Weekly I/O #48
Desires to be Right, Evolutionary Success with Individual Suffering, Introducing Why not What, Repeat Today a Year, Contradiction within Culture
Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.
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The below is extracted from the email sent on Oct 02, 2022
Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering on this week.
1. The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires. The sooner we separate them, the better off we are.
Book: The Web of Belief
Warren Buffett once said:
“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
We tend to cherry-pick the information that confirms our existing beliefs. This tendency is called confirmation bias, which explains why if there’s something we feel like doing, we can always find enough evidence to support doing it.
Confirmation bias highlights the difference between the desire to be right and the desire to have been right. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. It drives us to be humble and explore more. On the other hand, the desire to have been right is the pride that makes us stick to our beliefs. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.
This difference also demonstrates why two people with different perspectives can see the same evidence but come up with different conclusions and argue with each other. The desire to be right should drive us to understand the other side. Nonetheless, the desire to have been right clouds our judgment. We stop being curious and stick to our guns to keep our existing perspective intact.
2. Evolutionary success doesn’t mean individual success. The success of the species can be at the expense of individual suffering. Evolution judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness.
Does evolutionary success mean the individual gets better? Humans (Homo sapiens) are abundant and conquer almost every piece of the planet. If we say our species evolve successfully, do we now become stronger, smarter, healthier, or even happier?
In Weekly I/O #47.3, we learned that the agricultural revolution didn’t translate into a better diet or more leisure. It led to population explosions, but the quality of life for people was worse. They have to work harder with less return. In other words, the agricultural revolution kept more people alive under worse conditions.
Similarly, domesticated animals are also quite successful from the evolutionary perspective. However, if we think about most domesticated animals, like chickens and cattle, they are among the most miserable creatures that have ever lived.
In the author’s words:
“Their evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless. A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks. The contented rhinoceros is no less content for being among the last of its kind. The numerical success of the calf’s species is little consolation for the suffering the individual endures”
Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness.
3. When meeting people for the first time, we often exchange questions about what we do. However, the more profound and interesting question behind what we do is why we do what we do.
Article: Why I do what I do
When we meet people for the first time, we usually ask questions about what we do. We exchange information about our job, the school we went to, the things we typically do on weekends, etc. However, the more interesting question people rarely ask is “why we do what we do”.
Asking why they do what they do enables us to get closer to knowing who they truly are. It gets deeper than surface-level discussion and potentially builds more meaningful connections. Similarly, articulating “why we do what we do” also gives others more opportunities to connect with us.
4. If you repeated what you did today 365 more times, will you be where you want to be next year?
Who do I want to be in the future? I jotted down several points on who I wanted to be a few years ago. Revisiting it recently, I find that my values and perspective have changed significantly since then. I should rethink and update them regularly.
5. We understand a culture the best where the culture’s members hold contradictory beliefs and reconcile incompatible values.
In contrast to physics, which is (almost always) free of inconsistencies, cultures are constantly trying to reconcile contradictions among themselves.
Take the nobility in medieval Europe as an example. A typical nobleman believed in both Christianity and chivalry. He went to church to learn he must rise above those dangerous temptations such as riches, lust, and honor. He has to avoid violence and extravagance. If attacked, he needs to turn the other cheek.
Regardless of this meek and reflective mood, the nobleman then went to his lord’s castle, where wine flowed like water and guests exchanged dirty jokes and bloody war tales. The barons taught him that “It is better to die than live with shame. Only blood can wipe out the insult if someone questions your honor.”
This contradiction stands not only between Christianity and chivalry in medieval Europe. In modern society, most people see social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. While we can ensure equality only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off, guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as they wish inevitably short-changes equality.
It’s an essential feature that any culture’s member must be able to hold contradictory beliefs and incompatible values. These tensions, conflicts, and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture. That’s why Harari said that if a Christian wants to understand the Muslims, “they shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds. Instead, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them best.”
This also reminds me of what is mentioned in Why I do what I do: Values are revealed through real-life trade-offs.
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