What is the good life?

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2013 2:13 am

Now that I have a daughter I do reflect a bit more on what the purpose of my life is, because at some point I want to talk to her about the purpose of her life. There is a little bit of irony in this insofar as now she is a primary purpose of my life! But in any case, though Chris Rock’s raison d’être speaks to me, additionally my job is also to make sure that my daughter doesn’t become a C.P.A. Certain professions, such as dentistry or accountancy, are honorable. But there are enough people who want to enter those financially lucrative professions as it is. In a world of such absolute affluence we can afford the luxury of the life the mind. Aristotle’s father was a physician, no doubt a good man. But his memory persists only because of the incandescent brilliance of his son, who ventured into wide intellectual waters.

Speaking of Aristotle, Aristotle Onassis is reputed to have said that “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” Point taken, and I think there’s a great deal of truth in this. But let me rephrase it: if books didn’t exist, all the time in the world would have no meaning. To many this sort of assertion would seem strange, but I suspect among my readership it is comprehensible. And by books I don’t mean to imply paper and ink and binding, I mean the information encoded within those books.

With that out of the way, I thought I would share an email from a long time reader (though only very rarely a correspondent). I don’t necessarily agree with everything stated here obviously, and I hope that the comments don’t devolve in discussions of the nature of East Asian society. I didn’t feel comfortable expurgating that aspect just because some might take objection though. Rather, it is to consider how one might find a place to flourish and be nurtured socially in their intellectual explorations.

I do not know how your off-line persona differs, if at all, but I’m assuming your on-line self is close to the truth. Obviously, life demands that we all be somewhat multifaceted in how we express ourselves in different situations. I have always had problems in dealing with people’s irrational emotionalism over many issues. I learned quite early that although everyone seems capable of logic, they definitely do not have the same innate ability or even desire to be rational in their approach to life. Most people are this way, as I am sure you know. It is often frustrating dealing with “the mob”, and the funny thing is I don’t hold myself as being very special in any regard. I am simply highly curious and tend to be quite rational, I guess that is enough to be an oddity in the modern world.

I’m in my late 30’s, born in the Midwest, but I have lived in 4 different states, and several nations, which include Switzerland, Singapore, China, Japan, and Taiwan. I have visited many more. Over the years I found that most people, even those we would consider quite educated, who are quite academically accomplished are far from intellectuals. Most people simply apply their intellect to their job, after which they focus on practical concerns or entertainment. They lack innate curiosity about the world or a drive to follow-up on things that do strike their fancy.

My family is a good example, not wanting to get too much into my background, my parents died when I was young, and I grew up with my mother’s family, who are quite blue collar in their sensibilities. They have never been able to understand why I would want to even visit Asia, let alone live outside the U.S. For them exotic is going to the Caribbean, and outrageous would be travelling to France. They have no interest in science at all. I suppose my generation is slowly breaking out of this mode, but despite having doctors, lawyers, and low level politicians in the family, most are far from intellectual in their pursuits. Outside my family, the most intellectually stimulating environment I have found was Washington D.C. I lived there for 5 years, during which time I was involved in a couple of organizations where I met some very interesting people, whom I still regard as fairly close friends. After leaving Washington D.C., I have mostly been surrounded by fairly educated business people, so not much intellectual depth.

This is especially true in East Asia, as the societies are so authoritarian, due to a Confucianist tradition, many people do not even know how to think for themselves about things that are not practical. It is not just the common complaint about the lack of self-initiative or creativity, that you might read on the internet, it is far deeper than that. I have met ethnic Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people (all Asian born) who have went to top universities, and might be seen as highly intelligent in the very narrow area of their occupation, but outside of this you might see them as retarded (in the classic sense). In Asia, but for Japan, there seems to be no love of learning outside of the practical purpose of money making, which is an obsession, especially among the ethnic Chinese. Hell, most people do not even read for enjoyment if the material is higher than a fashion magazine or manga. A Taiwanese woman once told me that education is so brutal and stressful for most, and then they grow and work 12 hours a day, after which no one wants to do anything but sleep, eat, and relax. A common joke in Taiwan is that people’s favorite hobbies are “sleeping and eating”, and like many quips, there is truth in it. I used to think this was a nouveau riche attitude, but honestly I think it is not a transient phase, it is deeply culture. East Asians are really just practical highly focused “grinders”. I have met people who were different, but few. I used to be involved with a discussion group in Taiwan, and I started a sister group in Singapore, we discussed all sorts of topics from birth rates, to modern marriage trends, to religious issues, but those type of groups I found were highly unusual, and a quick scan of Meet-up, which is quite popular in Singapore can show you that most people are interested in business networking, meeting a sex partner, or self-improvement (usually how to make more money). The funny thing is, in Singapore, almost all these events are dominated by ethnic Indians. Indians are chatty, far more than the “Mongoloids”. To be fair, there are groups for hiking, biking, and jogging, but they are usually lead by Western people with Asian tag-alongs.

In Asia people rarely give opinions in groups or even have strong opinions about many things, they simply look to be “told”. Chinese say they are like “roaches” which is a positive expression, it means they can survive anything, and the tenacity of the people is awe inspiring at times. They can take all manners of abuse and drudgery from authority figures, while suffering in silence, which I believe is why the suicide rate is so much higher than the West. Since face is so important to people, most will not put themselves “on the line” as they never want to be seen as wrong, let alone challenging authority. Face is so critical because everyone is judging everyone all the time, there is little “privacy”. The locus of moral control is generally “outside the person” because the societies are built on shame, not guilt. So people really fear being shamed, but if they think they won’t get caught, I’ve seen people do pretty terrible things, with little remorse or self-criticism. If you ever think someone from these nations will apologize to you for something wrong they did, dont’ hold your breath, the very act is a lose of face, so they will simply pretend it did not happen or top talking to you if you make an issue of it. I have seen this many times. Any criticism of a person or “the group” (which could also mean the nation/government) is seen as an attack by many, especially coming from a foreigner, and then the irrational “home team is always right” attitude kicks in, usually an illogical rant. Logical thinking is not fundamental at all, at least not for more abstract issues. Despite being “patriarchal societies” how the society functions reminds me of how junior high school girls operate. The whys and what fors are all quite complicated, but Asia is definitely not what most Americans think it is. I think if Western people really knew how fundamentally different the society is in a place like China, they would be terrified for the future, it is shocking, and takes a major adjustment for those of us who do not wish to live in an ex-pat bubble while living abroad.

Anyway, I added in the Asian part because I know you have some interest in the Far East, but my real question to you is how do you find the like-minded, off-line? I understand you live in the Pacific Northwest, are things better there or have you just found a niche. I assume blogging is not your only intellectual outlet, so are most of the people you speak with about various issues on-line? I need to figure out something, as I’m heading back to “money is life” land. Sports fans have their bars, dancers have night clubs, where do we go?

So, after all that, what’s my advice? Offline I have found the Less Wrong and BIL communities to be invigorating. The primary issue that I have is that I tend not to have an “off” switch when I’m intellectua;ly engaged. I can talk about sports and other “small talk” fare on “autopilot,” but when I engage cognitively I tend to get bored by a lot of discussion. The people I’ve met through Less Wrong and other such communities also tend not to have a genuine “off” mode, and intellectual discussion isn’t about signalling or showing how smart you are, it’s about getting to the heart of things. And that’s hard to find. The reality is that most smart people enjoy decompressing in the evening, having a good meal and a rich beer. But the corollary is that conversation also seems to become rather anodyne, banal, and mind numbing. In contrast, a minority of us just have a difficult time genuinely unwinding, because we’re always conscious of the fact that death is coming closer and closer, and we’re stilled mired in ignorance.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, philosophy
MORE ABOUT: Philosophy
  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    I have nothing meaningful to add but that was very well written. And it’s nice to know I’m not alone…personally, I find myself surrounded by highly educated students and professors yet I’d bet money I couldn’t have an “honest” conversation with them about much. Once you eliminate the stupid, ignorant and the willfully ignorant biased people, there aren’t many left to talk to. I typically think of Razib or Steve Sailer as people you could honestly discuss most anything with and I don’t know too many people like them:)

  • marcel proust

    A tad hard on dentists and CPAs. As I suspect you are discovering, if you take your responsibilities as a parent seriously, you have little time or energy left for curiosity and intellectual activity (in this, as in other matters, Charles Fefferman is/was unusual (I think Euler had a similar reputation). This is especially true for the first 2-3 years of each child’s life, but continues until they are out of the house and off to college (or, I imagine, boarding school). By the time you are done raising all your children, it can be very difficult to return to the habits and pursuits of youth. I find myself sympathetic to people who go into careers of this sort (e.g., CPA) so that they can comfortably raise their children, rather than struggling to balance child rearing and demanding careers, which scientific and other intellectual careers necessarily are.

    • razibkhan

      if you take your responsibilities as a parent seriously, you have little time or energy left for curiosity and intellectual activity

      you shouldn’t over generalize. you should also look at the empirical evidence. i have reviewed many books and papers since my daughter was born. and you think professionals like doctors, lawyers, and certified public accounts have good work-life balance? again, it’s like you live in a world where you have no familiarity with evidence.

      • Dmitry Pruss

        Gotta ponder a more general question about young fathers’ philosophy streak / thoughtfulness about life issues. It seems to be a pretty universal phenomenon, but what might have caused it to evolve and could it be turning atavistic in today’s changing socio-economic landscape?
        One possibility is (as you surmise), the first-time fathers needed to stop their pre-parental fighting and pillaging and likewise mate-selection displays of masculinity, and to start providing for their offspring instead.
        But today, to get heavily involved in philosophy and reading and writing, likely at the expense of simply being present with your child here and now, through the talk and play and hug … does the life-values-evaluation streak of a parent serve its historically useful purpose?

        • razibkhan

          how much attention do you think a child needs? i’m actually a big fan of *the nurture assumption*, i think parents don’t matter as much as they think they do. i was, frankly, a rather neglected child fwiw. my youngest brother, who is 15 years younger, and who i did not grow up with, was overprotected. yet we’re very similar (much more similar in personality and beliefs than the brother with whom i grew up an shared a childhood of neglect).

          • Dmitry Pruss

            Don’t get me wrong, Razib, I’m not talking about the veracity of “nurture assumption” with respect to the chidren’s future success (or personality) in their grownup life. I’m more interested in the role of nurture and bonding in parent-child relation *before* she grows up. How it imbues the life with bits and pieces of meaning and love *now* and *in the near future* (not 30 years later). And I think that by stating what is the most important project of your lfe, you sort of sign up for the “joy here and now” school of thought, and maybe even for “overprotection” school of thought (cuz that’s what people typically do with projects in which they are strongly invested).

            This goes w/o saying that severe early-childhood bonding deprivation may have lasting effect in adulthood.

          • razibkhan

            And I think that by stating what is the most important project of your lfe, you sort of sign up for the “joy here and now” school of thought, and maybe even for “overprotection” school of thought (cuz that’s what people typically do with projects in which they are strongly invested).

            yes. the issue there is me, not her. i have a strong impulse to overprotect, and i’m trying to be rational about it. my parents were obnoxious and cloying with my younger siblings, who gained no benefits from their suffocation and attention, and in fact have only contempt for the irrationality of their behavior. ultimately it’s about the child, not the parents, and many parents (including me by instinct) seem to confuse the too, and justify their irrationality on ‘protecting’ the child (mind you, there are things to protect a child from, but i’m toward the ‘free range’ end in *theory*).

            barring extreme deprivation the main choices i’m focused on are peer groups, as well as giving her some advice on pitfalls to avoid if she’s a lot like me (e.g., i told my youngest brother that it was useless to have an interest in politics before you had been in a serious relationship :-)

      • marcel proust

        a) I don’t see anything in my comment about doctors or lawyers (or indian chiefs fwiw), just referred to dentists and CPAs, following the OP. You mentioned them as (I thought) remunerative careers that were not at all intellectually challenging. I didn’t disagree with this.

        b) I have missed (or forgotten – at my age, I’m not sure) your repeated stmts about not being the primary care giver. My bad.

        c) An evidence free world is likely a requirement for happiness. Coming into contact with evidence is too often the result of something’s having gone wrong, sometimes seriously so. Unfortunately, I have not found success in my pursuit of solipsism: I was forced to give up on this long ago, me and (I am pretty sure) Max Stirner.

        • razibkhan

          dentists don’t have to work much from what i recall (depending on their loan load). but CPAs do. especially in the spring. and i’m not saying some professions aren’t intellectually challenging. i’m just saying that i’m the sort of person who would prefer my children not aspire to be corporate attorneys or business executives because of $ & prestige. if they have the personality of myself & my wife they won’t be, but i don’t want them to be influenced by peer pressure. you only live once (if they wanted to be a business person of the sort who wanted to change the world, rather than just make $, that’s different).

  • http://twitter.com/zenndiagram Zenn Diagram

    The solution to this problem is family. Marry an intellectual and enjoy your children. They will enjoy their siblings. Do this for a few generations (as my family has) and regression to the mean no longer becomes a problem. Ideally, your family gathers together in a endogamous village (large enough so that you aren’t marrying 1st or 2nd cousins) so that your descendants form a stable population of intellectuals.

    • razibkhan

      there’s no need for endogamy. you can do the same with assortative mating. feasible in this day and age if not the past.

      • http://twitter.com/zenndiagram Zenn Diagram

        Simple assortive mating (marrying someone who seems similar) doesn’t always work, because she could be an outlier in her family’s distribution. Then your children regress a little towards your inlaws (and your own family, but that is desired). So then you need to make sure to screen your in-laws to ensure that not only are they decent people, but they are people that you would want to have as your children. This more advanced form of assortive mating is hard to do without social structures that support it, especially in a society where your potential future in-laws live a thousand miles away.

        • razibkhan

          This more advanced form of assortive mating is hard to do without social structures that support it, especially in a society where your potential future in-laws live a thousand miles away.

          look, this just seems stupid. it’s easy to check this sort of thing with modern technology. also, with inbreeding depression there’s more gains in looking assortively than bumping uglies with your cousin.

  • ChuckRamone

    Even in the US – though this problem is probably magnified in East Asia – it’s hard to find people who are interested in connecting intellectually, who want to discuss philosophical issues, or embark on a project together. Oftentimes I feel frustrated with my college friends. We all gained a higher education but most of them are mostly interested in superficial things and actually seem to care about all the crap pop culture throws at them. I understand the importance of keeping up on all the gossip, at least on a basic level. But beyond that it’s a complete waste of time. For me, the good life is trying to accomplish something on your own, and not vicariously through celebrities or professional athletes. It’s not enough to occupy yourself with following culture, becoming engrossed in the latest fads, and not sticking out too much as uncool or weird. I only feel like I’m doing something worthwhile when I’m creating something original, learning something new, or arguing/debating something, and I never have a sense of complete satisfaction.

  • miko

    The most important thing is to marry someone intellectually (and otherwise) compatible with you. Very few people care about this kind of engagement, even in academia. There is also a rule of thumb that if “everyone else” seems to you deficient in some manner, the problem is unlikely to be everyone else.

    I get where you’re coming from with kiasu culture in Singapore, but my experience is that Singaporean Chinese, mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese are all very different in these respects, just as there is a huge disparity between the UK, US and Europe in attitudes toward work and wealth and leisure. (Anyone from the US and Canada who works in the UK is immediately struck with how little they actually work there.) Singapore has been independent for a relatively short time, and has undergone massive economic, demographic, educational, linguistic, social, and infrastrucural change in that time. The arts communities, political movements, and vibrant intellectual culture that characterized the late colonial and early independence days were stamped out by the PAP in the name of single-minded progress and constructing a malleable and complacent national identity, but they are starting to come back. It has little to do with being Chinese, give it time. I know Singaporeans in indie rock bands, who are political scientists under constant scrutiny, who are painters, singers, filmmakers… one good thing about a smaller arts and intellectual communities is that they are easier to get involved with. Bankers and lawyers and consultants are boring everywhere in the world.

    • razibkhan

      Very few people care about this kind of engagement, even in academia.

      yes. the “why the hell are you interested in that razib?” question is only marginally less frequent in academic environments.

    • http://twitter.com/khadijahchi khadijah

      “The most important thing is to marry someone intellectually (and otherwise) compatible with you.”

      I would very much like to get people’s input on this. Of course this is the ideal, to marry someone who is intellectually/sexually/financially/emotionally/culturally/etc compatible with you… but with so many criteria, I am beginning to think it is virtually impossible. Out of the criteria I’ve mentioned, I feel that sexual/financial/emotional compatibility to be non-negotiable. Other interests can be found elsewhere and in other persons, making up for your spouse. It does not work vice versa. I don’t know if this is true or not.

      I’m currently with the most amazing person who is compassionate, sensitive, and makes me laugh 24/7. While smart and accomplished academically, my partner does not care much for intellectual talks. I think about life-purpose, global problems, making an impact, politics, social change, while he thinks it is more important to handle immediate relations and problems and making the people around him happy. It’s not so much that he thinks less of intellectual issues, but that he spends way more time making an impact on people around him on a day-to-day basis that the last thing he wants to think/do is debating about art or philosophy.

      When I crave an intellectual conversation, I email my friends or go online or call my mom. We like to debate and argue. But then, sometimes I agree, that all this debating goes nowhere (other than my own head) and sometimes I neglect relationships and/or miss the simple pleasures in life.

      So is it really important to marry someone for the intellectual compatibility? Or do you marry someone who makes you happy?

      • razibkhan

        pulling a pretentious move, i think ontological alignment is essential http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontology#Some_fundamental_questions

        i don’t think a genuine atheist should be with a non-atheist, or a genuine theist with a non-theist. similarly, if you are an obsessive about politics probably avoid those who differ from you.

        and why is it hard to find someone who is culturally and sexually compatible? unless you have a weird kink (culturally and sexually) the sample space is large. you just need a good search method, which is much easier with modern technology.

        my wife values the life of the mind. i’m not sure if our relationship could be robust under contemporary expectations of monogamous interaction if there wasn’t an alignment in this area. but as you said, there are other strategies. it is not always the case in all societies that spouses have to be ‘best friends.’ in that case you don’t need intellectual compabilitly.

        • http://www.facebook.com/spike.gomes Spike Gomes

          I’m a bit curious about the “genuine atheist” not being with a “genuine theist”. I’m pretty atheist and all I’ve ever dated are believers, though not one of them could ever really be considered orthodox in anyway (closest I ever got was dating a Swedenborgian). In general I’m turned off by stringency in that regard, be it either god focused or otherwise.

          • razibkhan

            right, but you’ve said before you have a tendency toward wanting to believe before, right? i’ve never had such a thing. it’s not natural for me. it would be (is) hard for me to really comprehend this. i suspect there are personality correlates with this.

          • http://www.facebook.com/spike.gomes Spike Gomes

            Most likely. For example, the main focus of my drive to incorporate and understand is mostly focused on literature, dance and music now, namely to acquire as wide an understanding as possible of the subject matter not as an idea, but experiencing it by learning to play multiple instruments, composing, improvisation etc. I have a feeling that this and the “unnaturalness” of my atheism are related. In short, I’m chasing after a high that I haven’t been able to get since my early 20s.

            Then again, Sagan was a pretty hard atheist, and he seemed to understand the mystic impulse from a subjective standpoint, so who knows?

      • Sandgroper

        Make sure you match on the ‘big issues’. That is something my wife knew intuitively and made me sit down and talk very straight about before she would agree to marry me. We had a major cultural mismatch and after 34 years of marriage we still have some very funny linguistic bloopers, but we always aligned on the really big stuff. If you do that, race and culture don’t matter, you laugh together at those things.

        My personal take – you don’t solve the world’s problems by endlessly talking about them. Better to focus on something that materially improves life for real people and do real stuff. If you can earn a decent living by doing it, so much the better. I don’t have much time for people who get paid to just sit around and talk, or worse, for cheating people.

  • Patrick Wyman

    I think you can find highly analytical, intellectually curious people in any walk of life. I’m in academia (history), and while I’d say there’s a higher proportion of such people in the academic world, it still has its fair share of bores who care about absolutely nothing except their immediate research interests. On the other hand, I met some fascinating people when I was pouring and finishing concrete in eastern Washington. My hobby is fighting; I train in mixed martial arts, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, sports that involve some of the bro-iest bros in the history of meathead bro-dom, but my coach is an exceptionally analytical and smart guy. So are some of my teammates, though of course I’ve met more than a few professional fighters who aren’t particularly intelligent. Basically, I think you can find intellectually engaging people just about anywhere if you look hard enough and don’t assume that particular contexts, whether they’re social, cultural, ethnic, or professional, are devoid of interesting people.

    • razibkhan

      some of the most intellectual voracious people i’ve met (mostly online, but some in real life) are “blue collar” types who could not go to college for personal reasons (e.g., destablized home environment, so they had to leave early), or, who graduated college but preferred to have more leisure and not focus on a white collar career track. where in eastern washington btw? (i’m from eastern oregon originally and most accurately)

      • Patrick Wyman

        I grew up in Yakima, yourself? I live in LA now, but try to make it back home for a month or so every year – I miss it quite a bit. I think you’re absolutely right about intellectual voracity. When I started my PhD, we had an English guy in my cohort who fit that profile to a T, a really smart and impressive individual who’d worked a number of blue-collar jobs before going to college and eventually postgrad work. Auto-didacticism isn’t a new phenomenon – there’s a great book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, that deals with the topic in some historical depth – but it’s amazing how much the internet has lowered barriers to entry.

        • razibkhan

          grande ronde valley. i don’t know yakima, but i know walla walla and ellensburg flanking rather well :-)

  • Jon Claerbout

    If it is “natural curiosity” you are talking about, perhaps a head count of Nobel prize winners is supporting evidence.

  • razibkhan

    my parents are from educated backgrounds, so they don’t necessarily feel too strongly the push forward professional prestige and success. my father’s academic career did not end well, so he has suggested a pre-professional track to his children, but all of us seem keen on graduate school, not professional school, despite our variations in personality and interests. but you live only once, so live for what you care about, whatever that may be. don’t live lies, whether it be in a positive or normative sense.

    we live in a world where ALL of us in the USA are wealthy in an absolute sense, no matter our positional status. one of the insights of the axial age is that balance positional concerns with individual self-actualization and absolute values. does it redound to your reputation to gain honor and prestige by committing evil? evil is still evil.

  • razibkhan

    no. i wasn’t super susceptible to peer pressure…. but i don’t expect a girl to be subject to the same parameters as a weird boy.

  • russell1200

    There was his comment about how you find like-minded people off-line.

    The only shortcut I know of in the U.S. is to find readers. Bookclubs, even the one for your local church, can work well. I have also noticed, that on the East Coast, there seems to be a very rough correlation between the curious-folk and the number of book stores, and maybe even giving a bonus to used-book stores with there rummage sale quality. In North Carolina for instance, Asheville which I visited recently has something like 5 book stores in its walkable downtown.

  • Jon Claerbout

    Life will take its own paths. You might have a daughter with no interests beyond ballet and a son with no interests beyond race car driving. Good luck!


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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