See Thoughts at 21 for an introduction to the genre.

Character is important

This is something I’ve learned by omission this year. When you’re alone, not interacting with people, you might forget you can have a character at all. You might forget you can be kind or compassionate, or you might forget substantive opportunities for courage exist. If things get really bad, you can even lose sight of what initiative and curiosity look like. In other words, you may forget you can aspire to be a certain type of person who pursues a certain way of life

And being a certain type of person matters a lot to me. For instance, out of all the reasons not to cheat on a test, I think the fact I will be a cheater if I do is the strongest. There are other reasons not to cheat (you could get caught, you might not learn as much as you would otherwise, you might be branded a cheater) but I believe the one having to do with character, the one that reflects the person you are, is the strongest.

When you forget about this kind of character aspiration, you stagnate is a deep personal sense. It’s not even that you’ve gotten as good as you can and can’t feasibly get any better, but you’ve forgotten the option for getting better even exists. It’s almost like you’ve done all your growing up and the rest of your life is just you waiting to die.

If you’re in love, you’re crazy

This is a cliché, or a rough model for thinking about things. However, I think the contrapositive is much more interesting: “If you’re not crazy, you’re not in love.” In other words, if you’re a normal, sane individual, chances are you don’t love anything.

An effective form of reasoning is motivated reasoning, which is why sincerity is an important intellectual trait

I heard once that humans evolved reasoning capacities not to get at the truth, but to prevent themselves from being persuaded by others. We needed intellectual tools to ensure we weren’t immediately convinced by the first spinster to wander into the village.

I’m not sure how true this is, but it gets at a deep point: humans are really good at justifying conclusions we’ve already reached. It’s much easier to defend something we already believe than think of reasons for why someone else would think differently.

Some people think this is a bug, but the correct response is to turn it into a feature. If we’re really good at finding reasoning to support conclusions, rather than finding conclusions that fit reasoning, why not start at the conclusions and work backwards? Begin with all of the viable conclusions. Then, for each one, come up with reasoning that supports it. To find the truth, select the best argument from all those you’ve created and go with that one. This process seems superior in many circumstances to beginning with all the messy facts and then trying to argue to the truth. 1

The process is still very dangerous. Given we’re using the same mental mechanisms that allow us to fool ourselves, we can easily go a step too far. This is why intellectual sincerity is important. To use this technique effectively, we must be able to indentify which arguments we made are good and which are bad. This involves killing all but one of the arguments we made for potential conclusions. Given we created these arguments, it can be difficult to overcome an endowment bias and do this well.

One of the best decisions I ever made was to never check my grades in college

More detail on this decision is located here. I end that post by saying I began to check my grades again, but that didn’t last long. Now, I have only a very rough idea of what my formal academic performance is like.

I think my reasoning for checking grades in that post is wrong. I said that since other people who could help me care about my GPA, I should too, to some extent. What I didn’t notice is that the people who care a lot about my GPA probably aren’t the people I want to work with.

Selfishness is underrated

This is the deep theme of what I wrote about earlier in Consider the Ideal.

Some people think this is a monstrous thing to say. Let’s tie selfishness to different virtue to try to see why it could be better than we think.

A strong sense of selfishness sits behind curiosity. Being curious about something for its own sake amounts to wanting to know about something because you want to know about it. You don’t appeal to the great social utility knowing will create, nor how great it would be for other people to know this thing. You only consider yourself and your own desires. 2

I think selfishness supports some of the other virtues we value in a similar way.

There are two kinds of people: those that listen to what you say and those that listen to how you say it

All didactic little sayings are wrong, but some are useful. This one is particularly useful.

Not paying attention to this distinction causes so many miscommunications and pointless conflicts. For instance, one person might ask a rhetorical question in a particular tone implying such-and-such while the respondent answers it literally. Now, depending on the situation, both people can feel disrespected and the situation may spiral.

Forgetting this distinction is also the reason why, I think, so many people come off as assholes when in reality they just say what they mean and think everybody else does so as well.

I’ve found it helpful to always keep track of where your conversational partner falls on the spectrum. Then, you can interpret accordingly.

Experts teach themselves

Cribbed from a Paul Graham tweet.

There are two ways to take this.

You can think this means experts teach themselves because, almost by definition, nobody else can teach them. If you’re on your way to becoming an expert, you know more than the vast majority of the population. You know more than your teachers, and your teacher’s teachers, so there’s nobody convenient left to teach you except yourself.

The second reading is that experts are experts because they teach themselves. The thought here is that autodidactism is somehow superior than traditional instruction. There are things you can only pick up by teaching yourself, and if you know these things, you can be an expert.

I think both things are true, but the latter point is more important. What you learn yourself is more durable, and you have the opportunity to approach it in a “fresh” way, untainted by whatever dogmas your teachers might have. It’s a more straightforward way to arrive at your own opinion.

Management is underrated

A larger proportion of team performance can be explained by management quality than by constituent human capital than I thought. In other words, who’s on your team is important, but who the manager is is much more so.

Online blogs are wonderful

I came to college expecting a much different environment than the one I encountered. It was not a pleasant surprise.3 What has kept me going (besides my wonderful friends) are online blogs. Reading those, I actually encounter interesting and important ideas. What’s more, I get the sense that my favorite bloggers are deeply curious people who enjoy what they do. Being exposed to those people, if only through the internet, has been a lifeline.

I think religiously

I don’t mean this in the sense that I am religious. What I’m trying to get across is that I’m really comfortable with a certain type of metaphysics. For instance, I have a deep intuition (that I can’t [yet] argue for) that the correct moral principles are somehow out “there,” and it’s up to us to discover them. What’s right and wrong is not culturally determined or relativistic, but something we can figure out with careful reflection. I’m willing to call this thought ‘religious’ because it places morality outside of us in the same way believing in an abrahamic god, for example, locates morality in something distinct from humans.

It gets weirder. I also believe there is something called ‘order’ that’s immanent in all of nature. These are deep-rooted regularities that are, in principle, intelligible. Someone might have faith that “God,” or some deity is present throughout the entire world, while I think intelligible uniformities are. 4 One might say I’m religious in the same sense Spinoza is in his Ethics.

You can also say I think religiously in a different sense. I’ve always thought the idea of an all-knowing, omnipotent, infinitely good being is really cool. In some religions, this being will love you unconditionally even if you have no redeeming qualities. How great is that? Who wouldn’t want to live in this world? 5


Here are a couple thoughts about last year’s post.

Obviously, it’s not true that “human reason can solve any problem,” like I said last year. I was, and still am, unqualified to talk seriously about the limits of our species. Still, what was more important was that I conveyed a strong sense of optimism. Not every problem is intractable.

I was also wrong when I said “Los Angeles is devoid of natural beauty.” You have to look a little harder, but you can find it. Visit Griffith park. Take a hike to the Tree of Life. Drive on Mulholland. The desert west of the LA Basin is not strictly Los Angeles, but it is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.

I think I was also mislead by thinking primarily about “natural” beauty. Los Angeles doesn’t have many trees, but the city’s geography satisfies in other ways. One of my favorite views is when you’re coming north on the 405 past the Getty, you cross the ridge, and then you can see the San Fernando Valley sprawling beneath you. It’s not a forest or national park, but it’s beautiful.


It’s really tough to reflect on a year and realize you haven’t improved as much as you would have liked to. Still, I know 2020 has made me better in some non-obvious sense that will become clearer as time goes on.

-Riley

  1. This is related to certain history and philosophy of science topics. For instance, motivated reasoning of some type seems to be necessary for certain kinds of scientific discoveries. We need the concept of a certain thing “prepared” before we can be rightly said to have discovered it. 

  2. Intrinsic interest seems like an even more puzzling instance of selfishness than greed. At least with greed, we have some intuitions about why someone would zealously pursue wealth. Why somebody would, with equal zeal, try to figure out whether a given infinite series converges or the olfactory processes of amazon rainforest ants is much less clear. We’re not satisfied if all they say is “it’s just really interesting!” 

  3. I want to cover this in more detail close to my graduation. Look for something in summer 2021.

    I also want to emphasize the UCLA Philosophy department has been excellent to me. They are wholly exempt from any antipathies I have towards my institution. 

  4. Tangent: I’ve always thought an underrated argument for God is the existence of beauty (though this need not mean it’s strong). I want to work this one out when I have the time. 

  5. Atheists seem to miss this point when arguing about the existence of god(s). To be clear, it doesn’t provide any reason to believe deities exist, and atheists can accept the point and still make strong arguments, but it demonstrates they haven’t internalized the import of what they’re arguing against.

    Denying the existence of God most likely means you’re arguing for a much worse world (one without divine providence, an afterlife, or unconditional cosmic love etc..). Why, then, are atheists so smug when they make their points? Climate activists don’t look smug and and self-satisfied when they’re lecturing on global warming or catastrophic weather events. They don’t take their scientifically informed beliefs as markers of superiority. They (for the most part) seem genuinely concerned the world is worse-off than people believe, and we need to take action to fix it. I’m sure they would like to believe they are wrong and everything is great, but they can’t do that in good conscience. This is why some look pained when delivering their sermons. Atheists, for the most part, don’t.