(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, September 17, 2014)
[I have promised posts on the topic of “truth and justice” and “cognitive bias.” I will deliver in the next few days on the former topic, but I won’t have time for the latter. For those interested, two sites about cognitive bias are: Overcoming Bias, the blog of Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University, and Less Wrong, the brainchild of Eliezer Yudkowsky, a researcher at Machine Intelligence Research Institute.]
Speaking of a lack of time, today, as I was reading multiple threads on multiple topics by members of the research group with whom I’m affiliated, (Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group in Belgium) I was struck by the importance of deciding what one will read, think, and do in one’s lifetime. Why? Because there is too much material to read and think about for any one person to be acquainted with, much less master. It would be a full-time job just to digest all the material on my email threads. Moreover, at the moment there are at least 20 topics in my blog post que, and ten books waiting to be read. It is overwhelming. One must pick and choose, so that one doesn’t waste their precious time on triviality. Life is short. But according to what criteria do we pick and choose?
My main criterion is to pursue, as far as possible, timeless topics like the meaning of life and love, the importance of truth and justice, the advancing science and technology, and the course of cosmic evolution. Obviously these topics are themselves much too broad–one is going to have to specialize further to make much progress. Still I remember reading Isaac Asimov’s advice that we eschew specialization so that we can be polymaths. I think there is much to this. If our focus is too narrow, we miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Nonetheless no advice is truly adequate here. There is an almost infinite amount of existing knowledge which increases daily, and our minds are finite. As I’ve said many times our best hope for synthesis of this knowledge is to increase our mental capacities. Until then I would advise thinking about as many timeless things as possible while maintaining physical vigor and mental health.
In addition to intellectual life, there are also obligations to family, to making a living, to bettering the world, and more. Here too we must make choices—there are more things to do than we can do. But we should do what we generally enjoy, with the caveat that we are bad at predicting our own happiness. Still life is too short to make ourselves and others miserable by pursuing some supposed, but despised, duty.
In the end we must strike a balance. This idea was well captured in the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, David Hume penned this remarkable paragraph:
Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.