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Startups and Nihilism don't go together - Inverted Passion

Note : if meaning of life and startups don’t excite you, it is recommended that you skip this post. You will find it boring.

I know this is a weird title. But I have finally convinced myself that you cannot afford to be too philosophical if you are doing a startup. Doing a startup could turn out to be a terrible experience for those who especially adhere to philosophy of Nihilism . For those who aren’t aware of Nihilism, it says that life has no meaning or purpose and is in fact pointless. This philosophy was popularized by the German philosopher Nietzsche and became popular with atheists. After all, if there is no God, what’s the point of life?

Back to startups. Working on a new venture takes an incredible amount of hard work and things go wrong time to time. If you want to make your startup successful, you will need to focus relentlessly for years and show a great deal of perseverance. Now if you are a kind of person who thinks too much about meaning of life and purpose of all that effort (especially during the bad times), you cannot be successful with your startup. How can you possibly justify all the hard work you are putting 24×7 into your baby when you are questioning the purpose of all this in back of your mind?

Unlike religions, Nihilism provides no inherent meaning of life. In fact, it says life is pointless and futile. This is a direct punch-in-the-face on your startup philosophy where you are required a wake up every single day full of energy and enthusiasm to work on yet another 18 hour marathon. If you believe in Nihilism and are doing a startup, you have to answer this question: why are you doing this? Is it to change the world or to make more money ? Even when you achieve the goals (hello, million dollar exit) what’s the point of all that money when you are not even sure what’s the point of life?

In nutshell, you can’t afford to start questioning purpose of life when you are doing a startup. Those two are simply not compatible concepts which can co-exist in a single, worry-free brain. So, drop either Nihilism or your startup. (I recommend the former. See below).

PS: In case you are wondering which school of Philosophy I adhere to, it is Absurdism . Like Nihilism it says that there is no meaning of life, but it also further states that the purposelessness of life is what makes it exciting and that one has to keep doing things one feels like doing (hey, startups!) precisely because there is no grand purpose you should be working towards. Makes sense?

Note: if meaning of life and startups don’t excite you, it is recommended that you skip this post. You will find it boring. I know this is a weird title. But I have finally convinced myself that you cannot afford to be too philosophical if you are doing a startup. Doing a startup could turn… Read More

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Reality is an evolved illusion - Inverted Passion

Do we see reality as it is?

I discuss this question with Donald Hoffman who is professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine. He studies consciousness and perception from an evolutionary point of view. His research has led him to make a bold claim that while we do not yet know what the underlying reality could be like. Rather, reality as we know it now – including space, time, and objects – is a useful fiction that evolution invented for us.

His TED talk on our perception of reality has been watched over 3 million times, and in his recent pop- science book for the wider audience, The Case Against Reality , he makes a convincing case on how our perceived reality is an illusion that has evolved to help us survive and reproduce.

What we talk about

1:46 – Towards building a mathematical understanding perception 5:12 – Evolutionary game theory to help understand perception 6:26 – Computing truth is expensive, so evolution get rids of it 8:00 – Mathematical proof that evolution doesn’t tune us to see the truth 9:56 – David Marr’s ideas and inverse optics 11:30 – What are fitness payoffs? Why do they matter? How are they determined? 16:23 – Maximizing for truth vs maximizing for winning 18:40 – Illusions that show physical reality doesn’t exist 23:21 – Physical reality not being fundamental as a scientific claim 24:23 – Existing physics points to spacetime not being fundamental 30:25 – The basics of the interface theory of perception 34:40 – We have to guess mathematically the deeper structure of reality 38:00 – Model-free planning in reinforcement learning 44:45 – Why should we care about what is objective reality? 49:20 – How can we use science to go beyond physical reality? 56:57 – Reality is a huge social network of conscious agents 1:03:41 – Predictions from the mathematics of conscious agents 1:09:26 – “We will be able to warp space and time” 1:09:35 – Bridging conscious agents to physical reality 1:15:32 – How far along have we come in his journey of building a fundamental theory of reality based on consciousness? 1:17:31 – Is mathematics part of the underlying reality or is it a useful fiction too? 1:30:12 – Does your research on reality and consciousness impact your personal life and beliefs?

Notes and Key Insights

1/ Illusions show that we do not see reality as it is. For example, patches A and B in the image below are of the same color (which means the photons arriving from these two patches are of the same wavelength).

via Professor Ted Adelson of MIT

2/ You can verify that the colors in the two patches are exactly the same via a color picker app. Yet our mind sees them as completely different colors . This clearly demonstrates that, at least in this case, we’re not seeing reality as it is.

3/ The reason this illusion works is because our vision isn’t like a camera . It cannot be because a) unlike a camera sensor, we have a big hole in the middle of our retina ( blind spot ) that we never notice); b) incoming photons pass through many obstructions (most notably neurons) that we never notice.

via Simple Anatomy of Retina

4/ A true perception of reality should have a big black hole in the middle of the vision. Moreover, become we saccade our gaze several times a second, we should see constantly shifting images rather than the stable vision we perceive .

But we don’t.

Via Hackaday

5/ The reason our vision is oblivious to rapid eye saccades and the blind spot is that our senses haven’t evolved to perceive reality as it is . Rather, our senses have evolved to help us to survive and reproduce.

6/ In terms of calories and energy, it’s costly to process information. Take the housefly, for example. It has a tiny brain and needs fewer calories than us. It has eyes that are used to find food and mates. But given the size of its brain and calories its brain has for processing information, do you suppose the fly has a complete, rich, and accurate perception of the world around it?

7/ Well, from an evolution’s point of view, as long as the fly is able to find food and mates, it’s preferable to have an incomplete and distorted but calorically cheap representation of reality than an accurate perception of reality.

8/ In fact, that is what Donald Hoffman and his colleagues prove via a mathematical theorem called Fitness Beats Truth . Put simply, it suggests that the probability that our senses have evolved to report the truth about reality is zero .

9/ They suggest that instead of reporting the truth, our senses report fitness payoffs that our estimates of the potential for acquiring resources , attracting mates, and getting ahead of others.

In short, fitness payoffs are our estimates of reproductive potential.

10/ You can imagine fitness payoffs as points in a game . The more points you accumulate, the longer you can play the game.

In the game, if there are two players: one focused on acquiring as many points as possible (fitness) and another focused on understanding how the game works (truth), guess who will win?

11/ Of course, fitness depends on truth but it isn’t mapped to it one to one.

Take the example of oxygen – too little or too much of it will kill us. We just need the right amount of it.

This means an organism evolved to report the true amount of oxygen will get out-competed by an organism evolved to report the right amount of oxygen.

Reverse engineering from fitness to the truth isn’t trivial. Oxygen wasn’t discovered until 1771.

12/ In summary, the claim is that our physical reality is like virtual reality. We do not know what true reality is but we can be sure that whatever we perceive isn’t likely to be it.

There are a few objections one can raise against this idea.

13/ OBJECTION 1 -> Okay, so if we don’t perceive reality as it is, why not jump in front of a train?

Donald Hoffman suggests that the reason you don’t jump in front of a train is similar to the reason you don’t drag your important files on your computer to the trash bin icon. Nobody believes that the trash bin icon is real (it’s implemented behind the scenes as transistors and electric signals), yet interaction with it has real consequences for you.

14/ Similarly, even though we don’t perceive true reality, it doesn’t mean that our perceptions are arbitrary. Our actions within the perceived reality have real consequences.

15/ OBJECTION 2 -> If we are in virtual reality, how do we explain the success of science and engineering? We have sent people to the moon, so surely we must be understand something about what reality is?

16/ Donald Hoffman says that our engineering success suggests an increased mastery over the virtual reality we’re embedded in . Just like a player can get better at a game by studying game mechanics, we can master our perceived reality better and better.

But just like a gamer doesn’t understand how the game is implemented under the hood, we don’t necessarily understand what the actual reality is.

17/ Modern physics actually agrees with the interpretation that the actual reality could be much stranger than our perceptions. Bell’s theorem suggests that reality is not local and that quantum entanglement over large distances is a real thing. The holographic principle suggests our 3D universe may actually be a projection from 2D.

18/ As a theme in physics, reality as we perceive has become less and less tenable . From this perspective, the claim that we don’t perceive true reality is not surprising.

19/ Although it should be recognized that our perception isn’t completely arbitrary. We do not have direct access to reality and our only access to it is via our senses . So when things change out there , our perception changes accordingly.

20/ For example, we perceive many objects as round because they share something that causes roundness to emerge in our perception for all of them. Similarly, different red things share something (a particular wavelength of light) which causes us to see red.

21/ In fact, finding out invariants of the world might be is what science is all about. Coming back to the example of a game, an expert player might master game mechanics better and better, but you know what will be even more effective at winning the game? Reverse engineering how the game works and directly interfering with its source code.

22/ We do not yet have a complete understanding of reality and I’m not even sure if we will ever have it. But the success of science in predicting more and more phenomena over time suggests that we’re understanding the game mechanics of how reality works better and better.

23/ All this sounds nice and logical, but how do we explain conscious experiences? Any description of reality must accommodate the subjective experiences we have of seeing red or smelling coffee. Where do these subjective experiences come from?

24/ An incomplete but important answer is that these perceptions are compressed representations of reality that got evolved for adaptive behavior . Color vision helped our ancestors pick ripe fruits from unripe ones. Fragrances told them in an instant what to avoid (bitter) and what to crave (sweet).

25/ That’s good but it appears that what we subjectively experience represents reality in a completely arbitrary way . (Although it’s an ongoing area of research and there may be some structure).

For example, try to guess which of the molecules is vanilla and which one is thyme .

26/ Can’t guess? That’s okay.

Thankfully, to operate in the world you don’t have to remember the molecular structure. Our brain directly translates the signals originating corresponding smelling these molecules into a distinct subjective experience which you can use to take action.

27/ It does this translation because the molecular structure of these molecules was irrelevant for our survival and reproduction . For success in an evolutionary competition, what matters is our actions and this compressed signal that there’s vanilla or thyme around is good enough for informing such actions.

27/ Donald Hoffman suggests that even the experience of space, time, and objects are adaptations honed by evolution. Perhaps, we perceive two things near in space if, given everything else being equal, they have similar (reproductive) fitness benefits for us? Perhaps our experience of time is a way to keep track of changes in fitness payoffs?

28/ Physical reality being an evolved illusion is what the theory Fitness beats Truth predicts.

It explains why we don’t perceive reality and how our perceptions might arise, but it doesn’t explain perception itself.

For example, it doesn’t explain why we must feel anything? From the inside, why does the pain feel real?

29/ Donald Hoffman has another theory for explaining qualia , which he calls conscious realism . He suggests that since the only th ing we can be sure of is our inner consciousness, maybe what’s out there is just consciousness .

Maybe reality itself is comprised of only conscious agents? Maybe space, time, and everything else we perceive is a result of the dynamics of other conscious agents?

30/ This theory is a radical reinterpretation of reality and he and his fellow researchers are still developing it. Their present goal is to assume that simple consciousness agents connect with each other in a social network and explore if the emergent dynamics from their connection resemble the behavior of elementary particles such as gluons .

31/ Once they make one or few connections from the network of conscious agents to elementary particles (and perhaps even spacetime), connections to the rest of the physics will be simpler because most of modern physics is built on these fundamental concepts.

32/ The theory at first glance may sound nuts and perhaps even pseudo-science. But the theory will have testable predictions which we can use to prove or disprove it.

It is also worth remembering that almost all theories that we take for granted today sounded nuts when they were first proposed.

33/ I’m personally VERY excited about the promise for scientific viewpoints that connect “objective” reality and “subjective” experiences. With consciousness such a big mystery, I’m glad researchers like Donald Hoffman exist to push our understanding on these lines forward .

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Have an opinion on this essay? You can send your feedback on email to me.

Do we see reality as it is? I discuss this question with Donald Hoffman who is professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine. He studies consciousness and perception from an evolutionary point of view. His research has led him to make a bold claim that while we do not yet know what the underlying reality could be like. Rather, reality as we know it now - including space, time, and objects - is a useful fiction that evolution invented for us.

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Reality is an evolved Illusion

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My moral code - Inverted Passion

Lately, I’ve been feeling a lack of a well-deliberated, explicit moral code. The world is changing really fast – we have Elon Musk trying to set up a human colony on Mars while Earth’s bio-ecosystem is degrading by the day. So, should I support the investment of resources into making Mars habitable while Earth is gradually becoming unhabitable?

This, obviously, isn’t the only question. Every day, I feel like I need to decide which way to swing on controversial topics. People have strong opinions about things like genetically engineered babies, bitcoin , nuclear power and other new technologies. I know enough about cognitive biases to know that I shouldn’t trust my gut fully on these questions. My gut simply doesn’t know enough to have a good opinion on complex societal issues. Instead of relying on my gut, I need to rely on deliberate thinking to make moral choices.

Everyone should have their moral code written

First, a meta-point: why do we need a moral code? As I said, it’s because as the world becomes complex, what’s right and what’s wrong also becomes complex. You simply can’t intuit your way to having an opinion on questions like whether money printing by governments is good, or whether Universal Basic Income is morally wrong.

Why do you need to have moral opinions? You can refrain from having moral opinions on many issues, but every now and then you come across a situation whether you need to decide what to do. For example, if you get a lucrative job at a cigarette company, would you take it?

Obviously, there’s no objectively right or wrong answer to moral questions and that’s precisely why nobody else can help answer this for you . If you don’t have an explicit moral code, you’ll go with your mood which can swing either way – a) take the job, money is good and people smoke by their own choice; b) don’t take the job, you can make money somewhere else that doesn’t involve being complicit in killing millions every year.

What follows is the moral code I’ve come up with for myself. It represents my current way of thinking and I’m sure as my thinking and life experiences evolve, this will evolve too.

It may do you good to sit down and write something for yourself to help you guide in life. There’s no universally correct morality, so yours can be totally different from mine.

Tapping into moral intuition

The first thing I did was to reflect upon how my gut makes me behave by default. This moral gut-feeling could serve as a great starting point to question, extend and refine into a more well-thought-out moral code.

So how do I behave intuitively?

I avoid doing things that have obvious and immediate harm to someone.

For example, I quit eating meat because I know it obviously kills an animal that can feel pain. And I’ve never been okay with someone suffering because of my actions.

But I do not go out of my way to do a cost-benefit analysis of my actions where cost or harm directly attributable to me is hard to calculate due to the non-uniqueness (fungibility) of my actions.

For example, I switch on the AC or travel in an airplane without guilt even though I know carbon emissions are heating the planet. This is because I feel my actions there are fungible. If I don’t switch on the AC, someone else will. You may think that this can justify any action, but that isn’t the case. Killing an animal or stealing from someone is an obvious harm that wouldn’t happen if the doer refrains from doing it.

Where there’s collective harm, my actions are replaceable and if I get an obvious benefit (such as a comfortably cool room or comfortable travel by air), I’m okay with my choices (even though simultaneously I wish we figure out a way to minimize the collective harm).

I do not feel compelled to sacrifice my interests for anyone else apart from people in my close circle (family, friends, and colleagues).

In other words, even though I admire Mother Theresa, I know I’m not like her. I do not resist helping others, but I am not driven by it. My drive in life has more to do with learning and curiosity than with helping others. This may come across as repulsive, but this is just an honest appraisal of how I’m driven. Helping others is obviously a good thing, but I’m not actively driven by this impulse.

Systematizing intuition into a moral code

It seems like my intuition on moral rights and wrongs can be summed up in two principles:

  • If my actions cause identifiable suffering to someone, don’t do it (even if it brings me pleasure)
  • The closer someone is to me, the lower the threshold for such suffering I ought to have

Here’s roughly what I mean:

In nutshell, my first priority is to ensure my actions do not cause direct suffering to anyone , even if there are personal benefits that I may get from such actions.

What I mean by this is that: my pleasure (which is often temporary and fleeting) isn’t worth the suffering of someone else . Pain and suffering hold a much higher moral priority than pleasure and happiness.

Recently, I tweeted about this asymmetry between pain and pleasure. They’re not simply a flip of each other, they’re fundamentally different entities.

This is a view inspired by negative utilitarianism , which I first came across via David Pearce. My podcast interview with him made me go deeper and try to sort out where I stand in terms of morality.

Moral calculus: solving the Trolley Problem

Real-world is rarely as easy as who’s getting the harm and who is getting the benefit. Tradeoffs exist everywhere : often we need to choose between actions that lead to different consequences. The famous moral dilemma the Trolley Problem rears its head in different guises.

Would you divert the trolley to kill one person in order to save five?

Even though a decision as grave as the trolley problem is unlikely to arise, similar decisions are required to be made on a regular basis. For example, am I okay with the use of animals for beauty products testing? What about the use of animals for clinical research? Similarly, should I be supporting nuclear power where it clearly has its pros and cons?

I need a framework to decide where I land when it comes to choices that entail tradeoffs (which is actually almost everything).

For my moral calculus, I’m inclined to adopt a flavor of negative utilitarianism .

Define suffering as a state of mind which a person will willingly accept the elimination or cessation of .

Take decisions such that your actions minimize the total amount of suffering in the world (weighing high intensity of suffering a lot more than the low intensity of suffering).

Disregard pleasure and happiness in the calculation as reduction of suffering is of higher moral importance (and often more permanent) than increasing pleasure (which is often fleeting).

This principle helps solve the Trolley Problem for me: if I’m ever put in such a position to decide between the killing of 1 unknown person to prevent the killing 5 unknown people, I’d be okay to make that decision.

However, since the high intensity of suffering has a higher priority, I wouldn’t be OK with the slow roasting of 1 person to avoid causing painless death for 5 people.

Expanding my moral calculus

There are a couple of more nuances I want to introduce in my moral calculus.

  • Fungibility v/s non-fungibility of my actions
  • Certainty of consequences v/s uncertainity
  • Doing something v/s not doing something
  • Optimality v/s sub-optimality of actions

Fungibility of actions

Certain actions are non-fungible. That is, they wouldn’t happen if you don’t do it. For example, stealing money from someone is non-fungible. If you don’t steal, it’s highly unlikely that the thing would get stolen.

Absolutely avoid non-fungible actions that cause suffering.

Other actions are fungible in the sense that if you don’t do them, someone else will do a very similar action. E.g. carbon emissions related to switching on the AC or purchasing the bitcoin.

If your actions are fungible, weigh down your contribution to potential suffering.

Certain v/s uncertain suffering

In some cases, you know for certain that your actions caused certain harm. For example, eating meat involves killing which definitely would have harmed a living being.

Many people talk about the fungibility of eating meat. Their reasoning goes something like this: “ if I don’t buy the chicken, someone else will. The chicken has died already, so I might as well buy it “. I agree with them that eating meat is fungible, but I still reject it because it has caused certain suffering: I know the chicken would have suffered.

On the other hand, in other cases, you’re not sure how much harm will your actions cause. For example, the harm of climate change is much more diffuse and uncertain. We know it is likely bad but don’t know how bad and for whom.

As a thumb rule, weigh certain suffering significantly more than uncertain suffering.

Doing something v/s not doing something

Some people argue that not doing something is also a choice and hence should count in the moral framework. They would say that if you’re not preventing evil in the world, you’ve co-opted into evil.

I disagree with that.

Right now, there is an infinite number of choices you’re NOT making. You cannot be possibly held accountable for all those choices. Even deciding whether your inaction is net morally positive or negative is impossible because infinities are impossible to calculate.

Hence, I adopt the principle of only judging the actions and decisions actively taken.

Optimality v/s sub-optimality of actions

Suppose a theoretically perfect sequence of actions exists which will minimize the net suffering. Let’s call it the optimal action.

For example, you’re keen to minimize your total carbon footprint and you’re deliberating how to best plan your travel to do so. You have several options:

  • Travel by foot across cities
  • Take an airplane ride
  • Quit your job and invent an electric plane that runs on solar power
  • Don’t do anything until you figure out the absolute best way to minimize your carbon footprint. (Perhaps there’s even a better way than electric planes)

Which option will you take? It’s obvious to see that one cannot be expected to perfectly minimize negative consequences. As one lives, taking decisions and actions becomes necessary. And those decisions will likely be always sub-optimal.

Hence, I adopt the case for pragmatism . That is, even though priority should be towards minimizing total suffering in the world, given the resources + skills you have and opportunities available in the world around you, do your best. Prioritize reduction of suffering but be pragmatic about it.

Summing up

So, whenever a decision needs to be made, I’ll prefer the option that reduces net suffering in the world where each option’s value is roughly evaluated as:

Suffering reduction value of an action = intensity of suffering reduced by the action * closeness of those who’re suffering to me * certainty of suffering reduction by the action * degree of fungibility of my actions * number of impacted conscious beings

Whichever action seems like minimizing the sum of these suffering contributions is the one which I’ll feel right about.

Obviously, the choices cannot be calculated perfectly. It’s not mathematics. So when I encounter a decision to make, I expect to roughly follow the following algorithm:

  • How fungible is my action?
    • If it’s fungible, rest doesn’t matter much.
  • Who is likely to see a reduction in suffering because of my decision and who is likely to see an increase?
    • What’s the number of conscious beings who’ll see their suffering impacted?
    • How certain am I about the different types of suffering involved?
  • Generate additional options for actions, if I can
    • But be pragmatic about it.
    • Use the resources and opportunities I have and do my best.
  • From the available options, pick an action that minimizes net suffering
    • Weigh beings closer to me higher
    • Weigh highly intense sufferings higher

Moral code as a guide to life

Notice that I’m not passively choosing between the options presented to me, but I’m actively generating additional options.

For example, rather than just choosing between not eating meat v/s eating meat, can I also bring an additional option of eating lab-cultured meat? Similarly, for the Trolley problem, rather than choosing one person dying v/s five people dying, can I try to find a way to stop or derail the Trolley?

As a rationalist, because moral code feels like mathematics, it’s easy to beat oneself up for finding perfect answers. But that’s misguided because all the inputs in the equation/algorithm are fuzzy as well.

Hence I want to reinforce the pragmatic use of one’s moral code. Let it be a guide for your life but don’t get trapped by living a perfectly moral life . That’ll never happen because moral codes themselves are ambiguous at the extremes (since words themselves are ill-defined at the extremes ).

As long as you remember that moral codes are not mathematical theorems, you’ll reap all the benefits they provide, of which leading a life with confidence is the most prominent one.

Thanks Aakanksha Gaur for reviewing the draft.

Follow @paraschopra

Have an opinion on this essay? You can send your feedback on email to me.

Lately, I've been feeling a lack of a well-deliberated, explicit moral code. The world is changing really fast - we have Elon Musk trying to set up a human colony on Mars while Earth's bio-ecosystem is degrading by the day. So, should I support the investment of resources into making Mars habitable while Earth is gradually becoming unhabitable? This, obviously, isn't the only question. Every day, I feel like I need to decide which way to swing on controversial topics. People have strong opinions about things like genetically engineered babies, bitcoin, nuclear power and other new technologies. I know enough about cognitive biases to know that I shouldn't trust my gut fully on these questions. My gut simply doesn't know enough to have a good opinion on complex societal issues. Instead of relying on my gut, I need to rely on deliberate thinking to make moral choices.

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Anders Sandberg - We may be alone in the universe

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On the strangeness of giving advice - Inverted Passion

Calvin never gives free advice! (Credits: Bill Watterson )

1/ Giving advice is a strange thing.

2/ First of all, let’s get this right off the bat: the advice-giver accrues MORE benefit from giving advice than the one who’s receiving it.

3/ When we give advice, our half-formed thoughts crystallize and tell us clearly and reinforce what we believe in.

The receiver, on the other hand, has the tough job of figuring out what we mean and then making changes to his/her life based on the few bits of info we give out.

4/ Giving advice also helps us find our tribe . People who give similar advice band together. This is why SF/VC culture is a cult.

5/ Giving advice legitimizes our weirdness.

If enough people give advice about saving time by drinking your meals, it’s no longer weird.

6/ Our rate of giving unsolicited advice >> rate of giving solicited advice .

Why do we poke people and ask them to change? It’s mainly driven by FOMO. By giving advice to others to live their life like we live, we want to ensure that they’re not living a superior life.

7/ Thanks to Twitter, our rate of giving unsolicited advice to complete strangers >> rate of giving advice to near and dear ones.

It’s as if by tweeting, we’re telling things to ourselves and hoping a fellow tribalist finds us so that we both can reinforce our views.

8/ Giving unsolicited advice to strangers was a job once limited to sages or madmen.

Now, it’s everybody’s business.

9/ It’s also interesting that we often give advice and move on . Unless we’re personally attached to someone, we rarely have skin the game to ensure the advice receiver changes.

The GIVE ADVICE -> MOVE ON -> GIVE ADVICE pattern helps us feel smart and helpful.

10/ That’s it.

Of course, this essay WAS unsolicited and I expect to benefit from it, one way or another. You’ll most likely forget about it in an hour and move on, but that’s OK.

This essay is a lightly-edited version of a Twitter thread I posted .

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Have an opinion on this essay? You can send your feedback on email to me.

1/ Giving advice is a strange thing. 2/ First of all, let's get this right off the bat: the advice-giver accrues MORE benefit from giving advice than the one who's receiving it. 3/ When we give advice, our half-formed thoughts crystallize and tell us clearly and reinforce what we believe in.

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Twyman’s law - Inverted Passion

Twyman’s law states that any data or figure that looks interesting or different is usually wrong.

Sounds unbelievable, isn’t it?

But, it’s true. I saw this in action recently and wanted to share that story with you.

In June, we ran a test on our homepage and while I was looking at conversion rate by segments, I noticed that users from Windows had a 400% higher signup rate for VWO free trial as compared to users using Mac OS X.

Now, that’s baffling and our team spent a good deal of time trying to understand why was that happening. Someone in marketing hypothesized that perhaps Mac OS X users have a better design aesthetic and our homepage wasn’t appealing to them. Was it true?

When we dug into data, we realized that our recently installed automated QA service creates signups on the homepage every hour or so (to ensure the form doesn’t stop working) and guess what, that automated service used Windows .

After removing such QA signups from data, Mac OS X and Windows conversion rate became comparable.

This is a perfect example of Twyman’s law. Remember, if the data is too good to be true, it’s probably wrong.

Many extreme results are more likely to be the result of an error in instrumentation (e.g., logging), loss of data (or duplication of data), or a computational error.

Hope this mental model was new to you (it certainly was to me!).

PS: If you want to learn more about Twyman’s law, Ronny from Bing’s experimentation team spoke about it in his talk .

This essay is a lightly-edited version of a Twitter thread I posted .

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Twyman’s law states that any data or figure that looks interesting or different is usually wrong. Sounds unbelievable, isn’t it?  But, it’s true. I saw this in action recently and wanted to share that story with you. In June, we ran a test on our homepage and while I was looking at conversion rate by segments,… Read More

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The three levels of Hindu philosophy - Inverted Passion

1/ The first level related to the metaphysical and spiritual domain.

It says that Brahman is all that exists and our material world (Maya) comes from ignorance.

The Brahman is not a God. It is beyond any quality – it isn’t intelligent, good or bad. It just is.

2/ It also suggests that if we strip away all ignorance, we will discover that the self – the atman – is one and the same thing as the Brahman.

At its core, this level denies the duality of subject and object and says they both are the same.

3/ The second level has more religious connotations because, like all religions, its purpose is the stabilization of society.

The concept of Karma and Dharma ensures that society has net positive interactions. And the rituals and idol worship ensures everyone knows who is in the camp.

4/ This level ensures an ethical code exists and that it’s clear who all share that same ethical code.

The symbols – the idols, the chants, the rituals – take a spiritual dimension on their own, but these are subservient to the belief in one Brahman – the essence of the world.

5/ The third level is psychological – to give guidance to an individual on how to live his/her life.

The suggestion in Gita that one must do work without an expectation of reward is towards minimizing psychological anguish. (See my essay on what does the Bhagavad Gita teach )

6/ To reiterate, the three levels of Hindu philosophy are:

  • METAPHYSICAL: Tat tvam asi. You’re it [it = Brahman]
  • SOCIETAL: Rebirth, Karma, Dharma, and Rituals
  • PSYCHOLOGICAL: Expect no reward

7/ Of course, everyone has their interpretation. Unlike Judeo-Christian religions, there are no definitive books on Hindusim.

Rather than a bug, I think it’s a feature.

It ceases to be a philosophy if you can’t interpret it on your own.

8/ There are some beautiful ideas in Hinduism, though I’m not sure I agree with all of them.

If you have your favorite ideas, let me know. I love diving deep into Indian philosophy.

This essay is a lightly-edited version of a Twitter thread I posted .

Someone made an image out of the three levels:

Made by @nishacharan
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1/ The first level related to the metaphysical and spiritual domain. It says that Brahman is all that exists and our material world (Maya) comes from ignorance. The Brahman is not a God. It is beyond any quality – it isn’t intelligent, good or bad. It just is. 2/ It also suggests that if we… Read More

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Making peace with the ambiguity of progress - Inverted Passion

Is there an arrow of progress in our universe? Or do things change without any particular direction as a goal, like a dust particle engaged in a Brownian motion, bumping and tumbling along randomly?

I don’t think there’s an answer to those two questions. Our thinking is designed to box phenomena into neatly packed categories that capture only a slice of reality. In fact, that’s where the problem with philosophy starts. Even if we both use the same word – say “love”, “free will” or “democracy” – we usually mean slightly different things and these slight differences provide all the fodder for the philosophical debate .

Debates on whether progress exists thrive on similar misunderstandings. People like Matt Ridley and David Deutsch are strong advocates for the idea that there’s an arrow for human progress and that we all have a role to play in terms of pushing it further. They offer historical trends on violence reduction, poverty reduction, and an increase in life expectancy all over the world. Looking from that lens, progress exists. But of course, as you know, there’s no free lunch in the universe so an increase in human lifespan has come at the cost of loss of millions of trees, insects and animals. Looking from the lens of biodiversiry, progress exists – but its direction is reversed. If you ask an environmentalist, they’ll say that things are becoming worse, not better, and point you to the Wikipedia article on the ongoing sixth extinction in the history of Earth .

Whether things are getting better or worse, in general, depends on how we define “in general” and nobody takes the pain to define that. This suggests that when it comes to progress, it’s easy to fool oneself and others. All you have to do is to cherry-pick examples that align to your favorite worldview and start shouting that {humans are making things better / humans are making things worse}. You’ll feel great for having a fact-backed point of view on an important question and your opponents on Twitter will feel great about being able to correct someone who’s wrong on the Internet.

via XKCD

Science and logic cannot answer whether progress exists . It can offer us data. How we interpret that data and make it relevant for humans depends on the lens we use. John Gray in his excellent book The Soul of The Marionette suggests that the idea of progress perhaps started with the Christian belief that if humans work hard and get rid of their sins, a heaven on Earth awaits all of us. Paradoxically, science has gradually co-adapted this stance. You can hear it in the optimism that only if we work hard and know more about the world, one day we’ll be able to eliminate cancer or conquer Mars.

John Gray agrees with the fact that, yes, if we work hard we will have the technology to eliminate cancer or conquer Mars. What he disagrees with is how we will use that technology. He says (and I agree) that progress exists in knowledge and technology because these are cumulative. Once a new fact is discovered, you can’t undiscover it. But human morality is different. We’re still shaped by our animal instincts. Just because we have democracy today doesn’t mean that we can’t get dictatorship tomorrow. And that’s why progress doesn’t exist in human morality.

Our technology and knowledge is always value-neutral. The energy contained in an atom can be used to provide cheap energy to millions or it can be used to kill a hundred thousand people . Confusing technology or science progress with moral or spiritual progress is a category error.

The more stakes a question has, the more nuanced one needs to be. And perhaps no other question is philosophically more important to humanity than whether progress exists because it ultimately helps us deal with the question of why we’re here . So, having a definitive answer to the question of progress can help us illuminate how to live life. That is:

  • If progress exists and is in the positive direction, we should perhaps spend our life accelerating it. This is what Silicon Valley is hell-bent on doing.
  • If progress exists and is in the negative direction, we should perhaps slow it down. This is what the growing Extinction Rebellion is hell-bent on doing.
  • If progress doesn’t exist, we should perhaps give up trying to control the world and simply play in the garden. This is what kids in my apartment building are hell-bent on doing.

None of these options work doubtlessly because, as we’ve seen, how we define “progress” dictates whether it exists or not.

So what do we do?

Raising our hands and saying everything is ill-defined and hence ungraspable won’t help. Nobody likes boring-yet-accurate people whose default answer to most questions is “it depends”. Do you think Trump is good or bad for the USA? It depends. Do you think Marvel is better than DC Comics? It depends. Do you think we’re in this universe for a specific reason? It fucking depends on how you define “we”, “universe”, “specific” and “reason”.

Is the challenge limited to a lack of definitions? Does that mean if we’re able to define our terms, we can then use science and logic to guide us on how to live? Actually, no and there are two reasons for that. First, defining an ambiguous term makes it something else. Imagine being asked to define love and your answer is in terms of Oxytocin levels in the body. You will be right by definition (because you’ve defined it), but then you’ll not be talking about love but Oxytocin levels. Clearly, something is amiss.

Similarly, when you define progress as technology progress what you end up studying the dynamics of technology. You see, the category itself changes and perhaps that quells the debate, or perhaps it renders it boring and trivial.

Second, even refinement won’t help because definitions of things are words that require their own definition. By shifting the ball from progress to technology progress, you beg the question: what is technology? There’s no end to how long you can play this game. Philosophers have been doing this for thousands of years and your 2 cents will likely not settle the dust.

So defining progress won’t settle our desire for an answer and our inner violence to deal with it won’t stop.

So what do we do — again?

The easy answer is perhaps what my mom would tell me: why bother? Ignorance is bliss but once you unignore something, you can’t go back to ignoring again. Meditation helps to reduce the anxiety surrounding the lack of definitive answers but, like the Hydra, the question never stops raising itself in your head.

The hard answer is acknowledging ambiguity inherent in the most important questions of life, embracing the fuzziness with both arms, and loving it as if it’s the only thing you’ve got. After making love with the uninterpretable data, perhaps we can begin to question our mode of trying to access answers. I sometimes wonder whether an “answer” to our deepest, unresolved questions aren’t answers at all but are poems, songs, fragrances, or paintings instead.

What if, from time to time, we suspend our desire to master the universe but start allowing it to master us.

To make peace with life, first we need to make peace with ambiguity.

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Is there an arrow of progress in our universe? Or do things change without any particular direction as a goal, like a dust particle engaged in a Brownian motion, bumping and tumbling along randomly? I don’t think there’s an answer to those two questions. Our thinking is designed to box phenomena into neatly packed categories… Read More

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Big ideas that I suspect to be true - Inverted Passion

In the last year or so, I have been reading on various topics indiscriminately. As I’m discovering connections while reading and thinking, my conviction towards some ideas has grown stronger. I wanted to mention some of such ideas that I suspect are true. I’ll also mention why I feel that way, but you derive your own conclusions.

1/ All matter and collections of matter have subjective experiences

I’m starting to believe that everything has an internal world to it. My belief in (a flavor of) Panpsychism grew stronger because we have evidence of one collection of atoms that has subjective experiences: our brain. Just like we take the evidence of gravity on Earth and project that it holds true everywhere else in the universe, why can’t we take the evidence of our own subjective experience and project it to be true for other collections of matter as well? We, by definition, cannot peek inside an atom to feel what it feels. So proving it or disproving it is hard. In such a case, I feel that the responsibility of providing evidence that an atom doesn’t have feelings (while we know that brain obviously has feelings) falls on strict materialists.

Edit: a reader pointed out that my point about gravity is not entirely correct (I agree. I know we have independent evidence that gravity behaves the same way in distant universe. I could have used a better argument). The reader also pointed me to Russel’s teapot where the onus of proving an unfalsifiable claim such as there being a sun-orbiting teapot falls on the one making the claim. I was aware of it and in fact am using it towards asking materialists to prove that matter doesn’t have experiences. We have definitive evidence of the claim I’m making via ourselves and through observations of other animals like cats and dogs. So we know for sure that some matter has subjective experiences. The leap from that to saying all matter has experiences is much shorter than the leap from that to saying only specific matter types have experiences but not being able to explain why.

2/ Our universe is probably infinitely large

Our visible universe is 93 billion light years wide but we do not know how large our actual universe is. It seems odd that our universe – which is everything that exists – can be contained within a specific number (of width or volume). Some theories – notably, inflationary theories – that successful explain many empirical observations about our early universe does seem to suggest that our universe is infinite. In absence of evidence that our entire universe if finite and a convincing reason why is that so, I’ll place my bet on our universe being infinitely large.

3/ Life is a predictive model that avoids dissipation

Life bootstraps when a collection of matter is able to successfully avoid dissipation by anticipating what could cause dissipation and hence acting to preemptively avoid such dissipation. While a Tornado sits passively, ready to be dissipated by physical forces, a bird anticipates such physical forces and acts in order to continue living. Such anticipation isn’t necessarily cognitive (like in the case of humans). It’s more like instincts. The full exploration of this idea is done by the free-energy principle , an idea I find exceedingly beautiful.

4/ Intelligence is a result of an organism exploiting regularities in the environment for its survival

The reason I find current approaches to AI misguided is because such programs are expected to perform at tasks that pertain to environment humans live in with a human-level intelligence while the environment they’re given is composed of bits. The reason techniques like deep learning require massive amounts of data just to match our image recognition capabilities is because we’re trying to shortcut billions of years of evolution that crafted our vision.

5/ Our entire body and the environment we live in – and not just brain – is intelligent

There’s no clear boundary where intelligence happens. Our hands flinch automatically from hot surfaces. Our eyes get drawn to flashy substances automatically. Over a period of time, as organisms (like us) craft our environment to suit our survival. We will die without all such non-cognitive processes that aid in our survival . So, we can’t say for sure where is our intelligence located.

6/ Disagreements between people happen because we think linearly while reality is composed of many interacting entities

Systems thinking is an oxymoron . No matter how hard we try, our thinking is always of the nature of X causes Y which causes Z. In reality, there are many more entities beyond X, Y and Z and even the entities we identify interact in ways we cannot fully comprehend. So, to simply situations, our brains naturally simplify reality and difference in these simplifications is where all disagreements happen. That simplification is what causes all trouble . (Also, philosophical debates is all about differences in assumptions about reality)

7/ Truth and rationality aren’t universal ideals. They’re simply what humans find useful

Truth isn’t some metaphysical entity waiting to be grabbed by the human mind. In fact, truth is simply whatever we’re willing to place bets on . The reason the statement “sun will rise tomorrow” is true is not because it has some divine sanctity. It is true because most people will not bet against it. Similarly, rationality isn’t an abstract set of rules. It is simply what people have found useful. Survival is the ultimate proof of rationality . If a set of people prefer believing in a anthropomorphic God and they’ve done so since millennia, who is to say it is irrational ?

8/ Most of the reality will forever be hidden from us

We have evolved to comprehend the world through a very specific lens. That lens is the way it is because it helped us in survival. The reason we don’t see atoms directly but see solid objects is because there’s no survival utility in seeing atoms directly. Our more abstract ideas – including things like the big bang “explosion” or the “meaning” of life – are built upon such primitive intuition of seeing and manipulating objects in our world for survival and hence they do not represent reality as it is, but rather represent reality through our human lens.

This is why ideas like “universe may have 11 dimensions” is so confusing and such a let down. We just don’t know what to make of such statements about reality because we have no imaginative capacity to feel what is it like to be living in a 11 dimensional universe. This implies that most of the actual reality that exists is forever beyond our comprehension because it has served no direct implication in our survival. Even if the world has 11 dimensions, human body survives just fine utilizing 3 and will never comprehend what 11 dimensions feels like. (See related essay: thinking in analogies is dangerous )

9/ God is a name we give to reality that is hidden from us

We don’t and cannot comprehend all of reality. We don’t know why anything exists at all. We don’t even know if that previous question is well-formed or just a human-level concept imposed in a context where it is senseless. With such limitations of our comprehension, it’s arrogant to assume that human mind can understand everything that is there to understand. Acknowledging our limitations is acknowledging that there are things we will never understand. It may be useful to use a catchall phrase for such unknowable. Hindus called it God and I think they got it right.

10/ Collection of entities is an entity. And all entities matter

It’s useful to imagine that things like governments, corporations, roads, Internet and the Mona Lisa are an entity in themselves . Just like humans, these entities also impact and influence other entities. A human makes a painting but a painting changes the course of a human’s life. A corporation makes a road, but a road influences where corporations exist.

Our human-centric worldview limits us to see the world through a very narrow lens. We like to believe that we’re in control but things have their own way of influencing other things . It is wise to acknowledge that.

Follow @paraschopra Have an opinion on this essay? You can send your feedback on email to me.

In the last year or so, I have been reading on various topics indiscriminately. As I’m discovering connections while reading and thinking, my conviction towards some ideas has grown stronger. I wanted to mention some of such ideas that I suspect are true. I’ll also mention why I feel that way, but you derive your… Read More

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What Gita teaches us and what it doesn't - Inverted Passion

1/ I recently finished Menon’s translation of Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hindus . There’s a lot to like about it, but it leaves a few issues unresolved.

Here are my notes.

2/ The story revolves around the warrior Arjuna who faces conflict during a war with his cousins . He simply cannot bring himself to kill the people he grew up with. So he tells his charioteer, Krishna, that he’d rather die than go to war.

3/ This conflict is used as a backdrop by Krishna, who actually is an incarnation of God, to reveal the truth of the world to Arjuna. The ideas and concepts in Gita are consistent with other Hindu philosophies and ideas .

4/ The key philosophical teaching in Gita is that the human soul is one with Brahmana , the ultimate God . However, that soul is embodied and unaware that it is one with God.

5/ So, the body must go through Samsara , the cycle of birth and rebirth until it realizes its oneness. Gita stresses that the real condition is of non-separateness . That only Brahmana exists that’s beyond time, space and quality.

6/ It’s only because of Maya , the illusion, that it seems reality consists of separate beings (souls) . This idea was expressed in Ramayana as well when Hanuman meets Ram .

7/ Krishna tells Arjun that each soul has a karmic accounting going on . If after death, there’s positive karma, souls are sent to heaven where they enjoy until they end up using all their balance and then they’re sent back to the Earth.

8/ If the karmic balance is negative, souls get reborn as ‘lower’ creatures.

9/ The only way to get free of this constant cycle of birth and rebirth is by seeking a zero balance of karma while being alive .

10/ And, there are two paths to zero karmic balance. First is through renunciation whereby you give up all action and meditate on how all beings are one. Also, if action is minimized, karma will not accumulate.

11/ The second path is through duty without desiring anything in return . This lack of desire also doesn’t accumulate either positive or negative karma.

12/ Krishna tells Arjuna that the minimization of action via renunciation is hard and that no matter how much one tries, some action does happen inevitably. So, it is much better to take the second path and take action in the world but avoid karma accumulation by expecting nothing in return.

13/ This expectation-free action doesn’t accumulate karma because the desire of pleasure always brings about its counterpart: pain. In fact, Krishna considers pleasure and pain to be the two sides of the same coin .

14/ The reason pleasure seeking (or pain avoidance) is problematic is because it makes one self-centered, and hence one step away from the realization that all beings are one and same as the God.

15/ This expectation-free duty is where I think Gita leaves me wanting. The word duty had a very specific meaning during the time when Gita was written.

16/ Duty in the early Aryan period meant doing work that’s prescribed by society to your caste. The four castes – brahmans, kshatriyas, vaishiyas and sudras – have their work clearly defined in Gita and Krishna stresses that this classification ordained by God .

17/ Arjuna being from the warrior cast must fight. And he shouldn’t hesitate killing his cousins because a) souls never die, only bodies; b) if he does this as a duty, he’ll not attract negative karma. Arjuna gets convinced and finally does go to war.

18/ The caste system was obviously there for the benefit of people in power at the time Gita was written and we can’t take that definition of ‘duty’ at face value today.

19/ However, if we can’t adopt the duty given by our caste and must choose our actions out of free will, how are we supposed to prioritize our lives in a non-emotional manner?

20/ See, doing actions without expecting fruits in returns only makes sense if what you need to act on is clear. But in a world where you have to define your own duty, how can that happen in a morality -free manner?

21/ The minute you have a prioritization framework for what to do in life is the minute you start having expectations from life. You can’t be neutral about an action when it has been chosen over other actions. What does neutrality even mean in that case?

22/ What to do in life is perhaps the biggest question you can ask. Unfortunately, there is no easy resolution to this riddle. Gita certainly doesn’t provide it for the (caste-free) world where a person can become whatever s/he wants to become.

23/ Reason cannot be a guide to life. It executes plans for what the inner-yearning seeks as a goal.

24/ Want to make the world a better place? Good, but remember that it’s as much a valid choice as sitting all day and watching Netflix. You cannot think your way to happiness, you can only discover it .

25/ This is where I feel Gita fails. It doesn’t guide on how to pick a goal. Its teaching kickstarts once you’ve picked a goal, and then it tells you to prioritize actions over daydreaming.

26/ Nobody can teach you what to do in life. That’s what keeps life interesting. Unlike other games in the market, life doesn’t come with a tutorial .

27/ There’s a lot more to Gita than I have done justice here. I highly recommend reading it.

Hope you liked my notes and analysis.

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Have an opinion on this essay? You can send your feedback on email to me.

I recently finished Menon's translation of Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hindus. There's a lot to like about it, but it leaves a few issues unresolved. Here are my notes.

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You cannot plan for happiness (but you can discover it) - Inverted Passion

Most of our waking moments are spent either doing things that we expect will make us happy or trying to be happy. It’s like happiness is a currency and we want to hoard it as much as we can, as fast as we can. But the more we chase happiness, the less we’re able to get it. Yet if we momentarily forget about our desire to be happy, we find ourselves to be happy.

Before dissecting this contradictory nature of happiness, it’ll help to first define happiness. Everyone has their pet definition of happiness and each dictionary will define it in its own way. There’s no United Nations mandate specifying ingredients for happiness. It seems that happiness is hard to pin down and, as you’ll see, that’s precisely why you cannot plan for happiness.

The happiness paradox

Happiness is fundamentally an emotional feeling. You see, we feel happy. If happiness was a physical object located somewhere in our 4D spacetime, we could have sent space missions to find it and bring it back to us. If happiness was an idea, we could have ordered a book on Amazon and wrote reviews about it. If happiness was a person, we could marry it and be done for life. But happiness is none of it. If we knew what happiness was and how to get it, the entire self-help industry would have been long bankrupt. Yet the market for heres-how-you-get-happy is thriving because we’re suckers for happiness.

What I find most paradoxical about happiness is that we often think about it. Thinking is a process where we state some assumptions and work through their implications. Thinking is full of biases and is limited in its capacity (we aren’t able to store more than a couple of assumptions in our working memory). Thinking works best when there are a few variables involved. You’re fine thinking about whether Socrates is mortal (or discovering quantum mechanics), but you’re not ok thinking about how the future will unfold because it has far too many variables than what you can hold in your head.

Emotional feelings like love, disgust or happiness are a product of millions of years of evolution of our mind. There’s no single thing or principle that makes us happy. There’s no grand unified theory of happiness. Yet, we deploy our thinking hats trying to plan for a happier life. Thinking is significantly underpowered for this simulation: how our body and mind will react to billions of combinations of ingredients that make up our daily life and its context.

Miswanting: wanting things that won’t make you happy

There’s an idea in psychology called miswanting . It’s the difficulty we have in predicting what’ll make us happy. Here’s a simple example to illustrate miswanting. Suppose you think a beach holiday will make you happy. Since thinking is linear and full of biases, what leaps to your mind is pristine beaches, sun, beer and perhaps good food. Feeling pleasant and excited, you book your tickets. When the day arrives, you discover that the flight is delayed, or there was a cranky baby in the flight. Or when you reach the hotel, you find out that you forgot to pack sandals. On the beach, you get irritated by all the sand that’s stuck on your feet. There are tourists everywhere. It’s loud. Sun is harsher than you thought.

When you’re planning for a holiday (or any other experience you expect to derive happiness from), you obviously cannot think of all the nuances that’ll ruin the experience you planned for . This is why people report deriving more happiness from planning vacations than going to those planned vacations.

Another flaw with thinking about happiness is that because we’re thinking, we end up over-emphasizing easily-thinkable aspects. Whatever is easy to count is easy to think about. That is why we think more money will make us happier because a 30% rise requires only a couple of bits of information to store and process. We think going to a place, marrying a particular person, or taking a particular job will make us happier because all of these are simple, easily-thinkable ideas.

When it comes to happiness, what we fail to plan for is whatever is hard to think about. You cannot visualize that the day-after-day of slogging at an incredibly hard task for years could make you happy. Yet it does! ( Ask Olympic athletes who paradoxically feel less happy after winning a medal than how they felt while training). What we fail to think is that perhaps meditating will make us happier because our thinking mind cannot comprehend how a not-thinking mind can be a more pleasant state.

Discovering happiness

All hope is not lost though. Happiness is obviously a thing of importance , and even though it’s elusive, it’s not entirely beyond influence. We can (and should) try to be happier, but thinking about one’s future is not how we’ll get it done. Rather, to become happier, we should try thinking about one’s own past.

The key is to realize that it’s easier to identify what makes you happy than to think about what will make you happy. Identification of happiness works because you have the easier job of directly scanning for a feeling whatever its cause may have been. While, when you’re planning for thinking, you have a much harder, reverse job: thinking of situations that would definitely lead to the feeling you’re desiring. It’s harder because whatever situations you’re thinking about may or may not give you happiness. And those situations may come with extra situations that you never thought about.

But when you’re identifying happiness, you’re working in the full-HD glory of your memory. If every time you got a raise in the past, you found yourself not much happier, start de-deprioritizing money as a factor that determines how happy you’ve been. If every time, you “wasted” time on a hobby and it made you tremendously happy, start prioritizing it. If you have a high-paying job that you hate, trust that the hate will not go away automatically. Remember: there’s a difference between p(situation | happiness) and p(happiness | situation) . Only the latter is calculatable.

Experimentation-driven life

There’s just one problem with identifying happiness. What if in your life there haven’t been enough situations to select from? Won’t limiting yourself to repeating the past push you into the local minima of happiness? One way to work around the limitations of the past is to plan for experiments in life with the sole purpose of discovering what makes you happy.

This is different from planning for happiness where you expect happiness. Here you actively seek diversity of situations, hoping a subset of them give you happiness. Be a curious scientist. This requires stepping outside of comfort zone and is harder than it sounds, but it’s an authentic way of approaching happiness. For example, last year , I tried doing many new things that I hadn’t done before: organizing meetups, starting a new Youtube channel, meditating and mentoring startups. Out of these, I realized I enjoyed meditating quite a lot and didn’t enjoy other activities that much. Guess which of these I’m now doing frequently as a source of “free” happiness?

Summing up

To sum up, the next time you find yourself thinking about what will make you happy, stop and try to think of things that made you happy. When it comes to memory, rely on memory more than thinking. Remember the second law of happiness : there are many more ways for you to be unhappy than the ways for you to be happy. And low- entropy configurations come about only once a while. Become an expert at identifying and recreating those configurations at will.

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Most of our waking moments are spent either doing things that we expect will make us happy or trying to be happy. It’s like happiness is a currency and we want to hoard it as much as we can, as fast as we can. But the more we chase happiness, the less we’re able to… Read More

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Evolutionary Explanation Of Why Life Is A Suffering - YouTube

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Notes on entropy - Inverted Passion

In my experience, entropy as an idea is generally misunderstood. Like many, I had a gut level understanding of “entropy is disorder”. It’s easy to misapply that intuition and draw wrong conclusions about areas far removed from physics (business, economies, cultures, etc.) Remember: thinking in analogies is dangerous ?

So, I decided to dive deeper into entropy and here are my notes on the topic (as a series of easily digestible tweets ).

2/ First and foremost, know that there are two different things that are called entropy : one is thermodynamic entropy and the other one is information entropy. Whenever someone is talking about entropy, ask which one.

3/ Thermodynamic entropy: it started with Carnot and Clausius, who defined it as the amount of energy/work absorbed by a system per unit of temperature

4/ Actually, more precisely thermodynamic entropy was defined at a constant temperature and in a reversible process. Roughly it translated to how much energy can go in the system without raising its temperature

5/ This definition was ill-defined and hard to measure, plus there were unexplained phenomena such as when two systems were brought in contact their combined entropy was always larger than individual entropy . (You may recognise this as the second law of thermodynamics)

6/ The second law was explained intuitively by Boltzmann who has his famous equation written on his epitaph (S = k log W)

7/ Boltzmann defined entropy as a statistical property of atoms . Put simply, thermodynamic entropy is the log of the number of states of the system with the same temperature.

8/ Temperature is simply the average energy of atoms , and there are multiple ways energy is stored in atoms: kinetic energy (when they’re moving), vibrational energy, covalent bonds, etc.

9/ The colloquially used phrase: ‘entropy is disorder’ is misleading because even most perfectly ordered things (say diamond) have entropy . Diamond’s atoms are constantly vibrating and jostling, and for all those vibrations, diamonds temperature is constant so entropy is defined

10/ Temperature is a macro measure. When you put mercury temperature, the level rises because mercury liquid expands (and it expands because of added kinetic energy from the system whose temperature is being measured)

11/ When we read 100 degrees on the temperature scale, we are measuring the average energy of mercury’s atoms and via that average energy of measured system’s atoms. We are hence relying on averaged value (temperature) of specific microstates of the system (different atoms and their energy)

12/ In this way, thermodynamic entropy is a relative measure . It not just depends on the system being measured (more microstates or degree of freedom = more entropy), but our interactions (or knowledge) of it.

13/ If we could take a perfect photo of a system with knowledge of energies of all the system atoms, it’s entropy will be zero because our macro interaction (knowledge) includes all the systems micro states

14/ It’s only our macro level interactions that gives rise to entropy. So rather than saying ‘entropy = disorder’, a better thumb rule is to say ‘entropy = uncertainty’

15/ This thumbrule also explains the second law of thermodynamics, or why entropy rises or remains same in closed systems but never decreases

16/ It’s actually wrong to say that entropy never decreases .

Yes, in general, total entropy rises because when systems interact with other systems, their combined microstates are much more than their individual microstates

17/ As an example, the number of combinations of two decks of playing cards is greater than sum of combinations individual decks .

This is simple combinatorial math.

18/ So when system 1 is in contact with system 2, our ‘uncertainty’ of exact microstate of the system for measured macrostate increases because there are simply more number of microstates.

19/ However, entropy can decrease as it’s a probabilistic idea.

As you’re shuffling two random decks cards, just by pure luck, you may find they are perfectly ordered. In unlikely cases, entropy decreases (and many subcellular phenomena uses this fact to function)

20/ In general, however, entropy rises because humans deal with macro-level phenomena (trees, food, jewellery) while on the atomic level, as systems interact, they tend to increase microstates (and increasing our conception of entropy)

21/ It’s worth remembering that, unlike energy, there is no such thing as the entropy of an atom.

Entropy is a statistical measure of a combination of atoms.

22/ For life to exist, its constituents have to remain bound to each other in some fashion. It has to actively work against the statistical nature of intermingling systems.

23/ I see life as a statistical pattern that has found itself immune to intermingling with rest of the world by consuming certainty (low entropy sources; sunlight with photons of a particular frequency) and redirecting uncertainty away from itself (our body temperature)

24/ That was thermodynamic entropy. Now, information entropy as defined by Shannon.

25/ Thermodynamic entropy is defined in the precise sense of its relation to temperature and average energy (of atoms).

Information entropy is defined in the context of probability distributions.

26/ It’s defined as: given a probability distribution, whenever we sample a data point, how much on average do we learn about underlying distribution . It’s also called ‘surprisal’, that is, given a probability distribution, how much on average should we expect to be surprised.

27/ For probability distributions that are sharply peaked (that is, higher certainty) entropy is less because we don’t expect to learn much new when we sample a data point from that distribution (because we already know it’s likely to come from a particular range)

28/ For uniform probability distributions where all outcomes are equally likely, entropy is higher because we don’t know what value is going to come next from that distribution (hence we expect to be surprised)

29/ In a way, information and thermodynamic entropic measures are connected by ‘uncertainty’ in the underlying microstates of a system.

30/ For thermodynamic entropy, it’s log of the number of states that constitute a temperature.

For information entropy, it’s log of the number of states any system can be corresponding to any macro-description of states .

31/ In general, I’m very skeptical of misuse of these precisely used ideas in domains such as business, culture, economies.

There are interesting connections for sure, but I hope understanding these measures precisely will help us invent better measures for other domains

In my experience, entropy as an idea is generally misunderstood. Like many, I had a gut level understanding of “entropy is disorder”. It’s easy to misapply that intuition and draw wrong conclusions about areas far removed from physics (business, economies, cultures, etc.) Remember: thinking in analogies is dangerous? So, I decided to dive deeper into… Read More

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Evolution explains everything - Inverted Passion

I love evolution. It’s hard to not get awed by a process that took Earth, a big rock full of chemicals, and gradually chiseled it to create humans, creatures full of complex emotions and behaviors. Impossible as it may seem, the mind-bogglingly diverse human behavior can be explained via evolution.

Let’s take our sense of boredom. We dislike doing nothing so much that sitting still during meditation requires active concentration. We have this anti-boredom drive because our ancestors who were action-oriented survived longer and had more babies , ultimately outnumbering our ancestors who were happy chilling and doing nothing.

Or take our compliant nature. We like authority, we believe in things that good orators say, and we take part in superstitions because, evolutionarily speaking, being unpopular is much worse than being wrong . Our ancestors who believed in true things that made them unpopular got less sex than the ones who happily became part of whatever falsehood bonded the society together.

Lastly, take our worrying or anxious nature. Gautam Buddha called dukkha (or dissatisfaction) a core part of our moment to moment experience. This insight that we’re generally unhappy or dissatisfied with whatever we have also makes sense in an evolutionary light. Our ancestors who worried constantly and overplanned for even rare contingencies survived better than the ones who were complacent and happy-go-lucky.

The book The Elephant in the Brain dives deeper into the topic of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective – here are my notes from it.

We’re adaptation executors, not fitness optimizers

Some people have the misconception that evolution optimizes an organism’s fitness. In reality, evolution couldn’t care less about you or me (as it’s evident by the constant dukkha in our lives). Evolution is a blind process that over time increases the incidence of “greedy” organisms that survive longer and have more babies by whatever means necessary.

During evolution, small and random changes accumulate over several generations of organisms. These result in organisms with various sets of traits and behaviors. Some organisms may end up having a propensity to worry, while may be inclined to do nothing. Ultimately what trait ends up spreading in the population is determined by who survives longer and has more babies (over his/her lifetime).

What I find fascinating is that by the time a person is born, the evolutionary dice has been rolled. You, the individual organism, and your looks/behavior/smile/strength/intelligence become one of the many strategies in the wild that compete for survival and reproduction . Does being more intelligent mean you’re “better” or “fitter”? Not in the evolutionary sense, unless you happen to outbreed your less intelligent peers (which, in this specific case, doesn’t seem to be happening ).

Similarly, if you’re generally unhappy and anxious, is it bad? From your perspective, yes of course. But from an evolutionary perspective, this is exactly what might be needed as anxious people take fewer risks and survive longer (they also make up for stable husbands).

The next you’re reflecting upon yourself and are thinking why are you the way you are, think in evolutionary context. You’re executing a program that’s built over a billion years since the start of life on Earth . And, unless that program was copied wrong, its sole purpose is to make you act in a way that helps it get copied into future generations. It really doesn’t care whether you like or dislike something, or that you’re unhappy or happy, or that whether it makes you do the right or wrong thing.

Remember: evolution is a blind game and people are a roll of a dice to play a specific move in that game. The interplay of different moves is what gives rise to diverse cultures, opinions, and behaviors that we collectively call as being human.

Evolution really does explain everything.

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I love evolution. It’s hard to not get awed by a process that took Earth, a big rock full of chemicals, and gradually chiseled it to create humans, creatures full of complex emotions and behaviors. Impossible as it may seem, the mind-bogglingly diverse human behavior can be explained via evolution. Let’s take our sense of… Read More

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Thinking in analogies is dangerous - Inverted Passion

From your high school classes, do you recall the image of an atom where electrons revolve around the nucleus (just like planets go around the Sun)? I’m talking about images of this sort:

A completely misleading diagram (via here )

This analogy of electrons as tiny planets is so common that most people imagine electrons to be like tiny spheres. This bothers me because it’s utterly wrong. Electrons are not tiny spheres. Instead, they’re like a cloud spread around the nucleus. In fact, even the cloud analogy is wrong. Human intuition never evolved to understand things at that scale, so the most accurate picture of an atom is given by the Schrödinger equation . Note that the quantum mechanical equation is not just a mathematical description, it is what an electron really is. By the way, here’s a photo of an atom that was taken recently.

Notice any tiny spheres? Me neither.

Thinking in analogies is dangerous because they usually contain words that were originally defined in a totally different context . For example, in the electrons-as-tiny-spheres analogy, it’s impossible to understand what the word ‘sphere’ means at an atomic level. The same misapplication of words results in confusing philosophical debates (such as on free will, morality , the meaning of life, etc.) I wrote about this in a post titled philosophy is politics .

Another popular example of a misleading analogy that bothers me is the idea that evolution is a hill-climbing algorithm on a so-called fitness landscape . Many articles on evolution contain a mountainous graphic where higher peaks represent higher fitness and through natural selections, populations evolve from lower points to higher points in the landscape.

By Randy Olson

The image above is intuitive and elegant, but wrong. If you buy into the ‘fitness landscape’ analogy, you start thinking of evolution as finding the fittest organism in a fixed environment. In the real world, the environment is not fixed at all. If one organism becomes better, that decreases the fitness of other organisms (imagine the impact on fitness of herbivores when lions get stronger jaws). This means that the peaks you see in the fitness landscape cannot be a static image. The movement of an organism from point A to point B changes the terrain and it’s impossible to represent that in any manner that’s intuitive .

Bind yourself to reality

Ironically, what made me suspicious of analogies was an analogy itself. I came across the phrase ‘ the map is not the territory ‘ in one of my favorite books ever: ‘ Rationality: From AI to Zombies ‘. When we consciously think about our mental maps (like we’re doing right now), we know that they are mere abstractions and do not fully represent reality. However, the issue is that in our day to day thinking, we are programmed to refer to our mind maps for reasoning and hence always assume the map as reality. Knowing about cognitive biases is much easier than actually avoiding them. Similarly, it’s incredibly hard to be aware of when you’re misusing an abstraction to derive wrong conclusions about reality.

It pays to bind yourself to reality , to force yourself to see things as they are rather than as what’s simple. Analogies are easy to remember and that seducing nature makes us fall for them. It’s hard to ignore catchphrases such as ‘the survival of the fittest’ or ‘leaders eat last’ or ‘drugs are bad’. (It’s unfortunate that they’re a necessary evil for grabbing attention as nobody wants to read an article titled ‘some drugs are really bad, some are OK and some are good’.)

Because we’re drawn to simplistic explanations, we need to be cognizant of the fact that such simple explanations hide more than they reveal . If left unquestioned, these simple explanations take a life of their own inside our minds are pretty soon we start mistaking reality for these analogies. Due to confirmation bias, the explanations we use end up becoming stronger and harder to dislodge with time.

Know that electrons are not tiny spheres , fitness landscapes are not landscapes , the fittest does not always survive , leaders sometimes have to eat first and some drugs are beneficial .

Tame the engineer in you that longs for straightforward explanations . See the world as it is: full of complexity , with multiple systems interacting with each other in complicated and unpredictable ways. I know that deep understanding of reality is hard and takes immense effort. But the alternative is a mind full of wrong or misleading mental models .

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Have an opinion on this essay? You can send your feedback on email to me.

From your high school classes, do you recall the image of an atom where electrons revolve around the nucleus (just like planets go around the Sun)? I’m talking about images of this sort: This analogy of electrons as tiny planets is so common that most people imagine electrons to be like tiny spheres. This bothers… Read More

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Philosophy is politics - Inverted Passion

I used to wonder why questions in philosophy never get resolved. For example, take the question of whether we have free will or not. From Socrates to Kant and to modern day philosophers (such as Daniel Dennett), everyone seems to have an opinion on free will. Free will is also a favorite topic of many twenty something bloggers, including myself . Thousands of years have passed by since the first time this question was asked and people are still debating on it.

Why is that so? Why, unlike science , where all scientists agree that energy can neither be created, nor be destroyed, every philosopher has his/her personal answer to philosophical questions .

This lack of progress in philosophy has bugged me but I think I’m closer to a satisfactory answer. The language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has helped me in this regard. And although he didn’t say it directly, I think he is correct in suggesting that most of the philosophical discussions are ego-driven and subjective, just like most of the political discussions are. (I wrote about a similar idea in my previous post: Good engineers make terrible leaders ).

By political discussions, I mean arguments about deciding what’s right for other people. When politicians and policy makers debate the topics of taxes, immigration, and voting, there are usually a multitude of opinions and perspectives. As different people prefer different outcomes (usually the ones that are advantageous to them personally), the outcome of a political debate isn’t the correct answer but it’s a good answer that most find satisfactory enough. By ‘correct’, I mean an objective fact that’s independent of people. By ‘good’, I mean an opinion that people prefer over other proposed alternatives.

As we will see, philosophical discussions are pretty much the same. The reason there’s no agreement on questions of morality , liberty, free will, etc. is because these topics explore how a human ought to live. Even the questions about what is , such as whether there’s a God, are doomed because an answer to these seemingly factual questions impact how people behave. So everyone has a pet-theory for these philosophical questions, some are sophisticated, others are naive but none is ‘objectively’ true. The victory of your theory over another is a matter of convincing others that your version is better. And that’s a necessarily political act.

Experimentalists who think they can settle questions of philosophy are also missing the point. You can say that we can always test in the real world whether there’s a God or not. But it really doesn’t matter whether you can experimentally falsify the God-theory. It’s because you have to first get believers to agree that experiment is a way to answer this question. They interpret the word ‘God’ in a religious context, one where scientific context doesn’t apply.

Believers have a legitimate claim that the way to God is through belief and no experiment or logic is going to shake their belief. In that case, you can choose to disengage with them or choose to convince them that experimentation is the correct way. Whatever mode of engagement you use with believers – ignoring or discussion – it’s a necessarily political process. They either come out convinced from your argument or they don’t.

Meaning of a word is found in context of its use

Let’s come back to the question of free will and whether it exists. It sounds embarrassingly simple but if you unpack individual words, you’ll quickly realize that the question is nonsense or underwhelming.

What do words ‘free’, ‘will’ and ‘exists’ mean? (I used Google’s in-built dictionary in search)

‘Free’ – able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another. ‘Will’ – expressing facts about ability or capacity. ‘Exists’ – have objective reality or being.

Now, if we dive further and try to find the meaning of ‘wish’ (to unpack ‘free’ even further) or ‘fact’ (to unpack ‘will’) and ‘objective’ (to unpack ‘exists’)

‘Wish’ – a desire or hope for something to happen. ‘Fact’ – a thing that is known or proved to be true. ‘Objective’ – not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.

Note how the definition of ‘exists’ contains the word ‘objective’ and how the definition of ‘objective’ contains the word ‘existence’. Sounds fishy and circular, doesn’t it?

Actually, all this hoopla is unneeded because in majority of cases, when people use words in sentences, we know what they mean. For example, if your mother asks you to buy five oranges from the market, you do not debate with her on what exactly does she mean. Similarly, you don’t open a dictionary to unpack her sentence. You simply go to the market and buy oranges. She says thanks to you and that’s all. No philosophical discussions take place.

This simple example implies that we understand words in the context of their usage, (and if there’s a word that you’ve never used before, you place it in context of words you already know) . You’ve previously seen round, citrus, juicy fruits that everyone calls as oranges so you adopt the same word and link it to concepts juicy, fruits, citrus and round. But when you see the same word being used to describe a color of wavelength 590-620nm, you have no trouble adopting the same word. This time you link it to concepts of colours, light, etc.

Because you understand words in contexts of their use, you exactly know what the speaker means when she says ‘Sun is orange’ or ‘There’s one orange on the table’. You don’t debate which is which because you know Sun cannot be a fruit and tables usually have fruits, not colours.

Philosophy is contextual

Our everyday conversations don’t end up in long debates (sometimes they do!) but philosophical questions can have debates that last for hours. Why is that so?

It’s because philosophical questions point to concepts that are usually very personal to people. There’s widespread agreement on the word ‘orange’ but the word ‘free will’ is debated because words are understood in the context of their usage and the definition of ‘free will’ depends on how we use it and what we’re trying to do. In law, courts know what exactly the defendant means what she says she didn’t sign the papers out of her free will. Similarly, believers know they’ll go to heaven or hell after they die depending on their freely willed actions on Earth. No ambiguity there.

Philosophical problems arise when we use words freely – without any context or giving contexts that make no sense.

For example, if I ask Google “what is orange?”, it gives me four definitions:

Which one is the ‘correct’ definition of orange?

If we have no single definition of ‘orange’, why do we get baffled when we’re unable to come to one true definition for ‘free will’, ‘liberty’, ‘morality’, or ‘God’. Everybody defines these words in contexts of their life experiences, world views and goals.

Nonsense questions disguised as philosophy

You can ask open ended questions in philosophy and get surprised when there’s no one correct answer because you can ask grammatically correct questions that have no answers .

Consider the question: ‘What is the productivity of an orange?’

Obviously, the question is cringe-worthy because it’s nonsense. But we don’t feel similar cringe when we ask: ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ or ‘are machines conscious?’ or ‘why is there something rather than nothing’? Throughout my life, I’ve gone round and round on these questions without any satisfying answers. That should be a hint to me that perhaps these are nonsense questions.

What matters isn’t whether there’s free will or not, the real question should be how differently would I live my life if I knew the answer . If the answer was that there’s no free will, will I stop functioning? If the answer is that there is free will, will I start murdering people? As you can guess, the answer has very little impact on my future actions.

We philosophize life (but not oranges) because we’re hard wired by evolution to question our plans in order to find better ones, and the same tendency to question escalates to our entire life. But remember: just because a question can be formed grammatically, it doesn’t mean there’s an answer to it. We can ask ‘what’s the meaning of baffled?’ and find that answer in a dictionary but we can’t do the same with ‘what’s the meaning of life?’. The answer to this ill-formed question is going to be very personal or non-existent.

Reality can only be accessed via language

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” – Wittgenstein

We literally don’t have words to describe our entire reality because we use the word ‘reality’ to describe whatever can be described. But I suspect that there’s a lot more out there than what’s accessible to humans. Our thoughts and languages evolved to help us live with each other on Earth. Our communication is inherently limited to describing what information comes through our five sense and what we want to do with that information (evolutionarily, the answer is simple – make allies, attract mates, produce more babies).

In philosophy, we try to apply the same sense making apparatus – language – to situations and contexts that are far removed from our every day human experience. For such far removed concepts – liberty, free will, ethics – there will always be a debate between individual humans. You can pick up an orange and eat it, but what you can do with an idea like ‘liberty’ is to philosophize and use it to your advantage. Romans didn’t extend ‘liberty’ to human slaves because it was in their favour to keep slaves. Similarly, meat-lovers don’t extend ‘morality’ to the idea of eating bacon because they love it so much.

As a reminder, there’s no true answer to ‘what is moral’, it’s simply whatever you are convinced by. You can preach and debate your perspective on morality, but you shouldn’t get fooled into believing it’s the only correct one and that other people are wrong. Whether you succeed or not depends less on whether your argument is right or wrong (because it’s none of that!), but depends more on how much can you sway or incentivize or overpower other people.

Philosophy is fluid

We redefine words all the time. For example, on Urban Dictionary, I found a new definition of ‘Orange’.

Don’t you dare orange into our conversation!

Similarly, there will never be ‘true and final’ resolutions to philosophical questions. We abolished slavery and extended liberty to all humans but what about animals? Should we keep pets? Also, we shouldn’t mistake and say there’s a progress or a direction in philosophy. Just as words can get redefined completely over time , our societies can go to and fro on philosophical questions. Are modern day workers ‘slaves’? Do they have ‘free will’? Who knows! Your answer is as good as mine (but mine is better!)

Since you need to get people to agree on your preferred answers, Philosophy is politics .

PS: If you’re interested in diving into this line of inquiry even further, I recommend listening to this podcast .

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Have an opinion on this essay? You can send your feedback on email to me.

I used to wonder why questions in philosophy never get resolved. For example, take the question of whether we have free will or not. From Socrates to Kant and to modern day philosophers (such as Daniel Dennett), everyone seems to have an opinion on free will. Free will is also a favorite topic of many… Read More

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What Philosophy should be about? - Inverted Passion

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading two books recently. ‘ How much is enough ‘, the first one, is a sensible attack on money for money’s sake and the absurdity of it. The second one, ‘ Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ‘ is a classic that I read for the second time. This time it became clear to me that the book on many levels was talking about the an ugly outcome of single-minded urbanization. It also questions the apparent superiority of intellect over aesthetics. Of course, the two books are about much more than what I’m describing here but the underlying thread was common – both books urged considering mankind’s total quality of experience, rather than just material wealth or technological / scientific progress.

The idea of rationality holding supreme power to describe the universe is a very strong one and has actually lead to a lot of progress in recent centuries in terms of increased lifespan and other comforts. However, does this mean that in terms of stacking order Science is the end answer to everything? The two books inspired me to try approaching this from a first principles perspective.

So I asked myself where should all human inquiry begin?

In other words.

What philosophy should be about?

We now know that humans are a type of mammal, organisms evolved just like any other we find on Earth. Every now and then since the recorded history, man (a human) has gradually dethroned himself from being the centre of the universe to now a collection of biological cells capable of thought. Every time a Copernican revolution happened in Science, humans got closer to their primate family.

It’s both scientifically proven and commonly observed that much of our behaviour is animal-like. We eat, we reproduce, we play, we take care of young ones. We do pretty much that all biological creatures exist for – passing on genetic information to the next generation.

Since the biological nature of humans is an undeniable fact and impacts us in a very personal way, I believe that is what all philosophies should take as a given. Biological nature of humans should be an axiom. No matter how much theorising is done in Philosophy, one can’t wish away the biologicalness of humans. A lot of our wants , drives and even what’s right and what’s wrong comes from our biologically derived behaviour. So a student of Philosophy should have a very good grasp of subjects such as evolution , animal behaviour, psychology, and even genetics. Without a thorough understanding of how evolution and nature has shaped humans and their wants, all the talks about morals, values, aesthetics and politics would be wishful thinking. Biology is to philosophy what physics is to chemistry. If an experiment shows that humans tend to make irrational choices, one can’t theorise the supremacy of rational choices over what choices actually get made. In other words, in terms of usefulness – which is what Philosophy should be bothered with – intellectual truth is subordinate to human nature and that is what all Philosophies should take as a given.

However, human nature can be shaped.

The fantastic unique ability of humans for elaborate communication and exchange of thoughts makes us different from the rest of biological creatures. Avoidance of suffering is programmed into us (and all other creatures) through evolution. The drive for survival and food lead a creature into suffering-minimizing mode. The drive for reproduction and sex lead it to happiness-maximizing mode. All creatures including humans are programmed to minimise suffering and maximize happiness.

The only way for all biological creatures apart from humans to maximize survival and reproduction is through unconscious, programmed genetic evolution over generations. Humans are special in that regard. In addition to genetic record, we can record our experiences in oral and written form and teach the same generation on how to minimize suffering and maximize happiness — the drives that evolution wants us to optimize for.

I think this basic drive towards well being (where suffering is minimal and happiness is maximized) is what Pirsig refers to as Quality in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We can pass our experiences, experiments and thoughts to others in order to collectively achieve a high Quality life.

I believe that’s what human inquiry should be about – provided that we’re a biological creature, what should we do in order to lead a good life, a life with maximum well-being, a happy and satisfactory life.

The nature of goodness needs elaboration. Goodness for biological creatures relates to their survival and reproduction . Sure, evolution had made our brain seek goodness and rewards it with dopamine whenever it is achieved and punishes it with pain whenever it’s not. However, an argument could be made that if humans succeed in isolating pure consciousness that is unencumbered from biological constraints, what would that consciousness do (or seek)? What would a Philosophy for pure consciousness look like. I doubt we can ever isolate pure consciousness or that it exists but let’s assume it as a thought experiment. This is akin to making a computer which exhibits signs of consciousness. What would such a pure consciousness do?

Suppose there are then multiple such pure consciousness, multiple metaphysical entities. Since we don’t know what such pure consciousness would be bothered about let’s assume that different entities exhibit different behaviours. Some randomly drift. Some dissipate. Some replicate and spread. Interestingly, given multiple varieties of entities, eventually only the entities that replicate and spread will remain and dominate others in the population. In other words, we can hazard a guess that another evolution may kickstart for this hypothetical scenario and that evolution will also lead the dominating consciousness to seek some sort of goodness . The nature of that goodness is uncertain, but in my opinion there’s a tantalising possibility of a universal state that is preferable than other states. In the world of pure consciousness, such metaphysical entities will philosophize on how to achieve that good state.

Hence, given the underlying nature of the beings or entities, Philosophy should really be concerned about maximizing well-being, goodness or whatever else it is called in respective contexts.

Why is there anything at all?

We humans have cognizance of the universe and unlike other creatures we can’t help but wonder why is there a universe in the first place. Why anything exists at all? The fact that there is something rather than nothing and we don’t know why proves that there is a gap in our understanding and experience. Science and rationality cannot be expected to answer the why question. They answer what and how.

No matter how much scientists say that the question of why anything exists is meaningless or impractical, the void always nags and points to limitations of science. Perhaps that void can only be filled with a direct (spiritual?) experience and not through intellectual understanding?

Since the void nags and reduces well being for many (including me), Philosophy should also aim at taking a stab at how such a void can be filled. Perhaps the answer is arts, poetry, morality or beauty. I’m not sure what it is but any valid Philosophy should attempt to provide a total satisfaction – including these nagging questions.

In summary, if you have to begin an inquiry, here’s where you could begin:

Given that human is a biological creature, a product of evolution, what can we do to maximize well being. Bonus points for answering why anything exists at all?

You can then derive answers as to why you sometimes feel enslaved by modern urban life, what is the nature of morality, how much money is enough, is democracy the right form of government and many such questions like that from time to time.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading two books recently. ‘How much is enough‘, the first one, is a sensible attack on money for money’s sake and the absurdity of it. The second one, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘ is a classic that I read for the second time. This time it became clear to me… Read More

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How increased automation could lead to a happier and more egalitarian society - Inverted Passion

First, watch this video titled ‘Humans Need Not Apply’.

Now answer this question: what would happen when all jobs that humans perform today will be automated?

The scenario of nobody having a job might seem fancy and theoretical at first, but it’s becoming more realistic with each passing day. Google, Uber, BMW, and a lot of other organizations are on track to release self driving vehicles as soon as next year. And as the video demonstrates so beautifully, this is not just happening to the transportation industry. Automation will impact every sphere of human activity – be it creative, mechanical, cognitive or managerial.

We live in a world of machine learning, APIs, exponentially improving technology, billion dollar disruptions. A lot of such innovations are about making humans redundant.

What will millions of jobless people do?

Taking transportation as an example again, as self-driving cars become commonplace we will rapidly have millions of jobless drivers who are unskilled. As manual labor gets replaced with automation and machines, such unskilled people would find it increasingly difficult find other jobs. Even if they get skilled, gradually automation will reduce the number of jobs available for skilled people. I concur with the video that this wave of people with no jobs will swell into a huge tsunami. Are governments prepared to handle this? In the short term, this will have a very real impact of worsening standard of living for a lot of people. They simply wouldn’t have any money to pay for even basic stuff.

What governments need to do? Automation leads to concentration of wealth into certain corporations and individuals. A single innovation in automation by a specific company or individual can replace thousands and millions of jobs. Where income earlier used to go to many people doing the job, now the same (somewhat reduced) income will go to one company that developed that specific automation. This concentration of wealth will be sharper because of the network effects ( the winner takes it all ) and rich getting richer . Consider how Google is using technology to swell its cash reserves and revenues quarter after quarter. If earlier many thousands of cartographers used to get paid to map cities, now Google can just pay for fuel and have its self-driving car + maps software to automatically generate city maps at a detail no human cartographer can match.

Governments will eventually realize the irony of companies like Apple and Google having billions in cash reserves while millions being jobless due to no fault of their own and being unable to afford basic amenities of life. Governments could realize this fact by themselves or protests, activism or even vandalism can make them wake up to this fact.

Higher taxation and “Citizen wage” As wealth gap increases (more so due to automation concentrating wealth in some hands), governments will have to step in to rectify the situation. I side with the (semi-popular) view of higher corporate and individual taxation. The taxes that are collected from wealthy firms will go back to individual citizens as a wage just for existing . Consider citizen wage like a basic income that everyone gets from the government. This re-distribution of wealth from wealthy corporations to individuals will be justified because lack of jobs is a situation that corporations created. Poverty is not a choice people opt for.

Will higher taxes stifle innovation? The main argument about capitalism is that it promotes innovation. The lure of money leads people to compete, innovate and provide better services. If taxes are high, why would any corporation care to bring new products in the market? If a government guarantees a good standard of living to everyone for free, why would anyone do anything? Won’t this lead to a lazy, complacent society?

I doubt that people will get lazy. Individuals drive corporations and individuals are typically driven much more by non-monetary factors like satisfaction and having an impact on society. Think Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Page – are they doing this for money or they’re doing this for their own satisfaction? Imagine if everyone is satisfied with a basic standard of living, won’t people come together and still innovate because they like innovating? In fact, if we take money out of the equation and have some other metric to track individual and societal progress, it may increase overall happiness and accelerate the pace of innovation because everyone will be guaranteed a decent standard of living, so people can do what they’re best at without worrying about how they’re going to pay for dinner. Think of all the poets who are forced to drive taxis.

Co-operation between countries Countries are increasingly interdependent for their economies. Outsourcing of services and manufacturing has left many countries dependent on exports. What would happen when automation causes some countries to become self sufficient? Take India’s scenario – millions of young engineers are dependent on outsourcing of IT services and BPO, both of which are easy targets for automation. This would lead to disproportionate job losses in India. Same would happen to China if manufacturing cost due to automation gets cheaper than the human labor.

Even if one country recognises the inevitability of automation and gives its citizens a wage for existing, other governments might not be in agreement and their citizens will suffer (due to automation-led job losses). I’m not sure if any outside government would be concerned about loss of jobs in India due to automation. India would have to tackle this problem by itself. This tackling could happen in two ways: one is to recognise that automation is real and is here to stay. This means establishing “citizen wage” (just like other governments are doing). The other way for government would be to shut its door to all “imported” automation. This is a very real possibility – there are potentially hundreds of millions of jobs stake and some countries (like India) that are very labour driven could succumb to this. This “banning” of automation will make some countries go backward, become more and more inefficient and less productive, while other countries march forward, becoming more and more productive.

We will reach there

Automation is a strong force and I think the possibility of most human jobs getting automated is very real. This would lead to citizen wage, where people will work whatever they feel interested in, rather than being forced to work in order to survive. However, in the interim, as pointed out in this reddit thread , there will be chaos. In some countries, it might take vandalism and violence to drive home the point. Others might just handle this very smoothly. A perfect outcome requires individuals, corporations and governments work together and admit that basic human survival is at stake.

First, watch this video titled ‘Humans Need Not Apply’. Now answer this question: what would happen when all jobs that humans perform today will be automated? The scenario of nobody having a job might seem fancy and theoretical at first, but it’s becoming more realistic with each passing day. Google, Uber, BMW, and a lot… Read More

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Life as a question with no answers - Inverted Passion

The meaninglessness grips him by the throat at any moment of the day. Not caring about where he is and with whom is he, like a ferocious, prowling predator, the feeling arrives unannounced, rips apart his flesh and leaves him half-eaten, bleeding with not blood but streams of shameless, naked guilt. The guilt of meaningless existence.

He has been found caught in a swirling pool of this feeling at all sorts of places where the expected state of mind is one of the common moods such as joy, sadness, anticipation, reflection, or tens of others that people keep talking about. Instead, multiple times a day, what he feels is a sharp confusion followed by an invisible, choking paranoia that he’s going to die one day, and nobody really, truly , deeply cares about his existence. And why should they? They have their own lives to bother with.

Of course, he was not born with this feeling. His first memory is a sweet one; it’s about clutching a two-rupee note, while spiritedly darting towards the candy shop in the neighborhood. He distinctly remembers the sky that breezy day to be a little grey, the kind he prefers. And he also remembers his favorite orange candies which were cheap and abundant, and how they were wrapped in a white paper cover making each candy resemble a well-ironed bow tie. In those days, each kid had its hands full of them. A single rupee could fetch ten of such candies. He remembers how sucking on those candies seemed to have given him infinite bliss, as if the sweet liquid gushing out of it was hallucinogenic. At that innocent moment in his past life, he was perhaps in a childish trance. Or so, that is how he prefers to remember it.

Today, this memory – and many other similar ones where only the happy parts are remembered, not the boring ones – evokes two simultaneous, yet diametrically opposite emotions. When he reflects on the memory, he feels immensely proud of having lived through such a wonderful time, of being born as a human capable of having such memories (and not a simple-minded cockroach, leech or a snail), of being lucky enough to be able to afford this memory (and not having perished as a poor, destitute and malnourished kid). This feeling of airy joy fills his lungs and leaves him with a relaxed sigh of being alive, and giddies him up about the capacity of future to gift him many more such times. But before long, his sweet stillness is pierced by the painfully clear thought of his own death in future, and how that certain event would render his entire life (and all its associated memories) meaningless. In fact, he feels that his future death, in a way, renders his life and his actions meaningless today , not some distant tomorrow. It’s because one day his death will surely arrive and that day would be just like any other day. Today could be it. Any day that brings him death would be today on that specific day. Days are never special, he thinks. The only subject that occupies a man on his deathbed is his own death.

At such moments, for the briefest of moments, he catches a glimpse of his own flood of thoughts inside the vast ocean of constantly turbulent mind. Truth be told, it makes him proud and amused that mind is able to accommodate the existence of happiness and dejection at the same time. Isn’t that interesting? Though, sadly, this pride of holding mixed emotions doesn’t help in resolving the unease about the questions that have no answers.

Ironically, what brings him relief from these semi-frequent bouts of dejection about death is the thought that he’s going to die in future. His constant contemplation on death has inevitably made an impression on his intuition, further strengthening his resolve that one’s short life on this planet, even though meaningless, should never be sad. Happiness and exhilaration is what he seeks (and often gets). No doubt, even on a happy day, like everyone else, he would get faint, fleeting feelings of guilt and sadness, but he likes to imagine that unlike others he just carries on with the happy feelings while leaving behind the sad ones to rot. He has no hang ups about the past, and at will, he’s able to erase all negative feelings of guilt, shame, sadness and anxiety. Once he told a friend that the constant awareness of death brings genuine happiness. He also jokingly referred himself to be an Übermensch . His friend didn’t care.

He doesn’t know whether he should qualify it as a sad feeling, but one feeling that he constantly runs away from is that dreaded time when his mind is completely blank and the time around him shamelessly hangs on the wall, refusing to march forward. Yes, he feels boredom quite sharply and the possibility of it makes him tremble from the inside. Why can’t he just relax and enjoy the endless time, you may ask him. Try getting an answer from a depressed, suicidal person and you’ll get your answer on his behalf.

Even though he does not hate life, he would have been perfectly at peace if he were never born. It isn’t as if he prefers not to exist, it’s just that existence doesn’t matter to him. The question of life is moot. Meaningful life is an oxymoron. This indifference might seem cruel or pompous, depending if you love him or not, but that’s what the truth is and he’s unable to change it. Multiple times, he has tried shouting at the sky, demanding the universe some sort of an answer, but he has never got one.

Now, he has given up shouting. He isn’t tired of shouting; only that, now he feels he should be occupied with things that make him happy. Today, he has his memories that he treasures, a life that is a source of happiness and clarity of what life is about and why one must enjoy it at all costs.

The meaninglessness grips him by the throat at any moment of the day. Not caring about where he is and with whom is he, like a ferocious, prowling predator, the feeling arrives unannounced, rips apart his flesh and leaves him half-eaten, bleeding with not blood but streams of shameless, naked guilt. The guilt of meaningless… Read More

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