Why Philosophy?

Philosophy is a subject that keeps drawing me in. The trouble is that I, like some others, find it hard. And inevitably after getting deep into the weeds, it’s all too easy to start questioning whether it’s the most productive thing I could be reading (or even just doing) with my day.

The attraction of the subject for me comes from a couple of (related) angles: first, that all-too-human desire to understand what the point of it all is, coupled with the constant search for a possible major upgrade of your own operating system as a human being.

I finished listening to ‘Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction’ by Edward Craig today on a run. In the conclusion, he set out a more expansive explanation of why many feel driven to explore philosophy:

“In the hope of learning to control nature, or of learning to control themselves, to get to heaven, to avoid going to hell; to enable us to bear life as it is, to make life bearable by changing it; to shore up institutions political, moral, or intellectual, or to tear them down; to promote the writer’s interests, to promote other people’s interests (yes, that happens too), even to promote everybody’s interests; because they can’t stand certain other philosophers; because their job demands it. Perhaps just occasionally out of pure curiosity.”

My philosophical bookshelf expands with every passing year. And although it grows at a rate that rapidly outpaces my actual rate of consumption, I’ve heard a number of people recount a very similar story after reading one set of ideas in particular, those of David Hume, the hugely influential Scottish philosopher who lived not too far from where I write this blog post this evening.

You may not find simple answers in such books. But they do contain ideas so powerful that they have the power to shake the foundations upon which you build your life.

So the best time to read such texts may be in your mid- to late teens. That gives such ideas the longest possible time to inform and influence your thinking as you journey through life. But of course, perhaps such things weren’t at the top of your list of most fascinating pursuits in those heady teenage years. In which case, the second best time? Right now.

Hard Work Means Different Things

I love this cartoon so much. It says so many different things at the same time.

About how invisible the real work that lies behind ‘genius’ usually is. About how different the views can be when held by two humans with ostensibly the same goals. About why it’s so important to love the path you travel – because you need to have that passion to keep driving forwards when others have packed up for the day.

And even more simply: why hard work pays off.

World Book Day 2019

As anyone who noticed a steady stream of kids making their way into school today dressed as Potters and Gruffalos, today was World Book Day once again. I’m all in favour of anything that gets people reading more so, feeling guilty that I still haven’t got round to posting my ‘Best Books Read in 2018’ post (I’m only just over two months late, so not too bad by my standards), I thought I’d jump in with a few thoughts on Twitter.

Click on the Tweet below and you’ll be able to see the full thread of suggestions (sorry, for some reason WordPress embeds and Twitter threads still don’t play nicely together):-

But of course, it’s also very much a day for learning about new books. And without doubt, the favourite one I came across today is the lesser-known classic: ‘Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality‘.

That’s  right. Fan fiction that uses the world of Harry Potter to illustrate the scientific method and rational thinking.

Beat that for a World Book Day 2019 recommendation!

Optimism and The Base Rate Fallacy

Some people get a reputation for optimism. Others are labelled as pessimists. And it’s often confused me because I’ve had both seemingly contradictory criticisms directed at me.

Whether the vast body of research into the subject agrees with me or not, it seems that the specific label that you apply to another can only be subjective. Whether you view someone as optimistic or pessimistic depends on a huge range of factors. What specific area of their life are you commenting on? Are you comparing their attitude to a cohort who are living similar lives – or are you simply comparing them to you?

And are the two entirely unrelated in any event? Just think of the advice: “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. Or read any biography of a successful repeat entrepreneur: the story’s usually pretty clear, a tale of someone who takes chances, sometimes huge, but at the same time works consistently on minimising any downside risk. Or the best investment advice: think of a Buffett/Munger warning against anything that doing anything that could potentially totally wipe you out.

When it comes to the question of why people provide me with different assessments of my character, I often wonder how much my legal training plays a role. I might not have been the best lawyer in the world (to say the least) – but I did spend close to two decades (combining law school, training and practice) being paid to think of the risks. Whether that was a good use of my time is another post altogether…

All of which leads me to a tangental point: how often are pessimists simply people who hold more information? It’s nothing to do with intelligence. Or even conscientiousness. It’s just a question of ‘being realistic’.

Daniel Kahneman speaks of something called the ‘Base Rate Fallacy‘ in his amazing book ‘Thinking Fast, and Slow’. It’s another of those inbuilt, unconscious biases that we all, to a greater or lesser extent, fall prey to. There’s a great post on Albert Wenger’s Continuations blog that explains the issue:-

“The classic example… is guessing which job someone has based on a description of their characteristics: “Steven wears glasses and has a meek demeanour. Is Steven more likely to be a librarian or a truck driver?”

“Our story telling brain wants to jump to the conclusion that Steven seems to fit our stereotype of a librarian much more than that of a truck driver. But in the US there are 3.5 million truck drivers and only 170 thousand librarians. So the base rate is that Steven is 20x as likely to be a truck driver than a librarian! It is therefore quite unlikely that the information about glasses and his demeanour is enough to suggest that Steven is actually more likely to be a librarian.”

The fallacy is responsible for launching thousands of misleading – or just plain wrong – news headlines every year.

Could it be the case that sometimes the so-called optimist is simply blundering ahead blindly with wildly incorrect assumptions (i.e. believing Steven is a librarian)? Whereas the so-called pessimist has a stronger understanding of the reality (i.e. how many lorry drivers there actually are)? That would certainly seem to tie in with evidence shown repeatedly by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the vast majority of people simply don’t understand the way that statistics work.

So provided it doesn’t prevent you from taking action in the first place, perhaps a healthy dose of pessimism is actually just what the doctor ordered after all.

Excuses

A quote I’m pondering today:

““Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses” — George Washington Carver

Often excuses start out as well-intentioned statements of fact – ‘most people doing X end up experiencing Y’. But the problem is that you are very rarely ‘most people’.

No one else has your experiences or talents. No one else has walked in your shoes. And if you’re motivated to do something (think: gun to the head), given a the right timescale, it’s hard to prevent someone achieving a result.

Everybody has a choice: you either get good at excuses – or you get good at getting things done.

It’s one or the other. Not both.

Different Crypto Camps

I think this tweet sums up the current state of Crypto very well.

As is common in the early days of any significant development in society or culture, a shiny new trend can represent many things to new people. Sometimes that shimmer comes from a lack of substance. Composed of hype, the excitement rapidly fades after you start to scratch properly beneath the surface.

But then, far less often, we discover a rich new technology seam that promises huge things. And it turns out that the potential can be backed up in practice (albeit often in ways that often weren’t envisaged at the outset).

To me, crypto is almost the archetypal example of such a paradigm shift. A new technology, that means so many different things to so many people. Confusingly, many of them use the same words to talk about different concepts; most of them have different goals that they’re striving towards; and, with monetary value built into the foundations of the system, people are often incentivised to disparage alternative views. Cue plenty of conflicting discussions, Twitter polemic and basic misunderstandings. But the forwards trend is now, I believe, undeniable.

I enjoyed this article by @caseykcaruso which points out the different camps that are evolving with the scene we loving call ‘Crypto’ (incorrectly, in most cases). You can argue with the definitions of the camps, and even about which projects make up each one – but overall, it’s a great starting point for someone who wonders what all the fuss is about!

1. The Sound Money Camp
Achieving financial self-sovereignty for the people of the world (e.g. Bitcoin)

2. The Payments Camp
Destroying those expensive middlemen like Visa who charge for services that could be provided digitally with micropayments and stable coins (e.g. Bitcoin Cash, Stellar, ZuckBucks)

3. The Open Finance Camp
Building open, accessible financial infrastructure that can compete directly with the traditional financial institutions (e.g. ICO fundraising – good and worse)

4. The Web3 Camp
Decentralising the institutions who control the internet and user’s data (e.g. SAFE Network, IPFS etc).

5. The Decentralised Ledger Tech Camp
Using the functions of transparency and immutability from blockchain tech in order to improve supply chains and backend efficiency in general – a technological, rather than philosophical, revolution (e.g. Corda, Hyperledger).

So, to sum it up: the distinctions are important because behind each one stands a broad church of people, many of whom have different motivations. So if you ever wonder why the scene seems to be moving so quickly (in terms of discussion, even if not in actual practical application), it’s worth remembering that you’re probably reading things by all manner of different people. And most of them are disagreeing.

And, what’s more, that’s a good thing.

Saturday Snippet

Another reason why reading daily is so important from an interview with Head Ted Honcho Chris Anderson. It’s not a direct quote but hey, I’m writing it that way because that’s how I remember it:

“A lot of ideas can only be developed over a long period of time. So failing consistently to take the time to read consistently means you’ll never get there – because for some concepts, it takes far longer to physically (neurologically) rewire your brain. “

The Power of Unlearning & Confirmation Bias

When we think about learning, it’s mostly as an additive process. And, it can be argued that’s correct at times. You’re building a collection of new pieces of knowledge, perhaps about different areas in life. And, for the most part, once you’ve got that bug, it feels good doing it.

Yet there’s another type of learning that is far more uncomfortable. But it’s far more powerful. It’s called unlearning. It’s where you actively replace displace your existing knowledge with more accurate information. That could be thanks to a very basic correction – where you somehow picked up the wrong details in the first place. For example, you thought that 2+2 was 5. The moment you realised your error, the new, accurate knowledge entirely replaces your original beliefs.

But then there’s also a second type of unlearning. Here, you uncover far more detail around a subject than you ever knew existed. The context changes and so  your understanding evolves alongside this. So perhaps it’s not the case that all people who do X get Y – it depends on their location, history, biology – whatever.

This concept of unlearning is important to understand because as humans we all suffer from a number of biases. One of these in particular is the Confirmation Bias. The Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith described it well in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:-

“The opinion which we entertain of our own character depends entirely on our judgments concerning our past conduct. It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavourable.”

Confirmation Bias makes it harder for us to unlearn what we previously believed because we each have an inherent desire to be seen as consistent. Generally, we believe that people who change their minds are displaying a weakness of character. So if someone presents you with information that totally contradicts your existing knowledge or worldview, it often feels like an attack – and we are likely to respond negatively. Just take a look at the echo chamber of social media or, increasingly, academia to see this in action on a daily basis. We fight hard to repel any evidence that shows we’ve been wrong in the past as a result of our constant desire to present a robust, consistent image to the outside world.

Of course, it’s one thing when such biases affect individuals who are making personal decisions. But the reality is that this behaviour absolutely translates (and I believe arguably is made far worse) when you have a group of individuals in aggregate all making decisions together – for example, in an institution. That’s then exacerbated by other factors, such as groupthink.

For me, political parties are the epitomy of such failures of learning.

So, lessons to take away? Seek knowledge that contradicts your own. Become more self-aware and practice leaving your biases at the door. And most importantly, don’t ever be afraid to change your mind. So you told the world you were going to be a multimillionaire entrepreneur by the age of 25? When six months later you wake up hating the lifestyle, and leave to join a circus – don’t feel guilty when people call you a flake. Maybe you’re putting smiles on people’s faces. And maybe you’ve just unlearned the most important lesson in life – how to move closer to what you actually want.

 

The Underground (Map) Is Not The Territory

If you’ve ever been on the Tube in London, you’ll have used the Tube Map. Initially, it might seem pretty confusing. Then, after you’ve been using it for a while, you realise one day that you don’t actually need to use it too often. But what you might not have realised during that initial period of learning is that it’s actually a deceptively simple representation that takes a number of liberties with the geography.

As this post explains, the Tube was borne out of a number of independent railways that merged into a single system. But at the point that the first map of the full Underground was published (in1908), it quickly became clear that there was an issue. Due to a confusing mix of geography and spread – with many of the most important central stations all squashed together in an illegible mess in the centre off the map in order to show the full system on one page – the map was pretty much useless.

1932

That changed when Fred Stingemore decided to take a more creative approach to the image in 1926. He made a significant change by removing the strict correlation between geography and detail. No longer did the lines correspond to the natural landmarks on the streets above. But, all of sudden, details could be explored that were simply missing before    

One of the most fascinating outcomes here wasn’t purely for the user experience. The post notes that the revised imagery also arguably had a social function as it displayed stations from the outskirts as being close to the centre, helping to build closer community ties between both.

And then came along Harry Beck who pushed things even further in 1931 by publishing the tube map that we all know today. His innovation? “Straightening the lines, experimenting with diagonals and evening out the distance between stations”.

2016

Whilst the Tube Map today has gone through a few iterations, the significant shift had already occurred. And an interesting example of precisely how accuracy is sometimes precisely the opposite to what you need. There’s a saying that I might have mentioned before: “The Map is Not the Territory”. The point here is that a map is by definition a simplification: if it contained the same detail as reality then that piece of paper would be exactly the same size as the land it purports to cover.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that maps aren’t useful. It’s just important to understand that they’re flawed. To use the words of George Box:

“All models are wrong but some are useful”

Something you might remember the next time you’re zooming around under the city of London, avoiding everybody’s gaze whilst firmly wedged between a rucksack and another commuter’s eye-watering B.O….