Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Resolution of Resolution

The New Year is a time for the making (and the inevitable breaking) of resolutions, that is, attempts to commit yourself to some worthwhile goal that you would not normally have, or would not normally be able to achieve. The weakness of our ability to actually fulfill such promises has become a fairly tired cliche and material for reflexive jokes:

Comedy often involves puncturing pretension, so the resolutions are a fertile topic. But comedy aside, the whole exercise is pretty strange – a promise, in effect, that future versions of yourself will be bound by a goal of your present self. That might not seem so strange on the surface -- after all, we can, in normal circumstances, make ourselves do things that we don՚t naturally want to do, like washing the dishes or going to the dentist. We are always forming intentions and then making ourselves execute them, if usually on a smaller scale. If was can do that, why is it so difficult to make ourselves exercise or learn to play the piano? Somehow whatever tricks we've learned to do the minimum necessary unpleasant tasks to get through life won't extend to these more ambitious goals.

New Year's resolutions are generally intentions that we know we will have trouble executing, so we hope that the specialness of the holiday period will magically enhance our ability to enforce current preferences on our future selves. Why a random holiday should enhance our normal level of (perceived) willpower is not completely clear. Maybe because everybody else is doing it too? Maybe the special time of year is a sort of Schelling point where we all converge on trying to improve ourselves, agreeing to act as each other's consciences.

For me it՚s just another excuse to delve into my favorite topic – the disunity of mind, how the different parts interoperate and cooperate and/or conflict with each other. For some reason I like to try to demonstrate that I don՚t exist, at least, not as a unified coherent single point of control, and neither does anybody else, and that our precious selves are largely fictional constructs. Of course, everybody sort of knows this already, but living as if it were true is not easy, maybe impossible. The illusion of solidity is very strong and it sometimes seems as if the entire quotidian world is structured so as to perpetuate it.

George Ainslie probably has the most useful view of the nature of will in a seething non-unified mind. In his theory, the self is not an organ but a coalition, a point of convergence for the different appetites and the different situations they find themselves in. Self-construction is a process of creating, maintaining, and refining this tenuous balance of interests. That's the most challenging part of Ainslie: it's not that hard to believe that different parts of ourselves have goals of their own, since everybody experiences that, but it's a lot harder to understand that somehow these parts also have bargaining and political skills.

My resolution for the new year – or rather, the tentative constitution that my divergent interests temporarily agree to work under – is to understand goals better. in the abstract, and in my personal life as well.

I've never really had a great relationship to explicit goals. I՚m amazed at all these people I meet who have well-defined goals and plans, who have sketched out the routes they want their life to follow in advance. I've never really been able to do that, and occasionally it troubles me, although I seem to have managed to accomplish a few things and raise a family just by blundering around without much of a plan. No doubt I would have achieved a lot more with one, but on the other hand, how could the callow younger version of myself presume to tell the old and experienced person I am now what they should be doing? It՚s almost exactly the same problem as that of New Year's resolutions.

On the more workaday level, I really have come to loathe the way explicit goals are treated in in the process of software development, whether through old-fashioned formal planning or the trendier agile methodologies. It may be completely necessary in order for people to coordinate their work, but it still somehow manages to miss everything that is interesting and important about software design, which is never spoken of, possibly because we just don't have a good vocabulary for it yet or possibly because it is inherently un-articulable, like the Christopher Alexander's quality without a name.

Of course I have plenty of goals in my work on various scales. It's not the goals I mind, it's the process by which they are arrived at, both in setting them and fulfilling them. I'm not sure whether the process is broken or I am just too weird, intransigent, or immature to adapt to it. It seems to work, sort of, for most people and companies, although it is always the topic of endless dissatisfaction.

But it's the people with explicit long-term goals who seem to achieve things in this society, and perhaps in any society. I am impressed yet also somewhat repelled these types. Even when the goals themselves are laudable, they seem to be somehow enslaved to themselves. That may be a really negative way of seeing what is usually considered one of the primary virtues, the quality of having mastered yourself. But there can՚t be a master without a slave, even if they are the same person. A man with a plan sees other people, and himself, as means to an end, not as ends in themselves.

[ This post kicks off what I hope (nay, resolve!) will be a series of posts on different aspects of goals. Actually the recent post on play could be considered a part of the series. Tackling a topic of that size risks pomposity, and there is the additional risk of tiresome reflexiveness (yes I am being meta in having a goal about goals in general, but no I don't think it earns me any cleverness points).  ]


Joshua said...

Not talking about you, but "disunity of mind" proponents can be some of the most egotistical people I know. There is something oddly delusional about a person insisiting that identity is absolutely an illusion, yet fighting mightily against everything that could be perceived as defining/oppressing him, and hoping to be recognized as heroic for this stand.

The Ainslie post was excellent, as I think I remember blogging about when you posted it. Looking forward to more of your thoughts about goals.

Some career paths (e.g. academic) seem to demand a fluidity of identity, while others (e.g. sales) seem to demand a certain single-mindedness. I'm certainly biased toward the former. We make progress by realizing our errors, and people who hang onto delusion tend to become brittle and ossified. But this can become a convenient excuse for throwing out values that your 15 year-old self rightly knew were worth holding.

In general, I think that's a useful way to think about these things. How do you adjudicate value disuputes between your younger self and older self? (And of course, this is a recursive fractal relationship). When we're young, we instinctively realize that our older self will have the power to overturn the decisions that our younger self makes, so we make extravagent commitments and box ourselves into things that will be harder to reverse in the future. We seek to exert our younger will over the older. And when we're older, we appeal to our greater experience to wiggle out of the fences our younger self built. But I think it's a huge mistake to see these negotiations as a checks and balances problem. It's usually possible to hoist the decision up to some objective judgment framework, and we should be developing that muscle above all others.

There is another point you are making, about the social processes by which groups of people attempt to make good decisions about systems engineering. I suppose we could fill books about the pathologies of social processes and systems engineering. Humans are awful at this, and we are delusional about our competence. Half of the human process we claim as improvement is actually making things worse. To the extent we can replace humans with machines, and can ensure that the machine judgment is truly transparent and objective (and adheres to a few other critical criteria), we truly improve things. It seems to me that this is one area we can do a lot of good.

Joshua said...



mtraven said...

Oh absolutely. Acknowledging that you are a bag of not-quite-coordinated parts doesn՚t absolve one from the need for conducting life, so unless you live in an ashram or something (and maybe even then) you still have to enact a self. And the only way to do that convincingly is to bamboozle yourself into believing in yourself. Everyone does this, the process is so ingrained and basic it is difficult to talk about.

Some people may be enlightened, in the sense that they have successfully freed themselves from the illusion of ego, but I certainly don՚t make that claim for myself. I am as egocentric as anybody if not more so. I like to think that my efforts to think about this stuff are useful in some sense, but if I was serious about it I suppose I would take up a meditation practice.

I really liked your comments but I՚ll focus on a point of disagreement. You said “But I think it's a huge mistake to see these negotiations as a checks and balances problem. It's usually possible to hoist the decision up to some objective judgment framework, and we should be developing that muscle above all others.”

Where do the values for this object judgement process come from? If the ground-level processes disagree on their goals, how do they create a higher-level process that somehow resolves them?

Now, I believe it is possible to do this on an ad-hoc basis for particular cases – this is how all of rational human social functioning works, we create institutions that represent negotiations of shared goals and values. But I don՚t believe it is possible or even desirable to do this universally. And I don՚t think we can offload it to machines either, because technology always encodes values.

Joshua said...

To be clear, I'm not suggesting some universal objective standard that applies to all people. I'm talking about each individual working out his own set of high-level "objective" frames that can be used to govern the squabbling parliament of the self.

In fact, I think it's the rejection of universal morality that leads some people to attach so emotionally to the idea of the "illusory self". A lot of the people preaching universal morals are authoritarian assholes, and being able to just dissolve his target has a certain appeal. If he and you have no selves, you don't have to waste your time explaining why the asshole's rules don't apply to you. I'm not saying this motivates you (and I haven't seen evidence for this in your writings), but I'm guessing you know people like this.

What I'm talking about is almost the opposite. I'm talking about a sort of personal constitution -- "This is the kind of person I am", "These are things I will or won't do", etc. Nothing too detailed or prescriptive, just some fundamental basics.

We all have one. But some will argue that we acquire our inner-identities by external accident. So what? Don't throw it out just because it was inherited. Judge it and decide what would be better. Then change. Then rinse and repeat.

Some will argue that our "deliberate choice" of personal constitution will be hopelessly predetermined by the starting point of our rabble of self-government. So what? The fact that the starting point is essentially random doesn't mean that the final outcome is arbitrary. Maybe things converge. How do we know if we don't try?

Some will argue that outcomes don't converge, or converge to widely conflicting identities that are essentially arbitrary. So what? Maybe one guy decides to be a Don Juan, another an Actor, another a Conqueror. Are any of these lives by constitution obviously worse than government by rabble?

Some will argue that seasons change and identity shifts. So what? What's wrong with being Don Juan in one season, the Philosopher in another, and the Joker in another?

These all seem like reasons we should get a lot of practice making personal constitutions, not reasons for throwing out constitutional government and turning things over to the rabble.

Now, everything I'm saying boils down to the fact that humans operate on story and narrative. And if I were making a universal moral claim (e.g. "humans operate on narrative, so you should operate on narrative"), I would be guilty of anthropic fallacy. It's anthropic accident that we define ourselves by narrative, so that cannot be used for evidence of any larger claim.

I'm not making any strong claim like that. And my favorite people are people who challenge the stock narratives and fight for more complexity in the canon of identities. But we're all people, and we don't have a lot of choice to be otherwise, so I don't see much sense in self-delusion that pretends we've somehow transcended that.

Of course, I don't think those discussions should be off-limits. And it seems perfectly conceivable that there is some external universal force which operates on humans in ways that are totally alien to us. Perhaps we're in a simulation, or maybe we are some sort if residual side-effect of some intelligence we can't comprehend. But I think it's massively narcissistic to think that our "illusory identity" champions have any chance of grasping anything true about these possibilities. If there is any anti-personal universally objective force complex that governs our existence, it seems safe to assume that this force depends on us being governed by personal constitutions, and also safe to assume that our defections (dissolution of identity or whatever) will have no impact on them or on us. Don Quixote is still an identity.

mtraven said...

I think we basically agree: It՚s not that personal constitutions are merely good things to have, in some sense they are ontologically necessary to have. Even the most identity-fluid person needs some mechanism for choosing which version of themself to express, even psychopaths have a way to turn their antisocial goals into coherent plans of action. Even anarchy needs a system.

The mystery is how these constitutions get created in the first place and how they manage to stay enforced. If we are a squirming mass of conflicting goals, how is coherent and adaptive behavior produced from the chaos? It was hard enough for the founding fathers to hammer out the US constitution, and they were learned men and great communicators. How do a bunch of brutish and definitionally subhuman agents manage it?

Identity (which is a personal constitution under a different name) is in essence a solution to this question.

And there is so much variation in the solution space! Everybody solves this differently. It՚s easy to believe that common people accept an off-the-rack identity rather than hand-crafting their own, but really it՚s not the case. Nobody gets out of having to solve for human, even those who would really like to take the easy road of having it done for us.

You seem to have something against people, like the lately departed Marvin Minsky, who advocate for the disunity of the mind. Even though I learned my own views from him to a large extent, I՚ve also sometimes myself wondered if this particular way of thinking, even if true in some sense, was harmful to disseminate. That it would weaken the general will or otherwise reduce human flourishing. It՚s a naive idealist view to believe that knowledge is always good. It may very well be that the fictions of self are necessary illusions and undermining them is sabotage of what is most important.

But – I don՚t really think this is the case. The illusions of ego are very strong, and are continually enforced by the structures of everyday life. Pointing out the stage machinery that keeps them going is not going to stop the show. And it may help us improve the show.

Joshua said...

Yes, seems we pretty much agree. And I actually think the ability to apprehend and deal with ambiguity of identity is a key marker of wisdom and maturity. I'm a fan of pushing the boundaries as far as possible, and I like people who expose themselves to as many different cultures, viewpoints and philosophies, extreme circumstances, mind-altering drugs, deprivations and challenges as possible. So I certainly wouldn't say I have anything against people exploring disunity of mind. It takes an incredibly strong kernel or nucleus of self to disintegrate and reintegrate the identity time and again. On the other hand, I do have something against people who try to use disunity as a purely intellectual bluff or sort of escapist sophistry. IMO, the two groups are polar opposites. You see this sort of sophistry sometimes with "Internet Buddhists".