Rao’s Divergentism

The main point of this post is to encourage the reader who has not yet done so, to read Venkatesh Rao’s essay Can You Hear Me Now. I will not say too much about it. The purpose is potentially for future reference, and simply to point out a connection with some current topics here.

Rao begins:

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.


Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

The entire essay is worth reading.

I would question whether this is really the “fundamental question of life, the universe, and everything,” but Rao has a point. People do tend to think of their life as meaningful on account of social connections, and if those social connections grow increasingly weaker, they will tend to worry that their life is becoming less meaningful.

The point about the intellectual life of an individual is largely true. This is connected to what I said about the philosophical progress of an individual some days ago. There is also a connection with Kuhn’s idea of how the progress of the sciences causes a gulf to arise between them in such a way that it becomes more and more difficult for scientists in different fields to communicate with one another. If we look at the overall intellectual life of an individual as a sort of individual advancing science, the “sciences” of each individual will generally speaking tend to diverge from one another, allowing less and less communication. This is not about people making mistakes, although obviously making mistakes will contribute to this process. As Rao says, it may be that “the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing,” but this will not prevent their intellectual lives overall from diverging, just as the divergence of the sciences does not result from falsity, but from increasingly detailed focus on different truths.

Employer and Employee Model: Happiness

We discussed Aristotle’s definition of happiness as activity according to virtue here, followed by a response to an objection.

There is another objection, however, which Aristotle raises himself in Book I, chapter 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Yet evidently, as we said, it needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from happiness, as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death. As we said, then, happiness seems to need this sort of prosperity in addition; for which reason some identify happiness with good fortune, though others identify it with virtue.

Aristotle is responding to the implicit objection by saying that it is “impossible, or not easy” to act according to virtue when one is doing badly in other ways. Yet probably most of us know some people who are virtuous while suffering various misfortunes, and it seems pretty unreasonable, as well as uncharitable, to assert that the reason that they are somewhat unhappy with their circumstances is that the lack of “proper equipment” leads to a lack of virtuous activity. Or at any rate, even if this contributes to the matter, it does not seem to be a full explanation. The book of Job, for example, is based almost entirely on the possibility of being both virtuous and miserable, and Job would very likely respond to Aristotle, “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.”

Aristotle brings up a similar issue at the beginning of Book VIII:

After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? The greater it is, the more exposed is it to risk. And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions-‘two going together’-for with friends men are more able both to think and to act. Again, parent seems by nature to feel it for offspring and offspring for parent, not only among men but among birds and among most animals; it is felt mutually by members of the same race, and especially by men, whence we praise lovers of their fellowmen. We may even in our travels how near and dear every man is to every other. Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.

But it is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good men and are friends.

There is a similar issue here: lack of friends may make someone unhappy, but lack of friends is not lack of virtue. Again Aristotle is in part responding by pointing out that the activity of some virtues depends on the presence of friends, just as he said that temporal goods were necessary as instruments. Once again, however, even if there is some truth in it, the answer does not seem adequate, especially since Aristotle believes that the highest form of happiness is found in contemplation, which seems to depend much less on friends than other types of activity.

Consider again Aristotle’s argument for happiness as virtue, presented in the earlier post. It depends on the idea of a “function”:

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought. And, as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term. Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say ‘so-and-so-and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre, and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

Aristotle took what was most specifically human and identified happiness with performing well in that most specifically human way. This is reasonable, but it leads to the above issues, because a human being is not only what is most specifically human, but also possesses the aspects that Aristotle dismissed here as common to other things. Consequently, activity according to virtue would be the most important aspect of functioning well as a human being, and in this sense Aristotle’s account is reasonable, but there are other aspects as well.

Using our model, we can present a more unified account of happiness which includes these other aspects without the seemingly arbitrary way in which Aristotle noted the need for temporal goods and friendship for happiness. The specifically rational character belongs mainly to the Employee, and thus when Aristotle identifies happiness with virtuous action, he is mainly identifying happiness with the activity of the Employee. And this is surely its most important aspect. But since the actual human being is the whole company, it is more complete to identify happiness with the good functioning of the whole company. And the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.

Consider two ways in which someone might respond to the question, “How are you doing?” If someone isn’t doing very well, they might say, “Well, I’ve been having a pretty rough time,” while if they are better off, they might say, “Things are going pretty smoothly.” Of course people might use other words, but notice the contrast in my examples: a life that is going well is often said to be going “smoothly”, while the opposite is described as “rough.” And the difference here between smooth and rough is precisely the difference between predictive accuracy and inaccuracy. We might see this more easily by considering some restricted examples:

First, suppose two people are jogging. One is keeping an even pace, keeping their balance, rounding corners smoothly, and keeping to the middle of the path. The other is becoming tired, slowing down a bit and speeding up a bit. They are constantly off balance and suffering disturbing jolts when they hit unexpected bumps in the path, perhaps narrowly avoiding tripping. If we compare what is happening here with the general idea of predictive processing, it seems that the difference between the two is that first person is predicting accurately, while the second is predicting inaccurately. The second person is not rationing their energy and breath correctly, they suffer jolts or near trips when they did not correctly expect the lay of the land, and so on.

Suppose someone is playing a video game. The one who plays it well is the one who is very prepared for every eventuality. They correctly predict what is going to happen in the game both with regard to what happens “by itself,” and what will happen as a result of their in-game actions. They play the game “smoothly.”

Suppose I am writing this blog post and feel myself in a state of “flow,” and I consequently am enjoying the activity. This can only happen as long as the process is fairly “smooth.” If I stop for long periods in complete uncertainty of what to write next, the state will go away. In other words, the condition depends on having at each moment a fairly good idea of what is coming next; it depends on accurate prediction.

The reader might understand the point in relation to these limited examples, but how does this apply to life in general, and especially to virtue and vice, which are according to Aristotle the main elements of happiness and unhappiness?

In a basic way virtuous activity is reasonable activity, and vicious activity is unreasonable activity. The problem with vice, in this account, is that it immediately sets up a serious interior conflict. The Employee is a rational being and is constantly being affected by reasons to do things. Vice, in one way or another, persuades them to do unreasonable things, and the reasons for not doing those things will be constantly pulling in the opposite direction. When St. Paul complains that he wills something different from what he does, he is speaking of this kind of conflict. But conflicting tendencies leads to uncertain results, and so our CEO is unhappy with this situation.

Now you might object: if a vicious man is unhappy because of conflicting tendencies, what if they are so wicked that they have no conflict, but simply and contentedly do what is evil?

The response to this would be somewhat along the lines of the answer we gave to the objection that moral obligation should not depend on desiring some particular end. First, it is probably impossible for a human being to become so corrupted that they cannot see, at least to some degree, that bad things are bad. Second, consider the wicked men according to Job’s description:

Why do the wicked live on,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their children are established in their presence,
and their offspring before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them.
Their bull breeds without fail;
their cow calves and never miscarries.
They send out their little ones like a flock,
and their children dance around.
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,
and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol.

Just as we said that if you assume that someone is entirely corrupt, the idea of “obligation” may well become irrelevant to them, without that implying anything wrong with the general idea of moral obligation, in a similar way, it would be metaphorical to speak of such a person as “unhappy”; you could say this with the intention of saying that they exist in an objectively bad situation, but not in the ordinary sense of the term, in which it includes subjective discontent.

We could explain a great deal more with this account of happiness: not only the virtuous life in general, but also a great deal of the spiritual, psychological, and other practical advice which is typically given. But this is all perhaps for another time.