At the closing of the last decade, I reviewed the intellectual progress I had in 2010s. Then I reflected upon the year 2020 by writing 20 lessons I learned in that year. Such reflections haven’t been part of any process – I’ve simply enjoyed taking a pause and doing stock of where my time went. Since time is the only limited resource we have, as I’m aging, I’m realizing that being conscious of how it’s getting spent is extremely important. In fact, such reflections are a fantastic way to nudge your future into a direction that you intentionally choose (v/s reacting to circumstances and drifting from year to year). ...
Lately, I’ve been feeling a lack of a well-deliberated, explicit moral code. The world is changing really fast – we have Elon Musk trying to set up a human colony on Mars while Earth’s bio-ecosystem is degrading by the day. So, should I support the investment of resources into making Mars habitable while Earth is gradually becoming unhabitable?
This, obviously, isn’t the only question. Every day, I feel like I need to decide which way to swing on controversial topics. People have strong opinions about things like genetically engineered babies, bitcoin, nuclear power and other new technologies. I know enough about cognitive biases to know that I shouldn’t trust my gut fully on these questions. My gut simply doesn’t know enough to have a good opinion on complex societal issues. Instead of relying on my gut, I need to rely on deliberate thinking to make moral choices. ... Read the entire post →
A decade is a long time, about 1/8th of an average life span if you happen to live a long life. I came across Scott Alexander’s post where he wrote about his intellectual progress in 2010s and thought it’ll be a good idea to do the same for myself. When I had turned 30 two years back, I had looked back at the goals that the 20 year old me had. If you read that post, you’ll see that overall I feel that my 20s (and correspondingly, most of the 2010s) were very fulfilling. I started a company, fell in love and made myself financially independent. ... Read the entire post →
Is there an arrow of progress in our universe? Or do things change without any particular direction as a goal, like a dust particle engaged in a Brownian motion, bumping and tumbling along randomly?
I don’t think there’s an answer to those two questions. Our thinking is designed to box phenomena into neatly packed categories that capture only a slice of reality. In fact, that’s where the problem with philosophy starts. Even if we both use the same word – say “love”, “free will” or “democracy” – we usually mean slightly different things and these slight differences provide all the fodder for the philosophical debate. ... Read the entire post →
In the last year or so, I have been reading on various topics indiscriminately. As I’m discovering connections while reading and thinking, my conviction towards some ideas has grown stronger. I wanted to mention some of such ideas that I suspect are true. I’ll also mention why I feel that way, but you derive your own conclusions.
1/ All matter and collections of matter have subjective experiences
I’m starting to believe that everything has an internal world to it. My belief in (a flavor of) Panpsychism grew stronger because we have evidence of one collection of atoms that has subjective experiences: our brain. Just like we take the evidence of gravity on Earth and project that it holds true everywhere else in the universe, why can’t we take the evidence of our own subjective experience and project it to be true for other collections of matter as well? We, by definition, cannot peek inside an atom to feel what it feels. So proving it or disproving it is hard. In such a case, I feel that the responsibility of providing evidence that an atom doesn’t have feelings (while we know that brain obviously has feelings) falls on strict materialists. ... Read the entire post →
What’s the meaning of life?
This question has haunted me for as far as my memory goes. Fourteen years ago – in 2005, when I was 18 – I wrote on my blog:
Purpose/Aim of life
First things first. Everybody says one should have some definite aim in life. But I consider living life to live, nothing else. Consider this, nobody lives after their death. So why waste ur whole life chasing an aim? Even if you get there. I mean even if you achieve so called aim, what next? Enjoyment or yet another aim? Enjoyment is OK. But there are many other ways in which u can enjoy ur life without wasting ur life in chasing an aim. No matter what, U are going to live. I don’t know if I am making any sense. But it is what I want to convey. ... Read the entire post →
One of the many wonderful things about life is that like a good game, it allows players to develop their own playing styles. This essay is an attempt to document the two most salient dimensions of playing the game of life. Note that there’s no objectively right way of playing and the lack of “best practices” is what makes living interesting.
Think of the following classifications as an example of meta-mental models. Hopefully, a good understanding of the modes of living will help you
1/ Whenever someone says “this is true”, or “I’m a truth-seeker”, ask them to first define truth. (Or if you’re asking this question, answer what evidence will constitute truth for you).
2/ Getting a hold of the definition being used for truth is especially important when talking about complex systems like business, politics, economics, ecology or essentially any field where you usually can’t just read error-free data from a well-isolated system.
3/ This privilege of substituting data with the truth is mostly available only to physicists. But even there, interpretations of truth can be widely debated – is 5-sigma a good enough threshold for declaring the Higgs boson to be true? Well, it’s anybody’s guess.
4/ The word ‘truth’ is bothersome because it’s ill-defined. If something is ‘true’, it won’t be debated. If something is debated but is ‘true’, how would you differentiate ‘truth’ from ‘falsity’? You’d use your subjective judgment to assess the evidence and then make that distinction. If you’d do that, so will everybody else and they can arrive at an opposite conclusion. (Much to your chagrin, they usually do). How can your truth be different from someone else’s truth?
5/ As you can see,
this ‘truth’ business is a slippery slope. I’d much rather prefer to use the word ‘satisfaction’ ... Read the entire post →
Before dissecting this contradictory nature of happiness, it’ll help to first define happiness. Everyone has their pet definition of happiness and each dictionary will define it in its own way. There’s no United Nations mandate specifying ingredients for happiness. It seems that happiness is hard to pin down and, as you’ll see, that’s precisely why you cannot plan for happiness.
The happiness paradox
Happiness is fundamentally an emotional feeling. You see, we feel happy. If happiness was a physical object located somewhere in our 4D spacetime, we could have sent space missions to find it and bring it back to us. If happiness was an idea, we could have ordered a book on Amazon and wrote reviews about it. If happiness was a person, we could marry it and be done for life. But happiness is none of it. If we knew what happiness was and how to get it, the entire self-help industry would have been long bankrupt. Yet the market for heres-how-you-get-happy is thriving because we’re suckers for happiness.
What I find most paradoxical about happiness is that we often think about it. Thinking is a process where we state some assumptions and work through their implications. Thinking is full of biases and is limited in its capacity (we aren’t able to store more than a couple of assumptions in our working memory). Thinking works best when there are a few variables involved. You’re fine thinking about whether Socrates is mortal (or discovering quantum mechanics), but you’re not ok thinking about how the future will unfold because it has far too many variables than what you can hold in your head.
Emotional feelings like love, disgust or happiness are a product of millions of years of evolution of our mind. There’s no single thing or principle that makes us happy. There’s no grand unified theory of happiness. Yet, we deploy our thinking hats trying to plan for a happier life. Thinking is significantly underpowered for this simulation: how our body and mind will react to billions of combinations of ingredients that make up our daily life and its context.
Miswanting: wanting things that won’t make you happy
There’s an idea in psychology called miswanting. It’s the difficulty we have in predicting what’ll make us happy. Here’s a simple example to illustrate miswanting. Suppose you think a beach holiday will make you happy. Since thinking is linear and full of biases, what leaps to your mind is pristine beaches, sun, beer and perhaps good food. Feeling pleasant and excited, you book your tickets. When the day arrives, you discover that the flight is delayed, or there was a cranky baby in the flight. Or when you reach the hotel, you find out that you forgot to pack sandals. On the beach, you get irritated by all the sand that’s stuck on your feet. There are tourists everywhere. It’s loud. Sun is harsher than you thought.
When you’re planning for a holiday (or any other experience you expect to derive happiness from), you obviously cannot think of all the nuances that’ll ruin the experience you planned for ... Read the entire post →
I write when there’s an incredibly hard idea that I need to teach myself. I write when I have a glimpse of an insight that’ll remain hidden until caught and penned down. Writing is a way of having long conversations with myself.
Sometimes I use the double column technique to reason out emotions. Every day I do garbage collection in my mind and dump it on a todo list. I maintain two dairies: one for distilled insights from stuff I’m reading and thinking about, and the second for rough sketches and workings.
Ideas are vague, floating and ephemeral. Putting them on a piece of paper (or up on a blog) makes them concrete and bundle them in a crystal-shape that you can show to other people.
Speaking and talking is cheap and usually off-the-record. Writing things makes them official – your claims are then on the record, so writing forces you think better.
Most good ideas are nuanced. There are a thousand caveats associated with anything worth talking about. These caveats – spoken – will bore the listener. Unspoken, they will misguide the listener (especially, if that listener is you). Writing gives you the ability to take all those caveats and convey them in a powerful and cohesive whole.
Some people prefer a one-line summary. They prefer fortune-cookie sized wisdom. But good things come with an effort. That’s why I like to read and write long, well-argued essays, full with a gazzilian caveats, sparking a bazzilian consequent ideas.
Good writing should be done first and foremost for oneself. Good writing should be done every time the mind is overloaded with activity arising either due to confusion or insight.
Write well, and write often because it’ll help you think confidently. Treat writing as an extension of your mind, so you can either discard things you don’t need by writing stuff on disposable pages, or crystallize ideas that aren’t letting you sleep well by putting them on a blog.