What is the good life?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFeb 25, 2013 1:13 PM


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Now that I have a daughter I do reflect a bit more on what the purpose of my life is, because at some point I want to talk to her about the purpose of her life. There is a little bit of irony in this insofar as now she is a primary purpose of my life! But in any case, though Chris Rock's raison d'être speaks to me, additionally my job is also to make sure that my daughter doesn't become a C.P.A. Certain professions, such as dentistry or accountancy, are honorable. But there are enough people who want to enter those financially lucrative professions as it is. In a world of such absolute affluence we can afford the luxury of the life the mind. Aristotle's father was a physician, no doubt a good man. But his memory persists only because of the incandescent brilliance of his son, who ventured into wide intellectual waters. Speaking of Aristotle, Aristotle Onassis is reputed to have said that “If women didn't exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” Point taken, and I think there's a great deal of truth in this. But let me rephrase it: if books didn't exist, all the time in the world would have no meaning. To many this sort of assertion would seem strange, but I suspect among my readership it is comprehensible. And by books I don't mean to imply paper and ink and binding, I mean the information encoded within those books. With that out of the way, I thought I would share an email from a long time reader (though only very rarely a correspondent). I don't necessarily agree with everything stated here obviously, and I hope that the comments don't devolve in discussions of the nature of East Asian society. I didn't feel comfortable expurgating that aspect just because some might take objection though. Rather, it is to consider how one might find a place to flourish and be nurtured socially in their intellectual explorations. I do not know how your off-line persona differs, if at all, but I'm assuming your on-line self is close to the truth. Obviously, life demands that we all be somewhat multifaceted in how we express ourselves in different situations. I have always had problems in dealing with people's irrational emotionalism over many issues. I learned quite early that although everyone seems capable of logic, they definitely do not have the same innate ability or even desire to be rational in their approach to life. Most people are this way, as I am sure you know. It is often frustrating dealing with "the mob", and the funny thing is I don't hold myself as being very special in any regard. I am simply highly curious and tend to be quite rational, I guess that is enough to be an oddity in the modern world.I'm in my late 30's, born in the Midwest, but I have lived in 4 different states, and several nations, which include Switzerland, Singapore, China, Japan, and Taiwan. I have visited many more. Over the years I found that most people, even those we would consider quite educated, who are quite academically accomplished are far from intellectuals. Most people simply apply their intellect to their job, after which they focus on practical concerns or entertainment. They lack innate curiosity about the world or a drive to follow-up on things that do strike their fancy.My family is a good example, not wanting to get too much into my background, my parents died when I was young, and I grew up with my mother's family, who are quite blue collar in their sensibilities. They have never been able to understand why I would want to even visit Asia, let alone live outside the U.S. For them exotic is going to the Caribbean, and outrageous would be travelling to France. They have no interest in science at all. I suppose my generation is slowly breaking out of this mode, but despite having doctors, lawyers, and low level politicians in the family, most are far from intellectual in their pursuits. Outside my family, the most intellectually stimulating environment I have found was Washington D.C. I lived there for 5 years, during which time I was involved in a couple of organizations where I met some very interesting people, whom I still regard as fairly close friends. After leaving Washington D.C., I have mostly been surrounded by fairly educated business people, so not much intellectual depth.This is especially true in East Asia, as the societies are so authoritarian, due to a Confucianist tradition, many people do not even know how to think for themselves about things that are not practical. It is not just the common complaint about the lack of self-initiative or creativity, that you might read on the internet, it is far deeper than that. I have met ethnic Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people (all Asian born) who have went to top universities, and might be seen as highly intelligent in the very narrow area of their occupation, but outside of this you might see them as retarded (in the classic sense). In Asia, but for Japan, there seems to be no love of learning outside of the practical purpose of money making, which is an obsession, especially among the ethnic Chinese. Hell, most people do not even read for enjoyment if the material is higher than a fashion magazine or manga. A Taiwanese woman once told me that education is so brutal and stressful for most, and then they grow and work 12 hours a day, after which no one wants to do anything but sleep, eat, and relax. A common joke in Taiwan is that people's favorite hobbies are "sleeping and eating", and like many quips, there is truth in it. I used to think this was a nouveau riche attitude, but honestly I think it is not a transient phase, it is deeply culture. East Asians are really just practical highly focused "grinders". I have met people who were different, but few. I used to be involved with a discussion group in Taiwan, and I started a sister group in Singapore, we discussed all sorts of topics from birth rates, to modern marriage trends, to religious issues, but those type of groups I found were highly unusual, and a quick scan of Meet-up, which is quite popular in Singapore can show you that most people are interested in business networking, meeting a sex partner, or self-improvement (usually how to make more money). The funny thing is, in Singapore, almost all these events are dominated by ethnic Indians. Indians are chatty, far more than the "Mongoloids". To be fair, there are groups for hiking, biking, and jogging, but they are usually lead by Western people with Asian tag-alongs.In Asia people rarely give opinions in groups or even have strong opinions about many things, they simply look to be "told". Chinese say they are like "roaches" which is a positive expression, it means they can survive anything, and the tenacity of the people is awe inspiring at times. They can take all manners of abuse and drudgery from authority figures, while suffering in silence, which I believe is why the suicide rate is so much higher than the West. Since face is so important to people, most will not put themselves "on the line" as they never want to be seen as wrong, let alone challenging authority. Face is so critical because everyone is judging everyone all the time, there is little "privacy". The locus of moral control is generally "outside the person" because the societies are built on shame, not guilt. So people really fear being shamed, but if they think they won't get caught, I've seen people do pretty terrible things, with little remorse or self-criticism. If you ever think someone from these nations will apologize to you for something wrong they did, dont' hold your breath, the very act is a lose of face, so they will simply pretend it did not happen or top talking to you if you make an issue of it. I have seen this many times. Any criticism of a person or "the group" (which could also mean the nation/government) is seen as an attack by many, especially coming from a foreigner, and then the irrational "home team is always right" attitude kicks in, usually an illogical rant. Logical thinking is not fundamental at all, at least not for more abstract issues. Despite being "patriarchal societies" how the society functions reminds me of how junior high school girls operate. The whys and what fors are all quite complicated, but Asia is definitely not what most Americans think it is. I think if Western people really knew how fundamentally different the society is in a place like China, they would be terrified for the future, it is shocking, and takes a major adjustment for those of us who do not wish to live in an ex-pat bubble while living abroad.Anyway, I added in the Asian part because I know you have some interest in the Far East, but my real question to you is how do you find the like-minded, off-line? I understand you live in the Pacific Northwest, are things better there or have you just found a niche. I assume blogging is not your only intellectual outlet, so are most of the people you speak with about various issues on-line? I need to figure out something, as I'm heading back to "money is life" land. Sports fans have their bars, dancers have night clubs, where do we go? So, after all that, what's my advice? Offline I have found the Less Wrong and BIL communities to be invigorating. The primary issue that I have is that I tend not to have an "off" switch when I'm intellectua;ly engaged. I can talk about sports and other "small talk" fare on "autopilot," but when I engage cognitively I tend to get bored by a lot of discussion. The people I've met through Less Wrong and other such communities also tend not to have a genuine "off" mode, and intellectual discussion isn't about signalling or showing how smart you are, it's about getting to the heart of things. And that's hard to find. The reality is that most smart people enjoy decompressing in the evening, having a good meal and a rich beer. But the corollary is that conversation also seems to become rather anodyne, banal, and mind numbing. In contrast, a minority of us just have a difficult time genuinely unwinding, because we're always conscious of the fact that death is coming closer and closer, and we're stilled mired in ignorance.

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