I Can’t Hide From My Mind, Though I Try

(warning: naval-gazing)

I’m going through a bit of a change at the moment. If you follow what I write, you may have guessed this from a couple of recent posts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I got here.

The first big influence on how I thought about the world was my dad (of The Fifth Wave and the now-neglected but still excellent Vulgar Morality). Arguments I had with people in High School (in person and online) usually consisted of appropriating an informed opinion that he had and bullshitting my way around it from a substantially less informed point of view. After I started to grow up and actually take reading up on the things I talked about more seriously, I held onto Burkean traditionalist instincts and an interest in specific thinkers such as David Hume that I had first heard about from him when I was too young to approach their writings myself.

I learned about the blogosphere from him first (he was a media analyst by trade), and started my own blog, Sophistpundit; the name derived from the Greek sophists, which he was reading a great deal about at the time and talking about constantly, and Instapundit, a blog he introduced me to. The start of that blog marks the beginning of the time I began to take the matter of discovering my own point of view seriously, as the simple act of writing about it regularly restructured the way I thought.

I’m a storyteller by instinct; even when I was just bullshitting my way around arguments as a teenager I was trying to take things I wanted to be true and fit them into an overall framework. I wasn’t satisfied with one-off explanations or answers or arguments. So when I began to really read works of philosophy and social science, and write about it, I started seeing things about the individual components of what I thought that dissatisfied me. Whether intellectually, or from a storytelling point of view, I couldn’t tell you. I’m not sure I know the difference.

My introduction to serious philosophy began with Karl Popper. I picked up a collection of his essays and was hooked. He had a very accessible style and his ideas seemed incomparably elegant. For a brief time, I was completely won over; I thought I had found the keys to unlocking the universe. Ultimately, Popper was just a great place to start, and though it wasn’t too long before I started drifting from his (quite rationalist) point of view, I’m still glad that I started with him. He was a great place to begin.

From then on I had a fairly regular diet of nonfiction books ranging from classics of philosophy (like David Hume) to more popular stuff (like the Long Tail). Not to mention reading a ton of politics, economics, technology, and personal blogs.

The next big change that came into this brain of mine was libertarianism. And big it was; I’m still reeling from it years after its onset.

I was always generically small-government minded, in the way that most Burkean types are, I think. But there were key differences between where I was and where the libertarians I had exposure to were. For one thing, I was a hawk on the war at the time. For another, I had vague acceptance for labor regulations such as the minimum wage. I also respected traditions generally, including traditions of government. And I was very strongly pro-democracy. Perhaps most crucially, I viewed libertarianism as a rationalism, and I was (and remain) strictly anti-rationalist.

The crucial moment came when I was still working on my BA in history at GMU. I knew I wanted to go into economics by that point, but opted to finish my BA and go for the MA in econ. In the meantime, I would take the prerequisite undergrad courses, starting, of course, with introductory level economics.

The 101 and 102 level courses at GMU are taught by Dr. Thomas Rustici, who is an excellent communicator of economic theory but also a firebrand-style preacher of libertarian ideology. I was made a convert practically before I even realized what was happening. The process was both fast and gradual, in a way. I kept looking at the margin between my positions and full blown, all-encompassing libertarianism and telling myself that I hadn’t been truly converted, but slowly and steadily that margin was chipped away.

I think in retrospect that Dr. Rustici was simply responsible for the initial breech, and the rest of the erosion of that margin came from going straight into the MA program in economics at GMU. The effect was stronger there, less due to the ideology of the professors particularly, and more because of the fact that said ideology (in some form) was widely shared by the peers I encountered there.

Looking back now, it kind of feels like libertarianism was an invading force that entered my mind and started pretty substantially rearranging things. I used to think Richard Dawkins’ theory of religion as a mind virus was just condescension, but frankly it feels apt here; it’s like I came down with a chronic case of libertarianism. It got to a point where arguments I had previously mocked now seemed like the only point of view that made sense. At its pinnacle, I had that “I have the answer to everything” feeling I got from Popper, only much, much more so. Libertarianism (the variety popular among GMU types) is far more all encompassing as a theory of everything from human behavior to morality to history.

With time and distance between myself and GMU econ, I’ve slowly begun to shrink the size of this ideology’s partition of my mind. It will always be part of the pantheon, but I’m starting to move on to other things. I suspect that those other things will be far messier, less internally consistent than libertarianism. But that’s OK; it’s a messy world and even as a storyteller I was always wary of how very clean the ideology is.

Lately I’ve been swayed by people like Nassim Taleb and Nate Silver who think probabilistically about things; an approach that helps me think about challenges to libertarianism posed in forms like this. I’m also exploring more and more of the social sciences beyond the boundaries of economics. And I’m going back to the classics of philosophy I never got to; I recently read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and I’m hoping to read something on Epicurus’ philosophy next.

Talking with Noah Smith yesterday got me thinking about all of this even more, as he seems (from my limited exposure) as ideology-free as is possible for a human being to be. His beliefs seem to have some themes consistent with modern progressivism, techno-futurism, and a dash of libertarianism, but for the most part it appears as though he’s got a grab bag of ideas he more or less believes in that don’t add up to a consistent story. When I asked him what his most absurd belief was, he had trouble answering because it seems he wasn’t quite sure what his beliefs were. This is neither good nor bad, but it’s kind of interesting. I don’t think I have it in me to be that way—the more stories I gather, the more I instinctively try to edit and combine them in my brain to see if I can make a single consistent one. Anti-rationalist though I desire to be, I’m a cathedral builder at heart.

A Cathedral of Their Own

I’m not sure I could tell you what this all adds up to or why this blog is an expression of these ideas. But I like the idea of a consecrated but untamed place, and the spiritual development the term implies, not impressed by a conquering army, or ritual defenestrations, but by those who hoped that one day others might enjoy a cathedral of their own.

-J Arthur Bloom, missionary ground: A brief word on this blog’s title

Jordan’s post made me realize that I have always sought to make my little corners of the web into missionary ground, in the sense that he is describing.

Growing up, I would tell my dad about the stuff I had learned in history (mostly) or English, and he would say something to the tune of—“That’s totally wrong. But remember it because it’s what your teacher will want you to say on a test.” I found this very troubling. Teachers were authority figures, but my dad was the king of authority figures. That their stories did not line up—that they straight up contradicted one another—was really quite unpleasant.

Since that time I have consistently sought certainty in a world where so many stories are presented as though they were born of the true knowledge of the storyteller. Any certainty would do; even a Pyrrhonian certainty that no one knows anything at all. I’ve tried that one on for size many times, and it will always have a hold on me.

In 2004 I set out to conquer the untamed stories by declaring a little corner of the Blogger empire my missionary space—again, in Jordan’s sense. I was not looking to convert the world—I was looking to build my cathedral.

And I did attempt to build it. First, from Protagorean foundations. Then, from Popperian ones. Then, from Humean and social science inspired ones. Between these episodes of attempted craftsmanship was a virtual ocean of reading, quoting, linking, writing, and arguing. Between attempts to raise up an elegant edifice was messy trial and error, and intense devotion to particular ideas for brief and longer periods of time.

The truth is in the mess, and not the edifice. No matter how many cathedrals I start I am always living in the untamed lands, where stories vie for my allegiance. Where sometimes I think Pyrrho was right and we are all little more than dreamers and storytellers, and the rest of the time I am merely certain that my own mind is systematically working against me.

Writing at The Ümlaut this year has been good for me; I have followed trains of thought in a far more focused, less messy manner. Still, I scrutinize my work and wonder whether they form a whole or if they are incompatible pieces to entirely distinct puzzles. Are this, this, and this part of one story or am I contradicting myself? What about this and this? I often have trouble trusting my answer to this question.

Still, I continue to work on my next cathedral, clinging to the hope that this will be the one. I feel I have made a great deal more progress than the last time I made the attempt. But is this an accurate reading of my circumstances or is this the same false confidence I always feel when setting about a task of this sort?

If I have given the impression up until this point that I have some sort of anxiety on this score, I hope you’ll forgive me for that bit of stylistic indulgence. I actually love it down here, in the untamed lands, where I’m never more than half-sure of anything. I don’t know if I’m going to ever finish a cathedral with solid enough foundations to last long, but I do know that I am so much better at navigating these parts than I was even a year or two ago. And I am incomparably better than the 19-year-old kid who planted a flag in the blogosphere nine years ago.

When it comes to cognitive biases and imperfections, I have grown comfortable thinking of my mind as a table at which many strange characters sit. One of those is GMU-style libertarianism, informed largely by people like my friend Eli and the GMU professors who have a large presence in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Then there are people close to me in my life, whose idiosyncrasies I know well; I often think about how any one of them might react to a particular story I have read. Then there are the people I seek out who often force me to experience the cognitive dissonance of disagreement when I know the person I am disagreeing with is intelligent—people like Noah Smith, Claudia Sahm, Bernard Yu—they are numerous these days, I am proud to say. And there are others.

This isn’t to say that I have cataloged the sources of my biases and elevated myself above them—I am just as imperfectly human as anyone else. But I am more comfortable living with my biases than I used to be.

I really am serious about this next effort to build something, but I am also keenly aware that a cathedral is something that no individual can build alone—indeed it cannot even be built in a single generation. We speak of people like Daniel Kahneman or Everett Rogers—to say nothing of Adam Smith or Charles Darwin—as having done immensely important work because after decades or centuries of other people building on top of what they did, we now know that their work was, indeed, important.

So I will continue to do work in the hopes that I can add a few pieces to something bigger than I could ever possibly accomplish on my own.

And in the meantime, I will revel in the madness of this perpetually untamed space of stories and uncertainty.

The Caped Surveiller

So the thing you’ve got to realize is, most comic book superheroes make no sense. You don’t even have to think about it very hard. You don’t have to dig under the surface; just look at the surface and they generally don’t make sense. Take the greatest superhero of all—Spider-Man. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spider-Man—my dad just loves to tell people about how his little girl said she was going to marry Peter Parker some day.

Continue reading The Caped Surveiller

Tropes

“Yet another improbable set of problems tackled, and back where we started,” she sighed, relieved.

“We sure get mixed up in a lot of strange stuff, on an alarmingly regular basis,” he observed. She pondered this for a moment.

“Do you ever get the feeling that we’re stuck in an endless cycle of tropes that are moving our relationship forward bit by bit, leading towards some sort of dramatic culmination?” She asked.

At the stunned look he gave her, she quickly said, “Yeah, me neither.”

The Adventure Ends

The adventure had come to an end, their love for one another confessed; at last they could begin to build their life together. Or so they thought. No sooner was the final deed done than they were flung back to their homelands, separated enormously by time and space. The forces that had set their adventure in motion cared little for the feelings that had grown between them during the time they had spent together. In a sense, they had been used by the universe to fulfill a particular purpose, and once that was completed, they were simply returned to where they had been before the whole thing had begun. No thinking creature had brought them together, and in the end, they were thoughtlessly separated, never to see nor hear from one another for the rest of their lives.