Tragedy of the free time commons

Procrastination often seems a bit like an internal tragedy of the commons.

In a tragedy of the commons, a group of people share something nice, like a shared pasture on which to raise their cows. If they together refrained from overusing it they would all benefit (e.g. because it doesn’t become a mud pit), but if any one person alone refrains (e.g. by having a smaller herd of cows), they expect to see little of the benefit themselves, and they probably expect someone else to use more resources (e.g. by adding an additional cow to another herd), so that there isn’t even a shared benefit to the group from the person’s selfless action.

Suppose you have a paper due on Friday, and it is going to take 60 minutes to finish it. Think of yourself over the preceding day as 960 you-minutes. Each you-minute would much prefer the paper be done than not done the following morning, but would somewhat prefer to not work on it themselves. Because these time-slices make their decisions about whether to work one after another, and know what decisions were made in the past, the final N you-minutes in the day will definitely work, if there are N minutes of paper left to write. This means for you-minutes where there are fewer minutes of paper left to write than you-minutes left who might write them, working doesn’t help—it just relieves a later you-minute of working which would otherwise be forced to. And that is certainly worse for the you-minute deciding. So the 60 minutes of writing is done in the last 60 minutes. Which doesn’t destroy any value in this model, so all is good.

But let’s make it more realistic. Suppose that there are better and worse times to work, and which are which is not known ahead of time. Working during a worse minute either produces less than a minute of work, or incurs other costs to the relevant you-minute (e.g. extra suffering). Then instead of everyone doing nothing until exactly sixty minutes before the deadline and then working full time after that, work becomes more worthwhile as you move toward the sixty minute mark, because it becomes increasingly likely that the bad minutes later will not be able to fulfill the work demanded of them. So relatively good you-minutes begin to work sometimes and then less good ones and then close to the deadline even the worst you-minutes work. The you-minutes still mostly work to avoid failing, they don’t mind much if they force bad you-minutes later to work, even if several of them have to work to get a minute’s worth of work done, or even if they endure private suffering as a result. So the early good minutes still don’t work much, and toward midnight many bad minutes work and suffer. This is more of a tragedy of the commons: most minutes freeride, because if they didn’t, someone else would. And all the free-riding causes massive costs.

I think this matches pretty well some elements of procrastination that I see.

This is more complicated than the most straightforward kind of tragedy of the commons—for instance, it involves sequential play—but I don’t know if there is a name this exact kind of game.

Fear or fear?

I wrote recently about how people tend to use the same words—and sometimes concepts—for ‘want’ as in ‘yearn for’ and ‘want’ as in ‘intend’. As in, ‘It’s so lovely here I want to stay forever’, yet ‘I want leave before midnight, because otherwise I will miss my train’. And the trouble this causes.

I think we do something similar with fear. ‘I’m concerned that X’ can mean ‘I feel fear about the possibility of X’ or it can mean ‘I think X (which would be bad) might be true’. I’m not sure which words naturally distinguish these two different messages, but whatever they are, I don’t seem to use them. For instance, what would avoid ambiguity in this sentence? ‘I ……………. that not enough people are going to vote’. I can think of several ways to fill the slot: worry, fear, am concerned, am scared, am frightened, am anxious. But I think they can either be used in both ways, or suggest a more specific kind of feeling.

The ambiguity of these words is especially noticeable if one has unusual levels of anxiety (for instance because of an anxiety disorder, or I suppose because a relaxation disorder). If you try to express a different one to that which people expect, it becomes clear that interpreting such a statement relies on on context. If you are known to usually be anxious, and you say ‘I fear our shoe rack is not large enough for all of our shoes’ you will be misunderstood to mean ‘my heart is pounding and I can’t breathe or think because of this shoe rack’ when you might be more accurately interpreted as, ‘I feel no emotions about the shoe rack, but may I draw your attention to a problem with it?’.

I don’t know if this causes problems, like the ‘want’ case. It is almost the opposite—you are mixing up ‘I have an urge to avoid this thing’ with ‘I judge there to be a problem here’. So you might expect it to go wrong in an analogous way: we feel fear regarding things, and then jump to expensively avoiding them without taking the other stakes into consideration.

It is certainly true that people behave in this way sometimes. For instance, once I was putting a golden necklace on in a dark car, and when I touched my hands to my neck I found a giant hairy spider on it. I jumped to expensively avoiding the spider in every sense, and did not find the necklace again. My mistake was neglecting to take into account the value of the necklace to me alongside my aversion to having a spider on my neck. I think there are more drawn out examples too. However I am not sure I have ever seen someone behave in this way due to confusion in the use of concepts, whereas with ‘want’ I think I have.

I wonder if more generally people often just use the same words for both ‘I have emotion Y about X’ and ‘my considered attitude toward X is the same as the one I might have if I had emotion Y’.  ‘I regret…’, ‘I’m sorry…’, ‘I hope’, and ‘I trust’, seem arguably like this too, but I’m not sure about others.

As I said before, I’m inclined to infer from the fact that people don’t really have good language to distinguish two things that they haven’t historically distinguished the things much. In this case for instance, I suppose that people have mostly treated feeling fear as identical to having the considered position that a thing is risky. This sort of thing would make sense in the design of a creature whose emotions basically track all of the relevant considerations. Or at least as many relevant considerations as any other part of its brain might usefully track. My guess is that we used to be much more like this for various reasons, and now are less so.

In the case of fear, perhaps we used to be in situations where our natural terror regarding aggressive animals for instance directed us well, whereas now we just tend to be too scared of snakes and sharks and not scared enough about heart disease or cars. At the same time, our intellectual faculties have grown into elaborate science and technology that can usefully track things like heart disease and build things like cars.

I have long thought that people often almost accidentally take their feelings to be their considered positions, without having an extra step of considering them. I take this as a bit more evidence, but it is also possible that my earlier theory just made this kind of  observation stand out, and there are lots of observations in the world to observe.

Want like want want

“I want a donut”

“Ok, I’ll buy one for you”

“Oh, I don’t mean that on consideration I endorse purchasing one—I’m just expressing my urge to to eat a donut.”

There are two meanings of ‘want’ in common usage. A feeling of desire, and an endorsed intention. ‘I want a baby tiger!’ is not analogous to ‘I want to work more on my taxes tonight’.

These ‘want’s are basically the input of a decision process and the output. I feel desire for a baby tiger and utter ‘I want it!’, and my brain considers that desire plus some other stuff about baby tigers and my life, and decides that on reflection I do not intend to acquire one. On the other hand, I feel no positive attraction toward my taxes at all, yet my aversion to prison and lawyers and generally being disagreeable in any way, once fed through my decision process leave me ‘wanting’ to work on them.

It is hard to be confused about the baby tiger and tax cases, but other times I think this leads to genuine confusion. The donut case above was a genuine confusion, but one of no importance. I think it leads to more important genuine confusions when one talks to oneself, and lacks two distinct concepts.

Luckily I waited ages before writing this blog post, and so came across David Wong of Cracked talking about something similar, as the #1 Way you are sabotaging your own life (without knowing it), which I’ll just quote here in full (the section, not the whole post, though I don’t agree with all of):

#1. Lying to Yourself About What You Actually Want

Hlib Shabashnyi/iStock/Getty Images

Off the top of your head, say something you’ve always wanted to do. Then, follow it up with why you’ve never done it.

So, maybe you said something like, “I’ve always wanted to start a little business selling cupcakes! But I wouldn’t even know how to get started!”

Aaaaand … 90 percent of you just lied.

I know you did, because if you actually wanted to do the thing, then the second part — the obstacle — wouldn’t exist. For example, if that person up there actually wanted to start their cupcake business, they wouldn’t be confused about how to get started. They’d be a freaking walking encyclopedia of information about how to get started, because they’d have spent every single day reading up on it and calling other cupcake-shop owners for advice. They don’t do that because they don’t actually want it. They don’t have the invisible gun to their head.

BrandlMichaela/iStock/Getty Images
“The cupcake is a lie.”

This, right here, is at the heart of every unfulfilled ambition in your life. We use the same word — “want” — to mean two completely different things, and the constant confusion between those definitions is why so many people are disappointed in how their lives turned out. Depending on the context, “want” can be:

A) A statement of intended action (“I want to mow the lawn before it rains.”)

B) A statement of general preference (“I want everyone to live a long and happy life.”)

It sounds simple enough, but the confusion of those two uses of the word is everything. We switch between the two definitions sometimes in the same sentence. This morning, I was driving to Five Guys to get a burger and an entire grocery bag full of french fries to go with it (that is, the “small”). I passed a guy who was jogging, shirtless, who had a torso like Matthew McConaughey. I said to myself, “I want a body like that!” And, if I’d pulled over and asked the guy why he runs and works out, he’d have said the same thing, almost word-for-word — “It’s because I want a body like this!”

Same phrasing, meaning two completely different things. I used “want” in the same way I say I want world peace — a wistful statement about something I actually have no control over. If it’s the same effort either way, sure, I’ll take the rock-hard abs — give me an ab pill and I’ll swallow it. Otherwise, no, it ain’t happening. That jogging guy, on the other hand, used “want” as a statement of intended action — he “wants” to run five miles every day because he “wants” to be fit.

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“Also because there’s a guy with a gun pointed at me. Please, call the police.”

Now look around you — look at all of the minimum-wage people who “want” to be rich and/or famous, with some vague notion of, I don’t know, being on a reality show some day or getting “discovered” for some talent they didn’t know they had. Now look at all of the MBAs working 100-hour weeks on the trading floor because they “want” to be rich. The difference in the two is night and day, but in many cases the former group doesn’t realize it. They just stay poor while the other group starts shopping for vacation homes.

And I’m starting to think that the world really is divided between those who have a clear idea of what it means to want something — including the total cost and sacrifices it will take to get it — and those who are just content to leave it as an airy “wouldn’t it be nice” fantasy. The former group hones in on what they want and goes zooming after it like a shark. The latter looks at them, shakes their head and says, “How do they do it?” As if they have a cheat code, or a secret technique.

Eldad Carin/iStock/Getty Images
“That son of bitch and his Konami code.”

“What, you’re saying we should all be douchebag stockbrokers working hundred-hour weeks?” No. I’m saying that while some of you are sitting around the coffee shop talking about how you “want” the system to change, that douchebag is accumulating money so he can actually run for congress. Because when he “wants” something, he doesn’t sing a song about it. He prices that shit and makes a down payment. And when that relentless BMW-driving douche has kids, he’ll teach them, too, what it really means to “want” something — to be single-minded, and voracious, and to pursue it to the ends of the Earth. Instilling that lesson goes just as far toward preserving wealth and power in a group as the actual inheritance they’ll leave behind.

Are you scared of those people? Are you imagining them as cold-blooded stock brokers and lobbyists and swindlers, the Wolf of Wall Street types who are eating away at the world like a cancer? Well, they scare you because it’s a glimpse at what accomplishing great things actually costs. You know Steve Jobs was a fucking psychopath, right? So the next time somebody asks you if you want to be rich, really stop and think about it. Think about what it will take. Think about what kind of person you’ll need to become.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images News/Getty Images
“I would literally make them from the blood of orphans if it could save me five cents on the per-unit cost.”

And that’s the point of all this — I’ve found, as time goes on, that everybody gets what they want. Not what they say they want in order to make themselves look good to others, or what they tell themselves they want so they feel better about the current state of their life. No, I’m talking about what they really want. And to find out what they really want, you don’t need to ask them. You just need to look at what they did today. You want to change, start there.

He has a more complicated thesis, and is saying things I don’t necessarily agree with, but his central point is that mistaking one kind of ‘want’ for another is something like the number one way you are messing up your life, which suggests that he considers it an important confusion.

He thinks it is related to the strange discrepancy between our imagined prospects in five years, and what we do right now. You say to yourself ‘I want to be a classical guitarist’—and it arises as an idle positive urge toward playing classical guitar, which arises due to letting your mind wander while listening to classical guitar one time. Then you just kind of figure that you do in fact want to, but don’t know how to right now or there are some obstacles or something, and hopefully you’ll figure it out in the vague future and probably one day be a great classical guitarist.

I claim that part of what is going on here is that you are observing your urge to play classical guitar, and thinking of it as ‘I want to play classical guitar’. Then you fail to distinguish this input to a decision from an actual decision. So either you sign up for a classical guitar class, but feel kind of bad about it and like you have too many things going on in your life, or you say to yourself that you want to, but you don’t, and you figure there is something wrong with you.

So maybe you ask yourself, ‘do I really want to play classical guitar?’ and you look inside your heart and see that you do really feel warmly about playing classical guitar, and you don’t notice that that is the answer to a different question than the one that is relevant to whether you should play classical guitar. You are checking that the input really is ‘classical guitar is nice’, rather than that the output really is ‘learning to play classical guitar is what I want on net, given the costs, and that it is nice’.

In some sense, if you fail to distinguish the input to your decision from the output, and confusedly use the input where you would rationally use the output, you are in fact correct that they are the same. It’s just that you are missing out on making a decision where you could benefit from doing so. Like, if you mistakenly treat ‘potato chips taste delicious’ as logically identical to ‘I endorse eating potato chips’ because you call them both “I want to eat potato chips!”, then you are missing out on a great chance to take into account considerations other than the flavor of potato chips in your diet, some of which may be important to you.

I have seen myself making this error. I remember it happening when I’m mostly thinking about something else, but idly appreciating something in my surrounds. For instance, I’m likely to see a cool startup and think ‘mmm, yeah I should have a startup’ or see a nice blouse and think ‘ooh, I should get a blouse like that’. And if I was really thinking about the issue, I would remember that things have costs, but if I’m not then the part of my brain that says ‘ooh’ at stuff also registers them as tentative decisions. I go away assuming that I now intend some day to have a cool startup.

This seems to parallel other useful distinctions I have seen people talk about in recent history. ‘Impressions’ and ‘beliefs’, and ‘what words are being said in my head’ versus ‘what I believe and stand for’ for instance. These are similarly inputs and outputs of decision processes, and by naming them as such, we can remember to actually stick a decision process between them. Much like if we label ‘raw pasta’ and ‘cooked pasta’ different things, it is easier to notice that cooking is an important step, and we are less likely to end up with pasta that is weirdly ill suited to being eaten half the time. Instead of just citing our impressions as beliefs, and then arguing with other people, or being confused that our ‘beliefs’ aren’t updating when other people tell us theirs (and we can tell they aren’t, by checking our impressions), we can just have some impressions and then consider them when deciding what we believe. To me these distinctions sound so obvious in retrospect that it is weird to even hypothesize that a moment ago you might not have made them. But relatedly, I think pointing them out has been pretty useful.

I’m not sure why we don’t make clear conceptual distinctions in these cases. Perhaps making distinctions is just hard. I think maybe these things are not so obvious because we didn’t always do so much intelligent decision-making. Presumably in goodest oldest days, ‘this food tastes good’ was closer in meaning to ‘I have decided to eat this food’ and ‘I feel like this plan is going to fail’ was closer in meaning to ‘this plan is probably going to fail’, and it is only later that considerations like health at age fifty and outside view evidence became sufficiently worth manually adding to one’s decision calculus to bother having a decision calculus to add them to, beyond unreflective feelings and intuitions.

Wong’s post also discusses people’s failure to connect their plans with the costs of those plans. They plan to learn the classical guitar, but don’t think of themselves as ‘planning to learn the classical guitar instead of spending so much time with their friends’ or ‘planning to learn the classical guitar instead of spending one of their two daily outside-of-work intentional-action-slots on reading’ or whatever the bottleneck may be. I don’t think he explicitly connects the two, though he clearly thinks they are part of a larger related structure. They are at least related in that people are wrong about what they want in part because they are not considering the costs. In his story, he wants to be fit, but only if he completely ignores the costs. Which is to say, if he just checks whether he likes the idea of being fit. He describes being confused, and going on to tell himself that he wanted to be fit in the ‘intending to do it’ sense, while mysteriously not being inclined to.

My model gives a straightforward reason for these errors to be related. Suppose you are making a cost-benefit analysis. If you confuse a single entry in the ‘benefits’ column with the output of the entire analysis, this reliably undercounts costs, to put it mildly. That is, if you ‘decide’ to learn Japanese by just using ‘liking the idea of knowing Japanese’ as a proxy for making a decision, then your decisions will be independent of what will be lost by learning Japanese. You will do the same thing whether it takes three hours or three million hours to learn Japanese. And you will find yourself with some very bad decisions that you can’t bring yourself to actually uphold.

I was told at a CFAR workshop that it is useful to say to yourself ‘if I write this paper it is going to be super annoying, but worth it’ rather than just ‘writing this paper is worth it’. This seems probably related. For instance, maybe you are just using ‘I want a tiger’ to decide to acquire one, and then if you say ‘I want a tiger, but it will be very messy, oh wait maybe I don’t’ or ‘I want a tiger, and it will be very messy, and still worth it’ then in the latter case you believe yourself more, or something.

Anyway, maybe more distinct terms would be helpful. For now I’m going to use ‘yearn for’ and ‘intend’, like ‘I yearn for a donut but I don’t intend to get one’. Better suggestions welcome.

Why read old philosophy?

I’m going to try to explain a mystery that puzzled me for years. This answer finally dawned on me in the middle of one of those occasional conversations in which non-perplexed friends patiently try to explain the issue to me. So I am not sure if mine is a novel explanation, or merely the explanation that my friends were trying to tell me, in which case my contribution is explaining it in a way that is at all comprehensible to a person like me. If it is novel, apparently some other people disagree with it and have an almost entirely satisfactory alternative, which has the one downside that it is impossible to explain to me.

The puzzle is this:

Why do people read old philosophers to learn about philosophy?

We read old physicists if we want to do original research on the history of physics. Or maybe if we are studying an aspect of physics so obscure that nobody has covered it in hundreds of years. If we want to learn physics we read a physics textbook. As far as I know, the story is similar in math, chemistry, engineering, economics, and business (though maybe some other subjects that I know less about are more like philosophy).

Yet go to philosophy grad school, and you will read original papers and books by historical philosophers. Research projects explore in great detail what it is that Aristotle actually said, thought, and meant. Scholars will learn the languages that the relevant texts were written in, because none of the translations can do the texts the necessary justice. The courses and books will be named after people like ‘Hume’ as often as they are named after topics of inquiry like ‘Causality’ and larger subject areas will be organized by the spatiotemporal location of the philosopher, rather than by the subject matter: Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Continental Philosophy.

The physics situation makes a lot more sense to me. Hypothetically, who would I rather read an explanation of ‘The Alice Effect’ by? —Alice, the effect’s seventeenth century discoverer, or Bob, a modern day physics professor authoring a textbook?

Some salient considerations, neutrality not guaranteed:

  • Alice’s understanding of the Alice effect is probably the most confused understanding of it in all of history, being the first ‘understanding of the Alice effect’ to set itself apart from ‘confusion and ignorance about the Alice effect’.
  • In the billions of lifetimes that have passed since Alice’s time, the world has probably thought substantially more about The Alice Effect than Alice managed to in her lifetime, at least if it is important at all.
  • Alice’s very first account of the effect probably contained imperfections. Bob can write about the theory as it stood after years of adjustment.
  • Even if Alice’s account was perfectly correct, it was probably not perfectly well explained, unless she happens to have been a great explainer as well as a great physicist.
  • Physics has made many discoveries since Alice’s time, such as Claire forces, Evan motion and Roger fields. It might be easier to understand all of this by starting with the Roger fields, and explaining the Alice effect as a consequence. However literature from the likes of Alice is constrained to cover topics chronologically by date of discovery.
  • Bob speaks a similar version of English to me
  • Bob can be selected for having particular skill at writing and explanation, whereas Alice must be selected for having the scientific prowess to make the discovery.
  • Bob is actually trying to explain the thing to a 21st Century reader, while Alice is writing to pique the interest of some seventeenth century noblemen who lack modern intellectual machinery and are interested in issues like whether this is compatible with religion. An accurate impression of a 21st Century reader would probably cause Alice to fall over.

I think Bob is a solid choice.

How might philosophy be different?

Some pieces of explanations I heard, or made up while hearing other explanations:

  • You have to be smarter than the original philosopher to summarize their work well, so there are few good summaries
  • The translations are all terrible for conveying the important parts
  • Philosophy is not trying to communicate normal content that can be in explicit statements, of the kind you might be able to explain well and check the understanding of and such.
  • Philosophy is about having certain experiences which pertain to the relevant philosophy, much like reading a poem is different to reading a summary of its content.

I don’t find any of these compelling. If I understood some material well enough to make use of it, I would generally expect to be able to summarize it or describe it in a different language that I knew. So if nobody is capable of summarizing or translating the material it is hard to believe that I am getting much out of it by reading it. ‘Some content can’t be described’ isn’t much of an explanation, and even if it was, how did the philosophers describe it? And if you found it, but then couldn’t describe it, what would be the point? And if philosophy is about having certain experiences, like poetry, but then it would seem to be a kind of entertainment rather than a project to gain knowledge, which is at least not what most philosophers would tell you. So none of these explanations for learning philosophy to involve so much attention to very old philosophers seemed that plausible.

Ok, so that’s the mystery.

Here’s my explanation. Reading Aristotle describe his thoughts about the world is like watching Aristotle ride a skateboard if Aristotle were a pro skater. You are not getting value from learning about the streets he is gliding over (or the natural world that he is describing) and you should not be memorizing the set of jumps he chooses (or his particular conceptualizations of the world). You are meant to be learning about how to carry out the activity that he is carrying out: how to be Aristotle. How to do what Aristotle would do, even in a new environment.

An old work of philosophy does not describe the thing you are meant to be learning about. It was created by the thing you are meant to be learning about, much like watching a video from skater-Aristotle’s GoPro. And the value proposition is that with this high resolution Aristotle’s-eye-view, you can infer the motions.

There is not a short description  of the insights you should learn (or at least not one available), because the insights you are hopefully learning are not the insights that Aristotle is trying to share. Aristotle might have highly summarizable insights, but what you want to know is how to be Aristotle, and nobody has necessarily developed an abstract model of how to be Aristotle from which summary statements can be extracted.

So it is not that the useful content being transmitted is of a special kind that is immune to being communicated as statements. It is just not actually known in statements. Nobody knows which aspects of being Aristotle are important, and nobody has successfully made a simplified summary. What we ‘know’ is this one very detailed example. Much like if I showed you a bee because I thought I couldn’t communicate it in words—it would not be because bees are mysteriously indescribable, it would be that I haven’t developed the understanding required to describe what is important about it, so I’m just showing you the whole bee.

On this theory, if someone doesn’t realize what is going on, and tries to summarize Aristotle’s writings in the way that you would usually summarize the content of a passage, you entirely lose what was valuable about it. Much as you would if you summarized a video of a skater in motion into a description of the environment that they had interacted with. I hypothesize that this is roughly what happens, and is why it feels like summaries can’t capture what is important, and probably why translations seem bad always. Whenever a person tries to do a translation, they faithfully communicate the content of the thoughts at the expense of faithfully communicating the thinking procedure.

For instance, suppose I have a sentence like this:

We have enough pieces of evidence to say that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

If not quite the same words were available in a different language, it might get translated to:

We have seen enough evidence to know that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

Which tells us something very similar about whether friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

But something subtle is lost about the process: in the initial statement, the author is suggesting that they are relying on the accretion of many separate pieces of evidence that may not have been independently compelling, whereas in the latter that is not clear. Over a long text, sentences like the former might give the reader an implicit understanding of how disparate and independently uncompelling evidence might be combined in the intuition of the author, without the issue ever being explicitly discussed. In the latter, this implication is entirely lost.

So I think this explains the sense that adequate summarization is impossible and translation is extremely difficult. At least, if we assume that people either don’t know what is really going on.

As an aside, I explained my theory to Ben Hoffman, and also asked him what on earth Plato was trying to do since when I tried to read him he made some points about fashion and sports that seemed worthy of a blog post, but maybe not of historical significance. Ben had a neat answer. He said Plato is basically doing the kind of summarization that a person who knew what was going on in my theory would do. He listened to Socrates a lot and thought that Socrates had interesting methods of thought. Then instead of summarizing Socrates’ points, he wrote fictionalized account of conversations with Socrates that condense and highlight the important elements of thinking and talking like Socrates.

This doesn’t explain why philosophy is different to physics (and basically all of the other subjects). Why would you want to be like Socrates, and not like Newton? Especially since Newton had more to show for his thoughts than an account of what his thoughts were like. I suspect the difference is that because physicists invent explicit machinery that can be easily taught, when you learn physics you spend your time mastering these tools. And perhaps in the process, you come to think in a way that fits well with these tools. Whereas in philosophy there is much less in the way of explicit methods to learn, so the most natural thing to learn is how to do whatever mental processes produce good philosophy. And since there is not a consensus on what they are like in the abstract, emulating existing good philosophers is a plausible way to proceed.

I was in the CMU philosophy department, which focuses on more formal methods that others might not class as philosophy—logic, algorithms for determining causality, game theory—and indeed in logic class we learned a lot of logical lemmas and did a lot of proofs and did not learn much about Frege or Gödel, though we did learn a bit about their history and thought at other point in the program.

(This story would suggest that in physics students are maybe missing out on learning the styles of thought that produce progress in physics. My guess is that instead they learn them in grad school when they are doing research themselves, by emulating their supervisors, and that the helpfulness of this might partially explain why Nobel prizewinner advisors beget Nobel prizewinner students.)

The story I hear about philosophy—and I actually don’t know how much it is true—is that as bits of philosophy come to have any methodological tools other than ‘think about it’, they break off and become their own sciences. So this would explain philosophy’s lone status in studying old thinkers rather than impersonal methods—philosophy is the lone ur-discipline without impersonal methods but thinking.

This suggests a research project: try summarizing what Aristotle is doing rather than Aristotle’s views. Then write a nice short textbook about it.

Making nothing out of a big deal

I recently asked my boyfriend how he heats water, given that he apparently doesn’t use a kettle. He said you can in fact heat water in a pot on the stove. Heating water in a pot sounds arduous to me, which is a bit strange because it’s not obviously more complicated than heating water in a kettle (assuming there is a clean pot, which is maybe a strong assumption). I wondered if maybe the issue is that once you have a pot on the stove, you are cooking. And cooking is a big deal. I’m not going to make a cup of tea if it involves cooking!

I have actually learned to cook a bit recently, and I think perhaps an important thing going on in ‘learning to cook’ for me is internalizing that you can achieve the same outcome as you might by cooking—which is perhaps too big a deal to carry out just to get some food— by merely doing some physically easy actions that are not a big deal, like picking up objects and putting them on other objects and turning knobs. Sometimes when I turn a knob and fire appears or something it seems like I might be doing something that is a big deal, but overall its going ok.

I remember hearing the advice that if you have an ‘ugh field’, around filling out a certain form at the faculty office say, it can be pretty helpful to do it just once. Then you have ‘an affordance’ and can do it more times easily. An affordance means roughly that it is an action you see as feasible. Taken literally, this might seem strange—surely you thought it was feasible to fill out the form previously. If someone had offered to bet with you about what would happen if you tried to fill out the form, I claim you would have  bet confidently on your success conditional on trying.

I speculate that what ‘an affordance’ often means is seeing something that was a big deal as a set of actions that aren’t. And that in general, when people see actions as abstract ‘big deals’ they expect the actions to be harder and take longer than when they see them as constellations of non-big-deal component actions.

So, you get an affordance for starting a company if you feel like it involves writing some things in boxes and sending some emails rather than somehow moving things at the abstract level of ‘companies’. You get an affordance for punching people in the face when punching someone in the face becomes a known physical action to you instead of an abstract sin. You get an affordance for Tweeting when you feel like it involves typing something into the address bar in your browser, and then typing something else into a box and pressing enter, rather than somehow coming to exist and exert forces in the abstract world of social media communications you have heard about.

I haven’t said what a ‘big deal’ is on this picture really, or how abstractness bears on any of this, and whether it isn’t just the whole thing going on. But I’m not going to elaborate at the moment, because I started to think it through and it seemed involved, and I want to know first whether this kind of thing rings true to other people at all.