There is no perfect policy; there is no solution that will once and for all solve a problem unproblematically. This is to say: no solution, however good, will not open up more problems. And oftentimes our circumstance is worse than that, for while moving from worse to better problems is a virtue and indeed one of the joys of life - a beginning of infinite progress - there can be occasions where purported solutions turn out to be anything other than genuine. Some (so-called!) "solutions" exacerbate our circumstance: they actively make things worse. We cannot know ahead of time how things might fail or succeed. All we can rely upon at any moment are our best explanations and those can always be improved.
It is for this reason, that in the area of politics, our system cannot be designed to install the optimal solution or the best solution or the solution that will once and for all solve our problem(s). The world simply does not bend to the hopes of some that once the best policies are enacted that finally then, there will be relief from needing to continue to strive for something ever better or, in many cases, to undo an attempt to improve things that turned out only to make things all the worse. But people can and do become ideologically wedded to particular policies even in the face of failure and so this is why we need a system for removing those failed policies and people in power so wedded to them.
This is why democracy is about not installing the ideal or best leader who will do the thing that solves the crisis because they can no more foresee the future than any of us. They are guessing their way to a better future - but they, like we, are fallible. Their policies and plans imperfect and the world changes around them anyways in ways they could not have foreseen with political culture such that “changing ones mind” when new evidence is found is a virtue and no vice. We should expect our politicians and their policies to fail just as we should expect our scientific theories to eventually fail. Politics, to a large degree, is still mired in a philosophy of being deeply committed to one’s beliefs and for this reason punishes those who might try to adapt and change when the circumstances do. This is unreasonable. It is irrational. The eventual failure of any solution is the normal state of things and so being wedded to any particular solution is a recipe for disaster. We must always be willing to adapt, change our minds and perhaps on a dime turn around and go completely in the other direction. Or simply change tac so our progress can be far more rapid.
Our political system is not for answering the question “Who should rule?” so the answer cannot be “the most erudite; the most qualified, the educated and the experts” - for they are just as fallible as the rest of us. Plato’s mistake was not necessarily in thinking that philosopher kings were preferable to rule by the demos (the citizens) because the demos was a mob. It may very well be that the demos is a mob and should not rule over other minorities. It may very well be that philosopher kings would be preferable to rule by a rabble. Or it may be the opposite. It does not matter in either case because what Plato imagined was not democracy. And democracy is the only rational system for governing a group of people. So what is democracy?
Democracy is not rule by the demos. That is not what it is. Democracy is a system for removing the rulers without violence when those rulers fail. Whether those rulers are “the mob” or “philosopher kings” does not matter. It does not matter if one of them claims to be “a man of the people” or “the smartest person on Earth” - they are part of a democratic system if they can be removed from office without the use of force. Votes are cast and they leave with the traditional peaceful transfer of power.
In any modern democracy, the mob does not rule anyway, though their representatives may. And once in power they might try to implement the policies of the mob. And those policies may succeed to solve the problems that caused them to run for election in the first place - in which case one presumes they will be re-elected. Or, of they fail, they will lose the election and be removed from office. And the self-designated “best and brightest” can try their hand at fixing things. And when they succeed or fail, the cycle continues.
But what no one can expect is an unproblematic state. Because even if the very best happens: even if your favoured candidate succeeds and your party wins an overwhelming majority and all of their policy platform enacted with very little delay - those solutions reveal new problems not able to be seen before. Obscured, as it were, by the detritus of problems right in front of your face and only once removed is your view now clear and you are able to see so much more. And besides, our universe is in flux and at any moment the unexpected and inherently unpredictable happens to undo all of your grand plans for finally setting up society in a way that is better. And the existing policies will fail to make things better - to solve the new problem at hand. And creativity will be needed, and thus new policies. And if the existing people in power lack new ideas then the purpose of democracy is to remove them. Guessing a new answer and checking it against reality. Iterating by error correcting. Because problems are inevitable. There is no way of installing the best candidate because "best" is always relative to a problem situation and different people have different problem situations.
Civilization could well be regarded as the state of removing the initiation of force - of violence - from a society. It may well begin with knowledge - take no one’s word for it. The removal of “authorities” when it comes to “what one should endorse as true”. We rightly recognise now that religious zealots beating children into submission until they can recite pages out of some holy book is the sign of an uncivilised society. Learning through violence does not work. We rightly recognise now that commissars and barons who would by decree divide up the labor of the peasant farmers by sending soldier backed tax collectors to take all of the grain and the cattle - is the sign of an uncivilised society that has no learned how free trade can benefit both the baron and the peasant. And democracy is where not the will of a tyrant is imposed once and for all upon the citizens not even the will of the people imposed once and for all upon the citizens. But rather leaders and policies are tried and tested and when they fail, just as in science, they are discarded as not actually solving the problem after all.
We are part of an ever improving civilisation. Our institutions are a recognition of the fact there can be no unproblematic state.
Our education system, ideally, does not use violence or coercion of any kind to inculturate and teach those who come new into it, the lessons those who went before us learned over millennia. Violence is anathema to learning.
Our methods of research - in science, technology, art, the humanities, academia and industry do not use violence to insist that their way is the best way. We try, we fail, we try again and improve. We know this enables the most rapid progress. Violence is anathema to discovery.
Our business and commerce is predicated on the assumption that providing a service is the way to provide value to the rest of society. No one is compelled to purchase your good or service. They can walk right out of the store or not renew the contract. Violence is anathema to trade.
Our democracy is predicated on the assumption that no one has all the answers and no policy can provide all the solutions. Any actual solution will reveal more problems and any ruler will, eventually, fail to offer up something as good as some alternative. So we have elections - the purpose of which is to remove peacefully, without force, bad policies and bad rulers. Violence is anathema to democracy.
Becoming civilised is the state of gradually eliminating violence wherever it still lurks in our society. It is the incremental removal of authorities who can make and enforce rules or the adherence to ideas at every level in every place, where possible, and where we know how in such a way as to not make things catastrophically worse. (For example: eliminating police tomorrow in any major city would fail to make things better - the exact opposite). People are fallible and will not always be reasonable (including most especially people we are yet to encounter) and so a civilised society must also have at its disposal the option to use force where necessary and so it will need individuals especially highly trained in its use because a civilised society will not be civilised for long if it outsources all expertise in violence to the uncivilised - especially to vast uncivilised mobs.
But, as a rule, civilisation is where peace reigns. Swords and guns exist but they are almost all of the time sheathed and holstered because the business of civilisation is to peacefully keep on trying to solve problems that have nothing to do with violence as rapidly as possible. Because problems are inevitable. Happily they are also soluble. As people that is our very purpose of life: to solve our problems today so that new and better and more fun problems can be solved tomorrow. Civilization is what allows us to continue to do that peacefully.
(Postscript: By the way so called “direct democracy” is not democracy either. It seeks to install, as a tyrant of a kind, the demos. Direct democracy is this idea that for any problem a particular set of policies are put forth (exactly by who and how, is another matter altogether) and then these are voted on by everyone. It has recently become popular with the advent of the internet and the real possibility of being ruled by some sort of technocratic voting system on…well anything people can think of presumably. But this is just to say: we can imagine a system where the majority can never be removed from power, by definition - because their votes on any given issue will always win the day and if you tend to disagree with their underlying philosophy the only thing for it is to leave that society or tolerate living subdued beneath it - for you cannot ever vote out those who rule over you and try out something different. Again: democracy, properly conceived, is the ability not to install any particular policy but to remove it. Minorities, outsiders and iconoclastic rebels need protection and representation too. A "direct democracy" is a direct path to their removal from a society and that would be the undoing of any such society because it is often those people who push genuine democracies forward.)
Some time ago I responded substantively to the content here: https://meaningness.com/ via a podcast-type bit of audio that can be found here:
What follows is a supplement to that motivated by some further tweets that came across my feed. Hence it seems to be worth emphasising the following if they were not clear from that audio:
“CR” is just an account of how knowledge is created. It is not an ontology. Realism is not a hugely substantive ontology either - it’s little more than the stance “reality exists” and CR says both “it’s knowable” (in the Popperian sense) and we can be wrong about it (which is “fallibilism” by another route and merely underscores what “in the Popperians sense” is getting at with knowledge and our relationship to it). a
Unlike with what is stated here https://meaningness.com/resolution and here https://meaningness.com/nebulosity and at the links one follows from those pages about “meaningness” and “nebulosity”, CR, fallibilism and realism are silent on *ontology* in a way “meaningless” and “nebulosity” are not.
The epistemology Popper and Deutsch among other - what we simply call “epistemology” (along with science & everything else) allow us to create knowledge about reality but are silent on what reality “really” is (which is to say “ontology”).
In other words what that reality is *ultimately* like (the ontology) is not knowable by fallible means - by any epistemological, philosophical, scientific or other methodology. And these (and related domains like mathematics, introspection and so on), broadly speaking, are all we have and the only means by which we imperfectly access reality - never directly - only through our knowledge - our interpretations of our theories which are themselves interpretations of that underlying reality which exists but in what form precisely we cannot say.
So it seems “ontology is nebulous” or meaning is, and so forth are far stronger claims than anything in CR, the work or Popper, Deutsch or other kinds of “vanilla realism” so to speak. Because we cannot utter perfect truth (which would require us speaking in perfect propositions - an impossibility) we cannot make claims about ultimate reality rather only claims about reality as it is known. So we stay silent on final reality aside from the rather prosaic claim that it - reality - exists and we can know it imperfectly.
Beyond that there are only faith claims and *no problem is solved* by conjecturing what final reality is like in any sense. So, instead, we just do science, mathematics and philosophy and create fallible explanations which are imperfect but somewhat accurate (they are not utterly false) accounts of what is out there and how it works. But whether reality is made up of “discrete” or “continuous” quantities, or only one of those, or some combination of those, a “third option” which is neither of those at all and entirely separate to them, whether is be something “nebulous” or something physical, abstract, physical and abstract or something stranger than all of these realism does not say. It - realism - merely says reality is knowable imperfectly. I raise all this only to highlight how far divorced from dogmatic claims, superstitious claims or faith claims this philosophy descended from Popper (and, say, Xenophanes) is. We only admit of what we know (in the Popperian sense as fallible conjectures) and remain silent on either statements or propositions about (ultimate) reality. Not because we know that reality is or is not nebulous or that it is in reality nebulous or not but rather because no such claim can be made. What we know instead is reality in terms (and via) of science, reason, philosophy, morality - explanations as a whole. What we understand at any given time are theories of reality - not reality itself. So we understand general relativity that describes a continuous spacetime and a (quantum) physics that in part describes discrete quantities and physical “stuff” as well as a continuous aspect of those things across the multiverse. So is reality nebulous or not? Again, that is not knowable anymore than “it is discrete” or “it is continuous”. Our theories now say of some things: they are continuous quantities and of other things: those are discrete. But is reality as a whole discrete or continuous? Both? Neither? Nebulous? Wait and see until we learn more? None of those as a stance (which “meaningless” seems to admit on one page: https://meaningness.com/stances-are-unstable only to make the substantive claim, and take the stance, “meaning is nebulous” https://meaningness.com/nebulosity-of-meaningness and reality is nebulous https://meaningness.com/countercultures. We are more modest in making no strong claims about “reality” in this way or what “meaning” or “knowledge” and so forth might represent in some “final” sense because all of these set the stage for answering the wrong question given how knowledge works and what we are as conscious explanation creators that only access reality only ever through interpretations indirectly - not “perceiving” the ontology directly.
But there is a sense in which none of these statements about “meaningless” or “nebosity” ever “land” so to speak as the philosophy does tend to hold itself immune from criticism by claiming logic does not apply to it as it would to other “stances” https://metarationality.com/formal-logic and can seem to say of itself - it is not a philosophy as such https://meaningness.com/complete-stance-appeal and the author claims not to be “doing philosophy” https://twitter.com/Meaningness/status/1258138059415019520?s=20&t=0ruRGIsW8vKtpYgt4ulMYQ
Which might all suggest that this is more akin to religion of a kind or as the author says “To help the reader…shift to a more enjoyable way of being (thinking, feeling and acting).
Which is great - but would also entail not engaging philosophically either. But its adherents do engage with those who want to pin them down on what is being claimed about reality exactly and those adherents do indeed defend the thesis as a substantive philosophy.
Of course saying it’s “not philosophy” can act as a way of holding the arguments made immune from criticism when “the mood strikes” so to speak. Very well. But here we might all do well to follow Wittgenstein’s lead and endorse “Whereof we cannot speak thereof we must remain silent”. In other words: we can take the author at his word: it’s not philosophy, it need not be regarded as being about anything but rather is more of contemplative, subjective tool of introspection couched in (at times) the language of philosophy. Which as hinted at already, is reminiscent of a more religious sensibility or, more precisely still: theology. This is not meant to be pejorative. Theology can serve a useful purpose. And what “meaningness” is, could be something more like an English translation of some of the central messages of a version of Buddhism. Personally useful and even, for some perhaps transformative - but, despite the superficial similarities: not a philosophy and not able to be understood as anything like a domain of explicit and explanatory knowledge as (say) some field of science (even a first person science) or philosophy might be despite what is claimed explicitly here https://twitter.com/JakeOrthwein/status/1386922593052094464?s=20&t=0ruRGIsW8vKtpYgt4ulMYQ
So it can be confusing for anyone who wants to understand this vision of reality. Which, yes, even science can be. But at its best science and philosophy strive for clarity. It is not at all clear this is in any sense a priority for the content of meaningness at times. Sometimes it seems clear that it is a philosophy making substantive claims about ontology which will be defended by its adherents...but to be blunt, when the questions begin to pile up there is a retreat position open to "meaningness" at that point. Namely: this isn't philosophy - with an implication almost of the kind "Why are you even asking these questions? The fact you are means you do not understand the true purpose of this - which is not to do philosophy." And so we go in circles. One thing can be acknowledged: this is indeed a branch of something like philosophy, theology, religion, introspection and self help and a style of explaining those things that does have its audience who do claim benefit from it. So, to that end: more power to everyone involved.
People have problems. If either (or both) the magnitude of any one (or more) of them becomes too great, or the total number of them too large is combined with rank ignorance - which is to say a lack of knowledge (both general and specific) - then solutions become elusive. It is then that those problems can become overwhelming and joy becomes diluted and suffering more concentrated. This happens throughout life - but particularly for many towards the end of their lives. It is then that, finally, the insurmountable problem is ultimately encountered. The health issue for which no one knows a solution either in oneself or in a loved one. Another time common to many, but not to all, when one problem after another can seem to be “overwhelming” are the teenage years - especially the late teenage years and leading into the early 20s.
The reason, in epistemological terms, is that at this time there is a rather unique confluence of events. The number of new problems well outside the range of what has been encountered before in terms of emotional stress begins to maximise precisely at the time when one’s knowledge of “what to do” in such circumstances is at its lowest ebb. For most of us (though admittedly not all) this is a time where personal decision making becomes increasingly less constrained by the adults in one’s life. One begins for the first time to have all the thoughts that plague many throughout their lives (if they never learn the lesson in their teenage years): what should I be doing with my time? Am I wasting it right now? What is the point of this right now? This is not fun: why should I have to do it? X seems to be having more fun then me - but then X has more money than I do. How can I get more money? Y seems fitter, stronger, better looking, more intelligent, more skilful and more popular than me - what can I do to be fitter, stronger, better looking, more intelligent, more skilful and more popular?
Problem after problem is encountered - but at this time for the first time and there is no background knowledge to call on. No “previous experience” and perhaps no one to ask in many cases. Or if there are people to ask, the responses given can seem - which is to say can be - unsatisfactory. There may be wisdom in the words of others, but in a cruel trick of logic, one might simply lack the knowledge to know wisdom when one hears it. One can be told “Problems are soluble” all day long or encounter The Desiderata framed on a wall every day or recite The Serenity Prayer each morning and not ever really get it much less get anything useful from it:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Which is yet another way of saying: Either a thing is prohibited by the laws of physics and cannot possibly be changed - so accept that fact of reality or you cannot change the thing due to a lack of knowledge - so perhaps with some effort you can create the knowledge that will be the solution to your problem. In all other cases: you can change things; you can solve your problem.
The wisdom passed on through ancient traditions sometimes takes work to distill out from the noise - but it is there. We cannot blame the ancients who often got there first for having to dig the gems from out of the mud if sometimes those gems are not so perfectly polished. We can do the polishing now.
But back to our proverbial teenager (or indeed almost anyone) encountering problems at a rate exceeding their capacity to deal with and their background knowledge to - seemingly - help with. If one’s immediate social circle or even any larger concentric circle seems unable to provide the guidance needed it can feel an isolating time and in those situations many will turn elsewhere: books and the lectures or guidance of notable thinkers. Self help pop psychology books might be consulted, perhaps experimentation with religion - particularly any religion far removed from that dominating the culture into which one has been born.
Sometimes these searches can bear fruit. And the problems begin to be solved. Peace and joy are found again. But this is rare. Often what is found is that much of the “self help” is of a nature so general (like The Desiderata) as to seem useless and is easily dismissed on that basis. Other times sources of self help seem to strictly contradict. Some will say suffering is a part of life that needs to be accepted because it is inevitable. “To be is to suffer” and so on. Others will say that suffering can be overcome and can be replaced with joy. So do I accept my suffering and meditate so as to be relieved of it - for all suffering is in the mind? Or do I avoid the suffering and seek out joy? Can I do both? Now one begins to be paralysed by indecision, confusion and some amount of skepticism. Perhaps none of these gurus has any clue? After all they’re not me and have not been in my exact situation (which can tend to seem more hopeless by the minute). One could very well become not merely skeptical of the “older and wiser” but cynical that any of them have useful wisdom to impart. Many of them seem downright depressed and confused themselves as if they’ve learned nothing of much use at cultivating joy in their own lives. Sometimes the problem is: why doesn’t he or she like me? One can quickly pursue entire courses on psychology motivated by: how to understand the mind of others. What are they all thinking? What is he, in particular, thinking? What is she? But none of the books seem to ever have the answer.
The truth is there can be no one size fits all self help. There is no universal theory of psychology unless it is so broad as to be of very little help in any specific situation. “Solve the problem” is indeed a universal claim that might be of some help to someone who is paralysed by complete inaction. Perhaps. But it does not say how. “Drop the problem” might be of use to someone who is in extremis and distress over some mental anguish. But detachment, mindfulness and even complete divestment of self will not solve any actual problem - it will merely alleviate the symptoms caused by the discursive thoughts for the short time one maintains that state. Perhaps it helps to declutter. But no amount of decluttering removes the tumour, brings back the dead, repairs the relationship, gets the job, finishes the work or improves the fitness.
Ultimately, we have to find our own paths and often the paths that lead to joy, greater enlightenment, fun and a fulfilled life of equal measure are wildly divergent - at least on the surface - so that for any young person following in the footsteps of one they admire (for example) who seems to have it together can be fraught with simply misinterpreting the wisdom they offer about how to replicate - at least imperfectly - what they have achieved in one’s own way.
Members of the same species are not identical. The differences between them are described by the term “variation” and it is variation between the members of the species that allows for them to evolve. After all, if it really were the case that members of the same species had “the same DNA” or something like that - if their genomes really were identical, then when the environmental change occured-when there was “selection pressure” (like a drought) then if one of them was to perish because of the change, all of them would. For example if there was some species of deer which, going 5 days without any water, would die and all members of the species lived in some area where all the water had dried up and no rain fell, then if one of them would die after 5 days, then so would they all. For they would all be identical and the one to survive longest would be the one who drank last of all.
But in the real world, within a single species of deer there is variation. Some might only last 2 days without any water. Some might last 2 weeks, even if on average “a deer can go 5 days without water”. Not all deer are identical genetically. They are just more identical to each other than other species of deer and hence, they are (on at least one definition of the term) regarded as being of the same species. (There are other definitions of species like, for example: “two members are of the same species if they can mate to produce fertile offspring” - which is all very well unless they cannot “mate” at all because they are trees or bacteria).
Sometimes the genetic differences between members of the same species can look wildly different. Consider dogs. Dogs have remarkable variety - because of what we have done to engineer them that way through artificial selection. But even the genetic variety of dogs is nothing like the variation among people because the variation among people is not primarily down to genetic differences. The crucial differences between people are differences in their mind: not their bodies (or brains). The knowledge, experiences, dispositions, values and preferences of one person as compared to another is like the difference between one entire species and another. Or more than that: an entire kingdom of life (almost). People are wildly different one from another. Sure there are exceptions to this: people within the same family are quite close at times - but not always. Twins will often have completely different preferences for food or music or ambitions for life. One can remain within the same family and witness completely opposed political stances. Moving outside the family and people are just huge unknowns to each other - at times delightfully surprising and other times confusing. As Jaron Lanier observes in his book “You are not a gadget” words to the effect that people are infinite wells of mystery. We have no direct access to the mind of another person - we can only take them at the word (or their outward behaviour).
People are minds and minds are a form of software running on the hardware that is the brain. That software is a unique algorithm (so far as we know) in the universe for generating knowledge: creative explanations of the world and renderings in the virtual reality of those minds. Those renderings evolve rapidly, changing and adapting to new circumstances, events and other inputs like the sudden rush of emotion that accompanies the unexpected. And this uniqueness - this differentness is uplifting at one extreme - you are entirely unique and therefore literally irreplaceable. Never mind your genome - your mind and your unique experiences and knowledge is the truly unique thing. And at the other end, we are apart and this can cause some existential crises in many and is also the reason why these crises: existential or just more mundane forms of worry - can be so difficult at times to deal with - most especially when the knowledge is lacking.
As a much younger person I ran through the gamut myself of “self help” - beginning first with informal studies into psychology - reading what I could garner online before a brief (but formal) study of psychology. That branched into more “common sense” self help with people like “Dr Phil” whose plain talking “tell it like it is” approach was something I preferred to so much that (even then) cast a person as a victim of circumstance. Encounters with Eastern mysticism and contemplative traditions came and went once the central messages were distilled out. Eventually I found myself that Nike’s motto “Just do it” contained within it just about all that was needed whenever some crisis or life decision presented itself. The problem, rather often, was inaction. If you do something then there is no need to worry about what would happen: it would be happening and there would be no mental space left for worrying about what will be because one would be right in the midst of what is.
I still find much self help personally useful but I can also spot that which is of very little practical use. The first form of self help is the anti-coercion kind that one can distill out from the work of David Deutsch. If things seem difficult - that is useful information. If something has ceased to be fun and you need to really push yourself through: that’s useful information. It’s a red flag. If you do not want to do something, but you are doing it anyways: red flag. Bored? Red flag. Just not having fun? Red flag. Now none of those are disqualifying. I have been terribly bored on long international flights even though I can do just about anything I like within the limits of what is reasonably possible in the “culture of air travel”. But we just lack the knowledge of how to “have fun” even in a comfortable chair with the world’s entertainment at your fingertips. Because the chair just isn’t quite comfortable enough and, well, it was fun at takeoff but after 14 hours of roughly the same position - you have to just push through because there are few other options. The best one can do is minimise the unpleasantness by repeating the distractions from it. Those kinds of exceptions aside, if coercion can be almost entirely eliminated then that solves a vast spectrum of problems and when a problem does arise the question: am I being coerced here (by myself or others) - is a central one to be explored.
Seemingly opposed to this at the other end of the spectrum, I find discipline to be another piece of “self help” that I have embraced. Jocko Willink the ex-Navy Seal who has been a guest on Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcast posts a picture each day on Twitter of his watch upon waking up. The time is always around 4:30am. He works out - hard and posts the sweaty “evidence” on Instagram soon after titled “Aftermath”. The man is supremely disciplined.
Is he coercing himself? Is he suffering through all this? At first pass it seems these worldviews: do not suffer coercion and: be disciplined are completely at odds. But they need not be. Sure: if you are taking orders from someone and obeying them this might be called “discipline” and you might hate each moment of it. Clearly that is coercive. But if you find that waking up each and every day is the very thing that brings you joy - you would be coercing yourself not to do that thing. It is a subtle point. I do not think Jocko is coercing himself in quite the same way (indeed I do not think he is coercing himself at all) as someone else who does not want to get up at 4:30am each morning and work out…before breakfast. Jocko’s personal recipe for success could be hell on Earth for others. But for him - it is the very thing that makes him himself. He is doing exactly what he wants to do because he is someone who can do exactly what he wants to do. He actively makes choices and he is something that happens to the world. The world does not merely happen to him. Jocko has said that the reason he gets up at 4:30am each day is because (1) That’s all the sleep he needs (2) To get ahead of the enemy - who will still be asleep.
Now that last point is said somewhat tongue in cheek. Of course during his military service is could very well have been literally true. But now, speaking on Jocko’s behalf - a dangerous thing to do - we can actually interpret “enemy” as “all those unpleasant problems that would be encountered by sleeping in”. Namely the emails not answered because the workout was completed later and the opportunities missed and, as Jocko observed - having to have so many more encounters with other people and other conversations simply because almost no one else is awake at 4:30am. So it actually solves a bunch of his problems. The “discipline” of following this regular pattern brings joy and fun because it has eliminated many sources of potential suffering.
Jocko is disciplined in doing exactly what he wants. He does not let others dictate what he is doing. He chooses. And that takes discipline. It takes discipline not to give into coercion: either self coercion or the coercion of seeking first to please other people before you please yourself by doing just as you please. Far form anti-coercion and discipline being at odds: they can be in perfect harmony: if you’re playing with them both just right.
There is much made in some (so-called) “rationalist” online communities about “just do what you like” - which is true. For many people. For some however it is a recipe for disaster unless coupled with an instruction to be disciplined: to pay careful attention to what one actually wants. And often what one actually wants is to solve specific problems that will take attention and effort. For some less effort will be needed. But the idea that one can live a life of “no coercion” without thinking further on it can lead to a kind of apathy. If one has not yet figured out what to do - what they actually like - then the instruction to “not coerce yourself” is of no help at all. One is still left with: so what do I do now? Which actually is the first and most important problem and remains the most important problem each moment, hour, day and throughout ones life. What now?
Once one figures out what is fun (often by a process of elimination: by trying and finding out what is not) - then one will find that Just Doing It is rewarding in and of itself. But how to go about doing it can be part of the process as well. Perhaps you find that working 24 hours straight really is the thing. You might not find out that it isn’t the thing until you try. It can take time to figure out you’re not a morning person. Or you are a morning person. Or you were for so long not a morning person - and now - you are. And so that can take discipline so that the experiencing self and the remembering self are aligned. This is why people can train themselves (which is to say learn) to love exercising and lifting heavy weights or running long distances or doing any kind of hard physical activity that they know is beneficial in the long run. But what if you’re not there? How can you pull yourself up by non-coercive bootstraps to begin exercising if you already hate it. Well: you don’t know you hate it and stop telling yourself you do. And why do you want to work out hard anyways? Perhaps just try for 10 minutes. Later try 15. And so on. Be disciplined in trying. Does this mean coercing yourself? No. Well: not exactly. Ah! You might think. Got him! He’s appealing to a form of coercion so that you can “find the fun”. Well no.
Words have multiple meanings and senses: they cannot be infinitely precise and many times words can have two senses that are even opposed to each other. Words that mean their opposite are called “Janus words”. A common one, more often used in military settings is “fast”. If a guard is told to “stand fast” - they are being told to go nowhere. The fast means “to secure in place” - as in fasten. But of course we all know fast can mean move quickly - rather the opposite of going as slowly as possible - moving nowhere. More classically “cleave” can mean both to split apart and to join together.
At the other end of the spectrum we have words that appear to be opposites but are synonyms. Flammable and inflammable is the go to example here. My only point is to illustrate that insofar as there is a science called linguistics: it does not have the precision of physics (which is not infinitely precise either - for one reason it needs to be expressed in ambiguous language). We simply cannot pin down perfectly precise definitions of words. That is the “Wittgenstinian error” and rather too much of what passes for “philosophy” is consumed by it. Debates about terms. Language evolves, can be quirky and is made up of words themselves “defined” in dictionaries using other words to label concepts which are not perfectly precise. All of that said: it is possible to be wrong and there is an objectivity to this. Black is not white. Tomorrow is not today. The existence of grey does not change that and nor does midnight. The thing is you can be disciplined and you can use it to find the fun you did not know was there to enter into a state of non-coercion. All this is possible. And at no point does any genuine suffering need to go on.
So there are, what I would say two quite distinct senses of the term “discipline”: an enlightened and a naive species. Discipline of the form “I am doing this because of someone else’s expectations” - is naive. And it is coercive. There may be no understanding of why you should or why it is best for you. But doing what you want and being disciplined in ensuring you’re doing just what you want is not a matter of coercion but its opposite.
Discipline - being committed to getting something done - to getting something solved can actually be fun. For 25 years or so now I have witnessed people in the gym appearing to suffer. And some are. But others are experiencing the opposite. Same outward appearance. Two diametrically opposed experiences internally. People come to learn to love the pain they learn to love the struggle. It is fun to push through that pain and struggle not merely in expectation of the feeling afterwards but because “I did it - I set a new record” or whatever else it might be. In my case these days it’s rather often “this is amazing - I can multitask - I can get through a book or podcast while staying strong and fit. Life is truly brilliant.”
Sometimes from the outside the phenomena is the same but internally the experience is utterly different. And sometimes from the outside the phenomena is utterly different but internally the experience is completely the same. Jocko will yell and seemingly coerce and be disciplined! It will be testosterone to the maximum and for many this discipline and all the outward signs will make it seem like a kind of self coercion that might barely be possible to exceed. But it is not coercion in our sense. Because he finds joy in it and is doing it even though he has the option of doing just about anything else money can buy. Many can have fun doing what others would find hell. The human mind is universal. It can take any stimulus at all and turn it into almost anything one likes.
These two ways to succeed in the world: being disciplined and not being coerced need not be opposed. One can live “to the full” and experience joy, contentment and fun all the while improving yourself and the world by solving the problems you are interested in and perhaps only you are interested in. Joy through discipline and joy through non-coercive fun are both actually experiences in reality to be had and in reality there can be no contradictions. Both are paths to enlightenment and both end up in the same place. A person may walk one or the other or straddle both perhaps. But it cannot be the case that these two worldviews are in any deep sense in conflict. They may appear to be. But so what? Stars appear cold and dim even though they are the opposite.
I explained earlier how Jocko has explained why he gets up at 4:30am each day. He was once asked on a podcast how he was able to get up at 4:30am each day. The listener wanted to know how he just did not hit the snooze button even if he was tired. He said what he said whenever someone asks him this. He said: “You know what I do? Get ready. So to get up at 4:30am each day I…get up at 4:30am each day.”
People who want to do that - or think they do but it gets to 4:30am and they lay in bed and don’t and go back to sleep haven’t coerced themselves to sleep. But if they get up - they just get up. But there is a strand of person who will think and think and think and perhaps coerce themselves up out of bed or rather try to.
“Do or do not do. There is no try.” As Yoda admonished Luke. Rather: trying - trying to do something rather than just doing something (even if you fail) is the thing. If it’s a trial - if you’re trying and there’s no joy to be found - there’s your problem. But if you cannot wait to attack the problem even if you think you might fail then you’re not quite “trying”. You’re doing. And maybe you’re failing to succeed that time. But that might come with excitement, fun and learning - quite the opposite internal experience from “trying” and failing and suffering.
So much of self help won’t be helpful because it’s not tailor made to you. You are utterly unique. Things may seem gloomy at times and fun may seem to have leached out of life - but this is always a temporary situation because problems are soluble. Sometimes the most pressing problem is how to discover: what do I find fun? Not just now: but all the time? And “fun in the long run” - the kind of fun that is fulfilling - that brings joy in the moment and contentment on reflection. Once the fun is found then you won’t need to coerce yourself into doing the thing - you won’t require more “self help” to figure out “what to do next” - you’ll know what to do. But you just might need to be disciplined about how to go about it. Like Jocko. Because if you can make your life about something, it will be something.
Pseudoscience, Coercion and Contemplation
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