Monday, July 29, 2019

Review of "The War of Art"

Many thanks to those who turned out for the Philosophy Meetup reading group of Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. Here I provide my own comprehensive review and evaluation of the book.

This book was certainly different from the academic books I typically read. I really enjoyed it. Lots of it resonated with me (I do aspire to write non-fiction one day… my own battle with RESISTANCE ha ha!).

So why read this book? I think anyone facing obstacles in their personal lives – be it with writing, or switching careers, or ending an unhealthy marriage, or moving to a new city, or entering retirement, or re-entering dating, etc.- will stand to benefit from reading this book. I think the spirit with which to approach this book is as follows: Pressfield is like a team coach, gathering us together in the locker room before a big game. His goal, as our coach, is to inspire us to do our best- with the singular goal to increase the odds of our winning the game.

The general goal, as Pressfield states it early on in the book, is to help us bridge the gulf between the life we live, and the unlived life within each of us. He draws on his experience as a (once struggling) writer. It is an inspiring and insightful read. I am happy to have Pressfield as my coach, giving me a kick in the butt when I need a kick, to help me closer align my current life to the unlived life within me.

The dominant theme in Part 1 of the book is that the thing that prevents us from accomplishing what we want to accomplish in life is Resistance. We often overlook how our internal belief system can constrain and conspire to limit what we achieve in life. “I am not talented enough to be a published author!”. “No one else will love me”. “I can never lose weight!”. Such beliefs can erode a person’s creative potential, keep them in an unhappy marriage and out of the gym. As our motivation coach, Pressfield wants to raise our level of consciousness so we are aware of how our belief systems stifle our aspirations. And by doing so we can be better prepared to overcome the limitations we impose upon ourselves.

What stands between the life we live, and the unlived life within us, argues Pressfield, is what he calls Resistance. Resistance is the enemy! And the book aspires to help us identify, and ultimately, conquer Resistance in our personal lives.

Resistance can arise when aspiring to pursue your calling (e.g. painting, writing), launching a new business, pursuing your spiritual advancement, romantic relationships and parenthood, education, getting fit, overcoming an unhealthy habit or undertaking an action that requires ethical or political courage. Resistance is invisible, and as such is a sly enemy! But we feel it, it emits an energy. It tries to prevent us from doing our work. Resistance arises from within. Pressfield describes Resistance as “self-generated and self-perpetuated”. It is insidious, implacable, impersonal, infallible, universal, it never sleeps, it plays for keeps, it is fueled by fear, etc.

When the finish line is in sight, argues Pressfield, that is when Resistance is most dangerous. As we get closer to our aspirations resistance hits “the panic button!”, a counterattack to thwart us from achieving what we really want in life. Perhaps you bail on resigning from your current, unhappy, job after you finally get that dream job offer. Or you finally meet a great person for dating but get cold feet and call it off before risking getting your heart broken.

We must be aware of the symptoms of Resistance, such as victimhood (a strategy that doesn’t require honest work or any contribution), and choice of a partner (someone whose coattails we can ride on or whose adoration we use to prevent them from overcoming their own Resistance).

What does Resistance feel like? Bored. Restless. Guilt. Unsatisfied. It can become critical and lead to depression.

Resistance and Fundamentalism: Pressfield argues we didn’t evolve to live as individuals, rather we are wired tribally- to act as part of a group. We don’t know how to be alone, how to act as free individuals.

A contrast is made between the artist and the fundamentalist. The artist is creative and positive, the fundamentalist is destructive and negative. The latter is a philosophy of powerlessness. And when it comes to fear, Pressfield notes that fear is actually a good thing! “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it” (40).

Pressfield argues a fixation on healing can be a form of Resistance- telling yourself you need to heal completely before undertaking the work to achieve what you want. “Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work” (50).

Rationalizations, argues Pressfield, is Resistant’s right-hand man (57), the spin doctor. My favourite quote from Part 1: “If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years” (57).

Part Two of the book is titled “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro”, and Pressfield draws a contrast between the amateur and the pro. The latter overcomes Resistance. The qualities that define a pro are as follows (p. 69-70):

(1) We show up every day
(2) We show up no matter what
(3) We stay on the job all day
(4) We are committed over the long haul
(5) The stakes for us are high and real
(6) We accept renumeration for our labour
(7) We do not over identify with our job
(8) We master the techniques of our job
(9) We have a sense of humor about our jobs
(10) We receive praise or blame in the real world

The professional understands *delayed gratification* (p. 75). So this could apply to a writer who persists through having her book rejected by multiple publishers, the single person who persists through bad dates to wait to meet the right partner for a loving relationship (without quitting dating or settling for a bad relationship) or the person who works their way to a promotion that pays off with more rewarding work.

Professionals know fear can never be overcome (p. 79). Fear of rejection is part of the game, accept it and persist in the face of it.

Professionals do not hesitate to ask for help (p. 85). I think this is a crucial insight in the book. We often think we can do things alone or that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Knowing you need help, and asking for it, is a sign of strength not weakness!

The final part of the book is titled “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm”. I admit that, as an atheist, there were elements of this concluding section, about angels, muses and “physical forces”, that had me scratching my head more than once. Pressfield notes that some will feel uncomfy with his terminology, and that we should just think of it in terms of “impersonal forces” like gravity. That is what I have tried to do. The angels and muses are forces that work as our allies to overcome Resistance. Resistance prevents us from becoming who we were born to become.

Pressfield makes a Jungian-style contrast between The Self and the Ego, the latter is the home of Resistance. The Ego likes things the way that they are. Whereas The Self craves creativity and growth! The Ego believes in material existence- it does the important job of getting things done in the material world. Pages 136-38 contrast the different stances The Self and Ego take on death, time and space, whether people are similar or different, the supreme value (love vs self-preservation), and god.

My favourite part of this section of the book was, hands down, the discussion of hierarchy vs territory. We can achieve “psychological security” in one of two realms- within the hierarchy of a group, or by our connection to a territory. The former is our default setting- think of being an awkward teen trying to fit in with your “clique of friends” (paradigmatic example of a hierarchy). As we mature, and acquire the experiences and pain and growth of life, we shift to the territorial alternative.

P. 150 details why the hierarchy orientation is fatal to the artist- it makes you compete against others, equate your happiness with your rank in the hierarchy, treat others based on their rank (rather than their humanity). But the artist must do their work for their own sake, not for the validation that comes via hierarchy. In the hierarchy mindset we are always looking outwards- what can people do for me? how do I boost my standing? etc. But you never look within (which is how growth and creativity occur!).

We all have territories, Pressfield’s examples are- for Stevie Wonder it is the piano, for Arnold Schwarzenegger the gym and for a writer it is writing. A territory provides sustenance, sustains us without any external input, it can only be claimed alone, it can only be claimed by work, and it returns exactly what you put into it.

Pressfield’s suggested test to reveal your territory is this- imagine you are the last person on earth, what activities would you do? This test stripes away any hierarchical considerations.

That completes my summary of the book. Now for my overall evaluation.

As I noted above, I think the spirit to take this book is that of a coach motivating you before a game. As such, I think this is a great book that can actually help (especially creative people) people improve their lives and realize their aspirations. The positive big picture message is: Identify Resistance in your life, aspire to turn “pro”, and embrace your territory vs hierarchy. However I have some caveats.
I do not believe that following the advice of this book is necessarily a recipe for living a flourishing life. And the reason for this is that Pressfield, for the most part, treats the issue as if we only have one “pro” aspiration. And as such, he does not give enough attention to the realities of the tradeoffs that must inevitably be made in life for most pros and aspiring pros.

If your only pro aspiration is to be a writer, then yes this book will be instructive. But if you also aspire to go “pro” as a spouse, parent, employee, athlete, etc. you run into the predicament of how to find balance between these competing aspirations. The aspiring writer in you might see your desire to start the day at the gym (rather than writing) as simply Resistance. Or the time you invest in getting your kid’s lunches ready for school, or driving them to their extra curriculum activities after school as Resistance. But the reality is most of us have a few aspiring “pro” goals going on *simultaneously*. The real work is thus navigating through these often conflicting commitments. Simply saying “go pro!” doesn’t help us navigate the terrain of managing many, often competing, pro aspirations.

Like a coach before a soccer game who is only focused on “winning the soccer game at all costs!”, Pressfield’s analysis often misses the big picture that we have a multitude of identities and goals and aspirations. He often invokes elite athletes as examples, like Arnold and Tiger. And while these athletes certainly dominated in their respective sports, I am not sure they are exemplary examples of the type of flourishing humans we should strive to emulate. It is possible to invest too much in some aspirations, at a cost of your overall wellbeing. And there are circumstances where someone is better off giving up certain goals and aspirations that they are not likely to realize, otherwise they risk depression and persistent frustration. This is the idea of “adaptive preference formation”. Pressfield might reply that this is all Resistance-speak, but I think there are nuances and complexities that make the issue more complicated than that.

These caveats notwithstanding, I really enjoyed The War of Art. It has compelled me to take a long and hard look at my own Resistance in life, and inspired me to grow and develop in ways I probably wouldn’t have without Pressfield’s “pep talk” before the big game! Highly recommended read.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

3 Interesting Studies Published This Past Week

We live in an age where the news, which helps us form an understanding of our complex world and the problems within it, is becoming increasing dominated by social media. And the latter often contains dramatic video of events in the world. Such events often do not actually constitute a “news worthy” story but are rather like driving past a car crash on the highway- everyone stops to take a look. And because people are hyper-connected to social media, they are bombarded with such images on a daily, even hourly, basis.

Truly newsworthy stories are stories that are grounded in important facts, offered with nuanced analysis and a narrative that reveals significant empirical insights about the world and our predicament in it. Almost all these things are missing when the news becomes—"click this amateur phone video now and share”!

Just one (recent) case in point- the news story from last week about someone using their feet to navigate an ipad on the plane would never make the news if there was no video to watch. For example, imagine a newspaper headline that reads “Someone used their bare feet on an Ipad”…. Full story on page 2, along with the story “Some guy on a train picked his nose!”

Every day someone is doing something gross somewhere. This is not real news in the 21st century. Stories like the barefeet ipad guy are fuel for social media venues like Twitter, where millions are happy to comment on, and retweet, such stories. I believe this is a sad reflection of the reality of our times.

To help guard, as far as is possible, my own perception and understanding of the world from being skewed by simplistic narratives (i.e. the story of humanity is one of “oppressor vs oppressed”), unrestrained emotions or unrepresentative impressions, I try to minimize my exposure to such low-value news and instead try to keep abreast of what the latest scientific findings are in different areas of enquiry.
I am always on the lookout for scientific studies that come to conclusions that challenge popular “folk wisdom”, including my own intuitions and assumptions. This past week I noticed 3 such studies that are worth mentioning.

The first is the surprising finding, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that white US police officers are not more likely to shoot minority citizens than black or Hispanic officers. The researchers found that the strongest factor in predicting the race of a person fatally shot by a police officer were violent crime rates where the shooting took place. A quote from the news item:

“"If we want to reduce the rates at which people from minority racial groups are shot by police, we need to address differences in crime rates between races," Johnson said. "That involves considering what causes those differences, like racial disparities in wealth, unemployment and education. I'm not saying that's easy. We asked a difficult question, and the answer ended up being difficult."

A second intriguing study I came across, published in The American Psychologist, reports the encouraging results of poll data from 30000 US adults between the years 1946-2019. The results suggest that gender stereotypes have significantly changed in the past 70 years. From the News report:

Competence stereotypes changed dramatically over time. For example, in one 1946 poll, only 35% of those surveyed thought men and women were equally intelligent, and of those who believed there was a difference, more thought men were the more competent sex. In contrast, in one 2018 poll, 86% believed men and women were equally intelligent, 9% believed women were more intelligent and only 5% believed men were more intelligent.
This doesn’t mean that the legacy of patriarchy has been abolished, far from it. But it is important to take notice of the progress and victories that have been achieved over the past number of decades. So this report is a reminder to us that our understanding of the “problems of today” must be informed by an accurate portrayal of the realities of today (vs from nearly a century ago).

And the third interesting study I came across was this one, also in the PNAS, which found that social media has limited effects on teenage life satisfaction. This is one I am especially interested in as the parent to teen boys. A sample from the news item:

This is the first large-scale and in-depth study testing not only whether adolescents who report more social media use have lower life satisfaction but also whether the reverse is true. Before this study scientists had little means of disentangling whether adolescents with lower life satisfaction use more social media or whether social media use leads to lower life satisfaction….
The authors conclude: 'Applying transparent and innovative statistical approaches we show that social media effects are not a one-way street, they are nuanced, reciprocal, possibly contingent on gender, and arguably trivial in size'.

These 3 interesting studies, which admittedly are not the final word on race and police shootings, gender competence stereotypes and the impact of social media on teens, will not make the news to compete with the news story of barefoot ipad guy. But all 3 studies remind us of the reality that our common perceptions of reality can often be incorrect, outdated, “intuitive hunches” that contravene what the data reveals, etc. When our news is filtered to us via social media I believe it can exacerbate these problems.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Aging and Freedom (Further Reflections)

Last week the Queen’s Political Philosophy Reading Group met to discuss my recent paper on aging and freedom. Lots of good questions and criticisms were raised there. I wanted to write down a few reflections on this issue here for future reference.
In the paper I argue for the following (this is the abstract):

In this article, I argue that senescence (biological aging) is one of the greatest threats to human freedom in the 21st century. The two most prominent conceptions of freedom are ‘‘negative’’ and ‘‘positive’’ liberty. The negative conception of liberty equates freedom with the absence of interference, whereas the positive conception equates freedom with having the capacity to be self-determining. By critically examining both the negative and positive conceptions of liberty, I make the case that senescence does violate our liberty, on both accounts of freedom. Also, if this is correct, then the development of an applied gerontological intervention ought to be considered an integral commitment of a society dedicated to freedom. An aging intervention holds great emancipatory potential for the world’s aging populations.

In the reading group I started the session by noting that the conclusion I argue for is both:

(1) something so intuitive and obvious it almost seems trivial to have to argue (namely, that aging constrains our freedom).

And yet it is also a conclusion that (2) seems preposterous given that aging is “natural”, and thus one might retort that it imposes no more objectionable limitations on our freedom than does the fact that we can’t fly or survive without having to consume sufficient calories.

Navigating through these issues is a significant part of the attraction I have to grappling with this topic. I like a good challenge!

With respect to (1) I think that, regardless of the conception of freedom one starts with (e.g. negative or positive liberty), there is no denying that humans in the “post-reproductive stage” of the human lifespan have diminished liberty compared to what that person’s freedom would be in the “reproductive” stage of life.

The menu of options available to the average person during the reproductive stage of life (age < 70) is much more vast (all else being equal of course, as other factors (like wealth) can influence this as well- though the average person’s income peaks by their early 50’s and is significantly diminished during retirement) than those available to us in the post-reproductive phase of life.

The negative conception of liberty is the harder conception to square with my central thesis. In the paper I identify 3 key elements of this conception of liberty:

1. The paradigmatic threat to freedom is coercion.
2. Threats to freedom must come from human-created
3. The interference is a violation of freedom when it limits a moral right we have as humans.

With respect to (1) I argue that coercion is not the only objectionable form of governmental interference. Inaction can also constitute a objectionable constraint on our menu of options. Failing to take action against climate change, for example, reduces the freedom of future generations. So too would the failure to implement public health measures like sanitation or immunizations. And I believe the same can be said about intervening in the aging process itself.

With respect to the human-created limitations, I argue that humans are in fact responsible for global aging (as the noble laureate Peter Medawar noted over half a century ago, senescence is something ‘‘revealed and made manifest by the most unnatural experiment of prolonging human life by sheltering it from the hazards of its natural existence.’’ (An Unsolved Problem of Biology). There is also a forward-looking basis for attributing some human responsibility given that the science has progressed far enough that we can say with confidence that the current rate of biological aging need not be the fate of humans born in the 21st century if we make a concerted effort to develop a safe and effective aging intervention.

And finally, the right that senescence violates is the right to health. Aging diminishes our health, which diminishes our liberty. Thus we should aspire to retard the aging process to preserve the greater range of opportunities that we can enjoy when senescence has been mitigated.

The positive conception of liberty is the more natural, and compelling, account of liberty to endorse for this kind of argument as it construes liberty as the capacity to be self-determining.

From my perspective of the moral landscape, aging is the single biggest threat to the liberty of humans living today and for all future generations. The probability of aging imposing constraints on our liberty is 100%. The prospects that we might be able to alter this state of affairs via an applied gerontological intervention have gone from “conceivable” to “highly likely” in just the past 2 decades.

Emancipating human populations from the harms of senescence would, in my opinion, be one of our most significant achievements of the 21st century.

I will give these issues some more thought, and perhaps will write something further on this issue.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

Gender Stereotypes Have Changed

This news report suggests that the general public now consider women as equally or more competent than men. This is based on a study of opinion polls from 1946-2018. An excerpt from the news item:

Women have come a long way in the United States over the last 70 years, to the point where they are now seen as being as competent as men, if not more so, according to research published by the American Psychological Association....

As women entered paid employment in large numbers, their jobs remained concentrated in occupations that reward social skills or offer contribution to society. Women also spend approximately twice as much time on domestic work and child care as men on average, according to Eagly. In contrast, men are concentrated in leadership roles and in occupations that require physical strength, competition, interaction with things, and analytical, mathematical and technical skills.

And the abstract from the study:

This meta-analysis integrated 16 nationally representative U.S. public opinion polls on gender stereotypes (N 30,093 adults), extending from 1946 to 2018, a span of seven decades that brought considerable change in gender relations, especially in women’s roles. In polls inquiring about communion (e.g., affectionate, emotional), agency (e.g., ambitious, courageous), and competence (e.g., intelligent, creative), respondents indicated whether each trait is more true of women or men, or equally true of both. Women’s relative advantage in communion increased over time, but men’s relative advantage in agency showed no change. Belief in competence equality increased over time, along with belief in female superiority among those who indicated a sex difference in competence. Contemporary gender stereotypes thus convey substantial female advantage in communion and a smaller male advantage in agency but also gender equality in competence along with some female advantage. Interpretation emphasizes the origins of gender stereotypes in the social roles of women and men.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Evolutionary Psychiatry (Reading Group) Part 1

Over the coming months I am participating in a reading group on Nesse's latest book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. The members of our reading group are pretty diverse, with a few people who have educational backgrounds and professional experience in the field of mental health and those who, like myself, are interested in the way evolutionary biology can be applied to help us better understand some of the societal predicaments we find ourselves grappling with.

So on this blog I want to post my thoughts, and summary of notes on the chapters, so I have a resource it is easy for me to go back to when I, eventually, write something more substantial on these issues.

I will begin with why I am interested in this topic, and this book in particular. About 6 years ago I came across Why We Get Sick and was really impressed by the importance of applying insights from evolution to the study of disease. For nearly 15 years I have been following the field of biogerontology which studies the biology of aging and so I was fascinated with the question "why do we age?" Given the reality that aging is the major risk factor for the chronic diseases of late life I felt it was imperative to consider the significance of science that could lead to the alteration of the aging process if this could delay disease and disability, and possibly compress the period of morbidity at the end of life. The crux of the story on aging, from what I have learned over the past decade and a half, is that primary aging is the result of evolutionary neglect (the disposable soma theory of the tradeoff between reproduction and longevity) and that secondary aging is the result of a mismatch between our biology and the environments we have created for ourselves in developed countries (e.g. high caloric diets and sedentary lifestyles). My hunch is that a similar story could be told about our emotional lives, especially personality disorders, mental illness, anxiety and depression. And it is with those expectations that I decided to get some friends together to read through Good Reasons for Bad Feelings.

It is worth starting this summary of the book by noting the central tenet of evolutionary biology: "selection shapes organisms to behave in ways that maximize their reproductive success" (11). Nesse notes that, when he and George Williams began working on evolutionary medicine they tried to find en evolutionary explanation for disease. Nesse refers to this as VDAA- Viewing Diseases as Adaptations. But he notes this is a mistake. Diseases are not adaptations. The diseases themselves were not selected for by evolution, but rather "aspects of the body that makes us vulnerable to diseases do have evolutionary explanations" (14).

In Chapter 3 "Why Are Minds So Vulnerable?" Nesse provides the following 6 reasons why evolution by natural selection has left us so vulnerable:

1. Mismatch: our bodies are unprepared to cope with modern environments
2. Infection: bacteria and viruses evolve faster than we do.
3. Constraints: there are some things that natural selection can't do.
4. Trade-offs: everything in the body has advantages and disadvantages.
5. Reproduction: natural selection makes reproduction, not health.
6. Defensive responses: responses such as pain and anxiety are useful in the face of threats. (34-35)

Details on Part 2 of the book to follow in a few weeks.


Friday, April 05, 2019

Changing the Definition of Ageing

Wired has a great article by Sinclair and Barzilai on treating aging as a disease. A sample:

In June 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases. It contained an important addition: “Code MG2A: Old age.”

This tiny line of text could be one of the most important documents in human history, potentially leading to medicines designed to tackle the world’s most common ailment – ageing itself – and one that causes almost all others. It could lead to a new regulatory attitude to ageing (currently the United States Food and Drug Administration does not see ageing as a legitimate target for healthcare), and to doctors being able to prescribe medicines to slow the condition.

That change in regulatory attitude may still be far off, but in the meantime, research is pressing ahead, and in 2019 we will see significant breakthroughs in the sector.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

WHO Global Registry on Genome Editing

NatureNews reports that the World Health Organization advisory committee recommends a registry be created for studies that involve editing the human genome. A sample:

“The committee agrees it is irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing,” said Margaret Hamburg, the panel’s co-chair and foreign secretary of the US National Academy of Medicine.

But she emphasized that the WHO panel is not calling for a permanent moratorium on such research. “We are trying to look at the broader picture and a framework for responsible stewardship,” said Hamburg, a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. “I don't think a vague moratorium is the answer for what needs to be done.”