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Francis Bacon and the Four Idols of the Mind

Francis Bacon the Four Idols of the Mind


Among the Enlightenment founders, his spirit is the one that most endures.
It informs us across four centuries that we
must understand nature
both around us and within ourselves, in order to set humanity
on the course of self-improvement. 

-E.O. Wilson on Francis Bacon

***

The English statesman and scholar Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the earliest thinkers to truly understand the nature of the mind and how humanity truly progresses in collective knowledge.

Bacon’s first great contribution was to lessen the focus on traditional scholarship: the constant mining of the old Greek and Roman philosophers and the old religious texts, the idea that most of our knowledge had already been “found” and needed to be rediscovered.

To Bacon, this was an unstable artifice on which to build our understanding of the world. Better that we start reasoning from first principles, building up our knowledge of the world through inductive reasoning. E.O. Wilson summarizes Bacon’s contribution in a chapter on the Enlightenment in his excellent book Consilience.

By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, he concluded that the best among them is induction, which is the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions. Bacon proclaimed a pyramid of disciplines, with natural history forming the base, physics above and subsuming it, and metaphysics at the peak, explaining everything below–though perhaps in powers and forms beyond the grasp of man.

In this way, Wilson crowns Bacon as the Father of Induction — the first to truly grasp the power of careful inductive reasoning to generate insights. Bacon broke down the old, rigid ways of classifying knowledge in favor of building a new understanding from the ground up, using experiments to prove or disprove a theory.

In this way, he realized much of what was being taught in his time, including metaphysics, alchemy, magic, astrology, and other disciplines, would eventually crumble under scrutiny. (A feeling we share about our current age.)

Insights of the Mind

Most importantly, hundreds of years before the advent of modern psychology, Bacon understood clearly that the human mind doesn’t always reason correctly, and that any approach to scientific knowledge must start with that understanding. Over 400 years before there was a Charlie Munger or a Daniel Kahneman, Bacon clearly understood the first-conclusion bias and the confirmation bias.

In his Novum Organum, Bacon described these errors in the same manner we understand them today:

The mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things, from whence all the rest proceed, errors must forever prevail, and remain uncorrected.

[…]

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

He called the wide variety of errors in mental processing the Idols of the Mind. There were four idols: Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace, and Idols of the Theater.

Idols of the Tribe

The Idols of the Tribe made the false assumption that our most natural and basic sense of thing was the correct one. He called our natural impressions a “false mirror” which distorted the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

Idols of the Cave

The Idols of the Cave were the problems of individuals, their passions and enthusiasms, their devotions and ideologies, all of which led to misunderstandings of the true nature of things.

The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world.

Idols of the Marketplace

You might call the Idols of the Marketplace a problem of political discourse: The use of words to mislead. (Nearly a half a century later, Garrett Hardin would argue similarly that good thinkers need a literary filter to suss out sense from nonsense.)

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

Idols of the Theater

The final idol, of the Theater, is how Bacon referred to long-received wisdom, the ancient systems of philosophy, the arbitrary divisions of knowledge and classification systems held onto like dogma. Without emptying one’s mind of the old ways, no new progress could be made. This would be an important lasting value of the Baconian view of science. Truth must be reasoned from first principles.

Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.

The Lasting Importance of Narrative

Even with his rationalistic view of the world, a rigorous devotion to truth, Bacon realized that unless you used creative storytelling and engaged a learner’s mind, it would be impossible to communicate real truths about the world. He knew the power narrative had to instruct. E.O. Wilson writes in Consilience:

Reality still had to be embraced directly and reported without flinching. But it is also best delivered the same way it was discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions. Nature and her secrets must be as stimulating to the imagination as are poetry and fables. To that end, Bacon advised us to use aphorisms, illustrations, stories, fables, analogies–anything that conveys truth from the discoverer to his readers as clearly as a picture. The mind, he argued, is not like a wax tablet. On a tablet you cannot write the new till you rub out the old, on the mind you cannot rub out the old except by writing in the new.”

 

Learning From Your Mistakes … When You Win

“Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed,
for if you merely offend them they take vengeance,
but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate,
so that the injury done to a man ought to be such
that vengeance cannot be feared.”

— Machiavelli, The Prince.

***

In the ancient world, wars were wars of conquest or survival. The Persian, Macedonian and Roman empires were the spear-won fruits of conquest, resulting in the total annihilation of their enemies. By the seventeenth century, however, the increased cost of war made such triumphs nearly impossible. The victors of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) were as devastated as the defeated. Nations lacked the infrastructure to mobilize for total war, and so it became a more limited activity. Small, expensive professionally-trained armies fought campaigns to obtain limited benefits in a series of king-of-the-hill conflicts between dynasties. Total victory, and the accompanying hatred and annihilation of the loser, was rare.

This pattern changed again with the rise of the nation-in-arms. Mass conscript armies, supported by large-scale propaganda campaigns at the home front, fought the wars of Napoleon, the American Civil War, and, approaching the Twentieth Century, the wars of German unification. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), after defeating the regular French army, the Germans had to face a people’s militia; Paris was besieged and bombarded. When the war finally ended, Germany annexed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, claiming that they were historically German. But German Chancellor Bismarck himself recommended against the annexation, stating that it would cause continued enmity, and jeopardize any hope for long-term peace between the two nations.

Bismarck was correct; the annexation created resentment that only increased and helped generate the momentum leading to the First World War. (At least someone understood the Hydra.) Four years later, the horrific devastation of the war reinforced the victors’ attitude of debellation – harsh and absolute punishment of the losers to ensure that they are never able to rise again. The Paris Peace Talks were awkward as they tried to balance the ideals of the League of Nations, to create a unified bond of peace and mutual recognition, with the reality of seizures and break-ups of territory, and the reparations to be paid by the losers.

In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes argued that the reparations inflicted on Germany were unjust and would lead to future conflict, the opposite of their intent. Historians continue to debate his arguments. What is true is that the sense of injustice created by the reparations was a major element of Hitler’s rhetoric, and this emotion echoes throughout his speeches in his rise to power. The causes of the Great War had been murky, and it was not clear who was the aggressor. Was Germany forced into aggression by Russian mobilization? Was it right that Germany should have to pay so much, and furthermore, later see the French occupy the Ruhr, the center of Germany’s industry? Hitler used this resentment – an emotion he himself felt to his core – along with the general economic collapse of the 1930s, to create the anger for justice and revenge that brought him public support and the role of Chancellor. Human beings have a strong desire to see justice – that is, our very limited emotional interpretation of it – carried out to restore our belief in fairness in the world.

Fast forward to 1945, and the end of the second global conflict in thirty years, unimaginably worse than the first one. This time the destruction of the defeated was as utter as any nation has suffered since Carthage. The French proposed that Germany’s industrial heartland be annexed, to ensure that France would have the industrial power to always serve as a check on future German ambition. US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. went even further, proposing to completely de-industrialize Germany, turning it into an agrarian society, incapable of waging modern war.

For the first few years, a variation of Morgenthau’s plan was used to guide post-war policy. However, by 1947, it was apparent that a crippled West Germany was delaying European recovery in general, and the continent would be unable to defend against Soviet encroachment. US Secretary of State George Marshall introduced the plan that bears his name, providing $1.5 billion to West Germany (and over $2.3 billion to France). Between 1948 and 1951, seventeen European nations obtained a total of almost $13 billion ($130 billion in today’s money) in aid through the Marshall Plan. Substantial sums were also provided to Asia, including Japan, during the same period.

Did the Marshall Plan fuel Europe’s post-war recovery? In the two decades after the war, France spent at least the same amount of money fighting two unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Algeria. It’s hard to say that they earned much benefit from the aid. West Germany was better able to invest the money, but economic historians argue that their growth had more to do with their own internal policies on currency stabilization, low taxes for the middle class, and investment in both capital stock and education. But all those polices had to operate in the context of investment, and much of that investment came from the Marshall Plan.

Which was the more peaceful Europe? The Europe of the 1920s or the Europe of the 1950s? Many factors led to the rise of Hitler, the global depression being one of them, but Hitler was molded by his experience living homeless on the streets of Vienna before the First World War, and the turmoil of anger and unemployment that followed the end of the war.

Which Europe are we more grateful for? The idea of a unified Europe was almost unimaginable in the context of the perceived injustice of punishment for losing. Only after the second war did it become real. A Frenchman in 1913, or a German in 1919, would have laughed in disbelief if you described to them how close their two nations are now.

When we win, we often want to be like Machiavelli’s Prince, and win utterly. It is when your opponent is defeated that he is weakest, helpless, and you can take the most from him. And, if somehow he rises to confront you again, then that means you were not severe enough in your punishment, and you should only punish him harder.

But it seems that no victory is complete, now. For every terrorist leader struck down, another pops up to replace him. The Marshall Plan looked at the idea of punition and decided that it wouldn’t work. The only way to make your enemy incapable of revenge would be to wipe them out completely. Or, conversely, rebuild them and take away the cause for anger. Make them more like you, not as a nation, but as a victor.

Still Curious? Check out why win-win relationships are the only ones that stand the test of time. 

The Narrative Fallacy and What You Can Do About It

“These types of stories strike a deep chord: They give us deep, affecting reasons on which to hang our understanding of reality. They help us make sense of our own lives. And, most importantly, they frequently cause us to believe we can predict the future. The problem is, most of them are a sham.”

***

The Narrative Fallacy

A typical biography starts by describing the subject’s young life, trying to show how the ultimate painting began as just a sketch. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, for example, Isaacson determines that Jobs’s success was determined to a great degree by the childhood  influence of his father, a careful, detailed-oriented engineer and craftsman – Paul Jobs would carefully craft the backs of fences and cabinets even if no one would see – who Jobs later found out was not his biological father. The combination of his adoption and his craftsman father planted the seeds of Steve’s adult personality: his penchant for design detail, his need to prove himself, his messianic zeal. The recent movie starring Michael Fassbender especially plays up the latter cause; Jobs’s feeling of abandonment drove his success. Fassbender’s emotional portrayal earned him an Oscar nomination.

Nassim Taleb describes a memorable experience of a similar type in his book The Black Swan. He’s in Rome having an animated discussion with a professor who has read Nassim’s first book Fooled by Randomness, parts of which promote the idea that our mind creates more cause-and-effect links than reality would support. The professor proceeds to congratulate Nassim on his great luck by being born in Lebanon:

…had you grown up in a Protestant society where people are told that efforts are linked to rewards and individual responsibility is emphasized, you would never have seen the world in such a manner. You were able to see luck and separate cause and effect because of your Eastern Orthodox Mediterranean heritage. 

These types of stories strike a deep chord: They give us deep, affecting reasons on which to hang our understanding of reality. They help us make sense of our own lives. And, most importantly, they frequently cause us to believe we can predict the future. The problem is, most of them are a sham.

***

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The Distorting Power of Incentives

“The rabbit runs faster than the fox, because the rabbit is running for his life while the fox is only running for his dinner.”
— R. Dawkins

***

Simply put, incentives matter a lot. Incentives are at the root of a lot of situations we face and yet we often fail to account for them. They carry the power to distort our behavior and blind us to reality.

Pebbles of Perception- How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference

Even accounting for them is often not enough. As Charlie Munger cautions, “I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. Never a year passes that I don’t get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.”

In Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference, Laurence Endersen writes:

We can only see a situation with true clarity when we take the time to carefully consider the interests at hand. And we understand it even better when we consider how the situation might be different if the underlying interests were different.

But … just as we often fail to understand them, we can also overly focus on them. To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Imagine the nature of a football game where the first goal scorer took all the spoils. There would be one hell of a scramble to score the first goal and it might make compelling viewing. The carrot is effective, but it is too pointed. We suddenly focus on the incentive and forget about the second order consequences. What we see is that narrow incentives influence performance, but they may not improve it. Studies of loan officer approvals during the recent US mortgage crisis showed that the loan officers actually believed the cases with the highest commission were more creditworthy. The effect was worse than naked self-interest: the incentive actually blinded their judgement.

Understanding incentives comes through second-and-third-level thinking. Many incentive systems have backfired because people failed to consider other interests and incentives.

An example is monetary rewards offered to help exterminate unwanted animals such as rats and snakes. What authorities failed to foresee was that people would start to breed the rats and snakes. Forcing people to have overly complex passwords can be another perverse incentive. When faced with this complexity we simply write down our passwords somewhere “safe”.

As to good incentives, money is not enough.

Good incentives acknowledge recognition, public perception, and the value of pursuing work that we can be proud of. So yes, if we want to persuade, we should appeal to interests not reason. But when it comes to interests, appeal not just to net worth but also to self-worth.

There are a few things worth keeping in mind.

First, the behavior you see is usually the result of incentives you don’t see. Consider the sharp elbows you see in a typical workplace. Looking at this behavior in isolation it makes little sense. However, odds are, this is rewarded in some way.

Second, we generally get the behavior we reward.

Third, creating effective incentive systems is hard work. We need to consider not only the first level of incentives but also the second and third and how they will impact the system.

Enderson concludes:

Incentives matter greatly – underestimate them at your peril. People will navigate the shortest path to the incentive. The curious among us will pay particular attention to incentives, monetary or otherwise.

Carol Dweck: When a Fixed Mindset is Better than a Growth Mindset

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
— Chuck Close

***

“So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset,” writes Angela Duckworth. “It is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort.” Carol Dweck’s insights about “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets are the key.

Below find a talk Dweck gave at Google, with some excerpts that I found particularly interesting. She talks about what keeps her up at night, how to encourage children, the role of shame, and whether a fixed mindset can be more beneficial than a growth mindset.

When asked what keeps her up at night in regards to the thought of someone challenging, disproving or using her theories.

Yes. I always had this attitude of challenging my ideas and my theories because if you’re wrong you want to know it as soon as possible. You don’t want to spend your life on it. So… what keeps me up at night in a good way are different areas where it could be applied. So we have a whole program of research on peace in the Middle East where we’re using Mindset principles, I’m not minimizing the hugeness of the problem but we’re using Mindset principles to try to build some greater understanding. So I love to think of ways that we can extend it into areas we never thought of before. I love to think of ways to implement it so that more kids who need this way of thinking can benefit from it. And something that also keeps me up at night is that fear that people are developing what i’m calling a ‘false growth mindset’.It’s this idea ‘if it’s good I have it’. So a lot of people are kind of declaring they have it but they don’t. They think it just means open-minded or being a nice person or maybe they are saying it for fixed mindset reasons, I want you to judge me as being the right kind of person. So developing a growth mindset is really a journey, a lifelong journey of monitoring your trigger points and trying to approach things and a more growth mindset way of taking on the challenges, sticking to them, learning from them. Right now I’m writing something for educators that I’m calling ‘false growth mindset’ to tell them ‘no, you can’t just say it, you have to take a journey’ because we’re doing research now showing that many teachers and parents that say they have a growth mindset are actually responding to kids in ways that are creating fixed mindsets for kids. So that’s kind of the array of things that keep me up at night. But that said, I do sleep pretty well.

When asked what you should say to encourage a child when you can’t use words like smart.

The question is if you can’t say smart, what can you say? You can say so many other things. One thing is you can just show interest in the process that the child or other person is engaging in and in our research that’s what we’ve shown is effective, focusing on the process or appreciating the process someone is engaging in or has engaged in so just show interest, ask questions, give encouragement if they’ve been grappling with something and they’ve tried new strategies or stuck to the strategy. One parent said, ‘oh I hate it ’cause I can’t appreciate it when my child does something great.’ I said, ‘well where did you get that from?’ Of course you can appreciate it, then tie it to something they engaged in. ‘Oh, you couldn’t do that yesterday, you made progress, that’s so exciting, oh that’s great you really stuck to it and learned it. Or, you tried all different ways and look that worked.’ So you’re really appreciating some outcome where they are and you’re talking about how they got there. But if you don’t have that information just ask them. Never praise effort that isn’t there.

When asked how she thinks shame plays a part in a fixed versus growth mindset?

Oh, that’s a great question. We have studied that and we have shown that shame is a big factor in a fixed mindset. You don’t want to take on a challenge. It’s humiliating to have a setback within a fixed mindset, it means you’re not the person you want to be and other people aren’t going to look at you in the same way. We’ve studied it in adolescence, adolescents in a fixed mindset feel incredible shame when they are excluded or rejected and that makes them want to lash out violently. And research for many years, many people’s research has shown that shame is not a productive emotion. It makes you want to hide or lash out, both of which are not gonna get you, in the long run, where you want to be. In a growth mindset you can feel very disappointed. You can feel hurt. You can feel guilty. You can feel a lot of things but these are emotions that allow you to go forward and be constructive.

When asked if she sees any context in which a fixed mindset is more beneficial than a growth mindset?

Well, first let me say that a growth mindset doesn’t require you to go around improving everything. You can focus and you can say no I’m not gonna do that, no I’m not gonna do that. But research, not my research but research of others has in fact looked at this question and found two areas so far in which a fixed mindset is better. One is sexual orientation. People who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to be better adjusted than people who think ‘I should be changing.’ And the other is aging. So, it’s nice to feel you can stay young through exercise and so forth but people who run around nipping and tucking and the tummy tuck and the this that and the other and it’s kind of a desperate attempt to retain extreme youth that doesn’t seem to be so great either. But when it comes to skill areas it looks like a growth mindset is typically more advantageous.

Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is worth reading in its entirety.

Too Busy to Pay Attention to Life

“You act like mortals in all that you fear,
and like immortals in all that you desire.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca

***

Alan Lightman, the physicist who brought us The Accidental Universe, has also written several works of fiction, including Einstein’s Dreams, presented as dreams Einstein might have had while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland in 1905. More philosophy than physics, the book is a collection of thought experiments about the concept of time. Each of the hypothetical scenarios is only a few pages long, but all provide food for thought. What if we knew when our time would end? What if there were no cause and effect to our actions? What if there was no past? No future? If we could freeze a moment in time, what moment would we choose? And, most critically, are we spending our finite allotment of time on this earth wisely?

In one of Einstein’s dreams, people live forever. In this world, the population is divided into the Nows and the Laters.

The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine…Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly…They are the owners of the cafés, the college professors, the doctors and nurses, the politicians, the people who rock their legs constantly whenever they sit down.

The Laters reason that there is no hurry to begin their classes at university, to learn a second language, to read Voltaire or Newton, to seek promotion in their jobs, to fall in love, to raise a family. For all these things, there is an infinite span of time. In endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes…The Laters sit in cafés sipping coffee and discussing the possibilities of life.

If you recognized yourself or the people in your life in these descriptions, it’s not surprising. People in this world of infinite time are strikingly familiar to us because we live our lives as if we are going to live forever. We bury our awareness of our mortality beneath our busyness or convince ourselves that there will be time to live the lives we want ‘later’. This is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, Seneca wrote:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Too Busy to Pay Attention to Life

The Now personalities, the perpetually-busy, rushers-through of life, can be spotted in several of Einstein’s Dreams. A dream where “one may choose his motion along the axis of time”, illustrates the consequences of moving too quickly.

The woman catches her breath. She is fifty years old. She lies on her bed, tries to remember her life, stares at a photograph of herself as a child, squatting on the beach with her mother and father.

In another world, time passes more slowly for people in motion, but the faster people travel, the less happy they seem to be.

Because when two people pass on the street, each person perceives the other in motion, just as a man in a train perceives the trees to fly by his window. Consequently, when two people pass on the street, each sees the other’s time flow more slowly. Each sees the other gaining time. This reciprocity is maddening. More maddening still, the faster one travels past a neighbor, the faster the neighbor appears to be traveling.

These words strike a chord in today’s hectic, always-connected, world where we race from one commitment to the next, using our electronic devices along the way to maximize our productivity. But, as Seneca observes in On the Shortness of Life, multi-tasking only takes us further from our ultimate goal.

…no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things…since the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

We don’t slow down long enough to think. We’re so focused on what’s next that we rarely take the time to ask ourselves whether we’re living the life we want or if we’re even really present in the one we have.

Waiting for Life to Happen

Not everyone in Lightman’s tales is speeding through life. In one world, people get stuck in time.

In another house, a man sits alone at his table, laid out for two. Ten years ago, he sat here across from his father, was unable to say that he loved him…The man begins to eat, cannot eat, weeps uncontrollably. He never said that he loved him.

The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.

In another of Einstein’s dreams, that will be painfully familiar to some, two couples are having dinner together, their conversation banal and meaningless.

For in this world, time does pass, but little happens. Just as little happens from year to year, little happens from month to month, day to day. If time and the passage of events are the same, then time moves barely at all…If a person holds no ambitions in this world, he suffers unknowingly. If a person holds ambitions, he suffers knowingly, but very slowly.

We can get stuck in the past, unable to let go of regret, or we can get stuck in a rut of routine, too uncertain of what the future might hold to risk chasing our dreams. Like the people in Dr. Seuss’s waiting place, we can end up ‘just waiting’…waiting for life to happen, passing our time in idle pursuits and telling ourselves that we’ll live the life we want when the mortgage is paid off or when the kids are grown or when we retire.

In On the Shortness of Life, Seneca writes:

How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live. What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!

Living a Life Less Short

Despite the title of his essay, Seneca argues that life is only as short as we choose to make it.

It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much…the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer suggests one way we can stretch out time.

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthy and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

This also helps explain why time seems to move faster as we age. The older we become, the fewer novel experiences we tend to have.

In Lightman’s fictional worlds, the people who find contentment are those who learn to live in the moment. Staying in the present is surprisingly difficult to achieve, but practicing meditation and mindfulness can help us get there more often, and the reward when we do so is well worth the effort.

In the final dream of the book, time is a nightingale, as fleeting and elusive as the present moment.

On those occasions when a nightingale is caught, the catchers delight in the moment now frozen. They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.

Einstein’s Dreams and Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life (also available free online) are both very quick reads. Reflecting on what they have to say is time well spent.