I first met Jules Evans at a Franco-British council’s conference on the measurement of well-being. That’s him with the microphone, and yours truly listening intently.
Shortly after the event, Jules produced a wonderful 10 minute video and a few weeks later I enjoyed his excellent question to Lord Layard at an RSA event called “Happiness, New Lessons” . With one question, Jules showed clearly that Lord Layard is basically a Benthamite, who chooses not to distinguish between different kinds of pleasures, and takes happiness to be little more than a personal feeling.
For weeks thereafter, I enjoyed his ‘Politics of Well-being’ blog, which is a lively, stimulating, and frequently hilarious read. I looked forward to it not merely for information relating to well-being, and our capacity (or not) to measure it, but because Jules consistently applied insights from both philosophy and psychology- the work was broad and deep and grounded, but not blinkered by a single perspective.
Philosophy and Psychology
In this respect I share Jules’s view that the academic divide between philosophy and psychology is an unfortunate loss for both disciplines, which really need each other to make sense of human experience. In fact in my own Phd thesis on Wisdom I write about this, because you feel the insanity of this division intensely when trying to fathom what it might mean to be wise:
“Philosophy and psychology share an intellectual heritage that tried to make sense of the workings of the mind, the reliability of knowledge, the basis of morality, and our understanding of the world. Such questions were central to the rationalist and empiricist traditions, but gradually, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, the concerns of the two disciplines diverged, with philosophy becoming increasingly concerned to become a foundational discipline, an under-labourer for science, concerned with epistemic warrant in logic and language; while psychology sought to become a natural science, focusing on predicting and measuring human behaviour… In this process of separation, I believe both disciplines lost something vital, and when they came together again under the auspices of cognitive science, they both looked like paler devalued versions of themselves, perpetuating an impoverished view of the mind and our capacity to understand it.”
Philosophy for Life, and other dangerous situations
This ‘bi-lingualism’ is one of the things that make Jules’s writing so readable, and I therefore slightly regret the fact that in recent months he seems to have rebranded himself as a philosopher first and foremost. His new blog ‘Philosophy for Life’ is just as good as the politics of well-being, and indeed is very similar in spirit to the old one, but it has been reframed now as a platform for his book: Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
The book has a Video trailer here and I finally got round to finishing it a couple of days ago.
In the book, Jules shares his admiration for some remarkable figures (I particularly liked Jean Vanier, the ‘kindly polar bear’ on p227) and is adept at weaving in his personal experience (including a near-death spiritual experience following a skiing accident) and shows impressive philosophical and psychological acumen throughout, as well as considerable wit. So when Jules is allowed to let rip, as he does in his weekly blogs, the text is wonderful to read.
However, to honour these considerable authorial qualities, I should say that I felt they were undermined, not supported, by the tone and structure of the book as a whole. My impression is that the publishers felt Jules’s voice by itself wasn’t enough to get people to buy the book, so they added a superstructure that made the book appear more like a ‘how-to’ guide and made it more explicitly about philosophy as such- to frame the ‘offer’ more clearly to prospective buyers.
That’s life, I guess, and publishing is a ‘dangerous situation’ of sorts. However, I would have been happier just to hear Jules share his insights and experiences, and pose his pertinent questions. Instead in several places I had to deal with an overarching narrative that felt exogenous, and enjoyed neither pretending the book was read over the course of the day, nor straining to imagine what ancient philosophers might eat for lunch.
That said, I hope you can see from the thoughts above and quotations below that the book is worth reading, and I would strongly encourage you to sign up to his blog to learn more about what he is thinking about on a regular basis.
This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents
On his own mental health at university: “What help could literature and philosophy possibly be to me? My brain was a neurochemical machine, I had broken it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Somehow, after university, I had to plug this broken apparatus into the great steel machinery of the market, and survive. I graduated in 1999 with a good degree and, to celebrate, had a nervous breakdown.” (p3)
On the longing for social acceptance: “We internalise the gaze of others, and this internal spectator becomes all-powerful over us…This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents.”(p161)
On the alleged cult of SES, The School of Economic Science: ”To be fair to the school, if Plato set up his Academy today, or Epicurus set up his Garden, they would probably be accused of being cults.” (p191)
On the path to societal wellbeing: “My hope is that we can find a better balance between the ancient idea of the good life, and a modern pluralist and liberal politics. It would recognise that well-being is not a simple concept that can be objectively defined, pinned down and measured by empirical science, and the world would be a much more boring place if it was. We should explore the plurality of philosophical approaches to well-being. We should treat citizens as rational adults who deserve to be brought into the conversation as equals. Empiricism balanced with practical reasoning. Instrumental techniques balanced with a consideration of values and ends. Science balanced with the humanities. Not one version of the good life, but several. Not a mass enforced march to an official well-being target, but groups of friends helping each other in their search for the good. That’s what I would like to see.” (p230)
The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.
On the classic Dionysian/Socratic conflict: “They would say that the last people you should turn to for advice on life are philosophers. Look at them: weak, pale, stammering creatures, visibly unhealthy, palpably out of touch with their bodies and their societies. Nature has cursed them with weakness and timidity, so they wreak their revenge on nature by constructing their own artificial and self-conscious version of happiness. ‘Only Virtue is happiness’, the philosophers insist, and cough. But we Dionysiacs know they are lying, we know the genuine joy that comes from the body, from hunting and dancing and love. The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.” (p257)
Some extracts I have recently enjoyed, about protecting science from scientism:
“That is the problem about turning secular materialist atheism into a political ideology, as Richard Dawkins and others have done. When you turn Skepticism into a political mass movement, the dogma is what gives the movement its coherence, like a marching band keeping soldiers in step. God forbid anyone who walks out of line. But is that how science has ever progressed? By an orderly march of believers? Isn’t it precisely the mavericks, those out of step with the dominant beat, who reveal new worlds to us?” -Jules Evans
“We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.”
“Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” - C.S Lewis.
Perhaps it is not fair to ask more of science. To borrow the words of Merleau-Ponty, the strength of science may lie precisely in the act that it gives up living among things, preferring to manipulate them instead- Francisco Varela
” (Subjectivity) is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” Marilyn Osborne
“There’s a certain kind of scepticism that can’t bear uncertainty.” - Rupert Sheldrake
So we know now (and in fact we knew already) that we have this optimism bias, and consistently and predictably expect things to turn out better for ourselves(though not for others) than they actually do. What follows?
Tali Sharot suggested we can incorporate this knowledge into our planning decisions, and indicated that the Government indeed have in their Green Book but somehow this feels too simplistic.
For starters, it sounds suspiciously like contingency planning with a bit of extra scientific backing. You know that you consistently mis-predict, mis-assess and so forth, so you factor that in. It is different from having a bit extra for unexpected events, but not that different.
In any case there is a deeper problem.
During a book tour of his own a few weeks ago Daniel Kahneman was speaking about cognitive biases more generally. In an interview with Oliver Burkeman he made the telling remark: ”It’s not a case of: ‘Read this book and then you’ll think differently,’” he says. “I’ve written this book, and I don’t think differently.”
Tali Sharot’s argument, combined with Kahneman’s comment reminded me of the wonderful Hofstadter’s law:
it is not so easy to trick ourselves into not tricking ourselves.
“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter’s law into account.”
In other words, it is not so easy to trick ourselves into not tricking ourselves. Sharot seems to suggest that the optimism bias is adaptive, and that it is broadly a good thing, but again this feels like an answer designed to reduce dissonance rather than being fully thought through. In this respect I have sympathy with Jules Evans who argues that The Optimism Bias is unduly pessimistic about our ability to change ourselves.
The issue, of course, is HOW to we go about changing? (And how much does this matter?)
My first set of scribbles in response to Sharot’s book was “This is about a deluded sense of self rather than optimism…”
This point goes beyond the scope of this blog, and I have written about it before but my impression is that our best hope in addressing biases are forms of psychological or spiritual practice that lead us to transform our fundamental sense of who we are. There may be no short-cut out of delusion.
One finding of many that might support this claim is the curious discovery that Buddhist meditators are more conventionally ‘rational’ in classic behavioural economics experiments i.e. they are more self-interested, and care less about norms of fairness and reciprocity. The stock response to this curious finding is that Buddhists are not so kind and compassionate after all! However, it looks to me more like they are much more aware of what is going on than most participants, and fully grasp that this is a game they are playing, and not a proxy for the human feelings and relations that actually matter, and which they experience more acutely than most. If you are genuinely altruistic, you have less need of altruistic punishment. Similarly, if you have an experiential (rather than merely conceptual) grasp of how the mind distorts reality, you may be better able to prevent it doing so in practice.
The issue of cognitive bias matters hugely in general, but when you consider the major issues of our time, not least the climate crisis and the debt crisis, both are arguably grounded in problems relating to optimism.
I am not saying that we should all just meditate and everything will be ok (that would be too optimistic!) but it might be a more fruitful ‘so-what’ to fall out of our awareness of the optimism bias.