Do they disagree?

Would you like to be disliked by as many people as possible? This sentence is a good start, I’ve found:

“I agree with the things you’re saying positively, but I don’t want to deny all the things you’re denying.”

You’d think, very reasonably, that saying this to everyone would in fact be a great way to get along with everyone, to be supremely likeable. If you’re cynical, you might even assume that’s the one reason a person would ever want to say something like this.

But let me tell you, it’s not true. It turns out, in my experience, that people care less about whether you agree with them, than about whether you disagree with their enemies. Isn’t that a fascinating thing?

Let’s take a really obvious example. Say to some people who are politically progressive, “I agree with all the things you’re saying, except that I think conservatives have a lot of wise and worthwhile points too.” Which half of the sentence do you think they’ll grab hold of? Say to conservatives, “All the things you’re saying are true, but the goals of the progressives are legitimate and important too.” Will they walk away feeling like they have a new friend and ally, or a strange new kind of enemy?

Here’s what I’ve found to be a responsible way to begin thinking about a theoretical question: if some very intelligent people have believed a thing, or if a very large number of people have believed a thing, then it’s probably true, or at least largely true. (Note that this applies only to theoretical propositions, not necessarily to practical, factual, or historical propositions.)

This starting point runs aground as soon as we notice that one of the most common kinds of beliefs people have are beliefs that another group of people with different beliefs is stupid and flat-out wrong. We can’t accept that kind of belief into our approach without getting entangled in all sorts of contradictions from the start. So let’s just eliminate those beliefs from consideration, then: all positive, substantive beliefs are likely to be true (or largely true).

This is an amazing approach. Take it for a drive. If what you care about is truth, then this is like a shortcut to being open to learning from everyone who has something to teach. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

If what you care about is being liked by anyone, though, then it’s best to put this idea out of your mind, and try to forget you ever heard it.

Free time

A lot of my reflections in recent years have grown out of questions about how best to use free time.

Most of us are well aware of how busy we are, and rightly so; if we aren’t independently wealthy from a young age, then the majority of us spend a large part of our day in education or work or both, and apart from a brief period of bachelorhood in young adulthood, most of us are kept busy too with family life or with the romances that can precede family life.

The majority of us, though, also have more free time than we tend to realize. It usually fills itself up without our needing to make any effort, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have it, or that we can’t make decisions about how to use it.

Some of the less good (but not necessarily strictly bad) ways to use free time might include reading fiction and scrolling on social media (two of my minor vices), watching tv shows and movies, and superficial socializing. None of these are evil, and they can all have their place, but there’s an opportunity cost. All of the things we would legitimately describe as real vices fall here too, and of course they are not nearly so harmless.

Many of the good things we want to pursue would also fit here as well. Want to get to the gym or get more exercise? For the vast majority of us, that will take up some free time. Planning for and grocery shopping for and prepping and cooking healthy food, likewise. Learning languages, studying worthwhile topics, learning new skills. Making wise financial decisions. Investing time in family and close friendships. Trying to improve the world in whatever ways are available to us.

While there are lots of leftist concerns and proposals that I think are valid (as I’ve written about here previously), efforts to use free time well seem to me to be a more right-wing preoccupation, thanks to the emphasis on individual responsibility.

Admittedly, such efforts are often in practice misguided, but the effort still counts for something, is at least the necessary if not the sufficient condition for self-improvement. It can be good to accept ourselves as we are, and it is reasonable to ask what forces outside ourselves have led to the bad outcomes we suffer, but too heavy a focus on those factors takes away from the opportunities that really do exist to escape our circumstances and improve our lot.

We can’t always change things for ourselves, but we can always try, and if we try we will often find at least some measure of success. Given that, it is important to try to find not just good ways to spend our free time but the best ways to spend it for the goals we set ourselves. Over time we can improve not only ourselves but also the measures we take for self-improvement.

If that’s the project, as I’ve tried to make it for myself, then over time, it’s hard to doubt that life can only get better.

Hammering out consensus with the foe

There’s a small group of friends that I’ve been having intellectual discussions with, usually on a daily or weekly basis, since I was eighteen.

I really disagree with them on some things that are really important to me. They’re a bit older than I am, and during their educations they decided to see if they could be good Christians while embracing a radical, unrelenting rejection of the sort of classical philosophical heritage that has long underpinned Christian thought.

They think they’ve found a good way to achieve that goal, and while it’s taken me a long time to be able to say this, I agree that they’ve found something workable. They also think what they’ve found is superior to the more classical alternative, and of course on that point I still have to disagree.

We’ve been able to continue conversing mainly, I think, because of our shared faith. We have something we all care about that anchors us together, a shared set of presuppositions we can appeal to and agree on as needed. Without that, there’s no way we could have kept the closeness that we have managed, even though at times our patience with one another has grown quite thin.

They never convinced me of their side, and I never convinced them of mine. We both saw ourselves as the underdog; I always felt like they represented the politically ascendant, oppressive opinions of the contemporary humanities, and they in turn saw me as representative of the ancient, hegemonic dogmatism of past ages of intolerance.

But I am unbelievably grateful for the long, often painful process that has been my friendship with this group. They generally aren’t my closest friends, but they have shaped me in one of the ways that it is hardest to be shaped. They have helped me expand my thinking, and escape some of my mental limitations.

I think of this when I hear some intelligent right-wing ideologue making snide comments about a strawman version of an opposing argument. When you don’t understand the people you’re disagreeing with, you are not only unpersuasive, but really, ridiculous. The best way to beat an intellectual opponent is to understand thoroughly, to steal the best ideas, and then to critique accurately. I’m not perfect at it by any means, but I’m grateful that I’m less bad than I otherwise would have been without these companions.

Virtue and Luck

The virtuous person is the happy person. But we can’t say that without having to think about the role of luck.

A more virtuous person is a luckier person, first off. This is not because of karma or even providence exactly, but because the cumulative effects of your actions push in a good direction and dispose your situation to be better in all sorts of ways.

But even if good things happen to you more often as a good person, that doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people, as everyone has always known. On occasion, the worst things happen to perfectly good people.

And vice versa. Even if an immoral person will generally speaking end up meeting with bad luck more often, there are many examples of bad people who ended up getting very fortunate in one way or another.

The simplest and classic way of dealing with this problem is to look at what happens after death, at final judgement or reincarnation, where the scales are balanced.

There’s a long tradition, though, of limiting the scope of our musings and saying, is it still worthwhile to be virtuous, from the standpoint of happiness in the present life alone, if all our effort can be cancelled out by a single bad roll of the cosmic dice?

And the answer is yes. Good luck and bad can befall the virtuous and the vicious alike. The good person who suffers a great misfortune will admittedly not be as happy as if the bad thing never happened. However: the virtuous person who suffers evils will be the happiest it is possible to be while suffering what could happen to anyone. Conversely, the bad person who enjoys a stroke of good luck will be the most unhappy it is possible to be while enjoying what could have happened for anyone.

It just makes sense. The most important thing you can do for your happiness, no matter what is coming, is to pursue virtue ceaselessly.

Eating for exercise

I spend a lot of time thinking about, and experimenting with, food.

Not to make it taste good. If I have you over to my place and I’m in charge of making food I’ll probably be panicking a little.

But I’m very interested in figuring out how to make the healthiest food I can while keeping it from becoming too unpalatable (so I guess that’s sort of like thinking about how to make it taste good). I love to find ways to make a food that is packed with healthy nutrients and is palatable enough that I can eat it regularly, and I’m constantly trying different ways of getting to that goal.

The reason why I first started doing this (and in large part why I continue to do it) is because in my late teens and early twenties I became quite obese, and ever since, I have been trying to find my way back to a healthier weight. I have tried many many things, and researched and learned a lot. On the weight goal I’ve made a lot of progress and even, in more successful seasons, probably walk down the street and pass as “normal” weight or body composition, but I’m still a long way off from the more ideal weight range I continue to shoot for. My hope now is that in a few years when my children are older, I might be able to find more time to spend exercising, which could help get me further along toward my goals.

And that brings me to my reason for writing today. I don’t get to exercise nearly as much as I’d love to today, but I do still fit it in when I can, and lately I’ve been reflecting with some amazement on how different it feels to exercise now than it used to. I used to get real chest pain from just a little bit of running around, so that I couldn’t imagine exercise without it. I can remember that feeling even as a teenager in gym class. I assumed that’s what exercise felt like for everyone because I’d never really known exercise as anything different.

And losing weight, by itself, didn’t really change that for me very much. I enjoyed lifting weights during much of my weight loss journey because of how minimally aerobic fitness entered into it. But I can remember having lost a lot of weight and wanting to improve my running and still hitting up against the same wall, the same chest pain.

Now, I can go for a long, easy run, for a couple hours, in a way I never could before, and I feel not just decent or okay but amazing while I do it. I really think it comes in large part from the latest change in the way I eat. About four years ago I switched to a way of eating that has worked really well for me. I’m not trying to tell anyone else how to eat here but simply wanted to take a moment to feel grateful for what has worked for me, and to share in case anyone else is interested.

Basically, the rule of thumb I’ve adopted (inspired mainly by a book I’ve mentioned here before, How Not to Die by Michael Greger), is to increase fibre and decrease saturated fat intake. If a food isn’t contributing to your fibre intake, then eat less of it (eg processed foods like refined flour or refined starch or refined sugar or oil, or animal products). If a food is contributing to your saturated fat intake, then eat less of it (eg coconut oil or palm oil or most animal products). At the other end of the spectrum, the healthiest things to eat are berries, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, and legumes, so I try to eat more of those—although there are plenty of other perfectly healthy things to eat beyond these four as well, of course.

It’s hard for me to express how much more effortless exercise has gotten for me since I started eating that way. Thinking about it makes me feel grateful and astonished, both at once.

What’s your biggest, best argument?

Sometimes a debate with a friend or acquaintance can go on way too long.

Now, that’s not to say that a discussion should be rushed. It’s good to take some time at the front end to try and get an accurate sense of what the other person is actually arguing for.

But once the two positions are staked out and the arguments for and against have been flying back and forth for a while, there quickly ceases to be much of a point.

At that point, I think it should come down to a sudden death round.

One of the two parties is probably way more invested than the other in convincing the other person to switch sides. Figure out who that is. If both sides say they don’t really care, then probably someone is lying, but that’s okay—shake hands and depart amicably. And then see who ends up insisting on bringing it back up again later.

Whoever is trying really hard to convince the other person will have piles of evidence and rivers of argumentation, but the sudden death round says: pick your best and most compelling argument, your biggest piece of proof that holds the whole theory together. We will each do some research, dig deep, think it through, and then decide if it’s compelling.

If the person who needs to be convinced isn’t convinced by this, and all the other arguments that could be advanced are by definition less convincing, that should of course be the end of it.

I did this with my main conspiracy theory friend, to mixed results. After being subjected to an endless barrage of false, misleading, and irrelevant arguments, I asked him to show me his best shot, which turned out to be not only unimpressive even if it turned out to be true, but more, to have been famously and obviously based on a sheer falsification. Afterwards, of course, whenever I reminded him of it he would say, “that was just one example, why do you always go back to that one, all my other arguments are true though.”

Eventually he pulled me back into resuming the dispute, and so it felt as though the approach failed. But perhaps what I should have done instead of giving up on it was use it repeatedly. Would he at some point have had to admit that he couldn’t find a single valid scrap of truth in his entire pile of delusion? Probably not, but at least it would have been nice to watch the cognitive dissonance play itself out for him.

Reading insatiably

Recently I read a book by Jacques Derrida for a book club I was part of. This was the first Derrida I had read, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

But what stood out to me the most from the experience with this dense, difficult text, was how much I read, how quickly, and how naturally.

The book was hundreds of pages long, and I worked through it in only a few weeks, while spending most of my waking hours during that time watching two very needy (and of course very beloved) little children, and helping my pregnant wife (we’re expecting again, by the way!). I was also doing my usual daily language practice habits in what little alone time I could find, and keeping up my usual output for this blog, etc. It sounds like I’m bragging, and I’m really not, that’s not the point at all. I have a small reading habit, and I stick to it consistently, and my hope is that I should be able to continue sticking to it for the foreseeable future.

Not only did I read the whole book, but I took some pretty detailed notes on the entire thing, such that, I hope, if I need to cite it or refer to it in the future I should be able to navigate around my notes pretty easily and find whatever I might want to recall. That’s just because my reading habit is actually more precisely a note-taking habit, with reading as an incidental (but necessary) condition of the note-taking.

It wasn’t too painful. And when I finished, it didn’t feel like a huge accomplishment that I needed to celebrate, just another step on the road, and so I immediately picked up with the reading project I’d intended to pursue next. It wasn’t until later, looking back on it all, that I wanted to write a little reflection like this on the experience as a whole.

Where these small habits make me so excited is when I think about them and look five or ten years down the road. If I can keep this habit up, even if I have to cut it down to half speed at some point in the future for some unforeseeable reason, I will have such an amazing foundation of knowledge to draw on. For the past year my focus has largely been on Strauss, and after the master’s program it will probably return there for a while. That’s exciting to me, but not so impressive to most others. But let’s say, when I’m ready to study the most important books from the history of feminism, or socialism, or modern conservatism: I will move through the important texts so rapidly, and will be able to speak intelligently on each topic. And the knowledge will build month after month, year after year, and will even compound in a way as the different objects of study relate to one another and shed light on each other.

I have difficulty imagining what it would be like to be that person, so knowledgeable and so able to draw out reams of information and argumentation as needed. But if all goes as planned, I look forward to finding out.

Capitalism is progressivism

Which is better? Woke progressivism or hard-nosed capitalism?

Would you rather have six eggs or half a dozen?

To me, the whole debate between these two sides is laughable, absurd, perplexing. It reads like a satire.

I think there might be a bit of a growing self-awareness on the side of the so-called woke that they are (qua woke) less opponents of capitalism than products of it and contributors to it. But such awareness still seems quite nascent, at best.

The people who think they can be proponents of capitalism and also at the same time, by the same token, of tradition and traditional institutions, seem to have far less self awareness to me, which is saying something.

Capitalism is the furthest thing from conservative or traditional. In itself it sows the destruction of everything traditional, and as such it is the antithesis of conservatism. A Schumpeterian glorification of entrepreneurial creative destruction is many things, but the one thing it is not and can never be is conservative.

I’m not saying it’s bad thereby; it is neutral, good insofar as the things it destroys are bad and the things it gives rise to are good, and bad insofar as it destroys what is good and gives rise to bad. Whether on balance the coming future is better than the receding past is another question, and not an easy one, and entirely dependent on the standards by which we’re judging good and bad.

All I’m saying, here, is that the shockingly numerous voices who have never questioned whether conservatism and capitalism are compatible (or indeed, often even whether the two are identical!) are delusional. Capitalism may be a good thing, but if so it will not be because it is conservative or opposed to progressivism.

Any good arguments against progressivism are, just are, good arguments against capitalism.

Household running

When Covid hit and the gyms closed up, I cancelled my gym membership. Finances got a little bit tighter around the same time for us, so the timing worked out well in that way. Soon after, we had our second child, and our lives got that much busier.

So I’m looking forward to getting back to the gym, but for the last couple years I’ve been making do without.

One of the best times for me to get a bit of exercise in is during my kids’ quiet time in the afternoon. Strength training is pretty straightforward (eg with calisthenics), but cardio is trickier. Of course I can’t leave them alone in the house while I go out for a run!

So it’s been a slow process, but I think over time I’ve figured out a pretty decent way of going for “a run” without leaving the house and without access to a treadmill. I thought I’d share in case it might be useful for anyone else.

The first step is finding the longest uninterrupted stretch of floor in the house; the stretch of floor can have a bit of a curve, but there shouldn’t be any corners. And of course “longest” will be relative. The length doesn’t actually need to be very long.

The next step is to figure out how to run that section in a figure eight pattern (even if the loops are small and don’t happen until close to the end of the length of floor). This helps me feel like my muscles and joints are being used more evenly than if the run was more of a circle or oval pattern.

The last step, I think, is the trickiest one. You fluctuate your speed to adjust for the space. This is the one that is hardest to put on autopilot. The temptation will be to do the entire run at the same speed, which means, at the speed of the slowest part of the run. What’s better (though harder) is to choose a good speed, and then slow down for the parts where it’s necessary to slow down (eg for the loops at the end).

If you do all those things, you can go for a pretty decent run without ever leaving your house or needing to buy a treadmill!