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Beating the Final Boss of Philosophy
What to do when thinking runs dry
A friend shared this weekend that he’d “beaten the final boss of philosophy” and isn’t sure what to do next. While I can’t be sure what he meant, the phrase resonated with me and inspired some thoughts.
What “beating the final boss of philosophy” means to me
Philosophy has a scope of relevance. It’s like a layer of atmosphere: stratosphere, ionosphere, philososphere. Philosophy will get you to the top of the philososphere, and that’s it. After a certain point, continuing to use philosophy to “understand things” would be like trying to drive to the moon. A car just doesn’t travel along the relevant axis. You can climb to a certain level of understanding, but then the mode of transportation must change.
For me, “beating the final boss of philosophy” felt like realizing that “at this point, there’s more ROI in educating faculties that are not fundamentally intellectual.” I started feeling like educating the heart and the will could yield a lot more treasures than the purely intellectual. I still use my intellect a lot, but “intellectual understanding” stopped being the metric I optimize for.
These are some frames that have helped me orient beyond the philososphere:
Divergence vs Convergence
My friend Garrett Dailey taught me these terms to describe the two “directions” of intellectual work. Divergence is when we explore outward, look at increasingly bigger pictures, try to surmise a grand unified theory. It’s progress toward the abstract. Convergence is progress toward the concrete: applying those large principles to the most specific actions and objects.
Convergence asks “Now that we know everything, what do we do?” Convergence is the effort to make philosophy incarnate — to give it a presence in the world, that affects people not by changing their minds, but by affecting their lives. Permissionless persuasion. Can you embed your sublime philosophical conclusions in something as easily-received as a punch in the face? To the extent that you can, you liberate your ideas from the prerequisite of a sophisticated audience.
In Christianity, the Incarnation of the Word in the person of Christ is the ultimate in convergence — God didn’t merely explain reality; he also demonstrated that explanation through Christ’s life and death.
In general, convergence seems to be the name of the game, post-philosophy. (Perhaps another way to “beat the final boss of philosophy” is to suppose there’s more value in convergence than divergence — in putting new things into the world, than in modeling the world in the abstract.)
Here are some specific approaches that have been working well for me:
Think of life as a resource allocation problem. Seek “high ROI” on the limited resources all humans must allocate: attention, effort, time, trust. Trust seems like the most important of these, because all other decisions are downstream of whose word you took. Lately I can’t escape the thought, “Trusting the most trustworthy is the whole ballgame.”
Seeking return-on-trust operationalizes philosophy into a task that’s far more specific than just “understand things better.” It’s convergent in the sense that seeking ROI makes your insights incarnate in decisions that matter, and that you must make anyway.
Build the medium for your message. My startup, Ideamarket, is the incarnation of a book of philosophy. Instead of writing that book, getting people to read it, getting them to agree with me, and then to take some sort of action, I’m attempting to build a thing that begins with getting them to take the action I would have urged them to take at the end of the book. It seems far less efficient to “persuade people,” especially about something arcane and heterodox, than to build a tool that bakes my conclusions into its use. Ideamarket’s instruction manual secretly says: “If you want to use my tool skillfully, you must do what I would have told you to do in Chapter 14 of the book I built this instead of writing.”
The medium of your message doesn’t have to be software. It can just as easily be art, or literally any vocation. Whatever the medium, you become an “assumption engineer” — you design the thing in such a way that the winning move is to assume what you assume, instead of the typical assumption. Infrastructure is philosophy made visible. When people use your infrastructure, they’ll receive your philosophy.
Optimize for holiness. Smart people often get sucked into a trap of conflating smartness with goodness, and optimizing for smartness. Stupidity is bad, smartness is good, therefore if I’m the smartest, then I’m the best. But it’s not smartness that’s good, or stupidity that’s bad — goodness is good, and evil is bad. There are plenty of evil smart people, and it’s better to be Forrest Gump than Goebbels. This deserves a much longer write-up, but the basic idea is, endeavor to become a saint. If you believe in God, then by definition, two things are true: 1) It is possible for you to become a saint, and 2) no pursuit is more worthwhile. There’s literally “nothing better to do.”
Love. Love is a kind of understanding — I’m becoming convinced love precedes understanding, or is the only kind of true understanding. I want to explain this in detail somewhere, but for now I’ll just free-associate a bit: “If you love something enough, it will reveal all its secrets,” said George Washington Carver, the inventor of peanut butter. (I like to imagine he was thinking about peanuts when he said this.) You can love people into honesty, love yourself into honesty. You can make other people more virtuous by loving them, with no other force applied whatsoever. If you’ve beaten the final boss of philosophy, maybe it’s evidence you have truly loved philosophy. And maybe it wasn’t the philosophy that taught you what you needed to know, but the love.
This is a scant introduction, but I hope it’s enough to establish that when you’re tired of philosophy, there’s still lots to do.