Why Economics Should Return to its Roots

Economics explains how people interact within markets to accomplish certain goals. People; not robots. And people are creatures with desires, animalistic urges that guide them into making conscious, but often unconscious, decisions. That sets them apart from robots, which act solely upon formal rules (If A, then B, etc.). But this difference between humans and robots shouldn’t have to be a problem, right? Not if economics takes into account the fact that humans are biological creatures, who (might) have got a free will; an observation which makes their actions undetermined and therefore unable to be captured in terms of laws.

It seems fair to say that we all want to increase our utility – in the broadest sense of the word. But do we always know why we want to increase our utility? Don’t we never ‘just want’ to go out, ‘just want’ to buy a new television, ‘just want’ to go on holiday? Yes we do: it seems that, sometimes, we just happen to want things: we don’t know why, we don’t have explicit motives for our desires. And if we – the people having the desires – don’t even know why we do things, how on earth could economists know, let alone capture these actions in laws? That’s only possible if you make assumptions: very limiting assumptions.

Rational choice theory is a framework used within economics to better understand social and economic behavior by means of formal modeling. But if this sense of understanding – that is possible only through formalizing humans’ behavior – is only possible by treating humans like robots, what then, on a conceptual level, is the difference between economics and artificial intelligence? Besides that the latter really works with robots and the former seems to assume to work with robots? Robots whose actions are fully predictable and explainable by a set of parameters: speed, vision, greediness etc. Or its formal economic counterpart: humans whose actions are manipulable by changing interest rates, government expenditures, taxes and other parameters that are part of the large economic machine we are all a part of. Assuming a mindless creature, following formal rules, makes it possible to capture his intentions in a formal corset. Everything should be dealt with in a formal manner: even uncertainty should be put in mathematical terms. Anything to make sure that we don’t miss out on any of the creature’s shenanigans. Even the ones that are grounded in the deep domains of irrationality.

But maybe it’s time to wake up and ask ourselves the question: have we come to forget what that we’re dealing with humans here? That the economy is not a steam engine, robot or any other mindless entity whose actions are fully explainable – let alone predictable. Have we forgotten that economics is a ‘social’ science, a science dealing with products of the human mind, related more to psychology than to mathematics?

It’s understandable that economics wants to position itself as being a ‘genuine’ science, a science that is able to objectively describe the way the world works. A science that wants to show that it is capable of capturing its findings in laws. But why should economics be dependent upon these kind of formalities in order for it to be a science? Isn’t it time for economics to stop being insecure? To realize that it’s beautiful the way it is. Why does it behave like an 18-year old girl, whining and crying about the girls who she thinks are prettier than her? Stop it economics! You’re pretty: be happy with what you are.

But this leads us to the real question: what is economics? Economics is – much like politics – a system created by the interaction between us human beings. A system that – although less explicitly than politics – is founded on the notion of morality: our ideas about what’s right and wrong. It’s no surprise that figures such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek have been so influential in economics. They understood what economics was really about: economics is in the basis a philosophy of what it means to be a human being, and the fundamental rights that each one of us should have. This ethics is the starting point of their economic systems. And that’s a tradition current economists should try to continue: interweaving morality and money. Keeping an eye on the moral fundamentals underlying markets and coming up with original ideas about how to improve these markets on a moral level. So there’s plenty of work left to do for the genuine economist.

But what do you think?

Commercials: Not All Publicity is Good Publicity

Commercials: you’re likely to absorb hundreds of them per day, via media such as the TV, radio and internet. As I have written about in a previous article, the average person spends 1/24 of his life watching commercials on television. That’s a quite a lot, isn’t it? But I don’t want to focus on this act of wasting our lives by consuming useless material. I want to take a look at the effect of commercials, and of marketing in general, on the perception of a company’s brand. Most companies seem to believe that any publicity is good publicity. They seem to think that – no matter how bad a commercial might be – it’s always better to have a commercial than to have no commercial at all. But the question is: is this true?

When you’re watching television, and you see a commercial of a brand you’ve never heard of before, what will be the effect of this commercial on your perception of the brand? Marketers seem to think that they’ve increased your ‘awareness‘ of their brand, in the sense that – consciously or not – you now know about the brand‘s existence. And this might very well be true. But then the question would be: is all awareness good awareness? Or can awareness – as created by commercials – lead to a (more) negative (instead of positive) perception of the brand by the customer?

I believe it can. I believe that whenever people see terribly non-funny commercials (as there are plenty of) on television, they associate the brand promoted in the commercial with negative values such neediness, pity and lameness. I believe that the next time these people are in front of, for example, a supermarket they’ve just seen in an utterly non-funny (but intended to be funny) commercial, they will think to themselves: ‘Come on, I’m not going to support such a quasi-funny company’, and they’ll decide to skip the store. Even though these people might have entered the store if they hadn’t watched the commercial, or if the company wouldn’t have produced the commercial in the first place. But now they’ve got all kinds of negative associations with the brand, they decide to skip the store and go to another store – which might have less awareness but still more positive awareness than the supermarket of the commercial. And this goes not only for the supermarket-market, but for any other kind of market as well.

Customers usually don’t care about whether a brand is well-known – note that this doesn’t hold for clothing brands and other products that depend for their value to a large extent on marketing. We just want to buy a particular good or a particular service. And the only thing guiding us to a particular store is our perception of this brand/store. And if this perception is negative – which it very likely might be as a result of a bad commercial – you’d consciously avoid this store, and move to a next one. Even though the particular brand might have put a lot of money into its marketing efforts, they’re worse off than they would have been if they hadn’t launched the commercial.

Of course, marketing – including commercials on television and radio – can have a positive effect on a company’s brand and consequently on the sales of the company’s goods/services. But only if the company markets the relevant aspects of its brand, and not just launches a commercial for the sake of showing how ‘funny’ it is as a supermarket. Most people won’t appreciate that: the intelligent people might feel like they’re being treated like babies, and will therefore consciously avoid the brand, and the less intelligent people might not respond at all to this irrelevant kind of commercials.

If want to get people to your store (or make use of your service), you have to stay close to the product your selling, because that’s where customers are coming for or not coming for. Emphasize your low prices, your current actions/sales or your great service, and skip the bullshit. Then, and only then, can marketing attract – instead of scare away – customers.

But what do you think?

Religion and The Absurd

There are times at which I envy religious people. Their sense of determination, of knowing where all of this is about and what to do with it, can seem very alluring at times. Like it can really put your mind at ease. And why wouldn’t it? After all, religious people always know that, no matter what they are faced with in life, they will always be able to come up with an explanation that is 100 percent bulletproof. An explanation that always points to the one single source of everything. Down to God himself. That truly must be a peaceful mindset, right?

Wrong. Reality contradicts this assumption. For it seems fair to say that religions, or differences in religion, are an important – if not the most important – cause of war in this world of ours. And since war is – by definition – not peaceful, it is fair to say that not all theists experience peaceful consequences through adhering to their religion.

But this article is not an attempt to criticize religion. This article zooms in at the different positions regarding religion, and the reasonableness – or unreasonableness – of each.

Teapot
First of all atheism. I have established that I am not an atheist. For to be an atheist, one must reject to believe in the existence of deities. And I most certainly do not reject believing in deities. At least: not as long as it is someone else who does the believing; not me, for I don’t believe in any deity.

Neither do I consider myself to be an agnostic. An agnostic claims that one will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of deities. Therefore one should postpone judgement (possibly indefinitely) about the existence of any deity. Agnosticism as thus defined doesn’t seem to be unreasonable. However, it leaves one with an unwanted consequence, being: one can reflect only on those entities that definitely do or definitely do not exist.

Let me clarify this. Suppose I say that – somewhere in space – there is a teapot floating around. The existence of this teapot can neither be proved nor disproved. Should we hence be agnostic about its existence? This seems unreasonable, for we might have reasons to suppose that the existence of such a teapot is extremely improbable. But notions such as probability do not make any sense from an agnostic point of view. For how can something be more or less probable, given the fundamental assumption that one cannot make any reasonable judgement about the existence of entities that cannot be proved or disproved? If the latter would be true, one cannot talk about probability; for probability – or at least everything between 0 and 100 percent – is not absolute like a proof or disproof. If one cannot accept this consequence, one should not be an agnostic.

But then the unavoidable question pops up: what then am I? Is there a group of like-minded people I belong to? Is there a religion or a philosophy that suits my particular ideas and intuitions? Or am I forever doomed to wander around lonely on this earth of ours, searching for my very own, not yet formulated, views on life?

Baby Jesus
The answer is no. Because recently something special happened: my very own baby Jesus was born. My lord and saviour. While surfing on the internet, I stumbled upon the philosophical position called ‘absurdism’, and I was hooked right away. What is absurdism? The best way to explain it, is to zoom in at its fundamental notion: the Absurd. The ‘Absurd’ refers to ‘the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any’. Note that absurdism does not consider it to be ‘logically impossible’ to find meaning in life; it just considers it ‘humanly impossible’ to do so. That is a subtle but very important distinction. It is this distinction that implies that, even though there might be an absolute meaning of life floating around somewhere in this universe of ours, we – simple human beings of flesh and blood – will never be able to find it.

And that’s it, right? We simply cannot come to know how things ‘truly’ are, including the ‘true meaning’ of life. We are doomed to live within the boundaries of our own little worlds. We are unable to trade our points of view for any other humanly conceivable point of view. The latter implies that we can never come to an absolute grasp of ‘the truth’; supposing that such a thing would exist. Surely: if everyone would develop the same beliefs about what is true and what is not, about what is right and what is not, seemingly universal ideas tend to emerge. But the question we must then ask ourselves is: were these ideas universal before people considered them to be so? Or did they become universal because everyone believed them?

Meaning
A note of caution is in place. For an absurdist does not always lead a happy life. There is always one major danger hiding in the corner. Absurdism implies the absolute freedom of humanity, the non-existence of any shackles besides the ones we have created ourselves. But sometimes this destined freedom of ours conflicts with what is the human longing for certainty. A longing to know how things truly are; a need to know who or what is behind all this craziness we call life. Absurdism claims that we cannot come to know these certainties. And when this observation strikes, it strikes hard: a feeling of powerlessness tends to take control over our minds and bodies. That’s an inevitable consequence of appreciating the Absurd.

But then, a little later, when you get yourself together, and taste again of the juices of total meaninglessness, of total freedom, you realize that you have found true love after all. You will realize that it is the only path leading to something that at times comes close to meaning. For even though the absurdist knows that he will not find any absolute meaning of life, it is in the very act of trying to find it, that he finds fulfilment. The fulfilment he is longing for. The fulfilment he proudly calls life.

Have you ever thought about what your most fundamental beliefs are? Upon what beliefs you have built your life? And have you ever asked yourself why those are the beliefs that have the authority to determine the remainder of your framework of beliefs?

But what do you think?

Interest Cannot be Created: It Can Only be Discovered

‘Are you interested in the stock market?’ I asked a colleague of mine, who works as a economics editor at a newspaper, and hence has to write about stocks, markets etc. ‘I have to’, he said, ‘It is part of my job’. ‘You cannot have to be interested in something. You either are or you are not interested. Period.’ I replied. ‘You can get used to something, but you cannot become interested in something.’ He smiled at me, and walked away; I think he agreed.

Intrinsic
There is a huge difference between interests and skills: while you can develop the latter, you cannot develop the former. Interests are an intrinsic part of your nature; they define, to a large extent, who you are. If you are, for whatever reason, interested in history, you will tend to become ‘better at’ history. Maybe even choose a history related job. But you are good at it, because you find it interesting. It is not because you are good at something, that you are interested in it. That is impossible.

And that brings us to the difficulty of interests. If someone tells you: ‘Just do whatever you find interesting. Find a job you like, and then do just do it,’ it seems like reasonable advice. And if you know what you’re interested in, it might even be helpful advice. But the problem starts if you don’t know what you are interested in. Because, interests being an intrinsic part of your identity, you cannot create an interest in something. You can become better, or worse, at doing something; you can even get used to it. But you cannot become interested in it.

Do something
But what then should you do if don’t know what you are interested in? If it all starts with knowing what you find interesting, and then just doing that, then it seems like you are on a dead end if you don’t know what you find interesting.

Well, if you don’t know your interests, and given that you cannot create interest in something, you have to choose a different approach: you have to find your interests. And the only way to find them, is by engaging in all sorts of activities, so that by doing these activities you can find out what you do (and what you don’t) find interesting. You cannot sit down on a chair, thinking deeply (‘soul-searching’) about what you like to do. This only works if you already know what you find interesting; not if you still have to discover that.

Hence, to those of you that are sitting at home, not knowing what to do with their lives; not knowing what kind of job to pursue, I would say the following: get out there, and find what you are interested in. For interest cannot be created. It can only be discovered.

But what do you think?

Read The Life of a Twenty-Something to see why so many people in their twenties don’t know what to do with their lives

Depression: Thinking Too Much and Doing Too Little

Why do dogs never appear to be depressed? Why do they always seem to be happy, no matter what it is they are doing? Well, the answer might be very simple: because they are always doing.

Dogs are always involved in one activity or another. They always got their little heads occupied with all kinds of biologically induced juices – whether they (consciously) know it or not. And it is because they’re always ‘busy’, doing whatever seemingly irrelevant activity it is they’re doing, that they are happy. It’s because they’re always busy, that they feel the effects of that constant stream of dopamine, rewarding them for their evolutionary beneficial action: the act of acting itself.

Not acting frees the mind from the duty to allocate resources to the execution of actions. However, the mind cannot simply do nothing. In fact, doing nothing – as in thinking about nothing – might be one of the hardest things to do for the brain. And that’s what you expect, right? After all, not thinking about anything can hardly be beneficial to our – and therefore our brain’s – survival. While we’ve got our brain, it’s better to use it, than to let it be idle, like an empty fridge waiting to be filled with postponed protein-intakes. That’s why the brain will do anything in order to try to be busy, even if there are no actions it has to be focused at. It is at those moments that the brain ‘thinks’ it is good idea to use this ‘break’ to think about your worries, your goals in life, your purpose and other fundamental questions. And it is at these moments that your mind explores the deepest purposeless of life, and triggers the feelings of depression that haunt us.

So – in case we want to get rid of the seemingly unproductive (and surely depressing) reflections on life – we must keep the mind, and therefore the brain, busy. We have to make sure that there’s no time – or no capacity – for it to become filled with soul-searching thoughts. Because although a little soul-searching might be good, and might point us to what it is that we should do with our lives, too much of it inevitably results in feelings of purposeless and depression. Hence it is only by being busy, by avoiding boredom and by don’t risking to become drowned in the most existential questions of our being, that we can live a  ‘happy’ life. It is only then that we can unleash the dopamine flows triggering those feelings of happiness we’re longing for. Or, to return to the fridge, it’s only by filling the fridge to the maximum, that we feel it is a worthwhile investment.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published at Rod Peek’s “Finding Personal Peace“.

The Life of a Twenty-something

Most of the people that are in their early twenties seem to have no clue what profession to choose. They appear to be lost in the vast range of opportunities that they have to choose from. But why is that these ‘twenty-somethings’ feel this way? And how might they solve this issue?

From Stability to Instability back to Stability
Let’s start by taking a general perspective on the life of a twenty-something (being: a person who is in his twenties). The issue of what occupation to choose is by no means the only issue the twenty-something has to deal with. In general the following statement holds: as a twenty-something you are part of a transition-phase in life; a transition from stability, through instability, back to stability.

For the first part of her (I will say ‘her’ instead of ‘him/her’) life, the twenty-something-to-be did not have the freedom to choose whatever she believed was best. Or at least not concerning ‘big’ matters. It were the parents that took the decisions for her. They were the ones deciding what kindergarten, primary school, high school and – in some cases even – university she would attend. Also, within each of these institutions, the space to manoeuvre was limited. There were fixed programmes she had to attend. Resistance would have been futile, since her opinion was considered mostly irrelevant. The twenty-something-to-be was aware of her limited capacity to change the status quo, which made her suppress the need to reflect on the situation.

But it was not only regarding education that this (apparent) lack of control over her life had arisen. Decisions of where to live, what sports or musical instruments to play, and of course financial issues, were mostly if not exclusively handled by her parents. It was only when the twenty-something-to-be began attending university that freedom rose its head. And it is here that the trouble starts. Because even though freedom in itself is not what troubles the twenty-something-to-be, its counterpart – called ‘responsibility’ – is what makes her tremble. It is the responsibility for the consequences of her own actions that leaves her in a state of apathy. Now she has to take the decisions that up till that point in her life were made by everyone but her.

This phase of by times close to existential doubt ends when the twenty-something has gained long-term stability in her life again. Like being child, becoming a member of the working class implies the familiar presence of fixed rules and the limited need for self-reflection. Having made a choice of what occupation to pursue, and the act of actually pursuing this occupation, makes the twenty-something become immersed into a new institutional structure, making her rest in the faith of having found certainty after a very uncertain period in her life.

From Farmer to Professor
Back to the main issue. Many twenty-somethings appear to feel lost in the sense that they totally don’t know what profession to choose after finishing their studies. What more can we say about this feeling of ‘being lost’? The first thing we could notice is that this feeling appears to be a defining characteristic of what it means to be a twenty-something: it is a property that, by default, is present in any twenty-something’s set of basic characteristics. Given that it is a defining characteristic, it seems reasonable to assume that this feeling has been around forever. But this is not the case…

When I asked people in their fifties whether they knew what profession to choose when they were in their early twenties, they mostly replied negatively. However, when I asked the same question to my grandparents, they said the following: ‘Well, we didn’t really have a choice about what kind of job to do.’ My grandfather told to me that he grew up in a farmer’s family, and that from a very early age it was more or less ‘obvious’ that he would become a farmer himself. My grandmother, the eldest girl of thirteen children, was at the age of fourteen forced to quit her studies so that she could assist her mum in managing the ever-growing household. ‘But’, I asked my grandmother, ‘was there no-one in your family who attended university? ‘Yes, one of us did,’ she said, ‘He had the talent to do so.’ My grandmother assured me that this scarcity of university-attending students was very common among families in those days (70 years ago).

So it seems that the feeling of don’t knowing what profession to choose, as experienced by so many twenty-somethings today, is in fact a relatively new phenomenon. That is: until two generations ago this feeling wasn’t widely shared among twenty-somethings. And the reason for this is, as my grandparents explained, quite obvious: people didn’t effectively have a choice about what to do with their lives. I say ‘lives’ instead of ‘professional lives’, since also regarding other matters in life (religion and to a lesser extent marriage) the autonomy of twenty-somethings appeared to be limited. One could say that, in principle, my grandparents still had the option to deviate from what was expected of them. Assuming that they would have had the financial means to do so (which they didn’t), they could in principle indeed have done so. But in practice, given the social norms and values, they were either explicitly or implicitly discouraged from pursuing higher education or choosing a non-farming/housemaid job.

Nowadays the societies we grow up in are organized in a manner that is fundamentally different from the society of (let’s say) 70 years ago. Today, in contrast to two generations ago, the financial resources required for attending university are available to almost anyone who has the capacity and desire to attend university. Scholarships, government-funded studies, cheap loans and financially affluent parents are among the prime factors that have drastically reduced the chance of being unable to fund one’s higher education.

Next to a shift in the financing of studies, a society-wide ‘mental’ shift seems to have taken place. This is easily seen by taking a look at an arbitrary high school: a child who receives a certificate that allows him to pursue higher education is nowadays frowned upon if he decides not to do so. Whereas two generations ago a farmer-son would by default become a farm unless he had very good reasons not to do so, nowadays a farmer-son by default attends university unless he has very good reasons not to do so. This mental shift might be due to changes in our educational system. Today we have a system in which any child goes through a university-preparing teaching scheme, thereby maximizing their chance to attend university.

Note also that the financial- and mental shift might be interdependent: a shift in outlook towards children’s education might cause a change in educational funding, and vice versa.

Opportunities, opportunities, opportunities
But attending university is in itself no reason to become clueless about what kind of job to pursue. So explaining why it is that many more children today attend university than two generations ago does not explain why these people feel lost when reaching their twenties.

Although not a direct cause of ‘apathy’ among many twenty-somethings, one thing is for sure: pursuing higher education provides anyone with the potential to have more choices regarding what job to pursue. By attending university, the twenty-something knows that – without even looking at the labour market – she will be eligible for more occupations than she was before entering her studies. This fact implies that, when the twenty-something finally settles on a job, there will be more occupations (compared to her not having done her studies) she could have chosen but didn’t. It is the possibility that later on she might reflect upon her life and think ‘I could have chosen better’ that could be part of the explanation of the apathy among twenty-somethings. And since this possibility has increased over the last decades, so has the apathy among twenty-somethings.

Another consequence of higher education that isn’t necessary obvious is that over the course of her education the twenty-something’s interests might change; that is, the occupations/sciences the twenty-something found interesting before embarking on her studies, she might not find interesting anymore when she has finished her educational process. For example: she might finish her first year of university wanting to become a business-consultant, only realizing after finishing her second year (which included courses in philosophy) that she is much more passionate about philosophy. It is not the change in what she finds interesting that makes the twenty-something doubt about what kind of profession to pursue, as much as having experienced that whatever it is that she finds interesting can in fact change. And the idea that – as in education – she could choose a job that she likes now but possibly not anymore in the future increases her uncertainty regarding what job the choose.

Education is merely one of the factors making a twenty-something doubt her occupational choice; it is the part that transforms her from ‘the inside out’. Now, let’s take a look at how the outside world (i.e., the world external to the twenty-something’s mind and body) contributes to the doubts held by the 21st century twenty-something. There are a number of reasons due to the outside world because of which twenty-somethings nowadays have such a hard time choosing an occupation. First of all, because of the ever-increasing specialization, there are simply many more occupations she has to choose from than there were two generations ago. Whereas in the past there might not have been (many) alternatives next to becoming a farmer, nowadays there are literally thousands and thousands of occupations she has to (not only can) choose from, and each of these occupations is partitioned into many areas of specialization.

Also, because of globalization and the prominence of the internet, many barriers have been taken away that could have prevented the twenty-something from 20 years ago from doing whatever it was that she wanted to do. In other words: there is no excuse anymore for not starting a business or for not working at a big firm on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. There is nothing but her own courage to withhold her from pursuing her aspirations; a scary thought. To exemplify this, let’s return to the case of my grandmother. It was clear to her that, after assisting her mum, she would marry a farmer and take care of his household. She might not have liked having few – if any – options about what ‘job’ to pursue, but that was simply the way it was. A positive side effect from her having limited options was that she was ripped of the responsibility to decide what her future would (not) come to look like. It is in this sense that she might have been lucky, for she was saved from the daunting soul-searching journey so many twenty-somethings today are forced to go through.

Options
I have mentioned the word ‘options’ more than once. I dare to say that most people believe that having options is a good thing. Certain philosophers even claim that autonomy (as in having the freedom to decide what one’s life goals are, how to pursue them and whether or not to actually pursue them) is intrinsically valuable. This is a conviction I do not necessarily share.

Like anything, having options becomes a problem if one faces too many options. And I believe this is the issue today’s twenty-somethings are facing. Specialization, the internet et cetera have drastically increased the number of career-options a twenty-something could fulfill; they have increased them to such an extent that she, being a rationally bounded creature (as any human being is), is both unable to overview all of them, let alone compare each option to each other option. Although impossible, the latter is required in order to make an optimal decision. After all, how can the twenty-something ever come to know whether she has made the best choice if she hasn’t considered/compared all options?

Next to there being too many options, there might be options that are incomparable. Why? Because the values they allow one to achieve are not ‘convertible to the same currency’. Think about the choice between becoming a charity worker or an investment banker. The first job might be better in terms of helping those who need help; the second might be better in terms of utilizing one’s intellectual capabilities. But which one of these criteria is most important, and why? And how much more important? These are questions that do not have an obvious (if any) answer.

Back to the claim that having options is not necessarily a good thing. Let’s return to the case of the farmer’s son. Given that the farmer’s son knows that he has no choice but to become a farmer, he is likely to never experience the regret (or the apathy caused by the prospect of regret) that today’s twenty-something faces. Nevertheless, when we analyse the farmer’s son situation, and come to see that his only ‘option’ is to become a farmer, we tend to feel sorry for him. It seems like having only one option is really not having an option at all, making his ‘choice’ to become a farmer look more like an act of coercion than an act of free will, contradicting the autonomy many of us find so valuable. However, due to this same lack of options, the farmer’s son will have no choice but to rest in his faith. He simply cannot do anything to alter his situation: he can only accept or resist his situation. He will accept his situation, because not doing so would decrease his happiness.

For today’s twenty-something it is (almost) impossible to rest in her faith, since, due to the autonomy has but the farmer’s son didn’t, she is faced with a never-ending string of opportunities. This makes it very difficult for her to be satisfied with any particular option. After all, it is very likely that, among all the opportunities out there, there is one that would be preferred to this one, if only she would find – or would have found – it. It is this observation that leaves her in a perpetual state of downgrading the options that are effectively available to her, and thereby her happiness. So even though the twenty-something of today has more autonomy than the farmer’s son of two generations ago, it does not follow that the twenty-something will be happier than the farmer’s son. In other words: more choices don’t necessarily imply more happiness.

Intuition
In the last section we stumbled upon a non-trivial observation. Namely: because of the vastness of opportunities the twenty-something faces and her limited rational capacities to oversee all of them, rationality alone is not sufficient for the twenty-something to choose the ‘best’ option. It is after all impossible to compare all options, hence to know if – and when – she found the best option.

But even though it appears impossible to choose the best option, one thing is for sure: she has to make a decision. Even the decision not to pursue a career is a choice, and should therefore be compared against other options. Since it is impossible to compare all occupations in terms of how well they score on all relevant criteria (loan, chance to develop yourself etc.), the twenty-something has to make use of some sort of ‘selection device’, that pre-selects a subset of the set of all occupations. This is required to allow her to compare each member of this smaller set to each other (based on how well they fare with regard to the relevant criteria). By doing this, she might be able to find a ‘local maximum’: that is, the best occupation given this limited set of occupations. That is all she can hope for given the rationally limited creature that she is.

Assuming that she doesn’t want to randomly pre-select some occupations, the twenty-something has to determine the criteria she finds most relevant for composing this pre-selection. However, this course of action might prove to be unsuccessful, due to the incomparability of criteria (money versus altruism, for example). But this problem might be circumvented.

The answer to picking the criteria must come from something ‘non-rational’ or ‘irrational’ – although I find the latter term misleading, as I will explain later. The non-rational element, on the basis of which the twenty-something might be able to execute her rational machinery, should make clear on a very basic whatever she finds valuable and what not: that is, it should provide her with her most basic wants. These basic wants must come from a place within the twenty-something that holds the instantiating power to all her actions. Let’s call this place the ‘unconscious mind’.

But the unconscious mind’s instantiating power comes at a cost: it is inaccessible to the conscious mind. And since rationality resides within the conscious mind, neither is it accessible to rational deliberation. Now, although the unconscious mind is not accessible, its ‘output’ is. Its output is what we call ‘intuition’, and manifests itself through those inexplicable feelings of something just ‘feeling right’ or ‘feeling wrong’. Although our intuition doesn’t come with any reason for why it is that something feels good or bad, it does something that is at least as important: it provides us with the values we need to choose what we want. 

Intuition in practice
Since intuition is non-rational, it cannot communicate through thoughts: it communicates solely through feelings. But how should the twenty-something go about interpreting these feelings? How does she know what feelings will lead her in the right direction, whatever this might be, and which in the wrong direction? The answer is simple: through trial and error.

There are various reasons why trial and error seems to be the best, if not the only, way for the twenty-something to go about finding the (locally) best occupation. As I explained before, the twenty-something isn’t born with a fixed set of desires; nor with a fixed set of capabilities. Throughout her life, she, for whatever reason, might decide on developing certain skills (e.g., playing piano or mathematics), and, parallel to these developments, she will develop a corresponding level of affinity with practicing these skills.

Next to developing affinity, or ‘preferences’, for practicing certain skills, the act of practicing skills also shows the twenty-something her relative ability in practicing these skills. For example: someone who, after comparing her skills, finds herself to be relatively good in a certain subject area (e.g., mathematics). Then, after having looked at her own capabilities, the twenty-something can decide to look at how her abilities compare to those of others. Based on this observation, she can find out in what field she could potentially make the greatest contribution to society. This is obviously beneficial to society, but just as much to the twenty-something herself, for it is because of the fact that she knows that she does what she is best at – either in terms of her own skills or compared to others – that any negative feelings, that might result from questioning the usage of her capacities, will be minimized.

Furthermore, a nice feature of the twenty-something looking for her relatively best skill is that she is guaranteed to find one. Even those who are negatively minded are at least sure to have a least bad capability.

This observation naturally leads us to the following conclusion: the twenty-something has to engage in all sorts of activities or occupations in order to obtain her preferences for them. Because she lacks any absolute sense of what she likes most, she cannot a priori (that is, before undertaking any action) know what skill, and hence what occupation, suits her best. Given this conceptual background, it might be that her feeling of don’t-knowing-what-to-do is in fact an indicator of the fact that the twenty-something has spent too much time looking for this non-existent absolute preference ranking (‘soul-searching’, as one might call it), and too little time actually developing such preferences.This also leads us to what might be a solution to the twenty-something’s apathy. Namely: by engaging in different activities or subject areas, and developing various skills, the twenty-something creates as well as experiences her preferences towards the respective subject areas or skills. Hence this is the first step away from apathy.

‘But’, the twenty-something might ask, ‘how do I know when to stop the trial-and-error process?’ One can look at this process from an economical point of view: the act of finding a satisfying occupation is nothing but a cost-benefit analysis. Given the inevitable diminishing marginal utility of any effort put into the trial-and-error process, surely a point will be reached at which the twenty-something’s hope of finding the best occupation and her satisfaction with her currently preferred option cancel out. It is at that point that the truly best occupation, in terms of maximizing utility, has been found.

The rationality of being non-rational
We have established that rationality alone is not sufficient for the twenty-something to choose a satisfying occupation. In order to find such an occupation, a ‘non-rational’ component must be introduced: the unconscious mind. But somehow we seem to have difficulties with our choices being (at least partially) determined by a non-rational element.

It might very well be that, in this 21th world we’re living in, rationality is put on a pedestal, and everything non-rational is considered a source of errors, leading us astray from our objectives. We are taught to ignore our intuitions wherever possible; at least when there are ‘rational’ arguments at hand. This might be due to the fact that non-rational factors are beyond our control, thereby making us to some extent a slave to our feelings, thus decreasing our perceived autonomy. But you could ask yourself the question: what is the value of being in control if your ‘controlled’ life doesn’t cohere with your intuitions? What if letting go of control is required in order to explore the full range of opportunities, thereby unlocking the door behind which the realm of unexplored potential resides?

If any, the message of this article is that value cannot be rationally constructed. The ways through which we might achieve what we value can be rationally constructed, but the value itself comes from a domain that is distinct from any rational – or even conscious – part of ourselves. Although this might be difficult to accept for any person taught to think carefully about any choice in life, it is a prerequisite for embarking on the rational process: first you have to accept what you value in order to try and set out a path to reach that which you value.

So one could say that being non-rational, to a certain extent at least, is a prerequisite for being rational. If you don’t allow yourself to act on non-rational impulses, you have no basis on which to cast the rational power, thereby excluding the possibility of doing that which you might value. And isn’t that what we all want to do? To do what we value? If so, we might as well embrace the non-rational, or even stronger: claim that it is rational to be irrational. 

Love
In this last section I want to focus at another potential source of uncertainty for any twenty-something: love. Being in-between the period of life in which love was yet unable to be experienced, and the part in life in which love is deemed to be a relic of the past (or ‘has changed into mutual compassion’), there is this period in which the twenty-something is likely to feel the need to find a future life partner.

But what is love? What characteristics does the twenty-something’s future partner need to have? Are the negative aspects of the relationship she is currently in likely to fade away over time? Or are they are structural component of the chemistry she is (not) having with her current partner? And how to distinguish between the two? If she would end the relationship now, would it leave her forever with a feeling of deep regret for having let this opportunity pass by? Or will it – in retrospect – proof to be a milestone on her way to finding that perfect partner with whom she will spend the rest of her life?

These are questions that any twenty-something is likely to ask herself at a certain point in time. It seems to be the case that most people get married around the age of 30, often being the culmination of a relationship that has been underway for at least a couple of years. A quick calculation shows that, assuming the latter to be true, the twenty-something should meet her life partner not much later than the age of 25. And the more this age approaches, the stronger becomes the twenty-something’s doubt about the status of her current relationship, or, if she doesn’t currently have a partner, the stronger gets the urge to find a potential life partner.

However, the great problem with any romantic relationship is that only in retrospect can be determined whether it has been a good decision to continue the relationship. It might be the case that, at this point in time, the twenty-something and her partner experience struggles that will grow larger and larger as time goes by. But the question of whether these struggles are merely obstacles to overcome on the road to living happily ever after, or that they are symptoms of a profound mismatch between the two, is impossible to answer up front. Here too it seems that only intuition can guide the way, since the experiences that could provide the twenty-something with the relevant information lie in the future, and are thus (for now; the moment we’re always living in) beyond her experience.

So Little to Say in So Many Words

I just returned from a lecture in Philosophy of Language, which is a course I attend at my university. It’s a course in which the ideas of the “big thinkers” of 20th century analytical philosophy of language are dealt with. And although I find the topic very interesting, I couldn’t help but become annoyed by the overdose of irrelevant digressions of the lecturer. It made my thoughts wander off to a more fascinating – and less annoying – place.

Let me ask you: why do people use so many words while saying so damn little? Why do people seem to think that the most important “thing” in communication is for them to convey their message, and that they should do so regardless of how long their “elucidation” would become? Don’t people see that using more words, especially when saying the same thing in multiple ways, deflates the value of each of the words said? How can we – the listeners – know what’s relevant and what’s not if relevant and irrelevant words are mixed into one act of communication? Don’t people see that the use of more words increases the risk for the totality of words to convey a contradictory message? That more words implies more meanings, and that more meanings implies more opportunity for confusion to arise?

Being succinct in communicating your thoughts is harder than being elaborate. It is as Einstein once put it, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler”. Only by making things simple you can convey the core of what you mean to say. But it is often the fear of the second part of Einstein’s claim (of making things “too simple“) that makes us digress about – what could have been – a very simple idea. We believe that by showing the broadness of our vocabulary, we are able to show our true intelligence. But, to use another quote of Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And that’s completely true. Only in the realms of academia, in which nuance and exceptions should be praised, is the use of “complex” terminology or digressions required – and therefore legitimized. But even then one should try to keep the number of words used at an absolute minimum.

That’s why I decide to end this article at this point. I could have written another 200 words but I don’t think the increase in the value of my message would weigh up against the extra words you’d have to read.

But what do you think?

The Ego and The Id: Beauty and The Beast

There it is again: that feeling of purposelessness. What to do about it? I might go on with whatever it is that I’m doing right now, hoping that the feeling will eventually fade away. But I know that that won’t help: it never does. Or I might try to grab some sleep and possibly feel fresh and productive again when I’ll wake up. But I don’t want to waste my precious little time on this planet sleeping just to get through the day. I might go read something, and possibly become inspired by some great stories. But there’s not that much interesting stuff around to read, at least not much that really gets down to the core of where it’s all about. So, what choices do I have left? Not many. So I guess I just have to face the feeling head on. Get my head straight, figure out why it is that I have this feeling, and possibly – as in a therapeutic Freudian manner – calm down my unconscious drives by ‘channeling’ them through my Ego. The drives won’t leave by themselves, so it’s better to find a way to use them in a constructive fashion, than to suppress them and let them linger on in my life. So that’s what I’m trying to do by writing this article.

In a sense my entire blog is a quest to do just that: channel my uncontrollable and inexplicable drives by promising to give them what they want: answers. And even though my Ego knows that there are no answers, or at least no definite ones, my unconscious Id doesn’t know. My Id is retarded in the sense that I can’t think properly, given that it would be able to think at all. The Id is an iPhone you carry around all day and that starts beeping when a new message is received. And although you don’t want to listen to it, because you just want to go on with your life, you just can’t ignore whatever it might have to say. Because, although it might be smart, the Ego can’t set any goals. The Ego is like a calculator, calculating the most efficient route to whatever goal you might have. And this ‘whatever goal you might have’ is determined by the Id, the part of you that bases its decisions on evolutionary induced impulses, pushing you to the refrigerator and to the internet (if you know what I mean).

But what if they could work together? What if they could live happily ever after in harmony, dividing the mental labor as if Adam Smith was there to delegate it? That would be great: Beauty and The Beast working together. Beauty being so consciously aware of its environment, and the Beast just taking her wherever he wants to. Great, let’s do that!

What do you think?

Greeting as a Look Into the Soul

Do you pay attention to how strangers greet you? Whether they say, “Hi”, “Good morning” or nothing at all? If you do, you are likely to recognize that the one or two little words – or no words at all – people use in greeting you provides you with tremendous information about the person. It tells you what kind of person he or she is. What does he value? What’s his purpose in life? What does he think about his fellow species members? It gives you an insight into the soul of the person.

Think about it: children often greet you with a happy, “Hi”, when they pass you by, thereby showing that they haven’t been socially conditioned (yet) to speak with two words. Children just greet you in the manner they feel like greeting you: pure enthusiasm captured in often not more than a single word. You will also recognize that children will often be the ones initiating the greeting produce. They will say, “Hi”, first. They are not afraid of being invasive or in any other way disturbing another person’s “privacy”.

Now take a look at an elder person. The ones of 65+. These persons will hardly ever initiate the greeting process. And if you say, “Hi”, they will be suspicious and think you want something from them. Often they look at you slightly angry, awaiting the, “Can I have 10 dollars, please?”- question. They have built a shield in order to protect them from the sorrows and needs of others. “Just” greeting someone is out the question. There’s always a Marxian motive behind every greet. Power structures are dominating the social atmosphere.

What about the 20-35 year old category? These people are often so caught up in their own motives, goals and targets that they pretend to have no time for greeting. Moving in a firm walk, secretly hoping that they will encounter as few people as possible on their path. And the ones that want to greet them with a nod or a, “Good day”, have to be very quick. Otherwise the train of “making money” and ambition has passed you by.

People between 35-55 are slightly better. These people have come to realize that they are not alone on this world and that their lives don’t turn about money only. They absorb the world around them, slowing their walking pace and being receptive to the greeting gestures of others. Often a well-meant, “Hello”, can be heard when they are greeted.

But besides the distinction between greeters and non-greeters, the group of greeters itself can be divided again into many subcategories. Factors to look at in the greeting process are tonality, lexicon usage and facial expressions. If you do this, you are able to unravel a big part of a person’s personality in less than a second.

An example: you are walking your “morning walk” through the neighborhood you’re living. You are about to pass by a guy your age (early twenties) on the sidewalk. When the distance between the two of you has passed the “three meter-point”, you utter an enthusiastic, “Hi”, with a well-intended little smile and a nod. The person responds with an, “A good morning to you”, also with a smile and a nod. From this you can infer that he is a social person, who finds being nice to his species member important. Also, he is likely to be a Christian or in any way conditioned by a religion having taught him to greet others in a formal and decent matter. Why else would you say “A good morning to you” to someone in his early twenties? The person probably has not many friends, but the friends he has are good ones who consider him to be a trustworthy person. The person probably votes for a social party and finds his family more important than his career.

Another example: you meet a student – in his early twenties – in the center of town. You again nod and say, “Hi”, and await his response. You get a firm nod, no smile, and a split-second of eye contact. This person probably doesn’t have much faith in people being essentially good. Although he doesn’t really want to great you, but he finds it potentially dangerous not to do so, so he nods. He probably has a broad social circle, but few true friends. The person is likely to vote liberal and is planning to make a lot of money in – preferably – the banking sector.

You find this analysis of mine far-fetched? Maybe it is. But I believe that when you’ll perform this analysis for yourself, you are likely to reach the same conclusions as me.

But what do you think?

We’ve Got You God!

Life is a joke. And a damn good one. If you were a God, and you would want to have a laugh, and you could create anything you’d want to, what would you do? What would you create? I know what I would do: I would create a world with little ‘things’ on it, give these things a limited capacity to think, and then just see what happens, just see what they will come up with. Just watch them running around. Each morning and evening I would take a look at them, look at how they deal with the situation I’d put them in. Watching them form alliances, working their asses off, fighting each other and thinking: thinking about why it actually is that they are there.

Think about it: if you would have to create an absolute absurd situation, and you would have unlimited powers to do so, what would you come up with? Probably not a series like Family Guy, right? No, you would strive for the best: for the most absurd thing you could come up with. After all, why would you create Family Guy, if you could create a world, put creatures on it, program these creatures so that they think they are able to discover the world’s secrets but – without most of them realising it – make them incapable of doing so. Maybe you would put a few ‘natural laws’ in order: the law of gravity, electromagnetism etc., or come up with a few ‘elements’ (protons, neutrons, electrons etc.) that make up everything in the creatures’ world, including themselves.

But you would never reveal everything: you would never explain the purpose behind all of it, because you don’t want the creatures to unravel the mystery you have created. There has to be a point at which their limited abilities fail. Them knowing about electrons and other irrelevant entities is okay, but having them know anything of real value would just spoil the fun. They shouldn’t get the feeling that they get it. Just enough for them to believe that they’re the most intelligent things that have ever walked ‘their’ earth. And just enough for them not to kill themselves in total despair.

But what if the creator has underestimated the little creatures? What if the creatures would be able to see through the facade? What if they would come to see that they’re part of one big joke? And what if they would even enjoy the the fact that they are part of a joke? That would spoil the fun for the omnipotent and ever joy-seeking creator, wouldn’t i? So he must make sure that they don’t come to believe that their lives are nothing but a joke: he must create enough misery in their lives to remind them that their pain is real. He must make sure that the minds of the creatures are occupied with impulses to stay alive, impulses telling the creatures what to do with their lives and how to run their societies. Everything to keep their thoughts away from the joke.

But we have got you God. You can quit playing now. Just take some rest and come back to us when you’ve a better one, okay?

But what do you think?

Purpose, Purpose…Where Are You?

Life without a purpose is like shoes without strings: a burden you want to get rid of. An obstacle on your journey to happiness. A pointless gift you wished you’d never had. The only difference between shoes – either with of without strings – and life is that the former have been made for a purpose. They have been made to do something with. Whether it is supporting little children playing football or walking a pretty lady to the office. We haven’t been created with such a purpose. We are empty. We are – and we have to be – the creator of everything we experience, including the things we value: including our purpose.

What is life without a purpose? What is life devoid of any element that might be of any value? Probably more empty than a vacuum chamber. The only things there would be are our minds yelling at us, “Do something with your life!” And it is our duty – not our privilege – to decide what to do with our lives. And that’s the most difficult task we have. Because how can you know what your purpose is? How can you know what you’re true nature is; what your deepest desires and potentials are; what you’re here for on planet earth? And although you might not know, you have to choose. You’ve got only one life to live. You can of course fill your life with different journeys; the journey towards being a good man and the journey towards being a good writer . But there is always that demon of time looking over your shoulder telling you that all you do has to happen in time. No parallel universes exist. Only this world exists. And remember: time is ticking.

And still we only got one life. One life and so many opportunities; so many decisions to make. Each choice we make is a choice not to do something else. And who knows how that “something else” might have turned out? Maybe you are on the totally wrong track. Maybe you are living a life that could have been much better; you could have been much happier; you could have fulfilled your true nature. If only you would have picked the right track. But you don’t know. There’s no handbook telling you, “If you feel down, become a juggler and you’ll live happily ever after.” Or you must count in the Bible, although I haven’t read the passage about the juggler yet.

Yet juggling is what we do; each and every day. We have all kinds of conflicting urges that we want to fulfill. All of them in the one life we’re living. We want to be social; we want to be spiritual; we want to learn; we want to be entrepreneurial…..we want so many things. And the advice we need about what to do should come from either our ignorant mind or our intuition. And our ignorant mind keeps telling us that it doesn’t know what to choose. Therefore we are forced to listen to our intuition for satisfying our longing for guidance. No matter how twisted its proposals might be. You simply don’t have a choice.

If only we could be rabbits. Just fucking around, not thinking about what to do. Just letting ourselves flow on the sea of urges; no interference of the Ego. But I’m afraid we can’t, so we just have to make the best of it.

But what do you think?

The Human Walking Face and The Absurd

The human “walking face” is a true joy to watch. That look as if everyone walking on the street is – at the same point in time – trying to come to grips with Einstein’s theory of relativity, but that, somehow, it won’t really click. All looking serious and angry, as if everyone is walking away from a fight with their spouse. As I said: a true joy to watch. And you know what I enjoy to do at those moments? At those numerous instances at which people look like they’re having an extremely hard time? At those moments I feel a strong urge to laugh.

At those moments I just like to express my happiness with the “walking faces” by bursting into a well-meant, wholehearted laughter. It doesn’t have to be very loud; just loud enough for yourself to realize that you’re laughing. And although this laughing might be feel “forced” or “fake” at the start; it while gradually flow into a sense of true laughter; a true sense of joy. And it is at that point in time that you’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the Absurd.

People are serious. And they should be, right? Live isn’t easy: you have to make money, you have to take care of your children and you have to act “responsibly”. If you don’t do any of these, there must definitely be something wrong with you. The road to survival is paved with puddles of duty and obligations; either socially conditioned or legally enforced. This is “the level of the crowd”. The level in which we live our “auto-pilot lives”; the level in which we move, speak and breathe. The level in which we’re prepared to do anything in order just to stay alive.

But there’s another level, a higher level, called “the level of reflection”. This is the level of relativity, of putting your issues into perspective: the level in which you think to yourself, “The people in Africa don’t even have food and I’m complaining about my goddamn wireless internet…what kind of sad person am I?” The level of reflection is a happy place to be at. It lessens your load, it makes you sorrows evaporate…partially. Because the level of reflection is – although higher than the level of the crowd – still part of the overarching “crowd-like mind”. The mind that is concerned with “living my life” and doing this through the inescapable and suffocating first-person perspective that I call “my personality”. Problems are still problems, only less significant than they were in the level of the crowd. You’re still hungry, but not as hungry as you were before.

But then – Bam! – Walhalla opens and “the level of the Absurd” shines its light on you. You become overwhelmed by feelings of randomness, ignorance and purposelessness. And you know what? You love it. It is in this level that all of your problems disappear, that the vortex to the world of indifference has opened. And when you finally decide to take the step into the Absurd, you feel that all the sense of “it’s all relative” – that you felt in the level of reflection – vanishes. You come to see that nothing is relative, since relativity implies value and value doesn’t exist. Nothing. Nowhere. “But”, a little voice from the level of the crowd might tell you, “people die in Africa every day. And your shitty wireless internet is still broken.” And your Absurd mind knows this, but it sees just right through all of these “issues” and into the truth: the truth that both issues are just as terrible as they are pleasant. People die every day and wireless internet breaks down every day. And you know why it happens? It happens because it happens.

Thank you for your visit in the level of the Absurd. I hope you enjoyed it.

What do you think?