Sunday, March 23, 2008
each is being replaced by another (another pair, another season), and each is being replaced spectacularly. i don't know what's more luxuriant, more luxurious, more casually effortlessly abundant, showy, than spring (the ultimate ingenue). oh, wait, maybe...buying not one but two pair of new glasses from a shmancy glasses shop in harvard square! was the sweet discount any excuse? what about my propensity to break and lose things? doesn't that make having a backup pair sensible? not decadent at all? i don't think so-- i think that i just fell in love with pretty expensive things and indulged my desire to own them under the pretext of being sensible-- frugal, even! but, listen, i forgive myself. and just wait until you see my sweet new frames! just wait until the tips of tree branches explode live, and we 're all on bikes again!
goodbye glasses. goodbye winter.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
the bell jar
a couple of weeks ago the new york times published this account of dan ariely's new book predictably irrational. it's on one of my all-time favorite subjects-- how people who think of themselves as rational choosers actually make decisions based on impulse-- impulses neither grounded in rational processes nor resulting in rational behavior. i'm inclined to agree with the claim that people rationalize what they do more than do what they rationally ought.
the article focuses on one of the handful of irrational impulses that ariely shows us to be consistently motivated by-- namely, the impulse to keep our options open. we will deplete our energies to keep many or a particular option(s) open even when there is no chance of pay off, and the costs are great.
ariely begins with a maximizing or means/end notion of rationality, like the one economists use: to behave rationally is to behave in such a way as to maximally attain your desired ends, whatever they may be. there are philosophers who think that desires themselves can be irrational-- that rationality should dictate not only how we attain our desired ends, but dictate their content. but putting that aside, i will assume that when ariely says a behavior is irrational he means only to say that we fail to behave in the sort of ways that would maximize our most general desires to be successful and satisfied. so the problem is that we're inefficient. we can recognize a good deal when we see it, but we can't seem to dismiss the other options from our mind and focus our energies, though that would be the rational thing to do. indecision!
we do this, according to ariely, because we are avoiding the immediate pain of loss.2 we hate to give up opportunities. problem is, every opportunity we take is a thousand we leave (or one, at least). so when we choose, there's always loss. the fear of that loss can keep us standing there, trying to hold all of the doors open, even when the best option is clear, or when any option would be equally worthy (and every single one of them better than havering). we want to live maximally satisfying lives, so we hate to give up a chance that might lead us that way-- we experience every chance given up as a loss, and our unwillingness to experience loss then motivates the very indecision that keeps us from making the choices that would, in turn, lead to our maximal satisfaction.
that, to the best of my understanding, is ariely's view. and i think that the first thing to be said is how astoundingly insightful it is. reading it, i was struck by what might best be described as an uncomfortable sense of recognition. i imagine that many others were similarly struck. and i will sit with that discomfort, and think on it, and i hope that they will, too. but i also have some problems.
first, he (or the nyt writer, at least) wants to distinguish between the desire to keep one's options open, and the desire to avoid the pain of loss. the importance of this distinction, i surmise, is that it might seem rational to sacrifice now in order to keep one's future fluid, but not rational that we should be unwilling to suffer a little loss now to minimize our losses, overall. but this is a trick distinction! to begin, i don't see how anyone could look within themselves and discover a true fact of the matter about which desire was the motivating one. the conscious desire to keep options open could be all tangled in a less conscious desire to avoid pain, or vice versa. more deeply, avoidance of pain never tells the whole story about anything-- the reason that people experience pain at all is because they evolved to, because avoiding those pain-causing things has some independent survival value. so even if people could pinpoint their own motives or the motives of others in these situations as explicitly pain-avoiding, there will be deeper explanations. and i imagine that ariely, in his book, takes a good shot at offering some of those deeper explanations. but i'm skeptical of over-confident assumptions about what psychological data (and the speculations of evolutionary psychologists) "means" about us. it's clear that we don't like letting doors close-- it's less clear to me why this is, or what it means.
i'm even more skeptical of tidy, fatherly conclusions about what it is we should do, given who we are. probably this unwillingness of mine to accept a clear answer only proves ariely's point-- but then, if it does, that's fine, because if that's what it means to be right, i'm not interested. anyway, i don't quite know how to formulate my discomfort with ariely's conclusions (as reported by the times), but i think there are two levels-- the first is a surface sort of discomfort with the fact that all of his advice seems to amount to "settle down. commit to one woman. don't take on too much." although i have been known, on occasion, to find this kind of advice tolerable, charming3 even, i do have an abiding skepticism of seemingly deep advice that merely reinscribes the status quo.
my second level of worry is more conceptual, and even less well formed. i once told LP that i don't understand when people say that they regret the things they didn't do rather than the things they did-- or, rather, that i didn't (and don't) understand how that's suppose to help me out in deciding what i should do in a given situation. because everything i do entails a mess of things i didn't do. no matter what i do, it will in hindsight be "what i did do", and the rest will be "what i didn't do", and maybe a regret. what seems clear in retrospect will not seem that way at the moment one is confronted with a choice, and what i'm suggesting is that this isn't just a matter of our epistemic limitation at the moment of choice confrontation-- not just a matter of being blinded in the moment to what will later (or from some other perspective) be visible. how we are blinded in the moment is certainly an important thing to consider-- centrally important-- but it may also be our retrospective view which is skewed-- projecting a certainty or fact of that matter onto a situation in which, at the time, there was no fact of the matter.
 i'm actually sympathetic to the idea that rationality alone has no content-- that there is nothing (or nothing much) that we can conclude we "ought" to do without figuring in a couple of basic sentiments and desires which are not themselves proper objects of rational scrutiny. but, still, it's one position that you could take
 the loss of a possibility! i promised myself that this post would have nothing whatsoever to do with possible worlds, but i will allow myself one footnote: lewis talks of learning about our world in terms of locating, among all of the logically possible worlds, which world is our own. given that we aren't laplacean demons, we can't be sure which possible world we live in-- there are a large number of possible worlds which, for all we know, might be our own. there are many possible people who, for all i know, i might be. there are many possible people who, for all i know, might be you. and as you and i go on being ourselves and events unfold and i learn more about us both, i learn that you and i aren't some of the people that it was possible we might be-- and sometimes i learn that you (or i!) might be someone that i hadn't imagined was possible. but, anyway, the point is that ariely seems to be saying that there is a real sense of loss that comes with eliminating possibilities, and yet eliminating (relevant) possibilities might be the best way of describing what it is we're doing when we learn the facts about who we are and the world we inhabit.
the loss of a possibility! i promised myself that this post would have nothing whatsoever to do with possible worlds, but i will allow myself one footnote: lewis talks of learning about our world in terms of locating, among all of the logically possible worlds, which world is our own. given that we aren't la placean demons, we can't be sure which possible world we live in-- there are a large number of possible worlds which, for all we know, might be our own. there are many possible people who, for all i know, might be me. there are many possible people who, for all i know, might be you. and as you and i go on being ourselves and events unfold and i learn more about us both, i learn that you and i aren't some of the people that it was possible we might be-- and sometimes i learn that you (or i!) might be someone that i hadn't considered possible.1
but, anyway, the point is that ariely seems to be saying that there is a real sense of loss that comes with eliminating possibilities, and yet eliminating (relevant) possibilities might be, according to lewis, the best way of describing what it is we're doing when we learn the facts about who we are and the world we inhabit-- shutting doors to possible worlds. not really, of course, because what we choose or don't choose or haver endlessly among is determined-- theres only one world that we're in, and it touches no other. but it's true that we don't know what world we're in, what possible me i am, until we see which it will be.
it sometimes happens to each of us that we stand choosing between doors that each pull so hard it feels like we're tearing. i'm a hard-hearted naturalist with no sympathy for so much as a horoscope, let alone accounts of souls and the supernatural, but among the infinite me's that it's turned out i'm not, there are one or two that were so near to my heart that it feels like part of my heart must be with them somewhere, living those lives i don't live. so for all lewis's theory depends on and underwrites unwarm unliving things like logical systems, i think it also appeals, like religion appeals, to our inescapable sense that there is something more than what is-- that there is more of us than what we are-- only it doesn't demand any nonsensical belief in the supernatural.
 he reverses everything, you see: the world isn't first-- the thing from which we abstract possibilities-- it's the space of logical possibility that comes first, and we locate ourselves in it. our knowledge of the world we live in is contingent (if the world were different, our knowledge of it would be correspondingly different). but the space of logical possibility is necessary-- contingent on nothing-- no matter what the world we live in were like, it would be the same.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
some of my friends are aware that i have rules about text messaging-- or, rather, ideas about what constitutes appropriate content. technically, there are two categories that are allowed: (a) making and confirming plans, and (b) mild flirtation, with occasional forays into sexy. but the "rules" aren't actually that strict-- they're just meant as general guidelines to keep me as far as possible from what i think of as inappropriate content-- namely, anything difficult, complicated, or passive aggressive-- nothing critical, or meant to explain my feelings in some way. if i'm going to say something critical or something about my feelings, then all of the following things are probably true:
(a) saying it by text is likely to foster misunderstanding. it's a complex matter, and it will take some degree of effort and subtly to be correctly understood even with the added benefit of body language, vocal nuance, and real-time exchange.
(b) saying it by text is probably cowardly and/or lazy. communicating feelings and criticism is hard. it's hard hard hard, and it should be. any technology that makes it easier to say hard things by putting distance (physical, emotional, or any other kind) between the speaker and the spoken to is a heady and dangerous thing. we can kid ourselves into thinking that the effort we're saving by texting is just a matter of mundane convenience, when what we are really (or also) avoiding is experiencing the full weight of the things we say, and feeling directly accountable for them.
(c) if i say it by text, it's more likely to be something i regret having said. these rules aren't just for the sake of my friends, they are totally self-protecting. some things are hard to say because it's a mistake to say them, and you know it. is there anything worse than having to live with what you said and shouldn't have? oh yeah-- when it's recorded somewhere for someone to read over and over again! and texts are the worse, because most people have their phone with them all the time-- when they're drunk, when they're sad, when they're angry-- all sorts of compromised states in which one is likely to say what one will regret. oof. terrifying.
technology abridges effort-- saves us work. that's what it does. that's why we like it. work builds muscles, and it builds calluses. there's no one thing that this means, it's just that there are some muscles and calluses (literal and metaphorical) that i don't want to wake up one day and realize that i've lost or never built up. there are things that i owe to myself, and things that i owe to others, and most of it's played out in small ways on the daily-- if i have rules, they're rules of thumb, devices (!) that i hope will help me navigate.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
sarah ruhl, discussing her new play, "dead man's cell phone"
(which is playing at playwrights horizons, in nyc)
(if you're in nyc, and you go see it, i will be insanely jealous)
Monday, March 10, 2008
i am going to try to restate this as sensibly and as generously as i can: modal realism is not a way of interrogating or justifying my prephilosophic beliefs about possibility, but of systematizing them. and, more broadly, systematization (not critical analysis or justification) of my most fundamental beliefs is the proper goal of philosophy in general.
this is the part where i would generally turn to capitol letters and exclamation points to get across my emphatic disagreement. because, at the outset, i really couldn't disagree more strongly. but in the past few weeks david lewis-- with his whimsical analogies, warm talent for clear explication, and disarming willingness to concede uncertainty-- has totally won me over. won me over to the degree that despite my disagreement (did i mention that it is emphatic?) with these sentiments-- which underwrite his entire theory-- i feel, when i read them, something which could better be captured by a question mark than an exclamation point-- albeit a deeply consternated question mark.
i agree with lewis about the existence of tables and chairs-- there they are, and after a few usefully invigorating and challenging arguments with the skeptic about brains in vats and evil demons, there they still are, and i have no more use for philosophical theories that aim to cast doubt on the matter. but our claims about what's possible, while pervasive-- as essential to our daily talk as regular old claims about what just is-- are not, as lewis claims, improper objects of (potentially undermining) critical reflection.
i do believe that a sense of the possible is as centrally useful to human beings as our sense of sight or touch-- but it's also (and i don't know how to state this gravely enough) a trickier sort of sense-- a sense not anchored to things in the actual world, by which we reach both the highest highs of imagination, and the lowest lows of self-righteous cruelty. it seems to me that we have every reason to ruthlessly examine a sense like that.
(also i'm working slowly on and off on a post about this bit of analysis, which i'm both drawn to and skeptical of.)