The Scipionic Circle 96: Navigating Temptations, Playing Life's Games, and The Correlation of Ideas
"We understand life backwards but live it forwards." — Søren Kierkegaard
Welcome to another issue of The Scipionic Circle — I hope you find something of value.
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Food for Thought
I. Thinking Together: The Correlation of Ideas in Collective Thought
“In an age of manipulation, give people high hopes: tell them that they can become 'free' thinkers!
“As soon as they buy into that, their mental faculties go bankrupt. Biases become stronger; cracks in the “logical” thought processes wider; and doubts drop to a minimum.
“To truly internalize that you can think for yourself renders you vulnerable to incur incompetence in installments – the process is slow but certain: it irreparably results in intellectual death.
"When people praise someone for 'thinking for herself', you should laugh.
“You can’t think for yourself. No one can. We cannot think independently of other human beings.
“Our thinking process is the product of what we read, watch, experience and whom we socialize and hang out with.
“One should be able to swallow nuances: you can't think for yourself, but you may very well not think like others – yet, you do think with others. It's about correlation, not causation.
“Any (reasonably plausible) idea someone puts in your mind is likely to have an effect on your thinking. If I make you read 'On Liberty' by John Stuart Mill and then I ask you 'What values should a good society be based on?', you are going to end up offering me a slightly different answer than if I make you read 'The Sovereign Individual' by James Dale Davidson. Even though you may enjoy neither of them, they nevertheless influence you.
“The reasoning you’re going to develop in the evening will be correlated with the books that you read in the afternoon. So, if you’re having dinner with a friend and you start discussing 'big' ideas, and you tend to think 'Wow, this guy really thinks for himself', what in fact happens is that you don’t have a complete picture when it comes to whom he hung out with, what books he read and what he experienced this month or this year.
“Experiment: have a coffee with a lawyer and then go for a beer with an engineer. Discuss a topic that may interest both – let’s say, cyberspace. The lawyer may start implicitly rambling about privacy, liability or (this is rare though) ethics; whilst the engineer will possibly tend to talk more about the technical aspects. It’s not necessarily that they will only talk about their field of expertise, but their reasoning will be correlated with that.
“We don’t think for ourselves, we don’t think like others – yet we do think with others." – From Economy of Truth Practical Maxims and Reflections by Vizi Andrei.
II. Navigating Temptations: The Fail-Safe Principle
“Execution fail-safes leverage your thinking when you’re at your best to protect you against the defaults when you’re at your worst.
“The idea of an execution fail-safe is well illustrated by the Greek myth of Ulysses. Ulysses was the captain of his ship. He and his crew were navigating close to the island inhabited by the Sirens, dangerous creatures that lured sailors to their deaths with their song—a song so beautiful that it drove crews mad with longing till they ran their ships against the rocks trying to reach its source.
“Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song without risking the lives of his crew. Now, I’m not saying that Ulysses made a great decision here. If he’d really thought through his options using the principles and safeguards I’ve outlined, he would’ve steered clear of the island. But that’s not the part I love about the story. What I love is that Ulysses implemented fail-safes to ensure his decision was executed as planned.
“He stuffed the ears of his crew with beeswax so they couldn’t hear the song as they approached the island. And to prevent them from changing course, he had them tie him to the mast so that no matter what he said or did in the madness of the song, he couldn’t influence them or change the decision he’d already made. He also instructed them that the more he struggled and insisted on changing course, the tighter they should bind him.
“Ulysses’s clever implementation of execution fail-safes allowed him to hear the song while ensuring the safety of his crew. Of course, fail-safes are indispensable in a lot of other contexts too." — From Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results by Shane Parrish.
III. Navigating Life's Games: The Fallacy of Singular Success and the Art of Multiple Wins
“Standards of better or worse are not illusory or unnecessary. If you hadn’t decided that what you are doing right now was better than the alternatives, you wouldn’t be doing it. The idea of a value-free choice is a contradiction in terms. Value judgments are a precondition for action. Furthermore, every activity, once chosen, comes with its own internal standards of accomplishment. If something can be done at all, it can be done better or worse. To do anything at all is therefore to play a game with a defined and valued end, which can always be reached more or less efficiently and elegantly. Every game comes with its chance of success or failure. Differentials in quality are omnipresent. Furthermore, if there was no better and worse, nothing would be worth doing. There would be no value and, therefore, no meaning. Why make an effort if it doesn’t improve anything? Meaning itself requires the difference between better and worse. How, then, can the voice of critical self-consciousness be stilled? Where are the flaws in the apparently impeccable logic of its message? We might start by considering the all-too-black-and-white words themselves: 'success' or 'failure.' You are either a success, a comprehensive, singular, over-all good thing, or its opposite, a failure, a comprehensive, singular, irredeemably bad thing. The words imply no alternative and no middle ground. However, in a world as complex as ours, such generalizations (really, such failure to differentiate) are a sign of naive, unsophisticated or even malevolent analysis. There are vital degrees and gradations of value obliterated by this binary system, and the consequences are not good.
“To begin with, there is not just one game at which to succeed or fail. There are many games and, more specifically, many good games—games that match your talents, involve you productively with other people, and sustain and even improve themselves across time. Lawyer is a good game. So is plumber, physician, carpenter, or schoolteacher. The world allows for many ways of Being. If you don’t succeed at one, you can try another. You can pick something better matched to your unique mix of strengths, weaknesses and situation. Furthermore, if changing games does not work, you can invent a new one. I recently watched a talent show featuring a mime who taped his mouth shut and did something ridiculous with oven mitts. That was unexpected. That was original. It seemed to be working for him. It’s also unlikely that you’re playing only one game. You have a career and friends and family members and personal projects and artistic endeavors and athletic pursuits. You might consider judging your success across all the games you play. Imagine that you are very good at some, middling at others, and terrible at the remainder. Perhaps that’s how it should be. You might object: I should be winning at everything! But winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult. You might be winning but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning. Should victory in the present always take precedence over trajectory across time?
“Finally, you might come to realize that the specifics of the many games you are playing are so unique to you, so individual, that comparison to others is simply inappropriate. Perhaps you are overvaluing what you don’t have and undervaluing what you do. There’s some real utility in gratitude. It’s also good protection against the dangers of victimhood and resentment. Your colleague outperforms you at work. His wife, however, is having an affair, while your marriage is stable and happy. Who has it better? The celebrity you admire is a chronic drunk driver and bigot. Is his life truly preferable to yours? When the internal critic puts you down using such comparisons, here’s how it operates: First, it selects a single, arbitrary domain of comparison (fame, maybe, or power). Then it acts as if that domain is the only one that is relevant. Then it contrasts you unfavourably with someone truly stellar, within that domain. It can take that final step even further, using the unbridgeable gap between you and its target of comparison as evidence for the fundamental injustice of life. That way your motivation to do anything at all can be most effectively undermined. Those who accept such an approach to self-evaluation certainly can’t be accused of making things too easy for themselves. But it’s just as big a problem to make things too difficult." — From 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Marcus Aurelius on navigating assumptions:
“Everything turns on your assumptions about it, and that’s on you. You can pluck out the hasty judgment at will, and like steering a ship around the point, you will find calm seas, fair weather and a safe port.”
II. Søren Kierkegaard on life's puzzle:
“We understand life backwards but live it forwards."
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Thank you for reading,