Monday, July 19, 2021

Your messages can wait

Walking the city streets of the 21st Century is fascinating. Sometimes I stand alongside two intersecting roads and watch people queue in their vehicles, awaiting permission to move. This permission is granted by an unseen entity, but is signaled with a light.

Frequently I observe people hurredly reaching for their phones so that they may quickly check recent correspondance while they wait for the light signal. Some people even continue to gaze at their phones after the signal to move has been given. By the gods, what an urge. People must place great importance on checking for correspondance every few minutes.

I am reminded of an anecdote from a philosopher who lived around 400 years after my bodily death. His name was Seneca. He practiced a philosophy that was founded by the people who gathered and talked at the Stoa Poikile, a nicely decorated area near the Agora where I spent my time. He found it amusing to watch people waiting for letters to arrive by ship. They had been waiting for weeks to hear from their family and friends, and one might think that waiting a few minutes more would make little difference. But no. They would stampede towards the boat in a frenzy, just to get their letter a minute or two earlier. As if that would make any real difference. Seneca would quietly wait for the rabble to move on before finding his letters in peace.

It seems that people have not changed much in 2000 years. But I think the pressure we put on ourselves to always be available, to constantly check for news, and to immediately respond to correspondence, can be a cause of stress. Next time you're tempted to pick up your phone while driving, ask yourself "will waiting 15 minutes to read the message cause any real harm in the world?" or "will the person who sent the message think any less of me for not reading it while in charge of a car?" If you're honest with yourself, you may find that the sense of urgency to read the message is a product of your own mind and is something you can change.

Drive safely, and may Tyche (Fortuna) help you avoid heavy traffic.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Relish your mistakes

Many people have a fear of making mistakes. This fear can lead to an unrealistic demand for perfection in themselves and other people. While it is true that some mistakes can lead to a harmful consequence, and should be avoided (if possible), we are only human and we must accept that we are imperfect. Still, most mistakes don’t sit in this category. Everyday mistakes in reasoning don’t usually lead to immediate harm. These are the mistakes I relish. Why? Because they help me learn. 

I have always said that we should follow arguments to their conclusions, no matter whether we like or dislike those conclusions. But sometimes an argument yields a conclusion that appears absurd. In such a case we may have made a false assumption - a mistake in the initial premises. Discovering this mistake is a joy because it allows us to look more carefully at why, exactly, we held that premise to be true. We can then either abandon the premise or refine it as needed.

In some cases we may find that our premises are good. In this case we must take a closer look at the bizarre conclusion and try to understand why we think it is false. Accepting the conclusion may require us to jettison some other beliefs. This is something in which I take great pleasure. To learn that I have been carrying false beliefs is, to me, a great good and something to celebrate. 

So, please do not fear the discovery of mistakes in your reasoning. Mistakes can help us examine our beliefs. They help us learn how to examine our lives. After all, the unexamined life is not worth living. 

- Socrates