Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Search for Truth and Aesthetics of Pessimism

1b93c-adamandevefastingandhungerNow the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (…) The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (…) Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked;so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. – Bible, Genesis

There’s something strange and dark about knowledge, wisdom and truth, and this darkness has been the subject of many ancient myths and legends. Has this theme any basis in fact? One thing we know for sure: truth hurts. Let’s begin with a trivial example:

Suppose that you started off in life with a wandering mind and were punished a few times for failing to respond to official letters. As a result, you would be less effective than average at responding, so you got punished a few more times. Henceforth, when you received a bill, you got the pain before you even opened it, and it laid unpaid on the mantelpiece until a Big Bad Red late payment notice with an $25 fine arrived. More negative conditioning. Now even thinking about a bill, form or letter invokes the flinch response. The idea is simple: if a person receives constant negative conditioning via unhappy thoughts whenever their mind goes into a certain zone of thought, they will begin to develop a psychological flinch mechanism around the thought. The “Unhappy Thing” — the source of negative thoughts — is typically some part of your model of the world that relates to bad things being likely to happen to you. – Less Wrong: Ugh fields

The expression “harsh truth” is so familiar (try googling it) even is talking about the 6 harsh truths that will make you a better person:

The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict. – 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person

Not only that, but there are scientific studies on something called optimism bias:

The optimistic bias is seen in a number of situations. For example: people believing that they are less at risk of being a crime victim, smokers believing that they are less likely to contract lung cancer or disease than other smokers, first-time bungee jumpers believing that they are less at risk of an injury than other jumpers, or traders who think they are less exposed to losses in the markets.

And self-serving bias:

When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, or take more responsibility for their group’s work than they give to other members, they are protecting the ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self’s need for esteem. For example, a student who attributes earning a good grade on an exam to their own intelligence and preparation but attributes earning a poor grade to the teacher’s poor teaching ability or unfair test questions is exhibiting the self-serving bias.

Then we have the phenomenon of euphemisms:

It is obvious that the purpose of using euphemisms is to avoid something unpleasant or offensive. They come from psychological needs. Psychologically, if not linguistically, meanings can be defined by the sum of our responses to a word or an object. Words themselves may be seen as responses to stimuli. After a word has been associated for a long period of time with the stimuli that provokes it, the word itself picks up aspects of the response elicited by the stimuli object. When unpleasant elements of response attach themselves strongly to the word used to describe them, we tend to substitute another word free of these negative associations. In this way, psychologists tell us, euphemisms are formed. – Cultural Concepts and Psychological Tendencies in Euphemisms

george_carlinSometime during my life toilet paper became bathroom tissue… Sneakers became running
shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became directory assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes. Used cars became previously owned transportation. Room service became guest room dining. Constipation became occasional irregularity. (…) The CIA doesn’t kill anybody anymore. They neutralize people. Or they depopulate the area. The government doesn’t lie. It engages in disinformation. Poor people used to live in slums. Now ‘the economically disadvantaged’ occupy ‘substandard housing’ in the ‘inner cities.’ And a lot of them are broke. They don’t have ‘negative cash flow.’ They’re broke! Because many of them were fired. In other words, management wanted to ‘curtail redundancies in the human resources area,’ and so, many workers are no longer ‘viable members of the workforce.’ – George Carlin on Euphemistic Language

It looks like humans believe whatever they want to believe and ignore beliefs which are frightening and negative. This has obvious implications for our personal lives, but what about the big questions? The cognitive algortihm here seems to be the same, for example, take atheism:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Copernicus, Kepler, and Galilei have shown us that we are not in the centre of the universe, Darwin has shown us we are not made in the image of god, and modern neuroscience is showing us today that free will, at least as we commonly conceptualize it, is an illusion.

The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel. – H. L. Mencken

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. – Bertrand Russell

I write this to you, dear Elizabeth, only in order to counter the most usual proofs of believers. Every true faith is infallible. It performs what the believing person hopes to find in it. But it does not offer the least support for the establishing of an objective truth. Here, the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, have faith. If you want to be a disciple of truth, than search. – Nietzsche, Letter to his sister

Searching for truth, we tend not to search there where it hurts the most, as is demonstrated by confirmation bias:

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.

The myth of Prometheus, can be interpreted metaphorically not as the fire-bringer, but as the truth-bringer:

proCSFor Boccaccio, “In the heavens where all is clarity and truth, Prometheus steals, so to speak, a ray of the divine wisdom from God himself, source of all Science, supreme Light of every man.” With this, Boccaccio shows himself moving from the mediaeval sources with a shift of accent towards the attitude of the Renaissance humanists. Using a similar interpretation to that of Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century updated the philosophical and more somber reception of the Prometheus myth not seen since the time of Plotinus. In his book written in 1476-77 titled Quaestiones Quinque de Mente, Ficino indicates his preference for reading the Prometheus myth as an image of the human soul seeking to obtain supreme truth. As Olga Raggio summarizes Ficino’s text, “The torture of Prometheus is the torment brought by reason itself to man, who is made by it many times more unhappy than the brutes. It is after having stolen one beam of the celestial light […] that the soul feels as if fastened by chains and […] only death can release her bonds and carry her to the source of all knowledge.” (…) … Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”, in reference to the novel’s themes of the over-reaching of modern humanity into dangerous areas of knowledge.

Speaking of dangerous knowledge, there is a BBC documentary of the same name:

The film begins with Georg Cantor, the great mathematician whose work proved to be the foundation for much of the 20th-century mathematics. He believed he was God’s messenger and was eventually driven insane trying to prove his theories of infinity. Ludwig Boltzmann’s struggle to prove the existence of atoms and probability eventually drove him to suicide. Kurt Gödel, the introverted confidant of Einstein, proved that there would always be problems which were outside human logic. His life ended in a sanatorium where he starved himself to death.

Those matematicians may have been the inpiration for Darren Aronofsky and his film Pi:

Personal note: When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun, so once when I was six, I did. At first the brightness was overwhelming, but I had seen that before. I kept looking, forcing myself not to blink, and then the brightness began to dissolve. My pupils shrunk to pinholes and everything came into focus and for a moment I understood.

pi_01Restate my assumptions: One, Mathematics is the language of nature. Two, Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature. Evidence: The cycling of disease epidemics;the wax and wane of caribou populations; sun spot cycles; the rise and fall of the Nile. So, what about the stock market? The universe of numbers that represents the global economy. Millions of hands at work, billions of minds. A vast network, screaming with life. An organism. A natural organism. My hypothesis: Within the stock market, there is a pattern as well… Right in front of me… hiding behind the numbers. Always has been.

Hero from the film Pi “stared at the sun” for too long and ended in a tragic way. This reminds of another great myth:

Often depicted in art, Icarus and his father attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus’ father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, because the sea’s dampness would clog or the sun’s heat would melt his toes. Icarus ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned.

It also reminds of another individual who stared for too long:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. – Nietzsche

We all know the Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper:

The fable concerns a grasshopper that has spent the warm months singing while the ant (or ants in some versions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and begs the ant for food. To its reply when asked that it had sung all summer, it is rebuked for its idleness and advised to dance during the winter.

What does this have to do with anything? The ant took responsibility for his life, it was tough to work but he took reality seriously, while the grasshopper was living in the fantasy world. As in the Matrix, the ant took the red pill.

You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

How long would the naive idealistic grasshopper survive amongst the hard-core cowboys on the western frontier?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. – Robert Heinlein

Although Heinlein is speaking against the insects, he and the ant are here on the same side – you need to be tough and resiliant, and take the truth even when it hurts.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. – Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior

Chinese are the ants while Westerners are grasshoppers. This approach to parenting is also known as “tough love”.

Man was, and is, too shallow and cowarldy to endure the tragic, divine-comedy of life. Upon looking into the Abyss, man becomes afraid. Unable to face the truth, he hides it from himself. Idealism is cowardice. Most men are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. They use Utopian Ideals to wait for a future “heaven on earth” to escape living. It is the strong who are pessimistic, they know man, and know that no Ideal or Ideology will ever change human nature. – Unknown, inspired by Oswald Spengler

The question of whether world peace will ever be possible can only be answered by someone familiar with world history. To be familiar with world history means, however, to know human beings as they have been and always will be. There is a vast difference, which most people will never comprehend, between viewing future history as it will be and viewing it as one might like it to be. Peace is a desire, war is a fact; and history has never paid heed to human desires and ideals… – Oswald Spengler

This is the aesthetics of pessimism: pessimism is bravery, idealism is cowardice. Pessimism is seen as a good in and of itself.

The development of the intellect will at last extinguish the will to reproduce, and will at last achieve the extinction of the race. Nothing could form a finer denouement to the insane tragedy of the restless will. Why should the curtain that has just fallen on defeat and death, always rise again upon a new life, a new struggle, and a new defeat? How long shall we be lured into this much ado about nothing, this endless pain that leads only to a painful end? When shall we have the courage to fling defiance into the face of the will? To tell it that the loveliness of life is a lie and that the greatest boon of all is death. – Arthur Schopenhauer

Or, as the modern mass media Schopenhauer put it:

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal. – Rust Cohle, True Detective

Truth is hard, so pessimistic beliefs became a signal of intellectual honesty, toughness, and wisdom. If you want to convey an image of a truth seeker, pessimism seems to be the way to go. Thus, pessimism bias is created. Pessimistic beliefs are rejected out of hand, because the pessimist is taken to be just another “truth seeker. This is a problem, because many pessimistic beliefs seem to be true.

If you are a pessimist, ask yourself is it because pessimism is rational or because you see pessimism as more noble than optimism.