Category: Culture

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living

“I am a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”

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Krista Tippett, the host of the compelling podcast On Being, is an incredible conversationalist. From poets and physicists to neuroscientists — her show offers conversations that traverse time and disciplines. At the heart of her inquiry lies space to explore what it means to live a meaningful life.

In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett, who listens for a living, offers an illuminating slice of these conversations. As a illuminating guide, her reflections walk us through the work of a lifetime exploring love, compassion, and forgiveness.

The book is organized around virtue and “gentle shifts of mind and habit.” She explores five raw materials for living a meaningful life:

Words — The language we use to tell stories to ourselves and others;
Body — “The body is where every virtue lives or dies”;
Love — More than something we fall into or out of, love is “the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of the human community.”;
Faith — “Literal reality is not all there is.”;
Hope — Hope has nothing to do with optimism or wishing, rather it reflects reality and reveres truth. Hope is a habit.

Tippet resurfaces questions many have explored before us. “What does it mean to be human? What matters in life? What matters in death? How to be of service to each other and the world?”

Each person explores these questions at one point or another in the context of our age and ourselves. The questions are not independent. Who we are to each other is a reflection of what it means to be human.

Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself.

Life is where we explore the mystery of ourselves and others. Here Tippett offers a voice to “those raw, essential, heartbreaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together.”

In the introduction Tippett refuses the false duality and headlines that drive so much of our divide.

[M]any features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions.

Imagination and nuance and the spaces between headlines is where we live. The book is an exploration of these spaces.

I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others.

She also offers a sobering reminder of our capacity to control.

We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications.

No section of the book is more compelling than exploring words — “I take it as an elemental truth of life,” she writes, “that words matter.”

This is so plain that we can ignore it a thousand times a day. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. From Genesis to the aboriginal songlines of Australia, human beings have forever perceived that naming brings the essence of things into being. The ancient rabbis understood books, texts, the very letters of certain words as living, breathing entities. Words make worlds.

On our affinity for tolerance she challenges us:

We chose too small a word in the decade of my birth— tolerance— to make the world we want to live in now. We opened to the racial difference that had been there all along, separate but equal, and to a new infusion of religions, ethnicities, and values. But tolerance doesn’t welcome. It allows, endures, indulges. In the medical lexicon, it is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment. Tolerance was a baby step to make pluralism possible, and pluralism, like every ism, holds an illusion of control. It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger. It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.

Words are containers.

The connection between words and meanings resembles the symbiosis between religion and spirituality. Words are crafted by human beings, wielded by human beings. They take on all of our flaws and frailties. They diminish or embolden the truths they arose to carry. We drop and break them sometimes. We renew them, again and again.

In one illuminating conversation, Tippett talks with one of her favorite thinkers about the failure of “official language and discourse” the poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read at the first Obama inauguration.

Alexander offers:

Here’s what we crave. We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much baloney all the time. You know, the performance of political speech, of speeches you see on the news, doesn’t it often feel to you like there should be a thought bubble over it that says, “what I really would say if I could say it is . . .”

And how we are drawn to words that shimmer.

I learn so much every day from being a mother. My sons are 11 and 12, and you see the way children know when they’re being bamboozled. And they also are drawn towards language that shimmers, individual words with power. They will stop you and ask you to repeat a shimmering word if they’re hearing it for the first time. You can see it in their faces.

Words are the backbones to stories — the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.

The art of conversation I’m describing here is related, but it is something subtly and directionally different— sharing our stories in the service of probing together who we are and who we want to be. To me, every great story opens into an equally galvanizing exchange we can have together: So what? How does this change the way you see and live? How might it inform the way I see and live? I believe we can push ourselves further, and use words more powerfully and tell and make the story of our time anew.

“The world,” says physician Rachel Naomi Remen in an interview with Tippett, “is made up stories; it is not made of up facts.”

And yet we tell ourselves facts to piece together stories. Stories are how we make sense of life. Remen continues:

Well, the facts are the bones of the story, if you want to think of it that way. I mean, the facts are, for example, that I have had Crohn’s disease for 52 years. I’ve had eight major surgeries. But that doesn’t tell you about my journey and what’s happened to me because of that, and what it means to live with an illness like this and discover the power of being a human being. And whenever there’s a crisis, like 9/ 11, do you notice how the whole of the United States turned towards the stories? Where I was, what happened, what happened in those buildings, what happened to the people who were connected to the people in those buildings. Because that is the only way we can make sense out of life, through the stories. The facts are a certain number of people died there. The stories are about the greatness of being a human being and the vulnerability of being a human being.

[…]

There’s a powerful saying that sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live. They tell us about who we are, what is possible for us, what we might call upon. They also remind us we’re not alone with whatever faces us.

Becoming Wise is for those of us who want to explore the great questions of life with imagination and courage, realizing that much of life is lived in nuance that changes with who we are and, importantly, where we are standing.

Epistemology: How do you Know that you Know what you Know?

The role of perception in knowledge

It is hard to imagine a world that exists outside of what we can perceive. In the effort to get through each day without crashing our cars or some other calamity, we make assumptions about the objects in our physical world. Their continuity, their behaviour.

Some of these assumptions are based on our own experience, some on the knowledge imparted by others of their experience, and some on inferences of logic.

Experience, however, comes through the lens of perception. How things look, how they feel, how they sound.

Our understanding of, and interaction with, the world comes through particular constructs of the human body – eyes, ears, fingers, etc. Most people intuitively understand the subjectivity of some of our perceptions.

Colors look ‘different’ to people who are color blind. Our feeling of temperature is impacted by immediate contrast – People stepping outside the doors of an airport will have a different impression of the temperature if they have just come from Moose Jaw or Cancun.

Even more substantial understandings come to us through the lens of our senses. We can see the shape of a tree, or we could close our eyes and infer the shape through touch, but in either case, or even combining the two, we are relying on our senses to impart an understanding of the physical world.

The question of what objectively ‘is’, is something that has long been one of the subjects of philosophy. Philosophers from Descartes to Kant have tried to describe our existence in such a way as to arrive at understanding of the physical world in which things can be conclusively known.

Descartes introduces the idea in his Meditations: “Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.”

Descartes famously employed systematic doubt, questioning all knowledge conveyed by his experience in the world until the only knowledge he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he could doubt.

Therefore I suppose that everything I see is false. I believe that none of what my deceitful memory represents ever existed. I have no sense whatever. Body, shape, extension, movement, and place are all chimeras. What then will be true? … Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind. (Descartes, Meditations)

Descartes confirmed we have a self. Unfortunately this self could be the one we see in the mirror each morning or a brain in a vat. If the only thing we cannot doubt is that we can doubt, essentially that guarantees us having only the mechanism to doubt. No body. We could therefore be isolated brains, being manipulated by things unknown, our entire world a mirage.

How then can we hope to claim knowledge about the physical world?

For Locke, our understanding of the world comes from our experience of it. It is this experience that provides knowledge. He says, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: – How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store with the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety Whence has it all the materials or reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

He wrote that there were two types of qualities, ones that existed innately in an object or series of objects, such as size, number, or motion, and those that are wholly dependent on our perception of them, such as color or smell.

The particular bulk, number, figure, and motion of the parts of fire or snow are really in them, whether one’s senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness are not more really in them than sickness or pain is in manna. (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Experience then, as long as we have an understanding of the limitations of our perception, will confer certain truths about the physical world we inhabit. For example, through experience we can claim knowledge of how many crows are perched on a telephone wire, but not how many of them have ‘black’’ as an intrinsic property of their feathers.

Quite in opposition to this was George Berkeley (pronounced Bar-clay), for whom ‘to be’ was ‘to be perceived’. Berkeley wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge:

Besides all that endless variety of ideas or objects of knowledge, there is likewise something which knows or perceives them and exercised divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering, about them. This perceiving … does not denote any one of my ideas, but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherein they exist or, which is the same thing, whereby they are perceived – for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

Because our knowledge of the world comes from our perception of it, it is impossible to conclusively know the existence of anything independent of our perception. Berkeley, wrote:

Hence, as it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so it is impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it.

This line of inquiry ultimately results in the entire physical world being called into question, as Berkeley observed:

If we have any knowledge at all of external things, it must be by reason, inferring their existence from what is immediately perceived by sense. {However} it is granted on all hands (and what happens in dreams, frenzies, and the like, puts it beyond dispute) that it is possible we might be affected with all the ideas we have now, though no bodies existed without resembling them.

If we can not know things outside of perception, and our perceptions are entirely unreliable, where does that leave us? It certainly isn’t useful to imagine your existence as the sum total of your knowledge, or that our experiences are inherently mistrustful.

What these philosophies can be useful for understanding though, is that often what we consider knowledge is more of a general social agreement on a somewhat consistent comprehension of the things before us. For example, we appreciate that the color green can be perceived differently by various people, but we organize our language based on a general understanding of the color green without worrying about the particular experience of green that any individual may have.

For David Hume, there definitely was a physical world, our perception of which was ultimately responsible for all of our ideas, no matter how complex or abstract. He wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most wide of this origin, are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it.

Furthermore, since all of our perceptions of the physical world are coming from the same physical world, and the nature of perceiving works more or less the same in each person, we can achieve a consistency in our understanding.

So although it may not be possible to know things with the same certainty as knowing oneself, or to be able to really describe the construct of the world outside of our perception of it, at least we can get along with each other because of a general consistency of experience.

However, this experience still admits to a certain fragility. There is no guarantee that past experiences will be consistent with future ones. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume observes:

Being determined by custom to transfer the past to the future, in all our inferences; where the past has been entirely regular and uniform, we expect the event with the greatest assurance and leave no room for any contrary supposition. But where different effects have been found to follow from causes, which are to appearance exactly similar, all these various effects must occur to the mind in transferring the past to the future, and enter into our consideration, when we determine the probability of the event.

To simultaneously understand all effects when considering an event in the future is not necessarily a limitation, thanks to our amazingly sophisticated brains. Immanuel Kant thought that the way we process the information provided by our senses was an important component of knowledge. Kant wrote in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics:

The difference between truth and dreaming is not ascertained by the nature of the representations which are referred to objects (for they are the same in both cases), but by their connection according to those rules which determine the coherence of the representation in the concept of an object, and by ascertaining whether they can subsist together in experience or not.

Kant did not support the view that the existence of objects was called into question because of the subjectivity of the perceptions by which we must experience them, but neither that all knowledge of the physical world comes from experience. Kant argued:

Experience teaches us what exists and how it exists, but never that it must necessarily exist so and not otherwise. Experience therefore can never teach us the nature of things in themselves.

Knowledge then, is made up of things we infer, things we experience, and the way our brain processes both. The great metaphysical question of ‘Why it is all this way?’ may always be out of our reach.

Understanding some of this metaphysical uncertainty in knowledge does not mean that we have to give up on knowing anything. It simply points to a certain subjectivity, an allowance for different conceptions of the world. And hopefully it offers a set of tools with which to evaluate or build claims of knowledge.

Embrace the Mess: The Upside of Disorder

“We often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach
when we would be better served by embracing a degree of mess.”
— Tim Harford

***

The breadth and depth of products and services that promise to help us stay organized is almost overwhelming. Indeed, it would seem that to be messy is almost universally shunned, considered a sign of not being “put together,” while being tidy and neat is venerated to the nth degree.

Tim Harford has a different take. In his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, he flips this notion around, showing us that there are situations in which disorder is beneficial, or at the very least that order has been oversold. (Tim previously introduced us to another counterintuitive thought with Adapt.)

***

One of the reasons why we put so much time and effort into being organized and tidy is because we make assumptions about what this will do for our productivity. If all our papers are neatly filed and email is neatly sorted, it will be easier to retrieve anything that’s important, right? Maybe not.

Harford cites a paper by Steve Whittaker and researchers at IBM called “Am I Wasting My Time Organizing Email?” to illustrate the fallacy.

Whittaker and his colleagues got permission to install logging software on the computers of several hundred office workers, and tracked around 85,000 attempts to find e-mail by clicking through folders, or by using ad hoc methods—scrolling through the inbox, clicking on a header to sort by (for example) the sender, or using the search function. Whittaker found that clicking through a folder tree took almost a minute, while simply searching took just 17 seconds. People who relied on folders took longer to find what they were looking for, but their hunts for the right e-mail were no more or less successful. In other words, if you just dump all your e-mail into a folder called “archive,” you will find your e-mails more quickly than if you hide them in a tidy structure of folders.

Okay, so taking the time to organize your email may not be as useful as we thought. Computers, after all, are designed as tools to help us work better and faster, so it makes sense that the simple search function would outperform us. But physical filing and keeping our work space neat makes us more productive right?

Once again, maybe not.

Quite a bit of research has been done on people’s working environments and it would seem that those with big piles of paper and/or clutter on their desks may be just as effective (and sometimes more so) than those pedantic ‘fillers.’

This is not to argue that a big pile of paper is the best possible filing system. But despite appearances, it’s very far from being a random assortment. A messy desk isn’t nearly as chaotic as it at first seems. There’s a natural tendency toward a very pragmatic system of organization based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on the top of the pile.

David Kirsh, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego studies the differences between the working habits of the tidy types (he calls them ‘neats’) and the messy types (he calls them ‘scruffies’). Let’s look at what he found.

…how do people orient themselves after arriving at the office or finishing a phone call? Kirsh finds that “neats” orient themselves with to-do lists and calendars, while “scruffies” orient themselves using physical cues—the report that they were working on is lying on the desk, as is a letter that needs a reply, and receipts that must be submitted for expenses. A messy desk is full of such cues. A tidy desk conveys no information at all, and it must be bolstered with the prompt of a to-do list. Both systems can work, so we should hesitate before judging other people based on their messy desks.

So if both systems work, are there times when it’s actually more advantageous to embrace messiness?

Here Harford hits upon an interesting hypothesis: Messiness may enhance certain types of creativity. In fact, creativity itself may systematically benefit from a certain amount of disorder.

When things are too neat and tidy, it’s easy for boredom to set in and creativity to suffer. We feel stifled.

A messy environment offers disruptions that seem to act as a catalyst for new ideas and creations. If you think about it, we try to avoid these same disruptions when we focus on being more “organized.” But, if you sometimes embrace a little mess, you may be opening yourself up to more creative serendipity:

Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in unpromising territory—a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upward again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher.

Think about an “inefficiently” designed office plan that looks wasteful on the surface: What’s lost in efficiency (say, putting two departments that need to talk to each other in separated areas) can be more than made up for in serendipitous encounters.

Brian Eno, considered one of the most influential and innovative figures in music over the last five decades describes it like this:

The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually,” he says. “And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”

Eno created an amazing system for pushing people into ‘alertness.’ He came up with something he called “Oblique Strategies” cards. He would show up at the recording studio with a handful of cards and bring them out whenever it seemed that the group needed a nudge.

Each had a different instruction, often a gnomic one. Whenever the studio sessions were running aground, Eno would draw a card at random and relay its strange orders.

Be the first not to do what has never not been done before
Emphasize the flaws
Only a part, not the whole
Twist the spine
Look at the order in which you do things
Change instrument roles

Can you imagine asking the guitarist of a group to sit behind the drums on a track? These were the type of suggestions that Eno is famous for and it seems to be serving him well; at age sixty-eight he has a new album coming out in January of 2017 and some variation of his cards have been available for purchase since first appearing for public consumption in 1975.

We all won’t be able to embrace a card from Eno’s deck. Some people do well in tidy environments/situations and some do well in messy ones — it’s probably contingent on what you’re trying to achieve. (We wouldn’t go so far as recommending a CEO be disorganized.)

Reading through the book it would seem that the key is, like most things, to give it a try. A little “intentional messiness” could go a long way towards helping you climb out of a rut. And, if you are the tidy type through and through, it’s important not to try and force that on others — you just might be taking away a good thing.

If you like the ideas in Messy, check out Harford’s other book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, or check out another important book on things that gain from disorder, Antifragile.

What Biology Enables, Culture Forbids

We get a little confused when deciding if a particular human behavior is cultural or biological. Is homosexuality a natural act or unnatural? How about Facebook? Is it unnatural human behavior? Abortion? Non-procreative sex? Slavery? Mixing of races?

Many of these are either explicitly or certainly border on being taboo subjects. As in, they may not be discussed in polite company, even when encouraged.

Yet, for for those of us seeking to understand reality as it is, to understand deeply the most important buckets of knowledge, taboo is no reason to avoid the hard subjects.

So how should we think about this?

“From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”

— Yuval Harari

Professor Yuval Harari, who has previously taught us why humans dominate the earth and the false natural state of man, has an interesting take, discussed in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The chapter is aptly titled “There is No Justice in History.”

Professor Harari’s well-informed heuristic boils down to: Biology Enables. Culture Forbids.

How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obligates people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children — some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another — some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility.

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.

[…]

…Evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak, and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?

Our biology gives us a very wide playground and a lot of berth. We’re capable of a wide variety of activities and forms of organization, while other species generally fall into far more fixed and predictable hierarchies.

Over the course of history, humans have taken advantage of this wide range in a variety of positive and negative ways by creating and sustaining myths not supported by biological reality.

Take slavery, once a common practice throughout the world and now thankfully considered a scourge (and illegal) on all parts of the planet. Or the caste system, still in place in some in certain areas of the world, although perhaps less strictly than in the past.

Both slavery and the castes were carried out through a series of pseudoscientific rationalizations about the “natural order” of things, stories strong enough to believed (in part) by all constituents of the hierarchy. This “forbidding” aspect of culture was not supported by biological differences, but that didn’t make the stories any less powerful or believable.

Even the American political system, ostensibly founded on a bedrock of “liberty and equality”, only provided those things to certain small groups. The Founders used cultural myths to rationalize a deeply divided society in which men had dominion over women, European whites had dominion over blacks and the native people, and the historically rich had dominion over the historically poor. Any other order would have been “unnatural”:

The American order consecrated the hierarchy between the rich and poor. Most Americans at that time had little problem with the inequality caused by wealthy parents passing their money and businesses onto their children. In their view, equality meant simply that the same laws applied to rich and poor. It had nothing to do with unemployment benefits, integrated education or health insurance. Liberty, too, carried very different connotations than it does today. In 1776, it did not mean that the disempowered (certainly not blacks or Indians or, God forbid, women) could gain and exercise power. It meant simply that the state could not, except in unusual circumstances, confiscate a citizen’s private property or tell him what to do with it. The American order thereby upheld the hierarchy of wealth, which some thought was mandated by God and others viewed representing the immutable laws of nature. Nature, it was claimed, rewarded merit with wealth while penalizing indolence.

All the above-mentioned distinctions — between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor — are rooted in fictions…Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.

This isn’t to argue that there aren’t biological differences between certain groups of people, including men and women. There are. But history has shown our tendency to exaggerate those differences and to create stories around our exaggerations, stories that uphold a certain desired hierarchy. These stories have a way of creating their own reality.

Just as frequently, we commit the opposite sin by restricting certain behavior based on some idea of what’s “natural” or “unnatural”, confusing biology with religious or cultural taboos. (And these myths die hard: It’s hard to fathom, but homosexuality wasn’t even legal in the United Kingdom until 1967.) As Harari rightly points out, anything we can do is perfectly natural in the biological sense. We come well-equipped for a variety of behavior.

And this certainly isn’t to argue that all behavior is equally acceptable: We put bumpers on society to reduce murder, rape, slavery, and other vile behavior that is perfectly biologically natural to us, and we should.

But unless we recognize the difference between biology and cultural myth and seek to reduce our unfair taboos wherever possible, we fail in some way to see the world through the eyes of others, and see that our imagined order is not always a fair or just one, a natural or inevitable one. Maybe some of the things we see around us are just a historical accident if we look closely enough.

Even more than that, examining the relationship between biological reality and cultural myth allows us to appreciate our basic storytelling instincts. Human beings are wired for narrative: We’ve been called the Storytelling Animal and for good reason. Our thirst and ready acceptance of narrative is a basic part of our existence; it’s hard-wired into our genetic algorithm.

Much of our narrative superpower can be observed in the structure of human language, which is unique among species in its infinite flexibility and adaptability. It makes us capable of great cooperative accomplishments, but also great evils.

Fortunately, the modern world has done a pretty good job steadily loosening the grip of mythical “natural” realities that only exist in our heads. But a fair inquiry remains: What sustaining myths still exist? Are they for good or for evil?

We leave that for you to ponder.

Check out Harari’s book Sapiens or his new book, Homo Deus.

***

If you liked this, you’ll love:

Why Humans Dominate the Earth: Myth-Making — It is our collected fictions that define us.

Religion and History: Will Durant on the Role of Religion and Morality — Religions ability to shape cultural behavior.

The False Allure of a “Natural State” of Man — The heated debate about Sapiens’ “natural way of life” is missing the point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a natural way of life for Sapiens.

Breaking the Rules: Moneyball Edition

Most of the book Simple Rules by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt talks about identifying a problem area (or an area ripe for “simple rules”) and then walks you through creating your own set of rules. It’s a useful mental process.

An ideal situation for simple rules is something repetitive, giving you constant feedback so you can course correct as you go. But what if your rules stop working and you need to start over completely?

Simple Rules recounts the well-known Moneyball tale in its examination of this process:

The story begins with Sandy Alderson. Alderson, a former Marine with no baseball background became the A’s general manager in 1983. Unlike baseball traditionalists, Alderson saw scoring runs as a process, not an outcome, and imagined baseball as a factory with a flow of players moving along the bases. This view led Alderson and later his protege and replacement, Billy Beane, to the insight that most teams overvalue batting average (hits only) and miss the relevance of on-base percentage (walks plus hits) to keeping the runners moving. Like many insightful rules, this boundary rule of picking players with a high on base percentage has subtle second – and third-order effects. Hitters with a high on-base percentage are highly disciplined (i.e., patient, with a good eye for strikes). This means they get more walks, and their reputation for discipline encourages pitchers to throw strikes, which are easier to hit. They tire out pitchers by making them throw more pitches overall, and disciplined hitting does not erode much with age. These and other insights are at the heart of what author Michael Lewis famously described as moneyball.

The Oakland A’s did everything right, they had examined the issues, they tried to figure out those areas which would most benefit from a set of simple rules and they had implemented them. The problem was, they were easy rules to copy. 

They were operating in a Red Queen Effect world where everyone around them was co-evolving, where running fast was just enough to get ahead temporarily, but not permanently. The Red Sox were the first and most successful club to copy the A’s:

By 2004, a free-spending team, the Boston Red Sox, co-opted the A’s principles and won the World Series for the first time since 1918. In contrast, the A’s went into decline, and by 2007 the were losing more games than they were winning Moneyball had struck out.

What can we do when the rules stop working? 

We must break them.

***

When the A’s had brought in Sandy Alderson, he was an outsider with no baseball background who could look at the problem in a different and new light. So how could that be replicated?

The team decided to bring in Farhan Zaidi as director of baseball operations in 2009. Zaidi spent most of his life with a pretty healthy obsession for baseball but he had a unique background: a PhD in behavioral economics.

He started on the job of breaking the old rules and crafting new ones. Like Andy Grove did once upon a time with Intel, Zaidi helped the team turn and face a new reality. Sull and Eisenhardt consider this as a key trait:

To respond effectively to major change, it is essential to investigate the new situation actively, and create a reimagined vision that utilizes radically different rules.

The right choice is often to move to the new rules as quickly as possible. Performance will typically decline in the short run, but the transition to the new reality will be faster and more complete in the long run. In contrast, changing slowly often results in an awkward combination of the past and the future with neither fitting the other or working well.

Beane and Zaidi first did some house cleaning: They fired the team’s manager. Then, they began breaking the old Moneyball rules, things like avoiding drafting high-school players. They also decided to pay more attention to physical skills like speed and throwing.

In the short term, the team performed quite poorly as fan attendance showed a steady decline. Yet, once again, against all odds, the A’s finished first in their division in 2012. Their change worked. 

With a new set of Simple Rules, they became a dominant force in their division once again. 

Reflecting their formidable analytic skills, the A’s brass had a new mindset that portrayed baseball as a financial market rife with arbitrage possibilities and simple rules to match.

One was a how-to rule that dictated exploiting players with splits. Simply put, players with splits have substantially different performances in two seemingly similar situations. A common split is when a player hits very well against right-handed pitchers and poorly against left-handed pitchers, or vice versa. Players with spits are mediocre when they play every game, and are low paid. In contrast, most superstars play well regardless of the situation, and are paid handsomely for their versatility. The A’s insight was that when a team has a player who can perform one side of the split well and a different player who excels at the opposite split, the two positives can create a cheap composite player. So the A’s started using a boundary rule to pick players with splits and how-to rule to exploit those splits with platooning – putting different players at the same position to take advantage of their splits against right – or left-handed pitching.

If you’re reading this as a baseball fan, you’re probably thinking that exploiting splits isn’t anything new. So why did it have such an effect on their season? Well, no one had pushed it this hard before, which had some nuanced effects that might not have been immediately apparent.

For example, exploiting these splits keeps players healthier during the long 162-game season because they don’t play every day. The rule keeps everyone motivated because everyone has a role and plays often. It provides versatility when players are injured since players can fill in for each other.

They didn’t stop there. Zaidi and Beane looked at the data and kept rolling out new simple rules that broke with their highly successful Moneyball past.

In 2013 they added a new boundary rule to the player-selection activity: pick fly-ball hitters, meaning hitters who tend to hit the ball in the air and out of the infield (in contrast with ground-ball hitters). Sixty percent of the A’s at-bat were by fly-ball hitters in 2013, the highest percentage in major-league baseball in almost a decade, and the A’s had the highest ratio of fly ball to ground balls, by far. Why fly-ball hitters?

Since one of ten fly balls is a home run, fly-ball hitters hit more home runs: an important factor in winning games. Fly-ball hitters also avoid ground-ball double plays, a rally killer if ever there as one. They are particularly effective against ground-ball pitches because they tend to swing underneath the ball, taking way the advantage of those pitchers. In fact, the A’s fly-ball hitters batted an all-star caliber .302 against ground-ball pitchers in 2013 on their way to their second consecutive division title despite having the fourth-lowest payroll in major-league baseball.

Unfortunately, the new rules had a short-lived effectiveness: In 2014 the A’s fell to 2nd place and have been struggling the last two seasons. Two Cinderella stories is a great achievement, but it’s hard to maintain that edge. 

This wonderful demonstration of the Red Queen Effect in sports can be described as an “arms race.’” As everyone tries to get ahead, a strange equilibrium is created by the simultaneous continual improvement, and those with more limited resources must work even harder as the pack moves ahead one at a time.

Even though they have adapted and created some wonderful “Simple Rules” in the past, the A’s (and all of their competitors) must stay in the race in order to return to the top: No “rule” will allow them to rest on their laurels. Second-Order Thinking and a little real-world experience show this to be true: Those that prosper consistently will think deeply, reevaluate, adapt, and continually evolve. That is the nature of a competitive world. 

The Boundaries Between Science and Religion: Alan Lightman on Different Kinds of Knowledge

“The physical universe is subject to rational analysis and the methods of science. The spiritual universe is not. All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis. Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.”

***

Alan Lightman, whose beautiful meditation on our yearning for permanence in a universe that offers none, looks at the tension between science and religion in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

In the essay, “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to reconcile his personal struggle between religion and science. In so doing he sets out the necessary criteria for science to be compatible with religion:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

Our knowledge of scientific laws is provisional. We do not know all the laws but we believe in a complete set of them. We further believe, in principle anyway, that humans will uncover these laws. An example of a scientific law is the conservation of energy.

The total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant. The energy in an isolated container may change form, as when the chemical energy latent in a fresh match changes into the heat and light energy of a burning flame— but, according to the law of the conservation of energy, the total amount of energy does not change.

Even scientific laws that we already know about are updated and refined over time. Lightman offers the replacement of Newton’s law of gravity (1687) by Einstein’s deeper and more accurate law of gravity (1915). These revisions are part of the very fabric of science.

Next, Lightman provides a working definition of God.

I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Lightman then offers a continuum of religious beliefs based on the degree to which God acts in the world. At one end is atheism — or denying the existence of god. Moving along the spectrum, we find deism, which was a prominent view in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that God created the universe but has not acted since this spark.

Voltaire was a deist. As God’s role expands we find immanentism, which holds that God created the universe and its scientific laws. Under this view, God continues to act through the repeated application of those laws. We can probably put Einstein in the immanentism camp. (Philosophically both deism and immanentism are similar because God does not perform miracles.)

Opposite atheism lies interventionism. Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism subscribe to this view, which is that God created the universe and its laws and occasionally violates the laws to create unpredictable results.

Lightman argues that all of these views, except interventionism, agree with science.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science.

Lightman cites Francis Collins, who offers some thoughtful advice on reconciling a belief in an interventionist God and science, or at least, deciding which to turn to for answers to the right kinds of questions. They are often very different.

“I’ve not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 … if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions.

Under this reconciliation, miracles cannot be analyzed by the methods of science. This is an echo of Richard Feynman, who put it most clearly in one of his letters, saying that science only tells us if we do something then what will happen? Cause and effect. It doesn’t give us any guidance on the question of should we do it?

Lightman, himself, falls in the atheist camp.

I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with (Other Scientists) that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

And yet we must believe in things we cannot (yet) prove. Lightman himself believes in the central doctrine which cannot be proven. At most we can only say there is no evidence to contradict it. This is what Karl Popper called real science – a process by which we hypothesize and then attack our hypotheses. A scientific “fact” is one that has stood up to extraordinary scrutiny.

With much of life, and much meaning in the world, there are often things outside of the scientific realm. These are worth considering.

I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

Lightman recalls his time as a grad student in physics and the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question with “enough clarity and precision that it is guaranteed an answer.” Put another way, scientists are trained not to “waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.” And yet questions without clear and definite answers are sometimes just as important. Just because we can’t apply the scientific method to them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider them.

[A]rtists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. That is why we can never fully understand why the highly sensitive Raskolnikov brutally murdered the old pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment, whether Plato’s ideal form of government could ever be realized in human society, whether we would be happier if we lived to be a thousand years old. For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

The question is more important than the answer — just as the journey is more important than the destination and the process is more important than outcome.

As the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it a century ago:  “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

“As human beings,” Lightman argues, “don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?”

The God Delusion, a widely read book by Richard Dawkins, uses modern tools to attack two common arguments for the existence of God: Intelligent Design (only an intelligent and powerful being could have designed the universe) and that only the action and will of God explains our morality and desire to help others. Dawkins convincingly shows that Earth could have arisen from the laws of nature and random processes, without the intervention of a supernatural and intelligent Designer. Our sense of morality and altruism could be a logical derivative of natural selection.

However, as Lightman reminds us, refuting or falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not necessarily falsify the proposition itself.

Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

Lightman is troubled by Dawkins’ wholesale dismissal of religion.

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Indeed, William & Ariel Durant have argued that we need religion; it is part of our fabric of understanding and living in the world.

***

With that, Lightman brings the essay to a beautiful conclusion.

The physical and spiritual universes each have their own domains and their own limitations. The question of the age of planet Earth, for example, falls squarely in the domain of science, since there are reliable tests we can perform, such as using the rate of disintegration of radioactive rocks, to determine a definitive answer. Such questions as “What is the nature of love?” or “Is it moral to kill another person in time of war?” or “Does God exist?” lie outside the bounds of science but fall well within the realm of religion. I am impatient with people who, like Richard Dawkins, try to disprove the existence of God with scientific arguments. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. I am equally impatient with people who make statements about the physical universe that violate physical evidence and the known laws of nature. Within the domain of the physical universe, science cannot hold sway on some days but not on others. Knowingly or not, we all depend on the consistent operation of the laws of nature in the physical universe day after day— for example, when we board an airplane, allow ourselves to be lofted thousands of feet in the air, and hope to land safely at the other end. Or when we stand in line to receive a vaccination against the next season’s influenza.

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

The Accidental Universe is a mind-bending read on the known and unknowable, offering a window into our universe and some of the profound questions of our time.