Tag Archives: Philosophy

Rebecca Goldstein and Why We Need to Matter

“The will to survive evolves, in a higher creature like us, into the will to matter.”
-Rebecca Goldstein

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Why do we need to matter? It sounds like kind of a hollow question. Of course we matter. But when you really consider it, do you think an ant has decided whether it matters or not? We tend to think not.

When it comes to humans, though, we seem to have a deep need to believe that our actions carry us towards some essential goal. Otherwise, why bother? (In fact, we think our lives matter so much that most of us seek straight-up immortality.) And in a new essay on Edge, philosopher and author Rebecca Goldstein argues that this mattering is a necessary, biological imperative. In fact, contrary to some popular thinking, it is science, more specifically the science of evolutionary psychology, which can give us some insight into the problem of why we need to matter. As Goldstein argues, this is a place where science and philosophy very usefully overlap.

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Goldstein calls this need to matter the Mattering Instinct, labeling it as such to give it a flavor of biological grounding; something that exists not just in a metaphysical way. We do really, actually, need to matter. We’re dependent on it. It’s not abstract, but a core part of what makes us tick and survive.

We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter.” Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct—that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

Goldstein sees the concept of mattering as so important that we’d live an incoherent life without it. Imagine if you took the concept of true nihilism to its logical conclusion: What kind of Joker-like tricks might you be tempted to play on the world? Of course, some solve this problem in the opposite way, through religion: I matter because God cares about me, and because my soul will live eternally in an afterlife. But what if you can’t get yourself to accept a religious worldview?

Mattering and Morality

Goldstein argues that you don’t really need either conception, nihilism or religion; that mattering is simply a precursor to successful living and survival at all.

And I also ought to mention that I think the mattering instinct is a natural consequence of natural selection. The basic unit of survival in natural selection is the gene, which survives by being replicated in future generations—the gist of Richard Dawkins’ useful, if misunderstood phrase, “the selfish gene.” A gene’s default scheme is to give the organism traits that help it (the organism) to survive, and to endow that organism with an unthinking ceaseless instinct to survive: to seek sustenance, flee the predator, be devoted 24/7 to seeing another dawn. Self-preservation is a prerequisite to an entity persisting rather than entropically falling apart, and a gene’s best strategy is to keep an organism intact for as long as the genes need it in order to get themselves replicated. Of course, individual organisms eventually wear out their usefulness to the genes, which is why senescence is built into living cells, leading to inevitable decline and death. From the vantage point of the gene, individuals are always expendable, which is something that individuals—certainly us!—find profoundly regrettable. If an organism—any organism—were to have the capacity to articulate its deepest motivation, the motivation that’s a prerequisite for all its other motivations that drive it on in its ceaseless tasks and activities—its scurrying, hiding, roaming, raiding, mating—it would say that its own existence in this world, its persistence and its flourishing, matters. Its own life deserves the assiduous attention and dedicated activity that every creature unthinkingly gives it. This is a presumption that lies beyond the sphere of justification. To be within that sphere is to be subject to the possibility of doubt, to require grounding. Natural selection wasn’t going to leave it to such an uncertain process as that!

This philosophy is taken by some to mean that a pure biological view of life leads naturally to selfishness and amorality. Goldstein disagrees. This drive to matter creates a very useful non-religious morality. As Goldstein puts it, I would argue that the core of the moral point of view is that there is an equitable distribution of mattering among humans. So not only does mattering have a core impact on how we carry out our lives, it also leads us to greater general morality over time. This is philosophy’s greatest achievement.

Returning to some themes we took up toward the beginning of our conversation, that far from invalidating our moral intuitions evolutionary psychology can be put to work to help ground them. I bring it back to the concept of mattering. We can’t live lives that are recognizably human without presuming an attitude toward our own mattering. If we’re going to presume that we matter and that others have to treat us as if we matter, either we think that we’re somehow ontologically special and the universe revolves around us—which is to be certifiably nuts—or we’re going to have to extend this modicum of mattering to other creatures like us. How far do we take it? What are the justifiable borders of demarcation between our own obvious mattering and others to whom we attribute a lesser portion of mattering or even no mattering at all?

My view about morality is that it’s rooted in human nature but in such a way as to objectively ground moral conclusions we draw. There are certain things that we have to take for granted about our own life. We can’t live a coherently human life without taking for granted that we have the right to live and to flourish, and that’s what we all try to do. You can begin to explain what it is to pursue a life without seeing how this commitment to our own mattering operates. This means that in simply pursuing a recognizably human life, we’re already occupying moral ground, and then you have to see what follows from that. We don’t have to make the impossible leap between is and ought. We’re already firmly implanted in the land of oughts.

That’s what the history of moral philosophy has tried to show us. You have to extend the mattering you claim for yourself to enslaved people, to colonized people, even to women. They have as much right to matter as men, to pursue their lives and find their own diverse ways of working out their mattering, even if their doing so sometimes has bad effects on male egos, making them feel like they matter less because of this striving to matter of women. How are they going to impress women if those women are achieving so much?

Does What Matters to You, Matter to Me?

Where the mattering instinct can go wrong, though, is when it leads us to think that what matters to us is what should matter greatly to all. Goldstein calls attention to something she calls the mattering map. We each have our own map, but we sometimes cannot see outside our own mattering maps. We can barely conceive that someone else’s map would look a lot different than our own. And this leads to us being upset or combative when we simply need to do a better job of putting ourselves into others’ shoes or to step back and take in the larger perspective.

I’m a philosopher and a writer. It matters to me that I think well and that I write well. I could feel like I don’t matter—to the point of genuine depression—because other people think so much better than I or write so much better than I. It’s good to gain perspective on these sorts of things. Such perspective is part of what it is to attain wisdom. And it helps sometimes to realize that there’s no absolute value to the region of the mattering map you happen to occupy, by reason of your own individual traits and talents and history. I might want to put a gun to my head because I’m not the most brilliant philosopher of my generation, but to the guy situated in the next mattering region over, philosophy doesn’t matter in the least—the whole subject is a waste of time. He’s got the gun to this head because he’s not the greatest physicist of his generation, or not the greatest speed skater of his generation, or actor of his generation, or is losing his fabulous looks.

I’m particularly interested in the ways in which the mattering instinct can go terribly wrong—not only psychologically but ethically. The mattering instinct is so strong in us, and our tendency to want to justify our own mattering is so persistent that it leads us to universalize what individually matters to us into dicta about what ought to matter to everybody. This is a tendency that ought to be resisted.

When you figure out what matters to you and what makes you feel like you’re living a meaningful life, you universalize this. Say I’m a scientist and all my feelings about my own mattering are crystalized around my life as a scientist. It’s quite natural to slide from that into thinking that the life of science is the life that matters. Why doesn’t everybody get their sense of meaning from science? That false universalizing takes place quite naturally, imperceptibly, being unconsciously affected by the forces of the mattering map. In different people the need to justify their own sense of mattering slides into the religious point of view and they end up concluding that, without a God to justify human mattering, life is meaningless: Why doesn’t everybody see that the life that matters is the life of religion?

In some ways, this line of reasoning reminds us of David Foster Wallace’s speech, wherein he says that whatever deep needs we live by are the things we’ll die by when they’re no longer being met. It’s up to us to rein in that mattering instinct a little bit and give it a leash in order to save ourselves from being too harsh on ourselves and too narrow with others.

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In the end, we all feel the need to matter, and there are deep biological roots for that, roots which help us survive. These roots help us form a Golden Rule style morality that exists independent of our views on religion or our existential place in the universe. But at the end of the day, we must realize that everyone else carries around their own mattering instinct, and live in a way that respects this basic truth.

Still Interested? Check out Goldstein’s conversation on reasoning with her husband Stephen Pinker.

Spring 2016 Reading List — More Curated Recommendations For a Curious Mind

We hear a lot from people who want to read more. That’s a great sentiment. But it won’t actually happen until you decide what you’re going to do less of. We all get 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It’s up to you how you’ll spend that time.

For those who want to spend it reading, we’ve come across a lot of great books so far this year. Here are seven recommendations across a variety of topics. Some are newer, some are older — true knowledge has no expiration date.

1. The Evolution of Everything

Matt Ridley is a longtime favorite. Originally a PhD zoologist, Ridley went on to write great books like The Red Queen and The Rational Optimist, and wrote for The Economist for a while. This book makes the argument for how trial-and-error style evolution occurs across a wide range of phenomena. I don’t know that I agree with all of it, but he’s a great thinker and a lot of people will really enjoy the book.

2. A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington

What a cool book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Chernow’s getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this. We’ll certainly cover it here at some point.

3. The Tiger

A Ryan Holiday recommendation, The Tiger is the story of a man-eating tiger in Siberia. Like, not that long ago. Pretty damn scary, but John Vaillant is an amazing writer who not only tells the tale of the tiger-hunt, but weaves in Russian history, natural science, the relationship between man and predator over time, and a variety of other topics in a natural and interesting way. Can’t wait to read his other stuff. I read this in two flights.

4. The Sense of Style

This is such a great book on better writing, by the incomparable Steven Pinker. We have a post about it here, but it’s worth re-recommending. If you’re trying to understand great syntax in a non-dry and practical way — Pinker is careful to show that great writing can take many forms but generally shares a few underlying principles — this is your book. He weaves in some cognitive science, which must be a first for a style guide.

5. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

I really loved this book. It’s written by Ed Catmull, who along with John Lasseter built the modern Pixar, which is now part of Disney. Catmull talks about the creative process at Pixar and how their movies go from a kernel of an idea to a beautiful and moving finished product. (Hint: It takes a long time.) Pixar is one of the more brilliant modern companies, and Bob Iger’s decision to buy it when he was named CEO of Disney ten years ago was a masterful stroke. I suspect Catmull and Lasseter are hugely responsible for the resurgence of Disney animation.

6. The Song Machine

This is a tough recommendation because it simultaneously fascinates and horrors me. The book is about the development of modern glossy pop music. I suspect anyone with an interest in music will be interested to see how this goes, with some people reading out of morbid curiosity and some because they want to learn more about the music they actually listen to. Pursue at your peril. I pulled out my old ’90s rock music to soothe myself.

7. Plato at the Googleplex

Does philosophy still matter? Rebecca Goldstein, who is a modern analytical philosopher, goes after this topic in a pretty interesting way by exploring what it’d be like if Plato were interacting with the modern world. Very quirky subject matter and approach, but I actually appreciated that. There’s a lot of cookie-cutter writing going on and Goldstein breaks out as she explores a timeless topic. Probably most reserved for those actually interested in philosophy, but even if you’re not, it might stretch your brain a bit.

Bonus Bestseller

Alexander Hamilton

Farnam Street related travel has brought me to quite a few airports recently. I make a habit of checking out the airport bookstores because bookstores are awesome. Recently, I noticed that Chernow’s biography of Hamilton was suddenly sitting amongst the bestsellers. Chernow’s books are amazing, but airport bestsellers? It wasn’t until I realized that Hamilton’s life had been turned into a massive smash hit Broadway play, based on the book, that everything clicked. In any case, if you want to learn about an amazing American life and also be “part of the conversation,” check out Hamilton.

The Central Mistake of Historicism: Karl Popper on Why Trend is Not Destiny

Philosophy can be a little dry in concept. The word itself conjures up images of thinking about thought, why we exist, and other metaphysical ideas that seem a little divorced from the everyday world.

One true philosopher who bucked the trend was the genius Austrian philosopher of science, Karl Popper.

Popper had at least three important lines of inquiry:

  1. How does progressive scientific thought actually happen?
  2. What type of society do we need to allow for scientific progress to be made?
  3. What can we say we actually know about the world?

Popper’s work led to his idea of falsifiability as the main criterion of a scientific theory. Simply put, an idea or theory doesn’t enter the realm of science until we can state it in such a way that a test could prove it wrong. This important identifier allowed him to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

An interesting piece of Popper’s work was an attack on what he called historicism — the idea that history has fixed laws or trends that inevitably lead to certain outcomes. Included would be the Marxist interpretation of human history as a push and pull between classes, the Platonic ideals of the systemic “rise and fall” of cities and societies in a fundamentally predictable way, John Stuart Mill’s laws of succession, and even the theory that humanity inevitably progresses towards a “better” and happier outcome, however defined. Modern ideas in this category might well include Thomas Piketty’s theory of how capitalism leads to an accumulation of dangerous inequality, the “inevitability” of America’s fall from grace in the fashion of the Roman empire, or even Russell Brand’s popular diatribe on utopian upheaval from a few years back.

Popper considered this kind of thinking pseudoscience, or worse — a dangerous ideology that tempts wannabe state planners and utopians to control society. (Perhaps through violent revolution, for example.) He did not consider such historicist doctrines falsifiable. There is no way, for example, to test whether Marxist theory is actually true or not, even in a thought experiment. We must simply take it on faith, based on a certain interpretation of history, that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are at odds, and that the latter is destined to create uprisings. (Destined being the operative word — it implies inevitability.) If we’re to assert that the there is a Law of Increasing Technological Complexity in human society, which many are tempted to do these days, is that actually a testable hypothesis? Too frequently, these Laws become immune to falsifying evidence — any new evidence is interpreted through the lens of the theory. Instead of calling them interpretations, we call them Laws, or some similarly connotative word.

More deeply, Popper realized the important point that history is a unique process — it only gets run once. We can’t derive Laws of History that predict the future the way we can with, say, a law of physics that carries predictive capability under stated conditions. (i.e. If I drop a ceramic coffee cup more than 2 feet, it will shatter.) We can only merely deduce some tendencies of human nature, laws of the physical world, and so on, and generate some reasonable expectation that if X happens, Y is somewhat likely to follow. But viewing the process of human or organic history as possessing the regularity of a solar system is folly.

He discusses this in his book The Poverty of Historicism.

The evolution of life on earth, or of a human society, is a unique historical process. Such a process, we may assume, proceeds in accordance with all kinds of causal laws, for example, the laws of mechanics, of chemistry, of heredity and segregation, of natural selection, etc. Its description, however, is not a law, but only a single historical statement. Universal laws make assertions concerning some unvarying order[…] and although there is no reason why the observation of one single instance should not incite us to formulate a universal law, nor why, if we are lucky, we should not even hit upon the truth, it is clear that any law, formulated in this or in any other way, must be tested by new instances before it can be taken seriously by science. But we cannot hope to test a universal hypothesis nor to find a natural law acceptable to science if we are ever confined to the observation of one unique process. Nor can the observation of one unique process help us to foresee its future development. The most careful observation of one developing caterpillar will to help us to predict its transformation into a butterfly.

Popper realized that once we deduce a theory of the Laws of Human Development, carried into the ever-after, we are led into a gigantic confirmation bias problem. For example, we can certainly find confirmations for the idea that humans have progressed, in a specifically defined way, towards increasing technological complexity. But is that a Law of history, in the inviolable sense? For that, we really can’t say.

The problem is that to establish cause-and-effect, in a scientific sense, requires two things: A universal law (or a set of them) and some initial conditions (and ideally these are played out over a really large sample size to give us confidence). Popper explains:

I suggest that to give a causal explanation of a certain specific event means deducing a statement describing this event from two kinds of premises: from some universal laws, and from some singular or specific statements which we may call specific initial conditions.

For example, we can say that we have given a causal explanation of the breaking of a certain thread if we find this thread could carry a weight of only one pound, and that a weight of two pounds was put on it. If we analyze this causal explanation, then we find that two different constituents are involved. (1) Some hypotheses of the character of universal laws of nature; in this case, perhaps: ‘For every thread of a given structure s (determined by material, thickness, etc.) there is a characteristic weight w such that the thread will break if any weight exceeding w is suspended on it’ and ‘For every thread of the structure s, the characteristic weight w equals one pound.’ (2) Some specific statements—the initial conditions—pertaining to the particular event in question; in this case we may have two such statements: ’This is a thread of structure s, and ‘The weight put on this thread was a weight of two pounds’.

The trend is not destiny

Here we hit on the problem of trying to assert any fundamental laws by which human history must inevitably progress. Trend is not destiny. Even if we can derive and understand certain laws of human biological nature, the trends of history itself dependent on conditions, and conditions change.

Explained trends do exist, but their persistence depends on the persistence of certain specific initial conditions (which in turn may sometimes be trends).

Mill and his fellow historicists overlook the dependence of trends on initial conditions. They operate with trends as if they were unconditional, like laws. Their confusion of laws with trends make them believe in trends which are unconditional (and therefore general); or, as we may say, in ‘absolute trends’; for example a general historical tendency towards progress—‘a tendency towards a better and happier state’. And if they at all consider a ‘reduction’ of their tendencies to laws, they believe that these tendencies can be immediately derived from universal laws alone, such as the laws of psychology (or dialectical materialism, etc.).

This, we may say, is the central mistake of historicism. Its “laws of development” turn out to be absolute trends; trends which, like laws, do not depend on initial conditions, and which carry us irresistibly in a certain direction into the future. They are the basis of unconditional prophecies, as opposed to conditional scientific predictions.

[…]

The point is that these (initial) conditions are so easily overlooked. There is, for example, a trend towards an ‘accumulation of means of production’ (as Marx puts it). But we should hardly expect it to persist in a population which is rapidly decreasing; and such a decrease may in turn depend on extra-economic conditions, for example, on chance interventions, or conceivably on the direct physiological (perhaps bio-chemical) impact of an industrial environment. There are, indeed, countless possible conditions; and in order to be able to examine these possibilities in our search for the true conditions of the trend, we have all the time to try to imagine conditions under which the trend in question would disappear. But this is just what the historicist cannot do. He firmly believes in his favorite trend, and conditions under which it would disappear to him are unthinkable. The poverty of historicism, we might say, is a poverty of imagination. The historicist continuously upbraids those who cannot imagine a change in their little worlds; yet it seems that the historicist is himself deficient in imagination, for he cannot imagine a change in the conditions of change.

Still interested? Check out our previous post on Popper’s theory of falsification, or check out The Poverty of Historicism to explore his idea more deeply. A warning: It’s not a beach read. I had to read it twice to get the basic idea. But, once grasped, it’s well worth the time.

3 Famous Writers on the Relationship Between Reading and Writing

During the Q&A for How to Read a Book, someone asked whether reading a lot makes us better writers. The short answer is yes. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. As Anne Lamott points out, the converse is also true – writing makes you a better reader.

One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original.

Speaking with the wisdom of experience, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace share their thoughts on the relationship between reading and writing.

Why to Read

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explains why reading is so important for those who want to write.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

What to Read

Schopenhauer said “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.”

While that may be true as a general rule, King talks about the role badly-written books played in teaching him to write.

Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the DollsFlowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lectures thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of beautiful characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy – “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” – but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Who to Read

In an article Hemingway wrote for Esquire in 1935, he recounts the advice he gave an aspiring writer known as Maestro, Mice for short. This entertaining excerpt appears in Hemingway on Writing.

Mice: What books should a writer have to read?

Y.C. [Your Correspondent]: He should have read everything so that he knows what he has to beat.

Mice: He canʼt read everything.

Y.C.: I donʼt say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he canʼt.

Mice: Well what books are necessary?

Y.C.: He should have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, by Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy, Frank Mildamay and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Madame Bovary and LʼEducation Sentimentale by Flaubert, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, Joyceʼs DublinersPortrait of the Artist and UlyssesTom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding, Le Rouge et le Noire and La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal, The Brothers Karamazov and any two other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats Autobiographies, all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of TurgenevFar Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry Jamesʼ short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The American-

Mice: I canʼt write them down that fast. How many more are there?

Y.C.: Iʼll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.

Mice: Should a writer have read all of those?

Y.C.: All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesnʼt know what he has to beat.

Mice: What do you mean “has to beat”?

Y.C.: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasnʼt been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men. Most live writers do not exist. Their fame is created by critics who always need a genius of the season, someone they understand completely and feel safe in praising, but when these fabricated geniuses are dead they will not exist. The only people for a serious writer to compete with are the dead that he knows are good. It is like a miler running against the clock rather than simply trying to beat whoever is in the race with him. Unless he runs against time he will never know what he is capable of attaining.

Mice: But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.

If you’ve always wanted to read the classics but keep putting it off, try breaking the task into manageable chunks.

When & Where to Read

Stephen King suggests aspiring writers read wherever and whenever possible.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on – how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”?

Whether you read in “small sips” or curled up by the fire with a glass of wine, the point is that you need to find the time to read if you want to be a writer.

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.  Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

How to Read

Should aspiring writers use a different technique when reading? David Foster Wallace suggests a variation on the Feynman technique to teach yourself to write better. Learning to write, he says, requires “learning to pay attention in different ways”.

Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good…” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.

Still curious? Check out Stephen King’s long reading list or his top 10 list, Hemingway’s advice on writing and David Foster Wallace on argumentative writing and non-fiction.

When Breath Becomes Air: What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death?

“When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

***

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was 36 years old and in his final year as a neurosurgical resident when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His beautifully written memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously, chronicles his lifelong quest to learn what gives life meaning.

Kalanithi’s wife Lucy, also a doctor, explains in the epilogue why he chose to write about his experience.

Paul confronted death – examined it, wrestled with it, accepted it – as a physician and a patient. He wanted to help people understand death and face their mortality. Dying in one’s fourth decade is unusual now, but dying is not.

In a letter to a friend, he writes, “That’s what I’m aiming for, I think. Not the sensationalism of dying, and not exhortations to gather rosebuds, but: Here’s what lies up ahead on the road.”

In When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi shares his journey along that road as he transitions from doctor to patient and comes face-to-face with his own mortality.

As a student

Before studying medicine at Yale, Kalanithi had earned a BA and an MA in English literature, a BA in biology and an MPhil in the history and philosophy of science and medicine. He was interested in discovering where “biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect”.

I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

After years of theoretical discussions about mortality and the meaning of life, he came to the conclusion that “direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them”. And so, he chose to study medicine.

As a physician

In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande, calls for change in the way medical professionals deal with illness. While medical science has given us the ability to extend life, it does not ask – or answer – the question of when life still has meaning.

The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet – and this is the painful paradox – we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days.

As a neurosurgical resident, Kalanithi was well aware of this paradox and the interplay between our medical choices and the things that give our lives meaning.

While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability – or your mother’s – to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?

Both Gawande and Kalanithi help us recognize that knowing what we – and our loved ones – value in life will inform the choices we make about death when that time comes.

As a patient

What happens to your identity and sense of purpose when your plan for the next 40 years is suddenly wiped off the table?

My brother Jeevan had arrived at my bedside. “You’ve accomplished so much,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”

I sighed. He meant well, but the words rang hollow. My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I was physically debilitated, my imagined future and my personal identity collapsed, and I faced the same existential quandaries my patients faced. The lung cancer was confirmed. My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed.

After the diagnosis, Kalanithi was forced to re-evaluate what was most valuable to him.

While being trained as a physician and scientist had helped me process the data and accept the limits of what that data could reveal about my prognosis, it didn’t help me as a patient. It didn’t tell Lucy and me whether we should go ahead and have a child, or what it meant to nurture a new life while mine faded. Nor did it tell me whether to fight for my career, to reclaim the ambitions I had single-mindedly pursued for so long, but without the surety of the time to complete them.

Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living…

The old adage to ‘live each day as if it were your last’ loses strength under scrutiny. What gives our lives meaning on any given day depends to some extent on how imminent we believe death is.

Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die – but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d go back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

In searching for solace, Kalanithi returned to his love of literature.

And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day – no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

That morning, I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.

In one of the most profound passages of the book, Lucy and Paul discuss whether to have a child, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” she asks, and he responds, simply, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

Kalanithi comes to believe that life is about striving, not about avoiding suffering.

Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best. We talked it over. Our families gave their blessing. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living instead of dying.

He leaves behind this impassioned message for his daughter, Cady, eight months old at the time of his death.

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

When Breath Becomes Air, paired with Being Mortal, will get you thinking about what matters in your life and about ‘what lies up ahead on the road’.

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Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Tiny Beautiful Things. A famous advice columnist operates under a pen name allowing her to be intimate and frank — dispensing advice built on a foundation of deep personal experience.

Richard Feynman’s Love Letter to His Wife Sixteen Months After Her Death. The famous physicist understood more about living a meaningful life than physics.

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The Boundaries Between Science and Religion: Alan Lightman on Different Kinds of Knowledge

“The physical universe is subject to rational analysis and the methods of science. The spiritual universe is not. All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis. Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.”

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Alan Lightman, whose beautiful meditation on our yearning for permanence in a universe that offers none, looks at the tension between science and religion in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

In the essay, “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman sets out to reconcile his personal struggle between religion and science. In so doing he sets out the necessary criteria for science to be compatible with religion:

The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the central doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis adviser never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the central doctrine is the invisible oxygen that most scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, that it is discoverable by human beings, just as nineteenth-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

Our knowledge of scientific laws is provisional. We do not know all the laws but we believe in a complete set of them. We further believe, in principle anyway, that humans will uncover these laws. An example of a scientific law is the conservation of energy.

The total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant. The energy in an isolated container may change form, as when the chemical energy latent in a fresh match changes into the heat and light energy of a burning flame— but, according to the law of the conservation of energy, the total amount of energy does not change.

Even scientific laws that we already know about are updated and refined over time. Lightman offers the replacement of Newton’s law of gravity (1687) by Einstein’s deeper and more accurate law of gravity (1915). These revisions are part of the very fabric of science.

Next, Lightman provides a working definition of God.

I would not pretend to know the nature of God, if God does indeed exist, but for the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, I think we can safely say that God is understood to be a Being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical law (that is, performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and omniscience.

Lightman then offers a continium of religious beliefs based on the degree to which God acts in the world. At one end is atheism — or denying the existence of god. Moving along the spectrum, we find deism, which was a prominent view in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that God created the universe but has not acted since this spark.

Voltaire was a deist. As God’s role expands we find immanentism, which holds that God created the universe and its scientific laws. Under this view, God continues to act through the repeated application of those laws. We can probably put Einstein in the immanentism camp. (Philosophically both deism and immanentism are similar because God does not perform miracles.)

Opposite atheism lies interventionism. Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism subscribe to this view, which is that God created the universe and its laws and occasionally violates the laws to create unpredictable results.

Lightman argues that all of these views, except interventionism, agree with science.

Starting with these axioms, we can say that science and God are compatible as long as the latter is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun. A God that intervenes after the cosmic pendulum has been set into motion, violating the physical laws, would clearly upend the central doctrine of science.

Lightman cites Francis Collins, who offers some thoughtful advice on reconciling a belief in an interventionist God and science, or at least, deciding which to turn to for answers to the right kinds of questions. They are often very different.

“I’ve not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 … if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions.

Under this reconciliation, miracles cannot be analyzed by the methods of science. This is an echo of Richard Feynman, who put it most clearly in one of his letters, saying that science only tells us if we do something then what will happen? Cause and effect. It doesn’t give us any guidance on the question of should we do it?

Lightman, himself, falls in the atheist camp.

I am an atheist myself. I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with (Other Scientists) that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

And yet we must believe in things we cannot (yet) prove. Lightman himself believes in the central doctrine which cannot be proven. At most we can only say there is no evidence to contradict it. This is what Karl Popper called real science – a process by which we hypothesize and then attack our hypotheses. A scientific “fact” is one that has stood up to extraordinary scrutiny.

With much of life, and much meaning in the world, there are often things outside of the scientific realm. These are worth considering.

I believe there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

Lightman recalls his time as a grad student in physics and the concept of a “well-posed problem” — a question with “enough clarity and precision that it is guaranteed an answer.” Put another way, scientists are trained not to “waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.” And yet questions without clear and definite answers are sometimes just as important. Just because we can’t apply the scientific method to them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider them.

[A]rtists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. That is why we can never fully understand why the highly sensitive Raskolnikov brutally murdered the old pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment, whether Plato’s ideal form of government could ever be realized in human society, whether we would be happier if we lived to be a thousand years old. For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

The question is more important than the answer — just as the journey is more important than the destination and the process is more important than outcome.

As the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it a century ago:  “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.”

“As human beings,” Lightman argues, “don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?”

The God Delusion, a widely read book by Richard Dawkins, uses modern tools to attack two common arguments for the existence of God: Intelligent Design (only an intelligent and powerful being could have designed the universe) and that only the action and will of God explains our morality and desire to help others. Dawkins convincingly shows that Earth could have arisen from the laws of nature and random processes, without the intervention of a supernatural and intelligent Designer. Our sense of morality and altruism could be a logical derivative of natural selection.

However, as Lightman reminds us, refuting or falsifying the arguments put forward to support a proposition does not necessarily falsify the proposition itself.

Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

Lightman is troubled by Dawkins’ wholesale dismissal of religion.

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Indeed, William & Ariel Durant have argued that we need religion; it is part of our fabric of understanding and living in the world.

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With that, Lightman brings the essay to a beautiful conclusion.

The physical and spiritual universes each have their own domains and their own limitations. The question of the age of planet Earth, for example, falls squarely in the domain of science, since there are reliable tests we can perform, such as using the rate of disintegration of radioactive rocks, to determine a definitive answer. Such questions as “What is the nature of love?” or “Is it moral to kill another person in time of war?” or “Does God exist?” lie outside the bounds of science but fall well within the realm of religion. I am impatient with people who, like Richard Dawkins, try to disprove the existence of God with scientific arguments. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. I am equally impatient with people who make statements about the physical universe that violate physical evidence and the known laws of nature. Within the domain of the physical universe, science cannot hold sway on some days but not on others. Knowingly or not, we all depend on the consistent operation of the laws of nature in the physical universe day after day— for example, when we board an airplane, allow ourselves to be lofted thousands of feet in the air, and hope to land safely at the other end. Or when we stand in line to receive a vaccination against the next season’s influenza.

Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has its own power. Each has its own beauty, and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.

The Accidental Universe is a mind-bending read on the known and unknowable, offering a window into our universe and some of the profound questions of our time.