Freedom

One of my favorite pastimes has always been exploring my local area. Whether it be on foot, on a bike or with the aid of a vehicle, a boat or a train, seeing what’s out there has never failed to lure me. You could call it wanderlust, but one label could never quite describe it, neither explain the philosophical significance of it.

As I was on one of my regular walks yesterday, the desire for solitary wandering unexpectedly overtook me and I started walking along the railways near my city. Step by step, the city started to fade away and disappear from my surroundings — first on the right and then on the left. It was still afternoon, and, because it’s winter here, quite chilly. Yet I didn’t care. The excitement of walking along a new and unknown path, combined with the necessity to always be on the lookout for giant moving pieces of metal, or trains as we normally call them, naturally heightened my senses. Thus, as soon as the buzz of the city died down, and Nature revealed itself, I was ready to experience it. Continue reading Wanderlust — Integrating Life and the Unknown

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These days it seems ever more trendy to find novel ways of bashing masculinity. The narrative has been so skewed by ideology that any out-in-the-wild masculine behavior is seen as wrong or misguided. Guys are told to be more caring, less aggressive and more vulnerable. They are told they are toxic and that’s the reason why the world is bad as it is.

Frankly, such patronizing talk is quite annoying. Especially so, when no one on the other side seems to consider that there are good reasons why men behave the way they do.

Incidentally, I am far from ecstatic about the term “masculinity” and its use as a prescription of certain male behaviors. Yet, there are certain patterns one cannot help but recognize among most men, the few exceptions to them notwithstanding.

I wanted to write this post because I have spent years trying to understand what it means to be a man and why certain things appeal to me and others don’t. Throughout this journey, I have seen and heard many opinions about masculinity. Sadly, very few of them rang true. At least to a young guy like me, most things said out there about what being a man means seems at best out of touch and at worst a malicious attack on what is construed as an ideologically problematic group of people.

I want to stress this last word: people. It’s a sign of the times that this needs saying, but: men are people too. In other words, we do make mistakes and our views are not always right. But the same applies for women and everyone in general. To single out the bad without acknowledging the good in a person is not only to be biased and unfair, but to demand perfection in a world which has none.

Before I begin, I want to stress out that I understand the topic naturally involves generalizing statements which I’d prefer not to make. But the term masculinity is itself a sort of generalization  which we as men supposedly all possess. And since that is the language of the accusations leveled against men, that will naturally be mine too (even if I’d much rather deal with separate individuals as opposed to abstract groups)

With that said, let’s talk about men. And what better place to start than the much discussed male sexuality. Continue reading Modern Lies about Masculinity

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Three years ago, I went through a period fraught with personal difficulties. A relationship I was deeply invested in broke apart, my wrist got fractured playing handball, and my mom lost her job amidst the natural state of depression that defined my life at the time.

Something interested emerged from the chaos, however. Forced to acknowledge that happiness was impossible (whatever the ever optimist marketers might be saying…), I had to ask myself if there was a life beyond it. At the time, I felt that If life was all about happiness, mine was pretty much over. But maybe, there was another way to live in which experiencing suffering and pain was not synonymous with failure.

As it happened, I spent Christmas and New Years Eve alone in Oxford, far away from friends and family. This period offered me much needed solitude to think about the question above. I slowly came to realize that the suffering was fine as long as I was growing as a person. If only I could just get to the end of the academic year successfully, without giving up and without adopting useless identities (such as “mentally ill”, “depressed”, etc.; fortunately I only needed to think about this just thought in order to dispel it). If only I survived and managed to thrive despite (thanks to?) the suffering, then I would be content.

Thus, I spent the evening of New Years Eve writing about the inherent contradiction I saw between seeking happiness and seeking growth. To be happy was to look into the present (or the past) and stay still in perception. It was essentially a passive yet conscious meditative state. On the other hand, to grow was to struggle against reality and either win or learn from the mistakes. It was at times painful, at times not, but always active and subject to a purpose.

The contradiction was in the opposite directions the two ideals were pulling. Action vs non-action, acceptance vs change, non-purpose vs purpose. As everybody knows intuitively, to truly grow in anything requires many sacrifices of pleasure and present joy. And conversely, to be truly happy, one cannot be too preoccupied with making progress; one must let go.

In a moment of epiphany, I consciously realized this deep truth and set go to explore the consequences. What if I embraced my pain and used it to grow instead of wallowing that happiness was being unfairly taken away from me? Both points of view were on the table, but only one really kept me truly alive. If nothing else, adopting a growth-based mindset was the most practical solution to my problems at the time.

In any case, while in Oxford I made my choice to pursue growth and live with the blues if necessary. It worked well — I matured significantly over this period and became more resilient to life’s downs. Crucially, I confirmed my doubt that happiness was overhyped. A great life wasn’t necessarily based around a pursuit of happiness (although it’d be a shame not to enjoy it from time to time). I saw that one could well be more than content with pursuing his/her ambitions and let happiness happen if it should or not if it shouldn’t. Continue reading The non-Wisdom of looking for Happiness instead of Meaning

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At the occasional moments when sexuality transcends the confines of one of society’s greatest taboos, it is often spoken in the context merely of a physical act. 

Indeed, in an attempt to redeem as much as possible from the realm of the sexual, we have ended up with a conception of sexuality too narrow and uninteresting. As a result, we do many sexual actions  such as dressing provocatively, staying in shape, covertly flirting while at the same time feeling the inner need to deny their sexual character.

In the past few years, analytical as I am, I have been thinking a lot about sexuality. More precisely, I have been pondering what a life looks like that takes the sexual just as seriously as, say, a pursuit of knowledge or beauty. Elevating sex to such a high degree might seem a strange thing to do, but for me such a view has been the result of a rejection of religious norms and an honest introspective look at what it is that makes my life enjoyable. The way I look at it is this: virtually everyone enjoys sex, but few consciously design parts of their life around it.

Consequently, my view of sexuality has broadened up. A deep and careful look into what makes for a good sex has led me to develop or strengthen multiple new interests. Crucially, the act itself, albeit important, has been transformed into a mere culmination of many distinct pursuits — artistic, intellectual, corporal. Continue reading Sexuality beyond the Act

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Many of the most important relationships we all partake in are between us and some sort of a greater community. Whether it be the market, the nation, the language group or a favorite online forum, it is communities that in large part define our lives and experience of the world.

Of course, everybody knows such relationships inherently have two opposing sides. 

One side expresses the ability of communities to foster creativity, encourage sharing, spread wisdom and overall increase well-being. The other expresses the ability of communities to oppress, stifle and hinder individuality as well as divide people in multiple warring sub-factions. 

This dualism inherent to any community has always been a source of great political and philosophical conflict. To take one particular example, individualism has frequently been attacked as selfish, uncaring or blind to the fact that human success depends invariably on the work of others and hence can never be attributed to the individual as such.

Thus, the caricature of the selfish individualist was born, i.e. the one that avoids communal life and thinks him/herself self-made whilst clearly dependent on the cooperation of others.

Politically, all of this ends up expressed as moral accusations of cold-heartedness and ingratitude to the rest of society. Why doesn’t the individualist want to join the rest of society? Why don’t they want to contribute? Why do they avoid being a part of the wider community? Continue reading Individualism and Public Policy: Not all Communities are Horizontal

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I don’t know if mine is a common experience, but I can remember vividly the first moment when I emotionally felt the true significance of death.

I was on the brink of puberty, lying down in bed at night. (as those things usually go). As I was thinking about life and existence, the sudden and forceful realization hit me with emotion:

I was going to perish! My consciousness would one day wither away!

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about death before that. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the word meant. But my knowledge was merely conceptual. It was far removed from the emotional reality of life. 

It would be fair to say that this experience changed my life.

Partly as a result, I subsequently became deeply interested in Christianity. Moreover, I also acquired a fascination for the various views on death that people hold or have held throughout history.

***

As I was enjoying one of my regular walks yesterday, I started thinking about the ways my sense of personal mortality has informed the way I have come to approach my life. 

And although our culture tends to avoid discussing the topic, I find articles about it important, fascinating and thought-provoking. So, this is why I sat down and started writing this…

***

Now, In the west, we don’t like talking much about death. 

And honestly, It’s difficult to judge this cultural decision good or bad:

Maybe it is nothing but a foolish denial of the most basic and certain fact about the human condition? 

Or, maybe it’s potentially the wisest thing one could do — to keep silence about a thing we don’t really understand.

I don’t truly know.

But the fact is, many cultures and religions have focused their attention on death. From the Roman “memento mori” to various religious ideas, death has played an important role in human history.

As I mentioned above, I was first drawn to Christianity as a way of coping with the feelings caused by a deep contemplation of death. 

Ironically, however, Christianity also lead me to an understanding that death might not be so scary after all.

In the end, my animal brain was equally baffled and terrified by both eternal death and eternal life. There is something incredibly mysterious and scary about the prospect of a never-ending existence. (just try to understand what it means that you’ve been born to never die; that there is nothing that will ever be beyond your life because you’ll always be; I don’t know about you, but all of this truly freaks me out!)

Thus, I gradually recognized that death might not be such a bad thing, after all. True, it sucks to die as early as we do now, after less than a hundred years. But compared to living forever, maybe it’s preferable to just leave this world at some point? Maybe  in the final analysis death is acceptable, perhaps even desirable?

***

Fast forward a few years and I was no longer a Christian. 

In the meantime, one of my grandmas had passed away. It was my first close experience with the actual way death happens. Maybe I was too young at the time for it, but I didn’t feel an impulse to cry or mourn excessively. To be frank, life just seemed to change and continue ahead pretty much the same, only grandma was missing. (a fact which was not necessarily that painful after you’ve come to see her life descend into a series of strokes leading to an inability to even stand up straight and walk)

I have often reflected why I reacted so indifferently back then. (especially since I am not sure next time would be the same!)

In recent years, one of my theories has been that I might have just been too young to  appreciate grandma fully. Maybe I just didn’t have time to grow long enough around her and so I consequently found it hard to miss her?

Of course, it all could have been because I just have a natural inclination to accept death easier than most. To be frank about it, I have never really found the dark and painful side of life expressly unnatural. After all, it is no surprise to anyone that life is not all roses. So, what’s the point in suffering needlessly when we get reminded of that fact?

Perhaps this is why my next stop along the way of exploration of death was buddhism and taoism. 

In reading Alan Watts, for example, I came to appreciate the impermanence of everything in life, including life itself. I resonated deeply with many eastern notions. I understood that death didn’t necessarily feel like a tragedy because, well, it had to happen at some point — life just wasn’t going to last forever! Moreover, there was nothing that could really be done about it. Once you were gone, you were gone. Life better move on.

To be frank, having both a Christian and a Buddhist/Taoist interpretation of death is quite the experience. Where one philosophy sees the biggest of tragedies, the other sees just another change along the way, no special and no more tragic than any other. Where one sees the beginning of an eternity for the personal soul, the other sees the end of a temporary illusion of a fake self.

In truth, Buddhist/Taoist views about death can bring great calm. Yet, they also suggest that the whole sense of anxiety is most irrational — there is no self to begin with, so why worry about it ceasing to exist?

At least to my western ears, this was a step too far from my intuitions. I wasn’t ready to believe myself an illusion quite yet.

***

Fast forward once again, and you suddenly find me an undergraduate at Oxford.

My university years were generally a continuation of my teenager fascination with the life lessons of death.

It was during this period that I discovered Stoicism. I read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I learned and understood phrases like “memento mori”. Crucially, I realized that I was not alone in looking for life lessons at seemingly the unlikeliest of places — death — the only place totally devoid of any life by definition.

It wasn’t just the discovery of stoicism, however, that my university years gifted me with.

I also saw that the lessons of death do not necessarily come after, but before it as well. In other words, I discovered how wise old people can be. 

Indeed, up until that point I had been a lot more irreverent in my attitude towards the old. I just didn’t see why age should matter as to how wise an opinion is. I guess what I learned was not that age matters per se, but that life experience does. By the time I got to university, I had had time to pose myself enough big questions (should you marry? should you have kids? should you care about money or lifestyle first? etc.) that the opinion of those on the other side of life started to acquire greater and greater significance for me.

Still, perhaps the most interesting development of my university and post-university years was that for the first time I started to consciously resist the passage of time.

Of course, attempting to do so was futile, non-sensical and certainly impossible. Yet, wanting to push back the seconds and retain my youth forever was definitely a very real internal experience for me…

Granted, even now, one year later, I am still in the beginning of life. Nonetheless, I am slowly finding myself in an unknown, aged world.  Many people associate the innocence of youth with a lack of sexuality, but I have to see it in more than just that. There is also the innocence of not having to think about your eating “right”, exercising or arranging regular check-ups for various diseases. In a way, for the first time I am starting to feel that life is not just about living, but about preserving living as well. 

And all that is totally new…

Of course, none of the above considerations are ever-present in my mind. Yet, they are starting to visit me more and more frequently. 

One of my high school teachers used to say “Every second we are always dying”. I remember finding the phrase too grim years ago. Now, I believe I am starting to understand its meaning.

The fascinating thing about all of this is that I now expect the next revelation about death the future will bring me without much fear. I wonder what my 30, 40, 50, … year-old selfs would have to say on the topic of death. I wonder what revisions they would make to this article..

Until the next revelation, however, I, like many others, will keep entertaining hopes that my generation will finally be the one to beat aging and live to 150, 200, or even more. 

Frankly speaking, without the promises of religion and away from the Buddhist whispers that there is no self, it seems that the only remaining hope of saving oneself from death marches under the joint flags and harmonious sounds  of science and technology. 

Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical. Am I not just discovering late a millennia-old vain desire of immortality? Am I not back where I started — lying in bed, thinking about death and, yet again, finding it terrifying?

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A few months ago, I learned that one of the people I follow in the podcasting world lives with basically no possessions, moving from one airbnb to another every few weeks.

I was naturally intrigued by this lifestyle. And that’s hardly a surprise since whatever the way you try to describe such a lifestyle, unconventional would certainly be part of the deal.

I have since learned that there is a whole community online of people following a similar path. They call themselves minimalists and are happy to share their story and philosophy with the wider world.

So, I read some of their articles…

And I just couldn’t get that excited about the whole thing. 

In the end, it just didn’t quite ring true to my ears. 

Here’s why.

Less is More Fundamentalism

To begin with the easiest and most general objection first, some minimalists are almost fanatical about the idea of owning less.

Now, if people playfully competed with each other about who of them lives with less, then maybe the whole thing could be shrugged off as just an inside joke, i.e. the minimalist community’s banter. 

But we know people can easily go down weird rabbit holes and commit to unhealthy ideologies and beliefs. Living with less strikes me as exactly that kind of thing. 

Clearly, the extremes forms of living with less are pretty unhealthy. One could subsist and live minimally somewhere along the border between life and death, but what’s the point? Why become a fundamentalist and deprive yourself of pleasures? 

It might be few who are actually doing that (for various reasons, some of which I’ll cover down below), but the whole idea of judging life by the number of your possessions is bizarre and potentially dangerous. One can do without many things, even one’s limbs for example, but what’s the point? Less is not always more.

Is Minimalism about the Right Balance?

Now, the above is certainly something many intelligent minimalists realize. To them, minimalism is not expressed by the maxim “less is more (always and forever)”. Instead, to them minimalism is more of a tool for personal liberation which functions only because wellbeing happens to be correlated with owning less. In other words, this minimalism is not a dogmatic belief in simplicity for its own sake, but an evidence-based philosophy that promises a greater wellbeing.

Frankly, this is the kind of approach to minimalism that appeals to me on a gut level. That is not to say it has no flaws. Rather, it it to say that I find that doing or owning less can sometimes indeed correlate with an improvement in wellbeing. For example, while at university, I felt much better once I stopped trying to be at as many events as possible. As soon as I allowed myself some free time to think and reflect, my life quality improved. 

Yet, I think this only happened because my life balance was so off at the time that any change towards doing less would have worked. 

In a sense, if I have misunderstood minimalism and it really just stands for basic moderation in life,  then great. I cannot argue with this sentiment. Cognitive overload and overwhelm only lead to burnout and any life philosophy that avoids them successfully is a winner in my book. To give one more university example, exam period was always stressful for me because of how unnatural it was — humans, especially young ones, are not made to sit and read books all day…

However, if the above is true, then it certainly casts doubt on the name of the philosophy. Unless humans are all (unbeknownst to them) terribly overwhelmed by normal, everyday life, then minimalism is at best a misnomer. True, moderationism hardly sounds as catchy, but I think it’d better represent the above approach. Moreover, it would not tempt people into any unhealthy extremes. (it’s truly hard to be a radical moderate!)

Dealing wisely with Complexity

Nevertheless, I don’t think minimalists got confused in naming their philosophy.

So, I will assume that some of them indeed argue that normal life is overwhelming. In fact, I have seen quite a few posts suggesting as much. Countless bills, excessive material desires, stressful communal commitments — all of those seem to go rub minimalists the wrong way.

Once again, I won’t deny there is truth to some of this. Life can get out of hand pretty fast and simplicity makes it all easier to manage. 

But besides the comment on moderation I already made, there is another point of conflict here. If the problem is how to manage the load of normal life, then the intuition and logic of minimalism is far from from obviously true.

For one, minimalism understood this way stands in a marked contrast to other approaches such as the stoic one. Phrased more directly: If the environment is overwhelming, then perhaps the proper solution is to toughen up and simply adapt to it. After all, maybe there is no final escape from the complexity of the modern world save from completely checking out of it. 

Moreover, if our capacity for dealing with complexity is not fixed, then it seems that minimalism threatens to leave us less prepared for it. Of course, maybe a committed minimalist can learn to deal with complexity even in a single one of their pursuits, but it’s unclear whether the skills so acquired would transfer to dealing with the complexities of life should the need for that arise.

Admittedly, this might sound foolish. Why would a minimalist care if they can deal with the complexity they have decided to escape for good? 

Well, in short, because I don’t think minimalists have escaped all complexity forever. To appeal to the popular saying, shit happens. Life can get complicated pretty fast, forcing us to drop old habits or acquire new ones. If people stop exercising in pursuits of their career, then why wouldn’t they drop minimalism if their parents fell sick and they needed to live with them for a while? And that’s just one example out of many…

In the light of this, it seems that adopting a radical position and chasing simplicity might have unintended negative consequences.

The Need for Order

All of the above notwithstanding, I would now like to turn to a desire which I presume is driving at least some minimalists: the desire for order.

Now, it is definitely true that simplicity and a scaling down of life can help establish order. It’s naturally easier to manage two interests rather than twenty.

And as expected, the minimalist solution is to embrace these positive effects of simplicity and achieve order this way. However, it is not clear to me whether this is not ultimately paying too high a cost.

Firstly, it’s not obvious that order is best achieved through the simplicity of owning less. Ultimately, a minimalist (I presume) finds inner freedom in caring less about external things. Yet, this goal can be achieved through many different means — meditation, better systematization, etc. 

In general, I am slightly suspicious of the hippy vibe of philosophies that rave against material objects. My life has been made immensely better for the things I’ve had and I have hurt a lot for the things i haven’t. This is why I am skeptical when minimalists condemn material objects as harshly as they do.

The truth is, I have lived a pretty minimalist choice for years. Only it was not because of some great philosophical love of this lifestyle, but out of necessity. I have gone years now without being able to afford things I know would make me happy — musical instruments, sports equipment, books, new clothes or cool gadgets I can play with (e.g. drones, etc.).

Minimalists are right that there is a mental cost to ownership. Yet, for me the cost of non-ownership has been greater. And that’s one of my deeper problems with the minimalist movement as I see it.

It seems that few minimalists want to go all the way to embracing simplicity. They bask in owning less, but are happy to change what they own. They have a superficial personal simplicity while enjoying all the variety the wider market provides for them.

And if that is so, if you, say, own 1 tech gadget but change it every six months, one justifiably asks: how is that different from owning 2, 3, 4? Clearly, what’s new is always on your mind in one way or another. You haven’t really achieved inner peace from possessions. And that’s to be expected: as buddhism reminds us, the war against attachment is waged through stillness of the mind, not the credit card.

And that ties in with another critique I have seen on minimalism — that is it geared primarily towards the rich. And there’s certainly a slight feel of this. Most people cannot hop from place to place, traveling and living for experiences rather than material possessions. And in any case, this dichotomy is stupid. A material thing like a guitar can be a source of very many great experiences if given to the right person.

Not that it is wrong to have life philosophies aimed at the rich. Quite the contrary. I am actually interested in them. But it seems to me that many minimalists intuitively feel their philosophy lacking in variety (what did you expect if you downsize your life on principle?). And it also seems to me that the solution for some minimalists has been to simply sell one thing and buy another. In other words, they have chosen to get the benefits of variety without the costs of simplicity. And that’s cool. But the reality is, it has an economic cost attached.

Now, maybe in the US, where minimalism is most popular, that cost is easy to bear. But then, the US is so exceptionally wealthy that even poor people there live better than much of the rest of the world. Myself, living outside of the US, I find this aspect of minimalism a bit absurd or at the very least out of touch with what the real dynamic between simplicity, materialism and wellbeing is.

Love of Change vs Minimalism

Above, I already hinted at the wellbeing improvement a change in lifestyle can provide.

I think that fact is central to why minimalism feels so good to many. When you have less, you are forced to change more often. And that’s great. Uncovering new horizons is extremely exhilarating.

This fact is precisely why I love change. I am not sure, however, that minimalism is the best or only way to spicy up your life.

In any case, probably the best example of a lifestyle full of change (and one that probably drives a lot of intuition we have about what minimalism feels like) is traveling. 

Now, because of luggage restrictions and lack of permanent storage, it is hard to travel the world carrying a lot with you. Moreover, change happens naturally — of people, of places, of languages, of cultures. I have always loved this feeling.

This is why I think minimalism, or at least parts of it, draw their appeal from the joy of traveling light. However, the size of the bag seems hardly the most relevant factor. In a way, I am much more on board with a philosophy that embraces travel (and which might, by necessity, lead to a de factor minimalist lifestyle) than minimalism.

In any case, travel is only one mode of living, a joyful yet imperfect one. Visiting new countries might produce great joy, but so does having your own yoga mat and a room full of the posters and the books you adore. In other words, there are joys to be found in both contexts and some of them require ownership. In my view, it is the process of change that leads to wellbeing, not necessarily the number of possessions.

Minimalism through a youthful Travel-Lens

It is worth remarking that, looked through the travel-lens, minimalism will probably appeal to younger folks more. Young people love to travel and are generally not wealthy enough to own much anyway. So, it’s natural that they will gravitate towards a “live light” philosophy — after all, it looks like the natural extension of “travel light”.

As I indicated above, I think that’s cool. Youth requires change, experimentation and discovery. But exactly because of this, I fear that willful minimalism (as opposed to the instrumental one, e.g. the one done for the sake of easier travel) might occasionally prove detrimental.

What I mean is this: I fear that an increased focus on simplicity and downsizing will actually hinder experimentation; that great novel things won’t be tried because they come in a material form; that prioritizing what you love and throwing away everything else will only reinforce old habits without developing new.

Maybe I am too cautious about this. But I know that along with the simplicity of minimalism, a natural form of isolationism will occur as well. If every new thing is judged as a potential threat to your minimalist street cred, then you’ll be less likely to buy it and try it. And over time, life will become more boring. And if it doesn’t, it certainly will make it more lengthy for novelties to finally seep into one’s life.

Which, ultimately, might be what a minimalist wants. But for me, I want change a lot more. New things and experiences are absolutely exciting!

The viewpoint diversity within Minimalism and Minimalism’s intuitive Appeal

Finally, I want to talk about minimalism in a more positive light.

To begin with, let’s just say that most life philosophies (religions, etc.) are better lived than talked about. The best way to know if a belief system works for you is to adopt it and see what happens.

In any case, there is an aesthetic appeal to minimalism that can certainly be attractive. Simplicity is a big part of Eastern art and for a good reason — there is a great beauty in it.

In a sense then, if minimalism was about making your life more beautiful, then I could easily see the attraction. After all, some painting are beautiful because of how colorful and varied they are,; others, because of how simple yet expressive. 

Of course, there are undercurrents in minimalism that go beyond beauty and wellbeing. For every minimalist that wants to focus on experiences rather than oppressive material things, there is probably another that sees in minimalism the only responsible way to approach the environment and save nature from human destruction.

It is true that many minimalists would probably cite the above motivations as important. But, ultimately, there is a conflict between them for many of the great experiences one can have require a lot of energy and resources to offer. In other words, one person’s experiential minimalist is another environmental minimalist’s unsustainable hell. I guess this only goes to show that even within minimalism, there can be differences in viewpoint. 

In any case, though appealing, the environmental version of minimalism can fast devolve into a “less is always more” mentality and give rise to a desire to extinguish one’s presence from this world. Personally, I find this extreme position a bit unhealthy. I guess that, at the end of the day, I am indeed a moderationist. 🙂

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We live in interesting times for academia.

Traditionally, even though society at large has never particularly played a cheerleader  role for the universities, funding has always been available for all sorts of research. Moreover, academics have consistently been held in high regard as intelligent, hard working and useful to society.

In the recent years, however, the English-speaking world has gradually witnessed a mass revulsion from academia. And even more strikingly, some of that revulsion has been championed by precisely the sort of people who have traditionally fit the academic mould, i.e. curious types unafraid to ask questions and think critically for themselves.

While at Oxford, I myself underwent a similar process.

In the abstract, science is great and academia represents as much of a free-thinking heaven on Earth as there could be. Or at the very least, those were my expectations going in.

Going out, however, all I could think was: if this is the best we could do in terms of institutionalized curiosity, then God help us. Academia felt more like a hell than a heaven.

It is no secret to anyone who’s recently been on a university campus that the place has turned primarily into a political battleground (as opposed to an intellectual one). Many students seem more interested in activism than in hearing out differing opinions. Argumentation has mostly given way to idea imposition and political correctness. The academic orthodoxy enshrined at universities feels distinctly cult-like and frankly little better than the closed-mindedness academia supposedly stands in opposition to.

Consequently, there are two possibilities for the dissenting voices in academia. One is to shut up and do your work in hope that things might get better or that they won’t ever interfere with your life. The other is to judge the whole enterprise flawed as it currently stands and leave. In truth, there is a third possibility, namely to speak up. But it is fast becoming a career suicide for faculty and a social hell for students. In practice, the people who speak up are donors and those who no longer have anything at stake, i.e. those on the way out.

Today, it feels like academia has forgotten a very simple historic lesson: don’t moralize too much or people will begin to resent you. And if this lesson holds true in basically every domain, it holds twice as much in academia. For academia, at least in theory, has committed itself to the accumulation of knowledge and the assimilation of different perspectives. And that means being as impassionate, or at least as charitable, as possible to differing points of view — a sentiment hard to square with a top-down censorship of opinion or an embrace of student intolerance.

Yet, though I still have hope, I don’t expect much to change. The university system has shrugged off many other complaints before.

That such attitude only makes a mockery of the plea for feedback one receives after leaving; that the millions spent to entice children into science are then offset by millions spent to put them off their scientific ideals; that academia is turning more and more into an obstacle to learning; that the intolerant attitude is causing deep societal divison… all that doesn’t seem to matter.

All the above is why many of those who were willing to give the academic system the benefit of the doubt in the first place are ultimately leaving.

But there is another group in society — those who never got to university in the first place. Those are the people who academia tries to reach and inform, at least if you believe the public statements. Alas, those are also the people who oftentimes dissent only to be met with accusations of bigotry or willful ignorance. 

Just like Jesus, who said he came to save the sinners, academics claim they came to save the masses from their ignorance. But unlike Jesus, who embraced sinners and preached non-judgement, academics are fast to argue and quick to judge. For many academics, the perfect lay person is not the one who is curious and asks questions, regardless of how ignorant they might sound. No, the perfect lay person is the one whom you can keep at distance, but who buys your book and learns submissively from you, the academic master.

(This dynamic has always irritated me immensely. As soon as one actually engages with academia, the peer review system and its appeal to criticize seem to function more as a be-an-sshole system with an appeal to demean.)

In any case, the truth is this: academia is given the prestige and the tax-payer funding it enjoys only because it works. No matter what one thinks about the philosophical foundations of science, at the end of the day, science makes life better. The humanities too have much to contribute to a great life. Or at least they used to.

Nowadays, for every good paper in the humanities, there seem to another three full of non-sense. The humanities no longer work. The former contract — the public funds academia, academia does its thing and helps the public back — has been broken. And broken not only by making the humanities irrelevant (for then maybe no one would have noticed and consequently cared?); no, it’s been broken to an extent where the humanities are pushing a distinct ideology that makes life actively worse for many. I don’t believe much in Europe on that front, but at least in the US, self-censorship by a majority of the population should never be a thing…

In conclusion, the reality is that most people are pragmatists. They might support things they don’t understand, but they won’t support things that don’t work. And frankly speaking, there is no real reason why they should.

Mine is a delicate position to be in — both loving the ideas behind academia and hating the thing it has become today. 

Thankfully, it is finally becoming clear that being against the institutions of academia is not the same thing as an ignorant preference to stay in the dark.

If I could describe my position with a word, it would be academic patriotism — an attitude that can honestly see the flaws in modern academia without mistaking them as fundamental; an attitude that is not willing to give up on something so dear despite its current sickness…


Here are some prominent people (among many others) who are working to change academia for the better and who have influenced my thinking on the subject:

  1. Jordan Peterson
  2. Eric Weinstein
  3. Bret Weinstein
  4. Gad Saad
  5. Jonathan Haidt (especially this lecture)
  6. Hunter Maats
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At a first glance, the idea of reason as mankind’s savior seems wholly justified. After all, the Enlightenment, along with its deep belief in science and logic, has brought many improvements to our lives and knowledge of the world.

Consequently, the last few centuries have seen an explosion of ideologies — political, philosophical and other — all claiming reason as their cornerstone and ultimate starting point. 

However, a problem gradually started to emerge. Conclusions, albeit all nominally derived through the very same faculty —  reason, weren’t matching up. 

Politics is rife with this examples of left-wing and right-wing self-proclaimed followers of reason who could never sit down and agree even if their life depended on it. 

The idea of reason as applied in maths might seem a foolproof way to reach the Truth. Yet, in human affairs the results have only occasionally lived up to the original high expectations.

As a result, I have been questioning the wisdom of putting reason on such a high pedestal that reasonable has become synonymous with right. This post represents an attempt at explaining why.

***

I have been thinking about this post for quite some time, but I first wanted to collect my thoughts before writing anything down. In the past few weeks, however, I have been exposed to some interesting ideas on the topic which finally nudged me into sharing.

Let’s start at the place discussed in the last section, namely ideologies and cults of reason. 

Starting with Plato’s philosopher kings and culminating with modern technocrats, organizing society according to reason is not a new idea. And a priori, it seems promising indeed — the real world, as everything in the universe, should conform to the laws of logic and thus we can use them safely in perfecting our earthly experience.

So, how are we to reconcile the apparent conflicts of contradicting philosophies such as, to take one example among many, central planning socialists and reason-committed capitalists

Of course, one answer is the preferred one of both sides, namely: the other side are wrong and unreasonable. A priori, that could well be true. But there are times when the differences persist even after all evidence has been presented. Sometimes, it’s the starting assumptions, values and preferences that determine the final destination rather than a reasoned critique of the various possibilities.

Already, that’s a problem. If two reason-loving and logic-respecting parties can reach opposing conclusions just by virtue of difference in taste or preference, then we are forced to admit that oftentimes reason leads us to a place long ago predetermined by a-rational factors and nothing more.

Of course, one can start delving deeper into tastes and preferences, deconstructing and criticizing them. But one cannot bootstrap this whole process by reason alone. There have to be some fundamental values which serve to enable any rational criticism of all other values. 

In the end, it seems that it is not reason one meets at the beginning of reasoning. Rather, it is something like emotions, faith, will or chance — all of which carry hardly the same logical credibility.

But, going back to the initial example, there are other possibilities. Maybe both central planners and rabid capitalists are right about some things and wrong about others. Maybe each side rightly sees a part of reality and then hastily generalizes its conclusions to the whole of reality.

In some sense, pointing out the fallings on humans is not in itself an attack on reason. At least not reason in the abstract. Yet, we, humans, are not gods and we can never practice anything but our own human form of reason — the form so exalted ever since the Enlightenment began. (perfect reason, even if it works, will forever stay inaccessible to us)

Put differently, when talking of reason, we must accept our biases, shortfalls and imperfections. We must be willing to admit that we are not omniscient and our generalizations might turn out wrong. And we must recognize that nature doesn’t always promise us to be regular or easy to comprehend.

Let’s unpack this last paragraph.

Firstly, let’s take the topic of imperfect knowledge. Now, clearly each man and each woman are only ever present at one place at a time and thus only ever see a small slice of the world’s events. (and see it imperfectly) This fact does not necessarily have to be a severe limitation as long as nature is good to us and repeats itself along regular patterns. But that is not always so…

The result is therefore a mix of observation, hidden regularity hypotheses, and generalizations which then hopefully obeys the laws of logic. And it’s not like we could always and explicitly state our assumptions, let alone reasonably justify them. In fact, the best we can do is usually along the lines “well, it works”.

This line of reasoning can be extended further. Even if we started enumerating assumption after assumption, meticulously putting nature into language, we have no guarantee that we would ultimately achieve a true description of reality. 

For one, the world might well require infinite assumptions. For another, some of these assumptions might well be beyond our cognitive ability to state and comprehend. And finally, it’s unclear (at least to me) whether words are not too fuzzy and thus useless for the task of drawing any meaningful distinctions. (and conversely, whether a rigid logic would be expressive enough to describe the world as it is)

In short, the world might defy our rationalistic optimism. It might be that at high resolution, the world is full of incomprehensible complexity as opposed to the humanly preferable and graspable simplicity.

***

I recently began reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

It’s an impressive book full of densely packed philosophical ideas. But for the purposes of this post, I only need to talk about the introduction. And I need to do it mostly because, coincidentally, Chesterton too makes a great case against a blind reliance on reason.

Firstly, Chesterton explains well how reason makes one susceptible to oversimplifying the world for the sake of an ideology. He gives many examples which can conveniently be described, in the language of Popper, as unfalsifiable hypotheses. In other words, ideas which cannot reasonably be escaped or disproved.

In the book, Chesterton discusses the example of solipsism, i.e. the belief that the external world is really a fragment of one’s imagination. He also talks about materialistic determinism, no doubt because of the influence Marxist thought had at the time. But one can easily think of other philosophies and worldviews too, including any good old conspiracy theory.

The unifying point of all such beliefs is that they stand compatible with everything one can do to try and disprove them. One cannot really reason him/herself out of a conspiracy theory just like one cannot prove free will to the committed determinist.

It is in this very phenomenon that Chesterton sees many of the dangers of reason. Reason can trap us in a system of thought which is impossible to reasonably escape. (and which at the same time carries high authority and propels us to act in the world)

The way out, per Chesterton, is to basically appeal to the complexity of the world. In other words, the real world is too complicated to fit nicely within the bounds of a simple idea, a conspiracy theory or an ideology.

Ultimately, we must adopt richer rather than simpler and blander explanations. One can fancy believing that their spouse and everything else is imaginary, but one is better off believing the conceptually much richer explanation of an objective world existing independently of any one’s imagination.

(note that the usual way of resolving similar disputes, a la Occam’s razor, proceeds in a similar vein by opting for the simplest of explanations to the exclusion of all others; in both cases, it is worth asking why simplicity or complexity should have anything to do with the final truth about the world)

Overall, Chesterton argues that over reliance on reason easily dooms one to the fate of the solipsist — having rational reasons for a belief while being able to explain away any possible counterargument. Perhaps that is why there is so much disagreement in politics, philosophy and even in science. (e.g. entertaining exposition of a major disagreement in economics)

***

Recently, I also discovered a great podcast called “Mixed Mental Arts”.

To my great pleasure, I found that the question of rationality is one of the central topics of discussion. 

Now, I already mentioned that human reason, and not reason in the abstract, is all we have access to; that the Enlightenment’s belief in reason was ultimately one in the  human ability to reason.

In some sense, this is the starting point for one of the most important modern discussions about rationality. Namely, do we even have it in the first place.

Now, it might seem absurd to ask such a question in the face of science. However, it is precisely science which has cast doubt on our ability to reason.

As the MMA podcast is quick to remind us, there is a good reason to believe that our thinking is mostly made up of rationalizations for various a-rational biases. In other words, we choose based on emotions and only later make up a story why (interested?). If that sounds like a strange idea, consider how often people actually change their beliefs after facing a knockdown argument to their position. Precisely…

Thanks to the podcast I was introduced to a great example in support of the above position, known for short as intuitionism. The example is the case of Elliot from Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain”

So, what is so special about Elliot? Well, for one thing he has suffered brain damage to a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. As a result, Elliot’s ability to link emotion and reason has been severely inhibited.

Perfect, right? No more stupid emotional biases to get in the way. Elliot’s life must have improved, no doubt!

Well, no.

(incidentally, this whole series of reasoning could well have passed as absolutely rational if told in a different context as long as one buys the common idea of the separation of reason and emotion!)

In reality, what happened was that Elliot’s ability to make wise decisions was severely hampered. Without access to emotional data, Elliot was forced to make even the most mundane decisions on rational grounds. Imagine choosing an ice-cream flavor to share with your date completely based on reason alone, without the slightest appeal to your tastes! 

Needless to say, Elliot’s life got worse as a result of his brain injury. It turns out that a measured hack to the head is not the secret to hyper rationality. Albeit being phrased in a religious language, Mark 10:9 seems apt:

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

Phrased more directly, putting reason and emotion asunder does not improve our ability to reason. Human reason depends crucially on emotional inputs.

But if emotions play such a huge role in our rationality, a scary question arises: do we merely rationalize our emotions whenever we try to construct an argument? Is motivate reasoning all there is to human reasoning at all? Is it merely by emotion that we end up choosing one assumption over another on which to ground our belief system?

***

In conclusion, I would like to go back to Chesterton and introduce him to the MMA podcast. Not just for the sake of amusement, but also to explore a serious point on the important question of human rationality, namely:

If reason is significantly influenced and driven by emotion and if it often ends up oversimplifying the world, then are we justified in trusting it blindly when looking for the truth?

Now, reason might well be a good tool to have under our belt (for why would we have evolved it otherwise?), but it’s far from the godlike ability that it is often presented as. One shouldn’t forget that propaganda is only propaganda because one knows  and prefers the opposing facts better.

So, having a reason is not automatically a good reason to do something; and having no reason is not automatically a reason not to. Sometimes, the relevant facts about the world can be hard to put into words. This is why we can resist adopting a well-reasoned view until we finally discover somebody else articulating a good counter-argument and feeling relieved that our position has finally become “justified” at last. (when, in truth, it has always been; it was human reason, not reality, that was at fault)

In the end, this is probably the take home message. Reasons, even the best of them, are not  and probably should not be calls to actions. It might be awkward to refuse to do something without a reason, but sometimes it’s simply the wise thing to do. 

As Chesterton suggests, reason is dangerous precisely because it convinces us that the reasons we have in our head justify all sorts of actions. In the name of fitting the world into the bounds of a well-reasoned ideology, we feel emboldened and justified to act.

And that’s precisely the problem. We are rightly skeptical of emotional outbursts and impulsive decisions because we know the disasters that then follow. 

But if the reasons we use to justify our actions are little more than a word-veil for our emotions, why do we never doubt reason itself?

After all, in the hands of emotion-driven intelligent people, motivated and unchecked reason can lead the whole world astray. (and that is why many today are rightly losing faith in academia; there might not be a strong and coherent verbal reason why yet; but that matters little — humans are surprisingly wise!)

***

In brief, the conclusion is this:

It’s not like reason can do no right.

But it’s also not like it can do no wrong.

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During our lifetimes we start multiple internal conversations with ourselves. We get excited about an idea, a place or a person and we then pursue them with a great passion for a while.

However, oftentimes these conversations gradually fade away into obscurity. Even the most fundamental of questions can take a backseat to attending to pressing life events or experiences. And sometimes it just so happens that these events and experiences nudge us into dropping the old philosophies and worldview we held and adopting new ones instead.

That is why it can be quite a fun experience coming back to your old way of seeing things and comparing it to your current one. One can learn a lot by simply combining the many and varied lessons one has accumulated over the years..

Now, it should be noted here that I’m not talking about the normal ways our views evolve, i.e. the slow accumulation of knowledge and the consequent nuanced understanding that results.

Rather, I’m talking about the times when we completely shift paradigms and enter into what is practically a whole new world.

Years ago, during my teens, I was a practicing Christian for a few years. Then my faith waned (a year long process culminated in Carl Sagan’s A Demon Haunted World). Suddenly, I had to make sense of the world through a different lens and from different starting points.

Looking for a good way to prioritize my interests in the way ahead, I had to first examine which high ideals had guided me previously. And that more or less meant defining what God used to meant for me.

In this process, two main categories of things stood out to me.

One was what I named truth. It was my personal catch all term for the importance of curiosity, skepticism, a scientific mindset, an active mind. In other words, truth stood for the acquisition of knowledge, that was its ultimate goal.

The other I named love. It covered the domains of morality, relationships and every other form of interaction between me and other living beings. Love was about being good.

The more I thought about these two categories, the more it became clear to me that I had to regard them both as equally important. Prioritize truth and you risk ending up as a malevolent scientist wrecking havoc upon the earth. Prioritize love and you risk ending up powerless before evil thanks to your ignorance (or worse yet, do evil when you mistakenly believe you’re doing good!).

***

A few years passed and I went to university.  Continue reading When is Truth too Much? How to Find Meaning in a Meaningless Universe

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