Posts Tagged philosophy

Prediction and Projection

I just got back from my date (yes, that’s why my blog is late) and it went well.  Not spectacularly, but well.  I hope we go out again! :)  Sorry, Eric, no essay quite yet!

The topic that was on my mind today was how humans are insanely good at projection – that is, putting ourselves in the place of others.  It’s why we are so naturally empathetic.  But more than that, humans are actually very good at making predictions (not necessarily being right about them, I guess, but that’s not the point)… and predictions are sort of like projections into the future.  I tend to trip myself up by putting too much thinking time and stock into these predictive plans.

Here’s an example – say that there’s a girl I like.  Rather than do the obvious, intelligent thing, and just live in the moment, I set up these imaginary possible futures in my head.  How would a relationship with this girl be?  What would life be like? etc.  I get so wrapped up in what things could be like that I forget to (or can’t) spend energy on what things are like.  This bites me time and time again, one of the major liabilities of being such a thinker, and you’d think I’d learn, but I don’t – and I think part of the reason is that it’s natural to default to exercising this powerful skill of prediction even if it’s emotionally negative.

My temporary (outer self to change the inner self?) solution is to be more spontaneous.  For example, I jumped in the Seattle Center fountain tonight during the date.  I was walking and thinking “man, I kinda want to jump in that fountain” and then, well, did.  She laughed and we bonded a bit over it, I think it was overall positive. :)  So that’s progress!

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Might and Right

I hate the expression “might makes right,” but the reason for my hate is not at first explicable. After all, most reasonable people don’t actually believe that might makes right — but what many people do believe (and what I *don’t* believe) aggression wins over nonagression. Whoever is willing to use violence has the upper hand, they think. Well, not only do I think that’s lame, but I also think it’s not necessarily true.

When a person is willing to use violenc as a means to an end, they have the ultimate overt ability to force another person to do what they want – if the pacifist refuses, the aggressor just kills them (or equivalent). My basic argument for why this is a terrible way of viewing the world is that either everyone uses violence to the detriment of everyone, or there is a fundamental unfairness in the way violent individuals can push the context of interaction to violence. Both state of affairs seem actively bad for rational and empathetic individuals (e.g. most people, most of the time).

There is a better way than violence, effective on even the aggressors when you yourself are not an aggressor… and that’s influence. Humans especially are social and empathetic creatures, and are bound by things like peer pressure, social sensitivity, and their own internal virtues (however buried they are). Even in cases where the aggressor is sociopathic, it is likely they still obey some sort of personal incentive structure beyond using violence for its own sake. By spending effort understanding and leveraging those incentives, the pacifist can defeat the aggressor – sometimes before actual violence (or threat of violence) enters the picture.

So when I say might *doesn’t* make right, what I mean is it might seem like there’s a more powerful convincing force than violence, in fact the more subtle and far-reaching force is nonviolent – the power of influence.

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I hold some beliefs that are not falsifiable.  For example, I hypothesize that humans are free-willed, but no currently-imaginable experiment could falsify that statement (prove that it isn’t true).  I think that there are plenty of “reasonable” hypotheses that are worth considering despite the fact that they are not falsifiable, and this post is an attempt to explain why I think that is true.

The notion of falsifiability is intrinsic to the Scientific Method: we advance our knowledge of the universe and the correctness and applicability of our theories by constructing tests for that knowledge and/or those theories.  Tests can only show that a theory is wrong (i.e.falsify it) – this is because any number of possible reasons could apply, and no test can account for all of them.  A test CAN account for one of them, though, by showing “this isn’t the reason, it must be something else.”  There are three very key implied aspects to this application of logic:

  1. A (semi-) objective observation has been recorded (that-which-we-theorize-about)
  2. A predictive, testable hypothesis can be constructed about the observation.
  3. Experiment can be constructed that falsifies AT LEAST the hypothesis in #2.

But there is a deeper question at hand: should the hypotheses for which no tests can be constructed be considered?  Such a premise is “nonfalsifiable,” or as Sam likes to say, “not even false.”  What is the meaning / truth value of such a theory?  “Humans are free-willed,” or “God exists,” are two such hypotheses, where no observation can be recorded relevant to the falsification of the hypothesis.

Still, my argument is that hypotheses like these are worthwhile, and here are my reasons:

  • Humans care about the “fundamental nature of the universe” irrespective of whether it has observable effects on us – one might argue this to be illogical, but humans are not merely logical beings (we have emotions, for example).  Since humans care, it becomes a part of human nature and therefore is worthwhile to consider despite being “unscientific.”
  • There are a lot of implicit assumptions in the use of the scientific method (see #1, #2, and #3 above) and therefore implicit reduction of problem complexity in favor of “solvability.”  Now, as a former Physics guy, I definitely understand the usefulness of “assume the cow is a sphere” thinking… but when it comes to thoughtful analysis of the world around us, we can’t ignore that intrinsic complexity is there and can sometimes be considered in addition to what is “solvable.”
  • I believe all things imaginable are possible, and if something is possible it might one day be observable.  Keeping an open mind and spending some thinking cycles on the possible-but-not-falsifiable better prepares me to handle crazy breaks in prediction later down the line, if they ever occur.  As long as I remain grounded and use the admittedly useful and incredible scientific method as a baseline for observables, I will have a leg up on understanding more chaotic, unpredictable and “basically impossible” future-observables should we ever observe them.

P.S. It is interesting to note once again that “there’s nothing new under the sun”: Hempel pointed out that this construction of the scientific method is more akin to inductive analysis (subject to statistics, not underlying predictable truths), and therefore must be enhanced via crucial experiements, or experiments that are capable of lending POSITIVE (not-just-to-falsify) evidence to theories.  His Raven Paradox is an interesting cautionary thought experiment about the perils of inductive reasoning: if all ravens are black, so therefore all non-ravens are non-black, then a green apple is evidence that all ravens aren’t black.

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What is sentience?  Or more precisely, what is the aspect of people that I think separates them from mere animals?  Now, it’s possible that you believe humans aren’t different than animals in any significant biological way – that all of the things we define as “sentience” is really just emergent behavior from the bio-machine – but I think it’s still worthwhile to define the encapsulation of a “sentient person” and compare that definition to a normal biological organism.

I think that sentience includes self-awareness.  This is extremely hard to measure objectively, but as will be apparent as a common theme, I think there can be objective qualities to the universe (or stuff in the universe) that we can’t demonstrably prove, but we can subjectively suppose and analyze, and that activity has meaning. I think sentient beings believe themselves sentient, and that also that they think (or think they think) in ways qualitatively different than those required for survival (e.g. selected for directly).

I also think that sentience implies the capacity of choice.  That is, a sentient being can make a decision given two possible courses of action according to internal reasoning (rational thought).  Other animals will demonstrate behavior that looks like choice, but can actually be attributed to conditioning.  I’m not saying sentient beings always make “choices” (sometimes they are also conditioned) but I do think animals never do.

All this being said, I think sentience is probably more like a spectrum then the binary on/off I represent it as, here.  Just as we can use many pieces of data observed about a person to try to tell whether they are essentially sentient, we can also apply those pieces to moving them around in the spectrum of sentience.

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Would you sacrifice 1 to save 10?

Inevitably, because of the way my mind works and because of the friends I choose, I will enter into the conversation of the importance/value/”currency” of life.  The title’s question – would you sacrifice one life to save ten? – gets at the heart of the conflict between the purely utilitarian viewpoint that I tend to loathe because it cannot encompass my morality, and the more stringent and much harder for me to articulate “principle” system that I feel defines me.

In case it was not apparent, in such conversations, nearly everyone I know answers “usually, it depends on who they are, judging based on the “worth” of the one life compared to the ten, either subjectively to them or in some more general-to-humanity sense.  I always answer “no.”  In fact, the quantity and the quality of the lives is essentially irrelevant* to me — the principle by which I have come to define my thinking on this is sentient life is special: it cannot be compared in value to other things or even other sentient life. I’m not sure exactly why I think this is true – it is a combination of a feeling of uniqueness about self-aware organisms compared to the rest of stuff in the universe, and also the agency that I believe all sentient life possesses (definitionally) – the capacity for free will.

Kant expresses this in his Categorical Imperative by saying “you should not treat rational beings as merely a means to an end, but always as an end in and of themselves.”  I pretty much agree with that sentiment.  I do, however, understand that absolutes (even moral ones!) cannot be held in spite of practicality – they are ideals to strive for, but not always to live by.

Would I kill in self-defense, or to save someone I loved?  Would I kill one individual to save my species?  Probably.  But this drives another principle, which I also believe quite strongly, the “no moral free lunch” principle: a person should be allowed to do something immoral, but they should also be responsible for the moral consequences of that action. I respect the fundamental freedom of choice – that a free-willed individual should be able to choose and not constrained unnecessarily by other individuals – but definitely think every choice has a potential (moral) cost associated with it.

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What is Real?

Zac and I had an interesting conversation that started with how to understand boy-girl dynamics in the context of attraction, and then moved on to how much meaning ideas that are wholly self-defined are, and finally moved into some pretty ridiculous conceptual space: the definition of real.

It’s hard for me to talk about his perspective, so I’ll speak to mine.  In my discussion about friendship, I brought up that I want to emanate/broadcast this trust and devotion, regardless of whether (a) the other person in the friendship considers our friendship to “be about that,” and/or (b) the other person cares that I think it is.  I mean, I would hope that they care, but it is more important to me to treat people this way for its own sake.

Is my idea about how a friend should be treated grounded in reality?  Or, more interestingly, it is real at all?  I have certainly had people tell me that I’m wrong about what motivates me – my altruism is just glorified selfishness (more long term, perhaps, but selfishness just the same).  I would argue that in my ability to think and make decisions, I also have the capability of defining my actions in the world, at least somewhat independent of what the world is.

A final thought experiment on this topic today: Zac proposed the idea of a “four-sided triangle” to me.  He and I argued about whether the fact those two concepts, brought in juxtaposition despite being contradictory, is meaningful.  I think that it is, and here’s why: when he brings it up, he has some conception related to this squarangle in his head.  I have a potentially different conception.  Our shared mindspace devoted to the squarangle gives it meaning – and all that it needs it that meaning to be “real”.

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I am having a really hard time characterizing what is fundamental about my beliefs (my principles) regarding friends.  I mean, I know that I care a lot of about who my friends are, and how I act toward them, but these are not the reasons, the principles.

Here is my first stab at the principles I think apply to how I think about friends:

  • Friends respect each others’ principles even if they don’t agree with them.
  • Friends are individuals capable of (and potentially good at!) teaching me about principles, from their own principles or from their experience.
  • Friends deserve as much attention and energy as I give myself, if I can afford to give it and I believe they desire OR need it.

I also believe, but had a hard time putting it into a distilled principle, that I broadcast to the world that I care about my friends a great deal, and whether my friends (or others) think it’s a good idea or not to obey the 3rd principle above is not really a factor in my mind.  I believe I should be giving my friends that attention and energy because I have determined they are worth it – I think they are good people.

It’s not really about increasing my own happiness (although it does make me happy to help friends) – it is about recognizing the people who are respectful (even the abrasive kind of respect – e.g. “you are better than this” with regard to childish behavior) and who are worthy teachers, and honoring them.

I also think this should be done for regular not-friend people, but I feel a stronger attachment to the people I know (and also believe I can “return the favor” to people I know more effectively).  This part, about preferentially helping my friends, might be solely about happiness… I’m not sure yet.

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Right Reasons

I believe in second chances.  But what does that mean, really?  It means I am willing to give my friends (and even to some extent people with whom I am just acquainted) the benefit of the doubt when they do something I consider a mistake, or something that is just intolerable to me.  We’re talking about results here – I give a second chance when things don’t work out.  But I do predicate that second chance on an understanding that the person did what they did for mistaken wrong reasons, or for the right reasons.  To me, the important factor is whether they were making the right choices.

I believe that humans are free-willed – we are capable of making decisions using our minds, and we are not just acting in reaction to context.  Since I also believe that many times there is a “right” thing to do, I also believe that people can choose to act in a way consistent with the “right” thing in those cases.  When a person makes a mistake, I want to forgive.  The times when I can’t are the times when I think the person is making choices inconsistent with the “right” and doesn’t want to reconsider those choices at all.

My principle, I think, is: People are defined by their choices, and merely influenced by their experiences. This is a complicated notion to get to the bottom of, however… so many assumptions are in play here (free-willed, comparable “rightness,” understanding of other people’s choices) that in many ways I am just theorizing, but I think this is illustrative of my principles.

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Image 2

Frantically trying to finish work for the week so that I can jet for Oregon to see Jeremy and Rose!  I was, however, pondering self-image again in the shower this morning, so I wanted to write that out a little more.

Nate suggested that the correct thing to do is to align your outer self with your ideal self – that is, behave like who you want to be.  I think it’s a very admirable goal, but I also think it is the opposite of easy.  The reason I believe that is that I think one’s outer self is very volatile in response to control – both from inside and from outside.

Here’s an (appropriately themed for the month) example:

In my Junior year, when I was still kind of recovering from Katharina telling me she definitely didn’t want to be involved with me (in a relationship), I turned to running as a way to get my mind off of it.  Well, to be clear, I wanted to find something to get my mind of it, but couldn’t.  It took a good friend, Robin, to convince me to get my butt in gear and get running.  And even then, as I continued to run each morning, I was unable to keep my mind from returning to the Katharina “problem” (only really a problem in my own head) whenever I (a) saw her or (b) saw something that reminded me of her or (c) happened to think about any experience involving her.

I don’t think it’s impossible to do what Nate suggests, but the pressure of emotions (and emotional response to what’s happening around you) does a ton to shape your outer self sub/unconsciously.  This is the danger of utilizing the outer self as a tool to change yourself – it cleaves in both directions.  There have definitely been times in my life (like, now, for example) where my outer self is emotionally turbulent and it is dragging me around with it.

It seems a much safer, if much more difficult, method to work on the inner self while maintaining some measure of stability in one’s outer self.  Or, at least, make small changes rather than large ones (advice that could apply to lots of scenarios, not just those about image!)

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Image 1

I believe each person holds at least three versions of themselves inside.  The most important is the inner self, who you really are.  The most visible is the outer self – who you appear to be to the people who interact with you.  But there is also another piece, for thinking feeling people: the ideal self, or who you want to be.  There is usually a gap between who a person is and who they want to be, so they are not the same.  I know that Ideal Dave is still just a projection in my head; I am not there yet.

I think there’s a lot of really interesting depth to this perspective on identity (hence the “1” in today’s blog post title) but I wanted to focus on describing two very interesting effects of the interrelationship among them.

The first is identity trending: over time, your inner self will become more like your ideal self… given that you have some conception of your ideal self (consciously).  I think this is really just me restating that “people can change” and “you can change yourself for the better more ideal.”  I know, for example, I strive to be very honest with my friends about my thoughts and feelings – because Ideal Dave is honest with and trusting of his friends – so my inner self has taken actions (like this blog) to be more like that.

The second is identity assumption: if we are not careful (meaning taking conscious action against it), if our outer self and inner self don’t match, we will become more like our outer self.  This is kind of a restatement of “if you keep making faces, your face is going to get stuck that way.”  Our, in more useful terms, when you pretend to be somebody you aren’t, you start to become that pretend version of yourself.  I don’t think it happens for everyone, but I have certainly noticed it happening to me – it is really tough to keep three selves in your conscious mind and also keep them separate.

As usual, these were thoughts in my head… I’m sure someone has written about this before!

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