Category Archives: Philosophy

Disillusionment with Authority is the Coming of Age Story of Our Time

As I wrap up my time in math grad school and start to look beyond, I’ve been reflecting on what led me to study math in the first place. It was the topic that captivated my mind, that I was the most proficient at, and which made me thirst to learn more. But that it even presented itself as an option for a career to me at all is one aspect I’d never really considered.

Only after I got to grad school did I realize that I had an image in my mind of academia that was rather different from what I found. I had imagined that everyone in academia was motivated by the desire to solve the big problems that the world faces, and they simply aimed at different time horizons for their solutions. There’s an underlying talk of work that is “20 years away”, “10 years away”, and academics rightly pride themselves in the fact that they have the freedom to think on those scales where businesses would shy away.

But what I found was that a large number of academics — and this isn’t even restricted to the math department — don’t even think in terms of providing solutions. Instead, there’s commonly a self-referential focus, an inward turn to do things to impress other academics, writing papers and building theory with only fellow academics in mind.

Part of my story, which I’ve touched on in many recent blog posts, is therefore one of disillusionment with this type of academic authority.¬†Some of it comes from rising to the highest ranks and seeing what life is like at “the top” of whatever status hierarchy you find yourself in. In high school, I remember being somewhat disillusioned by my experience at a science summer camp in Australia that our Science Bowl team had won as a prize for winning the national competition. “This is it?” I remember wondering. “This is what I was striving after all of this time?”

I’ve gone through a similar type of evolution at MIT. To be clear, this isn’t the only mental malady one can experience at a place like MIT, or even the most common. I hear a lot about the impostor syndrome, where we think that we don’t belong in an institution because we’re not good enough. But such students still often believe in the fundamental goodness or effectiveness of their school, and only wish they could live up to it. The disillusionment I’m talking about is when they no longer believe that the institutions and authorities they’ve looked up to are actually praiseworthy anymore.

Disillusionment like this is surprisingly common today.

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What did Jesus say about ethnocentrism?

The events in Charlottesville last weekend¬†around a planned white nationalist protest called “Unite the Right” have raised the ugly specter of racism again in a country which has been steadily growing ever more diverse. Given that white evangelical Christians famously voted in droves for the same president that the white nationalists cite as inspiration, one naturally wonders: Should we be also allow ourselves to be united to such a cause?

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Truth Telling Under Uncertainty

“Thou shalt not lie.” Perhaps the most misquoted commandment of them all is actually not that broad:

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Your Utility Function Does Not Compute

Last week, I wrote about some of the ways that we show that we don’t truly value everyone equally, despite the prevalence of such principles in popular discourse and the Declaration of Independence that we celebrated on Tuesday.

This week, I’d like to take a look at a couple more aspects of modern life that don’t make any sense to me from this perspective. Read more of this post

What if we actually valued everyone equally?

I’ve previously written about the less commonly examined consequences of believing the life, with all of its dignity and worth, begins at conception. This week, I’d like to examine another common belief that tends to be voiced on the other side of the political spectrum: that we should value everyone, not just people we know or who are similar to us in some way. If I didn’t know better, I’d summarize this by saying “all lives matter,” but somehow that phrase has come to mean something closer to the opposite notion.

Without a convenient handle, I don’t have a relevant survey statistic to cite. Instead, we find this notion in how our country’s first revolutionaries justified their actions:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. (Preamble to the Declaration of Independence)

Beautiful language, which would form the basis of the grand experiment of the US. At the same time, I know some of you are thinking: “Just men? What about women?” Or perhaps you readily think of the already-widespread pattern of slavery and marvel that it took at least another 80 years and a civil war to overcome what some have called America’s original sin. But if your mind is drawn in those directions, it probably means that you think you believe in the equality of humanity even more than the Declaration signatories did.

The only problem is, you don’t act like it. How would we all behave if we actually valued everyone equally? Read more of this post