Be ok with loose ends

  • Coherence is the enemy: resist the urge to surrender to convenient answers to life's irreducible paradoxes.
  • Many copes are retreats from dissonance
    • Woo woo stuff: vague concepts are molds to accept vague feelings. Their evidence works by recruiting availability and confirmation bias. They are never predictive. If you took them seriously you'd rearrange your life the way a religious fundamentalist does. At best you are hacking the salutary effects of placebo at worse you are uncalibrating yourself leading to bad decisions not to mention wasting your time and attention of pseudoscience. Tetlock: vague wording is elastic, stretched to fit over one’s self-image.
    • "Mind is so powerful as evidenced by placebo effect. The link between expectations and beliefs is astounding"- Dan Ariely
    • Anti-nihilism: Good taste and values, If everything is good then nothing is good.
  • The practitioner’s knowledge seems to be happily incomplete, inchoate and often illegible, while producing better results than the more rigorous, complete and predictive theories of the theorists. — Rohit Krishnan
  • Pragmatism: “Figuring it out is kind of helpful but actually behaving differently is hugely helpful” Dave Evans:
    • The Slatestar story:
      A patient was crippled by OCD. Every time she left the house she needed to go home because she thought she left the hair dryer on. The doctors racked their brains trying to get to the origin of the problem until someone suggested a highly effective but, seemingly unsatisfying solution — she could just bring the blow dryer with her:
      Approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,…But I think the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back.
Antidotes to Paradox
  • “name it to tame it” and move on
  • You can’t just tear down and destroy leaving a vacuum. You build scaffolding first, create a replacement, give something beautiful for everyone to behold. You won’t need to tear down the old. You can’t anyway. It just crumbles.
  • Recognize Nash Equilibriums (no better strategy even if you knew others changed their action). People focus on short-term incentives leading to multi-polar traps (Moloch). Suppose you live in a house with strangers. This is vulnerable to classic coordination problems like freeriding and tragedy of the commons. It’s typical to designate responsibility with a chore wheel. But what if we re-framed the responsibility as a “brag sheet”? This framing nudges the cultural values of the group towards more pro-social behavior. The approach is worth considering whenever trying to align a group. Perhaps such experiments do not make sense at scale but at local scales we should avoid lazily accepting large-scale models that are forced to make costlier compromises.
The seduction of “why”
Humans are pattern-matchers. The benefit is we are able to recognize patterns and form hypotheses. We can use the scientific method (an algorithm of inquiry) to reject patterns. What’s left over increases our understanding of how the world works. The importance of this is self-evident. This is why bridges can stand up.
The cost is we are slaves to our pattern-matching minds are desperate for reason and causation. The desperation or need for closure means we accept untested, unverified chains of logic that sound coherent. But coherence is a function of our narrative minds. And our narrative minds are deeply biased (necessitating the scientific method algorithm — an underrated example of progress).
The problem is speculation is cheap and rigor is expensive. So we get an abundance of the former relative to the latter. Most discourse is non-academic. In a global world, where your reputation is not seated in your local interactions, but the perception you project, persuasion and sales dominate honest incentives (honesty and persuasion can be aligned but incentives and multi-polar traps ensure it’s not the default — see Skin In The Game Notes).
So when you hear a debate, it’s not comforting but more accurate to remember that you are listening to facets of a whole, and there is no absolute truth in most matters we care about. The persuasive strength of the claims will be measured in units of what is most convenient and expedient to whoever holds the power (in a democracy that can mean the majority, in a dictatorship, the authoritarian, and in a market to the marginal bid).
“Whys” are McGuffin which give us purpose, not because of their existence but because of our need for them. The dark version of this is “everyone is just talking their own book” but Maria Popova’s detached interpretation of Steinbeck’s Log From The Sea of Cortez is less value-laden.
She writes:
  • Few things are more seductive to us than a ready opinion, and we brandish few things more flagrantly as we move through the world, slicing through its fundamental uncertainty with our insecure certitudes. The trouble with opinion is that it instantly islands us in the stream of life, cutting off its subject — and us along with it — from the interconnected totality of deep truth.
  • At its heart is Steinbeck’s passionate refutation of the Western compulsion for teleological thinking — the tendency to explain things in terms of the purpose they serve, antithetical both to science and to the Eastern notion of being: the idea that everything just is and fragment of it, any one thing examined by itself, is simply because it is. Science — the supreme art of observation without interpretation, of meeting reality on its own acausal and impartial terms, free from the tyranny of why and its tendrils of blame — puts us a leap closer to understanding both particulate and pattern through non-teleological thinking
  • The moment we regard something simply as it is, because it is, we have understood it more fully, for we have shed the narratives layer of why
  • Steinbeck: The truest reason for anything’s being so is that it is. This is actually and truly a reason, more valid and clearer than all the other separate reasons, or than any group of them short of the whole. Anything less than the whole forms part of the picture only, and the infinite whole is unknowable except by being it, by living into it. A thing may be so “because” of a thousand and one reasons of greater or lesser importance… The separate reasons, no matter how valid, are only fragmentary parts of the picture….The whole is necessarily everything, the whole world of fact and fancy, body and psyche, physical fact and spiritual truth, individual and collective, life and death, macrocosm and microcosm (the greatest quanta here, the greatest synapse between these two), conscious and unconscious, subject and object.
  • He gets concrete here: Seeing a school of fish lying quietly in still water, all the heads pointing in one direction, one says, “It is unusual that this is so” — but it isn’t unusual at all. We begin at the wrong end. They simply lie that way, and it is remarkable only because with our blunt tool we cannot carve out a human reason…A man is potentially all things too, greedy and cruel, capable of great love or great hatred, of balanced or unbalanced so-called emotions. This is the way he is — one factor in a surge of striving. And he continues to ask “why” without first admitting to himself his cosmic identity.
  • The great naturalist John Muir’s observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,”