Please Rename My Life’s Work

I need to re-name what I plan to study for the next couple decades.  I asked friends on Facebook, and got over a hundred ideas in a few hours.  Thanks so much!  Incredibly helpful!  Here’s more details on what I’m looking for.

Definition: I study our most basic, highly-generalized, adjectival beliefs about the world we live in and how it works.  Examples include: the world is interesting/boring, getting worse/better, good/bad, safe/dangerous, etc.  All such beliefs answers that most basic human question, “What is this place?” on the cosmic scale.  Long term, I want to see if some of these beliefs are helpful, design interventions, and scale change.  For the past year, I’ve called them “universal assessments” (UAs).  This, it turns out, is horrible, and I’m amazed so many people have gotten so interested in the UA concept anyway.

What’s wrong with universal assessment?  There’s trouble with both words.  First, assessments usually means ‘test’ or ‘survey’ in the social sciences.  Second, “universal” can mean ‘everyone,’ like ‘universal healthcare,’ rather than ‘everything.’  Also, “world” is likely a better approximation of the object about which we have these beliefs.  “Belief” is good, but UAs are more visceral and underlying than the term “belief” implies (or “assessments” for that matter).  Across the country, psychologists I respect have confirmed for me that my term should be changed before I’m too committed.

7 Criteria: Ideally the new term should be…

  1. Memorable
  2. Self-explanatory (e.g. I can say “I study ____” and people know what I am talking about)
  3. Works for both social scientists & a popular audience
  4. Builds on related ideas in the literature…but distinctiveness can be useful
  5. Not condescending (like “assumption”)
  6. Not making a claim I can’t yet (like “most-important-belief belief”)
  7. Not words I stutter on!

Today’s Top 7:

  1. world beliefs   –   basic…a fan favorite…safe choice…Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who invented fixed/growth mindset likes it
  2. world impressions   –   Alicia’s idea…makes it a little more unique…then when I get to a general audience and create a comprehensive assessment tool we could call someone’s UA profile their “iWorld”
  3. cosmic outlooks   –   an idea from positive psychology founder Marty Seligman
  4. worldviews   –   lots of people I respect are rooting for this one like David Yaden, Seligman, Alejandro Adler…but there is a TON of baggage with this term as it refers to religion/moral systems/nationalism/views on abortion etc….it would have to be re-appropriated VERY strategically
  5. elemental worldviews   –  by use of the term “elemental” or something else we could distinguish from other forms of worldview
  6. worldlook   –   we could make a neologism that is similar to worldview but different (worldsense, worldgist, world take, etc.)
  7. pan-beliefs  –  maybe…”pan” or “panta” means ‘everything’ in greek…I like this one because I can see myself saying it and its fairly self-explanatory

Other options: megabeliefs, world conclusions, cosmic conclusions, world judgements, cosmic convictions, world characteristics, adjectival worldview, stark world beliefs, cosmic impression, total world beliefs, state of everything beliefs, total existence beliefs, pan-existence beliefs, existential inklings, world hunches, world schemas, totalized schemas, everything judgements, world nature, underlying world beliefs, world suppositions, habitus beliefs

Perhaps a neologism: worldset, omnitraits, ubiquitraits, omni-understandings, omni-judgments, worldjectives, omni-beliefs, omniristics, world nature, omniliefs, sublets, world meta-view, world looks, pan-beliefs, metaschema, worldschema,

Terms in the literature you would think refer to UAs but don’t quite: global beliefs, world hypothesis, world assumptions, etc.

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Nothing like a little brush with death to provide some perspective on life…

Biking home in DC, zipping down the bike lane with my helmet on (cough!), and a taxi door opens. I love that pause before the crunch. You see it coming, but you have no control. I flew maybe 12 or so feet. Epic crash. Loud. About 20 people rush up…and I’m laying there in shock yet without a scratch on me. Ok, my chest is a bit bruised (where the door hit), but yeah. Crazy unscathed. The people were super nice about it, and I learned a valuable lesson:

Care about the right shit. I think I was thinking about dirty dishes that needed doing right before I crashed. Now I’m breathing, and again, and that’s pretty fucking cool. You’re breathing too. Celebrate with me.


An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

If blogging has taught me anything, it’s that the universe cares deeply about my every thought and feeling.  

If I would have fallen asleep a year ago, and had a dream about what my life would be like now, waking up I would have pressed myself, “Jer, you really need to work on your pride issues.”  Details be damned: basically, I’ve won the people-pleasing Super Bowl and I want to talk a bit about what life is like on the other side.  

In short, its not much better.  In fact, I noticed that my initial euphoria quickly melted into your run-of-the-mill stupefying fear.  Effort has become an opportunity not to live up to my potential.  Because there seems to be no available trajectory but down, it feels like a good time to abandon all meaningful pursuits and join the circus.  (I ‘ve day-dreamed about becoming a full-time bike messenger.)  

Alicia and Jer in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013.  We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol.  I had to document my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.

This is a pic of Alicia and I in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013. We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol on a sailing catamaran and I documented my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.  My point: don’t take these reflections too seriously. Life is  good.

My problem?  Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, might call it a “fixed mindset.”  She’s done a great deal of research unveiling the effects of implicit beliefs about where one’s talents and abilities come from.  In the first option, we see our talents and abilities as largely set in stone.  We don’t want challenges, as they are opportunities for failure.  And if at first you don’t succeed, give up quickly cause you clearly don’t have it.

Alternatively, we can adopt a “growth mindset.”  In this view, failure is not failure.  Everything is an opportunity for growth.  Results are not defining because things change, and if you work hard you can get better, grow, and learn more and more.  Fixed mindsets have been tied to a whole bunch of stuff nobody wants, like struggling in school, and growth mindsets are generally helpful in your professional and personal life.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades.  I'm thrilled that she has taken an interest in my UA work.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades. I’m thrilled that she has also taken an interest in my UA work.

One of the ways we get fixed mindsets, ironically, is from  praise.  Praise for ability seems to actually undermine how persistent we are in our efforts (“Johnny, you are so smart!”).   Meanwhile, praising effort and strategy encourages trying and trying hard, at least in school-aged kids (Mueller & Dweck, 1988).

Check out Dweck's book at

Check out Dweck’s popular press book for more info.

Are you fixed or growth?  I think I’m likely somewhere in the middle, but lately I think I have been seduced by lavish praise into a fixed mindset.  I remember after the subway thing how everyone and their mom was calling me a hero for a few weeks.  Then it stopped.  Believe me, I understood those guys who go out and push people onto subway tracks themselves so that they can save someone again.  Extravagant praise of talent and ability is addicting, and, if Dweck is right, corrupting.

Some of you are probably thinking, “hah!  Woe is Jer!  It must be so hard that everyone likes you.”  I would say, “absolutely!  Ridiculous, right?” and then kick you in the shins (as loving friends do).  Stop being small!  Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives (overstatement of Brickman et al, 1978 and other studies).  Winning the lottery of public opinion can as well.  Take it from somebody who has somehow made it to the top of magic mountain (of people-pleasing…not money…I have a ways to go in that other rather worthless pursuit).  The view is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

One symptom of my hardening fixed mindset (and probably other stuff like being busy) has been blog silence.  I continue to have interesting ideas (I designed a company over Christmas break that would be a full-service fake vacation provider), but are they interesting enough to raise people’s opinions of me?  A dollop of paralysis is sometimes all one needs to avoid trying.

So get rid of it!  I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.  Dweck’s research, blah blah blah…I really miss allowing myself the freedom to be an idiot.  The guy who will occasionally accidentally pee in the trash can instead of the toilet, who will bike with his arms out like he’s flying, who will unknowingly put the car in park and turn it off at a traffic light if the conversation is interesting…I like that guy and people who are like him.  Thus I solemnly declare that idiots everywhere have  fundamental human rights:

  1. To not know.
  2. To say dumb shit.
  3. To disagree with ourselves without warning.
  4. To pour our heart and soul into a project we later think is silly.
  5. To fail magnificently — so bad that everyone notices.
  6. To fail uninterestingly — so small that it hardly affects anyone’s opinion about anything.  (This one is really scary for me.  I love epic failure.  It’s the mundane disappointing performance that freaks me out.)
  7. To appear foolish.
  8. To learn.
  9. To value growth over other people’s esteem.

Ahh…what a wonderfully freeing exercise!  Thank you internet for your cathartic caress.

But for me utility of this exercise is not just augmenting a present emotional state.  I’ve observed that time and time again what has helped me get over myself, whether it be negative feedback (having a manuscript rejected by 50 publishers) or positive feedback (being the highest-rated speaker at a conference),  is not to ignore feedback or stop caring what other people think–that’s mental illness–but to refocus on the work itself.  Declaring my rights as an idiot helps me do that.  Declaring my rights as an idiot gets me back to content.  Fortunately my work is  damn fascinating.  Usually all it takes is a reminder.

Some people use alarm clocks.  I use my wife.  After five years of marriage, Alicia continues to amaze me, not only because she lovingly kicks my ass with verbal reminders (my masters thesis was languishing before she stepped in), but is herself an example of growth mindset everyday.  While we were in Peurto Rico, I took her boogey-boarding for the first time.  Now, she would be the first to admit that she is not terribly athletic.  True to form, at first she was horrible, really quite impressively bad.  Then she got better.  Then she got good.  And boogey-boarding became a meaningful daily laugh-fest for us.  On the final day, she wore me out, and as the sun set I watched her ride waves and reflected on how lucky I was to have her.  She knows her rights as an idiot, I realized, and those same rights protecting her can protect me (and you) too.

Alicia is the tiny silhouette on the right.

Alicia with her boogey-board is the tiny silhouette on the right.

All are free to be life-loving fools.


Stutterers Revenge Part VII: Jer Strikes Back on Live Radio

Last week I joined Nick Hernandez on his radio show Community Matters on KZUM 89.3FM for a 20 minute conversation.  I’m sharing the link to his podcasts and I should be at or near the top of the page.  Nick likes to interview people doing interesting research and chat about how their strengths integrate into their work.  He also likes community development issues, so it was a pretty neat to get to know him.  We chatted for  a while afterwards, which made me feel extra special : )

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Nick’s show is all about positive psychology, character strengths, and community building.

Also, I continue to find it hilarious that I’m doing media appearances with a stutter.  I wonder if I’ll ever get over that.  I think I’m going to start naming my media appearances as sequels in a “Stutterers Revenge” series.  (Cue evil laughter.)


The Clifton SexPlex

These days I am writing grant proposals, applying to grad schools, and reading about the history of psychology.  But I thought I would take a little break from universal assessments to add a new installment to the “Old Jer Ideas” series.

Individuals are products of their environments.  Overstatement?  Yes.  Interesting?  Not really.  We’ve heard it before.  What’s more interesting to me is how communities, and especially the nuclear family, are products of the environment too.  One factor that plays a huge role in forming our community is also often overlooked: the physical buildings  we live in.  For example, Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania thinks that French people get more exercise via walking because getting the car out involves opening manual parking garage gates.  Walking is just easier.  The physical environment encourages healthy behavior across time.

This is the main insight of Dan Beuttner, founder of Blue Zones.  He’s travelled to the happiest and longest-living communities on the planet and written books about it.  It turns out happy communities don’t read self-help books or go to the gym.  Rather, their lives are designed (often accidentally) in such a way that incentivizes routines that includes exercise, community-building, and other healthy habits.  I got to work a bit with Dan and Blue Zones last year.  They have packaged a series of customizable changes (hundreds of options) that communities can use to encourage healthy behaviors and are using them to change the world one community at a time.  Currently they are working  with the governor of Iowa to make simple changes to communities across the state. Two environmental change examples: 1) instead of encouraging people to exercise, town governments can connect all sidewalks, which is tied to X more time spent outside and X more calories burnt a year, 2) instead of encouraging people to “eat less you idiot and you’ll stop being fat,” individual families can replace their 12-inch dinner plates with 10-inch plates, which results in X less pounds of fat gained each year.  In this way, they identify heaps of super easy changes to the environment which produces effects that aggregate across a lifetime.  

This, it turns out, is the same principle my colleagues and I used to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.  You can’t tell slumlords to be better people, but if you make the street a sensible investment, they will often want to fix up their properties on their own.  

So, can we apply this same principle of changing the human environment to the buildings in which we live?  I think so.  I think we could design living arrangements highly conducive to holistic human flourishing.  And I have.  It’s called the Clifton SexPlex!  (Note: it’s not an empirically verified positive intervention and could be hazardous for your health.)

First, its great because it has “sex” in the title.  Second, its great because I thought of this idea and told all my friends about it before I knew anything about positive psychology and the science of human well-being and they gave it this awesome name.  Third, its great because of what it is:  a small apartment building for six families intentionally designed to strike a balance between the commune and the individualist’s free-standing castle.  Several friends have already claimed spots (I’m talking about you, Dan & Grace Black).

Context: I grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  Everyday, on the way to school, I biked past rice patties.

paddy-field1

At the center of these rice patties were often traditional Chinese compounds.  As generations grew up, farmers would add buildings around a common square until three or four generations lived not quite in the same house but not separately either.

Compounds started out looking like this.

Compounds started out looking like this.

Right next to the compound I passed each day was their family graveyard (connection to community across time) and a sacred Banyan tree (connection to community across dimensions) (that, sadly, I couldn’t show Alicia when we visited Taiwan last summer.  The compound had been knocked down and all the rice patties cleared for construction : (  On the plus side: I got some real night market food!)

Jer getting some seriously awesome sweet Taiwanese sausage at a night market in Taichung, July 2013.

Jer getting some seriously awesome sweet Taiwanese sausage at a night market in Taichung, July 2013.

These family compounds are a typical Chinese model (this guy calls it the “chinese unit”).  Often walled, they were useful in defending your family against petty banditry and wild animals.  Below is a typical layout.

chinese courtyardIndeed, even in major cities.  This arrangement, living groups of 20 or so in substantial family compounds, was the norm.

urban fabricAfter finishing college in 2007, having lived in apartment buildings, dorms, row homes, and townhouses, I became a community organizer in inner-city Buffalo and discovered the monolithically individualistic architecture of America that permeates suburban and urban space.

!!!!!!-citylife-SuburbsBy day, I was becoming an expert in catalyzing revitalization in struggling inner-city neighborhoods.  By night, I donned an intellectual cape and form-fitting spandex in order to effectively think about what sort of community I wanted to live in.  I wanted more.

The problem, as I see it, was that I was afflicted with affection for other humanoids.  I liked them.  I wanted to be with them.  But I was now a young adult doing two very mature grown-up things: 1) I was too busy and never had time for friends even if they lived just blocks away and 2)  all social interaction happened in the context of planned events that went on your calendar in advance and involved an enticing (often fattening) activity that you very well might not be in the mood for.  What happened to “hanging out,” to non-planned interactions that had the potential to be uninteresting or food-less?  They’re gone.  Now we pull on cardigans, go to non-routine special times, stay on our best behavior, drink a bit so that we don’t feel how weird it all is, and chat with nominal strangers.  The prevalence of social anxiety in modern America makes sense to me when every “community-building” activity is a stage for showmanship.  And thus we lose out on the deep desire of our hearts: the most basic awareness that a dozen or so good people know you deeply, desperately want to keep knowing you, and want you in their group.  In real community, the show has to stop sometime.  That’s kinda the whole point.  

More troubling, I was shocked at the remarkable and seemingly preventable dysfunction that pervaded my friends’ nuclear families.  Sociologists tell us that small groups are always inherently unstable (I could cite this but I’m lazy).  They have fewer connections, so when one goes bad (for example, your brother pisses you off for getting you in trouble), you have more people to mediate reconciliation.  But beyond mere group size, the modern American family lends itself to dysfunction because they often have 1) no access to the inner-working of how other model families live and 2) no feedback from outsiders bout how they treat family members and each other.

All of us fall into dysfunctional patterns without realizing it.   We need feedback.  Loving effectively depends on it.  Indeed, perhaps the most important benefit of two-parent households is the check on executive power.  One parent, who obviously really knows the situation well, can say to the other, “Honey, in all honesty, are you sure how you are treating junior is constitutional (or in keeping with our desire to avoid smothering our child)?”  To put it in another crude way, families need outside consulting.  Once, when Alicia and I had a little tiff in public, a friend told me that it was triggered by me inadvertently signaling disrespect.  This single piece of feedback helps our relationship enormously everyday when it consistently engenders in me humility whenever Alicia responds emotionally to what, I thought, was  “clearly” an unemotional question.

So, adrift without feedback for decades on end, small American families form little dysfunctional worlds.  Kids often don’t realize the extent of this dysfunction until they go to college, start their own families, or get married and gain perspective on their own family dynamics via the foil of discovering the family patterns of their in-laws.  Then they start their own family in near total ignorance having known the inner-dynamics of approximately two insular families.  This seems an entirely stupid way to design a flourishing society.  (Fortunately I am overstating all over the place.)

And besides curbing dysfunction and encouraging non-planned social time, I want inter-generational friendships.  I want adult mentors for my kids that are neither educators or family members, and a host of other benefits that come with village-like life.

So I want intentional community, but not the way weirdos do it.  I want to build the modern urban version of the traditional Chinese farm compound.

  • It would consist of a two-story building around an enclosed central courtyard containing a playground.
  • On the outside would be a large yard with many raised beds, a compost pile, fruit trees, and a chicken tractor.
  • The east, west, and north, wing would be divided up into six or seven apartments of various sizes (that could be fairly easily rearranged).  It would likely include one 4-bedroom apartment, two 3-bedrooms, two 2-bedrooms, one 1-bedroom, and a studio for guests.
  • With two exceptions, each apartment would be its own individualistic/western style apartment with a full kitchen and large dinning area.  1) It would have no living/entertaining space.  The idea is that this would encourage people out, to the courtyard and common spaces.  2) It would have no private entrance.
  • To get to your apartment, everyone would walk through the front door in the south wing into one big room complete with wood stove, a few small comfortable spaces, and one massive dining table.  
  • Passing through this room one would get to the kitchen, with easy access to the courtyard so that parents could cook while watching kids.  I imagine community life including families taking turns hosting dinner once every two weeks (meaning there would be 3 communal meals a week for 20-30 people plus guests).
  • Above the big dinning room and kitchen would be four rooms, a small prayer room, a small fitness  room, a substantial library with fire place, and a theater for movies, community performances, and presentations.
  • While the building would be owned by one of the families and the others would rent, the community would have a democratic governing structure likely more typical of the neighborhood association than the Quaker meeting.
  • I imagine that families would help raise each others kids (we would take turns babysitting 1 day of the week perhaps).  Those who love gardening would garden.  Others cook.  Others would pay more.  All would contribute.
  • Beyond that, everyone would make a living outside the community and would otherwise live normal lives.  Without trying too hard, I think this environment would foster healthy, intimate community and inter-generational relationships.

Don’t get me wrong.  Community is messy.  People piss each other off.  The SexPlex would have plenty of drama and conflict.  My solution?  I have none.  Getting along is a crucible for growth.  I need to be more humble anyway.  I need to learn to share anyway.  I need to mature.  I need to get better at loving my family.  And I need to relentlessly pursue engagement and cooperation as an example to my kids.

Obviously, most of these ideas are not new, but perhaps my specific take on it is.  The Clifton SexPlex could have something to offer the world besides the unfortunately rapey name.  Now I just need to build it.  Which is where you can help!  Please make your checks payable to…or rather just keep an eye out.  We may be moving to Philly next year.

  1. Anyone know of any buildings for sale near Penn that could be turned into something like the SexPlex?  In DC, it has not been an option because of housing prices.
  2. Has anyone done something like this before or can connect me to people who have?
  3. Most importantly, does anyone know an architecture student interested in positive psychology, positive sociology, or community building interested in translating the Chinese traditional compound into the fabric of the modern American city?  Perhaps cities of the future, wishing to build on the findings (most not yet found) of positive psychology, will be designed using community-encouraging architecture.  Perhaps we just need a brilliant first design and some successful prototype communities.

(Apologies!  The world keeps encouraging my crazy big dreaming and scheming.  I blame Jesus and Bob Easton.)


The First Philosophy Debate Ever

In previous work, I traced the history of the concept of universal assessments (overall judgements of the world) in German philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.  But this week while listening to the lecture series “The Story of Psychology” by Todd Daniel, I realized that UAs go back way WAY further than I thought.

But I am skeptical of me.

Since studying UAs, I’ve started seeing them everywhere.  I’m currently reading through all of my childhood Calvin & Hobbes books and finding tons.  For example, here’s a strip from It’s a Magical World (the title itself a UA) the last image of which is the cover of another of Watterson’s books:

treasure

As I go through life talking to people, watching movies, and reading books, I find myself constantly writing down UAs and a new universal assessment is growing in me faster than bamboo.  It says “there’s UAs (subset of treasure) everywhere.”  But the mark of a mediocre theorist is that they form the UA that there theory explains everything all the time.

So I’m skeptical.  I might be seeing things.  But I think I’ve made an important connection: the first debate in philosophy was over universal assessments.

In most survey history books, western philosophy begins in Athens, where Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, Aristotle tutored a young Alexander of Macedon, Alex conquered the known world becoming “Great,” and Greek culture spread and dominated. The focus of these early thinkers was on how one should live.  But, outside philosophy students, many do not realize that this focus on people and society was a somewhat new topic in philosophy and represented a transition away from a prior discussion among an eclectic group now called the Pre-socratics.

These guys are overlooked for good reasons.  We know very little about them, they left behind scant literature — fragments really, and, instead of being part of a single story based in the important city of Athens, they lived in far-flung parts of the greek-speaking world.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all that we don’t talk alot about the Pre-socratics is because their major topic of conversation, and most of the conclusions they draw, strike us as silly/irrelevant.  But their not.  This week I have been thinking about the possibility that philosophy was birthed out of a desire to use reason to form UAs.

“What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos.”  — Donald Palmer in Looking at Philosophy, 2001, p. 11

Really?  The first inkling of philosophy as we know it was about characterizing existence as a whole?  To investigate, I created the following short summary of all the major Pre-socratics and all their big ideas.  These are not just their UA-related ideas.  Rather, all their big ideas seem to be UAs.  Its nuts!

Step back: the reason I thought of UAs in the first place is that I observed humans may at times treat existence as one big fat object and our relationship to that object could be both causally independent and connected to our relationship with individual objects within the universe.  It turns out that when we emerged from the cave of pre-history, we sought first to understand the wide world as one object, and only later to turn our attention to individual objects within it (after UAs, I believe the other three components of worldview are the self, others, and nature) when our initial project failed.

Locating UAs even bigger font.001

If you really want to understand how UAs fit in with other big concepts, here is Figure 1 (from my thesis) entitled “Locating Universal Assessments.”  The diagram categorizes belief types in order to visualize where UAs fit. Schemas are the largest subset; they consist of beliefs regarding any number of objects and object types, some of which can be composite. For example, a schema regarding New York City apartments might incorporate specific schemas about component parts, such as New York City bedrooms and balconies. Because the world is an exceptionally large composite object, worldview is a schema with a large number of sub-schemas regarding component parts, the four most important of which are assumed to be the self, other people, the natural world, and existence as a whole (UAs). Also, please note that because worldviews are comprehensive, no complete examples can be provided. Nonetheless, religions, historical narratives, and moral philosophies are examples of traditions or voices that can at times effectively describe much of a worldview or its major components.

Thales of Miletus, the first ever western philosopher (about 580 BC), lived on the coast of what today is Turkey.  He argued that the universe is characterized by change.  However, there is also an underlying unity, which he conjectured might be water because it is the element that is most conducive to change.  He writes, “the first principle and basic nature of all things is water” (Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 1966, p. 44).  For Thales, water is literally the underlying element of everything, but it is the foundation of everything because of its more abstract qualities — because, like all things, water changes and yet remains the same.   This conceptual blending of material and its associated poetic qualities is common among the Pre-socratics.  Thus their pursuit of UAs had a quasi-scientific feel to them.

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus

Anaximander of Miletus, a student of Thales, thought that there was something bigger and better than water underlying the four elements which he called “the boundless.”  It was unlimited, unspecific, and sought balance.  Creation itself was an imbalance that would eventually “correct” itself in the destruction of all things.  In my original thesis, I  identified “the world is declining/improving” as one of 13 UAs likely conducive to the ‘good life’ (explored non-academically in the recent post “Once upon a time there was a universe…“).  Anaximander put forth a story of  existence: everything is doomed to devolve back to “the boundless.”

Anaximenes (545 BC) and others thought “the boundless” was a useless concept — to abstact– and instead put forth air as the element underlying all things.  Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes constitute the major thinkers of the Milesian school and sought simple understandings that made sense of the universe’s complexity (Palmer, 2001).  In so doing they established a UA most of us believe to this day: the simpler answer is probably more reflective of the true nature of existence (Ockham’s Razor).   Sadly, when Persia conquered Miletus in 494 BC the Milesian school ended.

Pythagoras (572-500 BC) of Samos (island in the Aegean) thought that, instead of a physical substance, all things are numerical in nature and the universe functions according to laws and principles that is ultimately understandable and expressible through mathematics.  For example, he is attributed to have discovered the pythagorean theorem which we all learned in middle school when finding the lenghts of the sides of triangles:

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Who would have thought that the relationships between sides of triangles were so mathematically exact?  The discovery of this theorm is likely an early example of how a specific UA led to a positive outcome, in this case advances in geometry.  (Throughout history, if the reflections of the great scientists themselves are to be believed, the belief in universal orderliness and comprehensibility seems to aid, and even drive, scientific advancement.)

Pythagoras also thought that the universe was saturated by music so loud we cannot hear it.  It was produced by the movement (the idea was that all movement produced sound) of the biggest things he knew about: the 10 planets.  Usually, humans can only hear everyday sounds of individual objects.  However, sometimes we can transcend the particular and hear the universe’s vast harmonious song — the music of the spheres.  His views implies several UAs such as “the world is beautiful” and, in the case of his emphasis on mathematics, “the world is comprehensible.”  Both of these UAs I identified in my thesis as key for the development of the ‘good life.’  Another might be, “the world is interconnected.”  Pythagoras and the Dalai Lama would have gotten along I think.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (470 BC) thought fire was the basis of all things.  But his understanding was more figurative.  He thought everything was characterized by unceasing change, flux, creation, and destruction.  He writes, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (Wheelwright, p. 70) and “you cannot step into the same river twice” (Ring, p. 70).  The only thing that does not change is that everything changes.  The river is different the moment you step out of it.  However, this change is governed by logos, a logic, that makes the universe less than chaotic.  In this, Heraclitus’ views can be captured in several different UAs, two of which were part of my original 13: the world is malleable/unchangeable and the world is comprehensible/incomprehensible.  Another might be “the world is bad.”  Heraclitus often bemoaned how the state of the world is constantly becoming foreign.  In other words, one can never come home.  All is unfamiliar.

Heraclitus was often called the "Dark One" because his thoughts were depressing.  Cough...his UAs may lead to certain life outcomes.  : )

Heraclitus was often called the “Dark One” because his thoughts were depressing. COUGH (UAs may lead to certain life outcomes).

Parmenides (515-440 BC) was the anti-Herclitus.  He said that change is completely illusory.  In fact, “you cannot step into the same river once” because you can’t do anything at all.    Only truths and concepts exist.  They are uncreated, indestructible, eternal, and indivisible — one big Being.  There is no such thing as nothing.  There is only being.  This is similar to Aristotle’s idea, “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Zeno of Elea (490 BCE) agreed with Parmenides and came up with a series of paradoxes (Zeno’s Paradoxes) to show that change was illusory.  The universe, it turns out, is fixed (a UA) and cannot be truly comprehended via the senses but through the mind (another UA that I would call a universal policy assessment which concerns how the universe should be best dealt with).

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Achilles and a tortoise are racing.  Achilles, being the great warrior, gives the tortoise a head start. But, to catch up, Achilles must get to where the toroise used to be, at which point the tortoise will have moved on.  But he can only ever get to where the tortoise used to be.  Thus, Achilles can never catch up. The fact that we see fast runners overtaking slower runners just means that the senses can’t be trusted.

Zeno and Parmenides convinced many and people started to question the UA assumption that all philosophers had held.  Is the universe not reducible to one thing?  If it was reducible, change seemed likely to be illusory.  So they gave it up, monism faded, and they started composing theories that assumed the universe was composed of multiple things.

Empedocles of Acragas (440 BC…and keep in mind that all these dates are quasi bullshit) was the first pluralist.  He thought that all four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were irreducible and two forces (love and strife) moved them around.  In fact, from these UAs emerged an idea of evolution over 2,200 years before Darwin: strife and love produced all kinds of crazy creatures and mutations with three arms, four eyes, etc., “and those that could survive, did survive” (Palmer, 2001).  Empedocles put forth the UA that as a result of the cosmic war between love and strife much in the universe was left to chance.  Aristotle would later reject this notion, saying that the universe was not so characterized by randomness.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC), another pluralist, said that the world is not in some mythic struggle.  Instead, like Pythagoras, he asserted that everything is ordered according to mind and rational law (I’ve stopped noting UAs cause I feel like they all are).  These laws govern the behavior of “infinite seeds” that can be ordered in different ways to create different things.  Mind can also inhabit some of these seed constructions, which is the case with the human body.

Leucippus and Democritus (460-370 BC) were known as the atomists and they built on Anaxagoras’ idea of ‘infinite seeds.’  They said that these seeds, called “atomons,” cannot be split.  Each was a little piece of Parmedian Being (indivisible, indestructible, eternals, etc.) and the motions of these little atomons determined reality.  The universe, they thought, was fixed and deterministic.  There was no space for free will.

At this point, the pre-socratics had worn down tradition and created, on balance, confusion and uncertainty about the true reality of the universe.  In this void stepped the Sophists, who embraced the confusion, used reason to argue their points, and hired out their intellectual abilities to aid whoever could pay (they were often lawyers actually).  I’ll mention five Sophists.  First, Protagoras (490-422 BC), perhaps the most famous sophist, argued that man is the measure of all things.  Human customs, traditions, and even closely held beliefs such as UAs, were subject to expediency.  The universe should be interpreted according to the needs of humans, and that there is no ‘truth’ out there to understand except what is helpful for people.  You might say his UA is “whatever works.”  Second, Gorgias (483-375 BC) wanted to replace philosophy with rhetoric.  He argued for three truths:

  1. There is nothing.
  2. If there were anything, no one could know it.
  3. If anyone did know it, no would could communicate it.

He “proved” these points not to convince people of their truthfulness, but to convince people that searching for truth is a stupid enterprise.  If these idiotic statements can be proven, anything can.  Third, Thrasymachus argued that “justice is always in the interest of the stronger” or might makes right.  Fourth, Callicles claimed that traditional morality was the masses’ way of constraining the strong.  Therefore, the strong should throw off their shackles.  Finally, Critias, a famous tyrant, argued that fear of nonexistent gods should be used to control the masses.  (Its incredible how these ideas mirror Nietzsche’s Will to Power, nihilism, and the road to postmodernity.)  The result of the UA discussion of the pre-socratics was subjectivism, skepticism, and nihilism.  There was also a turn from the nature of the universe, which seemed out of reach, towards more immediate human concerns.  At least that might be graspable.

In this dark philosophical climate steps Socrates, who started talking constructively about what it meant to be a good person, have a good life, and live in a good society.  He talked about understanding the self (the unexamined life is not worth living) and others (Plato’s Republic).

As he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Even as he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Aristotle would also start the process of cataloguing and understanding other objects in the universe–not the forest but at least the trees.  These objects (the self, others, and nature) were tackled, it seems, only after philosophers had failed in courting their first love: understanding existence as a whole.  Of the four components of worldview, they wanted UAs first, and spent over 200 years in nearly exclusively UA-focused debate.

Of course, UAs continued to be debated.  Plato would argue that endurable and perfect ideas are the true reality and the world is a copy of it (his theory of forms, allegory of the cave, etc.) and Aristotle would argue that the world is as diverse as it appears.  And these UAs mattered: they led to different practical approaches in understanding the world (different policies towards existence are universal policy assessments).  Plato advocated for more thinking and Aristotle wanted more observation (major oversimplification of course).

But, at least for the next few hundred years, UAs became less and less important as a topic, though I can’t say much more at present.  I am now in a process, a side project, of rediscovering the history of philosophy via this UA lens and finding it fascinating.  I had no idea that understanding nature of the universe as a whole was our first philosophical pursuit and that we only moved on when we failed to find satisfying answers to the UA question.

I’ll end with this: should we ask their question again?  Unlike the sophists,  I do not believe that the universe must remain an utter mystery.  If anything I’m quite pumped to try to understand the true nature of the universe again.  Though we don’t know much, we certainly know more than we did 2,500 years ago.  (Perhaps that is how Descartes felt about his modern project.)

However, for the next few years, I’ve decided to be just Aristotle with a dash of sophism.  I want to observe and understand what UAs we hold and how they affect our lives.   This does not mean that I have given up on the truth of the matter.  Rather, thoroughly rigorous empirical research is Act I.

Act II: The Return to the Pre-socratics – what is the true nature of the universe?  Give me a decade or so and I’ll get to it.


Why People Like Me

I was listening to a lecture on love by Yale President Peter Solovey and he mentioned a psychological effect that explains why people like me.

Some of us wandering this world struggle with chronic amazingness.  Indeed, it is onerous.  Being good at everything annoys people.  Empirical stuff says so!  It’s objectively unlikeable.

Yet people do like me!  How can this be?  Shouldn’t the awesome oozing from my pores be driving them away?  The answer, it turns out, has nothing to do with seriously-mega-rock-solid assumptions, but with something called the “Pratfall Effect.”  Apparently, psychologists have observed that, for highly competent people, it helps to have major visible screw-ups that you can take responsibility for that shows you are just human.  Scientists see it over and over.  Not having it all together allows people to love you.

I suspect lots of people already know about the Pratfall Effect.  Maybe it’s another of those things that never quite made it to Taiwan growing up.  When I heard about it today I instantly realized something.  For years I’ve been saying that my stuttering has a strange effect on people.  Its not such a bad stutter that it substantially frustrates communication, but its just bad enough to let people know that I am struggling and don’t have it all together.  I guess its endearing to say smart things while looking like an idiot.

So now I broadcast wise counsel across the blogosphere to all those who, like me, struggle with chronic amazingness.  Acquire a speech impediment.  Despite occasionally confusing phone conversations, there is nothing finer for lubricating any social occasion.  Some people go with the lazy eye, a few try the periodic facial spasm, still others psychotic nervous laughter.  Don’t be fooled!  Stuttering gets the girls (which so happens to be the title of a collection of short stories that I am trying to publish which you should help me publish by becoming a publisher immediately or if you are one already writing me and telling me “hey we would love to publish your stories”) and stuttering may get boys as well (I am less informed in this particular area).

Stuttering is the wave of the future for overly awesome people everywhere and you are in luck.  For a limited time only, I am offering certified stuttering lessons.  Contact me before all slots are taken!  My talent in this area is legendary and your happiness is only a few elongated syllables away.

 
The Pratfall Effect while talking with Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends.  Risking your life to rescue strangers is just piss-poor career planning if you don’t have a stutter to go along with it.