Notes on The Last Psychiatrist

I love few things more than a great blog. My latest find: The Last Psychiatrist, an archived blog, mostly about narcissism.

I was so excited to learn his insights… I made notes.

What follows are his finest insights about narcissism and my comments.

Imagine a crowded subway, and a beautiful woman gets on. Hyper-beautiful, the kind of woman who can wear no makeup, a parka, earmuffs and a bulky scarf and that somehow makes her look even prettier. A handsome man about her age in an expensive suit gets up and says, “please, take my seat.” She smiles, and hastily sits down.

TLP (The Last Psychiatrist), as the author refers to himself, gives us two options as to how the woman should think about this:

  1. This was a sexually motivated act as far as the man was concerned
  2. He was just being nice

If you think of narcissism as grandiosity you miss the nuances, e.g. in her case the problem is narcissism without any grandiosity:

she is so consumed with her identity (as not pretty) that she is not able to read, to empathise with, other people’s feelings. Source

In another post, TLP explains why narcissism isn’t necessarily about grandiosity. This is a blatantly obvious point that escapes most people, unfortunately.

Being the main character of your own film isn’t necessarily grandiose. It is narcissistic though because all the other characters are only important because they help the viewer to understand the main story line.

Here are some less obvious traits of narcissism TLP outlined:

Shame over guilt (I think this is because shame is an emotion directed at the self, whereas guilt is an emotion directed at your victim)

envy over greed (greed would be a primary reason to look for something, whereas envy is only a desire to catch up because otherwise otherwise it’s a bad reflection on you. I liked how this was called “existential agency” here.)

He [the narcissist] thinks the problem is people don’t like him, or not enough, so he exerts massive energy into the creation and maintenance of an identity: if they think of me as X… (and that’s one of the reasons why we love brands)

The narcissist feels unhappy because he thinks his life isn’t as it should be, or things are going wrong;  but all of those feelings find origin in frustration, a specific frustration: the inability to love the other person.

And this really brings it back to the original myth that TLP broke down beautifully here:

Narcissus mother took him to a clairvoyant who said, “He’ll have a long life as long as he never knows himself.

Narcissus kept rejecting people who fell in love with him because they weren’t good enough.

One rejected lover was furious and begged Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, for retribution.  “If Narcissus ever falls in love, don’t let the love be returned!”

Nemesis  heard the prayer and caused Narcissus to fall in love with himself: he was lead to a  pool of water, and when he looked into it, he fell in love with what he saw.  And what he saw wasn’t real, so of course it couldn’t love him back.  But Narcissus sat patiently, forever, hoping that one day that beautiful person in the bottom of the pool was going to come out and love him.

Because he never loved anyone, he fell in love with himself. That was Narcissus’s punishment.

This brings up an interesting point: how are you meant to feel about yourself?

Let’s first look at what we want. What we pay for. A huge portion of marketing directly helps us to be in love with ourselves, because we’re worth it. They’re not even trying to hide that the feeling of being in love with yourself is what they’re selling. And it’s not punishment as we see it – otherwise we wouldn’t buy it. I suppose it’s a psychic equivalent of putting a person on heroin. You mightn’t feel it’s a punishment, but it is.

Then there are the more subtle “intellectual” publications that help you love yourself (see the distinction from being in love with yourself? Cause that would be shallow.) I wonder how many pages were dedicated to helping people see Narcissus’ infatuation as Buddhist acceptance or some other high and mighty concept.

There isn’t really anywhere that would tell you that you’re meant to not love yourself.

What happened to Narcissus doesn’t really sound so horrible in today’s culture. Maybe he wouldn’t have even retaken a selfie if he lived today and been happy with the first shot? That level of self-acceptance is just enviable! He’s winning at life by millennial standards!… Indeed, TPL calls narcissism “a generational pathology”.

TLP goes on to discuss Narcissus’ parents’ role, which I thought was priceless:

He will have a long life, if he never knows himself.

Forget about whether the prophecy is true.  Ask instead, “what would the parents have done once they heard it?”…

Next time I feel insignificant and weak, maybe I need to hold on to that feeling, because my culture will obviously infuse me with my own grandiosity without me ever trying.

TLP has another explanation for why Narcissus stayed looking at the primordial selfie lake though.

He didn’t stay there for years because the reflection had pretty hair.  He stayed because daydreaming takes a lot of time.

In other words, Narcissus didn’t recognise himself and spent all that time conjuring up images of how wonderful life would be with that person in the reflection…

And the DSM says exactly that, only it adds a grandiose twist: “preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love”.

I am confused now.

Narcissus fell in love with himself, only he didn’t know if was himself.

So, as far as Narcissus was concerned, he was genuinely in love with another human being – only they were unreachable. Their personality was entirely a figment of his imagination…

Wait, that’s not Narcissus, that’s Gatsby! (Who also dies in a body of water, fair dues to FitzGerald).

Narcissus’ crime wasn’t being in love with himself at all. Phew, it’s ok to let L’Oreal and #positivethinking to get money and likes.

Narcissus’ crime was not knowing himself.

Actually, no, again.

TLP puts it better:

The moral of the story of Narcissus, told as a warning for the very people who refuse to hear it as such, is that how Narcissus came to be is irrelevant.  What was important was what he did, and what he did – was nothing.

And that’s his main crime: he never cared about anyone real. To me that’s all one ever needs to know to understand narcissism.

TLPs advice on how to not be a narcissist is to fake it. I think what TLP’s getting at is that your behaviour is much more important than your identity.

Another reason to be less demanding

“I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

I came across the idea that our self-esteem is equal to our opinion of others.

Sounds esoteric, but I reflected on it and there may be something to it.

Assumption:

A mentally well person accepts that she is an ordinary human being and that most people who surround her are ordinary human beings.

Hence,

a) if she is highly critical of most ordinary human beings, on an average day she is critical of herself

b) if she is accepting of others’ faults,on an average day she accepts her own faults

Doesn’t this add up?

I sort of talked about this when I hypothesised that people criticise others for the things they hate about themselves. Reading over it, it seems naive and slightly needy, but I still think there was a grain of truth in it.

“Yet another reason to not be a demanding pig”, I gently remind myself.

Can we have both equality and diversity?

About the infamous Google Memo… Here is a review of reactions to the controversial piece.

Facts:

  • A Google engineer, James Damore, wrote a memo entitled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber. [Read original]
  • It went viral via internal communication means within Google.
  • He got fired because of it.
  • (A less relevant, but curious fact: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, offered him a job and accused Google of censorship.)

Here are some interesting articles from both sides:

The Economist (sits on the fence)

“This isn’t a question of legality or policy. This is a question of virtue-signalling” [Read]

Bloomberg (argues it was wrong for Google to foreclose the debate so crudely)

“An employee trying to grapple with these problems — clumsily but earnestly — has now been shown the door, thanks mostly to performative online outrage.” [Read]

The Financial Times (denounces the author)

“Responding to the memo is somewhat challenging because it is almost pure drivel, offering up a mix of fallacies, mindless reductions of popular social science and hand-waving at ‘research.'” [Read]

The Atlantic (addressing the error-full coverage of the matter)

“To object to a means of achieving x is not to be anti-x.” [Read]

The Atlantic, again (agrees memo is discriminatory)

“The memo… seemed to dash hopes that much progress has been made in unraveling the systemic conditions that produce and perpetuate inequity in the technology industry. “[Read]

Slate (is pretty enraged)

“The manifesto suggests a culture that is inviting enough for someone who views some of his fellow employees as lesser to share his opinions and be cheered on” [Read]

Business Insider (highlights authors vulnerable legal position in the context of free speech)

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents the government from restricting your speech. It doesn’t restrict your employer from controlling your speech when you are at work, citing a Google manager: “freedom of speech is the right to freely express an opinion. It is most assuredly not the right to express an opinion with freedom from the consequences.”

Quillette (has four psychologists sustain points made my memo author)

“Psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.” [Read]

Right-wing Twitter is rallying to support the author of the memo:

Google memo right wing twitter commentary

A Linked influencer, Adam Grant (argues that differences between men and women are exaggerated)

“Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” A recent addition to that list is leadership, where men feel more confident but women are rated as more competent.” [Read]

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (refutes Grant’s points)

“Suppose I wanted to convince you that men and women had physically identical bodies. I run studies on things like number of arms, number of kidneys, size of the pancreas, caliber of the aorta, whether the brain is in the head or the chest, et cetera. 90% of these come back identical – in fact, the only ones that don’t are a few outliers like “breast size” or “number of penises”. I conclude that men and women are mostly physically similar. I can even make a statistic like “men and women are physically the same in 78% of traits”.”

Something that occurred to me that I haven’t seen anywhere – and this neither disproves not confirms the memo author’s argument, but it’s something that I feel is important.

Assuming that average men and average women are different in their precise cognitive and emotional strengths, this bears very little significance when it comes to outliers. For its tech roles Google hires from the very top, i.e. from the extreme “end” of the right tail. Outlier men and outlier women don’t behave the same way as average men and women. In fact, outliers are virtually impossible to study with the same confidence that we study average people.

Very curious what you think.

And let’s keep the mood light 🙂

UPD: somebody invited me to Google image “white man and white woman” and “European people history”. What Google shows is below.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.28Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 12.58.46

One more point of information: Duck Duck Go search results are virtually the same. Make of it what you will.

UPD 2: Jordan Peterson, who himself was nearly kicked out of Google’s YouTube recently, interviews James Damore [Video]

Why Christ was a carpenter

The wonderful Pink Agendist recently introduced Jordan Peterson by quoting this:

“Haven’t heard of Jordan Peterson?

Take one part Carl Jung, one part Solzhenitsyn, one part Kermit the Frog, and one part St. Augustine. Put all this in a conceptual blender”.

While I don’t particularly like any of those ingredients, just like a Negroni, Peterson turned out to be more than the sum of his parts and just fabulous in small quantities.

He is quite right-wing compared to what I am used to. He explains the plight of young women and why they don’t “move up the corporate ladder” extremely well here. He made an interesting point: that status is more important for men compared to women because it’s the main criterion on which women judge men. This almost certainly applies in many animal societies where the winner takes all, but I am not so sure it applies with us. I think that when it comes to forming serious relationships, men require a woman to have a CV comparable to theirs, a family background comparable to theirs, etc. A man’s infatuation is unlikely to override these more prosaic factors. Herein probably also lies the real answer to “why he lost interest”: his interest was in a woman’s superficial qualities and burnt out pretty quickly as it should, while her underlying “status” wasn’t attractive enough to sustain more long-term interest. It’s less psychopathic than it sounds as it is simply based on common interests.

His advice for hyper-intellectual people is refreshing. He explains how you can be utterly unwise and even useless with an IQ of 160. It’s good for the ubereducated millenial to listen to this in a world where intelligence is pretty glorified. Peterson’s ideas are very reminiscent of Taleb’s “intellectual yet idiot”, “skin in the game” stuff.

Peterson takes a literary critic type approach to the Bible. He says that Jesus Christ was a carpenter because there is a certain honesty in a carpenter’s work: it falls down if it isn’t made well, so there is less BS-vending and more doing. Furthermore, Jesus has moral superiority without having a Ph.D. and a New York Times best-seller, so the lesson is that you don’t have to be “intelligent” to be effective.

His book, Maps of Meaning, seems to be of interest. Here is the PDF available free via his website (nice touch). Any reviews? To me, he sounds like a dilettante, albeit with a professor title. I suppose if you are popularising stuff, it’s hard to sound any different.

Some of Peterson’s videos though reek of the usual quasi-scientific verging on self-helpy aspects of psychology (one of his books is called 12 Rules for Life. Hmm.) Some of his political views seems to be sensationalist. He’s even been featured on Oprah, but still, interesting presence.

I found his list of recommended books pretty good though:

1. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

2. 1984 – George Orwell

3. Road To Wigan Pier – George Orwell

4. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

5. Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky

6. Beyond Good And Evil – Friedrich Nietzsche

7. Ordinary Men – Christopher Browning

8. The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosinski

9. The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang

10. Gulag Archipelago (Vol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3) – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

11. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

12. Modern Man in Search of A Soul – Carl Jung

13. Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief – Jordan B. Peterson

14. A History of Religious Ideas (Vol. 1Vol. 2Vol. 3) – Mircea Eliade

15. Affective Neuroscience – Jaak Panksepp

Randomness as seen by Nassim Taleb

“Probability is not about the odds, but about the belief in the existence of an alternative outcome, cause, or motive”

Disappointed by Ayn Rand’s overfitting of consequences onto causes, I moved on to the book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time: Fooled by Randomness by N.N. Taleb.

What is Fooled by Randomness about?

Taleb is pretty clear on that:

“This book is about luck disguised and perceived as non-luck (that is, skills) and, more generally, randomness disguised and perceived as non-randomness (that is, determinism)”

This has to be one of my favourite paragraphs in modern non-fiction:

“It [determinism] manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason.”

Rand would argue that that’s intellect and taking responsibility. Instagram tells you it’s positive thinking. Richard Branson would tell you that it’s looking after your people and taking risk – though I’ve never had the “pleasure” of properly familiarising myself with his wisdom. Ryan Holiday would argue that it is one’s ego that gets in the way.

Life is more random than we care to admit

“... Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm”. Bookstores are full of biographies of successful men and women presenting their specific explanation on how they made it big in life (we have an expression, “the right time and the right place” to weaken whatever conclusion can be inferred from them).”

“Symbolism is the child of our inability and unwillingness to accept randomness; we give meaning to all manner of shapes; we detect human figures in inkblots.”

I find this very funny as I am the author of “Cliff notes” on Ireland’s secondary school poetry course. I enjoy looking for patterns where there are possibly none. My job as a doctor is right about the same: fit symptom A with symptom B and develop a list of differentials. While endless creativity is helpful with the Cliff notes, the situation with diagnoses is quite different. Taleb would argue that the conclusions I come to are more of a reflection on me than the material I am reflecting on.

“European intellectual life developed what seems to be an irreversible taste for symbolism – we are still paying its price, with psychoanalysis and other fads.”

Taleb table of confusion fooled by randomness

If there is one cause for this confusion between the left and the right sides of our table, it is our inability to think critically – we may enjoy presenting conjectures as truth.

“We are flawed beyond repair – at least for this environment.”

But it is only bad news for those utopians who believe in an idealised human kind.

He describes utopians (Rousseau, Godwin, Payne) as people who believe that knowing what is good for us will lead to that choice. So for example, telling people that obesity leads to health risks would lead people to lose weight according to this group.

On the other hand, he regards the likes of Popper, Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Tversky and Kahneman, Soros, etc as people who see the world as it is and subscribe to scientific fallibilism.

Taleb advocates going around emotion rather than rationalising them:

“Ridding ourselves of our humanity is not in the works; we need tricks, not some grandiose moralizing help”

Taleb on happiness

Taleb calls upon Plutarch’s Lives:

“The observation of the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire a man’s happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity”

The modern equivalent has been no less eloquently voiced by the baseball coach Yogi Berra, who seems to have translated Solon’s outburst from the pure Attic Greek into no less pure Brooklyn English with “it ain’t over until it’s over”, or, in a less dignified manner, with “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings”.

fooled by randomness taleb key points
Now entering Wicklow

Taleb, not unlike Rand, believes in thinking hard, but reminds us to not take our own conclusions too seriously:

“Trading forces someone to think hard; those who merely work hard generally lose their focus and intellectual energy. In addition, they end up drowning in randomness. Work ethics draws people to focus on noise rather than the signal.”

I was very comforted to read the following on clarity vs correctness from Taleb. He spends this entire book fighting against the temptation to oversimplify and overexplain”

“Beware the confusion between correctness and intelligibility. Part of conventional wisdom favours things that can be explained rather instantly and “in a nutshell” – in many circles it is considered law. Having attended a French elementary school, a lycee primaire, I was trained to rehash the popular adage: Ce qui se congoit bien s’enonce clairement Et les mots pour le dire viennent aisement (What is easy to conceive is clear to express/Words to say it would come effortlessly)… Borrowed wisdom can be vicious. I need to make a huge effort not to be swayed by well-sounding remarks. I remind myself of Einstein’s remark that common sense is nothing but a collection of misconceptions acquired by age 18. Furthermore: what sounds intelligent in a conversation or a meeting, or, particularly in the media, is suspicious.”

He gives many examples of things that were genuinely new and good, but rejected when they originally were presented. This supports the whole “makes sense instantly” notion:

“Any reading of the history of science would show that almost all the smart things that have been proven by science appeared like lunacies at the time they were first discovered.”

Having worked with startups, I’ve always been told that one should be able to explain what your company does in one sentence. I just want to remark that this is for the “benefit” of investors alone.

Not everything is worth trying to explain

“I have a trick to know if something real in the world is taking place… The trick is to look only at the large percentage changes. Unless something moves by more than its usual daily percentage change, the event is deemed to be noise. Percentage moves are the size of the headlines. In addition, the interpretation is not linear; a 2% move is not twice as significant an event as 1%, it is rather like four times. The headline of the Dow moving by 1.3 points on my screen today has less than one millionth of the significance of the serious 7% drop of October 1997… We cannot instinctively understand the nonlinear aspect of probability.”

Confidence intervals are more important than the estimate

This point is related to the importance of variance as well as averages:

“Professionals forget the following reality. It is not the estimate or the forecast that matters so much as the degree of confidence with the opinion. Consider that you are going on a trip one fall morning and need to formulate an idea about the weather conditions prior to packing your luggage. If you expect the temperature to be 60 degrees, plus or minus 10 degrees (say in Arizona), then you would take no snow clothes and no portable electric fan. Now what if you were going to Chicago, where you are told that the weather, while being 60 degrees, will nevertheless vary by about 30 degrees? You would have to pack winter and summer clothes. Here the expectation of the temperature carries little importance concerning the choice of clothing; it is the variance that matters. Your decision to pack is markedly different now that you are told that the variability would be around 30 degrees. Now let us push the point further; what if you were going to a planet where the expectation is also going to be around 60 degrees, but plus or minus 500 degrees? What would you pack?”

taleb tricks to deal with being fooled by randomness
Just one track!

Consistency as path dependence

Taleb argues against the compulsion to keep our opinions the same and expect the same of others. From a logical stand points he is completely right. From a psychological one – we suffer greatly when we have to deviate from consistency and we simply don’t trust people who change their opinions. He gives the example of G. Soros, a man her described as “complicated”. He attributes at least some of Soros’ success to this ability to not be married to his views:

“They are totally free from their past actions. Every day is a clean slate.”

Taleb goes on to explain that we have evolved this for obvious reasons:

“Think about the consequences of being a good trader outside of the market activity, and deciding every morning at 8 a.m. whether to keep the spouse or if it is not better to part with him or her for a better emotional investment elsewhere.”

Stoicism as seen by Nassim Taleb

“It is the attempt by man to get even with probability.”

I think that’s a very curious interpretation! A slightly escapist one, but interesting all the same.

“The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behaviour.”

We probably cannot overcome our biases

The epiphany I had in my career in randomness came when I understood that I was not intelligent enough, nor strong enough, to even try to fight my emotions. Besides, I believe that I need my emotions to formulate my ideas and get the energy to execute them.

The good news is that there are tricks.

Avoid eye contact to avoid an emotional response

Psychopathy central, I know. But sometimes, it’s better to prevent motional contagion, for example, in a road rage situation:

One such trick is to avoid eye contact (through the rear-view mirror) with other persons in such encounters as traffic situations.

Don’t listen to people who aren’t definitely worth listening to

Taleb argues that it is best to not engage in reading comments and reviews from people who don’t have a lot of credibility as their comments are more about them then they are about the work supposedly being reviewed. My personal experience certainly agrees with this. This is one of the most important lessons of the book. It’s also a very good thing to remember when asking advice (or, God forbid, getting unsolicited advice). This point subtly arises from the confidence interval point mentioned above.

Manage your exposure to things that have a strong emotional impact on you

Yet I have experienced leaps of joy over results that I knew were mere noise, and bouts of unhappiness over results that did not carry the slightest degree of statistical significance. I cannot help it, but I am emotional and derive most of my energy from my emotions. So the solution does not reside in taming my heart. Since my heart does not seem to agree with my brain, I need to take serious action to avoid making irrational trading decisions, namely, by denying myself access to my performance report unless it hits a predetermined threshold. 

This certainly resonates with me. As I mentioned, I have an online venture. Whenever a sale happens, I get an email about it. In the early days, I used to get so excited when someone made a purchase – it was great! Then I found that if I opened my emails, but the inbox did not contain any such notifications, I would feel a bit disappointed. Furthermore, if a sale was made, I didn’t feel compelled to work quite as hard! If it wasn’t – I was there thinking outside the box of what I could do better. I quickly learnt to only check that email account once a day.

One of the most irritating conversations I’ve had is with people who lecture me on how I should behave. Most of us know pretty much how we should behave. It is the execution that is the problem, not the absence of knowledge.

And the bit that is lacking from most awareness campaigns.

I am tired of the moralising slow-thinkers who pound me with platitudes like I should floss daily, eat my regular apple and visit the gym outside of the new-year resolution… We need tricks to get us there but before that we need to accept the fact that we are mere animals in need of lower forms of tricks, not lectures.

I am not sure I agree. I am quite allergic to these tricks because quite often just like the lecturing, they do not work. However, unlike the lectures, they are held to a lower standard of evidence.

We are not designed for schedules

Our ancestors didn’t work to deadlines. In the second edition of the book, Taleb goes on about how we are designed for randomness: we are more like firemen meditating between calls. Optimising everything may be a very poor decision that will take away the very things that we are trying to achieve – as far as the big picture is concerned.

We favour the visible, tangible and narrated – and scorn the abstract. Maybe I should turn to writing fiction?

nassim nicholas taleb randomness tips to avoid biases
Just a pink house with a gladiolus. How random…

“There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think”

Shortly after I finished my medical degree, I pursued a master’s degree in finance. The 2008 market crash was pretty terrible for Ireland – and I was curious to find out get out of the medical bubble and learn about the world. After 5 years of medicine, everyone who wasn’t a doctor seemed well-rounded, but one of the most well-rounded wonderful friends I made during that masters suggested that I read Principles by Ray Dalio back in the day.

Dalio is the founder of (probably) the most successful hedge fund. Unlike all those 10-steps-to-success type books by various billionaires, Principles lacks the motivational element and has lots of cold rational logic. I found it to be a fascinating read.

You will find lots of free pdf copies of Principles online. The paid (expanded) version is a recent development. The book was in open access for years. The fact that it’s free is one of the things that made it different to books written by the likes of Richard Branson. I wonder what Dalio is up to with the paid version. The capitalist in him must be rebelling against giving out free stuff, I guess…

More recently, Dalio mentioned that reading Ayn Rand would be key to understanding the mindset of Trump era economics and politics. I poked around a few articles about Rand and was surprised to find that her philosophy was rejected by critics and academics. I’d never heard of these words in the same sentence. What does it mean to reject a philosophy? Turning to a family member beside me with this naive question, I received a less than naive answer: it is a situation where a philosophy isn’t politically expedient. Oh dear.

Nevertheless, her thoughts reminded me of Nietzsche. I don’t think he spoke about economics very much, but if he had, I am sure he would have said exactly what Rand had to say.

So I started with Atlas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand philosophy reviewed Atlas Shrugged

Is Atlas Shrugged a pleasant read?

Just like Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged a philosophical book dressed up as a novel. For the more analytical among us, it’s definitely a stimulating read. The characters are a little flat and improbable, but that’s just the nature of these type of works. A few cringy sex scenes. A touch of naive feminism.

Rand writes in impossibly long sentences and can seem excessively intellectual-for-the-sake-of-being-intellectual. Over 1,000 pages of that can get tiring.

Is Atlas Shrugged a worthwhile read?

The book addresses some issues we face today in the West in a way that nobody would ever dare in this day and age. We can barely take a breath without getting a licence, insurance and paying tax on it. We’re not actually free to speak our mind out here, even though we pride ourselves on it. There has been a lot of violence in US universities against right wing groups citing social justice as a legitimate justification.

In such a world, Rand’s writing is a breath of fresh air – but not for long. The discerning reader soon realises that Rand painted an impossible utopia, just like the communists she so hates, and that she is simply wrong in many of her sweeping statements.

What’s Atlas Shrugged about?

It’s about a (slightly) dystopian United States with a touch of sci fi. Prepare for a lot of talk about railways, oil, steel and trains. A government nationalises the major corporations in a fever of extorting socialism. You can hazard a guess where she got her inspiration.

Who is Ayn Rand?

She was an atheist woman of Russian Jewish bourgeoisie origins. As a 20 year old, she left the USSR and settled in the US. Interestingly, she became an atheist before it was cool strongly recommended by the Soviets. Her father was a businessman. He was stripped of his fortune during the Revolution of 1917. Legend has it that the first book she purchased in the US was Thus spoke Zarathustra. 

Incidentally, it is thought that she is an INTJ, so our ENTP crowd are likely to like her style.

Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand objectivism philosophy explained

What did Ayn Rand believe?

1. Rand believed that religion and socialism are evil

Rand isn’t just against religion, she believes that socialists are basically Religion 2.0.

Both [religion and socialism] demand the surrender of your mind, one to their revelations, the other to their reflexes. No matter how loudly they posture in the roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter—the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit—the destruction of his mind.

Neither religion nor socialism welcome questioning:

The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question… Both kinds demand that you invalidate your own consciousness and surrender yourself into their power.

2. Rand rejected true world theories

Although Rand herself said “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle”, this is more or less straight out of Nietzsche:

[Religion and socialism] claim that they perceive a mode of being superior to your existence on this earth. The mystics of spirit call it ‘another dimension,’ which consists of denying dimensions. The mystics of muscle call it ‘the future,’ which consists of denying the present.


3. Rand thought that reality and perception are completely separate

Shakespeare said that nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Rand begs to differ:

They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated.

A savage is a being who has not grasped that A is A and that reality is real. 

The fact that we can perceive things that aren’t what they initially seem doesn’t take away from the separation of reality and perception:

The day when he grasps that the reflection he sees in a mirror is not a delusion, that it is real, but it is not himself, that the mirage he sees in a desert is not a delusion, that the air and the light rays that cause it are real, but it is not a city, it is a city’s reflection—the day when he grasps that he is not a passive recipient of the sensations of any given moment, that his senses do not provide him with automatic knowledge in separate snatches independent of context, but only with the material of knowledge, which his mind must learn to integrate—the day when he grasps that his senses cannot deceive him, that physical objects cannot act without causes, that his organs of perception are physical and have no volition, no power to invent or to distort, that the evidence they give him is an absolute, but his mind must learn to understand it, his mind must discover the nature, the causes, the full context of his sensory material, his mind must identify things that he perceives—that is the day of his birth as a thinker and scientist. (Note that this is all one sentence!)

4. Rand postulated that a contradiction is the marker of a mistake

A touch of Aristotle:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

Emotion that isn’t congruent with thought indicated an unresolved conflict:

An emotion that clashes with your reason, an emotion that you cannot explain or control, is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.

5. Rand believed that refusing to think is a crime

Much as I disagree with Rand on many points, I do agree with this:

There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. 

To varying extents, we are all guilty of this – and our parents are, of making us trust authority over our own judgement:

A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of dependence that he renounced his rational faculty.

If you’ve given up on thinking, emotion is all that’s left:

From then on, afraid to think, he is left at the mercy of unidentified feelings. His feelings become his only guide, his only remnant of personal identity, he clings to them with ferocious possessiveness—and whatever thinking he does is devoted to the struggle of hiding from himself that the nature of his feelings is terror.

It’s not possible to be rational while only being rational about certain things:

Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.

Resorting to mysticism means an inability to convince:

Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator… A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement.

If anyone wonders what it would be like to be Antichrist, just post the below on Instagram:

To a savage, the world is a place of unintelligible miracles where anything is possible to inanimate matter and nothing is possible to him.

6. Religion is a racket according to Rand

I went to an uber-Catholic school at one point. I recall my teacher telling me with great conviction that Jesus died for us. This thing we hear all the time is actually quite a confusing statement, so I asked why he had to die for us. The teacher proceeded to explain the concept of the original sin – and all I was thinking of, sure what have I to do with that? If forgiveness is more or less the ultimate virtue in Christianity, how come God is still holding Adam and Eve’s mischief against us? Rand seems to be of the same opinion:

The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin. A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral.

Here is her summary of how religion rose to power:

For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket—by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners.

7. Universal basic income has no place in a Randian world

Rand is pointing out the Ponzi scheme in UBI:

They proclaim that every man born is entitled to exist without labor and, the laws of reality to the contrary notwithstanding, is entitled to receive his ‘minimum sustenance’—his food, his clothes, his shelter—with no effort on his part, as his due and his birthright. To receive it—from whom? Blank-out.

8. Decisions: make them or die, says Rand

Rand advocates extreme responsibility. It one of the main virtues to her. A person who doesn’t take responsibility doesn’t deserve to live:

Calmly and impersonally, she [the main character], who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.

9. Trade is the ultimate human relationship

There is a lot of worshipping of the dollar in the book. Rand says that trade is great because it is consensual and it creates value for both parties:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss—the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery—that you must offer them values, not wounds—that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods.

Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. 

But what about love, I hear you ask? Her views on love are all about self-interest. Ultimately, love is a deal people make.

The Randian Ubermensch:

  • unconditionally loves life
  • has infinite belief in himself
  • is driven by intellect and self-interest
  • doesn’t wallow in weakness
  • takes responsibility for absolutely everything that happens to him
  • does not sacrifice and takes the oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.”

ayn rand objectivism is wrong

Holes in Rand’s philosophy

1. Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance

Rand says:

As there can be no causeless wealth, so there can be no causeless love or any sort of causeless emotion. 

There are all of these things in real life. Not for good reason, but they do exists. This is the main reason her philosophy isn’t useful: Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance.

Very often people who succeed overdefine their successes (and failures). It’s almost like survivor’s guilt: “I made it because I tried. If you haven’t made it, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.” We all know that that’s not how things are in reality. In the long term, yes, Fortune favours the bold – or so I tell myself.

Most of the main characters appear to have inherited their fortune. John Galt, the real hero of the story, the inventor of the marvellous engine, didn’t. He wouldn’t have risen to the top by inventing an engine in real life. His invention would have been coopted by the owner of the huge corporation he worked for. He would probably get a gift voucher at the Christmas party. Where is the guy who invented the internet now? “It wasn’t one person.” True. But it wasn’t one person who made computers, smartphones, Facebook or whatever – yet we can put a name to these things because someone managed to make it into their own business.

Ayn Rand opposes that horrible Soviet-like “Equalisation of Opportunity” act in her novel, but this is why her philosophy has done little to address the downsides of socialism: she doesn’t address their main concern – that chance plays a large part in one’s life.

2. Rand looks for patterns where there aren’t any

A closely related point is that Rand believes that everything can be made into science.

The links you strive to drown are causal connections. The enemy you seek to defeat is the law of causality: it permits you no miracles.

Causality is a very ambitious concept to manoeuvre with. During my study of statistics I understood that causality is all smoke and mirrors. All we have are some intuitive concepts of what causes what. There is no real way to prove causality.

Looking for patterns in randomness has always been a hobby of the human race. Rain is caused by the generous sacrifices to the goddess of agriculture in the previous years. Investment returns are caused by prior results. A successful career follows from great interview performance. No. They aren’t. Some things are just random. Rand didn’t understand that.

3. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control

…it cannot be done to you without your consent. If you permit it to be done, you deserve it.

Here is more of Rand’s blame-the-victim philosophy. In certain contexts, the above is true, but it’s not quite as black and white as Rand makes out. What if your parents are addicted to drugs and you are addicted now too. Did you deserve it? Were you wrong to trust the people who gave you life and basically were your life for a long time?

This is how people get to be neurotic in the modern world: beating themselves up for not being able to control things… that they cannot possibly control. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control.

4. Rand confuses useful assumptions and absolutes

‘We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge—’There are no absolutes,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute—’You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

Socrates got a beating there. To my mind, Rand is overambitious. A reasonable human being will operate on her assumptions, but they will not take them to be the only possibility.

5. Rand forgets the darker side of trade

To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will.

What about selling heroin, Ayn?

And, Ayn, if you don’t hire me to be your security guard, I will break your windows.

It’s not just the Church that blackmails people.

6. Rand believes we live in a meritocracy of irreplaceable minds

In Atlas Shrugged, the brightest, most industrious people escape into a hidden world one by one as their creations get nationalised. This leads to a failed state; everything comes to a stand-still. Would this happen in reality?

This assumes that we live in a meritocracy. I believe in the power of genetics more than most people, but not everyone who inherits their parent’s empire is going to be as good as them. Rand acknowledges this fact in her character Jim Taggart, but seems to imply that the best will still rise to the top.

I don’t think that the world would be quite so helpless without its aristocracy. Every significant change of power in history has led to the destruction of the previous regime’s nobility. They just kept going anyway though: new nobility found its feet pretty quickly. When Atlas gets tired, he just adjusts his grip.

7. Rand states that happiness is the purpose of life

What a nice and simple formula. Only it is as foggy as dividing by zero. What does it mean to be happy, Ayn?

ayn rand nietzsche philosophy

What is my verdict on Rand’s philosophy?

I do agree that reality exists without our consciousness (this is the central idea of objectivism).

I admire her love of life, reality, intellect and industrious creation of value.

I think she simplified the complex and destroyed her credibility.

Her work is more of an ideology with defined values than a philosophy that helps to understand the word.

 

Happiness research: everything useful we’ve managed to gather so far

“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?

Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.

Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.

No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.

I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.

Lottery winners aren’t happier right now

Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.

They had three types of people:

  • those who recently won a lottery
  • those who recently lost the ability to move their legs
  • those who haven’t had any major life events recently

The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.

The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.

Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.

It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:

“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”

We spoke about happiness being affected by expectations as well as reality. This research shows that the brain is quite adaptable in terms of expectations.

The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.

So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.

This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.

Long-term happiness is on a thermostat

There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.

The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.

The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.

Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.

So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.

Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.

how-do-i-feel-happier-in-life

Money is somewhat related to happiness still

So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.

According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.

Think about – and value – time

There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.

I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.

Experience nature

Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.

I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.

Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.

Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.

what-affects-how-happy-you-feel
My personal research shows that ice-cream causes happiness, even if you’re just after spending 40 minutes running in the rain

Body language

Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.

In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.

It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.

Good relationships

Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.

Gratitude

You’ve heard all about this before.

Exercise

I won’t bore you.

Oxytocin

Imagining being happy

I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.

The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.

Happiness begets happiness

Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.