Thinking Tools

1 Aug

When I was 24 years old I wrote a paper on Descartes’ „I think therefore I am.“ I always knew there was something wrong about his thesis but before that time I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t until my studies of philosophy that I could concisely proof my point:

∃(x) I(x) ∧ T(x) ⇒ ∃(x) I(x)

This obviously a tautology. If you’re familiar with logic. If not it doesn’t matter – read on.

It demonstrates nicely the power of what I call thinking tools. If you hear the statement without these tools it might sound convincing. But once you know how to use the tool of predicative logic and it becomes natural to use them, it is immediately obvious that it is something Dennet would call a deepity.

Moreover most of these tools aren’t complicated (even though the above formula might look strange to you). Actually you don’t even need to be proficient in the syntax of logic. If you know how to analyse sentences in their simple statements you’re very unlikely to be fooled by deepities.

In the above example the sentence “I think therefore I am.” gets translated into “There is something that is me and it thinks, therefor there is something that is me.” This obviously doesn’t say anything new. And it’s not hard to dissect at all.

It was Bertrand Russell who first figured this out. Once you know this it is hard to imagine that people a hundred years ago didn’t know this. For them it was undecidable wether the sentence “The present King of France is bald.” was true or not. Because there was no present King of France.

Did you guess it already? Exactly. We just translate it into “There is something that is the present King of France and which is bald.” And it’s obviously false.

This is just one of hundreds of thinking tools. Most of them are easily used once you get to know them. And all of them may have a great impact on your thinking more clearly.

They made and still make a huge difference not only in philosophy but also in my everyday life. Therefore I will write about more of them in the next weeks and months. Maybe I even start new blog about it. I’ll let you know.

No Spiritual Humanism

10 Nov

I found humanism a very convincing world view. We adopted as many of these principles in our daily life and work as we could. Because “Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge”[1], it was obvious to me to turn to evidence-based books when I wanted to learn more about happiness and myself. So, I did. But lately, I couldn’t fight the feeling that there was something missing in this world view. Something one might call “spirituality” (but without the god, spirit and all the incense).

I find the word “spirituality” very difficult and misleading not because of the “uality”-part but because of this “spirit” which leads not only to a slippery slope but rather to an escalator straight down to a mind-body discussion. I don’t want to go there now. But it points to a valid question: even if I acquire all the possible scientific knowledge and comprise it in a perfectly consistent world view, isn’t there something missing? A direction where I should be heading? Something about myself? Does humanism include concepts that help me deal with myself?

Since I learned about humanism I’ve done a lot of analysis, re-structuring, reduction, optimization etc. Humanism was easily and pleasantly integrated in my life. I was doing pretty well at my quest for a rational and consistent world view. But the more I read about happiness, the more shallow all these happiness studies, facts and techniques seemed to me. I’m sure if you adhere to all these methods, you can significantly raise your happiness level. But does that make me a better person or the person I long to be? And which person is that anyway? How can I find out who I am?

I didn’t find a humanist answer to these questions. Rather it seemed to me as if humanism was based on an idea of man just like economics is based on the homo oeconomicus. A man who does not exist. Equally, I suspect this “homo humanitus” does not exist – and couldn’t exist. People are not humanist through and through. My mind may be able to consciously hold mainly evidence-based views but what about all the rest of me? Those irrational, inconsistent, fantasy-loving parts of me? Are they just wrong? Of course, they’re wrong when it comes to a description of reality but how do I deal with them and integrate them in a healthy personality?

Maybe, this is not in the domain of Humanism and I’m again asking the wrong questions? But wait, AHA says: “Humanism can provide the purpose and inspiration that so many seek; it can give personal meaning and significance to human life.[2]” And furthermore: “The cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine ‘spiritual’ experience and aspiration.”[3]

Wow, so I’m definitely in the right store to buy me this spirituality thing that goes with my scientific world view. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of stock or at least I could not find the item. Humanism doesn’t seem to say how this spirituality thing works…

This is weird. Because on many other topics, Humanists have a very specific idea, what are their goals, their means and how to get there. Take for example science and the future of the world:

“Humanity, to survive, requires bold and daring measures. We need to extend the uses of scientific method, not renounce them, to fuse reason with compassion in order to build constructive social and moral values. […] The controlled use of scientific methods, which have transformed the natural and social sciences since the Renaissance, must be extended further in the solution of human problems.”[4]

This is pretty clear and straightforward. And there’s a lot of literature how this works. Easy stuff – to save the world.

Maybe this other “compassion” thing mentioned above is the key? If you dig deeper, you find statements about ethics and something about values – like “We will survive and prosper only in a world of shared humane values.”[5] But for all the talk about values, an application is missing. It’s nice to have values, but how are we supposed to implement them in everyday life? Sure “we believe in the cultivation of feeling and love. […] humankind’s sense of wonder is continually renewed, and art, poetry, and music find their places, along with religion and ethics.”[6] That’s it? Meaning, let poetry and music do the job to implement values?

I stumbled upon a different path after my evidence-based happiness dead-end.

I read this book by this Google engineer called Chade-Meng Tan: “Search Inside Yourself”. And I must say I like it – a lot. I like his evidence-based, pragmatic and mostly ideology free approach. Apart from world peace the book is about mindfulness, meditation and emotional intelligence. While reading it, everything suddenly seemed to make sense. All the mosaic pieces fell in place and there’s this logical deduction to a path I can take – which in the end, of course, leads to world peace (but that’s a different topic). Tan has managed to make meditation and mindfulness seem perfectly logical, scientifically proven and consistent with a world view of a computer engineer.

I’m convinced now that this is if not the only at least the perfect path for me. It is my missing piece in Humanism that enables me to work with myself to find out who I am, who I want to be and how to get there. I think these techniques should be scientifically evaluated more and thus become an integral part of Humanism.

Now that I’ve seen the map, let’s see if I can go down this path.


[1] http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/What_is_Humanism
[2] http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_II
[3] http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_II
[4] http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_II
[5] http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_II
[6] http://www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_II

Travelling Is Not The Solution

1 Nov

I was stressed. I was ready for a vacation. And I thought it just takes a very long vacation and everything will automagically get better and will get back to normal – my old self: calm, relaxed, centered. Traveling has always worked wonders for me. A couple of weeks for myself and I felt completely reborn. But this time it’s different…

Our trip is great. I love to see all these new places. I’ve never been to Central America before. I enjoy time with my family. And I understand the privilege and luxury of being able to stay away from work for 6 months.

It’s been almost two months now since I stopped working. And I am more relaxed. Of course, I notice some positive changes. But what’s more interesting to me is what does not change. I’m still less patient then I used to be. It’s hard to fully enjoy the moment. I’m not as much in the flow of traveling. It’s not that I’d be still thinking about work. I don’t even remember when I last thought about my job. It’s far away.

I think what I underestimated was the impact of my two year old son. He needs a lot of attention. He doesn’t have friends here. He can’t go out and play with other kids because mostly there aren’t any. Or they can’t communicate because he doesn’t speak Spanish. So, he’s stuck with us. And he wants our attention every waking moment. It’s my new full-time job.

There’s not that much time we have for ourselves. And when he’s finally asleep at night, I’m tired too.

And the traveling needs a lot of attention too. There’s a lot to be organized. What do we do today? Where do we stay tomorrow? How do we get from A to B? What do we eat? Do we still have enough diapers?

This leaves little room for wandering thoughts that tend to sort themselves out all by themselves. Before, when I was on vacation I could sit at a lake or in a cafe for hours doing nothing but let my mind flow. It explored all the unsolved issues there were and somehow came up with a solution. Now, there are only fragments of time.

And all the things I thought, I’d finally find the time to do – like meditation, sport, writing – are as hard to integrate in our travel life as before in our busy work schedule. No significant meditation or sport or writing up to now.

So, traveling itself doesn’t do the trick. Just like with a work life, I need to establish some habits that support my goals. There’s still plenty of time left to figure out a way how to do our family traveling our way so it’s rewarding and fun for everyone of us.

Wrong Question

18 Oct

I just started to read the introduction of Kabat-Zinns „Where-ever you go, there you are“ and something striked me immediately. There’s nothing new written there. We’ve all read that we aren’t really in the presence but our thoughts wander through past and future. Maybe it’s the right point in time or the eloquent style Kabat-Zinn writes in which put some lost pieces in my mind together:

“Instead, it often seems as if we are preoccupied with the past, with what has already happened, or with a future that hasn’t arrived yet. We look for someplace else to stand, where we hope things will be better, happier, more the way we want them to be, or the way they used to be.” […]

“We may never quite be where we actually are, never quite touch the fullness of our possibilities. Instead, we lock ourselves into a personal fiction that we already know who we are, that we know where we are and where we are going, that we know what is happening—all the while remaining enshrouded in thoughts, fantasies, and impulses, mostly about the past and about the future, about what we want and like, and what we fear and don’t like, which spin out continuously, veiling our direction and the very ground we are standing on.” […]

“For instance, we usually fall, quite unawares, into assuming that what we are thinking—the ideas and opinions that we harbor at any given time—are “the truth” about what is “out there” in the world and “in here” in our minds. Most of the time, it just isn’t so.” […]

“It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life. Meditation may help us see that this path we call our life has direction; that it is always unfolding, moment by moment; and that what happens now, in this moment, influences what happens next.” […]

“If not, the sheer momentum of your unconsciousness in this moment just colors the next moment. The days, months, and years quickly go by unnoticed, unused, unappreciated.”

My reaction to these lines was: “This is it!” This is the clue I needed for the next part of my journey. Up to now I’ve been looking for salvation in two domains: First job. My question was, “which job do I need to have to be happy?” Or: “How do I have to change my current job to make me happy?” Then I thought, maybe happiness is completely detached from my job. Maybe I can become a happy person in any job. I read books how to become happy. I collected knowledge about happiness up two the point where I got fed up. And I tried the exercises… I’m not sure if I’m a happier person now. But what I do know is: Still, there was the question if I had the right job. Back to square one.

Now it seems to me I had no clue what I was thinking about. I asked the wrong questions. It seems I wasn’t even in the right domain.

Meditation promises to open up the meta-level that is necessary to even think the right question.

This is the first step of my journey into a new world.

A Start

18 Oct

As most of us probably do, I’m constantly looking for something else. No matter how beautiful my life seems, I’m always thinking about the next thing. And of course, first and foremost, I’m tinking about my job. “Am I really happy?”, “Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?” “Do I have to change something profoundly to become happier with my job?” “Maybe, this is the best possible job I could get already – and I just have to accept it?” are just some of the hundred questions some part of my restless mind throws at me.

So, just as I’m always looking at other people’s apartments thinking “maybe I could live in a flat like this”, I’m constantly rethinking my career. What I usually do is going through well-known job options like through a menu in a restaurant waiting for something to come up that perfectly fits my appetite and diet. Of course, it doesn’t.

“Because you have to create your own perfect job!” That’s what those Facebook-posts say. Don’t be a sheep, quit your employee job and start your own business! Very well, but … I did. And my company is – after 4,5 years – quite successful. And yes, I read “Business Model You” and “4h Work Week” etc.

It still doesn’t keep my skeptic mind from wandering. There must be a better, perfect job out there. Or is it exactly this perfectionism which kills my happiness [Ben-Shahar]? Should I concentrate not on my job but my happiness or well-being itself [Seligman]? Am I asking the wrong question [Kabat-Zinn]?