Category: Thinking (page 1 of 2)

On struggle

The popular view of life seems to be that mishaps, hardship, and struggle are all things that most people can avoid. If we stop to think about that for a second, that’s obviously untrue; in fact, the opposite is the case.

This article in Lifehacker quotes Seneca, one of my favourite Stoic philosophers:

“Why, then, should we be angry? Why should we lament? We are prepared for our fate: let nature deal as she will with her own bodies; let us be cheerful whatever befalls, and stoutly reflect that it is not anything of our own that perishes. What is the duty of a good man? To submit himself to fate: it is a great consolation. To be swept away together with the entire universe: whatever law is laid upon us that thus we must live and thus we must die, is laid upon the gods.”

As part of my daily reading, I meditate on other tenets of Stoicism. The opening to Epictetus’ Enchiridion tells you pretty much everything you need to know:

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men: but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.

It’s also worth dwelling on this from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness all of them due to the offenders ignorance of what is good or evil.

Suffering is part of life, and we should embrace it. Control what you can control, and let the rest go.

Source: Lifehacker

Different ways of knowing

The Book of Life from the School of Life is an ever-expanding treasure trove of wisdom. In this entry, entitled Knowing Things Intellectually vs. Knowing Them Emotionally the focus is on different ways of how we ‘know’ things:

An intellectual understanding of the past, though not wrong, won’t by itself be effective in the sense of being able to release us from the true intensity of our neurotic symptoms. For this, we have to edge our way towards a far more close-up, detailed, visceral appreciation of where we have come from and what we have suffered. We need to strive for what we can call an emotional understanding of the past – as opposed to a top-down, abbreviated intellectual one.

I’ve no idea about my own intellectual abilities, although I guess I do have a terminal degree. What I do know is that I’ve spoken with many smart people who, like me, have found it difficult to deal with emotions such as anxiety. There’s definitely a difference between ‘knowing’ as in ‘knowing what’s wrong with you’ and ‘knowing how to fix it’.

Psychotherapy has long recognised this distinction. It knows that thinking is hugely important – but on its own, within the therapeutic process itself, it is not the key to fixing our psychological problems.


Therapy builds on the idea of a return to live feelings. It’s only when we’re properly in touch with feelings that we can correct them with the help of our more mature faculties – and thereby address the real troubles of our adult lives.

The article has threaded through it the example of having an abusive relationship as a child. Thankfully, I didn’t experience that, but it does make a great suggestion that finding the source of one’s anxiety and fully experiencing the emotion at its core might be helpful.

And it is on the basis of this kind of hard-won emotional knowledge, not its more painless intellectual kind, that we may one day, with a fair wind, discover a measure of relief for some of the troubles within.

Source: The Book of Life

Memento mori

As I’ve mentioned before on Thought Shrapnel, next to my bed I have a memento mori, an object that reminds me that one day I will die.

My friend Ian O’Byrne had some sad news last week: his grandmother died. However, in an absolutely fantastic and very well-written post he wrote in the aftermath, he mentioned how meditating regularly on death, and having a memento mori has really helped him to live his life to the fullest.

I believe that it is reminders like this one that we desperately need in our own lives. It seems like a normal practice that may of us would rather ignore death, or do everything to avoid and pretend is not true. It may be the root of ego that causes us to run away from anything that reminds us of this reality. As a safety mechanism, we build this comfortable narrative that avoids this tough subject.

We also at times simply refuse to look at life as it is. We’re scared to meditate and reflect on the fact that we are all going to die. Just the fact that I wrote this post, and you’re reading it may strike you as a bit dark and macabre.

With all of our technological, surgical, and pharmaceutical inventions and devices, we expect, almost demand, to live a long life, live it in good health and look good doing it. We live in denial that we will die. But, previous civilizations were acutely aware of their own mortality. Memento mori was the philosophy of reflecting on your own death as a form of spiritual improvement, and rejecting earthly vanities.

So having a memento mori isn’t morbid, it’s actually a symbol that you’re looking to maximise your time here on earth. When I used a Mac, I had a skull icon at the top of the dock on the left-hand side of my screen.

Ian suggests some alternatives:

There are multiple ways to include this process of memento mori in your life. For some, it is as simple as including artwork and symbols in your home and daily interactions. These may be symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life. In my home we have skulls in various pieces of art and sculptures that help serve as a reminder.

I had opportunity last week to revisit Buster Benson’s 2013 influential post Live Like a Hydra. In it, he references an experiment he called If I Lived 100 Times whereby he modelled life expectancy data for someone his age. It’s interesting reading and certainly makes you think. How many books will you read before you die? How many new countries will you travel to? It makes you think.

Back to Ian’s article and he turns to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus for some advice:

Memento mori is an opportunity, should you take it, to reflect on the invigorating and humbling aspects of life. By no means am I an expert on this. I still struggle daily with understanding my role and mission in life. In these struggles, I also need to remember that I may not wake up tomorrow. As stated by Epictetus, “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” These opportunities to reflect and meditate provide an opportunity to create and enjoy the life you want.

Wise words indeed.

Source: W. Ian O’Byrne

Living an antifragile life

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book is out, which made me think about his previous work, Antifragile (which I enjoyed greatly).

As Shane Parrish quotes in a 2014 article on the subjet, Taleb defines antifragility in the following way:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet.

This definition, and the examples Taleb pointed to in his book helped me understand the world a bit better. It’s easy to point to entitled people and see how they manage to get richer no matter what happens. But I think we all know people (and in fact companies, organisations, and communities) that are just set up for success. The notion of them being ‘antifragile’ helps describe that.

Parrish quotes Buster Benson who boils Taleb’s book down to one general, underlying principle:

Play the long game, keep your options open and avoid total failure while trying lots of different things and maintaining an open mind.

More specifically, Benson notes Taleb’s 10 principles of antifragility:

  1. Stick to simple rules
  2. Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
  3. Resist the urge to suppress randomness
  4. Make sure that you have your soul in the game
  5. Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
  6. Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
  7. Don’t get consumed by data
  8. Keep your options open
  9. Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
  10. Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time

Some great suggestions here, and I’m very much looking forward to reading Taleb’s new book. As a bonus, in putting together this post I discovered that, after jobs at Twitter, Slack, and Amazon, Buster Benson is writing a book. He’s looking for 100 supporters at $1 a month so I didn’t even think twice and pledged!

Source: Farnam Street

Archives of Radical Philosophy

A quick one to note that the entire archive (1972-2018) of Radical Philosophy is now online. It describes itself as a “UK-based journal of socialist and feminist philosophy” and there’s articles in there from Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, and Richard Rorty.

If nothing else, these essays and many others should upend facile notions of leftist academic philosophy as dominated by “postmodern” denials of truth, morality, freedom, and Enlightenment thought, as doctrinaire Stalinism, or little more than thought policing through dogmatic political correctness. For every argument in the pages of Radical Philosophy that might confirm certain readers’ biases, there are dozens more that will challenge their assumptions, bearing out Foucault’s observation that “philosophy cannot be an endless scrutiny of its own propositions.”

That’s my bedtime reading sorted for the foreseeable, then…

Source: Open Culture

Is your smartphone a very real part of who you are?

I really enjoy Aeon’s articles, and probably should think about becoming a paying subscriber. They make me think.

This one is about your identity and how much of it is bound up with your smartphone:

After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself – and all this dating back years.

I did some work on mind, brain, and personal identity as part of my undergraduate studies in Philosophy. I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument that things outside our body can become part of who we are:

Andy Clark and David Chalmers… argued in ‘The Extended Mind’ (1998) that technology is actually part of us. According to traditional cognitive science, ‘thinking’ is a process of symbol manipulation or neural computation, which gets carried out by the brain. Clark and Chalmers broadly accept this computational theory of mind, but claim that tools can become seamlessly integrated into how we think. Objects such as smartphones or notepads are often just as functionally essential to our cognition as the synapses firing in our heads. They augment and extend our minds by increasing our cognitive power and freeing up internal resources.

So if you’ve always got your smartphone with you, it’s possible to outsource things to it. For example, you don’t have to remember so many things, you just need to know how to retrieve them. In the age of voice assistants, that becomes ever-easier.

This is known as the ‘extended mind thesis’.

This line of reasoning leads to some potentially radical conclusions. Some philosophers have argued that when we die, our digital devices should be handled as remains: if your smartphone is a part of who you are, then perhaps it should be treated more like your corpse than your couch. Similarly, one might argue that trashing someone’s smartphone should be seen as a form of ‘extended’ assault, equivalent to a blow to the head, rather than just destruction of property. If your memories are erased because someone attacks you with a club, a court would have no trouble characterising the episode as a violent incident. So if someone breaks your smartphone and wipes its contents, perhaps the perpetrator should be punished as they would be if they had caused a head trauma.

These are certainly questions I’m interested in. I’ve seen some predictions that Philosphy graduates are going to be earning more than Computer Science graduates in a decade’s time. I can see why (and I certainly hope so!)

Source: Aeon

The ‘loudness’ of our thoughts affects how we judge external sounds

This is really interesting:

The “loudness” of our thoughts — or how we imagine saying something — influences how we judge the loudness of real, external sounds, a team of researchers from NYU Shanghai and NYU has found.

No-one but you knows what it’s like to be inside your head and be subject to the constant barrage of hopes, fears, dreams — and thoughts:

“Our ‘thoughts’ are silent to others — but not to ourselves, in our own heads — so the loudness in our thoughts influences the loudness of what we hear,” says Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neural science.

Using an imagery-perception repetition paradigm, the team found that auditory imagery will decrease the sensitivity of actual loudness perception, with support from both behavioural loudness ratings and human electrophysiological (EEG and MEG) results.

“That is, after imagined speaking in your mind, the actual sounds you hear will become softer — the louder the volume during imagery, the softer perception will be,” explains Tian, assistant professor of neural and cognitive sciences at NYU Shanghai. “This is because imagery and perception activate the same auditory brain areas. The preceding imagery already activates the auditory areas once, and when the same brain regions are needed for perception, they are ‘tired’ and will respond less.”

This is why meditation, both in terms of trying to still your mind, and meditating on positive things you read, is such a useful activity.

As anyone who’s studied philosophy, psychology, and/or neuroscience knows, we don’t experience the world directly, but find ways to interpret the “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion”:

According to Tian, the study demonstrates that perception is a result of interaction between top-down (e.g. our cognition) and bottom-up (e.g. sensory processing of external stimulation) processes. This is because human beings not only receive and analyze upcoming external signals passively, but also interpret and manipulate them actively to form perception.

Source: Science Daily

What we can learn from Seneca about dying well

As I’ve shared before, next to my bed at home I have a memento mori, an object to remind me before I go to sleep and when I get up that one day I will die. It kind of puts things in perspective.

“Study death always,” Seneca counseled his friend Lucilius, and he took his own advice. From what is likely his earliest work, the Consolation to Marcia (written around AD 40), to the magnum opus of his last years (63–65), the Moral Epistles, Seneca returned again and again to this theme. It crops up in the midst of unrelated discussions, as though never far from his mind; a ringing endorsement of rational suicide, for example, intrudes without warning into advice about keeping one’s temper, in On Anger. Examined together, Seneca’s thoughts organize themselves around a few key themes: the universality of death; its importance as life’s final and most defining rite of passage; its part in purely natural cycles and processes; and its ability to liberate us, by freeing souls from bodies or, in the case of suicide, to give us an escape from pain, from the degradation of enslavement, or from cruel kings and tyrants who might otherwise destroy our moral integrity.

Seneca was forced to take his own life by his own pupil, the more-than-a-little-crazy Roman Emperor, Nero. However, his whole life had been a preparation for such an eventuality.

Seneca, like many leading Romans of his day, found that larger moral framework in Stoicism, a Greek school of thought that had been imported to Rome in the preceding century and had begun to flourish there. The Stoics taught their followers to seek an inner kingdom, the kingdom of the mind, where adherence to virtue and contemplation of nature could bring happiness even to an abused slave, an impoverished exile, or a prisoner on the rack. Wealth and position were regarded by the Stoics as adiaphora, “indifferents,” conducing neither to happiness nor to its opposite. Freedom and health were desirable only in that they allowed one to keep one’s thoughts and ethical choices in harmony with Logos, the divine Reason that, in the Stoic view, ruled the cosmos and gave rise to all true happiness. If freedom were destroyed by a tyrant or health were forever compromised, such that the promptings of Reason could no longer be obeyed, then death might be preferable to life, and suicide, or self-euthanasia, might be justified.

Given that death is the last taboo in our society, it’s an interesting way to live your life. Being ready at any time to die, having lived a life that you’re satisfied with, seems like the right approach to me.

“Study death,” “rehearse for death,” “practice death”—this constant refrain in his writings did not, in Seneca’s eyes, spring from a morbid fixation but rather from a recognition of how much was at stake in navigating this essential, and final, rite of passage. As he wrote in On the Shortness of Life, “A whole lifetime is needed to learn how to live, and—perhaps you’ll find this more surprising—a whole lifetime is needed to learn how to die.”

Source: Lapham’s Quarterly

The Kano model

Using the example of the innovation of a customised home page from the early days of Flickr, this article helps break down how to delight users:

Years ago, we came across the work of Noriaka Kano, a Japanese expert in customer satisfaction and quality management. In studying his writing, we learned about a model he created in the 1980s, known as the Kano Model.

The article does a great job of explaining how you can implement great features but they don’t particularly get users excited:

Capabilities that users expect will frustrate those users when they don’t work. However, when they work well, they don’t delight those users. A basic expectation, at best, can reach a neutral satisfaction a point where it, in essence, becomes invisible to the user.

Try as it might, Google’s development team can only reduce the file-save problems to the point of it working 100% of the time. However, users will never say, “Google Docs is an awesome product because it saves my documents so well.” They just expect files to always be saved correctly.

So it’s a process of continual improvement, and marginal gains in some areas:

One of the predictions that the Kano Model makes is that once customers become accustomed to excitement generator features, those features are not as delightful. The features initially become part of the performance payoff and then eventually migrate to basic expectations.

Lots to think about here, particularly with Project MoodleNet.

Source: UIE

Humans are not machines

Can we teach machines to be ‘fully human’? It’s a fascinating question, as it makes us think carefully about what it actually means to be a human being.

Humans aren’t just about inputs and outputs. There’s some things that we ‘know’ in different ways. Take music, for example.

In philosophy, it’s common to describe the mind as a kind of machine that operates on a set of representations, which serve as proxies for worldly states of affairs, and get recombined ‘offline’ in a manner that’s not dictated by what’s happening in the immediate environment. So if you can’t consciously represent the finer details of a guitar solo, the way is surely barred to having any grasp of its nuances. Claiming that you have a ‘merely visceral’ grasp of music really amounts to saying that you don’t understand it at all. Right?

There’s activities we do and actions we peform that aren’t the result of conscious thought. What status do we give them?

Getting swept up in a musical performance is just one among a whole host of familiar activities that seem less about computing information, and more about feeling our way as we go: selecting an outfit that’s chic without being fussy, avoiding collisions with other pedestrians on the pavement, or adding just a pinch of salt to the casserole. If we sometimes live in the world in a thoughtful and considered way, we go with the flow a lot, too.

What sets humans apart from animals is the ability to plan and to pay attention to absract things and ideas:

Now, the world contains many things that we can’t perceive. I am unlikely to find a square root in my sock drawer, or to spot the categorical imperative lurking behind the couch. I can, however, perceive concrete things, and work out their approximate size, shape and colour just by paying attention to them. I can also perceive events occurring around me, and get a rough idea of their duration and how they relate to each other in time. I hear that the knock at the door came just before the cat leapt off the couch, and I have a sense of how long it took for the cat to sidle out of the room.

Time is one of the most abstract of the day-to-day things we deal with as humans:

Our conscious experience of time is philosophically puzzling. On the one hand, it’s intuitive to suppose that we perceive only what’s happening rightnow. But on the other, we seem to have immediate perceptual experiences of motion and change: I don’t need to infer from a series of ‘still’ impressions of your hand that it is waving, or work out a connection between isolated tones in order to hear a melody. These intuitions seem to contradict each other: how can I perceive motion and change if I am only really conscious of what’s occurring now? We face a choice: either we don’t really perceive motion and change, or the now of our perception encompasses more than the present instant – each of which seems problematic in its own way. Philosophers such as Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, as well as a host of more recent commentators, have debated how best to solve the dilemma.

So where does that leave us in terms of the differences between humans and machines?

Human attempts at making sense of the world often involve representing, calculating and deliberating. This isn’t the kind of thing that typically goes on in the 55 Bar, nor is it necessarily happening in the Lutheran church just down the block, or on a muddy football pitch in a remote Irish village. But gathering to make music, play games or engage in religious worship are far from being mindless activities. And making sense of the world is not necessarily just a matter of representing it.

To me, that last sentence is key: the world isn’t just representations. It’s deeper and more visceral than that.

Source: Aeon