Category: Esprit d’Escalier

From Stanford to Monte Carlo and Beyond

In a Stanford interview, Tobias Wolff once said that – as a teacher – he tries to  focus on why individual stories are good rather than what it is that makes a story good in general.

The intuition here is similar to that of the Monte Carlo method; when the phenomenon of interest is too complex to describe in a deterministic fashion, one alternative is to feed a more basic and incomplete model with a large number of random scenarios and then analyze the distribution of the model’s outputs.

It is the same idea behind the claim “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. If a person holding this position exposed himself to a large number of works of art and noted his reactions, he would learn much about art and about what he likes in it. But would he learn what makes art good in general?

The adjective “good” begs the question “good for what?”: a theory that tells us what makes art good is necessary. There are as many theories as theorists, so we must choose one – we now need a theory that tells us what makes a good theory of art. Follow the chain and we end up wondering what makes any action or set of actions (such as a life) good.

So we arrive at Hume’s is-ought problem: no matter how much we learn about any particular area of human endeavour or how elegant our logic, any statement about what “good” is  will be arbitrary, just a reflection of a particular viewpoint. How do we agree – as a family, as a society, as a species – on which viewpoint to take?

There are two problems embedded in this question: (1) how will we agree on the best value system and (2) how we will find it.

For (1), the best thing we’ve come up with so far to aggregate preferences is Democracy (see here for a good discussion on democracy as a cognitive mechanism).

For (2), it is clear there is no closed-form solution. The space of possibilities is n-dimensional, so any narrowly systematic search will be very inefficient. Our best bet then would seem to be – that’s right! –  the Monte Carlo method.

These ideas suggest that our time would be best spent not in comparing belief systems (atheism vs. religion, Christianity vs. Islam, social liberalism vs. social conservatism, etc) but simply in evaluating our collective responses to each of them. Further, exploration is essential – we should experiment with as many different kinds of value systems as possible. We should take “successful” (i.e. democratically elected) components from value systems and reject the rest.

Crucially, we should abandon the notion that any currently existing value system will be the “end-state” system. Even assuming that as a species we will arrive at some agreement on a value system at some point in the future – a beautiful thought – this system will be different from any currently available. All options currently on the table are too flawed.

When considering what is a good life, then, let us not waste our time in arguing what should be. Instead, let’s expose ourselves to as wide a variety of lives as possible and observe our reaction. This will not only be more productive – it will be immensely more enjoyable.

2nd Chance Ethics

In the socratic conception of morality*, all evil is born out of ignorance. Unless we want to reduce this to a naive determinism (current state knowledge -> actions -> future state knowledge) which eats ethical theories for breakfast, we must allow for some degree of indeterminacy at the individual level (free will / whatever). This indeterminacy would be observed via an individual’s actions.

Given some free will but lack of control regarding our current state, then only actions can carry a moral component. Therefore, ignorance is not the true source of evil – only unwillingness to learn.

As a toy example, imagine an ESPN commentator makes stupid remarks involving racial stereotypes. The remarks are reprehensible because they show a lack of understanding of “the good”. However, the commentator didn’t know he was ignorant, so it is inappropriate to condemn him for it. It is his reaction to the outrage that will reveal his moral character – if he refuses to correct his ignorance and thus his behaviour. Otherwise, it is just an honest mistake.

*Might be able to generalize to “objective” theories of morality, i.e. where there are moral absolutes.  Socratic conception incompatible with sophist conception of morality, no wonder. Of course, all of this breaks down when you step away from the Socratic model, i.e. towards reality. Also, only works for first-time offences.

The Modern Well-Rounded Man


1. Increasing division of labour and specialization as a coping mechanism with the complexity of the economic / social system.

1.1 Please everyone refer to James Burke’s Connections. You don’t need to watch this to get the point intellectually, but it is a wonderful way to get it viscerally.

2. Romantic/humanist ideal of University education / universal man / well-rounded man.

2.1 Embedded in current education system – “every person should know at least x, y, z”.

2.2 Embedded in social norms and values – we worship individuals with great accomplishments in very specific fields and attribute them equal levels of skill in others / become disappointed when they turn out not to be

There is a tension between 1 and 2. Understanding this was an important step in growing up (insert cynical witticism) for me.

If we are alike, you were born without the luck of having a single passion; you have a few, or you have none. In the absence of this single driver to determine your path, you go with the conventional wisdom and diversify – some weighted average. You try to be good at math but also at languages and the humanities; you engage in sports or physical activity; you become acquainted with the “classics” in whatever.

This is very good and much fun – you will be on your way towards becoming a well-rounded individual. But it will not make you Andrew Wiles nor Richard Feynman. Arguably,  you won’t become David Foster Wallace or Tobias Wolff or Marina Abramovic or any of the gold medalists of our hyper-diversified economy either. You will be on your way to becoming a productive, interesting and interested member of society – a man/woman of this time, amusing at dinner party conversations and generally “in the know”.

Which is great. These are both very good outcomes, but they are very different from each other. This is a choice which you must make early on, your answer to which will be amplified by path dependency and distorted by “luck”. But exogenous factors should not dictate your preferences – only your actions. This seems obvious until you remember that we are emotionally attached to certain exogenous factors such as intelligence.

So of course, you could be a genius and therefore not have to choose between 1 or 2. You could nurture this belief despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary – essentially by disqualifying any objective measures of intelligence and/or staying away from the big ponds and bigger fish. Beyond being a waste of time, this attitude just distracts you from the essential question of what you think is a good life for you.

So, a piece of advice to myself and others who fit the mold:

Choose specialization or versatility consciously, and proceed accordingly.

Discard the fantasy of not having to choose – if you do turn out to be exceptional, it will be a nice surprise.