Review: A Very Short Introduction to Galileo

Review: A Very Short Introduction to Galileo
Galileo: A Very Short Introduction

Galileo: A Very Short Introduction by Stillman Drake

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is not a single effect in Nature, not even the least that exists, such that the most ingenious theorists can ever arrive at a complete understanding of it.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Very Short Introduction series is the range of creative freedom allowed to its writers. (Either that, or its flexibility in repurposing older writings; presumably a version of this book was published before the VSI series even got off the ground, since its author died in 1993.) This is a good example: For in lieu of an introduction, Stillman Drake, one of the leading scholars of the Italian scientist, has given us a novel analysis of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition.

Admittedly, in order to contextualize the trial, Drake must cover all of Galileo’s life and thought. But Drake’s focus on the trial means that many things one would expect from an introduction—for example, an explanation of Galileo’s lasting contributions to science—are only touched upon, in order to make space for what Drake believed was the crux of the conflict: Galileo’s philosophy of science.

Galileo Galilei was tried in 1633 for failing to obey the church’s edict that forbade the adoption, defense, or teaching of the Copernican view. And it seems that he has been on trial ever since. The Catholic scientist’s battle with the Catholic Church has been transformed into the archetypical battle between religion and science, with Galileo bravely championing the independence of human reason from ancient dogma. This naturally elevated Galileo to the status of intellectual heroe; but more recently Galileo has been criticized for falling short of this ideal. Historian of science, Alexandre Kojève, famously claimed that Galileo hadn’t actually performed the experiments he cited as arguments, but that his new science was mainly based on thought experiments. And Arthur Koestler, in his popular history of astronomy, criticized Galileo for failing to incorporate Kepler’s new insights. Perhaps Galileo was not, after all, any better than the scholastics he criticized?

Drake has played a significant role in pushing back against these arguments. First, he used the newly discovered working papers of Galileo to demonstrate that, indeed, he had performed careful experiments in developing his new scheme of mechanics. Drake also points out that Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was intended for popular audiences, and so it would be unreasonable to expect Galileo to incorporate Kepler’s elliptical orbits. Finally, Drake draws a hard line between Galileo’s science and the medieval theories of motion that have been said to presage Galileo’s theories. Those theories, he observes, were concerned with the metaphysical cause of motion; whereas Galileo abandoned the search for causes, and inaugurated the use of careful measurements and numerical predictions in science.

Thus, Drake argues that Galileo never saw himself as an enemy of the Church; to the contrary, he saw himself as fighting for its preservation. What Galileo opposed was the alignment of Church dogma with one very particular interpretation of scripture, which Galileo believed would put the church in danger of being discredited in the future. Galileo attributed this mistaken policy to a group of malicious professors of philosophy, who, in the attempt to buttress their outdated methods, used Biblical passages to make their views seem orthodox. This was historically new. Saint Augustine, for example, considered the opinions of natural philosophers entirely irrelevant to the truth of the Catholic faith, and left the matter to experts. It was only in Galileo’s day (during the Counter-Reformation) that scientific theories became a matter of official church policy.

Drake’s conclusion is that Galileo’s trial was not so much a conflict between science and religion (for the two had co-existed for many centuries), but between science and philosophy: the former concerned with measurement and prediction, the latter concerned with causes. And Drake notes that many contemporary criticisms of Galileo—leaving many loose-ends in his system, for example—mirror the contemporary criticisms of his work. The trial goes on.

Personally I found this book fascinating and extremely lucid. However, I am not sure it exactly fulfills its promise as an introduction to Galileo. I think that someone entirely new to Galileo’s work, or to the history and philosophy of science, may not get as much out of this work. Luckily, most of Galileo’s own writings (translated by Drake) are already very accessible and enjoyable.



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Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82 by Charles Darwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

This is the quintessential scientific autobiography, a brief and charming book that Darwin wrote “for nearly an hour on most afternoons” for a little over two months. Originally published in 1887—five years after the naturalist’s death—it was somewhat censored, the more controversial religious opinions being taken out. It was only in 1958, to celebrate the centennial of The Origin of Species, that the full version was restored, edited by one of Darwin’s granddaughters, Nora Barlow.

The religious opinions that Darwin expresses are, nowadays, not enough to raise eyebrows. In short, his travels and his research slowly eroded his faith until all that remained was an untroubled agnosticism. What is interesting is that Darwin attributes to his loss of faith his further loss of sensitivity to music and to grand natural scenes. Apparently, in later life he found himself unable to experience the sublime. His scientific work also caused him to lose his appreciation for music, pictures, and poetry, which he heartily regrets: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he says, and attributes to this the fact that “for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry.”

The most striking and lovable of Darwin’s qualities is his humility. He notes his lack of facility with foreign languages (which partially caused him to refuse Marx’s offer to dedicate Kapital to him), his terrible ear for music, his difficulty with writing, his incompetence in mathematics, and repeatedly laments his lack of higher aesthetic sensitivities. His explanation for his great scientific breakthrough is merely a talent for observation and dogged persistence. He even ends the book by saying: “With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important point.” It is remarkable that such a modest and retiring man should have stirred up one of the greatest revolutions in Western thought. Few thinkers have been more averse to controversy.

This little book also offers some reflection on the development of his theory—with the oft-quoted paragraph about reading Malthus—as well as several good portraits of contemporary thinkers. But the autobiography is not nearly as full as one might expect, since Darwin skips over his voyage on the Beagle (he had already written an excellent book about it) and since the second half of his life was extremely uneventful. For Darwin developed a mysterious ailment that kept his mostly house-bound, so much so that he did not even go to his father’s funeral. The explanation eluded doctors in his time and has resisted firm diagnosis ever since. But the consensus seems to be that it was at least in part psychological. It did give Darwin a convenient excuse to avoid society and focus on his work.

The final portrait which emerges is that of a scrupulous, methodical, honest, plainspoken, diffident, and level-headed fellow. It is easy to imagine him as a retiring uncle or a reserved high school teacher. That such a man, through a combination of genius and circumstance—and do not forget that he almost did not go on that famous voyage—could scandalize the public and make a fundamental contribution to our picture of the universe, is perhaps the greatest argument that ever was against the eccentric genius trope.

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Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.

—George Santayana

This quote sums up the apparent futility of argument—not only about religion, but about so many things that arouse strong feeling. I have never seen, or even heard of, a discussion about religion or politics that ended with one of the participants being convinced. If anything, conversations about these topics seem only to entrench the opposing parties in their positions.

This occurrence appears common and universal; and yet its implications strike at one of the pillars of western thought—that rational arguments can be used to reach the truth and to convince others—as well as of liberal democracy, which rests on the ideal that, to paraphrase John Milton, truth emerges victorious from open encounters with untruth. If debate is really futile in matters religious (which involves our ultimate views of life and the universe) and politics (which involves our stance on society), then are we doomed to endless tribal bickering based on nothing more than group mentality?

I strongly wish that this wasn’t the case; but I admit that, judging on my actions in daily life, I have little faith in the power of reason in these matters. I tend to avoid topics like religion and politics, even among friends. Powerful emotions underpin these aspects of life; values and identity are implicated; and individual psychology—background, traumas, inadequacies—may render the action far removed from cold calculation.

To a large extent, admittedly, rationality has only a subsidiary role in decision-making. Hume was quite right, I believe, to call reason a “slave of the passions.” We are never motivated by reason alone; indeed I don’t even know what that would look like. We are motivated, instead, by desires, which are organic facts. In themselves, desires are neither rational nor irrational. Rationality only applies, first, when we are figuring our how to satisfy these desires; and, second, when multiple, conflicting desires are at play.

The desires to be skinny and to eat three pints of ice cream a day, for example, conflict with one another, and reasoning is needed to achieve a harmony between these two. A reasoner may realize that, however, delicious ice cream may be, the desire to be skinny is consonant with the strong desire to be healthy and live long, so the ice cream is reduced. Both internally, within our psyches, and externally, within society, reason is how we achieve the most satisfying balance of competing desires.

Since reason rests on a fundamentally non-rational bases—namely, desires—it may be the case that reason has no appeal. In politics, for example, somebody may crave equality, and another person freedom; and no argument could move or undermine these desires, since neither is rational in the first place. Different political orientations are rooted in different value systems; and values are nothing but orientations of desires.

But I think it is often the case that competing value systems have many points in common. Grave inequality can, for instance, curtail freedom; and enforced inequality can do the same. For either party, then, a satisfactory society cannot have absolute inequality, absolute equality, absolute freedom, or absolute slavery. These different values are therefore not totally at odds, but are merely different emphases of the same basic desires, different ways to harmonize competing pulls. And in cases like these, rational argument can help to achieve a compromise.

What about religion? Here the case seems somewhat different from politics, since religion is not just a question of values but involves a view of reality.

Admittedly, political ideologies also involve a certain view of reality. Each ideology comes with its own historical narrative. Sometimes these narratives are nothing but a tissue of lies, as with the Nazis; and even the most respectable political narrative may make some dubious assumptions. Nevertheless, the validity of political opinions is not purely a matter of the truth of their historical narrative. Somebody may genuinely desire communism even if everything they assert about the Soviet Union is wrong; and if debunking their history makes us doubtful of the possibility of satisfying their desire, it does not invalidate the desire itself.

With religion, to repeat, the case is somewhat different, since religions assert some set of facts about the universe; and without this set of facts, the religion falls to pieces. All of Marx’s theories of history may be wrong, but you can still rationally want a communist society. But a Christianity without a belief in a divine Jesus has lost its core. It is no longer a religion. In this way religion is decidedly not like falling in love, contrary to Santayana, since love, being pure desire, makes no assertion about the world.

This seems to put religions on a different footing, since they rest not only on desires, but beliefs. And if these beliefs prove incorrect or irrational, then the religion ceases to make sense. From my readings in history, science, philosophy, and theology, it seems quite clear to me that this is the case: that insofar as religious notions can be disproved, they have been; and insofar as they are unprovable, they are irrational to believe.

Indeed, I think with enough time I could explain this quite clearly to a believer. But I have never tried, since I am almost positive it wouldn’t work—that their religious beliefs would be impervious to argument. I also admit that the thought of doing so, of trying to talk someone out of a religion, makes me feel uneasy. It seems impolite and invasive to try to exert so much pressure on somebody’s fundamental beliefs. And even if I were successful, I believe I would feel somewhat guilty, like I had just told a child that Santa wasn’t real.

But is this uneasiness justified? If religions are truly irrational, based on a mistaken picture of the world, then they can give rise to unjustifiable actions. The religiously inspired fight against gay marriage, climate change, and abortion are excellent examples of this. Furthermore, if people habitually accept an irrational picture of the world, basing beliefs on religious authority rather than reasoned arguments, then perhaps they will be more easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.

On the other hand, living in a liberal society requires tolerance of others’ beliefs, rational or otherwise. And living in a polite society requires that we respect even when we do not agree. So it seems that a balance must be struck between arguing against an irrational belief and keeping considerate silence.

Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

We read nature as the English used to read Latin, pronouncing it like English, but understanding it very well.

—George Santayana

This simile about relation between human knowledge and material fact expresses a deep truth: to understand nature we must, so to speak, translate it into human terms.

All knowledge of the world must begin with sensations. All empirical knowledge derives, ultimately, from events we perceive with our five senses. But I think it is a mistake to confuse, as the phenomenalists do, these sensations for reality itself. To the contrary, I think that human experience is of a fundamentally different sort as material reality.

The relationship between my moving finger and the movement of the string I pluck is direct: cause-and effect. The relationship that holds between the vibrations in air caused by the guitar string, and the sound we perceive of the guitar, is, however, not so direct. For conscious sensations are not physical events. You cannot, even in principle, describe the subjective sensation of guitar music using physical terms, like acceleration, mass, charge, etc.

The brain represents the physical stimulus it receives, transforming it into a sensation, much like a composer represents human emotions using notes, harmonies, and rhythms—that is, arbitrarily. There is no essential relationship between sadness and a minor melody; they are only associated through culture and habit. Likewise, the conscious perception of guitar strings is only associated with the vibrations in the air through consistent representation: every time the brain hears a guitar, it creates the same subjective sensation. But the fact remains that the vibrations and the sensation, if they could be compared, would have nothing in common, just as sadness and minor melodies have nothing in common.

I must pause here to note a partial exception. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke notoriously makes the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The latter are things like color, taste, smell, and sound, which are wholly subjective; the former are things like size, position, number, and shape: qualities that are inherent in the object and independent of the perceiving mind. Berkeley criticized this distinction; he thought that all reality was sensation, and thus there was no basis in distinguishing primary and secondary—both only exist in human experience. Kant, on the other hand, thought that reality in-itself could not, in principle, be described using any terms from human experience; and thus primary and secondary qualities were both wholly subjective.

Yet I persist in thinking that Locke was rather close to the truth. But the point must be qualified. As Einstein showed, our intuitive notions of speed, position, time, and size are only approximately correct at the human scale, and break down in situations of extreme speed or gravity. And we have had the same experience with regard to quantum physics, discovering that even our notion of location and number can be wholly inaccurate on the smallest of scales. Besides these physical consideration, any anthropologist will be full of anecdotes of cultures that conceive of space and time differently; and psychologists will note that our perception of position and shape differs markedly from that of a rat or a bat, for example.

All this being granted, I think that Locke was right in distinguishing primary from secondary qualities. Indeed, this is simply the difference between quantifiable and unquantifiable qualities. By this I mean that a person could give an abstract representation of the various sizes and locations of objects in a room; but no such abstract representation could be given of a scent. The very fact that our notions of these primary qualities could be proven wrong by physicists proves that they are categorically distinct. A person may occasionally make a mistake in identifying a color or a scent, but all of humanity could never be wrong in that way. Scientists cannot, in other words, show us what red “really looks like,” in the same way that scientists can and have shown us how space really behaves.

Nevertheless, we have discovered, through rigorous experiment and hypothesis, that even these apparently “primary qualities”—supposedly independent of the perceiving mind—are really crude notions that are only approximately correct on the scale of human life. This is no surprise. We evolved these capacities of perception to navigate the world, not to imagine black holes or understand electrons. Thus even our most accurate perceptions of the world are only quasi-correct; and there is no reason why another being, adapted to different circumstances, might represent and understand the same facts quite differently.

It seems clear from this description that our sensations have only an indicative truth, not a literal one. We can rely on our sensations to navigate the world, but that does not mean they show us the direct truth. The senses are poets, as Santayana said, and show us reality guised in allegory. We humans must use our senses, since that is all we have, but in the grand scheme of reality what can be seen, heard, or touched may be only a miniscule portion of what really exists—and, as scientists have discovered, that is actually the case.

To put these discoveries to one side for a moment, there are other compelling reasons to suspect that sensations are not open windows to reality. One obvious reason is that any sensation, if too intense, becomes simply pain. Pressure, light, sound, or heat, while all separate feelings at normal intensities, all become pain when intensified beyond the tolerance of our bodies. But does anybody suspect that all reality becomes literal pain when too severe? When intensified still further, sensation ceases altogether with death. Yet are we to suppose that the stimulus of the fatal blow ceases, too, when it becomes unperceivable?

Of course, nobody makes these mistakes except phenomenologists. And when combined with other everyday experiences—such as our ability to increase our range of sight using microscopes and telescopes, the ability of dogs to hear and smells things that humans cannot—then it becomes very clear that our sensations, far from having any cosmic privilege, represent only a limited portion of the reality, and do not represent the truth literally.

What we have discovered about the world, since the scientific revolution, only confirms this notion. Our senses were shaped by evolution to allow us to navigate in a certain environment. Thus, we can see only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—a portion that strongly penetrates our atmosphere. Likewise with every other sense: it is calibrated to the sorts of intensities and stimuli that would aid us in our struggle to survive on the struggle of the earth.

There is nothing superstition, therefore, or even remarkable in believing that the building blocks of reality are invisible to human sensation. Molecules, atoms, protons, quarks—all of these are essential components of our best physical theories, and thus have as much warrant to be believed as the sun and stars. From a human scale, of course, there is a strong epistemological difference: they form components of physical theories; and these theories help us to make sense of experience, rather than constitute experience itself.

But that does not make them any less real. Indeed, our notion of an atom may be closer to nature than our visible image of an apple, since we know for sure that the actual apple is not, fundamentally, as it appears to human sight, while our idea of atoms may indeed give a literally accurate view of nature. Indeed, the view of sensations that I have put forward virtually demands that the truth of nature, whatever it is, be remote from human experience, since human experience is not a literal representation of reality.

This leads to some awkwardness. For if scientific truth is to be abstract—a theorem or an equation remote from daily reality—then what makes it any better than a religious belief? Isn’t what separates scientific knowledge from superstitious fancy the fact that the first is empirical while the latter is not?

But this difficulty is only apparent. Santayana aptly summarized the difference thus: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.” That is to say that, though religious ideas may take their building blocks from daily life, the final product—the religious dogma—is not fundamentally about daily life; it is a more like a poem that inspires our imaginations and may influence our lives, but is not literally borne out in lived experience.

A scientific theory, on the other hand, is borne out in this way: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Though a physical theory, for example, is itself something that is never itself perceived—we never “see” Einstein’s relativity in itself—using it leads to perceivable predictions, such as the deviation of a planet’s orbit. This is the basis of experiment and the essence of science itself. Indeed, I think that this is an essential quality of all valid human knowledge, scientific or not: that it is borne out in experience.

Like quantum physics, superstitious notions and supernatural doctrines all concern things that are, in principle, unperceivable; but the different is that, in quantum physics, the unperceivable elements predict perceivable events with rigid certainty. Superstitious notions, though in principle they have empirical results, are usually whimsical in their operation. The devil may appear or he may not, and the theory of demonic interference does not tell us when, how, or why—which gives it no explanatory value. Supernatural notions, such as about God or angels or heaven, are either reserved for another world, or their operation on this world are too entirely vague to be confirmed or falsified.

So long as the theory touches experience at both ends, so to speak, it is valid. The theory itself is not and cannot be tangible. The fact that our most accurate knowledge involves belief in unperceivable things, in other words, does not make it either metaphysical or supernatural. As Santayana said, “if belief in the existence of hidden parts and movements in nature be metaphysics, then the kitchen-maid is a metaphysician whenever she peels a potato.”

Richard Feynman made almost the same point when he observed that our notion of “inside” is really just a way of making sense of a succession of perceptions. We never actually perceive the “inside” of an apple, for example, since by slicing it all we do is create a new surface. This surface may, for all we know, pop into existence in that moment. But by imagining that there is an “inside” to the apple, unperceived by equally real, we make sense of an otherwise confusing sequence of perceptions. Scientific theories—and all valid knowledge in general—does essentially the same thing: it organizes our experience by positing an unperceived, and unperceivable, structure to reality.

Thus humanity’s attempt to understand nature is very accurately compared to an Englishman reading Latin with a London accent. Though we muddle the form of nature through our perception and our conception, by paying attention to the regularities of experience we may learn to understand nature quite well.

Quotes & Commentary #58: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #58: Santayana

Indeed, the enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion—something which the blindest half see—is not nearly enlightened enough: it points to notorious facts incompatible with religious tenets literally taken, but it leaves unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning, and their true function.

—George Santayana

This little passage contains multitudes. Santayana’s attitude towards religion is refreshingly balanced. An atheist himself, he nevertheless finds much to value in religion. He has the admirable ability—so rare, apparently—to balance an awareness of religion’s irrationality with its nobler impulses.

I am tempted to agree with Santayana in dismissing those who “plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion,” ridiculing their dogmas and disproving their tenets, such as the so-called New Atheists do. For one, it is very easy. Every shred of evidence and convincing argument is on the side of the naturalistic, scientific worldview. Indeed, no thinking person could fail to note the huge part played by hopeful emotion, unchecked by the cold light of reason, in religious belief. As Santayana goes on to say:

The only truth of religion comes from its interpretation of life, from its symbolic rendering of that aspiration which it springs out of and which it seeks to elucidate. Its falsehood comes from the insidious misunderstanding which clings to it, to the effect that these poetic conceptions are not merely poetical, but are literal information about experience or reality elsewhere—an experience and reality which, strangely enough, supply just the defects betrayed by reality and experience here.

The last remark of this passage is key to my skepticism of all religious belief. For it always seems that the promises of belief—blessings, good fortune, an afterlife—all coincidentally compensate precisely for the defects we find in our lives here and now. In other words, it is almost naked wishful thinking, thinly disguised as a supernatural promise.

In any case, the lack of logical cogency of supernatural beliefs, combined with the obvious emotional motivation of such beliefs, would seem to render it superfluous to argue with or disprove them. They fail every test of reasonable belief, and thus do not merit reasonable rejoinder. Nevertheless, the huge prevalence of such supernatural beliefs—present in the majority of our species, their absurdity apparently not “something which the blindest half can see”—and their concomitant influence on human behavior, would seem to make it necessary to lay out the case against religious belief.

Of course, such a rejoinder need not be done with vituperation and bitterness—qualities guaranteed to make any listeners unreceptive. And, in any case, explaining why religious belief is unreasonable leaves untouched the far more mysterious question: If it is manifestly unreasonable, why do so many people believe?

Theories abound. James Frazer thought that superstition and religious belief were just proto-science. Sigmund Freud thought religion an illusion motivated by psychological drives, and Emile Durkheim thought religion a tool of social cohesion. Daniel Dennett put forward the idea that religion was a kind of mental virus. Jonathan Haidt largely agrees with Durkheim, though he puts his own Darwinian twist on the idea. And this is only a small sampling.

All of these theories may have their grain of truth. But I think any explanation will be incomplete if it does not take into account what Santayana was so acutely aware of: religion’s poetry. Indeed, for Santayana religion was itself a kind of poetry:

Thus religion has the same original relation to life that poetry has . . . The poetic value of religion would initially be greater than that of poetry itself, because religion deals with higher and more vital themes, with sides of life which are in greater need of some imaginative touch and ideal interpretation than are those pleasant or pompous things which ordinary poetry dwells upon. But this initial advance is neutralised in party by the abuse to which religion is subject, whenever its symbolic rightness is taken for scientific truth.

Poetry allows us to dwell on the too often overlooked beauty of life, to savor the ironies and tragedies of the day, to pinpoint and express fleeting emotions. Religion does this, too, but on an altogether grander scale. Rather than imbuing life with a personal aesthetic sensibility, the aesthetics of a religion are impersonal, belonging to a whole community. Not only that, but the subjects that religions concern themselves with—birth, marriage, suffering, death—belong to nobody and everybody, being the most universal and critical of the human condition.

The beneficent social role that such communal poetry can play should not be underestimated. Religions allow us to see the meaning of times of crisis, prompts us to feel the significance of life’s transitions, and gives us a common emotional language that binds us together. Like any sublime poetry, religion can raise our eyes above humdrum concerns, and point our gaze to things of lasting importance.

From this description I hope you can see that I am not wholly insensitive to the value of religion. Believe me, the trivial pursuits of modern life, with all its squalid materialism and narrow selfishness, make me all the more acutely aware of the role that religion can play in a society. The prosaic world of today is in desperate need of poetry.

The problem, as Santayana points out, is that religions insist that their poetry be taken literally. And in the process, the poetry is destroyed. Religion then ceases to be a sublime poetry and becomes a vulgar superstition. And the more that these traditional beliefs clash with our scientific understanding of the world, the more it drives a wedge into the fabric of society, forcing people to choose between faith and reason. Indeed, in such circumstances religions can lose their moral superiority completely, becoming just as worldly as the rest of the world.

Is it possible to maintain the benefits of religious belief—its ability to guide us through times of crisis, its source of common values and a common language, its ability to remove us from vulgar materialism—with the benefits of rationalism? Can we have a communal poetry that we acknowledge to be poetry—not truth? Looking around the world, the answer seems to be no.

Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried: ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.’

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Religion has long been a source of tension for me. On the one hand I find it to be extraordinarily interesting. Religions seem to reveal so much about our separate cultures and our shared human condition. Further, tolerance is important to me—both personally and philosophically. I would never want to be a zealot who could only be friends with like-minded people; nor do I want to be dismissive or scornful of other views.

Nevertheless, while I am comfortable with religion in the abstract, when I confront religious sentiments and behavior in person I feel uneasy. I have trouble understanding or accepting why people I know and respect would choose to be religious. And my uneasiness stems from being wholly and completely unconvinced of the validity of supernatural beliefs of any kind.

In brief, my skepticism is partly evidential (I see no compelling evidence for religious claims), partly philosophical (theological arguments are fallacious, and supernatural explanations are vapid), partly anthropological (the huge abundance of difference beliefs across the world, revealing religion to be a social institution and not a divine gift), and partly historical (the clear evidence that religions changed markedly over time, and the wars and persecutions that religious beliefs have given rise to).

In short, supernatural beliefs are wholly incompatible with how I think and what I know about the world.

While many religious people in the modern world would grant all this—saying it makes perfect sense to be an atheist—they might still argue that it makes just as much sense to be religious. “Nobody knows, right?” is the classic phrase. And indeed, nobody does or can know if there is a supernatural being who created the universe. So, in the absence of knowledge, isn’t faith an acceptable response? “Maybe I can’t prove God exists,” the argument continues, “but you can’t prove that He doesn’t exist.”

I think this reasoning is obviously fallacious. If there is something which is completely unknown, the only logical response is to suspend judgment. Further, the inability to disprove something has no bearing on whether it should be believed. I cannot disprove that there is a French teacup on Mercury, or a magic dragon sleeping in the center of the earth, or an army of invisible and intangible spirits living in my closet—but I would be wrong to believe these things.

The question is never, “Can this be disproved?” but “Is there any evidence to support this belief?” Believing in something just because it cannot be disproved leads to absurdities.

It might be argued, however, that suspending judgment is unreasonable since all of us will die one day and we risk eternal damnation if we are wrong. Indeed, there are situations in which we are forced, from practical necessity, to act in the absence of knowledge. If a roof is collapsing and there are three doors, you must choose one even if you don’t know where it goes.

But I think that the human condition is not comparable to this situation. We have every reason to believe that consciousness ends with death. There is no evidence for intangible, immaterial souls—indeed, everything we know supports the opposite conclusion: that consciousness is inextricably tied to the material brain. The very idea of souls and the afterlife was never supported by dependable evidence in the first place—it is a traditional idea, handed down to us by people who lived in more ignorant times. Besides, the psychological roots of such an idea in our fear of death and our sorrow for lost loved ones seems remarkably obvious.

In sum, since we have good reasons for believing that consciousness ends with life, the necessity of choosing in ignorance is taken away. We can safely suspend judgment. I have thus come to the conclusion that supernatural beliefs are irrational. (This issue can clearly be debated ad infinitum but this is supposed to be a short post!)

Given this conclusion of mine, I cannot help but feel uneasy around people whose religion plays a large role in their day-to-day life. Dietary restrictions, sartorial restrictions, fasting, praying, lengthy rituals, limits on whom one can marry or even befriend—all this strikes me as a severe limitation on life, with no justification whatsoever.

Of course not all religious people—maybe not even most—have a lifestyle markedly different from my own. Indeed, there are huge numbers of “moderate” religious people who seldom or rarely go to church or pray, who do not obey the numerous traditional lifestyle restrictions, and who basically lead secular or nearly secular lives—and yet who, when pressed, still identify as religious and who profess to believe in God.

Now, you might think that I would be less bothered by this sort of moderate religiousness. But I find it just as perplexing. For if God the Creator existed, and He were really the arbiter of morals and the source of good, and if there were really a heaven and a hell that awaited us in the next life—well, how could you logically believe all this and not do everything in your power to live in accordance with your religion? By definition, religion deals with ultimate questions and the most permanent consequences; and so it boggles my mind how somebody could believe in it and yet do nothing.

How can you be a Christian, for example, and be friends with atheists or Muslims or Jews? This seems like a silly question, since inter-faith friendships are very common. But I cannot help wondering: Can someone be a sincere Christian without believing that his non-Christian friends will be denied entrance into heaven? Thus for their sake shouldn’t this Christian do his very best to evangelize his non-Christian friends? And if these questions never even occur to the Christian, does he sincerely believe in what he says he does?

Moderate religiousness bothers me because it cheapens the entire question. To be moderately religious, in other words, strikes me as inevitably hypocritical—since it means not living in accordance with one’s stated views on the ultimate questions. Indeed, I think it is this very hypocrisy which led Nietzsche to accuse his contemporaries of killing God: they professed to believe in God, but lived without Him. Identifying as religious without living in accordance with any religious tenets is like saying, “Do these questions really matter?”

And to many people, perhaps these ultimate questions of Fate, God, and the origin of the universe really do not occupy much thought-space. But for me it is deeply important to find out the truth as far as possible, and to live my life in accordance with this truth. Thus I feel equally at odds with deeply religious people (I admire their conviction, but I think they are wrong) and moderately religious people (I admire their tolerance, but I am frightened by their lack of concern with living in accordance with their stated beliefs).

Thus, when I confront religion—serious or moderate—in people I know, I cannot help feeling uneasy.

Review: The Righteous Mind

Review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected this book to be good, but I did not expect it to be so rich in ideas and dense with information. Haidt covers far more territory than the subtitle of the book implies. Not only is he attempting to explain why people are morally tribal, but also the way morality works in the human brain, the evolutionary origins of moral feelings, the role of moral psychology in the history of civilization, the origin and function of religion, and how we can apply all this information to the modern political situation—among much else along the way.

Haidt begins with the roles of intuition and reasoning in making moral judgments. He contends that our moral reasoning—the reasons we aver for our moral judgments—consists of mere post hoc rationalizations for our moral intuitions. We intuitively condemn or praise an action, and then search for reasons to justify our intuitive reaction.

He bases his argument on the results of experiments in which the subjects were told a story—usually involving a taboo violation of some kind, such as incest—and then asked whether the story involved any moral breach or not. These stories were carefully crafted so as not to involve harm to anyone (such as a brother and sister having sex in a lonely cabin and never telling anyone, and using contraception to prevent the risk of pregnancy).

Almost inevitably he found the same result: people would condemn the action, but then struggle to find coherent reasons to do so. To use Haidt’s metaphor, our intuition is like a client in a court case, and our reasoning is the lawyer: its job is to win the case for intuition, not to find the truth.

This is hardly a new idea. Haidt’s position was summed up several hundred years before he was born, by Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” An intuitionist view of morality was also put forward by David Hume and Adam Smith. But Haidt’s account is novel for the evolutionary logic behind his argument and the empirical research used to back his claims. This is exemplified in his work on moral axes.

Our moral intuition is not one unified axis from right to wrong. There are, rather, six independent axes: harm, proportionality, equality, loyalty, authority, and purity. In other words, actions can be condemned for a variety of reasons: for harming others, for cheating others, for oppressing others, for betraying one’s group, for disrespecting authority, and for desecrating sacred objects, beings, or places.

These axes of morality arose because of evolutionary pressure. Humans who cared for their offspring and their families survived better, as did humans who had a greater sensitivity to being cheated by freeloaders (proportionality) and who resisted abusive alpha males trying to exploit them (equality). Similarly, humans who were loyal to their group and who respected a power hierarchy outperformed less loyal and less compliant humans, because they created more coherent groups (this explanation relies on group selection theory; see below). And lastly, our sense of purity and desecration—usually linked to religious and superstitious notions—arose out of our drive to avoid physical contamination (for example, pork was morally prohibited because it was unsafe to eat).

Most people in the world use all six of these axes in their moral systems. It is only in the West—particularly in the leftist West—where we focus mainly on the first three: harm, proportionality, and equality. Indeed, one of Haidt’s most interesting points is that the right tends to be more successful in elections because it appeals to a broader moral palate: it appeals to more “moral receptors” in the brain than left-wing morality (which primarily appeals to the axis of help and harm), and is thus more persuasive.

This brings us to Part III of the book, by far the most speculative.

Haidt begins with a defense of group selection: the theory that evolution can operate on the level of groups competing against one another, rather than on individuals. This may sound innocuous, but it is actually a highly controversial topic in biology, as Haidt himself acknowledges. Haidt thinks that group selection is needed to explain the “groupishness” displayed by humans—our ability to put aside personal interest in favor of our groups—and makes a case for the possibility of group selection occurring during the last 10,000 or so years of our history. He makes the theory seem plausible (to a layperson like me), but I think the topic is too complex to be covered in one short chapter.

True or not, Haidt uses the theory of group theory to account for what he calls “hiveish” behavior that humans sometimes display. Why are soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for their brethren? Why do people like to take ecstasy and rave? Why do we waste so much money and energy going to football games and cheering for our teams? All these behaviors are bizarre when you see humans as fundamentally self-seeking; they only make sense, Haidt argues, if humans possess the ability to transcend their usual self-seeking perspective and identify themselves fully with a group. Activating this self-transcendence requires special circumstances, and it cannot be activated indefinitely; but it produces powerful effects that can permanently alter a person’s perspective.

Haidt then uses group selection and this idea of a “hive-switch” to explain religion. Religions are not ultimately about beliefs, he says, even though religions necessarily involve supernatural beliefs of some kind. Rather, the social functions of religions are primarily to bind groups together. This conclusion is straight out of Durkheim. Haidt’s innovation (well, the credit should probably go to David Sloan Wilson, who wrote Darwin’s Cathedral) is to combine Durkheim’s social explanation of religion with a group-selection theory and a plausible evolutionary story (too long to relate here).

As for empirical support, Haidt cites a historical study of communes, which found that religious communes survived much longer than their secular counterparts, thus suggesting that religions substantially contribute to social cohesion and stability. He also cites several studies showing that religious people tend to be more altruistic and generous than their atheistic peers; and this is apparently unaffected by creed or dogma, depending only on attendance rates of religious services. Indeed, for someone who describes himself as an atheist, Haidt is remarkably positive on the subject of religion; he sees religions as valuable institutions that promote the moral level and stability of a society.

The book ends with a proposed explanation of the political spectrum—people genetically predisposed to derive pleasure from novelty and to be less sensitive to threats become left-wing, and vice versa (the existence of libertarians isn’t explained, and perhaps can’t be)—and finally with an application of the book’s theses to the political arena.

Since we are predisposed to be “groupish” (to display strong loyalty towards our own group) and to be terrible at questioning our own beliefs (since our intuitions direct our reasoning), we should expect to be blind to the arguments of our political adversaries and to regard them as evil. But the reality, Haidt argues, is that each side possesses a valuable perspective, and we need to have civil debate in order to reach reasonable compromises. Pretty thrilling stuff.

Well, there is my summary of the book. As you can see, for such a short book, written for a popular audience, The Righteous Mind is impressively vast in scope. Haidt must come to grips with philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, history—from Hume, to Darwin, to Durkheim—incorporating mountains of empirical evidence and several distinct intellectual traditions into one coherent, readable whole. I was constantly impressed by the performance. But for all that, I had the constant, nagging feeling that Haidt was intentionally playing the devil’s advocate.

Haidt argues that our moral intuition guides our moral reasoning, in a book that rationally explores our moral judgments and aims to convince its readers through reason. The very existence of his book undermines his uni-directional model of intuitions to reasoning. Being reasonable is not easy; but we can take steps to approach arguments more rationally. One of these steps is to summarize another person’s argument before critiquing it, which is what I’ve done in this review.

He argues that religions are not primarily about beliefs but about group fitness; but his evolutionary explanation of religion would be rejected by those who deny evolution on religious grounds; and even if specific beliefs don’t influence altruistic behavior, they certainly do influence which groups (homosexuals, biologists) are shunned. Haidt also argues that religions are valuable because of their ability to promote group cohesion; but if religions necessarily involve irrational beliefs, as Haidt admits, is it really wise to base a moral order on religious notions? If religions contribute to the social order by encouraging people to sacrifice their best interest for illogical reasons—such as in the commune example—should they really be praised?

The internal tension continues. Haidt argues that conservatives have an advantage in elections because they appeal to a broader moral palate, not just care and harm; and he argues that conservatives are valuable because their broad morality makes them more sensitive to disturbances of the social order. Religious conservative groups which enforce loyalty and obedience are more cohesive and durable than secular groups that value tolerance. But Haidt himself endorses utilitarianism (based solely on the harm axis) and ends the book with a plea for moral tolerance. Again, the existence of Haidt’s book presupposes secular tolerance, which makes his stance confusing.

Haidt’s arguments with regard to broad morality come dangerously close to the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’: equating what is natural with what is good. He compares moral axes to taste receptors; a morality that appeals to only one axis will be unsuccessful, just like a cuisine that appeals to only one taste receptor will fail to satisfy. But this analogy leads directly to a counter-point: we know that we have evolved to love sugar and salt, but this preference is no longer adaptive, indeed it is unhealthy; and it is equally possible that our moral environment has changed so much that our moral senses are no longer adaptive.

In any case, I think that Haidt’s conclusions about leftist morality are incorrect. Haidt asserts that progressive morality rests primarily on the axis of care and harm, and that loyalty, authority, and purity are actively rejected by liberals (“liberals” in the American sense, as leftist). But this is implausible. Liberals can be extremely preoccupied with loyalty—just ask any Bernie Sanders supporter. The difference is not that liberals don’t care about loyalty, but that they tend to be loyal to different types of groups—parties and ideologies rather than countries. And the psychology of purity and desecration is undoubtedly involved in the left’s concern with racism, sexism, homophobia, or privilege (accusing someone of speaking from privilege creates a moral taint as severe as advocating sodomy does in other circles).

I think Haidt’s conclusion is rather an artifact of the types of questions that he asks in his surveys to measure loyalty and purity. Saying the pledge of allegiance and going to church are not the only manifestations of these impulses.

For my part, I think the main difference between left-wing and right-wing morality is the attitude towards authority: leftists are skeptical of authority, while conservatives are skeptical of equality. This is hardly a new conclusion; but it does contradict Haidt’s argument that conservatives think of morality more broadly. And considering that a more secular and tolerant morality has steadily increased in popularity over the last 300 years, it seems prima facie implausible to argue that this way of thinking is intrinsically unappealing to the human brain. If we want to explain why Republicans win so many elections, I think we cannot do it using psychology alone.

The internal tensions of this book can make it frustrating to read, even if it is consistently fascinating. It seems that Haidt had a definite political purpose in writing the book, aiming to make liberals more open to conservative arguments; but in de-emphasizing so completely the value of reason and truth—in moral judgments, in politics, and in religion—he gets twisted into contradictions and risks undermining his entire project.

Be that as it may, I think his research is extremely valuable. Like him, I think it is vital that we understand how morality works socially and psychologically. What is natural is not necessarily what is right; but in order to achieve what is right, it helps to know what we’re working with.

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Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

The test of civilization is the power of drawing the most benefit out of cities.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cities are improbable. For most of our history we lived in little roving bands: Groups held together by personal relationships, of blood, marriage, or friendship, scattered lightly over the landscape, not tied to any particular spot but moving in accordance with their needs.

Agriculture changed that. You cannot raise crops without tending them throughout the year; thus you need a permanent settlement. Crops can also be grown and gathered more efficiently the more people there are to help; and a stable food supply can support a larger population. Cities grew up along with the crops, and a new type of communal living was born.

(I remember from my archaeology classes that early farmers were not necessarily healthier than their hunter-gatherer peers. Eating mostly corn is not very nutritious and is bad for your teeth. Depending on a single type of crop also makes you more sensitive to drought and at risk for starvation should the crops fail. This is not to mention the other danger of cities: Disease. Living in close proximity with others allows sickness to spread more easily. Nevertheless, our ancestors clearly saw some advantage to city life—maybe they had more kids to compensate for their reduced lifespan?—so cities sprung up and expanded.)

The transition must have been difficult, not least for the social strain. As cities grew, people could find themselves in the novel situation of living with somebody they didn’t know very well, or at all. For the vast majority of humankind’s history, this simply didn’t happen.

New problems must be faced when strangers start living together. In small groups, where everyone is either related or married to everyone else, crime is not a major problem. But in a city, full of strangers and neighbors, this changes: crime must be guarded against.

There is another novel problem. Hunter-gatherers can retreat from danger, but city dwellers cannot. And since urbanites accumulate more goods and food then their roving peers, they are more tempting targets for bandits. Roving nomads can swoop down upon the immobile city and carry off their grain, wine, and women. To prevent this, cities need defenses.

As you can see, the earliest denizens of cities faced many novel threats: crime from within, raids from without, and the constant danger of drought and starvation.

Government emerges from need to organize against these threats. To discourage crime the community must come together to punish wrongdoers; to protect against attacks the community must build walls and weapons, and fight alongside one another; to protect against starvation, surplus crops must be saved for the lean times.

Hierarchy of power, codes of law, and the special status of leaders arise to fill the vacuum of organization. Religion was also enlisted in this effort, sanctifying leaders with titles and myths, reinforcing the hierarchy with rituals and customs and taboos, and uniting the people under the guardianship of the same divine shepherds.

Despite these unpropitious beginnings, the city has grown from an experiment in communal living, held together by fear and necessity, into the generic model of modern life. And I have the good fortune to live near one of the greatest cities in history.

* * *

Whenever I am alone in New York City, I wander, for as many miles as time allows. The only way to see how massive, chaotic, and remarkable is New York, is by foot. There’s no telling what you might find.

I like to walk along the river, watching the freighters with their bright metal boxes of cargo, the leviathan cruise ships carrying their passengers out to sea, the helicopters buzzing overhead, giving a few lucky tourists a glimpse of the skyline. Bridges span the water—masses of metal and stone suspended by wire—and steam pours forth from the smokestacks of power plants.  

I pass through parks and neighborhoods. Elderly couples totter by on roller blades. A lonely teenager with a determined look practices shooting a basketball. The playground is full of screaming, running, jumping, hanging, falling, fighting kids. Their mothers and fathers chat on the sidelines, casting occasional nervous glances at their offspring.

Soon I get the United Nations building. The edifice itself is not beautiful—just a grey slab covered in glass—but what it represents is beautiful. The ideal of the United Nations is, after all, the same ideal of New York City. It is the ideal of all cities and of civilization itself: that we can put aside our differences and live together in peace.

The city is not just the product of political organization and economic means; it is an expression of confidence. You cannot justify building walls and houses without the belief that tomorrow will be as safe and prosperous as today. And you cannot live calmly among strangers—people who dress different, who speak a different language, people you have never seen before and may never see again—without trust.

It is that confidence in tomorrow and that trust in our neighbors on which civilization is built. And New York City, that buzzing, chaotic, thriving hive, is a manifestation of those values.

Quotes & Commentary #31: James

Quotes & Commentary #31: James

In mystical literature such self-contradictory phrases as ‘dazzling obscurity,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘teeming desert,’ are continually met with. They prove that not conceptual-speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.

—William James

William James’s book on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is of mixed quality. Penetrating insights are buried in mountains of redundant quotations, and a mass of anecdotal evidence is substituted for a coherent system. After putting it down, the only chapter that made a deep impression on me was his chapter on mysticism.

Before that, I had no notion of mysticism as distinct from organized religion; and yet it is quite discrete. Instead of focusing on external rituals, communally observed, the mystic focuses on his own private experiences; and instead of attempting to translate religious experiences into a mythology or a dogma, the mystic more often reverts to poetry or song to convey the intensity of his private rapture. Mysticism is naturally antipathetic, or at the very least indifferent, to organized religion. A mystic needs no clergyman to access the divine. No intermediary clerics, priests, or theologians are necessary to translate the voice of God into profane speech.

One especially striking feature of mysticism is its ubiquity. While dogmas, creeds, rituals, and mythologies vary greatly, the basic notions and motifs of mysticism are encountered across the world. I have encountered Islamic mysticism in Al-Ghazali, Catholic mysticism in St. Teresa, Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads, and Neoplatonist mysticism in Plotinus. The Tao Te Ching of ancient China is full of the self-contradictory phrases described by William James, such as the famous opening: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao. The name that can be named is not the Constant Name.”

The common theme running through these works is that the mystic, through intense focus, can look past the world as we know it and gaze upon a higher reality, a divine vision normally invisible to earthly eyes. Right now I am reading a short book by the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, in which he describes a method for attaining exactly this. Once you experience this higher reality, religious doubts become irrelevant; your religion becomes a matter of experience and not of faith.

So if mystics have experienced the divine, why don’t they tell us about it? The problem is that the vision is ineffable. This is why, as William James points out, mystic poets often resort to contradictory language as a way of evoking this mysterious essence. The mythologist Joseph Campbell says almost exactly the same thing: “The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don’t render the experience, they suggest it.” St. Teresa of Ávila, for example, had to resort to metaphor after metaphor in her manual on mysticism in order to communicate the experience.

In capturing the mystical experience, visual art would have the same problem as does language, since the artist would be attempting to picture the invisible. Music has the advantage of being neither symbolic nor representative. As sound, it is purely sensuous, perhaps a direct expression of emotion. At the very least sound does not tempt its hearers into confusing the symbol for the symbolized, as language and painting might, and so it can be more safely used to transmit ineffable experiences. Music doesn’t communicate emotions, it evokes them in its audience; it doesn’t represent feelings, it re-creates them in its hearers.

The mystical potential of music was memorably illustrated for me in the autobiography of Bryan Magee. A logical, educated man, and one constitutionally antipathetic to religion, Magee nonetheless describes being so transported by music that he felt he was experiencing another plane of reality, one where there is neither time nor space. This experience was so strong that he felt sure it provided him with some clue about the ultimate nature of reality. But he was frustrated by his inability to translate this feeling into a logical argument. Once again, the mystic insight eludes symbolic expression.

Philosophically, the interesting question is this: to what extent can these intense visions can be trusted? It is beyond doubt that mystics can have ecstatic experiences; the question is what causes them. The sensation of divinity and rapture is so intense that the mystic usually cannot bring himself to doubt its veracity. But this subjective feeling of certainty is a poor guide, to say the least, of what can be safely trusted. This is not just a scientific principle; the Catholic Church was well aware of the unreliability of private visions. This is why Saint Teresa’s book is full of strategies for determining whether your vision is from Satan or God, and careful instructions about how to proceed within the Catholic hierarchy once you have a vision.

Occam’s razor would seem to demand that a naturalistic explanation be preferred for mystic visions. The simplest explanation, and the explanation that most easily harmonizes with our current scientific understanding, is that these ecstatic experiences can be traced to something happening in the brain. Nevertheless, I find it difficult not to sympathize with mystics. If I had an experience that was more intense than anything I’ve seen or heard in my waking live, I think that I would also be unwilling to doubt what I saw.

On the Quarter-Life Crisis

On the Quarter-Life Crisis

From College to Chaos

In the modern world, there is a certain existential dread that comes with being in your twenties. Certainly this is true in my case.

This dread creeps up on you in the years of struggle, confusion, and setbacks that many encounter after graduating university. There are many reasons for this.

One is that college simply does not prepare you for the so-called “real world.” In college, you know what you have to do, more or less. Every class has a syllabus. Every major has a list of required courses. You know your GPA and how many credits you need to graduate.

College lacks some of that uncertainty and ambiguity that life—particularly life as a young adult—so abundantly possesses. There is a clear direction forward and it’s already been charted out for you. You know where you’re going and what you have to do to get there.

Another big difference is that college life is fairly egalitarian. Somebody might have a cuter boyfriend, a higher GPA, a richer dad, or whatever, but in the end you’re all just students. As a consequence, envy doesn’t have very much scope. Not that college students don’t get envious, but there are far fewer things, and less serious things, to get envious about. You don’t scroll through your newsfeed and see friends bragging about promotions, proposals, babies, and paid vacations.

There’s one more big difference: nothing you do in college is potentially a big commitment. The biggest commitment you have to make is what to major in; and even that is only a commitment for four years or less. Your classes only last a few months, so you don’t have to care much about professors. You are constantly surrounded by people your age, so friendships and relationships are easy to come by.

Then you graduate, and you’re thrown into something else entirely. Big words like Career and Marriage and Adulthood start looming large. You start asking yourself questions. When you take a job, you ask yourself “Can I imagine doing this for the rest of my life?” When you date somebody, you say to yourself “Can I imagine living with this person the rest of my life?” If you move to another city, you wonder “Could I make a home here?”

You don’t see adults as strange, foreign creatures anymore, but as samples of what you might become. You are expected, explicitly and implicitly, to become an adult yourself. But how? And what type of adult? You ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Yet the more you think about what you want, the less certain it becomes. It’s easy to like something for a day, a week, a month. But for the rest of your life? How are you supposed to commit yourself for such an indefinitely long amount of time?

Suddenly your life is not just potential anymore. Very soon, it will become actual. Instead of having a future identity, you will have a present identity. This is really frightening. When your identity is only potential, it can take on many different forms in your imagination. But when your identity is present and actual, you lose the deliciousness of endless possibility. You are narrowed down to one thing. Now you have to choose what that thing will be. But it’s such a hard choice, and the clock keeps ticking. You feel like you’re running out of time. What will you become?

The American Dream

A few weeks ago I was taking a long walk, and my route took me through a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Big, stately houses with spacious driveways, filled with expensive cars, surrounded me on all sides. The gardens were immaculate; the houses had big lawns with plenty of trees, giving them privacy from their neighbors. And they had a wonderful view, too, since the neighborhood was right on the Hudson River.

I was walking along, and I suddenly realized that this is what I’m supposed to want. This is the American Dream, right? A suburban house, a big lawn, a few cars and a few kids.

For years I’d been torturing myself with the idea that I would never achieve success. Now that I was looking at success, what did it make me feel? Not much. In fact, I didn’t envy the people in those houses. It’s not that I pitied them or despised them. I just couldn’t imagine that their houses and cars and their view of the river, wonderful as it all was, made them appreciably happier than people without those things.

So I asked myself, “Do I really want all these things? A house? A wife? Kids?” In that moment, the answer seemed to be “No, I don’t want any of that stuff. I want my freedom.”

Yet nearly everybody wants this stuff—eventually. And I have a natural inclination to give people some credit. I don’t think folks are mindless cultural automatons who simply aspire to things because that’s how they’ve been taught. I don’t think everybody who wants conventional success is a phony or a sell-out.

Overwhelmingly, people genuinely want these things when they reach a certain point in their lives. I’m pretty certain I will want them, too, and maybe soon. The thing that feels uncomfortable is that, in the mean time, since I expect to want these things, I feel an obligation to work towards them, even though they don’t interest me now. Isn’t that funny?

Equations of Happiness

One of the reasons that these questions can fill us with dread is that we absorb messages from society about the definition of happiness.

One of these messages is about our career. Ever since I was young, I’d been told “Follow your passion!” or “Follow your dreams!” The general idea is that, if you make your passion into your career, you will be supremely happy, since you’ll get paid for what you like doing. Indeed, the phrase “Get paid for what you like doing” sometimes seems like a pretty decent definition of happiness.

Careers aren’t the only thing we learn to identify with happiness. How many stories, novels, and movies end with the boy getting the girl, and the couple living happily ever after? In our culture, we have veritable a mythology of love. Finding “the one,” finding your “perfect match,” and in the process finding the solution to life—this is a story told over and over again, until we subconsciously believe that romantic love is the essential ingredient to life.

Work and Love are two of the biggest, but there are so many other things that we learn to identify with happiness. Having a perfect body, being beautiful and fit. Beating others in competitions, winning contests, achieving things. Being cool and popular, getting accepted into a group. Avoiding conflict, pleasing others. Having the right opinions, knowing the truth. This list only scratches the surface.

In so many big and little ways, in person and in our media, we equate these things with happiness and self-worth. And when we even suspect that we don’t have them—that we might not be successful, popular, right, loved, or whatever—then we feel a sickening sense of groundlessness, and we struggle to put that old familiar ground beneath our feet.

Think of all the ways that you measure yourself against certain, self-imposed standards. Think of all the times you chastise yourself for falling short, or judge yourself harshly for failing to fit this self-image you’ve built up, or fallen into a dark hole when something didn’t go right. Think about all the things you equate with happiness.

Now, think about how you judge your good friends. Do you look down on them if they aren’t successful? Do you think they’re worthless if they didn’t find “the one”? Do you spend much time judging them for their attractiveness, popularity, or coolness? Do you like them less if they lose or fail? If someone else rejects them, do you feel more prone to reject them too?

I’d wager the answer to all these questions is “No.” So why do we treat ourselves this way?

Is it the Money?

There’s no question that the quarter-life crisis is partly a product of privilege. It takes a certain amount of affluence to agonize over what will be my “calling” or who will be “the one.” Lots of people have to pay the rent; and their work and romantic options are shaped by that necessity. When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, your anxiety is more practical than existential. This thought makes me feel guilty for complaining.

But affluence is only part of the it. The other is expectation. Many of us graduated full of hope and optimism, and found ourselves in a limping economy, dragging behind us a big weight of college debt. Just when we were supposed to be hitting the ground running, we were struggling to find jobs and worrying how to pay for the degree we just earned. And since many of us had been encouraged—follow your dreams!—to study interesting but financially impractical things, our expensive degrees seemed to hurt us more than help us.

This led to a lot of bitterness. My generation had been told that we could be anything we wanted. Just do the thing you’re passionate about, and everything will follow. That was the advice. But when we graduated, it seemed that we’d been conned into paying thousands of dollars for a worthless piece of paper. This led to a lot of anger and disenchantment among twenty-somethings, which is why, I think, so many of us gravitated towards Bernie Sanders. Our parents had a car, a house, and raised a family, while we were living at home, working at Starbucks, and using our paychecks to pay for our anthropology degree.

For a long while I used my sense of injustice to justify my angst. I had the persistent feeling that it wasn’t fair, and that went back and forth between being angry at myself or the world.

Nevertheless, I think that, for most middle class people, financial factors don’t really explain the widespread phenomenon of the quarter-life crisis.

I realized this when I started my first decent-paying job. I wasn’t making a lot of money, you understand, but I was making more than enough for everything I wanted. The result? I felt even worse. When I took care of the money problem, the full weight of the existential crisis hit me. I kept asking myself, “Can I really imagine doing this forever?” I thought about my job, and felt empty. And this feeling of emptiness really distressed me, because I thought my job was supposed to be exciting and fulfilling.

This was a valuable lesson for me. I expected the money to calm me and make me happy, and yet I only felt worse and worse. Clearly, the problem was with my mindset and not my circumstances. How to fix it?

From Crisis to Contentment

Well, I’m not out of it yet. But I have made some progress.

First, I think it’s important to take it easy on ourselves. We are so prone to hold ourselves up to certain self-imposed standards, or some fixed idea of who we are. We also like to compare ourselves with others, feeling superior when we’re doing “better,” and worthless when we’re doing “worse.” Take it easy with all that. All of these standards are unreal. You tell yourself you’re “supposed” to be doing such and such, making this much money, and engaged at a whatever age. All this is baloney. You aren’t “supposed” to be or to do anything.

Bertrand Russell said: “At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view.” He’s right: There is nothing magical about the age of thirty. There is no age you pass when you don’t have to worry about money, about your boss, about your partner, about your health. There will always be something to worry about. There will always be unexpected curveballs that upset your plans. Don’t struggle to escape the post-college chaos; try to accept it as normal.

Don’t equate your happiness or your self-worth with something external. You are not your job, your hobby, your paycheck, your body, your friend group, or your relationship. You aren’t a collection of accomplishments or a Facebook profile. You’re a person, and you have worth just because you’re a person, pure and simple. Everything else is incidental.

If you want to be rich, famous, loved, successful—that’s fine, but that won’t make you any better than other people. It might not even make you happier. Don’t worry so much about putting ground under your feet. Don’t fret about establishing your identity. You will always be changing. Life will always be throwing problems at you, and sometimes things will go wrong. Try to get comfortable with the impermanence of things.

Don’t look for the “meaning” of life. Don’t look for “the answer.” Look for meaningful experiences of being alive. Appreciate those moments when you feel totally connected with life, and try to seek those moments out. Realize that life is just a collection of moments, and not a novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

These moments are what bring you happiness, not the story you tell about yourself. So you don’t have to feel existential dread about these big Adult Questions of Love and Work. It’s important to find a good partner and a good job. These things are very nice, but they’re not what give your life value or define you or make life worth living. Treat them as practical problems, not existential ones. Like any practical problem, they might not have a perfect solution, and you might fail—which is frustrating. But failure won’t make you worthless, just like success won’t legitimize your life.

One last thing. Stop caring about what other people think. Who cares? What do they know? Be a friend to yourself, be loyal to yourself. Every time to judge yourself, you betray yourself. In a thousand little ways throughout the day, we reject our experiences and our world. Don’t reject. Accept. Stand steadfastly by yourself as you ride down the steady stream of thoughts, feelings, flavors, colors, sounds, mistakes, accidents, failures, successes, and petty frustrations that make up life as we know it.