Hide, Fight, or Let Them In

(Content warning: This gets kinda dark. I am decidedly not qualified to give medical or psychological advice so if you are unsure, either stop here or just ignore everything I’m saying and speak to a therapist.)

In my upbringing in Christian churches, I was taught various things about spiritual beings, specifically demons. Demons are, of course, servants of Satan, and as such their goal is to tempt you, trick you, and generally harm you. They can get inside your heart and wreck havoc if you’re not careful. The antidote is God, who has power over the demons, and so by extension, we as believers have power too. If we tell them forcefully what to do, they have to listen; those are the rules I was taught.

So growing up, it sounded to me like there was nothing to worry about. I have Jesus in my heart, Jesus has power over demons, ipso facto the demons can’t hurt me. Yet instead, the advice was to watch out! Be scared! Be vigilant! Stay away from people with demons unless you are armed and ready to fight, and oh boy, you’ll have a serious battle in store. Hide or fight, those were the options. I was confused because I thought I was protected by an all-powerful God, but the impression I was given was that my armor was faulty and my sword hard to wield. So I opted to hide.

If you’re not into all the literalism about spirits, Jordan Peterson has your back (though, he maybe kinda sorta believes literally). To him, spirits are personifications of human universals, for example of our positive or negative tendencies; these can be thought of as gods (all) or angels and demons (respectively). He would call them archetypes, following Jung. They’re just the Meta Level version of Fatherhood, Motherhood, The Trickster, The Flood, etc., metaphorical beings abstracted away from the Real World instantiations of those things.

Similarly, in Greek mythology, all the higher beings have their place and connection to human experience: Phobos represents panic and fear, Kratos represents strength and power, Athena represents wisdom, Eris represents discord and strife, Sophrosyne represents self-control and temperance, and so on. Different cultures represent them by different spirits with different names, but the substance is the same. We root for the good spirits, help them if we can, and either hide from or fight the bad ones. (If Kratos shows up on your doorstep, better to hide.)

I don’t know if the Greeks believed in literal spirits the way Christian churches do, but the Petersonian interpretation seems closer to the way modern people talk about demons. “He has his demons.” “She’s been battling her demons.” “My inner demons got the better of me.” Or, on the other side, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”

We all have demons of a kind, and across society they are legion. For some, they appear in the form of addiction; for some, it’s low self-esteem; for some, it’s depression, anxiety, anger, or jealousy, and plenty more besides. These are examples of inner demons that capture the mind without our consent, against our desire, in a way that is often out of our control. We don’t get to choose our minds. Some come with demons built-in.

Demons can appear in one’s physical situation as well, as disease, as poverty, as abuse; these are outer demons. Just as we don’t choose our minds, we don’t choose our bodies or our circumstances. Of course, there is an interplay between outer and inner demons. Outer demons can spawn inner demons, as for example poverty or abuse can lead to anxiety or depression. And inner demons spread to become outer ones: addictive behaviors harm one’s health in many ways, as in the oft-cited cases of alcohol abuse and liver disease or tobacco and lung cancer. Other times, it’s not clear if the demon is outer or inner. There’s no clear dividing line between externally-caused depression and internally-caused depression, though many discuss the distinction. Some cases are both.

Many, maybe all, outer demons have outer solutions. Diseases can be cured. Poverty can be mitigated. We can lock up or rehabilitate all the abusers and criminals whose actions give rise to outer demons of their kind. These problems are hard, but we have no reason to think they’re insoluble, and we should all do what we can to solve them. We may one day end world hunger for good, and once slain, that demon will likely stay dead. Same with cancer, or any other disease you care to mention. This is the dream, to approach a human utopia where nobody goes hungry, is abused, or dies before their time. It is part of the promise of heaven of the Bible: a safe space from outer demons trying to destroy us.

But defeat all the outer demons, and the inner demons will remain. People feel anxious even when they are safe; otherwise healthy people can become depressed; high-functioning people can have low self-esteem. Send our human minds to utopia, to heaven, and we’ll bring our inner demons along with us. There’s no situation so wonderful that a depressed person can’t feel depressed.

“A man will only be happy with his joy if he wishes it, and nothing can prevent him from being miserable even in his joy!” (https://existentialcomics.com/comic/42)

An analogy: It’s as though you’re locked inside the citadel of your mind, with high walls and big steel doors, but at all hours you can hear the demon snarling and stomping around outside. When it roars, the walls shake and crumble, and it’s hard to focus on anything else. I like this analogy because it makes clear the separation. You are not the demon. You are not even the citadel. You are inside, scared of the sounds the demon is making, but more terrified of what the demon might do if it ever got inside. To open the door would be to come face to face with your worst nightmares.

Some days the demon is quiet. Those are good days.

But what can you do when you hear the roar of your inner demons?

When the demon is loud and scary, you may hide deep in the citadel, praying it doesn’t break through. You try to get back to work. By this I mean, you can deny your problem. Maybe it’s your addiction, and you tell yourself it’s not harming you; I have met people who, despite their alcoholism, were high-functioning, productive, and kind. You can pretend you’re not depressed or that your self-esteem is fine, in hopes that nobody notices. If you don’t acknowledge the demon, you think, maybe it can’t hurt you. Sometimes it works, maybe not forever, but it’s effective if you need to get something done quickly, right now. So it’s ok to hide.

Other days, you gather your armies and fire your cannons; you fight. If you have the strength and the time to do battle, this can be a more productive option; you say to yourself, “Starting now, I will conquer my demons,” and you set out to do it. For an alcoholic, this means no more drinking, and maybe a trip to AA. For someone who’s anxious or depressed, this might mean medication or therapy. In the day-to-day, when negative thoughts arise, and that inner voice is telling you that you’re not good enough and the world is against you, you don’t have to hide: you can counter it actively with positive thinking. The am good enough! The world is worth living in! You battle as best you can until the demon in your head quiets down. It takes effort, but the demon can be slain. So it’s ok to fight.

At the intersection of fighting and hiding, you can strengthen the walls of the citadel, reinforce them with new and stronger materials to keep the demons out. In this improved position, you both hide more effectively and fight with greater confidence than before. This means building a support system of family and close friends, or cultivating habits which support mental health and stability. It is very possible to live a good life through continued spurts of fighting and hiding, while strengthening the supports as you go. This is sometimes enough to keep the demons at bay.

But the problem with hiding and fighting is that inner demons, unlike outer ones, don’t disappear forever, especially if your mind came with them built-in. You hide, but they’re still out there, and when they decide to roar, they do their damage all the same. And if you slay them today, they just rise again tomorrow. After many days at war, when you run low on rations and ammunition… it can be exhausting. The demons don’t get tired, but you may.

However–and this is where, if I’m not careful, I run the risk of giving you damaging advice–there’s a third tactic. I don’t hear much about it, maybe because it’s the scariest one of all: you can let the demons in. By this I mean, let them have your mind, if only for a time. I decidedly do not mean to let them have your body: do not hurt yourself; do not lash out against the person you’re mad at; do not give in to your addiction. To do what the demon tells you to is to give up the battle entirely; do not do that! But if you’re able, you can open the gates and say, “Do your worst”, and just see how scary it really is. Close your eyes, open your mind, and notice what it tries to do to you.

To make something else very clear here, let me use an example. Recall, for a second, a time when you were extremely angry, just livid, at someone for something they did. In my experiences of the same, my mind became hot, with loosely-connected thoughts whizzing back and forth without making much sense. My mind raced:

How could she do that?? She always does that. People always treat me like this! My life is a mess. I wish I never met her. I need to get out of this town, I never want to see her again! How could she do that to me?

Me, once upon a time

What I did not do, this time or many other times in my youth, is take any of the above extravagant claims and sit with it for any meaningful duration. “She always does that.” Does she? When else has she done this? Has she also done many other nice things to compensate? Maybe I’m overreacting? This kind of self back-talk is something you can learn through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a great thing and it truly helps. CBT provides numerous cannonballs you can launch to fight back against your own raging demon, of rage or sadness or anxiety. (For more information, start here or here or, much better, speak to a therapist.)

But this is not what I mean by letting them in. Instead, I mean more like what is advocated by Sam Harris: take your feeling (in my example, anger) and really feel it. Not the thoughts rushing into your head. Not the past offences or the threatening future. Notice the feeling right in that moment. When you are angry, or sad, or jealous, what precisely do you feel?

Your heart races? Notice that. Ba-BUM. Ba-BUM. Ba-BUM.

Your face flushes? Right or left side, which one more so? Feel the warmth of the blood in your face.

You have butterflies in your stomach? Does it tickle, does it hurt? Feel every tingle fully. Feel each one as closely as possible.

You feel a craving? Do you feel it in your stomach, your lungs, or what? Are your hands trembling? Feel that stomach rumble, and notice every little quake in your extremities. Don’t think about why you feel it; just feel it.

The point is to feel whatever you feel, all the way. Not the thoughts, not your ideas of the causes; these are the angry growls of the demon. Pay attention to the actual sensations; look the demon in the eye. What is anger like? What is sadness like? If he growls, don’t respond; let it pass, and feel what you feel again.

When the citadel gate is closed, and you hear the demon snarling outside, the scariest part is not knowing what would happen if it came for you in full force. The demon wants to scare you so that you’ll do what it says. But there’s a place to stand in relation to the demon such that you can see it for what it is: a bully. The demon is not you. And the demon can’t control you.

What’s more, the demon has very little power, even given full access to the citadel. What, it made your face flush? Made your blood pump a little harder? A demon capable of no more than that is not a demon worth fearing. If you actually sit with the demon, have a staring contest with it, in my experience, it may just decide to leave. Gone, without once having to pick up a sword. Once it’s gone, you can get back to work fixing the real problems of life with a clear head.

I’ll add, again, that if you have a serious issue you may need to consult a therapist; some demons don’t scare as easily as others. But for anger, jealousy, anxiety, or simple sadness, looking the demon in the face may be enough.

Finally, I’m not saying this third tactic is always superior; I’ve previously argued that hiding is ok, and sometimes you do have to fight with every weapon available to you. But for some issues, it’s worth considering the third option: Let them in.

I’ve used this in my own life recently and met with great success. Maybe the demons eventually give up, I don’t know. But even if not, when they come back, I’m no longer scared of them. In a way, I’ve fallen back to my child-like point of view: The demons are weak, and I don’t have to fear them. Let them try; let them do their worst. The strength within me is sufficient to withstand anything they can do.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.

Psalm 23:4

Hypocrisy Arguments Cut Two Ways

I’m worried about the use of what I’ll call hypocrisy arguments, which take the following form:

  • P1) Group A says they believe/support X.
  • P2) But Group A also says they believe/support ~Y (meaning “not Y”, or “the opposite of Y”).
  • ————–(THEREFORE)———————-
  • C1) …what hypocrites Group A must be!

This sort of argument is often used by Republicans/Democrats to discredit Democrats/Republicans, or more generally against some outgroup by some favorite ingroup. Here are a few examples I’ve seen over the last few years. (I am decisively NOT saying any of these is a good argument, only that they are out there being made.)

  • Ex1) Republicans say that people who do things when they are drunk and stupid, e.g. Brett Kavanaugh, made a ‘mistake’ as a kid that shouldn’t haunt him in adulthood. But they also say that a teenage pregnancy is a ‘mistake’ that the woman should have to live with her whole life… what hypocrites!
  • Ex2) Democrats say they want to restrict access to guns, because the police will protect us and civilians can’t be trusted with firearms. But they also say that the police are untrustworthy and trigger-happy… what hypocrites!
  • Ex3) Opponents of immigration into the US complain that illegals are arriving in vast numbers, and could become the majority political or economic force in the near future. But that was what happened in the early days of the US, when Europeans (“your ancestors”) immigrated from Western Europe… what hypocrites!

One way such arguments are used is as a justification for saying that Group A doesn’t really believe/support X; they must have some ulterior motive. (“Obama just wants to take our guns!” or “Republicans just want to dominate women!”) Other times it’s just considered a sweet burn against those stupid people in Group A.

There’s a related logical fallacy, which is called the Appeal to Hypocrisy (or “Tu Quoque“, Latin for “you also”). In this form, the conclusion (C1) is replaced by

  • D1) Thus, X is false.

…which does not follow. Group A could be totally confused and hypocritical, but nonetheless have stumbled onto the correct conclusion by asserting X. Tu Quoque is important, but not what I’m worried about here; very often Group B (making the argument) doesn’t come right out and say X is false, just that we shouldn’t trust Group A because their beliefs appear inconsistent.

Instead, I’m worried that hypocrisy arguments like this are a double-edged sword, which often cut their wielder along with their target; the people making them should be aware of the equal and opposite argument against themselves. The way to see this is to notice that a new premise (P3) has to be smuggled in between (P2) and (C1), such that the full argument looks like

  • P1) Group A says they believe/support X.
  • P2) But Group A also says they believe/support ~Y.
  • P3) X and Y have relevant similarities.
  • ————–(THEREFORE)———————-
  • C1) …what hypocrites Group A must be!

If we include (P3), then concluding (C1) makes a lot more sense. If X and Y are ‘similar’, how can Group A support X and also ~Y? In an actual conversation, this could be a very useful point to make. It can be very enlightening to ask someone “How do you accept both X and ~Y? Don’t X and Y seem similar to you? Shouldn’t a rational person who accepts X also accept Y?” and then let them respond with the ways in which they see X and Y as different. But at the level of sweet burns against the outgroup, nobody gets to respond to the “question”.

As a rhetorical tactic, though, this is dangerous and can blow up in your face. The reason is that once you accept (P3), you have to be aware that the argument might be turned against you. Suppose Group A believes X and ~Y, while Group B believes the opposite: both ~X and Y. Group B makes the argument (P1)+(P2)+(P3)→(C1). But by making this argument, Group B opens up the possibility that Group A can reply with their own, equal and opposite counterargument:

  • P1b) Group B says they believe/support Y.
  • P2b) But Group B also says they believe/support ~X.
  • P3) X and Y have relevant similarities.
  • ————–(THEREFORE)———————-
  • C1b) …what hypocrites Group B must be!

Now everybody is a hypocrite! Hooray!


To be concrete, consider example (Ex2) from above:

  • A=Adam is a Democrat // B=Bryan is a Republican
    • …who believes both
  • X=[gun control is good] // ~X=[gun control is bad]
    • …and
  • ~Y=[cops are untrustworthy] // Y=[cops are trustworthy]

And so the “debate” begins:

Bryan says: Adam is such a hypocrite! He supports restriction of firearms for ordinary citizens, but he also thinks the justice system is dangerous and racially-biased. So how is an ordinary citizen supposed to defend themself against a corrupt and trigger-happy police force when they can’t have access to guns of their own? Adam must secretly just hate the Second Amendment and want to take our guns!

Adam replies: No, Bryan is the hypocrite! If he thinks the police can be trusted to uphold the law fairly and impartially, then why does he need that assault rifle? He doesn’t really think he’ll need to defend himself against the government, because he says he trusts the government; he’s just brainwashed by the NRA!

So Bryan replies: No no, Adam is a super-hypocrite! If I can’t trust the police, then how can I defend myself if I’m attacked? The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but he claims that the police aren’t good guys. So if we listen to Adam we’ll all be unsafe!

Adam chimes in: No no no, Bryan is a mega-super-hypocrite! He claims…

Bryan again: No no no no, Adam is an ultra-…

On and on and on forever. I reiterate that these are caricatures that way oversimplify the situation and I’m very much not saying any of these are good arguments (though one may sound much more plausible to you, depending on your belief about the conclusion).

The point is that these are bad arguments. Adam and Bryan have reduced a multi-dimensional problem to a single axis, on which one end says [guns good, cops bad] and the other says [guns bad, cops good]. Then each sat down at one end and accused the other person of hypocrisy for choosing the other side. But if one side is contradictory then so is the other.

(Maybe unhelpfully, a logical proof: Let GG = [guns good], ~GG = GB = [guns bad], CG = [cops good], and CB = ~CG = [cops bad]. If A’s belief that [GG, CB] is hypocritical, that means that they refuse to acknowledge that GG implies ~CB; that’s (P3) . This means that A asserts the logical contradiction [~CB, CB]. If that’s the case, then [GB, CG] = ~[GG, CB] = [~GG, ~CB] = [~GG, GG] is contradictory too. Therefore, if A is a hypocrite then B is also a hypocrite.)

(The analogue for the other examples is left as an exercise to the reader.)


So you see, hypocrisy arguments cut two ways. If your hated outgroup is asserting two things that seem contradictory, but you believe the opposite of those things, then you are being contradictory too. Of course, in the Real World things are usually more complicated than Philosophy 101-style arguments. But at least, we should be wary and at least consider the possibility that our argument can be wielded with equal power against us.

What do we conclude? It could be that we should take stock of our own hypocrisy, elucidated by the flip side of our own hypocrisy argument. Or, more commonly, maybe the argument is oversimplifying a complex situation and we need more than one degree of freedom to quantify our thoughts about it.

In any case, often the best way out is usually to reject (P3); this is exactly what most people do when someone makes the argument against them. They might say, “Sure, maybe these X and Y have surface similarities, but they are different in important ways so that the comparison you are making is not a good one.” To reject (P3) often means to acknowledge nuance, a necessary condition for figuring out what is true. But if you reject (P3) then you have to reject both hypocrisy arguments.

In (Ex2), Adam may support gun control and be also worried about police brutality, but reject (P3) because he does not think of the two as being related in the most relevant ways; he might say, sure, police brutality is a problem, but I’m more worried about mass shootings than I am about defending myself violently against the police. Or, maybe he rejects the strong form of (P1): he supports gun control of only a certain kind, which would not infringe upon a person’s basic right to self-defence. Or he rejects (P2), holding that police brutality is a serious problem that needs to be solved at a level that does not require shooting back. (And, you know, all of this in reverse for Bryan and his equal and opposite argument.)

Ideally, Adam and Bryan (and you and I) could have a conversation and figure out what each actually believes before painting the other as a stupid or misguided hypocrite. But in the meantime, be careful how you wield hypocrisy arguments against your enemies, lest you cut yourself.

New Month Resolutions #0

As I type this, today is Yom Kippur (יום כיפור), the highest holiday of the Jewish calendar. Its central theme is repentance and atonement, marking the end of the annual Days of Awe that begin ten days earlier on Rosh Hashanah (the Hebrew New Year). From Wikipedia:

According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God (bein adam leMakom) and against other human beings (bein adam lechavero). The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt (Vidui). At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.

I’m not Jewish, but I live in Israel so I can experience it as an outsider who incidentally happens to be inside. It’s pretty great.

One amazing fact about experiencing Yom Kippur here in Israel is the total commitment of the population to its observance. While it’s legal to drive, or to keep your business / restaurant open, nobody does. Basically, people walk, bike, or scoot around on the streets and highways, or have little picnics in different parts of the city. During a 2-3 hour stroll tonight, around several of the most well-traveled parts of Tel Aviv, I saw roughly 10 total cars on the road. 10! And several of these were police vehicles just checking in.

Photo taken from this site, on the corner of Allenby Street and Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, to see how it looks on a typical day; this is usually one of the busiest intersections in the city.
A photo I took at the same location tonight, during the evening of Yom Kippur, a Tuesday around 7PM. Where is everyone?

And this is Tel Aviv, one of the most secular cities in the country with a very large international population. I get it, the Orthodox Jews are in synagogue, but where is everyone else?

This should be surprising because there are strong incentives for defectors against this tradition. In the US, That One Restaurant That Stays Open On A Holiday gets loads of business, but no such restaurant seems to exist here; I couldn’t find one, anyway. That One Bar That Stays Open would get tons of interest from secular people and tourists, who might (I imagine) joke about all this old “religion” stuff being useless. But no, not here. People here are into it. Coming from the US, where I can only imagine this kind of thing happening at the scale of small towns, I’m very impressed at the near-total commitment of the whole country.

Ok, I found one convenience store open in the whole city. Need a beer before you complete your atonement?

While I’m living in Israel, I’m trying to absorb as much interesting or useful culture as I can, with the goal of self-improvement. As I said, I’m not Jewish, but some of the cultural aspects of Judaism are interesting and possibly worth incorporating in some form. Shabbat, or the Sabbath Day, is an example: it might be actually productive to take one day of the week away from work, to focus on family, or community, or tradition, or what have you. I try (though often fail) to at least stay off of social media during Shabbat.

I think of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah as sort of another chance at New Year’s Eve (on the Gregorian Calendar). You know, that time of the year when we all make promises to ourselves to be better, then follow through for a few weeks or a month before dropping back into our old ways. It makes sense to me to break up the year into more “New Year’ses”, that is, into more places to stop for a second and take stock of what might be improved in the future. The Jewish version emphasizes, rightly I think, atonement for past failures followed by a sense of rebirth and hope for the future. At bare minimum, I think, we could at least use both New Year’ses to build momentum for bettering ourselves rather than only January 1.

However, my personal take is that a month is roughly the right benchmark length of time: it’s a simple Schelling Point, and a month is both long enough to potentially enact real change and short enough to stick with it consistently without fail. Some say it’s long enough to learn a language at a beginner level (!!) or become a “fitness god” (??), but I say it’s better to start with small things and see how it goes.

I toyed with the idea of New Month Resolutions in the past, but didn’t follow through. (For this, I repent.) But this Yom Kippur, I’m starting anew: each month starting November 1, I’ll choose a Resolution to keep to each and every day, and report on the result at the end of the month. A few examples might be “Practice piano for 30 mins per day” or “Write in a gratitude journal each evening”. The basic idea is that the Resolution should be (a) big enough that it takes a focused effort to get it done (showering doesn’t count), and (b) small enough that one can expect to make real progress in 15-30 mins each day over the course of a month. If it sticks as a habit, then great; if not, no problem.

Play along from home if you want. 🙂

This first one will be practice, since I’ve missed the first 8 days of October already. I already meditate 10 minutes daily, but for my first resolution, I’ll up it to 20 minutes per day. Let’s see how it goes.

Resolution #0:

Starting October 9, until (at least) the end of the month, I will sit in meditation for at least 20 minutes each day.

Results and new Resolution will be given on or around November 1.

Feeling Like a Chinese Room

I. Sociality

I’m a person to whom social interactions have never come naturally. It was an issue from an early age, though it’s hard to say how much was the typical awkwardness of youth vs. how much of it was the atypically high levels of nerd-awkwardness, how much was due to environmental factors vs. how much was passed down from my parents, etc. But it’s been in the background of my life for as long as I can remember.

I’ve discussed with friends, and they often attribute it to my background as a homeschooled student; I never spent time in public school, building up social skills day-by-day as other kids do for 12 years of their lives. I’m skeptical in general of these one-dimensional explanations, and this one for sure fails as a full-proof causal story, e.g. because I know many homeschooled students who’ve never had any issues socially. For my part, I have a sense that I’m naturally quiet, extremely analytical, and deeply concerned about offending others by my words or actions, and some combination of these traits seems to paint a clearer picture for why my social abilities are naturally weak. Still, it’s hard to know in which direction the causal arrow points.

I could play the game of psychoanalyzing myself—don’t worry, I have—but let’s fast-forward to adulthood. When I got a job and eventually went to college, I was quickly inundated with social interactions that I did not know what to do with. I was deeply ill-equipped for the fast-paced style of conversation most people take for granted; while others seemed to flit from one topic to another, I was still collecting my thoughts on the introductory question “How’s it going?”. Everyone else seemed so natural, so quick on their feet, so effortless, and my own mind felt like a bulldozer powered by a hand-crank. I was, honestly, too slow to participate.

So I spent a long time being quiet. I watched from just outside of various social groups and observed what its members were doing and saying. Occasionally I’d think of something that seemed appropriate to add to the conversation, but when this happened my heart would start pounding and I’d chicken out of saying it more often than not. Mostly I was quiet, lurking nearby, wanting to be in the group but not quite knowing how.

It was weird.

Some people were made uncomfortable. (I can’t blame them.)

Slowly, very slowly, and largely by the grace of a few really great friends who helped me early-on, I started to build some confidence. When asked a question, I’d still often mumble or stumble (or just take an inordinate amount of time to reply), but those people were patient and got me through those transition times. And slowly, very slowly, I became part of a group. I figured out how to be a person, that is, how to interact with those around me.

Once the confidence started to take hold, I continued to improve, and these days people don’t think of me as obviously different socially. Lately, I get by pretty well in conversation, and people can’t tell the person I used to be. (I count this as one of the great achievements of my life.)

But (confession time)… Even when I’m appearing to be a calm, regular part of the group, I’m still in my head about it like crazy. Why? Well, when I am having a “normal” conversation, my replies do come faster than they used to, but only because they’re rehearsed, prepackaged; I often feel fake saying them. I learned what to say. I watched other people have these interactions, and did what they did. I wanted to belong, and I figured out how to.

So it’s fake. It’s not real. My “real” self is that socially awkward kid who was too nervous to get the words out of his mouth. Right?

II. Imposter Syndrome

It’s rampant among young scientists, at pretty alarming rates. Don’t worry, I have it too. If you’re not aware (lucky you!): Imposter Syndrome (IS) is the phenomenon that many people are worried that they haven’t really earned what they have; that they somehow gamed the system; that they’re sneaking by, fooling the rest of the group, whereas everyone around them is competent and professional and knows what they’re doing.

I have often wondered whether IS correlates with success; I can tell various plausible stories where it might. I can’t seem to find good sources on this, but several sites claim that the prevalence of IS is as high as 70%, suggesting that correlating things with IS is not that useful because almost everyone has it.

Randall Monroe (of XKCD fame) says that, when speaking with non-native English speakers in English, a good rule of thumb is to assume that they only understand about half of what they seem to. It’s not that they’re not less intelligent, of course; it’s just really hard to converse in non-native tongues. Given that science is nobody’s native language, I wonder if most scientists I talk to on a daily basis are really only comprehending about half of what I’m saying. My inner experience backs this up: when I’m the listener, I’ll often make a mental note of what I don’t understand, but much more rarely ask a question.

One picture of IS is that it may be related to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias of low ability but high confidence, or high ability and low confidence. It is often summarized thus:

(Related: SMBC’s Mount Stupid.)

This is a qualitative curve summarizing a lot of research, but the point is that (a) the peak in confidence is at low ability, and (b) depending on where you are on the curve, more experience may not increase your confidence, at least at first. To be clear: the fully-rational Confidence vs Experience curve would be (as a first approximation) linear with positive slope:

(black line / text mine)

Or, you know, maybe it should asymptote to 100% confidence as Experience→∞… but it’s very much not either of those things. It’s a perverse fact about the human mind, and about our perceived relationships to the people around us: we’re not necessarily good judges of our own competence.

So what can we do about it?

Well, as good Bayesians, we are supposed to go one MetaLevelUp, and ask the generalized question: Suppose I met someone whose accomplishments matched my own; what probability should I assign to the idea that they are just faking, that they are an imposter, and that I should be skeptical of their true ability? This is license to write down all of your accomplishments, weigh them against whatever else you might have done, and come up with a good Outside View position on your objective standing. If you decide that you are, in fact, deserving of your position in life, then you tell your brain: “Hey brain, please listen to this carefully-reasoned argument.”

And, at least in my experience, the brain replies: “Screw you, I don’t need your fancy probabilities; you obviously don’t belong here, you imposter.” (I don’t know, maybe your brain listens to you better than mine does to me.)

There’s another strategy. In a TED Talk about body language, Amy Cuddy tells a beautiful story that really resonated with me. (Highly recommend watching it and then coming back; it starts around 15:30.) In short: She was suffering from a very bad case of IS, and was ready to drop out of graduate school, until her advisor gave her some advice.

You’re staying, and here’s what you’re gonna do: You’re gonna fake it. You’re gonna do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You’re just going to do it, and do it, and do it, even if you’re terrified, and paralyzed, and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it! I have become this.”

(Disclaimer: The talk is ostensibly about Power Posing, an idea that is controversial (e.g. pro, con) and whose supposed benefits seem to be hard to replicate in the lab. I have no horse in that particular race; Cuddy’s story is wonderful nonetheless.)

Cuddy’s advice is to Fake It ‘Til You Become It. If you don’t feel like you belong, just keep doing what people who belong do, and do it with as much confidence as you can muster, even if it’s fake confidence. Pretend that you live on the black curve in the above figure, even if you really live on the perverse (but natural) red one. Pretend to belong, and maybe you will actually feel that way someday.

But it’s still fake. Maybe faking it is enough to get me through my day-to-day, but isn’t this just leaning in on the whole “imposter” thing, acknowledging that I do not, in fact, belong, which is why I have to pretend? My “real” self is the unconfident imposter who is worried everyone else will find out how little he knows. Right?

III. The Chinese Room

John Searle is a philosopher who wrote extensively about consciousness and theory of mind. One of his most famous thought experiments is known as the Chinese Room. Briefly:

Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.

He wrote this, by all accounts, as a counterargument against certain forms of Artificial Intelligence. Searle writes, later on:

I demonstrated years ago with the so-called Chinese Room Argument that the implementation of the computer program is not by itself sufficient for consciousness or intentionality (Searle 1980). Computation is defined purely formally or syntactically, whereas minds have actual mental or semantic contents, and we cannot get from syntactical to the semantic just by having the syntactical operations and nothing else.

A computer that is so advanced that it can pass the Turing Test (roughly speaking, one that can fool a human into thinking it’s human) is considered by many to be truly intelligent (or at least, intelligent for all intents and purposes). But Searle says no, the computer is like the man in the Chinese Room; it receives symbols from the outside and produces the right symbols in reply, but it doesn’t “really” understand what it’s doing. The English speaker in the Room doesn’t know Chinese, and the computer doesn’t understand math / language / whatever. Both are merely translating syntactically without any deeper mental comprehension.

I love the Chinese Room Argument, in part because it’s a thought experiment that keeps on getting more complex the more you dig into it. Ok, let’s say you’re on the computer’s side and want to bite the bullet: the Chinese Room “understands” Chinese. Then where is the understanding? The man, alone, doesn’t understand; he needs his reference manuals. The book, alone, doesn’t understand; it only contains the Chinese characters, without any reference to the external world. So does the system Book+Man understand? Can it have a collective brain? If so, what else can have a collective brain? Do cities “think”? You expand out and out until you start to sound crazy.

Or let’s say you’re “anti-AI”, and prefer to conclude that no, a computer is just a Chinese Room that interprets syntax but can’t understand semantics. Then… what is the human brain? I live in a brain, and I for sure don’t grok what Searle means when he says that “minds have actual mental or semantic contents”, at least not when presented as opposed to what a computer does. What is my brain doing that cannot, even in principle, be simulated in a computer? Maybe my brain also doesn’t understand Chinese? (Ok it doesn’t, but what about an actual Chinese speaker?) You focus further inward and inward until you start to doubt your own conscious experience.

So, like everything else, it’s complicated and all of your simple answers are wrong. My gut feeling is that collections of things can have knowledge, so I tend to bite the bullet and say that Man+Room knows Chinese even though Man and Room separately do not, though I admit this isn’t fully satisfactory.

But there’s another reason why I love the Chinese Room: I think I am one.

I feel like a Chinese Room in social situations. I was determined to learn, by hook or by crook, how to be a Good Social Person. I now know what to say, how to act, in many situations, but it’s only because I use the manual that was given to me in my observations of other people. To be clear, I’m not lying; I’m pretty serious about being as honest as possible. But the difference is how I present myself publicly, my general attitudes or the kinds of questions I’ve learned to ask, which might be thought of as fake. A part of me feels still like I’m blindly translating symbols and the people around me somehow can’t tell.

I feel like a Chinese Room in my job. I’ve learned how to fake it when I don’t feel competent, but only because I’ve learned what confident people around me do and emulated them. I don’t genuinely feel confident, at least not all the time; I’m faking it to get by, in hopes that I’ll someday become more confident for real.

Your personal struggles may be totally different, but I hope the theme is broadly relatable. You can observe the natural state of your mind, your default state, and it does not necessarily align with your moral views and your personal life goals. And it is possible to act against the former in favor of the latter. If you feel that way then maybe you, too, are locked in a Chinese Room.

IV. What is my Genuine Self?

I’ve been making it sound very negative, but in all honesty, I’m increasingly optimistic about the whole thing. Let me try to give a more positive framing to the Chinese Room that is my life.

The personal struggles I shared above, namely my own lack of sociality and the presence of a strong IS, are the default states of my mind, and ones that I don’t like very much. Because I didn’t get to choose my brain, these default states are my birthright only in the same way that Indiana happened to be where I grew up; I didn’t get to choose either in childhood, but I don’t have to keep either in adulthood. So after careful examination, I decided to change, and doing so requires that I force myself to act differently than I feel (at least, that’s the causal story I tell myself). This makes me feel like a Chinese Room, a fake input-output system that does the “right thing” without a deep recognition of why they’re “right”.

All this is connected to a question I’ve always been puzzled by: What does it mean to “be yourself”? If it means to always act out your inner feelings (that is, succumb to your default state), then in many instances I for sure don’t want to “be myself”. I want to be better than myself. I didn’t get to choose myself in youth, and I have no reason to think that this default state is optimized for the kind of life I want to live.

Importantly, the English-speaking man in the Chinese Room can’t get anything done unless he accepts his predicament for what it is. He can go ahead and be his “genuine self” all he wants, speaking English to everybody around, but nobody will understand him and he’ll be unable to accomplish his goals. Only if he allows himself to use his reference manuals can he converse, trade with others, and optimize his life, essentially by convincing others that he is what he is not. He didn’t choose to be born in Searle’s thought experiment. Maybe he’s really doing his best.

From inside my own Chinese Room, I often wonder if I’m being true to myself in the way that everybody tells me that I’m supposed to. I keep speaking Chinese to people, without knowing Chinese! But from the outside, to view myself as the entire Chinese Room (the man, the books, the walls) is really just to acknowledge that I’m imperfect, and have flaws that I am working on. It means that I feel fake sometimes, in those moments when I have to act against my default mental machinery, but it’s for the greater good. These days, I think more and more that this is ok.

Maybe someday I’ll leave the Chinese Room with a real understanding of “Chinese”, which is to say, I won’t have to force myself to act against my default state because my default state will have changed. Maybe it really is possible to fake it ’til you become it. But if I get to the end of my life and it never happened, I’ll be glad to have faked it so well that nobody knew. In the meantime, I’m getting stuff done.


Me too, John. Me too.

You Don’t Have to Be Original

Quite literally the reason I didn’t start a blog sooner was that I wasn’t sure what I had to say was Totally Original. How can I be sure I haven’t missed someone else’s relevant work? What good would it be if I wrote something that’s been written before?

If you find yourself in a similar situation, hesitating to embark on some creative endeavor, here are some considerations that helped me decide to go for it anyway. I’ll focus on the particular case of non-fiction writing, but a lot of this could apply to various other creative pursuits.

I. A Story from My Field

Very often, among the most stressful aspects of writing a scientific paper is figuring out citations, i.e. acknowledging who did what when in a related field before we did our work. We do our very best to search and find as many relevant papers as possible; we learn a lot this way, and besides, being unaware of many seminal papers in the field probably suggests you’re not very knowledgeable about the topic. Still, mistakes happen. It’s a difficult task to get right, because in addition to the papers you know there are always many that you weren’t aware of, and their relevance might be hidden away in Section VI of a 50 page paper that you only skimmed.

If you are the person that has been inadvertently omitted from the reference list of a paper, there’s a solution: in my field, our papers get “preprinted” for free online (before going to a journal), which makes it possible for you to send a (friendly) message to the authors and point out your work. If relevant, it can be added in a later version of the manuscript. We sometimes make jokes about such “cite me” emails, but seriously, they are really an efficient aspect of the system; it works by putting some of the effort of checking citations in the hands of those who benefit from being cited.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, as hard as an author may try, they can never be 100% sure they’ve read every relevant paper. So sometimes, the “cite me” email looks like this:

Your work is very interesting. Allow me to point out my own relevant works [1-6] in which I [did everything you are trying to do years ago].

That is, the author finds out that the Novel Groundbreaking Research they’re writing about… has already been done. Someone else did it first. Their work is Not Original.

Is their work now useless? Should they throw it in the garbage? Far from it! Why? Well, in this specific context, it’s important that a cornerstone of science is replicability; it is useful to confirm the “old” result by another method. Besides that, it can also be useful for pedagogical purposes, for clarity of presentation or for updating old terminology or methodology.

Full disclosure: these two things are usually not sufficient to convince a journal to publish the work–there’s an actual rule that something has to be Original–but science is a particularly rigid example. When you write a blog, or give an argument in conversation, or make a piece of art, there are many more reasons to do things even if they are totally 100% Not Original, which I want to talk about below.

II. Is it Worth it to Even Try?

Before giving general arguments for Unoriginality, I wanted to talk about a few specific objections that might suggest that the whole creative thing is a fool’s errand.

“Everything has already been done”

There are (currently) 7.7 billion people on Earth. As the population rises, greater numbers of people participate in the modern economy (of money and ideas both), and this implies an increased likelihood that someone else has already done what you want to do. Do you really think you are the first of billions to have your great idea?

The full force of the argument, as stated, proves too much. If everything is already done, and if we should always avoid doing things that are already done, then the only conclusion is that nobody should do anything. But I think both premises are incorrect.

The first premise is essentially the joke about the economist and the $20 bill recast in a different form. We know that truly novel, innovative creations appear all the time! The first Harry Potter book was written in 1997; Facebook launched in 2003; the iPhone was invented in 2007; Beyoncé put out one of the best music videos of all time in 2008; etc. etc. etc. These are recent! A lot of music / fiction / technology is derivative of previous work, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that none of it is new at all. Truly, the iPhone changed the world.

(The second premise is the focus of a later section, the positive arguments for doing Unoriginal Work.)

This may seem like a straw-man (and it kind of is), but people actually do make this objection so I thought it was worth discussing (so did many other people). I also really just wanted the opportunity to state this explicitly: the market for ideas is definitely not efficient. People are still doing New and Original things. You can find $20 bills on the ground sometimes. Even if there’s no more low-hanging fruit, there’s fruit; you just may have to climb for it.

“You can’t know if your work is original”

So let’s ease back on the original, overly strong objection. More defensible is the claim that you can’t know whether your work is original, and you shouldn’t take the chance. Maybe it’s just really rare to find an original idea, like the improved joke about the $20 bill. (To stretch the bad metaphor: there’s fruit in the tree, but most of it is rotten, and it’s hard to tell which is which.) In college they taught me that plagiarism, however unintentional, is a crime punishable by death or F (your choice). Is it worth the risk?

Yes, I think so. I’ll admit, I’m agnostic about whether the official college rule they taught me is efficient in that context. But in the Real World, you have to make tradeoffs between uncertainty and impact; maybe you can be 90% sure your work is original after a month of research, but to get to 95% would take 6 months (numbers totally made up). It’s not clear where the line is, where it’s worth it, but it’s likely not at 100%. The only reasonable rule is to Do Your Best, and if after careful search you think you still have something original to say, then say it. (You might be wrong, but more on that later.)

“Someone else can do it better”

Maybe there’s a worse problem. Given any pursuit you wish to excel in, it is highly probable that you are near the middle of the distribution of skill and someone else will be able to do it better. (The fruit in your tree is not as ripe as the fruit in your neighbor’s tree. Ok ok, I’m done with the metaphor…) Should you do it anyway?

Probably. Even if someone else can do it better, they may not; given finite time, the most highly-skilled people won’t get to do everything they are highly skilled in. It’s comparative advantage in action. If LeBron James was the world’s best chef, he would likely still spend all his time playing basketball and not running a restaurant; if he split his time between the two, he couldn’t be as excellent at either. That means even if you’re not as good a chef as LeBron, you can make the soufflés while he does slam dunks, and you’ll both be better off.

III. Reasons it’s OK to be Unoriginal

Now I want to go over a few positive reasons to do Unoriginal Work. We’ve covered some of it already in response to the objections above.

0) It can be just for you

This is the zeroth point because it should be totally clear. Writing is clarifying; in the process you work through the ideas and realize where the gaps in your understanding are. It’s part of why I’m here. This is why journaling (essentially a blog with an audience of one) is so widely done; it’s useful even when nobody ever sees it.

Fine art has an analogous zeroth point: the act of making something artistic (or artisanal) can open one’s mind, break down barriers to creativity, or just be soothing or therapeutic. Those are real benefits even if only the author / creator experiences the work. It’s why an amateur craftsman spends his nights in the woodshop in his garage, making a table he doesn’t need. “Do we really need another table, Paul?” “No, but I didn’t do it for you; I did it for me.”

1) You can solve the citation problem

The example that I began with highlights a big reason why unoriginality can be fine. I covered it already above: do your best to find relevant sources, but don’t wait to be 100% sure, or else you’ll never do what you set out to do. Instead, give your best effort and then finish what you’re doing with the expectation that it is original.

You might still be wrong about that! “Acting as though” your work is new doesn’t mean you’re sure it is. Be open to suggestion from others. Modify your attitudes as new information comes in. As in the example above, others may bring other relevant sources to your attention after the fact, and that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t threaten your confidence in the relevance of what you’re doing, though it may shift your focus. Modify, adjust. That’s what life is like.

The fact that others may open your eyes to sources you’ve missed is a corollary argument in favor of putting your work out there sooner; others can’t point out relevant sources if they don’t know what you’re working on. It may have taken you an additional year to discover that source on your own, so delaying your work only sets you back, with no compensating benefit.

2) An example in the hand is worth two in a textbook

Clarity of presentation is another good reason to write things that are unoriginal. When I read a scientific paper, seeing the same result derived in a different way can truly be the difference between obscurity and clarity. More generally, there’s little reason to think that the first to figure something out will necessarily be the best at expressing it. Like a Bob Dylan song, the creator is not always the best performer (sorry, I prefer the covers).

The stereotypical textbook is dry, unexciting, and uninspired. Maybe in terms of conveyance of raw information, terse explanations are denser and go farther. And maybe there is so much more science to teach, as progress is made over centuries of research, that books have to condense an ever larger amount of information into a finite book size. I’m not sure, but I can tell you that in my personal experience, those kinds of books make good references but terrible teachers. Instead, some of my favorite papers, those most useful which I keep going back to, are not Original Works but rather reviews or lecture notes that summarize things in clearer ways.

The same is true about making something memorable. Even if a topic is very well understood in principle, expressing it in a simplified way can make it more likely to be remembered, and thus more useful in practice. One enlightening example can make a concept salient in a way that an entire chapter of dry explication cannot.

I read this week from Scott Alexander how his knowledge of history was greatly improved by seeing the simple “secular cycle” pattern advocated in the book of the same name; this is a real benefit, even if the cycle isn’t real. If tomorrow we all decide the secular cycle was a myth, Scott gets to go on with a better knowledge of history anyway. This is one reason why wrong models are good, and gives us motivation to look for new examples of old concepts.

3) Your personal bag of tricks

Most of what you can say won’t apply to everyone, but only to a small subset. But that highly localized knowledge could be extremely valuable to someone in a position similar to yours. In this case, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a large audience; this might be a feature (rather than a bug), in the sense that your message can be more focused on the sorts of people you have around you.

It’s the difference between a large lecture class and a small group discussion; the former is “one size fits all” where the latter can be more tailored. Now, unlike these examples, the author of a blog does not get to choose their audience; it’s the other way around. But still, the specific thing you have to say and the way you have to say it might be just what your small audience needs to hear. Maybe that’s what keeps them reading. Your audience is self-sorting in a way that the people who benefit from what you write are the ones that stay.

It’s yet another tradeoff (as everything is): you want many people to read what you write; but what you write may be most beneficial only to a select few, and maybe better to tailor specifically to them. Should you sacrifice the many small benefits in favor of the small number of large ones? Suffice it to say, it’s at least more complicated than “just reach as many people as possible”. My personal opinion is that, on the margin, most people would do well to focus more on their small group rather than growing the audience.

(I have some more fleshed-out answers that I’m thinking about, but since my audience is very small (hi mom!) I haven’t had to grapple with this fully yet. More in a future post, I think.)

So from Point 2 I would conclude that not all lectures are created equal; but now I go one step further, to say that actually a more personalized expression might be beneficial. An argument tailored to your small group of followers may go farther than one intended for a huge audience.

4) You reach people that others can’t

Case in point: you are reading this blog. (Thanks!!) Some of “my ideas” are likely written down somewhere else, by someone else, and so I add citations when I can to things that I know changed my own thinking on the topic. If you know of such sources, please please PLEASE tell me (see Point 1); but if you don’t, that makes this your first exposure to them. If I hadn’t written this Unoriginal post, you wouldn’t know about the ideas.

This is one of the points that tipped the scales in favor of me starting this blog. My audience, however small, might not be exposed to these ideas if I didn’t write them down. So here I am.

IV. Still, Don’t Plagiarize!

In summary, there are many good reasons to do creative work even if it is not original: Because…

  1. You can’t be aware of all previous work, and being open about what you’re working on allows others to help resolve that;
  2. The person who develops an idea first may not be the best at expressing it;
  3. When your audience is small, you can personalize your message to the particular needs of that group; and
  4. The people you can reach may not hear the message any other way.

All of this constitutes an argument for being a bit more lax about worrying that your work is totally New and Original.

But this does not mean you should slack on your due diligence! Cite anything relevant; give credit where credit is due, always. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially when it’s sent to you in response to what you put out into the world. Your writing / art / creation is an entity connected to you in such a way that the two of you can grow together. Don’t forget that your creation is not set in stone, and neither are you.

…unless it’s literally a sculpture, in which case I can’t help you.

Do Your Best

Always do your best.

It’s the best advice I have to give, for myself or for anyone else.

It’s basic: the rule applies to any situation.

It’s straightforward: you do know when you are or are not doing your best, moment by moment.

It’s nonjudgmental: only you can know if you’re doing your best. You can encourage others to try harder, but it would be silly to think you know what “their best” looks like better than they do.

If you believe “best” to be some Absolute Moral Law, then do your best to follow it.

If you believe “best” to be some Utilitarian Outcome, then do your best to make that happen.

Either way, you’ll fall short sometimes. That’s ok. Notice where you failed and keep doing your best.

Your best today may not be the same as your best tomorrow; some days, you can’t do all the good you’d like. That’s ok too. If your best today is really only to get out of bed or clean your room, then that’s all you need to do. Tomorrow maybe you’ll be ready to tackle that big problem. Do the best you can in the meantime.

And once you accept that “best” includes figuring out what is “best”, then you’re on your way to Meta Level morality too. Part of doing your best is figuring out the best “best” to do. Learn. Watch others doing their best and think about whether you can do better by their example.

Doing your best doesn’t mean doing each thing perfectly. You might naively start out with the heuristic “try really hard at everything I do.” This works okay for a minute, but I think you find out pretty quickly that you’re tired, and that you waste energy on trivialities that you should save for important things. Since you’re trying your best, you decide to modify your simple heuristic and allocate your effort more wisely. It’s ok to half-ass it with everything you’ve got. Doing your best implies that you are paying attention to what works and what doesn’t.

This is the closest thing I know of to a completely general moral rule. And as such, it is sufficiently vague that you could use it to justify anything if you didn’t know better.

But you do know better. You know when you’re not doing your best. Pay attention to that feeling, and do better next time. Keep doing better until you are doing your best, then work to make tomorrow’s best better than yesterday’s.

Or, in the words of Plato:

And what is good, Phaedrus? And what is not good? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Sorry if this post seems like I’m overexplaining a simple concept. I’m just doing my best.

I Did It For Me

I’m sorry to state an uncomfortable fact:
When you saw good in me, it was only an act.
You thought I was selfless; that’s just what I’ve lacked.
I wanted the benefits only, you see.
I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me.

When I give my money and time for the poor,
My charity’s seen with respect and allure.
I’m just grabbing points, to increase my social score.
I did it to curry some favor from thee.
I didn’t do it for them. I did it for me.

I sought good ideas and fought bad ones to death,
I tried to speak only the Truth with each breath,
Promoted real dialogue as a new shibboleth.
Why? I think I’m smart; wanted you to agree.
I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me.

When you needed my help, and it was hard to ask,
I stepped right up to assist in your task.
But I’m telling you now what is behind my mask.
Someday I might need your reciprocity.
I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me.

When tragedy struck, and a part of you died,
I held your hand, and together, we cried.
You needed a friend, but I’m sorry: I lied.
That friendship lights darkness, I wanted to believe.
I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me.

And even now, as I confess to my sin,
I just feign humility to cover my skin.
This whole thing’s a ruse; the veneer wears so thin.
If I confess, then I’ll get off scot-free.
I don’t do it for you. I do it for me.

If I accidentally became a good friend;
If I gave what you needed, and with joy did I lend;
If I did some right deeds; if some hearts I did mend;
If I learned moral teachings, and helped them to trend;
If the world was advanced toward a Kingdom of Ends;
You should know that it was only pretend.

Right actions, but all performed selfishly.
I picked the Good lock, since I don’t have the key.
A better world; a failure of morality.
I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me.

The Real World and the Meta Level

The old cliché:

Small minds discuss people;

Average minds discuss events;

Great minds discuss about ideas.


The Real World begins as the space of people. People have certain characteristics: Bob is at work; Tina is tall; Margaret is old; Lance is handsome. But people alone are boring, locked in a timeless existence where they have properties but nothing happens to them.

So the Real World is also the space of events: what people do and what happens to those people. Bob’s birthday is next week; Margaret got a new job. The fact that Bob goes to work may be true, but it’s a fact in a vacuum, unrelated to anything else. Useless. If you want to know about people then it’s actually much more enlightening to discuss the events surrounding them. It’s his birthday next week, so maybe he won’t go to work that day; now you have some predictive power!

Events include relationships between people: Tina and Lance are dating; Margaret and Bob are coworkers. Now the facts can be put into context. Since Bob and Margaret work at the same place, do they do similar jobs? How do their skills differ? I wonder if Margaret has more experience than Bob does. Their characteristics matter now because the questions have purpose.

When you advance to the event level, by observing relationships between people you can start to see similarities and generalizations that were not clear at the people level. Tina is tall, but is she taller than Lance? Stand them next to each other and let’s find out. Now who is faster? Let them have a footrace. Who is more sociable, who is more alert, who drinks more coffee? Let’s find out.

But events can also be boring. Why should I care about Bob and Margaret, or Tina and Lance? Is there something about them that is special or important? What if I never see Tina again? If I learn that Tina is taller than Lance, then even if true it is highly localized knowledge, unlikely to apply to anything else. More useful might be to find some true thing that doesn’t depend on Tina specifically; if I trade her for someone else, in my mental model, I don’t want to have to start from scratch.

If you like math analogies (you are here, so…), it’s sort of like this: if people and events are like numbers, then we want to learn to do algebra. Let p be a person, and let’s write a true equation which applies to p. Later on, we can evaluate p=”Margaret” or p=”Bob” and, if we’ve done our job correctly, it will work equally well for both.

Which is why we go one level further up, to what might be called ideas. Though, I prefer the terminology of principles, or to call this the Meta Level. These names are all appropriate. This is the realm of ideas / principles in the sense that there aren’t any specific people (or events) there; there are only generalized people-shaped slots (“p”) where an individual can be placed once the principle is prepared. It’s a Meta Level because the principles are abstracted from the people and event levels; it’s sort of one floor higher in the building but built on top of (and supported by) the lower floors.

The sort of question you might ask here is not “How are Bob and Margaret’s job qualifications similar?” but rather “What are the sort of job qualifications that are required for this job?” or even “What qualifications are valuable across different jobs?” You might ask about conscientiousness, or IQ, or previous experience, or whatever else. But once the qualifications are properly understood, you can drop any individual in the person-shaped slot and say how qualified they are.

This can seem very non-human, demoralizing in a way, because the principles all seem very far away from the people. The Meta Level is far and inhuman, in a sense: the principle doesn’t care (or even know) about Bob in particular. If Bob never existed, the principle would go on in exactly the same way. By contrast, the Real World (the level of people and events) is near. If your goal is to learn about, or even help, Bob, then why spend time on the Meta Level so far from him?

The reason is that, just as the event level teaches you about the people level, the Meta Level teaches you about the Real World. Events include relationships between people, and similarly principles include relationships between events. When we learn the relationship between events, we further elucidate the relationships between people, and then the people themselves; we climb down and down the ladder until we get back to Bob with a fuller understanding of what we’re up against.

A specific example: World War I and World War II were very different events involving very different people. In what ways were these events similar? What can I learn from them by abstracting away the particular individuals and events involved? Thinking in this way, I might discover some general principles which apply to war, or global politics, or authoritarianism, etc. Maybe this even helps prevent us from completing a trilogy down the road.

This is what is often missed in liberal arts courses, to take a second example. In great literature, the Real World-like events of the story are of little consequence. (Hamlet didn’t even exist; why do I need to remember his mother’s name??) But a great story can reveal something on the Meta Level that is invisible at the lower level of Bob, Tina, and Hamlet; a truth that applies to all three and to everyone else besides. That’s the real promise of the Meta Level.

How to Leave the Real World

Moses left the Real World when he climbed Mount Sinai; he went to the top of the mountain with thoughts about people and events, but he came down with ideas. He came down with principles. He reached up to the Meta Level and found a more general truth governing what people were acting out in the Real World.

I like the mountain-climbing analogy; Pirsig uses it too, and refers to this Meta Level as the High Country of the Mind:

If all of human knowledge, everything that’s known, is believed to be an enormous hierarchic structure, then the high country of the mind is found at the uppermost reaches of this structure in the most general, the most abstract considerations of all.

There are actually many Meta Levels. Once can climb up and up and up almost without limit, until the Real World is far from view, as anyone who has read any abstract philosophy can easily attest.

But Pirsig (like Moses) recognized the importance of carrying that abstraction back down to the Real World:

What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them.

At the end of the day, for better or worse, we live in the Real World; we are only visitors on the Meta Level. But a lot can be learned during these visits, and if we’re careful not to break the stone tablets on the way, we may eventually understand the Real World more clearly as a result of our travels.

Some people leave the Real World by pursuing art, which is well known for abstraction, creativity, and complex connections between seemingly disparate ideas. When described in this way, science is pretty similar: both consist in setting up camp in this High Country and expecting extended stays. I’m happy to throw in with the group of people suggesting that art and science are not so different.

I’ll close with the words of Einstein on this topic:

[O]ne of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

For many, the Real World is painfully dreary, hopelessly chaotic, and endlessly disappointing. Maybe, through art or science or another form of abstraction, the Meta Level is not only where we find clarity, but also where we find peace.