What, really, is the final boss?

“The problem is…”, is such a great phrase. When I hear it, I begin to smile. Unless I just said it, in which case I twitch and remind myself that the really hard part [of anything you want to discuss] is defining exactly what the problem is. A well-defined problem is such a difficult and rare thing. And here’s a fun article from “Dynomight” that plays with just how hard it is to figure out what the problem actually is, Candidate Final Bosses.

Just to be clear: We’re talking about “final boss”, as in the video game context meaning of the phrase. In the classic, journey-of-adventure towards some goal, video game, things get harder and harder and harder until… you have to face the final boss, in the final battle.


It’s been a while

But it’s also just fun. For me, at least. I enjoy seeing how humans from thousands of years ago tried to get their bearings in the world compared to humans living today. When you read, study, and talk about philosophy, you’re taking part in a conversation that’s been going on for millennia. And conversation is fun. I love a good conversation.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/living/reading/the-great-conversation-philosophy-textbook/

It’s been a minute since I’ve purchased a textbook. It’s nice to see that they’re no longer stupidly over-priced— oh wait, no sorry. They’re insanely priced. Fortunately, I was able to bop on over to abebooks.com and find a copy of The Great Conversation for about $5 depending on what condition you want; There’s like a hundred copies of that book available.


What is philosophy for?

Philosophy isn’t a parlor trick or made for show. It’s not concerned with words, but with facts. It’s not employed for some pleasure before the day is spent, or to relieve the uneasiness of our leisure. It shapes and builds up the soul, it gives order to life, guides actions, shows what should and shouldn’t be done—it sits at the rudder steering our course as we vacillate in uncertainties. Without it, no one can live without fear or free from care. Countless things happen every hour that require advice, and such advise is to be sought out in philosophy.

~ Seneca


How to think for yourself

Independent-mindedness seems to be more a matter of nature than nurture. Which means if you pick the wrong type of work, you’re going to be unhappy. If you’re naturally independent-minded, you’re going to find it frustrating to be a middle manager. And if you’re naturally conventional-minded, you’re going to be sailing into a headwind if you try to do original research.

~ Paul Graham from, http://www.paulgraham.com/think.html

This is a case where I found it difficult to pull-quote. This at least gives you an idea of what the article is about. The challenge for me seems to be not becoming a raving lunatic when I’m off in independent-thinking land. I’ve learned to be able to swim in the conventional–minded, littoral waters, and I’ve been told I can even be helpful there. But my native environment seems to be the deep ocean of solitary thinking. I need to constantly remind myself that coming back to shore is important… as is doffing the raving lunatic appearance before trying to fold myself back into collaborative efforts.


Reasons and persons

You’ve probably heard this scenario before. It originally comes from Derek Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons, where he actually answers the question. (Though you may not like the answer.) To answer it, he has to go though a set of even weirder scenarios. Here’s most of them, edited aggressively.

~ “Dynomight” from, https://dynomight.net/no-self/

This article turns a number of complicated thought experiments into a disorienting dash through a hall of mirrors. I’ve not read Parfit’s book, but I’ve encountered these sorts of thought experiments before. On one hand I’m drawn to thinking about them because I feel I should be able to have some foundational, (although not necessarily simple,) principles that I can use to answer them. Which is a working definition of, “I want to be rational.” Until I start really digging into the experiments and things get really complicated. Why, it’s as if being a limited-in-resources mind forced to interact with in an intractably complex world, may not be something with a clear, correct, let alone singular, solution.


It’s subtle but critically important

It’s broadly agreed these days that consciousness poses a very serious challenge for contemporary science. What I’m trying to work out at the moment is why science has such difficulty with consciousness. We can trace this problem back to its root, at the start of the scientific revolution.

~ Philip Goff from, https://www.edge.org/conversation/philip_goff-a-post-galilean-paradigm

I once had a mathematics professor make a comment that it’s fascinating that mathematics is able to explain reality. I double-clutched at the time. And every single time I think about the point he was making, I still pause and my mind reels. If one is looking at—for example—classical mechanics, and one studies the ballistic equations, one can go along nicely using forces and trigonometry, and understand golf balls and baseballs in flight. Soon you realize your mathematics is only an approximation. So you dive into fluid mechanics, which requires serious calculus, and you then understand why golf balls have dimples and why the stitching on baseballs is strictly specified in the rules. All along the way, mathematics models reality perfectly!

But why? So you keep peeling. The math and physics gets more and more complicated—stochastic processes, randomness, quantum mechanics, wave-particle theory, etc.—as each layer answers another “why”… but it’s … is “cyclical” the right word? No matter how far you go, you can always ask “why” again, for the most complex and most accurate system you model and explain.

Down there at the bottom, that’s where Galileo declared there was a distinction between physical reality, and consciousness and the soul. We’ve had hundreds of years of progress via science on what Galileo divided off as “physical reality.” (And that progress is a Very Good Thing.) But as this article explores, is there actually a distinction? What if making that distinction is a mistake?



But if progress is real and important—how do we judge this? How do we justify that improvements to material living standards are good? That technological and industrial progress represents true progress for humanity?

~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/progress-humanism-agency

In a few dozen words, this article goes from zero to gloves-off, let’s take about the nature of what is good. Yes, please. Lets discuss this more often. I find, without exception, it’s completely pointless to discuss anything—the climate, energy sources, guns, health, rights… choose your favorite third-rail topic—if myself and the other(s) don’t share the same values.

And I mean the big values of philosophy. When I start thinking about what does human autonomy mean? …what rights and/or responsibilities does consciousness confer? …what is truth? Big yawning questions! …when we don’t agree on that stuff, then no wonder we’re at odds on the other things.


Upper bounds

If we play our cards right, we could live hundreds of thousands of years more. In fact, there’s not much stopping us living millions of years. The typical species lives about a million years. Our 200,000 years so far would put us about in our adolescence, just old enough to be getting ourselves in trouble, but not wise enough to have thought through how we should act.

~ Toby Ord from, https://www.edge.org/conversation/toby_ord-we-have-the-power-to-destroy-ourselves-without-the-wisdom-to-ensure-that-we

I find it beneficial to have my perspectives stretched. This article walks through scales of time in a delightful manner. It pauses to ask questions, and to point out people who did certain things at precise points in our history. There are countless opportunities to shift perspective. For example: I’ve been alive for 1/100 of recorded human history. And recorded history is only 3/100 of the age of our species. The aggregate progress of humanity is simply the sum of our individual efforts, and my life represents 1/100,000,000,000 of humanity so far. Stretched perspectives indeed.


More light

There’s also a long list of advertisers who rely on this confusion to abdicate their ethical responsibility in terms of their money winding up in the pockets of bottom-dwelling grifters and bigots. The murkiness makes it easier to pretend it’s not happening, and it’s this accountability gap the group hopes to target

~ Karl Bode from, https://www.techdirt.com/2022/06/14/nonprofit-takes-aim-at-fox-news-by-demystifying-ad-exchanges/

Caution: Depending on your viewpoint, that article will make you cheer, or will enrage you. What I want to focus on is, “murkiness” and I want to split a fine hair.

I believe there’s visibility, (in the sense that it is clear who is accountable for some speech [advertising is speech],) anonymity, and murkiness which obscures the dichotomy of visibility versus anonymity. My position is that murkiness is never a positive thing. The knowledge that something is being said with accountability, (who said it is clear,) versus with anonymity is critical for one to be able to evaluate some speech for oneself. That knowledge is removed when there’s murkiness.


Guiding principles

We rarely take the time to capture these guiding principles—even though recognizing them can help steer our actions, lead us to better decisions, and let us live more in alignment with who we are.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/my-6-guiding-principles/

As with Bailey, I don’t think I have a clear set of guiding principles. I’m not sure if I’m okay with that. I am sure that I do not want to spiral off and spend my entire day—that’s what would surely happen to me if I begin—thinking about this. Instead, I read his list and spent some time letting my thinking happen spurred by his principles. Just as he described, I did have one principle spring immediately to mind: Curiosity. To be powered by curiosity. To be passionately curious. “Curioser and curioser”, said Alice.


The library

If you think of your mind as a library, three things should concern you. […] There is no point having a repository of knowledge in your mind if you can’t find and apply its contents (see multiplicative systems).

~ Shane Parrish from, https://medium.com/personal-growth/what-you-spend-time-reading-changes-your-brain-ee2ab4f2aa17#.20s36rpb7

Don’t panic it’s not simply a catalog of library metaphors. There are great points about being intentional about what you choose to put into your brain, what your brain is good at doing, the utility and danger—which I humorously typo’d as “dander”—of filters, and more. I’m going to go in a different direction here however: Rather than trying to figure out how to assess the library of my mind, I’ve been trying to more often let people see what it’s doing. As I’ve said many times, this blog itself is a form of me working “with the garage door up.” …and I regularly reread these blog posts myself to make sure the thoughts still look reasonable after some time sitting on the digital shelf.


What’s in a name

A challenge arises when we make something over a long period of time. As we evolve — as we add experiences, impressions, memories, deepening knowledge and self-knowledge to the combinatorial pool from which all creative work springs — what we make evolves accordingly; it must, if we are living widely and wisely enough. Eventually, the name we once chose for it begins to feel not like a choice but like a constraint, an ill-fitting corset ribbed with the ossified sensibility of a former self.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/10/22/brain-pickings-becoming-the-marginalian/

Popova changed the name of her project a while back, and this is a nice unpacking of her thinking. I’ve a lot of projects, and they have various names; Names that are public and names for them in my own mind.

With each project, I continuously struggle to balance the desire for concision and the desire for clarity. I drive myself mercilessly to find the simplest phrase that is something memorable and meaningful. And then I drive myself mercilessly to be ready and able to explain things as iterative layers of unpacking. That name. A few sentences. A few minutes of explanation. And so on, expanding to a fully dynamic conversation about the thing. On one hand, I know that this zooming in, (towards a concise name,) and zooming out, (toward a coherent and thorough explanation,) improves my thinking and understanding. But on the other hand. It’s really exhausting.


Pessimist? Optimist?

This has been distilled to a motto: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. I am a pessimist or optimist of the intellect according to facts on the ground, but I am ever an optimist of the will.

~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/descriptive-vs-prescriptive-optimism

Frankly, I’ve never cared for the simple dichotomy of, “are you an optimist, or a pessimist?” There is simply too much complexity—in the world, in the mind—for that level of simplicity to be useful. I’m interested in models, and this article from Crawford spreads out some of the complexity nicely. (It also includes some interesting references.)


Diffuse thinking

Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. Often, it’s only after we switch away from this mode that we realize our brains were indeed working for us. Moving into diffuse mode can be a very brief phenomenon, such as when we briefly stare into the distance before returning to work.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/focused-diffuse-thinking/

It is a most interesting mode of thinking. Even after protracted wondering, it’s not clear to me what exactly is the list of things necessary to intentionally slip into the mode of thinking. So I’ll start with some things that will prevent me, every time: Being exhausted or even very-tired will prevent my diffuse thinking. Because settling in, physically and mentally, is also how I go to sleep. Being overly energetic will prevent my diffuse thinking. It’s as if the mind is the driver atop the elephant, and the elephant must be in the mood to follow, not in the mood to frolic or smash.