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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The goal

What is the goal of an individual? With 7 billion people around the world with little genetic diversity but with a wide variation in perspectives, that include sex, country, language, religion, physique and science, the question is what one should attempt to optimize. In a zero order society such as ours where optimization is always local, it is a good thought experiment.

The problem presented, then, is related to the probability that humanity will pull itself to the next stage. It seems unlikely – diseases have to be cured, the environment has to be mended, happiness has to be restored, art and philosophy have to triumph over prescriptive engineering and science, money has to be abandoned, knowledge has to become the primary currency of transaction and meritocracy has to prevail. Yes, it seems unlikely, but many attempted to achieve much less in the past.

What is the goal for an individual in the precious amount of time she is afforded? Could she try to change the system, society and the culture that envelopes her – or should she simply drift away to obscurity, complying? Should she look around, see what others do not see, make others cannot make and progress thoughts, others cannot have?  Should she redefine who she is and in the process change humanity bottoms up? Should she challenge the status-quo or accept the preprogrammed outcomes? Should she become successful and then change the world or fail attempting early? Should she broker thoughts across time and space to connect and then disconnect?

What is the goal of an individual? Is it comprehensible?

7 comments:

  1. Hi Gill,

    I see a number of assumptions implied in some of the items in your list ("[...] happiness has to be restored, art and philosophy have to triumph over prescriptive engineering and science, money has to be abandoned, knowledge has to become the primary currency of transaction and meritocracy has to prevail"). Many of these assumptions need to be challenged (not necessarily opposed), because there are layers and complications with each one. This is too short a space to try and address them all, but perhaps you should first invite discussion around these points.

    For a start, here are some thoughts:
    1. What is 'happiness'? The science of happiness has already broken it down into joy, flow and meaning. What does it mean to 'restore happiness'? Whose responsibility is it to provide happiness to the individual?
    2. The philosophy of 'the quantified life' suggests that a scientific, measured approach to every aspect of life provides the best opportunity for happiness and fulfilment. Why are art and philosophy then viewed in opposition to science and engineering?
    3. Why must money be abandoned? It performs well-understood and useful functions as a unit of account, a medium of exchange and a store of value. Why throw away these benefits? What do we gain by doing so?
    4. What does it mean to 'make knowledge the primary currency of transaction'? How does this relate to the notion of intellectual property and its overly restrictive aspects like software and business process patents?
    5. Is meritocracy an unbridled good? What is 'merit'? Would we elevate some qualities over others? Studies have shown higher levels of politicking in organisations where promotions are based on merit compared to those where promotions are based on seniority. Are these costs worth it?

    Regards,
    Ganesh

    ReplyDelete
  2. Note sure I have the answers to your well articulated question. Here are some attempts at them:

    1. Happiness - defined as the maximization of utility. What is utility? it shall remain as a notion.

    2. Prescriptive means - that you have ex.ante expectations of outcomes. Such a process will massively constrain creativity. Hence, I argue that engineers and scientists constrain thoughts and creativity -Thus, art and philosophy with less constraining frameworks are better.

    3. Money - an accounting mechanism - has held humans back from the beginning. The primary question remains whether counting money and accounting for is is a useful exercise.

    4. We are slowly migrating to public domain - most patent officers have no idea what they are issuing patents on or what they are denying - this is a political construct - that just slows down the public domain movement.

    5. Yes it is. Meritocracy is truly unbridled good. Decisions made not on merit destroys value locally (for the company) and for society.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks, Gill. Now we have a discussion going :-)!

    1. Happiness: I would argue that the science is already in, so we don't have to settle for undefined notions. Happiness has 3 sub-types - short-term gratification is "joy", being engrossed in an activity such that time flies is "flow", and finding "meaning" in what we do, such that we have a purpose for getting out of bed in the morning, is the third. Given this understanding, and given the atheistic philosophy that there is no "divine purpose" for our being here on earth, isn't it up to each individual to give meaning to the situations in which they find themselves, and to engage in activities that they find engrossing (in addition to indulging themselves in harmless activities that give them short-term gratification, like eating an ice-cream or watching a movie)?
    2. Creativity: Au contraire, the best scientists and engineers have been creative. The observation "That's funny" has preceded more scientific breakthroughs than we know. Besides, there's also the view that constraints empower. Look at REST in distributed computing and the rules of classical music. I wouldn't elevate unconstrained freedom over structure, so we need to be careful how we phrase this.
    3. All known attempts to replace money have failed, because in a world with limited resources, the need to incentivise effort to convert raw resources into consumable necessities and the demand for fairness in all these processes, nothing else comes close to money as an efficient and unobtrusive mechanism.
    4. We still need to spell out what it means to make 'knowledge the primary currency of transactions', and how the unlimited replicability of knowledge may conflict with the mercantile instinct to hoard limited resources. As long as competition for resources exists, any currency that is used to transact must also be constrained. Knowledge fails in that respect, although unbounded access to knowledge is a noble ideal in its own right.
    5. 'Merit' is another term that needs definition. Any real-world job needs a mix of skills, some more subtle than others, and any metric is inherently limited. What starts off as a meritocracy could end up in a situation where 'what gets measured gets done'. That experience hasn't gone well for a lot of organisations.

    ReplyDelete
  4. (Posting again since my last comment vanished into the ether.)

    1. We don't have to settle for vague concepts of happiness. It has been well defined. Martin Seligman breaks it down into short-term gratification (joy), being engrossed in an activity such that one is not conscious of the passage of time (flow), and finally the sense of purpose that makes one get out of bed with a sense of determination (meaning). Knowing what we do now about happiness, whose responsiblity is it to "restore happiness"? From an atheistic perspective, there is no "divine plan" behind our births, so our lives have no inherent meaning. The meaning in our lives is what we give it. So again, whose responsibility is it to "restore happiness"?

    2. The best scientists and engineers have been creative. Science does not progress in orderly fashion from hypothesis through experiment to conclusion. Most often, what triggers a chain of enquiry is a puzzling phenomenon ("that's funny"), and a wild hunch ("this sounds crazy, but what if...?"). So science and creativity are hardly opposing forces. Besides, we know from fields as diverse as software and music that constraints empower and create beauty. REST is what it is because of constraints. So is classical music.

    3. Many attempts have been made in history to do away with money, but that is a utopian ideal. As long as we have scarcity of resources, and human effort has to be harnessed to turn raw resources into consumable outputs in a fair manner (rewarding the diligent and the enterprising), we will find that money is the best mechanism available to achieve this.

    4. I don't believe we have arrived at the right balance yet with respect to intellectual property. Besides, what does it mean to 'make knowledge the primary currency of transaction'? We just said that scarcity of resources and the need for fair incentives leads to the need for a convenient, scarce and non-reproducible token system, i.e., money. Knowledge is inherently replicable, hence it would fail as currency.

    5. In the real world, "merit" is a combination of skills, some more subtle than others. Any metric that seeks to reward "merit" is bound to be limiting, in that it cannot measure and compare the subtle. And so what starts off being a "meritocracy" can end in a system where "what gets measured gets done". In other words, any system where the metrics are known can be gamed.

    But coming back to your original question, I have two contradictory responses.

    One is that there is no divine plan for our existence and our lives are insignificant in the cosmic scale of the Universe, so whatever we do during our short lives on this insignificant planet is irrelevant. The grandest of our achievements is ultimately meaningless. And therefore any goal we set for ourselves is pathetic in its utter insignificance and futility.
    The other is that all reality is relative and subjective. Each of us is the most important being in our own lives. Our period of consciousness, however brief it may be in the cosmic timescale, occupies all of our consciousness, therefore it is forever. What is meaningful for us during our lives is therefore supremely meaningful. Therefore we should each choose a purpose, or a set of purposes, for our lives and wake up each morning determined to move a step closer towards those goals. That approach will give our lives meaning and make us happy.

    The goal is at once arbitrary, irrelevant and supremely important.

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  5. Ganesh, you may be taking my words perhaps literally but certainly too seriously. The crux of your argument appears to be - we have what we have and that is good - creative scientists, money, non-meritocracy... You further argue that happiness is "well defined" - prescriptively.. And, our lives do not have meaning unless we have a purpose...

    Some of these may be true.. I was not seeking truth - just asking questions..
    I generally do not accept the view (albeit it being supremely practical) - that what we have is what we have - and it is good (e.g. creative scientists and money..) And, I also do not think constructs such as happiness and utility can be defined..

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  6. Well, it is a serious philosophical topic :-).

    Happiness _is_ well-defined, but the human tendency seems to be to desire mystique over explanation. We don't seem to believe that we can _plan_ for happiness. It's something that is believed to just "happen" to us. The human mind craves the existence of quality beyond the material. Affection needs to be more than oxytocin, morality and empathy more than just evolutionarily favourable traits, the "soul" needs to exist in spite of a complete lack of evidence of its existence, etc.

    My philosophy is not that what we have is the best we can have. I'm merely saying that a view that everything is meaningless is not necessarily wrong, and neither is the approach of choosing to ascribe meaning to our existence and thereby lead fulfilling lives. It's neither a pessimistic view nor a positive one. We can choose to flick the switch either way, and that becomes the truth.

    ReplyDelete
  7. (Comment seems to have been lost again. Better check what's happening.)

    Well, it is a serious philosophical topic :-).

    Happiness _is_ well-defined, but the human tendency seems to be to desire mystique over explanation. We don't seem to believe that we can _plan_ for happiness. It's something that is believed to just "happen" to us. The human mind craves the existence of quality beyond the material. Affection needs to be more than oxytocin, morality and empathy more than just evolutionarily favourable traits, the "soul" needs to exist in spite of a complete lack of evidence of its existence, etc.

    My philosophy is not that what we have is the best we can have. I'm merely saying that a view that everything is meaningless is not necessarily wrong, and neither is the approach of choosing to ascribe meaning to our existence and thereby lead fulfilling lives. It's neither a pessimistic view nor a positive one. We can choose to flick the switch either way, and that becomes the truth.

    ReplyDelete