Category Archives: Philosophy

“Behind every cave, a still deeper cave”

What kind of philosophy understands reality in such a way that permits us — or even obligates us! — to design philosophies for ourselves that support, guide, clarify and justify the kind of life we want to live together in the context in which we find ourselves situated?

Part of re-shaping our world, which, in turn, will re-shape us, is reshaping ourselves philosophically as a preparation for more wisely reshaping our world. For me, that’s the most interesting part of the project, corresponding to “framing the problem” and “writing the brief”. But this, itself, presupposes an underlying philosophy that many folks out here don’t share and don’t want to know — a philosophy that seems relativistic to absolutists and absolutist to relativists, idealist to realists and realist to absolutists, liberal to conservatives and conservative to liberals.

But strangely, the reflective doing of little, localized philosophies to solve little localized design problems — a.k.a. strategic design research — gradually regrounds philosophy on this watery foundation, more solid than sand or even rock.

Vibes

Are souls body-size? Are souls ghostly bodies that fit inside the silhouettes of the bodies they haunt and animate? Most of us assume it, even if — or maybe especially when — we don’t look for alternative understandings.

I definitely used to assume this stance toward minds, souls, spirits. I no longer find it persuasive. In fact, I see it as our primary source of political dysfunction and increasing difficulty collaborating on improving our lives together.

What follows is a series of unsubstantiated statements about souls. These are offered for the sake of entertainment, in the sense of “entertain a possibility.” Try these ideas on, and see if they coalesce and help explain phenomena that have defied explanation or articulation, or if they bring realities to life that seemed nonexistent before.

—-

  • Every soul is universe-size.
  • Every soul has a certain rhythmic density, determined by where it sees reality and relevance.
  • Every soul overlaps other souls and shares a world to the degree they “coincide” in matters that matter in common, whether those matters are material or otherwise.
  • This overlapping, partial coinciding of souls is at one reason why we speak of other people’s “vibrations” or frequencies: we pick up on whether another person’s pattern of relevance reinforces ours or interferes causing them to miss the point of what we see, feel, do and say, and to see relevance where we don’t (what we see as trivial or pointless) and to get worked up about things that we believe don’t matter or don’t exist. A radically different pattern of relevance can cause someone to ignore the reality of our existence at all, or to skip over the fact of our own existence as an irrelevant bit of irritating noise or as an unsuspected nothingness concealed in a scotoma between the beats of their awareness.
  • Respect is nearly automatic when our soul is tuned the same as another, when harmonious belief is natural.
  • Respect is difficult when our tunings are different and we find ourselves marching to different drums, interfering with one another’s visions of life, working at cross-purposes, when we find other people… a bit off. Why would we attempt to acquire respect for someone who is maybe not respectable, who maybe doesn’t respect us? We ask: “What’s in it for me to change my understanding?”

Divine ecology

I have been looking for a “way in” into environmentalism. Intellectually, I know it matters tremendously, but I haven’t felt its importance on a tacit moral “why” level that makes its importance immediate and self-evident. I know this is a philosophical failure — something in my worldview (what Judaism would call levavkha, heart) is preventing a reality from being as real to me as it ought to be (“hardness of heart” toward toward the Earth, and physical reality, in general) — so I have been poking around looking for new angles for conceiving and perceiving our situation.

This passage from Gregory Bateson speaks to me:

Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.

Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and “Let’s build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors.” There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise “What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,” you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

You and I are so deeply acculturated to the idea of “self” and organization and species that it is hard to believe that man might view his relations with the environment in any other way than the way which I have rather unfairly blamed upon the nineteenth-century evolutionists. So I must say a few words about the history of all this.

Anthropologically, it would seem from what we know of the early material, that man in society took clues from the natural world around him and applied those clues in a sort of metaphoric way to the society in which he lived. That is, he identified with or empathized with the natural world around him and took that empathy as a guide for his own social organization and his own theories of his own psychology. This was what is called “totemism.”

In a way, it was all nonsense, but it made more sense than most of what we do today, because the natural world around us really has this general systemic structure and therefore is an appropriate source of metaphor to enable man to understand himself in his social organization.

The next step, seemingly, was to reverse the process and to take clues from himself and apply these to the natural world around him. This was “animism,” extending the notion of personality or mind to mountains, rivers, forests, and such things. This was still not a bad idea in many ways. But the next step was to separate the notion of mind from the natural world, and then you get the notion of gods.

But when you separate mind from the structure in which it is immanent, such as human relationship, the human society, or the ecosystem, you thereby embark, I believe, on fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt you.

Struggle may be good for your soul up to the moment when to win the battle is easy. When you have an effective enough technology so that you can really act upon your epistemological errors and can create havoc in the world in which you live, then the error is lethal. Epistemological error is all right, it’s fine, up to the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which that error becomes immanent in monstrous changes of the universe that you have created and now try to live in.

Reading this, I am understanding that I have morally deemphasized and neglected one of the dimensions of the threefold present, the present “here”. As with present I (in spirit) and present now (in eternity), present here (in apeiron) is a dimension of reality that is us, while infinitely exceeds us (which, I’ve been told is a theological concept called “panentheism“) within which we are responsible participants.

I’m fresh off this insight, so only time will tell what it does to me and my sense of the world. It feels like a breakthrough.

 

Touch-points, touch-lines, touch-planes

If I were giving my talk on the differences between design researching service design problems versus UX problems today, this would be my talk:

*

A confession: not long ago I thought of service design as just one variety of experience strategy, specifically an experience strategy that defines the experience of a process, a connected series of events experienced specifically as a series of events, perceived as a story.

I no longer believe this. Service design is a form of design strategy, that includes experience strategy and relies on it heavily, but service design is not reducible to experience strategy. I will explain why shortly.

It will all come back to a somewhat peculiar definition of design I subscribe to: that design shapes hybrid systems comprising people and things — people being understood as free-willed actors, and things as algorithmic, rule-based actors. In design, free-willed, experiencing people are part of the design and we try to give people good reasons to freely choose to cooperate with our designs. An implication of this definition is that a design only kicks into action and becomes what it is when a person interacts with it, producing an experience.

(Engineering, in contrast defines its systems to carefully exclude the people-elements, or if people are an unavoidable element in a system to treat them as predictable rules-following elements, either by imposing rules through policy, logic, commonsense or written instructions, or governed by peculiar psychological rules that can be discovered and used, or just to be irrational noise which is someone else’s problem.)

(I’ll remove this from the talk, but here’s my own inflammatory editorial: This is why only hacks claim to design when the people component is present in the process only as an imagined “The User”, or a trail of past behaviors synthesized into some sort of abstract behavior-producing entity to game into compliance with one’s own schemes. This sort of thing makes me super-angry, especially when I suffer from it as a user. One of the more catastrophic conceits of the 20th Century was the equating of rigor and being sociopathic, that is, attempting, on principle, to cleanse every “scientific” question of subjectivity, in pursuit of objectivity. Much of this stunted philosophy is still with us today, and it seems to be enjoying a sort of renaissance.)

Before looking at the crucial difference between designing experiences and designing services, let’s take a minute to clarify the relationship between time and experience:

Though all experiences take place in time, the “object” of the experience is not always a process where time is foregrounded.

The experience may be of having or using a physical artifact, or a digital artifact. It may be of being inside an environment.

The experience may also be of some user-directed activity with its own object, where the designed artifact is as inconspicuous as possible within the experience. This is how the design of tools ought to be approached.

(By the way, if you are into philosophy, and this line of thought captures your imagination a school has developed around our relationships with things, which is directly relevant to design: Postphenomenology.)

And yes, in service design, a crucial element of the design will be a customers, patient’s, employee’s experience of a connected series of events, and the flow of time is a big part of the perception of the experience. This is why we are always gathering, analyzing and documenting experiences in the form of stories and journeys.

And obviously, our overarching experience with many objects — say, a car — is a mixture of nearly every kind of design we mentioned, a physical thing we look at and enjoy, an environment, a tool that might disappear into our driving, and, sometimes, unfortunately services to help us buy, fuel, maintain, modify and eventually sell the vehicle. Looking at the car in a long line of touch-points from start to finish is good experience design, and until recently, I would have said this was service design.

Notice, I differentiate touch-points, which are relatively short spans of time and lines of touch-points. If you’ll forgive the coinage, I propose we call these connected touch-points touch-lines, at least for the purposes of the big point I want to make.

The big point is this: service design conceives a service as a mesh of intersecting experiences — of woven-together touch-lines. Let’s call this a touch-plane. When we look at a service through a service design lens, we see the delivery of the service, not as a mere means to one actor’s experience, but a matrix of intersecting experiences, most of which are processes experienced by a person — all of which must be designed properly if the service is to function as intended. A customer’s journey criss-crosses multiple employee’s journeys, which cross-cross manager’s, vendor’s, regulator’s, etc. journeys.

Obviously, we cannot design every single touchpoint for every single actor in a service, but when designing services we do not automatically choose and prioritize one actor’s or user’s experience as the end and relegate everything else as a means. We do what designers always do and make the smartest-possible tradeoffs across all parts of the experience plane.

So it should not be hard to figure out how this long roundabout discussion comes back around to the key question: what makes service design research different from UX research? If research for experience strategy clarifies what one actor’s/user’s end-to-end experience is, and requires deep knowledge of that user’s context, in order to define the design problem in one or multiple touch-points, service design requires study of multiple actor’s/user’s experiences and understanding how these experiences intersect and interact across a touch-plane and looking for opportunities to improve the experience for everyone involved in and experiencing the delivery of the service.

Lean Startup for the built environment

Why aren’t civil engineers getting on board with modern product management methods?

Everywhere we look there is a clear, urgent need for new roads, bridges, buildings, structures. Why can’t we have them today? It’s because of all these people with jobs we’ve never heard of who inspect stuff and write complicated documents — I call them “analysis paralysis professionals” — who want to think about everything endlessly instead of getting down to the real work of building.

In the time it takes to blueprint a building you could pour literally thousands of tons of concrete into a hole, and stick girders and rebar into the concrete before it dries. Or even better, attach some platforms to the girders and get some near-term use out of the work. These structures don’t have to be perfect! We can repair and reinforce them if they start crumbling, tipping or bending. And if a building collapses or a bridge falls into a river, we can can pivot and rebuild something much better with the knowledge we’ve gained through the so-called “failure”. Sure, there’s inconvenience, frustration, loss of life, but a catastrophe produces precisely the data we need to make better, safer and more innovative structures, and isn’t that the whole point of it all: Constantly improving structures?

I invite you to imagine with me a future where our cities work like our mobile phones. If we were to question the bureaucratic habits that bog down the building of our physical environment and adopt the best practices of software development, we (or at least those of us who survive the “fast failures”) could enjoy the same vibrant, ever-evolving, ever-updating, trial-and-error innovation we enjoy in our digital environment today.

Trading off trade-offs

One of the most interesting tensions in design, and the one least accepted by novice designers is trade-offs. Everything we choose to include as a consideration in design comes at the cost of an excluded competing consideration.

But against the tension of trade-offs is another tension: a) to solve the problem right away with this current framing of the problem, which necessitates these trade-off choices, or b) to search for a new framing that might put more considerations into harmony rather than into conflict and require fewer significant trade-offs.

This kind of reframing can occasionally produce the kind of miracles executives demand when they “push teams past their limits”. Sadly, the kinds of executives who tend to do this kind of aggressive pushing prefer to credit the miracles to the belligerent refusal to accept trade-offs, rather than to the reframing that really produces them.

And in the majority of cases where teams are pushed this way, especially when reframing is undermined through shifting goals or demands to show constant evidence of progress, the refusal to accept trade-offs forces the least acceptable trade-off of all. Good design is traded off for all-inclusiveness.

Loves

If we separate, seclude and protect ourselves from the harsh Otherness of the world for awhile; if we quiet ourselves down and refuse to scatter our attention and diffuse our efforts; if we concentrate our awareness and go deep enough into ourselves to discover what is there; blissful benevolence toward All may arise in our heart and overwhelm us.

We call this Love.

But isn’t love the instinct that drives us beyond ourselves toward a particular, individual other? Isn’t it the will to emerge from seclusion and safety to risk all, and if necessary to suffer or sacrifice? Isn’t it the desire to overcome our inwardness by joining our selves to a beloved other in togetherness?

These loves are so different in their trajectories and conditions it is hard to fathom how they can both be designated by one word. In other languages, such as Greek, they go by different names. Yet, there is reality expressed in marrying them under the shared name, love — as long as one doesn’t dominate or displace the other…

The odor of burning rubber

When thinking about truth, we expect both clarity and effectiveness. These qualities are so expected, in fact, that they serve as criteria for truth. If they are present we assume what we think is true, and if we are surrounded by people thinking the same way we might even succumb to certainty.

Certainty is comfortable. We tend to try to stay in situations where we feel we know what is true, or at least have a gist of truth. Most of us, who work at living normal, orderly, productive lives, mostly succeed most of the time.

The life of a strategic designer is not like this. Strategic designers are routinely asked to help organizations innovate. This requires framing or reframing problems: re-conceptualizing known truths, or making sense of chaotic situations nobody understands or resolving conflicts where incompatible, incommensurable visions collide.

Working to discover/make (instaurate) a concept that manages to produce all three qualities at once — clarity, effectiveness and consensus — is tricky work. Normally it is necessary to try on and discard multiple framings that only produce only one or two of these qualities before one comes along the fully resolves the problem.

This process is instructive if we are observant and ready to meta-reframe what we think is going on. In other words, this activity of frame instauration can produce philosophical shifts. These experiences and my attempts to account for them have shifted my own understanding of pretty much everything.

What have I taken from all this shifting? First, I know what it is like to shift between frames. I know what it does to my experience of whatever problematic situation I am trying to understand and I know what it can do to my experience of the world, instantly, all at once, as a whole. I also know what it is like to do without a frame, and the harrowing things that does to my experience of the world. I am used to radical surprise, of having (literally) inconceivable possibilities become conceivable, and along with it all kinds of ideas that were standing in front of my face, invisible, staring me in the eyes while I was rooting around in the shadows for knowable unknowns. I have a very vivid sense of pluralism, and of a transcendent ground from which truth in all its pluralistic glory emerges.

*

An urgent question to ask: If an explanation is clear and effective why would anyone refuse to accept it?

A better reframing of this question is: What good reasons might a person have for refusing to accept a clear and effective explanation?

This question becomes even more effective if it is asked from a pluralistic perspective, assuming that multiple true answers are always possible because questions can be framed myriad ways.

What follows below is my answer to this question.

*

*

*

It is important to us that our truths are clear; that is, they give us the means to think about our situations. This means, first, being able to ask a question that can be answered. Not knowing an answer to a question can be frustrating, but at least we know what the problem is. Perplexity, the incapacity to find the relevant question in the face of a crisis, is unbearable, when this happens we become anxious that we do not have the truth.

It is important to us that our truths are effective; that is, they work properly, orienting us to the situations we find ourselves in and enabling us to anticipate and respond to what is going on. If we lose this ability and we are constantly surprised and our responses falter we begin to suspect that we do not have the truth.

It is tempting to settle with truths that are both clear and effective, and for a long time many of us have, on principle, rejected all truth criteria but these. But there is another criterion that is just as important: it is importance itself.

It is important to us that our truths are significant; that is they make our situation important to us, and inspire us to care about it, whether caring means loving or hating, embracing or opposing. If we lose the capacity to sense significance in our situation we will become indifferent, and here we ought to learn to suspect that whatever truth we have is not worth keeping.

*

I know a lot of people right now who feel irritated, agitated and dissatisfied. If they are not angry or sensorily stimulated or intoxicated, they are just blank in a horrible way.

These same people are certain they know the truth, and everyone they know agrees with them that they know the truth, and part of the truth they know is that philosophy is an inferior precursor to science, or a highfalutin substitute for religion. It never occurs to them to think about how they think, because they already know that is a dead end.

Besides, they know the real cause of their misery: wicked oppressors.

*

I heard somewhere that when we lose our sense of smell, we do not simply smell nothing. We smell something resembling burning rubber. It drives people into depression and sometimes to suicide.

Perhaps the moral blankness we don’t feel when we lose the capacity to sense importance is like the burning rubber we don’t smell when we lose our sense of importance.

 

Rendering a philosophical proposition present

I’ve tried to say many times what Stengers says here:

To try to render a philosophical proposition “present” means first of all to try to avoid the form of commentary that is suitable for the exposition of an author’s beliefs, of what he or she thinks. It is to make thought inseparable from the problem of “how to think” that obliges this thought.

This is why I warn people away from philosophy surveys that report the beliefs and outline the arguments of philosophers.

Philosophies are not “belief systems.”

Neither are religions, for that matter.

x = y zillionths

Zillion is a funnier word for myriad, which happens to be my favorite qualitative number.

For me, any exact quantity is only an approximate fraction of zillion.

If x is an exact value, x = y zillionths.

*

Qualitative math. Operations performed on none, some, few, many, myriad…

*

I suppose I’m still thinking about math today.

Little known anomalogue trivia: I have a shelf of math books, primarily about chaos theory (what Darwinism was to the 19th century and relativity was to the early 20th, chaos was to my itty-bitty generation) .

(Philosophical hermeneutics can be seen as a qualitative chaos theory.)

I also have a bunch of statistics for nonstatistician books (statistics seems worth knowing but not enough for me to actually do the work of knowing it), a few classics on teaching math and some flaky ones that explore mathematical aesthetics.

(If mathematical aesthetics interests you, see my “handsome math” Pinterest board. I love Pinterest. Because it emphasizes our responses to the world around us instead of enabling us to project our alleged personas (now known as “personal brands”!) to the world, Pinterest is where you can see a person’s individual axiologic (to me, the very seat of the soul) in their tastes and hopes, rather than watching their boring attempts to compete for medals in the cramped ethnomethodic olympics of our times. I learned a lot about my own aesthetic seeing collected together and juxtaposed all the pretty stuff I spontaneously liked and collected together.)

*

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” — Saint-Exuperie

I had exactly this same thought 20 years ago, and was startled to discover that someone had said it almost the same way, word for word, which probably means I saw it and forgot about it. It is a beautiful, true, neglected insight.

 

 

Mathematician’s faith

From Isabelle Stengers’s Thinking With Whitehead (bold mine)

Thinking with Whitehead today therefore means accepting an adventure from which none of the words that serve as our reference points should emerge unscathed, but from which none will be disqualified or denounced as a vector of illusion. All are a part of the problem, whether they refer to the whys of human experience or to the hows of “objective reality.” If compromise solutions do not suffice, it is because they try to circumvent the problem instead of raising it; that is, they try to mitigate the contra­dictions and to make compatible that which defines itself as conflictual. Whitehead was a mathematician, and mathematicians are they who do not bow down before contradictions but transform them into an ingredi­ent of the problem. They are the ones who dare to “trust” in the possibil­ity of a solution that remains to be created. Without this “trust” in a pos­sible solution, mathematics would not exist.

This truth is the one William James called faith or belief, his only an­swer when confronted by those who have declared that life is not worth living, “the whole army of suicides (…) an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, fo llows the sun round the world and never terminates.” It has nothing in common with what I would call, to underline the difference, “to be confident,” that is, to continue, to carry on in the mode of “everything will work out fine.” The mathematician’s trust is inseparable from a commitment not to mu­tilate the problem in order to solve it and to take its demands fully into account. Yet it implies a certain deliberate amnesia with regard to the obviousness of obstacles, an active indetermination of what the terms of the problem “mean.” Transferred to philosophy, this indetermination means that what announced itself as a foundation, authorizing a position and providing its banner to a cause, will be transformed into a constraint, which the solution will have to respect but upon which it may, if neces­sary, confer a somewhat unexpected signification.

It is funny that Stengers calls this a mathematician’s trust and views it as a characteristic that can be transferred to philosophy. I see this faith as the essence of philosophy (I wrote “dialectical imagination” in the margin of the page) and the element of  intellectual creativity common to problem-solving in any field.

It is certainly crucial to design innovation, and it is finding conditions favorable to it — the right level of desperation (which translates to willingness to trust), the right collaborators (who share this faith), the right deadlines and pace — that separates great design projects from dull ones.

It is also the difference between tedious debates and true collaborative dialogue: Do both parties have faith that another conception of a problem can yield radically new solutions — and actively prefer pursuing this utterly inconceivable, imperceptible, utter nothingness of an impossibility in the face of the most extreme anxiety? Or do they demand exhaustive disproof of all existing hypotheses prior to submitting unwillingly to some futile search for who-knows-what by some mysterious method nobody seems able to explain much less codify? The latter attitude make philosophical friendship impossible (and for those few capable of philosophy, taking this stance, in fact, is to refuse friendship). I feel like I need to add this softening qualification: Luckily, many other forms of friendship exist besides philosophical friendship.

*

I have wedded this “mathematician’s faith” (or dialectical imagination) with a religious faith that perceives infinite importance in the exercise (especially collaborative exercise) of dialectical imagination, for the sake of deepening relationship with that who cannot be conceptualized — of transcendence. I have a simple word for the instinct that drives of this collaborative exercise: love.

This latter faith, the faith that there is better, and that better is tied to our relationship with realities beyond our sphere of understanding, and that this relationship involves other people is why I call myself a religious person.

*

It is clear that I have to understand Whitehead.

 

Paranoid style in American politics

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

… Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.

— from “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964

Yes, 1964!

I’ve had a copy of Hofstadter’s book sitting on my side table for the last couple of years, but I have never gotten around to reading it. While I find conversation on the substance of specific paranoid fantasies to be tedious, interminable, unproductive and palpably degrading, as an object of inquiry I find the phenomenon of the intellectual style itself to be fascinating and, sadly, relevant. Maybe it is time to pick it up and read it.

Coping strategies

I’ve met people who cope with life’s stresses with distraction, with narrowness, with willpower and with inspiration.

Distraction and narrowness are both avoidance strategies. Distraction often takes the form of a “work hard, play hard” life, oscillating between extreme busyness and extreme entertainment that never leaves time for sustained intensive reflection and the discomfort that attends it. Narrowness does the same thing with different means. Narrowness focuses all attention on a defined region of activity or knowledge, a subject that occupies one’s mind without pushing it past its own limits and producing discomfort.

Willpower does confront discomfort directly but pushes straight through it in order to achieve goals, and to develop skills for overcoming discomfort and maintaining control, focus and equanimity.

Inspiration can go multiple ways. Inspiration can seek sources of meaning that make discomfort seem worthwhile in the context of a meaningful life. It can also look for meaning precisely in the places that produce discomfort, so that sources of discomfort and meaning are the same, but the meaning outweighs and redeems the suffering. Finally, one can seek meaning precisely in suffering (or at least certain forms of suffering), so now the suffering isn’t balanced against meaning but is viewed as a signal of potential meaning and a path into meaning.

I’m sure there are more coping methods, but these are the ones that came to mind first. I’m watching many of my friends moving from avoidance strategies to willpower strategies through the practices of stoicism, and it’s sensitized me to differences among approaches.

Soulsizing

If you are a person who invests your best time and effort into understanding what matters most to you, chances are you’ll end up understanding things differently from most people in your life.

But everyone has some kind of understanding of what matters most to them, even if they have not spent time explicitly interrogating it. And by virtue of the fact that these understandings attach to the most important things, the understandings are invested with great importance and might even be counted among the most important things.

This means there is not only a difference in understanding, but a morally-charged difference in understanding.

That moral charge often manifests as taboo against even hints of doubt, much less approaching in a questioning spirit, much less engaging in active interrogation.

So not only is there a morally-charged difference in morality, but also a morally-charged difference in whether we even ought to actively seek a deeper and possibly destructive understanding of understandings of precisely what we value most.

*

The strangest thing about digging beneath prohibitions against digging into morally-charged understandings, it how much general understanding and how many quotidian beliefs get undermined in the process. These questions literally change everything, including, perhaps most of all, what is meant by the word “everything” when we say it, how much that word comprises.

Everythings come in many sizes.

*

What is the basic unit of measurement of a soul? Everything.

*

Our souls give each other’s souls space to live.

*

The harder you work at understanding — whether you succeed or fail does not matter, but only how much you ultimately diverge from the norm — the less you can expect to be understood, because many cannot follow the thinking and many more refuse to. The difference between people who would if they could but really can’t, and people who could if they would but really won’t becomes starkly evident, and starkly significant.

*

*

Existential FOMO

A lot of longing for freedom might be best explained as existential FOMO. It is a fear of committing to one concrete future self and missing out on all the other future selves who could have been.

I’m reminded of an insight from Nietzsche, where he says something to the effect of: don’t tell me what you want freedom from; tell me what you want freedom for.

The problem with the freedom that existential FOMO craves is that it excludes the positive freedom of being someone, not only because being someone requires sustained effort and discipline, but also because substantial relationships with other people depends on us being someone who can be counted on to be there when we are needed.

A person who seems to be one person one day and another person the next… a person who values very different things depending on context and mood… a person who daydreams of one life one day, and another life the next… a person who’s constantly revising their autobiography and recasting characters (making heroes into villains and villains into heroes to suit the trajectory of the plot, or reassigning stars to bit-parts and bit-parts to star roles to fit the theme of the story du jour)… such people can be friends only with people who care little enough about relationships to skim over the whimsical inconstancy. Such lite friends can be very chill and easy to hang with, and they’ll give you all the freedom you want to be whoever you want to be in the moment, but they are as likely to relieve existential FOMO as a double shot of bourbon is to relieve craving for alcohol. That hollowness and that irritability that says you need more, more, better, better will intensify.

It is difficult to find that one future self you want to be. It doesn’t irrupt into your life as a grand fully-formed epiphany and blueprint. Nor does it appear as a person standing across the room — whether it’s that person you’ve waited for your entire life, or just someone who looks like the next fascinating nut to crack. Nor is it being discovered — first someone, then everyone! — finally realizing who I really am. If you are discovered this way, chances are you’re a by-product of someone else’s delusional self-discovery.

Too much chasing of this kind of self-actualization makes you lose your taste for everything that can make you into someone. Eventually you run out of time, energy and hope.

Being someone worth being takes alertness, sustained attention and a good eye, ear and nose for quiet and subtle hints of love — seeds of meaning that can be nurtured, grown, disciplined and made the core of life worth full commitment.

Understanding souls

Most folks who believe in souls think of a soul as the being who inhabits and animates a body. I agree with them, but I see souls as inhabiting and animating more than bodies. Anything understood to have an understandable purpose behind it, anything where answers to the question “why?” are more directly to the point than answers to “what?”, “how?” has a soul. When we try to understand something, we are trying to get at its animation.

I would argue that understanding itself implies soul, not only because souls do the understanding, but because souls are implied in the object of understanding, though in this case the object is another subject behind any objective knowledge. Objectivity is understood when it is understood in the context of a subject capable of comprehending that knowledge.

When we understand a loved one we become able to comprehend their words, gestures and actions, because our souls can animate our empathy and allow us to respond to what they mean by them.

But I would like to intentionally misapply homonyms to confuse categories, by suggesting that when we understand the subject of mathematics we become able to comprehend math problems, because our souls can animate mathematical thinking and move our thinking effectively.

No matter what it is that we objectively comprehend, we comprehend it only because we have subjectively — in the broadest sense — understood it first in a way that can animate our comprehension, and it is this alone that makes it meaningful.

*

Big problems happen when we try to comprehend what first needs understanding.

Kids will try to do this when they try to solve math problems purely procedurally without understanding the concepts. Adults will do this when they try to explain other people’s confusing behaviors before they’ve attempted to know them as people.

Even bigger problems happen when things that cannot be comprehended are dismissed as nonexistent before understanding has been attempted.

This is where we see cynical dismissal passing as insight. “Postmodernism” is confusing because the emperor wears no clothes — there is no sense to get. Souls cannot be scientifically proven to exist, or defined in a precise way a rigorous positivist can do anything with, so it is nonsense. Institutions are even more aggressive about eliminating what they cannot measure and operationalize than individuals, and a great number of individuals think by the logic of the institutions to which they belong.

And when we forget that understanding and comprehension are different and require different kinds of approaches and efforts, we lose the capacity to recognize much less navigate and surmount failures of understanding and we end up entrenching in mutual miscomprehension against enemies. Gaining understanding is hard enough when both parties in misunderstanding seek understanding and know what understanding involves.

But when one side of a conflict of understanding comprehends only comprehension, peaceful impasse is the best one can hope for.

If both sides comprehend only comprehension and become convinced they comprehend evil intent on the part of the other, both are 100% correct. In this case one should stop praying for peace and start praying for the shortest, least lethal war.

*

A soul is most a soul when lives as a soul among souls.

This is why I chose to live among souls. It is better.