. Choose the bold move. Take the road less traveled. You could do worse!

The Weird Ones

I love weird people.

I love when people are passionate about things. One of my favorite things in the world is listening to people geek out about something they care about. Whether it’s your favorite TV show, a project you’re working on, a cause you care about or even just a cool dog you saw. Even if I don’t love that thing, I assure you that I love your love of it.

And while I’m a great supporter of the love of common things and I’m no hater of the basic, I’ve always found that there seems to be a direct relationship between how weird your “thing” is and how much passion you have for it.

When new ideas change the world and shape our cultural landscape, we must always remember that it’s not the ideas themselves that did it. Ideas don’t exist. It’s the people that do it – the physical manifestation of a brilliant idea is the sweat of someone who has it.

Society all too often creates crab pots: strong incentives to stay normal and not deviate too far from what’s expected from an average member of your culture. We’re bludgeoned by it as children and adolescents, and it’s the path of least resistance as adults.

I say break away from all that. Break away young and never look back. I would never advise you to not care what anyone thinks about you, because I think that’s terrible advice. But I would strongly advise you to not care what everyone thinks about you. Be very choosy about whose opinions you value.

But always remember: It’s twice as much work to be strange. If you want to be weird, you have to be right. If you do what everyone else does and you fail, you get a surprising amount of sympathy from people who say, “Well, it’s not their fault, they did what they were supposed to,” or garbage like that. If you strike off the path and you stumble, you’re often on your own. But it’s still a better path. Robert Frost was right.

The weird ones change the world.

McOnomic Literacy

How is it that basic economic literacy has so fallen by the wayside for our young people? This 15-minute cartoon can’t have a target audience older than 10 (in it’s time), but the majority of adults I know don’t possess even this level of knowledge on the subject.

I don’t claim to have a perfect explanation for why that is. Have we outsourced our critical thinking to a dangerous degree? Have we become reliant on a one-size-fits-all education system to be the source of all knowledge, and then ignored any oversight? Is it simply a matter of rational ignorance, or has entertainment grown so robust that kids no longer have the attention span for cartoon ducks talking about Rai stones?

The great likelihood is that there are many factors, some benign and some less so, that combine to shift our culture. And of course, I have no real evidence that our current generation is any less economically literate than the generation that watched this cartoon – for all I know, the words of Scrooge McDuck fell on deaf ears even then, and the reason we’ve stopped making cartoons like this is because people realized they didn’t work.

Regardless, I was pleased to stumble across this little gem. And whether in the interest of economic or historical literacy, I’m happy to pass it on.