Epistemic status: n=1
Author’s Note: Wow, have I not posted anything here forever. This does not feel especially likely to change, but this post has been mostly finished, sitting in my drafts. This was written a year ago (!) and I not everything here is still true or agreed with, but I refrain from mangling whatever I was trying to say.
I was catching up with Twig this morning, and came across this passage:
I thought of Mary, and of Gordon, and of Mary and Gordon. I wasn’t really plotting what I was saying, but the words came out anyway, thoughts spilling out as words, more aimless than my usual. “Problem with looking too much at the future, is you can get caught up in enjoying or anticipating what’s down the road. Sometimes you have to live in the now, bring that future to pass.”
It was that particular line “you can get caught up in enjoying or anticipating what’s down the road” that struck me. The impression I imagined was something like a spurious counterfactual, or simply wire-heading; getting baited into one source of happiness and not bothering with others.
But, a little thought revealed a rabbit hole to another insight. In Scott Alexander’s review of Infinite Jest, he summed up the theme as “the difference between masturbation and sex”, that David Foster Wallace was writing on the necessity of connecting to something outside yourself.
After reading that passage, I think I get it now, at least a little bit.
It’s enough of a human universal to take for granted that most people reading this have fantasized about having or doing something. I’ve fantasized about finally getting around to writing that web serial, and everyone loving it. About finally getting back in the habit or programming, and writing that killer app that everyone loves.
Both of these situations are unrealistic, but the slightly less idealistic cast, writing a decent enough serial that people read and enjoy, writing a decent enough app that people use and enjoy, are not. At the very least, what matters is that I consider them realistic, that if I get up and perform the necessary actions, I can get the desired outcome, more often than not.
So even if the watered down outcome presented here is unrealistic, I believe otherwise, therefore, on pain of irrationality, I should strive to obtain these outcomes anyway.
Let’s step back a moment. Forget everything I profess to want. Is there any reason, barring my own (obviously untrustworthy) testimony, that I should believe I really want to do these things, instead of (only) believing I want them?
On reading that quote from that last section, I realized there really isn’t any. I think about why I think I want these things; specifically, they would feel good. People showering me with praise for serial or killer app or what-have-you would feel great. Probably. I think it would, that matters most of all.
But only thinking about doing these things, imagining them having already happened, also feels good, to some extent. What would motivate me to do those things is if I thought doing them would feel better than imagining them.
(There might be a contradictory logical spiral in there, wherein thinking it’d better then what I’m imagining leads to me imagining them being better than I previously imagined, leading to me blissing out on silly thoughts. This doesn’t happen, thankfully.)
The short version of this, is simply, oftentimes fantasizing feels better than actually doing things, at least in my broken hedonic calculus; if I only write that serial for the feeling of being held in high regard by others, I can just imagine that feeling, and not have to deal with the hard work of actually writing, or the inevitable response of criticism or disinterest instead of praise, which would make me feel horrible instead of great.
So what kinds of things do I end up doing? Well, writing this blog is one, and it seems weird that complain about doing one kind of writing and have no problems with the other. But I notice a clear difference; for the serial, I only desire it for instrumental ends. I want it because of the recognition it would grant me. As for my blog, I’ve technically been blogging for six months, and have had exactly two people read before I switch to WordPress. Two friends I have linked myself when something I’d written became relevant. And since switching, I’ve had around seven people who liked something I had written enough to like it, which being quite appreciated, is still a far-cry from the kind of glory you literally dream about.
It’s not at all an original sentiment, but I write for myself. When I started this post, I had no idea how long it will be (I still do not since I have a few more thoughts to share) and had no idea what ground I would cover in it. And that’s the difference. When I write this, the impetus that acts on my fingers isn’t some distant goal of an act of communication, it’s the instantaneous, visceral feeling of pieces clicking into place, of having a nebulous idea acting as your true north, but no idea how you’re going to get from point A to B, and being supremely interested in what you find when and as you get there.
So above all else, it’s about curiosity. I just want to see the sights. What will happen when I ask this question? When I write this sentence, what follows?
I write because I have ideas in my heads, and not enough mental scratch-space to work them out.
So when it’s said that you need to connect to something outside yourself, I say it’s not talking about other people, places or anything of the sort. I think it’s about grasping at the inaccessible, about playing with uncertainty.
Something is worth doing if in the doing you find out something new. It’s what fun is, in the compression theory of insight. Whether your domain of interest is people, abstract maths, some vaguely philosophical hogwash (see: this blog), what matters is that you are doing it to learn something.
This probably isn’t a one size fits all things, and maybe doesn’t even apply to anyone and this was just an exercise in sophistry. So be it. If you have a few handfuls of ideas and good enough intuition of how to tinker with them, you might catalyze something useful. Or maybe not, you never know.