"This song is for the person you used to be. Fuck that guy."
-- Torq Campbell of Stars, introducing Your Ex-Lover is Dead at a recent Philadelphia show
How do you become a good person if you are not already a good person? If you are not motivated to do good, what is there to motivate you to become motivated to do good? A leap of faith is required, or, more realistically, a leap of self-delusion. You tell yourself that the motivations you will hold at the end of the process will justify the path you are about to embark on. This problem, the problem of Aspiration is the subject of philosopher Agnes Callard book of the same name, which I learned about this week from her conversation with economist Tyler Cowen on his podcast. In the conversation, they couch this problem within the tradition of problems from ancient Greek philosophy (with rhyming names) that ask how any change is ever possible. Most immediately relevant is Meno’s paradox, which points out that you can’t search for an answer to something you don’t know (if you had a way of knowing whether what you were to find is the answer, you would already have the answer) or for something you know (you already have the answer). More distantly relevant, but more widely known, is Zeno’s paradox on the impossibility of motion.
There is an opposite, but intertwined, problem with aspiration: not “how is change ever possible”, but rather “how is consistency ever possible?” Every day I seek to become a better person, and go down the path I think will contribute to this goal. However, every day my idea of what makes a person good will change, and the person I was twelve years ago would not agree with me that I am going down the best possible path to becoming a good person. But what does he know?
Greg Egan’s science fiction novel Schild’s Ladder takes this idea as its main theme. The title of the novel comes from an analogy Egan draws between our individual moral evolution and the mathematical idea of parallel transport. Suppose you had a vector pointing to your idea of true north, and you wanted to keep that notion with you as you traveled over the surface of the Earth without the use of an external compass. Along every step you took, you could keep the vector pointed in the direction that is locally consistent with the direction it pointed just before. However, you will find that after a long journey, the direction you end up with is entirely path dependent, and two people who started at the same point with the same true north but took different paths, could meet back up and be in complete disagreement about its direction.
Six months ago I left academia for work in the private sector. This was after five years of physics graduate school and six years of postdoctoral research work. There were many reasons for my disillusionment with the academic path and my realization that the continued sacrifices necessary to continue pursuing it were just not worth its increasingly dubious allure. This perceived allure is the product of the academic system itself, which instills in its inductees certain notions of what sort of work is noble and worthwhile and advances the cause of truth, and what sort of work is tedious and utilitarian and merely services the baser needs of society.
This is an unfortunate paradox that underlies the institution of PhD education. It clearly imparts to its graduates skills that would be hard to acquire in any other setting, particularly skills for tackling problems like Meno’s of how to search for the unknown unknowns. These skills can be very useful in so many areas of endeavor that unfortunately a PhD education also imparts indifference toward. From the perspective of today, and perhaps even from the perspective of twelve years ago, my motivations six years ago to not explore paths outside academia more seriously seem misguided. Perhaps I would tell my 12-years-ago self to beware the motivation-distorting influence of graduate school. But these speculations seem silly. That said, I probably would warn students and mentees of this if I were to continue in academia.
I used to spend some time on this website around 6 years ago, reading and writing under a different user name. One of my favorite noders to read has always been TheDeadGuy. In a recent post, he writes about looking back at the road not taken. Some people look back and think that they were prevented from seeking to become their true selves by the pressures of conforming to the standards imposed on them by others. It’s likely true that if you were more unyielding in the face of societal expectations, you would have been able to make better progress toward your aspirational goals. However, it’s hard for me to believe that this would have taken you towards whatever idea you now have of your true self.
The roads we travel lead to unknown unknowns and by walking down them one step at a time we belie the paradoxes and come to know the unknown. But the roads not taken lead to unknowable unknowns, permanently behind the veil. As we gain moral experience, as we find new passions, as we see others cope, we adapt, we react, we learn from others. We build the true self piece by piece as an exquisite corpse. It is useful, once in a while to take a long look into the future and evaluate our aspirations, just as it is useful to look back at the roads not taken. But we should not imagine we are looking through a clear lens, but realize we are looking through the built up layers of distortion accumulated and those yet to come.