The Subtle Art

A few weeks ago a friend loaned me The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (2016), by Mark Manson. I just finished it, and — while I’m not a big fan of self-help books — I give this one an Ah! rating. Manson’s approach, contrary to our modern norm, is not about finding happiness, but about choosing the pain worth seeking (and letting the happiness come through our fulfillment).

The subtle part is that not giving a f*ck doesn’t mean one stops caring. The subtle part is learning to be selective about what matters to us.

The counterintuitive part is that chasing happiness leads to misery.

Now that we’re below the fold, I won’t be using asterisks in the venerable word “fuck” — Manson certainly doesn’t once past the title. (In fact, it might be amusing to count the “fucks” per page. One characteristic of the book is the language and bluntness. I found that ever so slightly off-putting and very refreshing.)

One reason I don’t usually find value in self-help books is, ironically, expressed in the title of another self-help-ish book: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1989), by Robert Fulghum.

While I don’t think it’s literally true, there is a great deal of truth to it. Life teaches us lessons throughout our lives (if we but listen and learn), but I’ve always felt the foundation is poured early.

As Fulghum writes:

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. […] Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. […] Be aware of wonder. […] Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.

What would the world be like if we all built on that foundation?

As it turns out, I found quite a few bits in Manson’s book worth talking about:

Unfortunately, I can only touch on some of them.

§ §

Manson starts with a crucial and true observation:

The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.

This is one of those deceptively simple truths that comes only with experience (it’s not really a kindergarten lesson).

We cannot chase happiness, for it will always elude, forever just out of reach, and this will make us miserable. This is especially true if we measure success by material things. (Can there ever be enough wealth, awards, or power? Is that demon ever satisfied? Have you ever noticed how, very often, people who seem to have little or nothing still find joy in life?)

As Manson points out, we have a limited number of fucks to give in life. (If one lives to be 80, one gets only 960 months on this Earth. Not even 1000.)

Our sanity, let alone our happiness, depends on choosing what to give a fuck about:

There is a subtle art to not giving a fuck. And though the concept may sound ridiculous and I may sound like an asshole, what I’m talking about here is essentially learning how to focus and prioritize your thoughts effectively — how to pick and choose what matters to you […] based on  finely honed personal values. This is incredibly difficult. It takes a lifetime of practice and discipline to achieve. And you will regularly fail. But it is perhaps the most worthy struggle one can undertake in one’s life. It is perhaps the only struggle in one’s life.

That’s almost the book right there: The lifetime struggle to find meaning and happiness in finding what truly matters.

§ §

If it were only that simple. As with many self-help books, there is an assumption of privilege (and a disregard for circumstance and luck).

Especially in the current climate where, as Jon Stewart put it recently, “America suddenly stopped and smelled the racism,” I had a strong sense of the privileged position from which Manson speaks. It was an undercurrent that buzzed at me throughout the book.

In fact, one reason I can only give the book an Ah! rating is the utter lack of awareness of poverty and racism. (Manson, world-traveler that he was, even mentions a trip to South Africa without mentioning the social realities even in passing.)

The facts of life for many are the daily struggle to survive among the surreal systemic prejudices of institutionalized racism, poverty, and misogyny. Many simply do not have choices that amount to much. This is bizarro world where just the color of your skin can get you killed.

To be blunt, many of the things people seek self-books about fall, in my mind, very squarely under the rubric of First World Wealthy White People Problems.

That said, I applaud one of Manson’s key messages: You’re not special! (So get over yourself and learn to play nice with others. That is a kindergarten lesson.)

§ §

Manson touches on a theme I’ve hammered on repeatedly here about feelings versus thinking, about over-identifying with one’s emotions and letting them control us.

As I’ve put it, “The head steers, but the heart pushes.” Our passions are the fuel, but there must be a thoughtful captain guiding the ship.

As Manson puts it:

You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three-year-old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.

As he goes on to point out, emotions don’t last. We get used to emotional satisfaction and need larger hits all the time. It’s what psychologists sometimes call the “hedonic treadmill” — that we’re always reaching for a higher high and finding it less satisfying each time.

§

In the chapter “The Value of Suffering” Manson relates the story of WWII Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda, who in the last stages of the war was sent to an island in the Philippians with instructions to fight at all costs and never surrender.

The war ended less than a year later, in 1945, but Onoda and his men never got the message. They continued to fight guerilla warfare against what was now the civilian population of the island.

Attempts to drop leaflets were ignored as enemy lies. The locals began to fight back, and by 1969 Onoda was the last one left. But no one could find him.

In 1972, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese “hippie” and world-traveler, decided he would search for — and find — Onoda. Which he did (in four days), and Onoda was soon brought back to Japan where he became a celebrity.

He was utterly miserable. The Japan he knew, had fought for, was gone. He hated modern Japan and became little more than a side-show attraction railing about old values. In 1980 he left Japan for Brazil (where he died).

Suzuki died in the Himalayas searching for the abominable snowman.

The point is that both men lived most fully when they were most “miserable” living on bugs in the jungle or searching the high snows for a mythical creature. It fulfilled them.

More to the point, Onoda’s celebrity and comfort in Japan not only meant nothing, they invalidated everything he’d been fighting for.

§

The chapter “You are wrong about everything (But so am I)” made me think of how science works.

All our theories, to one degree or another, are provisional. They reflect our best understanding at the time. Many have fallen by the wayside as we’ve found better ones. (Lo, the Sun doe not circle the Earth!)

A good way to approach life is to realize our understanding of it is provisional. Put more bluntly, we’re usually more wrong about life than right, but if we pay attention to reality, we can become a little bit better.

Just like science. The daily goal is to become a little bit less wrong.

One key is recognizing that we don’t really know which of our experiences are truly positive or negative until after the fact. (Another reason to stop seeking “positive” experiences.) Onoda may have hated eating bugs in the jungle — a classic “negative” experience — but it gave his life meaning. It fulfilled him.

§

Manson relates the tale of Dave Mustaine, a rock guitarist who was unceremoniously fired from the metal band he played with.

Embittered, Mustaine determined to show those guys the error of their ways. Long story short, he worked his ass off and formed the famous band Megadeth, which sold 25 million albums and toured the world many times. Mustaine became well-known as brilliant and influential.

Major success story, right? Not so fast. Mustaine was miserable.

The band he was kicked out of was Metallica, who sold 180 millions albums and is widely considered to be the best metal band ever.

Mustaine’s main goal in life was showing up his former band mates, and that he utterly failed to do. Instead of the happiness of an amazing career, he saw himself as a failure.

Manson contrasts that with drummer Pete Best, the original drummer for a little band with a weird name: The Beatles.

How crushing must that have been in retrospect?

But Best went on to have a happy life with a stable marriage and a loving family. He also pursued his musical career well into the 2000s. He lost the fame of being “Ringo” but he gained everything that really mattered.

Simply put, Mustaine valued the wrong things. Best didn’t.

§

Earlier in the book Manson tells the story of a king in (what is now) Nepal who decided his son would want for nothing. The boy was sheltered from the world and given the best of everything, his every whim granted.

The kid was kind of a prick. Nothing meant anything.

So he snuck out of the palace only to discover a world of sickness, poverty, and filth. But rather then return to empty luxury, the prince decided to embrace this world, for surely in starving and living in the dirt there would be meaning.

Years passed, and there was no meaning. The prince discovered what we all know: Suffering sucks!

Confused, he cleaned himself up and went to sit under a tree until he figured out what to do. According to legend, he sat there for 49 days and did come to some profound revelations.

Among them was this simple fact: Life is suffering. It is a fact of all lives.

Millions know that prince as The Buddha.

§ §

That is the true lesson: Life is suffering. For everyone.

Contentment, if not happiness, if not joy, comes from our choices to pursue that which fulfills us, even knowing the path is hard.

As the saying goes, happiness is a journey, not a destination. It’s a choice. We hold the keys to our own happiness.

We always have.

Stay struggling, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

30 responses to “The Subtle Art

  • Wyrd Smythe

    A few things didn’t make it into the post, but are worth mentioning:

    When Manson started talking about suffering, I immediately thought of that central point of Buddhism about “life is suffering” and, sure enough, Manson told the story of the spoiled prince in that chapter.

    What was funny is that his talk about choice had me thinking of the ancient Greek Stoics, who I’ve mentioned here several times. The basic philosophy of Stoicism is that the only choice life offers is how you choose to react to it.

    There is the key metaphor of a dog tied to a heavy ox-driven cart with a rope. The cart is going down the rode, no matter the dog’s opinion of it, and because of the rope, so is the dog. The choice is between kicking and screaming and futilely resisting… or accepting the dealt hand and walking gracefully with the cart.

    The dog is going down the street no matter what. The choice involves how much it’s willing to destroy itself or not. No one else cares. It’s all about grace in the moment.

    So I get through almost the entire book, and Manson doesn’t mention the Stoics… until nearly the end, although just in passing.

    Still, it was kinda funny. It was like, yeah, we’re seeing the same things here, dude!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Another rich item:

    This is the basic root of all happiness. Whether you’re listening to Aristotle or the psychologists at Harvard or Jesus Christ or the goddamn Beatles, they all say that happiness comes from the same thing: caring about something greater than yourself, believing that you are a contributing component in some much larger entity, that your life is but a mere side process of some great unintelligible production.

    I’ve long said that the common ground of all religions is the idea of something greater, the idea that how you live your life matters for reasons beyond yourself. It’s not all about you.

    Or as Manson puts it: You’re not special.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The final item worth mentioning:

    [Charles] Bukowski once wrote, “We’re all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by life’s trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing.

    My last post was about my camping trips up in the Canadian wilderness. One of the guys I used to camp with died in his 40s of brain cancer. Nicest guy in the world, missed by everyone.

    Life is short. Eat dessert first!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Sounds like an interesting book.

    I can’t say the Stoic or Buddhist view ever appealed to me much though. It seems like there’s a fatalistic aspect to them I have a primal reaction against.

    I lean Epicurean. Enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Do what satisfies you and minimizes your suffering. Recognize you may have to accept suffering in the short term to minimize your longer term suffering. Understanding when and where that trade off is should be based on the best information you can obtain (although you’ll never have perfect information). And don’t get worked up about other people’s prescription for how you should live.

    Interesting point about not pursuing happiness. In truth, I’m not even sure what that means. I can pursue specific goals, and those should be assessed for what real benefits they will bring, but “happiness” always seemed like too vague a concept to actually pursue.

    For me, a big realization is to reject false dichotomies. They force me to obsess about whether I’m “doing it right”. It seems easier and more productive to assume I’m doing it wrong, and then see how less wrong I can be.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “It seems like there’s a fatalistic aspect to [Stoicism and Buddhism] I have a primal reaction against.”

      I don’t know enough about Buddhism to say, but I see Stoicism as being about grace under fire. To me, it’s mostly about not being a dick when things don’t go our way.

      When I relate the Stoic metaphor about the dog and the cart, I usually add that the dog is, of course, free to try to chew through the rope to free itself. Being graceful about what one cannot change doesn’t mean one can’t work to alter what one can!

      “I lean Epicurean.”

      A better choice than pure hedonism, certainly, but still a tiny bit materialistic around the edges for my taste. I lean towards more abstract and spiritual approaches, but that’s just me.

      “Recognize you may have to accept suffering in the short term to minimize your longer term suffering.”

      Which is very much a part of Manson’s message, also. He points out, as examples, that people who spend lots of time at the gym are suffering by choice in order to accomplish something. So are people who work long hours at the office to be successful. In both cases, others might not find that suffering worth those rewards.

      It’s all about what one values and finds worth suffering for.

      “And don’t get worked up about other people’s prescription for how you should live.”

      Worked up, never, agreed! But willing to consider and take value from, perhaps sometimes. (At least for me, my view is a patchwork of bits and pieces I’ve found useful while discarding what I viewed as chaff. I doubt my “philosophy” even has a name other than “mine.” 🙂 )

      “In truth, I’m not even sure what that means.”

      I don’t understand it on a gut level, either. It’s often expressed along the lines of a material goal granting happiness (more money, more promotions, more awards, whatever). It’s a focus on the “winning” rather than the joy of the race.

      True happiness comes from being happy doing. The race can only have one winner, so if winning is all that makes one happy, then one will be often disappointed (no one wins every race). But if one just loves running, every race is a joy.

      Similarly, if one approaches work as only a means for “success” (however defined), one is likely to be unhappy most of the time and perhaps always if that success never comes or doesn’t satisfy (demanding greater success). But if one loves one’s work, every day has positive value.

      (I speak as someone who always loved he race, always loved doing the work and found great value in it, so I know full well the value of that approach to life.)

      “…but ‘happiness’ always seemed like too vague a concept to actually pursue.”

      Smart! Exactly so. The very idea that it’s some sort of destination is the error.

      “For me, a big realization is to reject false dichotomies.”

      Interesting. Such as? (I’d never looked at it like that.)

      “It seems easier and more productive to assume I’m doing it wrong, and then see how less wrong I can be.”

      Indeed! As I mentioned, Manson spends a whole chapter about exactly that.

      He points out that “smart” people — those who “get it right” a lot — usually got that way by accepting their own wrongness and working to correct it as much as possible.

      I see it as sanity, which I define as how well one’s mental model matches reality. The goal is self-correcting that hugely erroneous model every chance one gets.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Epicureanism is generally viewed as a form of hedonism, but it’s prudent hedonism. In other words, don’t just do what feels good right now, do what will maximize pleasure and minimize suffering over the foreseeable future. But yeah, it’s pretty much an anti-spiritual philosophy. It might lead one to do things that, from the outside, appear spiritual, but it’s the result of gaming things out rather than just assuming some externally imposed duty.

        On false dichotomies, where I work we do a lot of projects. When I was younger, I was preoccupied with the proper way to do a project. Of course, that was hopelessly naive. There is no one right way. But I encounter a lot of methodologies that heavily imply they’ve found the one proper way. Some are less wrong for particular projects than for others, but I find the ideological kool-aid they always want you to drink unproductive.

        Or consider writing. There is no one proper way to do it. There are better and worse ways. There are actually far more worse ways. The trick for me is to assume I’m doing it wrong, then feel good about figuring out ways of doing it less wrong, than feel bad about not achieving some proper way.

        It’s a subtle way of looking at things that helps me at least. And maybe that’s similar to Manson’s overall point.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        To the extent Epicureanism is about enjoying the pleasures of life, I’m very much on board with that. My love of craft beer, craft burgers, a good cigar, fine champagne, music to large degree, and even certain kinds of movies and books — it’s all about the pleasure, baby!

        It’s the extent Epicureanism focuses on the self and the material where it loses me a bit. But I agree it’s superior to mere hedonism. Morally, I might place Epicureanism with Utilitarianism with a dash of Consequentialism thrown in. (It certainly ain’t deontological! 😀 )

        “But I encounter a lot of methodologies that heavily imply they’ve found the one proper way.”

        Ah, yes, I see exactly what you mean, and I quite agree. I’ve encountered many methodologies over the years. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and sure as hell not one of them is the “right” way to approach design.

        I used to frequently cite Alistair Cockburn’s 1999 paper “Characterizing people as non-linear, first-order components in software development” to various management types who, unlike you, had no background in computing.

        Cockburn makes the point that “Almost any methodology can be made to work on some project” but also “Any methodology can manage to fail on some project.” Ultimately, it’s about the people, who, as the title says, are non-linear, first-order components in software development.

        As you say, not drinking the ideological kool-aid is important.

        Kind of goes back to what I said above about taking the useful bits and pieces.

        I worked with a programmer who’d been convinced by her professor that TDD was the way to go, and she followed that program slavishly. I tried it for a while, but I found myself spending as much (or more) time developing unit tests as I did writing code (which TDD pushes you towards).

        But I realized quickly that, as useful as a suite of tests was, it was too easy to spend too much time developing tests for every aspect. And I’m not as big on unit testing as I am system testing. I pound heavily as a user on any software I develop. I’ve seen too many problems come from system-level issues.

        My advice to coders is, whatever you’re developing, be sure to use it. (Some of the apps on my pad or phone… I have to wonder if the developer ever actually used it at all.)

        “Or consider writing. There is no one proper way to do it.”

        Indeed. I bet Shakespeare never took a writing class. 😀

        “And maybe that’s similar to Manson’s overall point.”

        In the sense that you found something that works successfully for you, absolutely!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Interestingly, I got an Amazon credit from a book I bought this morning for “Great on Kindle” books. I noticed The Subtle Art was in that collection. As usual though, I didn’t find anything in the collection I was willing to buy, because even after the credit, they’re still a bit pricey. I might read The Subtle Art one day, but not soon, and if you’re willing to wait a year or two, those books are usually a lot cheaper.

        Epicureanism does focus on the self, but it usually acknowledges that the welfare of our friends and family affects us, so it’s an inclusive self. But classic Epicureanism prescribes an insularity I’m not entirely comfortable with, which is why I say “lean toward” rather than identifying as someone who drinks the full kool-aid.

        It’s kind of interesting how many rigid ideologists there are in IT: some on methodology, others on open source, or fiercely anti-open source, others on particular vendors.

        I’m with you on the benefit of using whatever you develop. Unfortunately, many of the apps we develop we can’t use directly. They’re often for students, faculty, or administrators, and unusable for anyone outside of the designated audience. We just have to take the feedback we get from them seriously and improve where we can.

        Definitely on finding what works for you. My list of pleasures has some things in common with yours, but, for example, beer has never really been on it. When I was younger, I felt like I should be more into beer and watching sports, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that it’s okay if I don’t get pleasure in some of the things others do.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I would definitely wait for the book to be cheaper. I only read it because a friend loaned it to me, and I’ve touched on all its main points in the post. Reading the book just fills in a bunch of details and tells more stories. It might be an interesting read just for his blunt style, but I wouldn’t spend much on it.

        “But classic Epicureanism prescribes an insularity I’m not entirely comfortable with, which is why I say ‘lean toward'”

        Exactly. Take what works. Drinking the kool-aid is usually a mistake. (Sometimes more so than others! 😮 )

        “It’s kind of interesting how many rigid ideologists there are in IT:”

        The human capacity towards a “religion” is endless, that need to believe in answers. It’s the easy way out. Trying to navigate on first principles requires have well-developed first principles. The ability to take what works and leave what doesn’t is the same sort of thing.

        “When I was younger, I felt like I should be more into beer and watching sports,”

        I discovered craft beer fairly early in life. Beer brewing is ancient (some of the first recipes we know of are for beer-like beverages), which I found fascinating, and there’s the whole “liquid bread” aspect, but I never got into the kegger behaviors. Sports I didn’t really get into until I got hooked on baseball in 2010. (Was very stressed out at the time, and baseball was soothing and completely disconnected from the things that were stressing me out. The more I watched, the more I realized how subtle and rich the sport is.)

        Which is to say I know full well that youthful pressure to do all the youthful things. I got into alcohol in high school, drugs in college, in large part to fit in, to not be the geek freak. (Didn’t really work. I am a geek freak! 😀 ) But sports? Foreign language to me.

        I think it’s a sign of maturity and intelligence to pick your own path, find the things that speak to you. The hell with the rest of the world. Whadda they know, anyway?

  • Astronomer Eric

    — It’s definitely one aspect of it. I’d argue that transcending evolution is a larger category — it includes things ‘altering our environment’ doesn’t.

    You are very precise in your use of vocabulary! I keep trying to match your precision but I fear I often don’t have the vocabulary to do that. So I’ll probably just have to frequently keep clarifying what I mean. When I use the word “environment” here, I’m using it in the following sense: To me, I see the evolutionary process as consisting of two aspects: an organism with genetic info inside of it, and the environment that encompasses everything else outside the organism. For humans, the environment (as I’m defining it) includes the physical natural environment, the artificial human-made physical environment, human tools, human culture, other humans, other living organisms, and anything else I neglected to mention. So when I think of “transcending evolution” to me the only way to do that is to transcend the interplay between organism and environment. That means either transcending the genetic code inside the organism, or transcending the environment. You said that we use science to alter our genes. I wasn’t aware that there was any widespread accepted practice of that yet. I seem to remember reading about a Chinese scientist recently trying to do something with altering human genes and getting rebuked for it. But maybe we do it in other minor ways currently? But humans are already very adept at altering the environment in many ways to increase the range at which we can survive. I wouldn’t say that we have fully mastered the environment, but we’re pretty advanced. Thinking on the fly here, but maybe having said that, it’s more precise to say that we are on the road to transcending evolution? I don’t know, does that jive with your view of transcending evolution more or less than before?

    — It’s not clear whether we’ve changed in many thousands of years, and it’s not clear whether evolutionary genetic change is meaningful anymore. It might not be!

    I think we must have changed some, but I agree it’s not clear how much. Even just becoming a global species with interbreeding among humans from different regions around the globe must have led to some minor changes in and of itself. What I think is even more unclear is how the ever increasing pace at which we change our environment will affect our evolution. Not to say that environments were static in the past. But major climactic changes usually happened over large time scales, and the movement of the earth’s crust has also been a very slow process, etc. Our technological advancements just over the past hundred years have drastically changed how we live and interact. But I agree that it’s unclear whether that will make evolutionary genetic change meaningless or distort it in some other unpredictable manner. Maybe some evolutionary scientists have some theories about this that I’ve never heard about.

    — No, because suffering is built into life. The central tenant of Buddhism is “Life is suffering.” It’s the Yin to the Yang of joy — both are necessary to make the other meaningful.
    It’s a general truism that with intelligent minds possessing free will, there will always be conflict and suffering.

    I might be wrong, but I think we are thinking about different kinds of suffering. I’ll try to explain it and then you can tell me if I’m still in disagreement with you. I’ll call the suffering you are referring to “suffering”. And I’ll call the suffering I’m referring to “suFFSering” where the FFS stands for exactly what you think it does. 😉

    I guess to explain what I see as “suffering”, I’ll lay out a model that I use when interpreting Maslow’s Theory. I’ll place a need’s fulfillment level on a scale from 0% to 100% where 0% is death and 100% is complete satisfaction just seconds ago. On this scale, the amount of suffering gradually increases as the percentage gets closer to zero. 75% might be relatively uncomfortable, 50% might be extremely uncomfortable, 25% might bring about extreme desperation and anything less than that is when the body starts to shut down or become injured progressing towards death.

    The physiological needs always go to 0%, and relatively quickly at that. Reaching 0% for food might take a week or so, water even less.

    The safety needs don’t necessarily always reach 0% depending on the situation. But they can definitely go down to the desperate level. I once went caving and crawled through some pretty tight spaces. I can imagine how terrifying it would be to get stuck in one of them. Or what must it have been like to be on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day? But the suffering can also be very minor, like when giving a speech in front of a large crowd (depending on one’s level of stage fright). They can go down very quickly at a moment’s notice or be at some relatively stable level below 100% for extended periods of time (like if one lives paycheck to paycheck or is unemployed, etc.)

    The belonging and love needs don’t necessarily reach 0% unless maybe they eventually cause someone to commit suicide. But extreme isolation can bring one down to very low percentages after extended periods of time. Not fitting in with a group or having abusive parents can also bring this level down pretty low. A breakup can bring it down quickly, or a young person can be made fun by their classmates a little bit each day, lowering it gradually over time.

    The esteem needs are probably similar to the belonging and love needs in this regard.

    The self-actualization needs probably don’t really go down very low at all, maybe reaching around 75% or so after long periods of being deprived of this need. It also is the need in which one can go the longest without having large adverse effects.

    Throughout the day, the percentages of the entire hierarchy of needs continuously fluctuate, going up and down as we do things large and small to fulfill them (or deny them). We can multitask on fulfilling many of them (like eating a meal with close friends). The ones closer to 0% are the ones that hold most of our attention. If multiple needs are quite low, the person is probably behaving in a threatened or a threatening manner. When I think of “suffering”, I think of averaging all the percentages together to give a rough idea of one’s level of “suffering” moment to moment.

    Another aspect of these needs is that they never stay at a certain level. They are always decreasing until the next satisfaction. And then they start decreasing again right after that satisfaction. So anyone looking for eternal happiness is going to be disappointed. One has to work at fulfilling their needs over and over again their entire life. This makes sense because if the needs evolved to motivate us towards actions that promote survival, they had better never shut off or we will suddenly lose the will to live. This is how I think of the Yin/Yang “Life is Suffering” that you mentioned.

    To me, the difference between “suffering” and “suFFSering” is that someone who is “suffering” at least feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel and if they put in some effort they’ll probably eventually be able to fulfill all of their needs. Someone who is suFFSering has come to the point where they realize that no matter how much effort the put in, nothing will satisfy their unfulfilled needs. Some relevant examples of suFFSering these days would be racism or poverty. Someone who is being persecuted for what they look like may feel hopeless that the racism will ever go away (especially if it had been going on for centuries previous). Someone who is working two or three jobs just to barely pay rent and food may not have the energy to bring themselves out of that situation.

    When I asked if we should alter environments so that people suffer less, I was talking about the “suFFSering” type of suffering. Some people may feel like we shouldn’t alter the environment to reduce this type of suffering. To use the two examples I gave earlier, I know that racists would probably resist changing anything about racism that affected them directly. And I know plenty of people who think that other people who are living in poverty are just lazy and if they worked harder or educated themselves better, they could get out of it.

    As an aside for a later discussion, my current opinion on poverty is, why do we need to force people to survive in terms of their physiological and some safety needs? Why can’t we at least elevate food and housing to a human right? That still gives people the rest of the physiological and safety needs to struggle with and all of the social needs, esteem needs and actualizing needs to struggle with in order to bring meaning to their lives. Will providing food and housing to everyone bring them too close to being the prince from Nepal before he was Buddha? Even better, why not provide a UBI that would cover food and very basic housing, so that people can have choices among those as well (or choose to put it to other uses from time to time), or even team up with others to pool their UBI to have better housing, etc.? If we want to continue on with capitalism for the time being, I feel like a UBI would fit well in that system. But this is starting to get past the scope of “suffering” vs “suFFSering”, so we can save this for a later discussion.

    — But how are you defining “most fit” and, as you go on to ask, what environment? Who gets to pick?

    Well, to continue with the examples I gave above, if we are talking about our current environment, “most fit” would be those who aren’t in poverty or aren’t being affected by racism. Those who are “suFFSering” in poverty or racism would be left to fend for themselves in a “survival of the most fit” culture.

    I guess dictators get to pick in those types of countries and the general population gets to pick in democracies.

    “Should we draw a line in the sand and try to just maintain the current environment we’ve created for ourselves? Should we go back to the ancestral environment (i.e. back in nature)?”

    — Certainly not the ancestral environment, that sucked. I’m not really even sure what you’re suggesting here by “environment”

    I’m talking about the environment I described in the first point of this reply (everything outside the organism). I guess, more specifically, I am talking about the cultural aspect of our environment. I know that cultures evolve and that drawing a line in the sand culturally is not really possible, at least in the long term. But I was more or less just trying to do a thought experiment around the idea of what the best culture would be if we are going to fully promote the social “survival of the most fit” you mentioned two replies ago.

    — How does that even work in a world as fragmented (and frequently stupid) as ours?

    Yeah, we still have a large diversity of cultures around the world. I guess a lot of my thought experiments focus around American culture since that is my nationality. I’m not sure what the evolution of our global culture will look like and how long it would take to become more uniform (if ever).

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “You are very precise in your use of vocabulary!”

      When one’s handle is “Wyrd Smythe” it kinda goes with the territory. 😀 😀

      Your use of the word “environment” is pretty much identical to my use of it here.

      “So when I think of ‘transcending evolution’ to me the only way to do that is to transcend the interplay between organism and environment.”

      Which is what I’m saying humans have done with our tools and by altering our environment.

      Remember what evolution requires: New genetic modifications are tested by the environment such that useful ones persist over time while harmful ones don’t. New traits that are useful give the organism a better chance to pass on its DNA. New traits that are harmful do not.

      Note that sometimes those with useful new traits do die early (for whatever reason) and don’t pass on that useful trait, while sometimes those with harmful traits do manage to pass on their DNA. This is why evolution is slow. It’s a process involving many, many individuals and many, many generations. It’s not a “one and done” process. It took billions of years for complex life to arise.

      In modern humans, harmful genetic traits can often be managed by technology (consider Stephen Hawking, for instance), and so they can persist. One consequence is that modern humans are a lot less robust than our hardy ancestors. Another is that modern life complicates things to the point that “good genes” aren’t the factor they once were. (Another example: as a kid I had pretty bad chronic bronchitis and pretty severe hay fever. In more primitive societies I might not have grown up.)

      “I wasn’t aware that there was any widespread accepted practice of that yet.”

      The reason being that genetic scientists have essentially agreed to stay away from it. We have the know-how (as that scientist in China you mentioned), but we’ve decided it’s a Bad Idea (which is why that scientist in China was rebuked — he was messing with Pandora’s Box).

      And, yes, I think we’re on the same page here about transcending evolution. (That modern humans have done so and are capable of doing so even more profoundly. The main point being that evolution doesn’t play much of a role in human affairs anymore.)

      “Even just becoming a global species with interbreeding among humans from different regions around the globe must have led to some minor changes in and of itself.”

      Very minor changes. Essentially cosmetic ones. We’re all homo sapiens. “Race” is more of a social construct than a real genetic one (illustrated by how two people from any “race” can easily have a baby together).

      I think that wraps up this part about our genetic past, so I’ll let it be a separate reply. I’ll start a new thread for talking about suffering.

      • Astronomer Eric

        Yup, well said and agreed! Just one question? The word “evolution” to me represents the process where the environment shapes genes to suit it. Is there a word that represents shaping the environment to suit the genes? Maybe “utopia”?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No, not really (other than “building” or “creating” maybe). We do so many different things to make the environment better for us. Consider just a few: Air conditioning and heating systems; glasses to correct vision; clothes to protect from the elements; refrigerators to preserve food; medicine to prolong or save life; long-distance communication; libraries; etc, etc, etc.

        (And remember that “utopia” is like infinity — it’s a concept that’s not physically possible; it’s impossible to achieve utopia. Further, most thinkers feel if it were possible, it would be a Bad Idea.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “I might be wrong, but I think we are thinking about different kinds of suffering.”

      Not really. Jumping down to:

      “To me, the difference between ‘suffering’ and ‘suFFSering’ is that someone who is ‘suffering’ at least feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel and if they put in some effort they’ll probably eventually be able to fulfill all of their needs. Someone who is ‘suFFSering’ has come to the point where they realize that no matter how much effort the put in, nothing will satisfy their unfulfilled needs.”

      To me, those are both suffering. Suffering one sees no way out of certainly sucks worse than suffering one can relieve. But consider the difference from suffering from a headache that a few pills will cure in minutes versus suffering from a lack of income that takes decades of working up the ladder to relieve. The line can be pretty fuzzy.

      Jumping back up…

      “I’ll place a need’s fulfillment level on a scale from 0% to 100% where 0% is death and 100% is complete satisfaction just seconds ago.”

      If 0% is death, then the only kind of fulfillment we’re talking about are the ones applying to direct survival. Needs above that level don’t cause death, just distress.

      To wit:

      “75% might be relatively uncomfortable, 50% might be extremely uncomfortable, 25% might bring about extreme desperation and anything less than that is when the body starts to shut down or become injured progressing towards death.”

      In terms of all the higher needs — those above survival needs, food, water, rest, shelter — the only thing a lack of fulfillment causes is psychological distress. One can’t die from a lack of love, family, self-esteem, or artistic expression.

      “The self-actualization needs probably don’t really go down very low at all, maybe reaching around 75% or so after long periods of being deprived of this need.”

      Your notion of percentage seems to pick out the impact being deprived of a need engenders. That’s a consequence of tying 0% to death. That only applies to the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy.

      As Maslow puts it in the 1943 paper:

      The clear emergence of these needs rests upon prior satisfaction of the physiological, safety, love and esteem needs. We shall call people who are satisfied in these needs, basically satisfied people, and it is from these that we may expect the fullest (and healthiest) creativeness. Since, in our society, basically satisfied people are the exception, we do not know much about self-actualization, either experimentally or clinically.

      The truth is, the higher up the hierarchy, the less most people have that need fulfilled. The pyramid shape reflects this — the capstone is smallest because that level of self-fulfillment isn’t common in real life.

      “The ones closer to 0% are the ones that hold most of our attention.”

      That’s not what Maslow says. The lowest level ones demand our attention until they’re met. Higher level ones can be 0% and ignored if lower ones (say at 50%) demand attention. If one is worried about their next meal, how much impact does an utter lack of family, love, or self-esteem have? Which need is one likely to devote energy to?

      “When I think of ‘suffering’, I think of averaging all the percentages together to give a rough idea of one’s level of ‘suffering’ moment to moment.”

      Again, not what Maslow is saying. The pyramid shape signals that lower-level needs have more impact than higher level needs. Per the quote above, it’s generally only when the the lower needs are fulfilled that the higher needs speak up and demand attention.

      That’s a key point with Maslow. Low-level needs have great impact and absolutely demand our attention when unsatisfied. Higher-level needs don’t really emerge until low-level needs are met. And high-level needs don’t have the impact on us that low-level ones do. One can live without family, love, or self-esteem. One cannot live without water, food, and rest.

      “So anyone looking for eternal happiness is going to be disappointed.”

      Yep. Hence my point about not being able to remove suffering.

      “One has to work at fulfilling their needs over and over again their entire life.”

      Of course! The need for water, food, rest, shelter, family, love, self-esteem, etc, never go away. We always try to satisfy those needs.

      “This is how I think of the Yin/Yang ‘Life is Suffering’ that you mentioned.”

      Okay, but that’s not what I meant. The philosophy of Yin/Yang speaks to the necessity of opposing pairs. Happiness has no meaning without suffering in contrast.

      “When I asked if we should alter environments so that people suffer less, I was talking about the “suFFSering” type of suffering.”

      Which brings us back to my original assertion that it’s not possible. Not that it isn’t a goal worth pursuing — and many people do. But one problem is differing views on Utopia. Who gets to decide? Another problem is that life is messy and fixing one problem often creates a different one.

      Then, as you suggest, there is the problem is changing people’s thinking and behavior. Even when we can agree on what that should be.

      Smoking cigarettes is a good example. We all know it’s bad for you. In fact, it’s one of the only products sold that, when used as directed, will likely kill you. Concentrated (i.e. expensive) efforts targeting specific groups can have measurable impact. But, for lots of reasons, people go on smoking. We could make them illegal, but our efforts with drugs show that doesn’t work, either.

      Bottom line, there are major moral and practical issues with the idea of Utopia.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying to make the world a better place. (I think it starts with education, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

      This looks like a good break point.

      • Astronomer Eric

        Ok, so I’m going to take a few days or so to get back to you on this one. I’ve built up my understanding and intuition of Maslow’s ideas over quite a long period of time, and so I want to take some time on the points you are challenging me on to look up where he would have discussed them and see if I misunderstood his point or not.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Okay, that’s fine, whenever. (Are you working on a list of “intrinsic” needs, also?)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Why can’t we at least elevate food and housing to a human right?”

      Why not, indeed. We lack the political will.

      “Will providing food and housing to everyone bring them too close to being the prince from Nepal before he was Buddha?”

      Some people think so, and it’s probably true that some people would take advantage or be lazy. But a big part of Maslow’s point is that humans have a drive towards self-fulfillment, so if low-level needs are no longer needs, in most (or in many, anyway) the drive to “do stuff” would flower.

      “…if we are talking about our current environment, “most fit” would be those who aren’t in poverty or aren’t being affected by racism.”

      That’s almost to say that “most fit” means white and rich. There is (tragically) a social-political truth to that, and it’s exactly what I mean by humans transcending evolution.

      We need to change that definition. For instance, “most fit” ought to be “most intelligent” and “most capable”.

      “I am talking about the cultural aspect of our environment.”

      Okay, got it. Culture is hard to change because it’s a complex reflection of all the people involved. Culture, as we discussed before, is emergent from the behavior of the population. Changing it requires changing lots of minds.

      Further, as I mentioned, even if we could shape culture, who gets to pick the shape?

      • Astronomer Eric

        — But a big part of Maslow’s point is that humans have a drive towards self-fulfillment, so if low-level needs are no longer needs, in most (or in many, anyway) the drive to “do stuff” would flower.

        Yes!!! This, I think is key to what he was talking about and what I am also trying to convey. The humanistic movement he was a part of was looking to describe the human nature of fulfilled individuals. Maybe to practice using my new vocab word, “emerging”, one’s personality emerges from their current level of satisfaction of their needs. For example, I think this has a large role to play in crime. I think the relevant hypothesis here is that harm of others would, on average, decrease in more satisfied individuals. And also I think people’s desire to educate themselves would increase in more satisfied individuals. I know you don’t like my “higher numbers of people increasing achievements” idea, but if more people were spending more time self-actualizing, I think that would increase our species-wide level of achievement. These are definitely hypotheses that I think are worth testing out anyway.

        — We need to change that definition. For instance, “most fit” ought to be “most intelligent” and “most capable”.

        So, if we take the two sides of the coin, “evolution” vs “the other good vocab word that might be Utopia”, should we be trying to have a balance of the two somehow, where we try to shape our environment to suit our genes a bit, as well as let our environment try to shape our genes, maybe towards higher intelligence or capability, as you suggest? To me, the extremes are: going back to the ancestral environment (evolution) or trying to completely shape our environment so that it perfectly suits our current genetic traits (Utopia). Both extremes are impossible (the Utopia one is obvious since there is no way we could consider every possibility or side effect of an environmental modification, but it might be less obvious that we probably can’t go back to the ancestral environment even if we wanted to unless we applied the “Men in Black memory loss device” to everyone).

        To me, trying to build Utopia is like trying to build software where there will always be bugs to work out. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to write good programs. Yet since we arguably have been trying to build Utopia ever since we left the ancestral environment (maybe the agricultural revolution was the key turning point in history here???) How do we allow evolution to select for intelligence and capability in our current iterations of Utopia?

        — Culture is hard to change because it’s a complex reflection of all the people involved. Culture, as we discussed before, is emergent from the behavior of the population. Changing it requires changing lots of minds. Further, as I mentioned, even if we could shape culture, who gets to pick the shape?

        I think ideally it is also an evolutionary process, and is pretty much the process in place today as it were. We implement well thought out cultural ideas and see if they survive. Some ideas are passed from person to person via conversation and other interactions. Some of these don’t need to be codified into law, others may need that extra step. For the ones that do, if enough people seem to like the idea, the next step would be to put them into place through whatever government systems a particular culture has adopted. So in the US (if the democracy is running smoothly unlike the current situation we seem to be finding ourselves in), we vote in certain cultural ideas. Then we test them out for a certain period of time and keep the ones that work, or modify them to work better, and vote out the ones that don’t work.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “[O]ne’s personality emerges from their current level of satisfaction of their needs.”

        I’m not sure from what you wrote which way you see the correlation, but it feels like you mean a more satisfied person results in the personality emerging? In my experience, one’s true personality emerges more when one is under stress.

        (There’s a great scene in the movie Watching the Detectives where the male lead secretly pays a waiter to “accidentally” spill water on his date. The guy wants to see her reaction because how one reacts under stress says more about a person than how one reacts when everything is cool.)

        I think what you’re going for is that we’re more inclined to be generous or kind when our own needs are met. (Yet, ironically, it’s often the poor who are most willing to share what little they have with those in need. The rich are often stingy assholes desperately clinging to every dollar.)

        “I think people’s desire to educate themselves would increase in more satisfied individuals.”

        It very well might. Some point to how the ancient Greek thinkers lived in a time of relative plenty and ease. It gave them the time to philosophize about stuff. In most cultures, academic thought usually parallels that society having the resources to allow thinking about abstractions.

        It also has a lot to do with how a society views education and intelligence. Our culture currently devalues it over emotion and feelings. We see experience as more valuable than thoughtfulness.

        The fact is, large numbers of people do have all their basic, and even psychological, needs met and are pursuing self-fulfillment as they understand it. Most choose video games or TV shows or various forms of play. Very few choose academic, or even technical, paths.

        “…should we be trying to have a balance of the two somehow, where we try to shape our environment to suit our genes a bit, as well as let our environment try to shape our genes, maybe towards higher intelligence or capability, as you suggest?”

        We already shape our environment, so what more do you mean? What do you have in mind that would “suit our genes a bit”?

        The problem with letting evolution work is that evolution is random and most genetic changes aren’t beneficial. There is also that evolution takes many generations for a trait to spread into a population.

        You need to flesh out exactly what you have in mind.

        “To me, trying to build Utopia is like trying to build software where there will always be bugs to work out.”

        But software bugs can generally be fixed without impact on human lives. Messing around with culture has real effects on real people. And it requires political will, cultural consensus, and funding, so it’s a little trickier than designing software.

        “How do we allow evolution to select for intelligence and capability in our current iterations of Utopia?”

        You kill the stupid and incompetent. Or at least don’t let them breed. Otherwise you’re kind of stuck with a “Marching Morons” situation.

        “Then we test them out for a certain period of time and keep the ones that work, or modify them to work better, and vote out the ones that don’t work.”

        In theory, that’s exactly what our system is supposed to do. You see how that’s worked out.

        The problem is the theory assumes rational sane actors, and society does not consist entirely of rational sane actors. To the contrary, society also contains the selfish, the ignorant, and the malicious. Somehow the system has to accommodate the full gamut of how people act.

      • Astronomer Eric

        — I’m not sure from what you wrote which way you see the correlation, but it feels like you mean a more satisfied person results in the personality emerging? In my experience, one’s true personality emerges more when one is under stress.

        Maybe “personality” isn’t the best word since the way you described “one’s true personality” implies that personality is fixed. Along with the other things I’m looking into, I’ll look into more detail at the way Maslow used the word “personality” over the next few days or so and see if there is a discrepancy there.

        For now, maybe I’ll just replace “personality” with other words like, “demeanor”, “emotional state”, “level of neuroticism”, etc. These traits aren’t fixed but instead constantly fluctuate depending on one’s level of need satisfaction or denial. In that sense, the way one would describe their demeanor would depend on their level of satisfaction/denial. For example, a calm demeanor may emerge in a satisfied person and a defensive demeanor may emerge in that same person if they become unsatisfied.

        — (There’s a great scene in the movie Watching the Detectives where the male lead secretly pays a waiter to “accidentally” spill water on his date. The guy wants to see her reaction because how one reacts under stress says more about a person than how one reacts when everything is cool.)

        Well, I wouldn’t say that putting someone under stress says “more” about a person but would instead say that it gives a “more complete picture” of the person. Rather it demonstrates the different demeanors that emerge under the different states of being stressed vs being cool (both of which are important states for any individual, of which the “cool” state may be overlooked if placing too much importance on the “stressed” state). What putting someone under stress could do, though, would be to reveal some pathologies that a person is trying to keep under wraps in order to not scare someone off that they just met, the very things that we can feel more safe revealing around trusted friends.

        — I think what you’re going for is that we’re more inclined to be generous or kind when our own needs are met. (Yet, ironically, it’s often the poor who are most willing to share what little they have with those in need. The rich are often stingy assholes desperately clinging to every dollar.)

        Well, generous and kind are just two of many traits that emerge when a person is relatively satisfied. And I don’t think that it’s safe to say that a rich person is guaranteed to have all their needs met. In fact, they may feel very insecure at trying to protect their wealth, and may feel deprived of love when a number of people are trying to tap into their wealth (like the common story that when one wins the lottery, suddenly everyone wants to become their friend). And it may often be the case that one’s previous pathologies were the driving force that compelled them to amass such wealth in the first place. Stinginess is more likely a pathological behavior than a behavior guaranteed of all rich people.

        — The fact is, large numbers of people do have all their basic, and even psychological, needs met and are pursuing self-fulfillment as they understand it. Most choose video games or TV shows or various forms of play. Very few choose academic, or even technical, paths.

        I suspect that this is often a biproduct of a highly structured and regimented standardized education snuffing out curiosity in many young individuals. When memorizing is valued over exploration in an education system, something has to give.

        — We already shape our environment, so what more do you mean? What do you have in mind that would “suit our genes a bit”?… You need to flesh out exactly what you have in mind.

        Haha, I don’t have much of anything in mind at this point. This was more just thinking on the fly and asking about your opinion on the matter. Maybe I should do a better job of delineating when I am in debate mode with you (like much of the Maslow topic) vs when I am more in student mode and trying to learn from you (like with the emergence topic).

        On this point of “evolution vs altering the environment” in particular, it seems that by definition we have control over the efforts to alter the environment, but that we have no control over how the environment shapes our evolution. So for us to choose what traits evolution should select for seems like it might be a paradox.

        — But software bugs can generally be fixed without impact on human lives. Messing around with culture has real effects on real people. And it requires political will, cultural consensus, and funding, so it’s a little trickier than designing software.

        Yeah, I was speaking more metaphorically about it being like software bugs. But doesn’t culture evolve because of our attempts to “mess with it”. The history books are full of accounts of the effects on real people. But I don’t think we are capable of not messing with culture. It seems to be in our nature to learn new things and to try to implement them into our lives.

        — You kill the stupid and incompetent. Or at least don’t let them breed. Otherwise you’re kind of stuck with a “Marching Morons” situation.

        The history books are full of accounts of this as well. It doesn’t seem to end well from what I can tell. Personally, I like the Maslow route better, where we hope that people who are more satisfied will tend to make more rational decisions on average.

        In theory, that’s exactly what our system is supposed to do. You see how that’s worked out.
        The problem is the theory assumes rational sane actors, and society does not consist entirely of rational sane actors. To the contrary, society also contains the selfish, the ignorant, and the malicious. Somehow the system has to accommodate the full gamut of how people act.

        My question is, are “selfish”, “ignorant”, and “malicious” fixed traits, or are they emergent traits based off one’s level of needs satisfaction/denial? On the flip side, is one’s level of rationality also emergent based of their level of satisfaction/denial?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…implies that personality is fixed.”

        Yes, although personality can change slowly over time. (Or quickly due to drugs or brain injury.) Many parents say they observed personality traits in their children from a surprisingly young age — traits that persisted into adulthood.

        “Emotional state” is a good phrase for what you mean. As you say, they absolutely do fluctuate quickly depending on circumstances.

        “I wouldn’t say that putting someone under stress says ‘more’ about a person but would instead say that it gives a ‘more complete picture’ of the person.”

        Isn’t a ‘more complete picture’ more about someone? 🙂

        But I take your point, and yes I am placing a higher value on how a person behaves under stress than I do on how they behave when they’re happy and satisfied. I do think it says “more” about a person.

        The reason is that, when things are cool, we tend to behave according to social norms, which is a more artificial form of behavior. But when we’re under stress we often discard those norms and act more according to our inner nature.

        Getting drunk is another major tell for a person’s true inner nature. Alcohol removes our judgement filter, so again we behave more according to our true nature. (I’m glad I’m a “happy drunk” or a “party drunk” or a “loving drunk” and not an “angry drunk” or “rowdy destructive drunk” — it confirms my view that my inner nature is happy, loving, and kind of a party guy. More importantly to me, it confirms the anger I feel towards the world is, indeed, artificial not innate.)

        I do agree being stressed brings out pathologies.

        “I don’t think that it’s safe to say that a rich person is guaranteed to have all their needs met.”

        Absolutely. Rich people commit suicide, too. But generally speaking, all their lower needs are met. They don’t give any thought to basic needs. But their lives may be disaster areas in terms of psychological needs (let alone self-fulfillment).

        That said, many rich are rich because they love money, and it’s the love of money that’s said to be the root of all evil. (I disagree. Lust and sloth play strong roles. So do others, but a love of money does seem very destructive of the “soul”.)

        “I suspect that this is often a biproduct of a highly structured and regimented standardized education snuffing out curiosity in many young individuals.”

        Could be. Hard to say, really. I suspect, as usual, it would go all the ways possible. Some would work their asses off, some would work but not that hard, some would just goof off.

        There may need to be a discussion about intelligence (IQ) along the way. People differ in their intellect as much as they do other characteristics. Some are tall, some are short. Some are smart, some not so much.

        “…it seems that by definition we have control over the efforts to alter the environment, but that we have no control over how the environment shapes our evolution.”

        I think that’s pretty much the case. It’s what I meant about us transcending evolution. We shape the environment now, more than it shapes us.

        “But doesn’t culture evolve because of our attempts to ‘mess with it’.”

        Absolutely. You see how well it’s gone. It’s a challenge; the law of unintended effects always applies.

        “My question is, are ‘selfish’, ‘ignorant’, and ‘malicious’ fixed traits, or are they emergent traits based off one’s level of needs satisfaction/denial? “

        Selfish and malicious are personality traits. They’re relatively fixed, but can be altered over time if a person works on changing. Ignorance is a mental state curable with learning. Willful ignorance (refusing to learn) is a personality trait.

        Remember that negative personality traits are often masked by social norms of behavior when we’re feeling satisfied. It’s only under stress that those norms get stripped away revealing the true personality.

        “On the flip side, is one’s level of rationality also emergent based of their level of satisfaction/denial?”

        Rationality is essentially the ability to react intelligently rather than emotionally. It probably is prone to taking a hit when a person is under stress. I know I can get irrational if I get into a heated argument with someone (which is why I try to avoid doing that).

      • Astronomer Eric

        — Yes, although personality can change slowly over time. (Or quickly due to drugs or brain injury.) Many parents say they observed personality traits in their children from a surprisingly young age — traits that persisted into adulthood.
        “Emotional state” is a good phrase for what you mean. As you say, they absolutely do fluctuate quickly depending on circumstances.

        It seems that we are reaching the nature vs nurture aspect of things, and these discussions are always particularly challenging because it’s always difficult to attribute how much of an impact each of nature or nurture has on an organism. But let’s not let that dissuade us away from the conversation.

        I wonder, in the personality traits observed in very young children, how much of those traits they are born with, and how much of those traits they form during the time from when they are born until when they first start displaying those traits? I guess, if personality can change over time, that might point more towards that traits are more nurture than they are nature, and that once wired in the brain, they are difficult to unwire (similar to strong memories or pathologies…although one may argue that in some ways one’s pathologies are part of one’s personality). Maybe it’s similar to why people have a difficult time altering their worldview once they have settled on one. Not that it’s impossible, but that it requires much effort to override the previous views that one had originally obtained from their interactions with the world.

        (I’m glad I’m a “happy drunk” or a “party drunk” or a “loving drunk” and not an “angry drunk” or “rowdy destructive drunk” — it confirms my view that my inner nature is happy, loving, and kind of a party guy. More importantly to me, it confirms the anger I feel towards the world is, indeed, artificial not innate.)

        I’m not quite sure what you mean by your anger being “artificial”. Isn’t anger, as an emotion, itself innate (i.e. the entire gamut of emotions is innate)? Isn’t it more precise to look at it from the point of view of what evokes a particular emotion rather than whether an emotion itself is part of one’s inner nature? For you, the injustices of the world are the things that bring out your anger (I’m assuming a bit there with “injustices” since you only said “the world”, but hopefully that’s a safe assumption). You are probably less likely to be focused on those injustices while trying to have fun at a party. Someone else who gets angry while drunk at a party may be more directly confronted with the things that make them angry while they are at that very party (maybe jealousy over another person there, maybe someone at the party rubs them the wrong way, maybe something else that is not necessarily present at the party but that they can’t shake regardless, etc.) Why is your anger over the state of the world any more artificial than someone’s anger over any number of other things?

        I’m currently watching the mini-series “Tokyo Trial” on Netflix about the prosecution of Japanese War criminals after WWII. It’s interesting to see the judges from different countries debate over various things during the day and then socialize later in the evening. Often the debate follows them to where they are socializing. You having mentioning that world events cause you to get angry had me doing a thought experiment where you are one of those judges. I wonder if you were out socializing with some of those other judges whom you may disagree with, whether or not alcohol might cause your anger over the topic to more easily come out? If so, an outside observer with no information to go on other than what they see may incorrectly assume that you are an angry drunk.

        To bring it back to Maslow’s theory, the things that make one angry are more likely to be closely linked to the things that the person is suffering over or is feeling deficient over in terms of their needs. If you only tend to get angry over world issues, that tells me a lot about you (in a similar manner to spilling a drink on you). It tells me that your basic needs and social needs and esteem needs are probably quite well met such that you are able to spend time contemplating the injustices of the world (again, I may be assuming too much on what specifically about “the world” makes you angry, but it’s hopefully not too far off the mark). Maslow spent a good amount of time in his book discussing how people who self-actualize tend to focus on problems outside of themselves, such as problems of injustice. Your anger arising out of an unmet need for something like justice seems just as real to me as the anger one may feel over a social need or an esteem need at a party. It’s just that at a party, the focus is usually more on the social and esteem needs and less on the self-actualizing needs. To me, I see your anger as emerging (I love this word now!!! Thank you for teaching it to me! Haha) from a different deficiency in the needs hierarchy.

        — Absolutely. Rich people commit suicide, too… But their lives may be disaster areas in terms of psychological needs (let alone self-fulfillment).

        Yes! Well said!

        — That said, many rich are rich because they love money, and it’s the love of money that’s said to be the root of all evil. (I disagree. Lust and sloth play strong roles. So do others, but a love of money does seem very destructive of the “soul”.)

        Ah yes, the seven deadly sins…pathologies straight out of Maslow’s theory if I do say so myself. An interesting example of something passed down throughout the generations that could have possibly been one of the “giant’s shoulders” that Maslow stood on when coming up with his theory, despite the non-scientific nature of the source of that wisdom.

        — Could be. Hard to say, really. I suspect, as usual, it would go all the ways possible. Some would work their asses off, some would work but not that hard, some would just goof off.

        Yeah, I can see a bell curve fitting this notion relatively well.

        — There may need to be a discussion about intelligence (IQ) along the way. People differ in their intellect as much as they do other characteristics. Some are tall, some are short. Some are smart, some not so much.

        Agreed that IQ has something to do with how we educate people, but unless there is a correlation with lower IQs and a lack of feeling the compulsion of some subset of the needs in the hierarchy, my assumption is that a lower IQ only affects the ceiling one may reach intellectually, not what motivates that person. I don’t think that a person with a lower IQ is unable to be passionate about something intellectual that is within their abilities. They may feel the need to self-actualize just as strongly as someone with a higher IQ. They just need a different environment to help facilitate the fulfillment of that need.

        “…it seems that by definition we have control over the efforts to alter the environment, but that we have no control over how the environment shapes our evolution.”

        I think that’s pretty much the case. It’s what I meant about us transcending evolution. We shape the environment now, more than it shapes us.

        “But doesn’t culture evolve because of our attempts to ‘mess with it’.”

        Absolutely. You see how well it’s gone. It’s a challenge; the law of unintended effects always applies.

        So it was a bit naïve when I asked if we should be trying to have a balance between shaping our environment to suit our genes and allowing the environment (of our shaping) to shape our genes. I felt like that was the case. I’m still just thinking out loud here, but with that in mind, I guess we should just focus on shaping our environment to suit our genes and let our genes evolve where they may to whatever extent our environments cause them to evolve. And as you said, this evolutionary process is so slow that we probably don’t have to worry too much about any of its effects in our day to day efforts to shape the environment.

        In terms of the law of unintended effects, aren’t we sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place? Doesn’t our nature compel us to shape our environment? Can we shut that off? At a fundamental level, isn’t all life really about altering its environment to lower its local entropy? The history books are filled with the suffering caused by the unintended consequences of our efforts to change the environment. But unless we can shut the desire to undertake those efforts off, I think probably our best bet is to keep searching for ways to make the best decisions about how we change our environment.

        A democracy seems better than a human-controlled centralized government. How the heck can a few people be capable of successfully guiding a civilization via a centralized government? There is no way they can handle all the variables. No wonder centralized governments seem to always eventually have to rely on brutal tactics to keep a population in control, no matter how well meaning the government may have been to start off with. Maybe an AI-controlled centralized government would be an upgrade in the sense that it could handle more variables than humans in a centralized government could. But are we ready (or is it prudent) to trust our governing to an AI (I guess in some ways AI governs our lives already, but not as an entire government yet)?

        So that leaves a democracy (unless there are other methods of governing that I’m leaving out). More brainpower is put towards the problem of governing, but if a large part of the population is uneducated, then the brainpower backing the democracy may reach just as many bad decisions as good ones. So then, how to have a better educated population? Democracies around the world have been trying to educate their populations, all pretty much in very similar ways, for quite some time now (public education like how we know it today seems to go back at least to around the beginning of the industrial revolution). I’m not sure this method is capable of producing the best results. Can we really leave the responsibility to get a good education up to people, despite how good or bad their living conditions may be? Everyone in America supposedly has access to free (tax supported) education. But there is still that bell curve distribution you mentioned where some work their ass off, most do enough to get by, and some goof off.

        It’s the same with the retributive justice system that has arguably been the primary justice system for centuries (if not millennia, or even throughout our entire history) now. Why hasn’t the fear of retribution stopped crime at this point? To me, all retribution does is bring some sense of “justice”, mostly in the form of revenge, to the victims of a crime. But how does this help society as a whole? If a person is suffering enough to reach the point where they will harm others via a major crime (maybe a crime of passion), they are not likely going to rationally think, in the moment, about the punishment that could follow. And in other cases, people may often feel that they can get away with the action and risk it despite the possibility of retribution. Can we really leave the main responsibility of self-control in this regard up to people, despite how good or bad their environment may be? The bell curve may fit this data as well. Some people can control themselves enough, most people probably risk getting away with minor crimes, and some have no control over their crimes of passion.

        To me, it all stems back to having an environment that promotes a more fulfilled society. It doesn’t mean spoon feeding everyone all that is required to fulfill their needs. But I think it means creating an environment where everyone can be expected to obtain what they need with enough effort. I think such an environment (unintended effects and all) would shift the peak of the bell curve towards the desired result. It’s not that we remove the main responsibility from people in some “1984” fashion. I think we need to create an environment where people’s main responsibility is more likely to be beneficial towards civilization and the planet’s ecosystem. For example, more people would be willing to learn the basic things that a civilization requires of its population, and more people would have the energy to pursue their natural passions. More people would be able to exert self-control in lessening the amount of harm they cause others (and more and more importantly these days, lessening the amount of harm the cause to the entire ecosystem of our planet). Definitely not a utopia where all the data points are located at the desired end of the curve, but a more favorable distribution none-the-less. That isn’t the case in our current world. Large numbers of people have access to many of their needs effectively shut off. What the best way is to get there, I’m not sure. But I definitely want to spend a lot of time thinking about it.

        Selfish and malicious are personality traits. They’re relatively fixed, but can be altered over time if a person works on changing. Ignorance is a mental state curable with learning. Willful ignorance (refusing to learn) is a personality trait.
        Remember that negative personality traits are often masked by social norms of behavior when we’re feeling satisfied. It’s only under stress that those norms get stripped away revealing the true personality.

        I think that Maslow leaned heavily on the nurture side in regards to this topic. And I think he felt that negative personality traits more emerge because of stress than get revealed because of stress. I also think that anything that could be considered to be “relatively fixed” would be considered to be a pathology at that point. As I go through his works over the next few days or so, I’ll make sure to find where this is addressed as well, but that’s the impression I’ve gotten up to this point from reading his works.

        Wow…..So much for keeping the pace slowed down. Haha. Sometimes I just get so passionate about this.

  • Astronomer Eric

    subscribed! 🙂

  • Wyrd Smythe

    In reply to the comment above:

    “I wonder, in the personality traits observed in very young children, how much of those traits they are born with,”

    As you say, nature vs nurture is hard to disentangle, but I suspect we’re born with very little in the way of personality traits. I also suspect we pick them up quickly. As you also said, that personality can change does suggest it’s more a matter of nurture than nature.

    Dogs might be a good example. Breeds that are supposedly aggressive can be sweethearts if raised to be, and, likewise, breeds supposedly known to be easy-going can be aggressive if raised to be.

    OTOH, parents with both a boy and a girl usually see typically male behaviors in the boy and typically female behaviors in the girl. (In general. The lines are fuzzy and there is considerable overlap.) Something like native intelligence is a born trait, also. Some things may be more or less built in.

    “Maybe it’s similar to why people have a difficult time altering their worldview once they have settled on one.”

    Very similar, I suspect.

    “I’m not quite sure what you mean by your anger being ‘artificial’. “

    I just meant it comes from external sources beyond my control. Some people internalize anger and make it part of their personality — they become “angry people”. I’ve been called an “angry man” since high school, and rightfully so. A lot of shit pisses me off. But I don’t internalize it; I don’t make it part of my identity.

    “For you, the injustices of the world are the things that bring out your anger…”

    Well, sure, but everyone should be angry about the many injustices.

    I’m extra pissed off because, to be very blunt, I’m stuck on a planet with a bunch of — from my perspective — fucking morons. Per tests done in the 1960s and 1970s, I have an extremely high IQ (and a strong education on top of that; I’ve always been a polymath and an autodidact). We know such IQ tests are biased for white American males of a certain generation, but since I am a white American male of that generation, those tests do apply to me. And, again being honest, the reality of my life is that I’m often acknowledged as the smartest guy in the room. One of the central pieces of feedback from others throughout my life involves how smart they think I am. Add all that together, and, yeah, I guess it’s true.

    (Thing is, I feel normal, so from my point of view, it’s like most people aren’t trying or something. It puzzled me most of my life why people were so “lazy” but I finally realized being smart is like being tall, not like being physically fit. It’s mostly something one is born with. Or not.)

    “Someone else who gets angry while drunk at a party may be more directly confronted with the things that make them angry”

    In the sense that the anger is within them, so they’re always confronted with it, sure.

    Alcohol is another way our social masks get stripped away (as we talked about stress doing). When someone is drunk, we see their unfiltered self. It doesn’t matter being at a party or drinking over dinner or sitting at home in front of the TV.

    “I wonder if you were out socializing with some of those other judges whom you may disagree with, whether or not alcohol might cause your anger over the topic to more easily come out?”

    No, quite the opposite. That’s what I’m saying. A few drinks makes me more inclined to put aside differences and enjoy the moment. In fact I have gotten drunk with people I disagreed with, and we had fun together. At the right level of inebriation, really honest conversations are possible. (The trick is remembering them the next day.)

    Next up,… Maslow.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    In reply to the comment above:

    “Maslow spent a good amount of time in his book discussing how people who self-actualize tend to focus on problems outside of themselves, such as problems of injustice.”

    Absolutely. We need the luxury of being able to consider abstract problems not directly connected with ourselves.

    “Your anger arising out of an unmet need for something like justice seems just as real to me…”

    Sure it’s real, but it’s also fairly abstract. Compare that to the anger I feel with my WiFi issues, or with a close friend letting me down. That anger is much more immediate and directly connected. (As you say, different parts of the needs hierarchy.)

    “An interesting example of something passed down throughout the generations”

    A lot of wisdom is coded in what people observed over the ages. Humans are really good at spotting patterns.

    “Agreed that IQ has something to do with how we educate people, but unless there is a correlation with lower IQs and a lack of feeling…”

    Oh, good heavens, no! If anything, the correlation is between lower IQ and more feeling (that is to say, intuitive thinking rather than rational analysis). But the truth is there probably is no correlation at all — humans are feeling creatures. The trick is learning to be intellectual.

    As you say, IQ affects how we educate and motivate people.

    “In terms of the law of unintended effects, aren’t we sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place?”

    Yep. (To the questions that follow this one: Yep. Nope. Pretty much. 😀 )

    “A democracy seems better than a human-controlled centralized government.”

    It’s been called the “least worst form of government” — a good way to put it I always thought. We often end up voting for the least worst idea or politician. Democracy isn’t perfect, and it expects a lot of its citizens (which is where it often fails), but compared to most other choices, it’s the least worst.

    “Democracies around the world have been trying to educate their populations, all pretty much in very similar ways, for quite some time now”

    Something to understand is that it’s almost always the adults that fuck it up, not the kids. Children want to learn, and it’s astonishing to me how bad we allow our education systems to be given we’re literally training our future. (Shitty education systems are one reason I feel I live on a planet of morons. But, as we talked about long ago, a stupid electorate gives government more freedom. Most governments don’t want an educated populace.)

    So either supposedly concerned adults won’t provide the funding, won’t respect the teachers, and often interfere with trained educators. In some cases adults fight education, teachers, or even students, in the name of religion or whatever. (Many religions fear educated free-thinking even more than governments do.)

    “Why hasn’t the fear of retribution stopped crime at this point?”

    How do know to what it extent it does stop crime? How many crimes are not committed because the putative criminal feared retribution? It’s like the gun ownership argument. It’s almost impossible to quantify crimes that aren’t committed.

    I understand the Navajo don’t believe in revenge or retribution. To them, as you suggest, a person who commits a crime is suffering from being out of balance. Their goal is to restore that person to balance.

    “Can we really leave the main responsibility of self-control in this regard up to people, despite how good or bad their environment may be?”

    As opposed to what?

    “But I think it means creating an environment where everyone can be expected to obtain what they need with enough effort.”

    Well, sure, that would be great. How are you going to pull it off? Human societies have been trying to accomplish that goal as long as there have been human societies. It turns out to be a major challenge, and might be impossible. People are extremely complicated. The complications go up exponentially as you add people.

    And I’m not sure any world we can create ever fixes anything. Rich people commit suicide, so having one’s needs met on an absurd scale obviously isn’t enough. But then what ever could be?

    Sometimes the most valuable goals are the ones people have to fight hard for. We tend not to value what is handed to us. (My dog Sam came from a litter where at first offered the pups for free. No one wanted one. Then they charged $25 and everyone one wanted one. I spent three summers working in a concert theatre venue. The ones who complained the most about whatever were the ones with the free comp tickets. We tend not to value free stuff.)

    “I think he felt that negative personality traits more emerge because of stress than get revealed because of stress.”

    That’s not true in my experience — stress doesn’t make someone an asshole, it can only reveal their inner asshole. Likewise alcohol; it doesn’t add anything, it only takes away the masks.

    If one is an asshole under stress, or when one is drunk, then one is an asshole, period.

    (Another good test of character is how we treat those who don’t matter to us. That goes back to the guy paying the waiter to spill water on his date. The waiter didn’t matter to her, so her reaction towards him was more honest than it might be to the guy she was dating and didn’t want to seem like an asshole to.)

  • Astronomer Eric

    Just want to quickly clarify a couple of your questions:

    “Can we really leave the main responsibility of self-control in this regard up to people, despite how good or bad their environment may be?”

    As opposed to what?

    That’s why I tried to differentiate suffering from suFFSering earlier. So, as opposed to creating a better environment where the responsibility of self-control isn’t too high of a hurdle for people who, in a bad environment, can’t meet some of their needs because of some injustice in that bad environment.

    — The ones who complained the most about whatever were the ones with the free comp tickets. We tend not to value free stuff.

    Not talking about spoon feeding people their needs, just about not preventing people from being able to meet all of their needs because of injustices in their environment. A UBI might be considered as spoon feeding (that’s why I don’t think it would be a permanent solution, just a transitional one), but it would be better than offering free housing/food in the sense of how you described giving people free tickets. If instead of giving them free tickets, they were given a stipend to purchase whatever tickets they felt were more suitable to them, that would have less to complain about except their own poor choice if it came down to that.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “So, as opposed to creating a better environment where the responsibility of self-control isn’t too high of a hurdle for people”

      I think this may overestimate the connection between environment and self-control. To some extent, comfort and lack of self-control are correlated. Think how often the words “rich” and “spoiled” are used together.

      “If instead of giving them free tickets, they were given a stipend to purchase whatever tickets they felt were more suitable to them,”

      Comp tickets are usually very good seats — often the best available. So a stipend would result in worse seats or certainly no better. It kind of doesn’t matter how, but gifts tend to promote feelings of entitlement. It’s only the things we have to work for that we really value.

      • Astronomer Eric

        This is good, the responses are temporarily short, so I can spend time scouring “Motivation and Personality”. 🙂

        — I think this may overestimate the connection between environment and self-control. To some extent, comfort and lack of self-control are correlated. Think how often the words “rich” and “spoiled” are used together.

        I see the connection as being more between a lack of pathologies and ability to exert more self-control. And then I see a connection between a better environment and lack of pathologies. Kind of a two-step process.

        I think the words “rich” and “lots of pathologies” should be used together more often. 😉 Having access to that much is not only bad for one’s psyche, but also bad for the environment.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Could be. 🙂

        I think you’re also overestimating the connection between a lack of self-control and pathology. For some it’s simply a matter of lack of any training in self-control. Our culture doesn’t really preach self-control — quite the opposite in many cases. (The big dumb impulsive hero who always gets it right because script. In real life, dumb and impulsive usually lead to Bad Things.)

        OTOH, one might define a lack of self-control as a pathology. I kind of do. In most cases, a lack of self-control is just self-centered indulgence. Whether it’s eating another piece of cake, getting into a bar fight, or flying off the handle at someone, nothing forces people to behave like that. Being “out of control” is usually a fiction.

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: