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#39: Entertaining ideas without accepting them

#39: Entertaining ideas without accepting them

Welcome to Mindf*ck Monthly, a newsletter that doesn’t suck. If you’re not already getting these in your inbox each month, well what the fuck?! Sign up below now.

Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that slices, dices and will even mow your mother’s lawn. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking about: 1) epistemic uncertainty and why it matters, 2) tackling that big-ass book you’ve always wanted to read, and 3) dog years aren’t what you thought they were… no really, we’re going to talk about how to calculate dog years. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. A friendly reminder about epistemic uncertainty – I’ve now been doing this weekly newsletter for about nine months and, in many ways, it’s been an enlightening experience. On a personal level, it has forced me to think more critically about various topics each week. It keeps my writing knife sharpened. But it also exposes me to you all, my readers, far more frequently, and more intimately (through email responses) than I’m used to. 

Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I would like to take a moment and establish some guiding principles for this newsletter going forward, and I’ll explain why below: 

  • Just because I write about something does not mean that I necessarily 100% believe it or even think you should believe it. That may freak you out. You may say, “Well, what the hell am I subscribed to this thing for?” But the goal of this newsletter isn’t to believe—it’s to think. It’s to become comfortable with thinking without believing. My guiding principle when determining what to write about here is what’s interesting, not necessarily what is Capital-T “True.” There is a famous (fake) Aristotle quote that says, “The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it.” The goal here is to be an educated mind.
  • The scientific studies presented in this newsletter are evidence, not fact. Just because there is evidence for something doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true. Just because that evidence is sometimes flawed or limited does not necessarily mean that it’s not true. Evidence of something simply means that that something is more likely, and occasionally, far more likely.
  • Sometimes seemingly contradictory things can both be correct. Police brutality can be declining and it can still be a major problem in the United States. Education can be getting worse despite the fact that young people of each generation continue to end up more educated. Smartphones can be both good and bad for our mental health. Political causes can be good even if the people who lead them are corrupt morons. If there is any enemy of this newsletter, it is “all or nothing” thinking — even to the point where I would say you shouldn’t always discount “all or nothing” thinking. 

These three principles are the big lessons of doing this newsletter for almost a year now. I also believe it’s the nuance of the above items that the internet does terribly. People regularly get pushed into defending positions they don’t hold that strongly only because other people mistake their public ideation for some form of zealotry. Evidence gets misrepresented as fact and theories get misrepresented as evidence. People seem unable to sit with two opposing ideas long enough to see how they could fit together. 

I bring all this up simply because I find that I get dozens of frustrated or even angry replies each week that slip into the three categories above. People assume that because I share some information,I must be a proponent of that political cause or ideology. People assume that because a study I share is limited, it must be false and I must be wrong. And sometimes people freak out and say, “Well, three weeks ago you said X, this week you’re saying the opposite of X — which is it, Mark, huh?” 

To which I reply, “Both?” And then their heads explode and I lose another subscriber. 

Going forward, I may occasionally remind you of these principles, particularly when there are some sensitive topics in that week’s newsletter. Partly for my sake, so I don’t get dozens and dozens of angry replies accusing me of some sort “-ism.” 

But also partly for your sake because we all so easily forget, myself included. Because this is the mindfuck of our Monday, where we try to consider contradictory and paradoxical ideas without necessarily having to settle on them being true or untrue. Because the point isn’t to always be right or wrong… it’s to gain an understanding. Because the world is fucking weird and confusing and the moment we stop challenging our own thinking is the moment everything gets worse. 

Okay, that’s enough of that… On to more fun stuff… 

2. Read that book… you know the one – First of all, congratulations to everyone, we’re probably 25-35% of the way through the pandemic. Hopefully by this time next summer, we’ll all be stuffed into crowded, highly air-conditioned rooms, indiscriminately making out and freely sneezing into each other’s faces. 

One thing I’ve learned about myself the past four months is that during this period, my day-to-day wellbeing is pretty proportional to the presence of the goals or tasks I’m pursuing. Some of these goals are professional, some are personal. Some are big, some are small. Early on in quarantine, I gave myself a daily push-up challenge. I knocked that out in about six weeks. Then, I had a major writing project to get through (it will likely come out next year, stay tuned!). I finished that a couple weeks ago. 

What I’ve noticed is that as long as I’ve got some goal for myself — no matter how made-up or arbitrary — it makes the chaos and insanity of the outside world that much easier to deal with emotionally. A month ago, I wrote about asking yourself how you could make this year the best thing that ever happened to you. I see these arbitrary challenges as a way to slowly build up a year that I can look back on and be proud of. 

So, what’s my next challenge? Well, we’ve all got that one book — you know the one — it’s probably really long and difficult. Maybe it’s been sitting on your shelf for a couple years, untouched. Maybe you started it a couple times and got twenty pages in and gave up. 

I’ve got a couple books like that. Big, dense books that are really intimidating, but I also know that if I set aside a couple months and tackle them, I’ll forever be glad I did. 

So, here’s my challenge to you: grab that book this summer. Read it. Now is the time. Let’s do it together. If you want, you can reply to this email with what you’re reading and I will follow up with you in a couple months to see how we all did. 

(Note: If you’re looking for a big, challenging book, I have tons of book recommendations on my site.) 

Me? I’m going to tackle both volumes of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. Why? Because I’m a fucking psycho, that’s why. 

That, and Schopenhauer was the ultimate pessimist. He thought humans were shit, life was meaningless, and solitude was a virtue. Seems perfect for the times, no?

3. How old is your dog, really? – Over the past few months, we’ve talked about police brutality, drug prohibition, mass incarceration, racism, conspiracy theorists, sexual assault, and, of course, the pandemic.

How about something a little light and fun this week? 

Growing up, I was always told that if you multiplied a dog (or cat’s) age by seven, you got the equivalent of its human age. Well, it doesn’t take a math genius to realize how wrong this must be. Dogs are mostly full grown by one year old, yet they’d be seven in human years. And dogs that live to be 16 or 17 years old? They’re pushing 120 years! 

That doesn’t sound right. 

Well, thankfully, a bunch of biologists decided to get to the bottom of this and looked at DNA sequences to determine the age curve of dogs as compared to humans. It turns out that curve is logarithmic, which makes sense. The first year of a dog’s life produces far more change and development than the last five or ten. 

If you’re curious, the real equation to convert dog years to human years is this: 

ln(dog’s age) x 16 + 31 = human years

Enjoy programming that into your calculator. You can find the science behind the equation and a conversion chart here. But basically, by the end of a dog’s first year, they are the equivalent of a 31-year-old human. By age four they are like a 49-year-old, right in the middle of a mid-doggie-life-crisis. By age six, they’re like a 60-year-old. And by ten they are like a 68-year-old. By age 12, their aging has slowed down to be the equivalent of a human in their mid-70s. 

I don’t know much about biology. But I do know that whatever a dog’s real age is, he’ll always still be a good boy. 

Until next week,

Mark