So, I realize it’s been ages since I wrote in this blog. Sorry about that. I’ve been having trouble organizing my thoughts into a coherent series of posts, in part because I’m constantly exposed to a deluge of new information on the subject. For instance, just a week ago, I learned that there is an entire field called framing which studies how the presentation of ideas influences the way people will perceive them. Anyway, I assure you that I am working on the series, if slowly. In the meantime, I’ll share with you some musings.
I said, in the intro post, that I was going to present my theory about how to find meaning in any worldview. My plan was to discuss a bunch of research from various fields (cognitive science, machine learning, linguistics, etc.), stitch that research into a (not-especially-original) theory about symbol grounding, and then explain how that theory supported my conclusion: that it’s possible (and often easy) to reshape how you feel about abstract ideas.
For all the theory behind it, my technique for making an idea beautiful was actually almost childishly simple: to make an idea beautiful, you just have to create a description of that idea where you portray it as beautiful. I tried to give some examples of this in my previous post (and really, the entire post was an exercise in the aesthetics of ideas), in hopes of convincing you that it could be done.
There were two reactions I was expecting these ideas to receive. The first reaction was “this is impossible!” I expected people to say “My emotional reaction to the concept of reduction is very deeply ingrained; I can’t just change it by reading a paragraph online which describes it as beautiful.” Or I expected people to go even further and claim something like “Ugliness is an inherent part of the concept of reductionism; the concept can’t be defined or described in a way that’s aesthetically appealing, while still matching up to what people typically call ‘reductionism’.”
The second reaction I was expecting was “this is obvious, but why would anyone want to do it?” Again, the technique I’m proposing is quite simple. If you want to make an abstract concept beautiful, write a paragraph about that concept where you highlight the positive aspects. When I put it this way, it doesn’t sound like a profound philosophical statement; it sounds like basic writing advice that you could find anywhere on the internet. Or worse, it sounds like a strategy for marketing. So you want to sell product X? Well, just write a commercial where you highlight all the positive aspects of X! Make sure not to mention any of its downsides. So it seems like what I’m proposing here is marketing tactics for abstract concepts.
This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that people try to keep out of science. Scientific writing strives for objectivity, for descriptions unburdened by weighty connotations. A scientist or truth-seeker must be dispassionate and unsentimental. Emotions only get in the way of seeking the truth, by biasing us towards certain ideas that appeal to us for reasons completely separate from the ideas’ truthfulness.
So why am I advocating this technique? Well, first, I am not advocating using it on others, to convince them of ideas. And I’m not advocating it as a method of forming beliefs. I am not telling people to abandon their quests for truth, or to accept philosophical positions just because they’re pretty. I’m saying that once you do accept a philosophical position, you can make it pretty. My techique is to be used after you’ve come to a conclusion.
It’s still a bit weird: after all, people don’t usually use marketing tactics on themselves; on the contrary, people try to make themselves less susceptible to such influences. Everyone knows that the people who fall for marketing tactics are suckers, and the more aware you are of how marketers are trying to manipulate your mind, the better you can resist their attempts to do so. Yet here I am, telling you not to revile something akin to marketing tactics, but to embrace it, and to use it on yourself, to convince yourself that certain philosophical positions are more aesthetically pleasing.
Can this possibly work? Won’t your conscious awareness of what you’re doing limit the effectiveness of the technique? If you know you’re trying to manipulate your mind, won’t that shield you from the manipulation? Based on my own experiences, I don’t think so. I’ve been using my technique on myself for over a year now and it hasn’t yet lost its effectiveness.
But I’ve come to a realization about the aesthetics of ideas. My “theory” isn’t so much of a theory as it is a lifestyle. Originally, in this series of posts, I had planned to focus on the details of the theory. I was going to describe my understanding of symbol grounding – an amalgam of ideas gathered from cognitive science, machine learning, and comparative mythology. All of this theory would justify my claim that it’s possible (and even easy) to alter your own aesthetic associations for an idea. I still think this theory is worth discussing, if only because it will be interesting to write out a full account of my current understanding of symbol grounding. And the theory may indeed help to justify the technique.
But the theory will do no good unless you embrace the lifestyle. You must allow a certain flexibility in your sense of aesthetics. This shouldn’t be too hard for truth-seekers to manage – after all, the scientifically minded are accustomed to a certain flexibility in beliefs. No belief is held so tightly that it can’t be relinquished in light of new evidence. A similar flexibility is required for your sense of aesthetics. You must not hold any philosophical aesthetic preference so tightly that it can’t be overturned by a powerful new description or experience. (Note that I am limiting this to abstract ideas. I don’t expect people’s aesthetic preferences on the smell of vomit or the death of a loved one to change.)
So this is what I am advocating. I am suggesting that you make your aesthetic preferences more flexible, that you open your mind to the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of any idea. Then, when the descriptions arrive, your sense of aesthetics can make use of them.
That’s all my musings for now, but I hope to contribute a real post to this series within the next week. I will write even though I don’t know everything yet, and even though I’m not at all certain of how to organize these posts. I can always amend this series in the future, when I know more. I may also write some posts I’ve been working on but which are not part of this series. In either case, you can look forward to some more writing soon. Thanks very much to all my readers for your patience.