Reading notes (2020, week 36) — On boredom (“a desire for desires”), how to cope with radical uncertainty, and AI and Chinese philosophy
Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s edition: Boredom and what it does to us; practical wisdom and coping with radical uncertainty; what ancient Chinese philosophy can teach us about AI; and also about creativity; Schopenhauer and the negative nature of happiness; written words as the ghost remnants of past thought; a house is not a home; beautiful Danish architecture; and, finally, how the jazz singer’s mind shows us how to improvise through life itself.
On boredom (“a desire for desires”)
“Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard considered boredom a particular scourge of modern life.” According to Schopenhauer, we are perpetually in the pursuit of trying to capture what we desire, need or lack. Once we succeed, we realise it doesn’t give the satisfaction or happiness we had anticipated. What we get, instead, boredom. Off we go again, pursuing something else to make us happy only to find ourselves back to boredom. For Schopenhauer, boredom was the sensation that we get when we experience the worthlessness of our existence.
For Kierkegaard, boredom makes everything empty and devoid of meaning. It makes life intolerable and unlivable. But instead of being disabling, boredom, he believes, motivates people to act in creative ways to get themselves out of this highly unpleasant state.
Boredom already existed long before its mid-nineteenth-century flowering, of course. The first-century Roman philosopher Seneca addressed the issue of boredom or tedium in his essay On Tranquility of Mind. Many individuals who spend their time lolling and yawning, he writes, are “plagued with fickleness and boredom and a continual shifting of purpose.” Seneca describes boredom vividly: “Thence comes mourning and melancholy and the thousand waverings of an unsettled mind, which its aspirations hold in suspense, and then disappointment renders melancholy. Then comes that feeling which makes men loathe their own leisure and complain they themselves have nothing to be busy with.”
But according to Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom, in these earlier incarnations, boredom was “a marginal phenomenon, reserved for monks and the nobility.” Something of a “status symbol,” since it seemed to plague only “the upper echelons of society.”
“This is persuasive, though I suspect that some subjective sense of monotony is a more fundamental affect — like joy or fear or anger,” Margaret Talbot writes. “In recent years, something like boredom has been studied and documented in understimulated animals, which would seem to argue against its being an entirely social construction. […] The classicist Peter Toohey, in his book Boredom: A Lively History, offers a helpful resolution for the debate between those who say that boredom is a basic feature (or bug) of humanness and those who say that it’s a by-product of modernity. He argues that we need to distinguish between simple boredom — which people (and animals) have probably always experienced on occasion — and ‘existential boredom,’ a sense of emptiness and alienation that extends beyond momentary mental weariness, and that perhaps did not come into many people’s emotional lexicon until the past couple of centuries, when philosophers, novelists, and social critics helped define it.”
The interpretation of boredom is one thing; its measurement is quite another, Talbot says. “Contemporary boredom researchers, for all their scales and graphs, do engage some of the same existential questions that had occupied philosophers and social critics. One camp contends that boredom stems from a deficit in meaning: we can’t sustain interest in what we’re doing when we don’t fundamentally care about what we’re doing. Another school of thought maintains that it’s a problem of attention: if a task is either too hard for us or too easy, concentration dissipates and the mind stalls. [James Danckert and John D. Eastwood, who, together, wrote Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom] argue that ‘boredom occurs when we are caught in a desire conundrum, wanting to do something but not wanting to do anything,’ and ‘when our mental capacities, our skills and talents, lay idle — when we are mentally unoccupied.’”
According to Erin Westgate, a social psychologist at the University of Florida, both factors — a dearth of meaning and a breakdown in attention — play independent and roughly equal roles in boring us. “I thought of it this way,” Talbot explains, “[an] activity might be monotonous — the sixth time you’re reading Knuffle Bunny to your sleep-resistant toddler, the second hour of addressing envelopes for a political campaign you really care about — but, because these things are, in different ways, meaningful to you, they’re not necessarily boring. Or an activity might be engaging but not meaningful — the jigsaw puzzle you’re doing during quarantine time, or the seventh episode of some random Netflix series you’ve been sucked into. If an activity is both meaningful and engaging, you’re golden, and if it’s neither you’ve got a one way ticket to dullsville.”
“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. / After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn, / and moreover my mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.’” — John Berryman, from his poem Dream Song 14
“It’s become a bien-pensant trend in recent years to praise boredom as a spur to creativity and to prescribe more of it for all of us, but especially for kids — see, for example, Manoush Zomorodi’s 2017 book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. The idea has an intuitive appeal and an illustrious history. Even [the German philosopher and cultural critic] Walter Benjamin invoked boredom’s imaginative potential: it was ‘the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’
Danckert and Eastwood crush that particular dream bird. They say there isn’t much empirical evidence that boredom unleashes creativity. One study showed that when people were made bored in a laboratory (reading numbers aloud from a telephone book was the chosen means of stultification here) they were more likely to excel at a standard task psychologists use to assess creativity — coming up with as many uses as possible for a pair of plastic cups. Pretty weak tea, in other words. When people wish that we could all be bored more often, or rue that kids are too scheduled and entertained to be, what they may really mean is that they wish we all had more free time, ideally untethered to electronic devices, to allow our minds to romp and ramble or settle into reverie — and that sort of daydreaming isn’t boring at all,” Talbot notes.
“Since, in Danckert and Eastwood’s view, boredom is largely a matter of insufficient attention, anything that makes it more difficult to concentrate, anything that keeps us only shallowly or fragmentarily engaged, would tend to increase it. ‘Put another way, technology is unrivaled in its capability to capture and hold our attention,’ they write, ‘and it seems plausible that our capacity to willfully control our attention just might wither in response to underuse.’ Yet they also say that we don’t have the sort of longitudinal studies that would tell us whether people are more or less bored than they used to be. In a 1969 Gallup poll they cite, a striking fifty per cent of respondents said that their lives were ‘routine or even pretty dull.’ Their lives, not their day at work. Unfortunately, the pollsters didn’t ask the question on later surveys.”
How to cope with radical uncertainty
Psychological distress in the face of uncertainty is no accident — it’s human nature, according to Jill A. Stoddard, a clinical psychologist and author of Be Mighty, a book about managing anxiety. According to her, “Our anxiety and discomfort are products of evolution. Anxious early humans who avoided uncertainty had a survival advantage.” Modern life makes it even harder to tolerate anxiety. “If you want the answer to any question, just ask your device. If you want to know whether a restaurant, product or service will meet your expectations, just go to your favorite search engine. Because technology has deleted our ability to strengthen our tolerance of uncertainty muscles [research], we have become progressively more anxious when faced with the unknown.”
“To live life in these uncertain times, we need the skills of a trailblazer who can improvise rather than follow a rigid set of directions,” Yael Schonbrun and Barry Schwartz write in How Practical Wisdom Helps Us Cope with Radical Uncertainty. To be able to do this, they argue, we can turn to a particular kind of judgment that Aristotle explored in his classic Nicomachean Ethics.
“This kind of judgment, called ‘practical wisdom,’ means knowing how to balance conflicting aims and principles. This kind of wisdom acknowledges that uncertain risk cannot be eliminated, but guides us in becoming wiser about how we manage it. As we confront terrifying and uncertain trade-offs, we can learn how to wisely judge competing goods.”
Here are four ways we can lean on Aristotle’s ideas to guide us through the uncertain terrain:
Start with the data (what we do know and what we can control)
“Uncertainty feels so terrifying that it tends to consume all of our attention. To combat the stress of uncertainty, direct attention to areas of relative certainty.” In Discourses (Book II, 5), the Stoic philosopher Epictetus tells that once we realise that some things are “up to us” and others aren’t we should focus on the first and cultivate equanimity toward the latter. “The chief task in life,” he says, “is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” This so-called ‘dichotomy of control’ is one of the fundamental principles of Stoicism.
Avoid black and white thinking
“A wise person,” Schonbrun and Schwartz write, “recognizes that almost all situations and choices are accompanied by infinite shades of gray, and that we cannot eliminate risk, no matter what we do. [Practical wisdom] demands balancing conflicting priorities […]. Optimizing benefit and reducing risk still means there will be some risk. We are better off when we choose risk wisely.”
Start with the rules, and then consider wise modifications
If rules are like GPS instructions, there is the question of what to do when things happen your GPS failed to account for. “You could stick around and wait for your GPS reroute, but you might trap yourself by doing so. Instead, you could explore a different route,” Schonbrun and Schwartz argue. More detailed knowledge means better judgment and less reliance on rules.
Learn to accept uncertainty — it is a key ingredient for fostering wisdom
“Practical wisdom requires an appreciation that there is no perfect choice, and that each choice has benefits, drawbacks, and uncertainties. […] And, as Stoddard explained, ‘acceptance creates a space where we can choose to act wisely, making space for discomfort so we might approach things that matter to us, rather than reacting on autopilot to the uncertainty.’ When we make decisions wisely, we can ease our distress by pausing to appreciate that we are doing the best we can in alarmingly uncertain circumstances.”
AI and Chinese philosophy
“Many Chinese philosophers (mostly trained in Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism) have expressed deep concern over diminishing human autonomy and free will in the age of data manipulation and automation, as well as the potential loss of purpose and meaning of human life in the long run,” Bing Song writes in Applying Ancient Chinese Philosophy To Artificial Intelligence. They are, however, not as alarmed as their Western counterparts, which can be explained by three drastically different lines of thinking.
Anthropocentrism vs. non-anthropocentrism
First, the Western “anthropocentrism dictates that human beings are viewed as separate from and above nature. [Yet in] classical Chinese thinking, the typical construct for understanding the relationship among humans, nature and society is the so-called trinity of heaven, earth and man”; an idea derived from the I Ching, the intellectual fountain for the most influential schools of thought in China.
“[None] of the three dominant schools of Chinese philosophical thinking place human beings in a supreme position within the universe, nor do they view human beings and nature as being in a mutually independent or competitive relationship. Placed in the context of developing frontier technologies, [AI] is not a ‘natural’ development, so from a viewpoint of unity between humans and nature, AI should be guided and sometimes suppressed by a respect for the natural ways of life. Indeed, this is precisely what many philosophers in China have been advocating for,” Song writes.
Besides, many Chinese philosophers are simply not convinced by the prospect of machine intelligence exceeding that of humans. “Also, human beings have always lived with other forms of existence that may be more capable in some ways than we are. In Daoist teaching, where immortals abound, AI or digital beings could be just another form of super-being. Some Confucian and Daoist scholars have started thinking about incorporating AI into the ethical order of the ecosystem by potentially viewing AIs as companions or friends.”
Relative openness to uncertainty and change
Another likely reason can be found in Chinese culture with its high acceptance of uncertainty and change. This can also be traced back to I Ching. “According to its core teaching, the ultimate existence of the universe is that of constant change rather than the notion of ‘being,’ which is a static existence and widely acknowledged in 20th-century European thinking.”
Self-reflection, self-cultivation and self-enlightenment
According to the late Chinese philosopher Thomé Fang, the three dominant philosophical traditions in China share the notion that social good begins in and is bound up with individual self-cultivation. It is important that we look inward and reflect upon ourselves, drawing lessons from human evolution and development. “In other words, humans need to reflect upon our own past and realize that we may be the crux of the problem — that we will not be able to create morally sound AI unless we ourselves are ethically reflective and responsible.”
Song concludes by saying we should open up new avenues of thinking and take inspiration from ancient philosophical traditions. “It’s time to confront and replace our zero-sum competition mentality, propensity for maximizing wealth creation and unbridled individualism. The best chance for developing human-friendly AI and other forms of frontier technologies is for humans themselves to become more compassionate and committed to building an inclusive and harmonious global ecosystem.”
“Paradoxically, at the very moment the truth of the old Asian worldview shows its plausibility anew, it has been lost where it originated.” — Peter Sloterdijk
“All these splendid ancient truths would seem to offer the very philosophical departure called for today,” the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine Nathan Gardels writes in The East Has A Philosophy For The Future. But the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk doesn’t agree. “In the abstract, yes, we can say that the spirit of Daoism approximates this new consciousness. But in reality, the Eastern mind has been colonized by the instrumental reason of Western Enlightenment, which became globally dominant in recent centuries,” he told Gardels.
Gardels raised Sloterdijk’s observation with the Chinese thinker Yuk Hui, who “argues for what he calls a plural cosmotechnics in which China could take a different path to the technological future rooted in its ancient cosmologies rather than, as he put it, ‘converging teleologically toward a quintessentially Western singularity.’”
When asked what a Chinese cosmotechnics would look like, Hui replies:
“It is not just about whether China can develop a better algorithm for its social credit system or whether it can develop better 5G technology — both contribute to the mono-technological culture of the present. The more fundamental question is how a cosmotechnics rooted in Chinese thought could develop an entirely new framework for what has been understood in the West as scientific ‘progress.’
Some have quipped that what I am speaking about is Daoist robots or organic AI … that sounds really exotic. But on the other hand, we can understand these quips as invitations to reflect on how non-European thought can intervene in the technological acceleration that we have today and change course. Will rethinking and rearticulating the concept of technology allow us to develop a new direction? This does not necessarily mean more advanced technologies but discovering and inventing both new epistemologies and epistemes as a response to the crisis of the Anthropocene, not least climate change.”
“These, for sure, seem the right questions as Western modernity is finally learning in its own way what the ancients in Asia (and the pre-Socratic West) long ago understood,” Gardels concludes. “Yet, as long as the modern East, China in particular, remains in thrall to the paradigm of Western thought it has adopted through accelerated competition, it will remain a stranger to its own civilizational wisdom.”
On Cosmotechnics: For a Renewed Relation between Technology and Nature in the Anthropocene, by Yuk Hui (published in Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, Volume 21, Issue 2/3, 2017)
The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, by Yuk Hui (The MIT Press, 2016)
Co-Immunism In The Age Of Pandemics And Climate Change, Peter Sloterdijk in conversation with Nathan Gardels (Noēma, June 12, 2020)
And also this
“[It’s] commonly thought that creativity at least aims at novelty or originality,” Julianne Chung, a assistant professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, writes in To be creative, Chinese philosophy teaches us to abandon ‘originality’. But the Zhuangzi, a classical Chinese philosophical and literary text, provides a different perspective. “On one interpretation, creativity isn’t conceived as aiming at novelty or originality, but rather integration. Instead of aiming at something new, it aims at something that combines well with the situation of which it’s a part,” Chung writes, and she illustrates this idea with the story of Wheelwright Pian, from a chapter of the Zhuangzi (莊子), known as the ‘Tian Dao’ (天道) or ‘The Way of Heaven.’
“In this short vignette, a wheelwright known as Pian (扁) tells a duke that the book of sages’ advice he’s reading is nothing but ‘chaff and dregs’. Angered, the duke demands an explanation. The wheelwright responds that, at least concerning his craft, he can create what he does only because he’s developed a ‘knack’ for it that can’t be wholly conveyed in words. If the blows of his mallet are too gentle, his chisel slides and won’t take hold. If they’re too hard, it bites in and won’t budge. ‘Not too gentle, not too hard — you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind,’ he says. ‘So, I’ve gone along for 70 years and at my age I’m still chiselling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So, what you are reading there must be nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old.’
What this story shows is that the wheelwright “has developed an ability to act and to execute his craft in an integrated manner that can’t be fully captured through an algorithmic list of instructions,” Ching writes. “He responds to precise particularities in the wood, his tools and his body to create what he wants — something he doesn’t accomplish by imposing a plan.
The sages’ advice for living well is therefore mere ‘dregs’ if it’s interpreted as instructions that one can simply read and then complete. Living well in general involves much more than this; namely, a spontaneous integration between contrasting types such as the hard and the soft, as well as the learned and the spontaneous, the active and the passive, and even the unproductive and the productive — all of which apply in the case of carving wheels, as well as elsewhere. In other words, living well involves creativity.
This kind of creativity isn’t taken to aim at novelty or originality as such. The wheelwright is presented as creative not because of anything to do with his, or his projects’, novelty or originality, but instead because of his ability to create wheels in a sensitive, responsive and — crucially — well-integrated manner: one not learned by rote, but rather via engaging in sustained, spontaneous activity.”
The copy is the original, by Byung-Chul Han, a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at the Berlin University of the Arts, in which he explains the two Chinese concepts of ‘copies.’
“‘Fangzhipin’ (仿製品) are imitations where the difference from the original is obvious. These are small models or copies that can be purchased in a museum shop, for example. The second concept for a copy is ‘fuzhipin’ (複製品). They are exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original. It has absolutely no negative connotations.”
Renowned for his pessimism, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was nonetheless a conoisseur of very distinctive kinds of happiness, David Bather Woods, a senior teaching fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in the U.K., writes in an essay for Aeon, entitled The semi-satisfied life.
“Schopenhauer doesn’t deny that happiness exists. He does, however, think that we are generally mistaken about what happiness is. According to him, happiness is no more than the absence of pain and suffering; the moment of relief occasionally felt between the fulfilment of one desire and the pursuit of the next.”
To be happy, we must aim to eliminate pain and suffering from our lives, but in order to feel happy, we must also take the time to reflect on their absence.
“In search of an ethical system based on similar insights, Schopenhauer turned not to the moral philosophers of his own day but instead to ancient Greek schools of thought. Of all of these schools, he suggests, his own views on happiness have the closest affinity with Stoicism: like him, he claims, the Stoic philosophers such as Stobaeus, Epictetus and Seneca identified a happy life with a painless existence.
In general, ancient Greece is a good place to start the search for a philosophy of happiness because, according to Schopenhauer, the Greeks agreed on one thing: the task of practical reason is to figure out the best kind of life and how it can be achieved. Furthermore, Schopenhauer says, with the exception of Plato, they all equated this task with providing a guide to a happy life. They cared only about how virtue can improve our earthly lives, and thought little about how it might relate to any life after death or otherworldly realm.”
“Thinking of happiness as the avoidance of suffering is the view that distinguishes Stoicism from other schools, according to Schopenhauer, as well as the one he shares with it. He identifies two functions of practical reason that the Stoics used in their quest for a painless existence. There is the indirect function, on the one hand, where careful planning and forethought allow the Stoic to pick out and follow the least painful path through life. On the other, there is the direct function, where instead of removing or avoiding obstacles in life’s path, the Stoic reconsiders these obstacles in a way that changes his feelings towards them. One is a change in practice, while the other a change in thinking.
Stoicism’s distinctive contribution to ethics lies in the nature of the change in thinking it recommends, according to Schopenhauer. First, the Stoic observes that painful feelings of privation ‘do not follow immediately and necessarily from not-having, but rather from wanting-to-have and yet not having’. It then becomes obvious that to avoid these painful feelings altogether, we must eliminate the wanting-to-have part. Furthermore, the bigger our ambitions about what we want to have and the higher our hopes of achieving them, the sharper the pain when we fail. If we cannot help wanting to have some things, then we should at least keep those wants within realistic and achievable proportions. Perhaps lapsing back into his own pessimism, Schopenhauer adds that we should become suspicious of ourselves if we begin to expect a great amount of happiness waiting for us in the future; we are almost certainly being unrealistic. ‘Every lively pleasure,’ he says, ‘is a delusion.’
Thus the Stoic aims for ataraxia, a state of inner calmness and serenity however turbulent the world outside might be. Schopenhauer believes his observations about the inevitability of suffering can help to achieve this aim if taken on as convictions. Pain and suffering sting all the more if we think they are accidental and could have been avoided. While it might be true of any particular suffering that it could have been avoided, suffering in general is unavoidable and universal. If we manage to take this on board, Schopenhauer thinks, we might worry less about encountering suffering, or at least worry about it in the way that we worry about other things we can’t avoid, such as old age (for most of us) and death.”
“We tend to venerate The Written Word in western culture. As a writer and wizard, I am of course a lover of books and words. And yet: I hold knowledge, gnosis, meaningness, mostly-truthfulness, worldview-attunement and sense-making coherence in yet higher regard. This means intentionally engaging in more participatory forms of knowing — even if the relatively introverted parts of me would rather not.”
“Tyson Yunkaporta — author of the brilliant Sand Talk — makes important distinctions between print-based literacy and oral traditions, suggesting we oughtn’t put all our ‘cognitive eggs in one basket’:
‘The only sustainable way to store data long-term is within relationships — deep connections between generations of people in custodial relation to a sentient landscape, all grounded in a vibrant oral tradition. This doesn’t need to replace print, but it can supplement it magnificently — those two systems might back each other up rather than merely coexist.’”
“‘A better everyday life for more of the many’ is Ikea’s mission, on paper. I think of all the ikea furniture that I have seen eaten by life. The end tables with broken legs, the cracked slats of futon frames, the particleboard desks left out on the curb and destroyed by the rain before they can be taken to a new home. ikea, one of the largest consumers of wood in the world, has made furniture into something that gets used up. It is furniture for the apocalypse. But what I like, what makes me laugh a little about ‘for people, not consumers,’ is the implication that consumers are not people.
‘A metaphor is all this really is,’ David Graeber ‡ writes. He means consumption, which was once the name for a wasting disease, and is now the word anthropologists use for almost everything we do outside of work — eating, reading, shopping for furniture. Consume, he notes, is from the Latin consumere, meaning ‘to seize or take over completely.’ A person might consume food or be consumed by rage. In its earliest usage, consumption always implied destruction.”
“Consumption was the opposite of production in Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith made this inquiry in 1776, when work was being relocated into factories and lives were newly divided between home and work. We still use the math of that time to subtract what is consumed at home from what is produced at work. In that crude equation, only work that earns money is productive. And as long as there’s no third quantity, like reproduction, the equation works out to zero.”
‡ David Graeber, anthropologist and anarchist author of bestselling books on bureaucracy and economics including Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has died on September 2, 2020, aged 59. Here is his essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit (The Baffler, March 201).
Kannikegården (construction 2014–2016) by the Danish architecture firm Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects, is located on the main square, across the city cathedral, in Ribe, Denmark’s best-preserved medieval city. The simple brick-clad volume hovers above the city floor to expose an open ground floor with a 1000-year-old brick ruin integrated within. The ruin, as well as the modern cladding, convey stories of cultural and historical heritage.
Ancient discoveries, telling us about Danish history over the past thousand years, have been found on the building site. The archaeological excavations have uncovered remains of Denmark’s oldest Vhristian cemetery from 800 A.D., originating from the transition period from the Viking to the Christian ages. Most visible, however, is a listed brick ruin from the Augustine Canon’s monastery, dating back to the 1100s, which is integrated into an exhibition space designed to communicate the many different cultural historic layers of the location.
“We become who we are by how we improvise moment to moment, day to day, year to year. Our identity is the accumulation of these improvised moments. These experiences are housed, felt, endured and enjoyed in our minds and our bodies. Improvising jazz singers show us that deep embodiment of the present moment can transform the mundane into the transcendent. The ability to improvise, to respond with our whole being to each moment creatively, intuitively and joyfully — just like Betty Carter — is the art of becoming fully human.“ — Melissa Forbesis in The jazz singer’s mind shows us how to improvise through life itself