Quant. & Lit.
What reading rationalists does to an mfer.
The other day —after reading a cascade of very good posts on the subject of youth unhappiness— I had a typically insipid thought: the West’s obsessive and still under-discussed fixation on youth-culture is part of why those in the throes of maturing are so unhappy. Like most intrusive theses, it suggested itself as a post, which I might outline as follows:
To the extent that Western culture has become youth culture, Western culture valorizes what seems good to the young. The paths society consecrates as desirable —the lowest form of consecration, but all we have left— are those paths which appeal to the young.
What appeals to the young?
Idealized versions of adulthood; adulthood as imagined by those who are not adults; the child’s vision of adulthood: a time of freedom, wealth, power, and status.
Adulthood in this view is: you can stay up late; you can buy any toys or clothes you want; you don’t have to obey any authority figures; you can have as much screentime as you like.
“The young” includes teens, of course, so also: the adult who is desired by those who are desired; the adult who fucks.
This is the memetic space of advertisements and sitcoms and so on: youthful, clean adults —nothing sagging or wrinkling— working in a small business they launched with their best friend (and a little help from Chase Bank): the interior is hip, the clothes are contemporary, the motivations are emotional and immediate: “I do what I love, every day.” There is no boss; there is no compromise; there is neither authority nor responsibility, only a kind of self-expressive “fun” that happens to line up perfectly with the market, such that one is “just being oneself” while also getting rich.
The only form of adult who lives this way is the celebrity. Thus: every young person can conceive of only one kind of happiness, that of the high-status celebrity / influencer.
Missing from all of this is any sense of adulthood as most of us experience it. It’s akin to a pre-pubescent vision of what post-puberty life will be like: “I don’t know much about it, but I know one thing: I won’t be into getting cooties from kissing, gross!”
The equivalent of “getting cooties” for adulthood is: assuming responsibility; being used and even used up; overcoming and enduring; giving oneself to others without expectation of hedonic reward. All of these things look “bad” to non-adults, while for many adults they are the very soul of meaning.
More concretely, a youthful vision of adulthood does not include
marriage; it might include weddings, but the difficult and relentlessly transformative work of marriage is not part of the fantasy;
children; they seem like burdens to the young, obstacles to hedonic satiation or status acquisition or the performance of “the good life” for some imagined audience;
unglamorous work; the idea of e.g. “working earnestly at a low-status ‘boring’ job in order to provide for my lifestyle and possibly a family” is utterly uninteresting in youth culture, even though for many adults it’s one of the most incredible features of the modern world: that we can trade some time for the means to live as we want
So, a straightforward idea: young people grow up in a culture that depicts adulthood as young people might fantasize about it; at some point when in their 20s, this fantasy is revealed to them to be somehow unattainable or worse: attainable, but totally insufficient, a hedonic treadmill at best, a dead end at worst. And meanwhile they see virtually no positive representations of “ordinary adulthood,” which doesn’t make for very compelling media in the best of circumstances. So marooned, they cast around for a few years, writing posts about the “emptiness of late capitalism” or whatever else, maybe exploring “trad” lifestyles, and eventually wind up where almost everyone does: on the other side, not young, not lost in fantasy, but practically engaged with the business of living this life on this planet. Sometimes, the ones who survive even find it pleasant!
Unfortunately, I cannot write this post, at least not confidently. Over the past decade, something has happened to me that I think has happened to many others: I was tragically exposed to rationalists. I’ve never been in the rationalist scene —or any scene— and was less influenced by, say, posters like Scott Alexander (whom I encountered very late) than by David Deutsch and Karl Popper, but the effect is the same: I am debilitatingly aware of how loose and vague most of my arguments are.
For example, when I write
To the extent that Western culture has become youth culture, Western culture valorizes what seems good to the young.
it’s only fair to ask: well, to what extent has Western culture become youth culture? How do we define and demarcate cultures? How do we measure them? Has the West changed, really? Do we know what percentage of “Western culture” —whatever that is— was “youth culture” in 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000? Does Western culture indeed “valorize what seems good to the young”? How would we demonstrate that, beyond my personal impressions, horribly partial, biased, and projected? What is “valorizing,” and how do “cultures” do it? What even are “the young”: sub-18 year olds, across the board? Can that really be right?! Don’t individuals vary far too much to be effectively sorted by a fixed age?
In other words: if we attempt anything like a rationalist or quantitative review of the situation, we’re left with something like nonsense: a series of statements predicated on concepts of questionable legitimacy, to say nothing of the paucity of actual data we have about them or how they relate to one another. Once you interiorize this lens, an enormous amount of very good writing falls apart completely.
Nevertheless: I think my arguments might somehow be partially correct, or at least worth considering.But my epistemic attitude towards these kinds of claims has permanently shifted; all I can say these days is “maybe,” and that’s not always an easy place to write from, even though it’s probably the soundest attitude one can have towards one’s own thinking.
A recurring theme for this newsletter: writers, and especially novelists, are important for the development of valuable knowledge otherwise inaccessible to us, knowledge often concerned with subjectivity. In most academic fields, humans are objects, not subjects, whereas in almost all of our moments, humans are subjects to themselves and subjects to those who love them, not objects at all, not reducible, not predictable, not fixed or fungible. The philosopher Hegel provided an early instance of a totalizing rationalist system which, whatever its scope and merit, more or less excluded the human subject. Walker Percy described the situation thus, paraphrasing Kierkegaard:
Hegel, said Kierkegaard, explained everything under the sun, except one small detail: what it means to be a [person] living in the world who must die.
In any event, although I meet surprisingly many Hegelians, I know of none who live by Hegel; that is, Hegel remains a theorist of an alien, objective, remote “world history,” not someone who seems at all engaged with the world of our experience. But unfortunately for Hegel, there is no accounting for “world history” without accounting for the world of our subjective experience.
I think this problem is in fact very general. Many fields of rational knowledge have proceeded apace without ever resolving it. For example: theses abound about “how populations behave” —including the theses which prompted this post!— but
we can’t even predict how our spouses or best friends will behave; why in god’s name would we have more confidence about predicting the behaviors of thousands or millions, all of whom individually remain unpredictable to us (and who through mimetic spread can influence the whole in unpredictable ways)?
worse: any humans who learn “how human populations behave” are liable to behave differently once they’ve factored in that knowledge! This is worse because while the former is imaginably surmountable —someday, we will be able to model the mind completely, unless we grant some form of dualism— this is not. Humans don’t stop adapting, including to new knowledge about how humans adapt.
It sometimes feels to me as though we have a very thick layer of rational knowledge floating above us at all times, while we scratch out weird, largely-unremarked-upon lives beneath and indifferent to it; it’s up there in the sky, lovely and well-elaborated, but we’re still down here, going absolutely bananas in illegible ways that problematize neat theories. (This all relates to Popper’s wonderful writing on the relationship between “clouds and clocks,” systems at opposite ends of the spectrum of what we can describe and predict).
But setting aside all the philosophy, it remains the case that writers can and do access this “lower” order, and can also model and explore how individuals within it relate to or challenge the “higher” order world of theories. And indeed, among the many posts on the subject of youth depression, I especially liked a piece by, “Some Reasons Why Smartphones Might Make Adolescents Anxious and Depressed,” which he begins with a warning:
This is mostly just speculation and I don’t know if the proffered explanations can be tested empirically.
At the outset, he establishes that this is not going to be a Haidt-like presentation of charts. Rather, deBoer is going to imagine what psychological processes or experiences could lead to macro outcomes, and I think he’s generally spot-on (and have written in response to similar points from him in the past).
Constant exposure to unachievable conditions. Back in my youth, you might watch an MTV show about how rich people lived, or leaf through a magazine like US Weekly, and be exposed to opulence and material excess. Or you might go on vacation and see how the other half lives if you took a tour of the Hollywood hills or whatever. You were perfectly well aware that rich people and their privileged lives existed. But then you turned off the show or you put down the magazine or your vacation ended, and unless you were born rich, you lived in an environment that of necessity was modest and real. Your friends might have lived in nice houses, but you didn’t see riches everywhere you looked, and your definition of what a hot girl looked like was mostly derived from the girls you went to school with. Your environment conditioned the scope of your desires.
Note how hard it would be to quantify these things, yet how obviously correct this diagnosis seems! If you’re old enough, you might even be able to feel its truth: how local your conceptions once were, how global your conceptions are now. Clever researchers could painstakingly conjure ways to test parts of this, I’m sure, but glacially and perhaps not in terms that would resonate as strongly as this post does (which is still less resonant than e.g. a novel instantiating this phenomenon would be). Moreover, deBoer shares several such ideas that interrelate, six in total, all of which I think do more to illuminate the situation we’re in than any chart can. This knowledge comes from many sources, of course, but I suspect that his observations and imagination —his ability to model the subjective interiority of others— are probably paramount, and then only after those whatever he’s happened read, etc.
What this sums to is a peculiar situation familiar to me from working with designers:
for certain kinds of vital creative work —vital because without it we cannot understand or improve human systems, which do indeed reflect subjectivity— high-scrutiny rationalism is at least confidence-weakening, and at worst fatal (especially in early stages of ideation)
but without rationalist scrutiny, much of this creative work will, indeed, be very wrong: the result of projection, partialized views, biases, and so on; much of rationalism’s popularity reflects the fact that we’re drowning in this sort of garbage
there is no “systematic” or rational way of determining a priori when creative work will lead to important outcomes, as opposed to when it will mislead us or could be improved by strict rationalism; the risk cannot be eliminated, in other words
thus: we are dependent on the many slightly-deranged people who can again and again conjure confidence for their unsystematic and questionably-rational ideas and push them out into the world despite their fragility and susceptibility to (sound in itself) rationalist nitpicking; we are dependent on some resisting rationalism, just as we are dependent on some adopting and hewing to rationalism.
It’s surely no surprise that I think this is all an argument for pluralism, epistemic and otherwise, but more to the point, I think it’s cause to be grateful for all the writers and artists and musicians and designers (and even the lovers!) out there, even when their errors or seemingly misplaced confidence in somewhat wobbly (often “just-so”) theories lead to bad outcomes. It’s not easy. Writers not exposed in any way to rationalist communities experience a similar weakening of confidence just from the scale of the Internet: anything you post can and will be shredded from one of hundreds of perspectives according to which you suck and your argument is ridiculous. The multiplicity is overwhelming, and eventually, I at least came to feel that before a broad enough audience, literally everything can be problematized.
I have little doubt that most writers feel this tension deeply: that what they have to say may be useful or valuable, to however small a readership, yet it will also be absolutely demolished by both rational and irrational rebuttals from so many points of view that no defense is possible. In the best writers, like deBoer, the strained relationship between rationalism and artistic, imaginative subjectivism produces richer work, but for many I suspect it produces paralysis. I suppose I’m in between: not nearly talented enough to somehow fuse both, but sufficiently egoistic that I am not quite paralyzed, only given ample pause every time I post: “Wait. Is any of this even remotely falsifiable, testable, empirical, defensible?”
Sometimes, even if the answer is obviously “no,” I post anyway. This has been just such a post.
I often wish I could dispatch inchoate theses to real writers for investigation and disposition. In this case, I’d ask for this outline to be evaluated and explored, and I’d also request some theorizing on why American culture is youth-obsessed; I have some suspicions, but they’re even less substantive than the rest of this trash!
thus: we are dependent on the many slightly-deranged people who can again and again conjure confidence for their unsystematic and questionably-rational ideas and push them out into the world despite their fragility
just @ me next time
This is lit, certainly.
An experience I had while reading was that I nodded along to your proposed outline, thinking to myself how much I’d like to read that piece. Then, when you blew up your own idea, I suddenly felt foolish for thinking it was good. That is, you were persuasive enough to convince me of both sides. But ... I still think the original outline is GOOD and is a post you should write! Does that make me foolish for thinking so, or you foolish for not writing it?
I feel like this exactly illustrates your point: rationalism (and especially rationalism on the Internet) has the ability to knock our collective confidence in our own thoughts so much that it leaves the great majority in paralysis and unable to express them at all.
This is very obviously bad and so I guess I’m just here to thank your ego, I guess, for posting it anyway. And I eagerly await the post from the outline, of course.