26 Oct 2017
There is something about the crisp, cold autumnal air that awakens a deep, often-suppressed joie de vivre inside me. It is the type of feeling that brings an overwhelming sense of meaning. I think of Sartre and his essay, Existentialism is a Humanism. In it, Sartre presents the core problem of existentialism in a famous three-word phrase: ‘existence precedes essence’. We are thrust into existence without a purpose - and we are ‘condemned to be free,’ - to choose our own meaning for our life.
It’s an appealing premise, and one that I cannot deny during the lazy days of summer. But when the autumn arrives and the faint aroma of a distant campfire pierces through me, I think: is this essence? For some fleeting moment, this entangled existence of aroma and my perception of it seems to exist in-and-of-itself, and I do not feel independent of it.
Perhaps this is what Epicurus meant by the ‘pleasure’ that was the greatest good. Or, perhaps, I am describing some superficial hedonism? I say ’seek out the cold, ephemeral spice of fall as it is constantly chased away by polar winds,’ and you quip, ‘cut the romanticism - you think meaning of life is eating smores in October?’
I respond, ‘maybe - depends on how much you enjoy smores.’ I certainly don’t know what it is that puts you into that state. But what seems clear to me is that there are certain moments, certain states of being that bring upon a feeling of completeness. A sense that my current existence requires no further justification, apart from whatever qualia I am submersed in.
13 Oct 2016
On the day that the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan, I want to dedicate my first essay to something Bob Dylan dedicated his life to: ideas. His musical compositions were simple, his voice was never powerful, but his words affected a generation. If you’ve paid attention to modern-day gospel about what you should do with your life or your career, you’ll constantly hear: ‘good ideas are a dime a dozen, but it’s all about execution.’ Ideas don’t make you money, execution does. Execute, execute, execute. Push, push, push. But what are we pushing for?
In his 1971 paper, That’s Interesting!, Davis Murray argues that ‘Interesting theories are those which deny certain assumptions of the audience.’ So here’s my interesting theory for you: great ideas are everything. Great execution is deceiving; it can prop up mediocre ideas and make them look worthwhile while distracting us from seeing other better ideas. A great idea is timeless, while great execution is ephemeral - living and dying with every generation. Great ideas give us purpose, while execution just fills up our time. If you are looking for what to do with your time, pursue interesting ideas, not well-executed institutions.
Ask yourself this question: would you rather live in a world full of terribly executed great ideas, or well executed mediocre ones? Me, I choose the former. I choose the world where great ideas spread like wildfire; where we’re constantly struggling to implement any of them. I choose the world where we have a whole network of roads and highways all paved to hell with good intentions. Because then at least we tried - and in the long run, that is what will matter.
In some way that is already how Nature works. Ideas are the chance gene mutations that occur during mitosis - once they exist, they will inevitably affect the entire species. Maybe not with the first member, but eventually. If you do not have the mutation, you can compensate with great execution, but not forever. Eventually, the idea will win out and the species will evolve.
Perhaps one of the most famous philosophical essays of the last 100 years is Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. In it, Camus likens the human condition to that of Sisyphus, a Greek king who was forced to roll a boulder up a hill, and watch it roll back down, for eternity. Camus argues that in order for us to be at peace with our own condition, we must imagine Sisyphus as being happy. For what is life but a sequence of boulders that we must push up a bunch of arbitrary hills?
Great ideas are what let us stop and wonder about other hills. About higher and higher mountains that lie beyond the horizon, and about the rolling stones that make life worth living.
N.B. Things that are immediate follow-ups that I haven’t mentioned but thought about: patents (ideas for money), Hegel’s triad, Plato’s idealism, communism.