John Nash On Thinking Rationally As Dieting

In A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, p. 351), Sylvia Nasar writes:

Nash has compared rationality to dieting, implying a constant, conscious struggle. It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts, he said, trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets. [link added]

This is a particularly perspicuous analogy for Nash to have made. For the failure rates of diets provide one grim indication of the difficulties of the task at hand: thinking ‘rationally’–whatever that may be, and for the time being, I’m going to elide the difficulties of providing an adequate definition–is almost destined to fail for most people. We get on the wagon, we fall off, we get back on again, straining and striving, only to find out at the most inopportune of moments that our reserves of resilience have run dry, and that we have relapsed.

This slip back down the slope, back to where the rock waits for us, waiting to be pushed back up the slope, is suggestive in more ways than one.

First, the ultimate objective, a lower weight, a more rational mind, remains a contested goal: we might not want to get to the top. We have received conflicting signals about the desirability of it all. Sure, a lower weight will transform some statistics pertaining to my health in a favorable manner, but perhaps my aspiration for it is grounded largely in vanity and low self-esteem, in a failure to accept myself for what I am. And as the Underground Man suspected, thinking rationally isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either–especially if it ends up excluding vast domains of experience and reflection. Or, as another master of suspicion might have wondered: Why should we think ‘rationally’? Who wants us to do so? What is in it for them? Perhaps, I could define ‘rational’ in a way that is more suited to the achievement of ends that I have freely chosen for myself; if I have to ‘overcome’ myself, let me do so my own way, driven by my own needs and wants.

This further suggests then that the dieting and reasoning Sisyphus might, while only partway up the slope, let go of the rock himself. Not only are the doubts about the destination overwhelming, but so is the promised relief of the downhill journey back to the rock. We should not forget that Sisyphus has the  pleasures of an easier task ahead of him now; sure, the agonizing task of pushing the rock back up the slope awaits, but for now, sweet release awaits. (Let us not forget the pleasures of the early stages of the ascent too.)

Perhaps rationality, like dieting, only ‘works’ if it’s not seen as such; if it’s not a program of self-improvement, but an ongoing way of life. That ongoing way requires constant decisions and choices, each consuming considerable cognitive resources; pitfalls abound along this path. Failure is more common than success; as it should be, given the ambiguities noted above. And much as we use the data pertaining to the failures of diets into our reckonings of what a ‘good weight’ is, and what ‘success’ in a diet amounts to, we should reconfigure our notions of the desirability and possibility of rationality as well.

Dostoyevsky on Donald Trump And The 2016 Elections

Yesterday, I spent part of a gloomy, overcast day in the CUNY Graduate Center library, preparing for my classes today. In particular, I prepared for my class on existentialism by reading, yet again, Dostoyevsky‘s Notes From Underground. As I read sitting next to a large window, I heard chants emanating upward from Fifth Avenue; I looked out to see a large contingent of protesters heading uptown, presumably toward Trump Tower. (The Graduate Center Library is located at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, so I was only twenty or so blocks away from their intended destination.) I wished them a silent ‘good luck,’ and then turned back to my reading. In an email to my students over the weekend I had asked them to keep in mind that the Underground Man is engaged in a kind of ‘revolt.’ What was he revolting against? How is this revolt expressed? As I read on, and reached Chapter VII, I reached a set of passages which I thought would strike my students as remarkably relevant to these times–perhaps even prescient.

There, Dostoyevsky writes:

I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentlemen, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”….what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers–such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason….that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms….What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

Dostoyevsky has set up the above pronouncement with the following opening to the chapter:

Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else….Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage…. And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle fans into dust.
Note: Excerpts above from Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, Walter Kaufmann ed., Penguin, New York, pp. 67-71.

ISIS, US Policy, And Feeding The Bogeyman

In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of America’s War Against the Islamic StateStephen Walt supplies us the following pull-quote:

What is needed is not a single presidential speech, but rather a sustained, all-out effort by top U.S. officials to remind their fellow citizens how safe they actually are. One often hears that fear is inherently irrational and that such a campaign would never work, but how do we know until someone tries? By refusing to tell the truth about the actual (very low) level of risk, presidents and other officials cede the ground to threat-mongers and guarantee that the public will overreact to the rare but dramatic events that do occur.

We are used by now to those statistics that make note of how many deaths are caused by causes other than terrorism: drunk driving, falling off a ladder, snakebite etc. As Walt notes, “the odds that an American will be killed by a terrorist are about one in 4 million each year.” Numbers though, have always had little effect in assuaging irrational fears–as generations of scared flyers will attest. (Perhaps an even better example is parents anxious about their children being abducted, an extremely rare and improbable event. They really should be far more concerned about their children getting run over by a reckless driver while crossing a street.) So what will work?

The ‘sustained, all-out’ part of Walt’s prescription is crucial, of course. It is not enough to offer assurances of safety after a deadly incident of some kind; the overwhelming likelihood that the average American citizen will not meet a violent death at the hands of terrorists bears repetition ad nauseam (via a variety of modalities.) After all, if similar repetition can enhance the truth value of a lie, then why not that of a truth?

So why are such reassurances not made more often, more emphatically?

‘Top US officials’ are ‘threat-mongers.’ The latter are not just unhinged presidential candidates–Republican ones–looking to cash in on panicked voters. ‘Top US officials’ are not modest types unwilling to talk up their success in containing ‘terror threats’–rather, when they do slay a dragon or two, they make sure to tell us just how dangerous it was, and just how difficult it was to bring it down. Homeland Security folk, Pentagon top brass, the Secretary of Defense–these ‘top US officials’ are all too happy, when it suits them, to cycle through the rainbow of threat alerts, to speak knowingly of dangerous matters that cannot be disclosed, of lurking menace somewhere out there, waiting only for our guard to slip so that they may sneak across our threshold and slit our throats while we sleep. Budgets and jobs–as Walt notes–depend on such alarmist rhetoric. Well, two–if not the entire Republican candidate field–can play at that game.

The bogeyman of the external threat is not an easily contained genie. This one, having been fed and nurtured for so long, has brought forth its own benighted, coiffed spawn.

Post-Colonial Resentment, Irrationality, and Jeremy Corbyn

Experienced students of politics and of the human mind know that politics–the ‘science,’ the business, of power–is all too often a zone of the irrational, a domain of intense passion and emotion, covered up with a thin veneer of seemingly rational discourse, of point and counterpoint. This irrationality manifests itself in familiar phenomena such as the futility of political argument: participants in these festivals of rhetorical jousting come away, not with their beliefs changed or altered in the slightest, but rather, ever more entrenched and buttressed with more sophisticated defenses. Offense in political arguments does not bring about meek or even reluctant surrender; it only produces defiant defense.

I have been reminded, acutely, of these irrational foundations of politics as I inspect my reactions to the recent rise to power of Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘British politician who is Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition.’ For weeks my social media timelines have been full of Corbyn; his political record, his manifesto, the reactions of Britain’s conservatives to his ascent to power, his non-singing of the national anthem and so on. Wall to wall Corbyn, really. ‘Progressive’ and ‘leftist’ Americans, Englishmen, and Australians, are all entranced by this man, by the hostility he provokes on the political right; his record on all the major issues that engage this demographic evokes murmurs of admiration and respect; there have been no sightings, yet, of Corbyn riding on an ass into Jerusalem, but for all the attention he has attracted, one would not be remiss in thinking that precisely such a triumphal march had taken place. (Corbyn, as a reminder, has not been elected Prime Minister; he has merely been elected leader of the Labour Party.)

I should perhaps be interested in this spectacle; the rise to a power of a ‘progressive’ politician should catch my attention and tickle my fancies. And yet, the overwhelming response on my part, once my initial curiosity about the man who seemed to be attracting so much hostility from David Cameron and his party had passed, has been one of thinly repressed irritation. I’m sick of the wall-to-wall bonanaza of Corbyn that I’ve been subjected to; I cannot wait for it to end, for this season to pass.

My reasons are quite transparent to me. I’m consumed by a species of post-colonial resentment. I’m an American citizen, and the US has been my home for almost thirty years, but my political responses and reactions to the Corbyn ‘phenomenon’ are still animated by a primeval response whose underpinnings are only discernible in the older, bound-up-with-each-other histories of India and Britain. I find myself seething at the disproportionate attention paid to this British politician; I wonder what relevance it has to American politics (even as I tell myself that comfort and succor given to George Bush by Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war was perhaps a crucial factor in the decision to go to war); I glower at the hagiographic descriptions showered upon Corbyn; I cannot bring myself to click on the parade of links that march through my social media timelines.

In short, I wish the sun would set on the damn British Empire already, that Britain would stop being made to feel like it was still the center of the universe and more like it was just any other European nation.

Not very rational, right? But there it is. And I’m a grown man with a PhD in philosophy. What hope political discourse?

Doris McIlwain On The Rationality Of ‘Irrational’ Love And Hate

In Living Palely: On the rationality of a certain fullness of feeling (Artlink, Vol 29 No. 3, 2009), Doris McIlwain writes: 

Friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises. They become strangely symptomatic when we approach them as if they are….To me the sign that you really like someone is when you cannot quite offer a full answer when asked why. You could offer reasons, but they would not be the full story….the hot, less thoughtful bits of emotion can contribute intuitive information that we couldn’t get in any other way, as when we experience an inexplicable discomfort at what someone has just said and realise we are being lied to.

McIlwain would have agreed, I think, that if ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises’ then neither are enmity and hatred. We cannot quite explain why we do not like someone; why they make us uneasy, why they ‘just rub me the wrong way.’ We are asked to explain why; we find we fail; our explanations ‘run out somewhere.’ We are helpless in the face of an ‘intuitive’ feeling that something is amiss, something we ‘cannot put a finger on,’ something that pushes us away, that repels us. (We might find, in the course of an analytic session, on the therapist’s couch, that these wellsprings of emotion stream forth from an unresolved, unintegrated childhood experience; perhaps there are encounters we need to have with the past before we can confront the present and the future. The unconscious holds on tightly to emotions and memories alike.)

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

A desirable one, of course, one that speaks to the irreducibility of this mixed up creature we know ourselves to be, this blend of cold and hot, calm and turbulent, this always elusive subject–to the merely reasoned or affective. Reason and emotion working together ensure we always break the mold; they make this world richer and more variegated; we are grateful we see this world through the stereoscopic vision these two lenses afford us.

Prohibitionists and Their Impoverished Sense of Human Motivation

A few days ago, I wrote a post here on David Brooks’ inane ‘Weed: Been There, Done That‘ Op-Ed. Looking back on it now, what strikes me as most galling about Brooks’ post and other pro-prohibition sentiments that I’ve heard expressed in the past is the shriveled, impoverished, reductive view they have of human character. Their advocacy of prohibition reveals no concern for their fellow humans; it merely highlights their narrowly conceived view of them.

To wit, the (extreme) prohibitionist seems to believe that once someone, any one, is exposed to an intoxicant, a pleasurable one, perhaps offering some palliative relief from daily routine, or diversion, or entertainment, the consumption of that intoxicant will immediately be placed atop their hierarchy of desires. From then on, the user, now an addict, will divert his time, energy, and monetary resources to the pursuit of the intoxicant. Nothing else may compete with its allure.

This–possibly caricatured–description of prohibitionist sentiment highlights its most salient assumption: that pursuit of intoxicatory pleasures will override other goals entertained by the human agent, even if the price to be paid is ill-health or financial ruin.

I hope this sounds ludicrous to you. For humans have many desires that compete for their attention; these are satisfied depending on their standing in our scheme of values, our capacities, and our stations in life. Many are the pleasures we decline because we feel that some competing goal of ours will be compromised. Some of us, admittedly, are unable to adjudicate thus between competing desires and fall prey to a possibly pernicious indulgence repeatedly; but when these compulsions become pathological, we rightly suggest that such folks seek treatment for behavior that appears to self-destructive.

This point is broader, of course. We are all assumed hedonists by the prohibitionist: any experience deemed pleasurable by us will always be pursued by everyone no matter what its cost. Our tastes are alike; our dislikes and likes are alike.

But all too often, we find that experiences found pleasurable by others are not so for us. Many of my friends love scuba diving. I have been assured it’s an otherworldly experience, taking its exponent into a magical realm beneath the waves. I’m sure that’s the case. But I tried it, and I didn’t like it. I felt no desire to pursue that experience; knowing myself and my capacity to panic at inopportune moments, I reckoned I stood a good chance of hurting myself, and hurting others too, if I continued. So, after one dive down to the Great Barrier Reef, I gave it up. There are many other things I’d rather do on my vacations (hiking well above sea level, for instance!) I might have compromised other goals of mine if I had continued to pursue scuba diving. So, to reiterate, I didn’t do it any more. Or there are those, for instance, like mountaineers or F1 drivers, who pursue their pleasures and then give them up because the risks of their pursuits has become too visible and they feel their lives with their families threatened.

These examples can be multiplied endlessly.

The understanding of human beings as being constantly and relentlessly afflicted by a form of what the ancient Greeks termed akrasia, and thus not worth being granted the freedom to live their lives according to their own, autonomously-arrived-at scale of values, is prohibition’s central incoherence.

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.