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The Number Six

2021-06-06

Everyone has their idiosyncrasies. One of mine is a particular fascination with the number six.

It might have something to do with the fact that I was born on the 6th, as was my father (today would have been his 87th birthday) and one of my sisters; my mother was born on the 30th and another of my sisters was born on the 12th (the only exception among the six members of my immediate family is my remaining sister, who was born on the 26th instead of a multiple of six).

Perhaps as a result, I've always considered 6 to be a lucky number. When I played Little League baseball as a kid, I always wanted to have a uniform with number six on the back. My favorite baseball player in my childhood was left fielder Roy White of the New York Yankees, who wore number six. My favorite work of music is Bach's Cello Suites: six suites each comprised of six movements. I'm in the midst of writing six books about my favorite thinkers. My book on Rand has 6x8 (48) chapters, on Nietzsche 6x12 (72) poems, on Thoreau 3x6 (18) chapters, on Epicurus 4x6 (24) chapters; my forthcoming book on Aristotle will have 6 chapters. After the Aristotle book (and one on Pyrrho, slated to have 12 chapters), I plan to write a book entitled "Being Human" that will have 6x6 (36) chapters and incorporate a six-step process of practical deliberation, a six-fold division of life pursuits, and six perspectives on life (re-using the six directions of ancient Greek thought: up and down, forward and backward, left and right). And so on. I suppose it's not entirely rational, but it's one way for me to order my thoughts and activities...


Holding Multiple Opinions

2021-05-31

Sometimes it's difficult to hold fewer opinions in your own mind or to engage in cognitive empathy toward others; that's when it can help to hold multiple opinions at the same time. This might sound like the mental equivalent of juggling plates, but it's a skill worth cultivating (and one with an ancient pedigree, as evidenced for example by the Letter to Pythocles by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus).

Most phenomena, especially in social affairs and human interactions, have a multitude of causes. See if you can identify them, understand them, and consider them as contributing to the outcomes you observe. It's best to start with events that happened long ago (say, the fall of Rome) or that aren't fraught with personal significance for you (to choose something at random, the decline of hat-wearing over the last hundred years). You can even make a game of it by identifying as many causes as possible. As you become more skilled, you can extend this style of thinking to the more recent past (say, the American housing bubble that ended in 2005) or older events in your own life (for instance, why you didn't get promoted at that job you quit ten years ago). Eventually you'll be able to calmly reflect on current events and hot-button issues, such as the causes of and reactions to the COVID pandemic or that disagreement you just had with a friend or colleague.

One method I've found especially powerful is to think like a historian: 50 or 100 years from now, what might scholars think about the causes of something that's front and center right now? (As Nietzsche once advised: between yourself and today lay the skin of 300 years.) Naturally, it helps to read great historians such as Thucydides, or to read multiple accounts of historical events you find fascinating (years ago I read a few dozen books about the causes of the industrial revolution). An added benefit of this method is that 50 or 100 years from now the things people are all worked up about might have been completely forgotten, which will help you realize that perhaps they weren't so important in the first place!

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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What Is a Concept Album?

2021-05-06

And now for something completely different: a rollicking discussion on the Big Yellow Praxis podcast about some underappreciated musical recordings, in which Jacob and I explore the age-old question: what exactly makes a concept album? Check it out on YouTube!


Opinions about Opinions

2021-05-04

My friend Paul sent me a few thoughts about my recent post on holding fewer opinions. He's formulated an approach that involves holding fewer opinions about other people's opinions. This seems valuable, and related to a post I wrote four years ago entitled "Why Do You Think What You Think?" My introspective conclusion then was that I can't always assign praise or blame for the contents of my thoughts; extending this to other people is a good example of what Arnold Kling calls cognitive empathy: instead of demonizing people who disagree with you, suspend judgment or at least try to understand where they might be coming from. (It's probably best to build up such a practice first in matters that aren't very consequential - and we all have our limits regarding the opinions we find acceptable!) The flip side is not deifying your own thoughts, which we could express in the following aphorism: "if you think well of your own opinions just because they're yours, then you're not thinking well."

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Bach on Bass #4: Instrumental Solution

2021-04-10

After much research and some helpful input from double bassist Mark Stefaniw, the unofficial artistic advisor for my "Bach on Bass" project, I've chosen to buy a Stradi bass made by Marek DÄ…bek of Juliszew, Poland. Not only does Marek make absolutely gorgeous instruments, but he was excited to work with me on a design that met all my criteria: a four-string fretless bass with tapewound strings tuned in fifths, a very long fingerboard with a deep cutaway so that I can play intricate passages high up on the neck, a combination of piezo and magnetic pickups (the latter is important to enable experimentation with an eBow on certain pieces), and a chocolately tone that balances the best of electric and upright bass sounds. A long email thread with Marek led to a bass that is all oak, a wood we both love: roasted European oak for the body (chambered to enhance its acoustic properties), a hybrid through-body neck also in roasted oak, and both the fingerboard and top in 2000-year-old bog oak. Since Marek likes to name his basses, we're calling this one the "Mocha 4". The only bad part is that Marek is a true artisan who makes only 20 instruments a year and has a large backlog of orders, so I won't get my hands on the Mocha until early next year. But it's going to be worth the wait!

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Holding Fewer Opinions

2021-04-06

A few months ago I read the transcript of a discussion between Brian Beck and Robin Hanson, in which Hanson advised the listener to hold fewer opinions:

"Just have fewer opinions on topics. You don't need as many opinions as you usually have." You should pick the topics on which you're going to be somewhat expert and you're going to invest in those and you're going to tell people what you know there. On other topics, you don't necessarily need opinions. You can just go with what other people say, and that can be okay. Have fewer opinions. And in each topic, ask yourself, "Do I need an opinion on this? Am I, you know, especially good at this?" And if you don't need an opinion or you don't have any special expertise compared to other people you could rely on, then don't have an opinion on it. That's a way to disagree less is just halve your opinions. Certainly fewer poorly thought out opinions, poorly considered opinions. All the more reason to get rid of those.

In general I agree, and over the years I've steadily decreased the number of topics on which I take strong positions. This goes hand-in-hand with my low-information diet: the less I follow the news, the less I feel the need to have an opinion about whatever is happening in the world.

However, I would add one caveat. Hanson's advice could be taken as ceding authority to technocrats, policy wonks, and other self-appointed experts. Yet one lesson of the last hundred years or so is that the so-called experts aren't necessarily good at finding practical or theoretical truth, either (consider, say, the role of Robert McNamara and his team in escalating the Vietnam War, or more recently the replication crisis in the social sciences). "Trust the experts" is generally a bad idea - at least in my opinion. ;-)

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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