Zorba, Spock, or Voldemort?

This is a guest post by Matthew Sweet.

To be rational is to make the seemingly right decision, for the seemingly right reason, at the seemingly right time.

Of course, the real question is, how do you know when you’ve found the “right” decision, reason and time? One way to go about discovering it, according to the evangelists of rationality, is to flatten the curve of human experience.

There are three basic types of human-experience curves, all with a simplicity reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s narrative graphs. The first is provided by the narratives used in media. It is a collection of high peaks and deep troughs. The second is what we could call real life, as opposed to narrative life. It is milder. Rolling hills, rather than mountain tops and steep drops. The third is what the rational-philosopher aims to achieve. Their desired curve of human experience is close to a flat line. Its variance is barely perceptible.

The rationalist thinks that by removing the pitching and yawing of emotion and feeling, they can can come closer to an accurate perception of reality, and so be able to make the right decision, for the right reason, at the right time.

This idea, that it is the varying intensity and swings of human experience that prevent us from making the right decisions is alluring, but wrong. To show you why, let’s compare two characters from Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek.

***

Zorba the Greek is the tale of an Englishman’s encounter with Alexis Zorba. The Englishman is the stereotypical intellectual, who ponders and questions everything. Zorba, on the contrary, is a free spirit. He explores his passions. He enters into every action with vigour. He sings, he laughs, he cries, he dances and he yells.

For the Englishman, rationality is a way of life. He spends all his energy trying to iron out the creases of emotional intensity he experiences. Zorba, the Dionysus to the Englishman’s Apollo, does the opposite. He lives life in all its glorious intensity, without pause for thought. As the narrator puts it:

“The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weighty, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples. He lived the earth, the water, the animals and God, without the distorting intervention of reason.”

To frame it another way: Zorba drinks his spirits straight. The Englishman waters his down. He uses his rationality as a strong filter for the spirit of reality, as a heavily fortified moat and drawbridge which guards against unwanted crossings. He allows nothing to penetrate to the central courtyard until it has been subject to an interrogation, and a weakening, by his rational mind.

It is this slowness, this inability of the Englishman to let feelings enter the inner sanctum unexamined and pure, that impedes his quest to understand what it really means to live. In fact, as long as he thinks before he feels, he can never experience life as Zorba lives it.

Yes, the Englishman’s shield of rationality protects him from the troughs of the human experience, but it also disallows him from soaring to the heights of human existence. He is not overwhelmed by sadness or grief. But he also does not know what it is to feel joy and wonder flowing through every molecule of his being.

The Englishman uses his rationality the same way an individual who has had their heart broken uses a projection of distrust and an unwillingness to commit; as a way to prevent anyone from getting too close. As a way to prevent reality from getting too close.

By the end of the story, the Englishman learns what Zorba is trying to teach him; that by attempting to defang reality and pull it closer, he is, in fact, pushing it away.

***

Another way to view the effects of rationality on experience is to consider these two diagrams. They represent a momentary snapshot of Zorba’s and the Englishman’s feelings at any one point in time.

As you can see, Zorba experiences the full spectrum, the highest highs and the lowest lows. The Englishman does not. Using his powers of rationality, he places artificial constraints on human experience and feeling. He permits himself feelings which are above monotonous, but well below world-bending. Anything too close to the extremes is disallowed.

You, like me, might wonder why someone would place themselves in such shackles. One part of it is the mistaken belief that you can come closer to reality by suppressing the variance of experience. But perhaps a deeper reason is that they’ve been hurt. The philosophies and models which they favor have been rendered invalid by contact with reality. So like a person who, when hurt by love, meets future relationships with indifference, they have been hurt by reality, and respond by excluding the parts of it that threaten their worldview. They prefer to hold onto their ideas and disavow reality, rather than the reverse.

That’s where the buffer comes in, where they attempt to flatten the curve of human experience. Typical “rational behaviours”—detachment, objectifying experience, seeking strategies and mechanisms to control emotional response—are the means via which this end is accomplished. Flattening the curve is, ultimately, an exercise in control. However you prefer to think of it—flattening the curve, creating a buffer—the main objective is the same; smooth the rough edges of experience to make them safe. It’s kind of similar to baby-proofing furniture edges and cabinet doors. The goal is to create an environment where nothing that can harm you can happen.

But by doing this, by putting on airs and LARPing the appearance of rationality, they are themselves being irrational.

Garrett Hardin, in Filters Against Folly, quotes Baruch Spinoza, and the passage hints at why most rational behaviours are in fact irrational.

“That I might investigate the subject matter of this science with the same freedom of spirit we generally use in mathematics, I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them; and to this end I have looked upon passions such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere.”

You can’t understand nature by ignoring its storms and heatwaves. They are a critical part of its ecology. So too are our emotions. Rage, depression, envy, fear; these are all part of the ecology of experience. They are valid and valuable inputs in the decision making process. They represent something, and just because we can’t quite (or aren’t willing to) understand or formulate exactly what that something is, doesn’t mean we should discount it. So the seemingly rational behaviours that seek to ignore and overlook strong emotion and feeling, far from helping, actually hinder us. They lessen, rather than increase, the chances that we will make the right choice.

I’ve come across a similar line of thought in subjects like Stoicism, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness; the transcendence of labelling emotions as good or bad. Of trying to push some away and pull others closer. I’ve found it also in Venkatesh’s thinking around areas of “maximal interestingness”. To many, heading in the direction of maximal interestingness, logically, makes no sense whatsoever. Apart from its interestingness, it seems of little value in comparison to other, more rational directions.

The same thing is apparent when combating the Resistance. Taylor Pearson talked about moving towards the Resistance, towards existential terror, as a way to grow. That heuristic—what you need to do is what scares you the most—can seem downright barmy. But it is often the most transformative path to tread.

The ability to, one, allow yourself to feel these feelings, and two, do something with them, is incredibly valuable. Consider Feynmann’s first principle — “you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” — and ask yourself, which part of me is easier to fool; the rational or the intuitive? The rational, every time. A person can use rhetoric and wordplay to convince us of something that isn’t true. But it’s much harder to persuade our gut, our intuitive wisdom, of an untruth. The rational mind thinks it knows what it doesn’t know. The intuitive mind may not know explicitly what it doesn’t know, but it can give us clues and signals that our conscious mind cannot.

Another way to look at the effects of emotion and feeling on perception and judgement is to ask yourself this question: does emotion disrupt and obscure the workings of reason? Or does it correct and stabilise our faculties of thought? Rationalists argue the former. So would the Englishman. Zorba would argue differently. I’m sure he would agree when I say that impartiality for the robots. That by attempting to flatten the curve of human experience, we are diminishing the potency of our own mind by neglecting one of its critical properties.

Yet, while I maintain that Zorba is more rational than the Englishman because he incorporates, rather than excludes, the variety of human experience into his actions and decisions, I still think there’s another plane. Another, higher level.

When I edit for technical practitioners, I have two specific modes. Macro and micro. Abstract and specific. One mode is concerned with outlining and flow, with viewing something from the mountaintop. The other is concerned with rolling in the mud. With getting as close to the ground as possible. That’s the higher plane. If we can somehow incorporate the strengths of Zorba and the Englishman, if we are able to both immerse ourselves and detach ourselves from reality, would that not give us the best chance to discover the right decision, for the right reason, and enable us to take it at the right time?

***

The effects of rationality and its strategies on our judgement and perception is fascinating. But there’s a darker side to the LARPing of rationality, of trying to become a real-life Spock, of aspiring to be someone who is impervious to the flights and falls of experience.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb makes a point about complex systems. He says that to thrive they need variety and novelty. For a complex system, randomness is a necessity.

This applies to the human body, a gloriously complex system. Muscles need a range of stimulation that varies in frequency, intensity and duration to be at their most strong and supple. Joints need to be moved through multiple planes under a variety of loads to retain their stability and mobility. The cardiovascular systems needs to be challenged and tested to be at its most effective. All this needs to be done, but not in an organised way. The human body needs random variety, not regimented variety.

The need for randomness is also true for the human mind. To be deprived of stimuli is excruciating. There’s a reason solitary confinement is a punishment. We need short and simple. We need long and complex. We need sensory stimulation. We need to be exposed to a vast array of information and inputs. And when we are not, we can feel it. Our minds become diminished.

What is true for the body and the mind is also true for the human spirit. To reach its full potential, it needs to feel joy, to be crushed by grief. It needs to be capable of gratitude and of a sense of injustice.  And if it isn’t? If it is artificially choked of the extremes of experience? Well, the implication is the same as when we starve any other complex system of randomness. It begins to shrivel and die.

Devoid of variety, the human body tightens up. It becomes brittle and weak and breaks easily. Without diversity of stimulus, the mind becomes similarly weak. The imagination loses power, and our ability to think loses its potency. We become unable to think widely and deeply. The blade of our mind is blunted by deprivation of variety. And when prevented from experiencing the full spectrum of existence by a buffer of rationality, by flattening the curve of experience, the human spirit decays. It becomes a mere shadow of its potential form.

Think of the story of Spock. What is it but a journey in which Spock learns to be more human, to feel more human? Or think of another fictional character; Voldemort. He Who Must Not Be Named is evil precisely because he denies himself the most potent, dangerous, complex, misunderstood feeling of them all: love.

They say that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. The rational community and the strategies it promotes—objectivity, impartial analysis, tyranny over emotion—are championed with a noble end in mind. They seek to help individuals and organisations make better decisions. But my concern is that, in seeking to act like Spock, we may end up becoming like Voldemort.

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About Guest

Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives. The common factor is the general idea of "refactored perception." If you are interested in writing for us as a guest contributor, check out this page.

Comments

  1. 16777216 says:

    I see that the author of this post is a professional editor, so I’ve got to ask: what’s up with all the incorrect “it’s” instances?

    Like, is it some sort of punishment to more Apollonian readers that they let themselves be taken out of the experience by cringing at the typo? It can’t be an accident – ‘it’s’ is used in every single instance where “its” would be correct except one. Is this like when Slate Star Codex duplicates words throughout a post to point out that nobody notices, but the evil version? Maybe that’s also what’s going on in “The cardiovascular systems needs to be challenged and tested to be at it’s most effective,” which has subject-verb disagreement so advanced and intricate that it’s got to be a dark wizard at work rather than mere bumbling.

    I know this is probably going to come off as catty, but really, I don’t have any significant horse in the civil war between the “rationality community” and its enclosing bubble, so, I’m genuinely asking:

    What the heck it’s happening???

    • I’m British so perhaps that explains the “it’s”. No underlying point to it. And as for the subject-verb disagreement, I just like how that sentence reads.

      • My bad. I usually do a quick copyedit pass specifically to fix it’s vs its issues, but slipped my mind this time.

        Fixed.

        Is the convention different in UK English Matthew? I didn’t touch your other UK spellings since I don’t standardize on US spellings, but I wasn’t aware that the it’s = it is versus its = possessive case was different in the UK.

    • levi hebert says:

      so the authors point was strict adherence to rules and systems can turn people into life cops and boring dicks.

      and your point was “yup”

      gotcha. almost so on the nose with the point this post makes that I wondered if you were a plant.

      • That wasn’t at all my take on the author’s point. I felt that he was saying more that we’re not rational beings and we betray ourselves by attempting to make decisions in a strictly rational manner – that we often lie to ourselves about why we do that (out of fear rather than the desire for the best outcome). We should use our full faculties to be full humans.

      • ;)

  2. This seems like a fallacy of the excluded middle. Just because trying to remove all variation from experience is bad, doesn’t mean that the opposite (doing nothing and going through the full ups and downs) is good!
    I posit that on the contrary, you can try to remove most of the downwards variability while preserving all the upside, giving you a higher mean happiness without compromising on peak experiences or losing the contrast provided by occasional (but very rare) bad experiences.

    • Except we don’t seem to be particularly wonderful at doing that, do we?… we tend to clamp down on both ends of the spectrum rather than embrace one. And who’s to say that the upside is beneficial while the downwards is not? I think the author’s point isn’t so much as to do nothing as it is to experience the whole spectrum, sit with it and utilize it.

    • This is what Taleb calls “aggressive stoicism”. It’s shielding yourself from the downside and allowing yourself access to all the upside.

      But yes, I do tend to agree. I’m not saying don’t regulate emotion at all. I’m just saying don’t be afraid to confront it and examine it and meet it head on.

      For example, did you ever see that clip of Louis CK where he talks about listening to Bruce Springsteen? He says he was driving, felt overcome by sadness and pulled over to cry. That’s what I mean by experiencing the full spectrum. Not pushing away anger or sadness or jealousy because they’re “bad” or counter-productive”, but welcoming them as a necessary and valuable part of life.

  3. This essay brought to mind the following saying – “Moderation in all things – including moderation.”

  4. Though I didn’t think Matthew was trolling here when reviewing/editing the post for publication as Robert Cobb on twitter was wondering, there has been a definite subtext of mutual trolling in this broader conversation for as long as I have been part of it (about a decade now), and I think that’s a HEALTHY thing.

    It is important to the broader outside perspective of the rationalist community for interested outsiders/spectators (and I count myself as one) to NOT take rationalists’ declared stances on emotional experience, the Spock archetype, etc., at face value. Of course those are going to be positive. Just labeling the Spock archetype as “pseudo-rational” doesn’t mean criticism couched in terms of that archetype is invalid or has been adequately countered. Every community has somewhat self-forgiving perspectives on things that might be potential weaknesses, but are not central to its identity. The refactoring crowd has its own such…foibles shall we say. I cleverly won’t reveal what they are.

    Taking rationalists account of their perspectives on emotional experience at face value would be (ironically enough), highly irrational. I trust rationalists to be sincere in the positions they take on things like emotional experience (they are sincere about almost everything), but I don’t trust their conclusions because I don’t trust their methods outside of a narrow domain of applicability.

    Point being, there is definitely prima facie a case to be made that “flattening the curve of emotional experience” is something many in the rationalist community either seek to do or end up doing, with varying degrees of success and various sorts of unintended consequences.

    There is a reason this somewhat trollish conversation has existed for almost a decade now. The rationalists’ general position on emotionality etc. is not as coherent, deeply considered and based on lived experience as would like to believe, and the outsider suspicion of “Spock” tendencies has more substance to it than they might like to admit.

    I personally, for instance, have something of a history of Batman-v-Joker trolling with the rationalist community, where the Batman is something similar to a Spock archetype: part figure of strawman criticism, part legit. Sarah, the other editor of ribbonfarm, does too. Of course, both of us also happen to know a lot of the key people in the rationalist/LW community personally/f2f, and it ends up being more of a mutual gentle teasing rather than trolling (though in very different ways for Sarah and me). But the friendly tenor of the relationships notwithstanding, there are very genuine schisms here. Schisms that represent productive areas of investigation for both sides, which is why neither side seems capable of simply ignoring the other and walking away. I was, for example, initially very surprised by the significant overlap between the ribbonfarm audience as it grew, with the rationalist community, but now, almost 10 years later, I’m not so surprised. We all tend to seek out our Jungian shadows a bit.

    But to level this up a bit, there is a reason we card-carrying non-rationalists/post-rationalists/weirdists of various sorts (“non-rationalist” is like “nonlinear”… it is by definition a divergent category, since there are many ways to be non-rational or post-rational, but really only a handful of ways to be rational) end up in this conversation repeatedly.

    Something rationalists don’t seem to recognize/acknowledge easily is the sheer power of rationality as an organizing perspective on the world. It doesn’t matter if you spend 18 hours a day thinking about emotions in subtle and mindful ways, or if you have years of tortured history with bipolar disorder etc and buckets full of direct experience of the emotional life backing up your views. If your perspective is rooted in rationality, it is a rational perspective on emotion, and that has its limits.

    The real point I think many of us… constructive critics shall we say?… of the rationality subculture are always trying to make is that there are alternative organizing perspectives from which everything in the universe, emotional experience included, looks radically different.

    Ribbonfarm has several examples of such alternative organizing perspectives, so I’ll just throw two examples out there:

    On Some Possibilities for Life as a Joke by Sarah.

    Speak Weirdness to Truth by me.

    I’m not citing these as great posts (though I think they are of course :)), but as examples of the kinds of fun and interesting places you can end up in if rationality is not your primary organizing perspective on life, the universe, and everything. While there is no deep genius to either post, and most of the dedicated rationalist community is perfectly capable of following such thought trails as far as intelligence and imagination go, my point is they likely wouldn’t think to do so, or consider it worthwhile to do so.

    So non-rationality ends up being different values, priorities, and most importantly, different possibilities becoming naturally visible and attractive to you. Whether that non-rational organizing perspective is based on artistic creation, comedy, meditation, or gonzo drunken adventuring, or Zorbaing doesn’t matter, but some perspectives reveal more interesting things in emotional experience than others. And arguably rationalism is one of the perspectives on emotional experience that reveals the fewest interesting things about it.

    So it’s ultimately a simple enough thing: though LW and the rest of the rationalist watering holes spend a lot of time/energy and sincere brain cycles *talking* about how they do engage emotional experience and other aspects of being that are not as central to rationalist identity as (for instance) Bayesian reasoning is, it is very, very hard to take them seriously simply because they have a) far too much skin in the game around the rationalist organizing perspective b) far too little skin in the game in any alternate non-rationalist organizing perspective such as “life as a joke” metaphysics or “weirdness seeking”.

  5. Looks like the “rationalist community” [1] is dedicated to play the role of the Steppenwolf or Tonio Kröger, but without the paradox posed by bookish, romantic people who seek life in bigger-than-life stories and distilled character in fictional people which are more real/pure then the confusingly ordinary people surrounding them. In that sense Zorba, doesn’t make any difference. It is just art reflecting on itself, or the experience of an experience. For Tonio Kröger the lively couple Hans and Inge were just as real or more than the people in the books but after all Tonio, Hans and Inge all fictional people, just like Zorba.

    Historically, those who attempted to tame their ups and downs and control their emotions by removing distractions, were monks, living a simple and ascetic life. Some of them still exist, but they have vanished from sight and the monasteries have lost influence on cultural life, at least in the west.

    I cannot remember monks from Mt Athos being attacked by rationalists. Religion plays no role unless it is on the marketplace-of-ideas, competing for mindshare or stocks in the memepool. The best possible position on the marketplace of ideas is that of some Federal Reserve, controlling liquidity and interest rate, launching a QE program, when necessary. Not too dogmatic, always with a spot on empirical, measurable reality. Becoming guardians of the marketplace of ideas is a splendid position. A position for a rationalist? Quite possible. All of this has little to do with controlling emotions, which has become at best a topic for self help advice.

    [1] About a decade ago the age of the great monologues seemed to be over. The death-of-the-author gained traction in a new mass culture curated by poststructuralist intellectuals. Discourse rulez just like a new communitarism. Now I read how everyone suffers from Facebook and feels life being wasted on social media. Meanwhile the universities have become places of street battles. While the death of the author still made me sad, here I feel some Schadenfreude.

  6. Jack Daniels says:

    A key assumption of this article is that people are able to handle their emotions if they let their consciousness focus on the emotions. I personally have found that not to be true.

    There is usefulness in denying or overlooking parts of the emotional and experiential spectrum, which is why denying/ignoring some parts of the spectrum is a natural mental defense mechanism commonly used by everyday, non-rationalist people. It allows one to recuperate from a bad mental state and to get to the point where he/she can actually handle the emotions. Otherwise, allowing emotions to have free reign would slow recovery time. On the flip side, when one is in a wholesome state and still denies portions of the spectrum, the article’s arguments apply and he/she would be slowing down his/her progress and making limiting assumptions.

    • Kind of like a psychological sleight of hand? That’s interesting. I hadn’t considered that.

      > “Otherwise, allowing emotions to have free reign would slow recovery time.”
      I’m not advocating free reign, more like escaping/transcending the “this-feeling-is-bad-run!” vs “this-feeling-is-good-gimme-more!” dichotomy.

  7. One thing that struck me about all three graphs of emotional is that they are a bit boring. All basically oscillate back and forth with some noise. What I think is more interesting is the dynamic range, the variance in magnitudes. Otherwise one is just living the emotional equivalent of a pop song, just at different volumes.

    For me, that most of my experience fall towards the center is just a reflection of the orders of magnitude of variance that are present in life. Without normal, there can be no extraordinary.

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