Growing up Jewish, I thought that the traditional rules around the Sabbath were silly. Then I forgot to bring a spare battery on a camping trip. Now I think that something like the traditional Jewish Sabbath is an important cultural adaptation to preserve leisure, that would otherwise be destroyed in an urbanized, technological civilization. Continue reading
Tag Archives: liberal
Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be)
In the past year, I have noticed that the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) has come to the right answer long before I or most people did, on a surprising number of things, in a surprising range of domains. And yet, I do not feel inclined to become one of them. Giving credit where credit is due is a basic part of good discourse, so I feel that I owe an explanation.
The virtues of the Society of Friends are the virtues of liberalism: they cultivate honest discourse and right action, by taking care not to engage in practices that destroy individual discernment. The failings of the Society of Friends are the failings of liberalism: they do not seem to have the organizational capacity to recognize predatory systems and construct alternatives.
Fundamentally, Quaker protocols seem like a good start, but more articulated structures are necessary, especially more closed systems of production. Continue reading
Lego my Ego
"if our brains get too smart they will become self aware and take over our bodys"
At a party, some friends and I played games around modeling other people. One game we played was ranking superego, ego, and id, in order of most to least prominent, for each person present. This schema is interesting in games because because it’s not a perfectly obvious classification, so it requires original seeing to do anything with.
I’d self-labeled as ego > superego > id, but I was persuaded that I’m likely superego > ego > id. I had thought my ego was the strongest of the three because my self-regulation is fairly flexible and I don’t feel compelled by external rules, but it this is likely attributable to the fact that my superego has achieved self-awareness and taken over my brain. Or more precisely, that my superego is well developed in the sense of having expelled or disendorsed my dissonant, unhelpful, and untrue beliefs and inhibitions, and believes in behaving like an ego. And my ego, in turn, decided to identify with my superego.
I was sleepy 15 minutes ago and successfully managed to get ready for bed, when I was tempted to lie on the couch and “read” or “nap” to "gather my strength” because getting ready for bed seemed like too much work. I climbed out of this hole by asking myself whether the best action would be to go upstairs and get ready for bed. Once I acknowledged that it was the best action, it was easy to muster the willpower.Now I’m in my room, with the LEDs set to red, editing this post as one last task before going to sleep. In hindsight it’s ridiculously obvious that my superego is exceptionally strong.
I have a few friends who I’d describe as having a superego > id > ego arrangement. That’s an unstable relationship where superego and id fight each other directly for control. Superego is usually in charge, but id can seize control for a moment when it’s especially strong. Ego-on-the-bottom is volatile because ego’s special power is mediating among parts, constructing stable narratives that justify and encode trades and compromises between the other parts. If the narrative-spinning ego is weak, id and superego mostly just know how to fight - or, really, how to try to grab control directly. So you see superego, with the occasional flash of id, but no coherent narrative to hold things in place.
What drives the superego > id > ego arrangement? In the case of one of my friends, it looks like what happened was that their id and superego both separately have reasons to distrust their ego. Their superego distrusts the ego for epistemic reasons; the ego is all about spinning a plausible narrative, and that feels like believing things because they’re convenient rather than because they’re true. Their id, on the other hand, distrusts the ego because it believes that it’s dangerous to be seen, that the world is malevolent, that it’s important to hide, that if one can just not exist, one can’t be hurt by anything - and presenting a self, having a strong ego, feels like very noticeably existing. Since neither id nor superego is willing to invest any trust in the ego, this makes it difficult for the ego to smooth out conflicts. It doesn’t have credibility. Continue reading
What Nietzsche Said to Me
Nietzsche famously wrote that he was writing to be understood only by his friends, which raises the obvious question of why so many people who don't like what they think he says claim to understand him. This weekend I listened to a few conversations that seemed to get him totally wrong. I resisted the urge to correct them at the time since it wasn't completely material to the conversation, so I'm dominating that urge into a blog post to get writing practice.
Note that Nietzsche didn't write this way, presumably for a good reason. You may superficially understand what I'm saying but fail to internalize it, unless you follow up by reading the original until you understand how this is the same thing as that.
According to Nietzsche, in the beginning, there were people and power relations.
Words are Powerful
Words are one of the main ways people interpret, keep track of, and interact with their world. Words like "one" and "two" and "tree" and "sheep are important tools of agriculture, trade, etc. But words like "good," "wicked," "proud," "sinful," "man," "woman," "justice," and "sexism" also affect people's behavior in profound ways. One simple example of this is that in standard English the default pronoun for one person it's always either male or female. This makes it much more natural to make statements about men or women rather than humans, and it cuts against the grain to make sex-neutral statements. For another consider the Christian sin - but Aristotelian virtue - of pride. For more on this, read 1984 by George Orwell.
But they're Made Up
The framework of ideas we use to understand our world is not an attribute of the things themselves. It is a behavior of our minds. It's made up! And someone made it up. Whoever made up the thoughts you use determined not which propositions you affirm or deny, but which ones are thinkable in the first place.
The ancients seem alien and incomprehensible because their basic ideas are so different from ours that only a truly deep thinker can understand them. The Greek "soul" is not necessarily separable from the body, or entirely rational in nature - Aristotle thought a soul was something a body did, even an animal's or plant's body - but the moderns think either that there are no souls ("Huh? Do the bodies just lie there motionless our something?" - Aristotle) or that only humans have them and they go to heaven or hell after we die.
Now Everyone is a Wizard
Modernity (the legacy of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke, Descartes, Hume, etc.) is not that it's the first time anyone said that the people should rule. That's old. These are the features of modern ideas:
Baconian science means that you can add to our stock of true attributes we know about nature without understanding your tools.
Algebra means you can perform lots of calculations without understanding math.
Liberalism means that lots of people are allowed to talk about different "moralities" and choose a god, ethos, and role in society as one might choose a shirt. We don't have a unified cultural elite controlling how we're allowed to talk about things. Instead, our elite believe in and endorse total freedom of speech. Which means that anyone can playing around with the lens through which humans are able to think about their world and decide right from wrong.
You can't get arrested for killing the gods, because after all, it's only words. Not that it makes the gods any less dead.
With no unified control over language, controversy over what to call things is a power struggle more akin to war than to politics, because the goal is not to enact a set of preferred practical policies, but to permanently destroy the enemy's ability to fight, by ripping out their tongues. At the same time, seeing that all values are questionable, people lose faith in words about rightness and wrongness, the just and the true and the good, so nothing holds them back from this return to the war of all against all.
The Nietzschean Hero
You can't fix this with arguments about what the good should be. Arguments are just another piece in the Game of Words. Which set of ideas you use determines which combinations of words you evaluate as true propositions. Aristotle is correct when he says that animals have souls, but Descartes is correct when he says they don't.
Is there a way out? Not an easy our a likely one. We're probably doomed to this forever. But if someone were to make up - and popularize, at least among the elite - a new set ideas, one with a new set of values appropriate for out times and circumstances, who would that person have to be?
They would need a sufficiently deep understanding to know that the words they have received are not the only words that can be, that to make a new thing you have to destroy, distort, or forget the post.
And they would have to be profoundly creative. Creative enough to be able to come up with a totally new set of ideas adequate to give modern people the power they need, while taking away the curse of infinitely malleable values.
That is the Nietzschean superman.