What do we mean by meaning?

A commenter named Ted asked me some interesting questions:

Topics/prompts that I’d be interesting in reading your thoughts on:

-What determines the risk-free rate?
-Where have you found meaning in life?
-How do you think historians will look back on this period?
-What will money look like in 100 years? In 1,000 years? In 10,000 years?
-What’s a book or TV show or movie or podcast you liked? Why?
-How do you fight against selection bias as you consume information about the world?
-What are topics we should be talking about more?
-Maybe a high-level tour through periods in history that illustrate something about monetary policy (aimed at people like me who are too lazy to read books where this already written down)
-What are topics you wish you knew more about?
-What are questions that are both important and difficult to answer?
-What constitutes your information diet? What sources of information do you strongly recommend?
-More posts on how public opinion isn’t real (for me, this was a big takeaway from your writing)
-Thoughts on macro hedge funds
-How you have thought about death and how you wish you thought about death
-Questions that you have for your readers

That gives me ammunition for a number of “Ted talks”.  I’ll start with meaning, as I’ve recently been reading a book on psychedelics that touches on that subject.

Let me begin by noting that I often have a sort of “inside view” and an “outside view”.  Thus my inside view is, “of course I have free will” and my outside view is, “of course free will doesn’t exist.”  Similarly, my inside view of meaning is probably not too dissimilar from the views of others, while my outside view is that meaning doesn’t exit.  Life is just one damn mental state after another.

With free will, my outside view is not just that free will doesn’t happen to exist, but that something like that can’t possibly exist.  Similarly, my outside view is that meaning can’t possibly exist.  Since my outside view is uninteresting, and a bit depressing, I’ll focus the rest of my post on my inside view.

Because of my outside view, I prefer not to talk about “finding meaning”, as if there is something out there to me found. Rather I’d prefer to say “seeing meaning”, which implies meaning occurs in our minds.  I’ve long believed that the very young see more meaning in life than older people, and that meaning gradually drains away as you age.  Meaning is also more likely to be visible in dreams, and (I’m told) in psychedelic trips on LSD or mushrooms.

This quote from a book by Karl Knausgaard nicely captures the way meaning drains away from life as one ages:

You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s, was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. The same with the sea, the same with the rocks, the same with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story. The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

Of course there are also some consolations that come with age.

Compared to most people, I probably find less meaning in success and fame, and more in art.  At least that’s how it seems to me.  I’m probably about average for seeing meaning in friends and family (although given my Northern European cultural heritage, perhaps a bit less than average for family.)

During my career, I noticed that some colleagues cared a lot about things like promotions, whereas I didn’t care at all.  I did get some satisfaction from the positive press I got in September 2012, but probably less than most people would.  I’m not ambitious in a career sense.  If given the opportunity to be Fed chair, or a senator from California, or CEO of Goldman Sachs, I’d immediately turn down the opportunity.  If not for this Mercatus position, I’d already be retired—at age 62.  I’d rather make $20,000/year and have the health I had at age 31, than $200,000/year and have the health I have today—and I don’t even have any serious health problems, just chronic annoyances. That’s why the income inequality debate doesn’t really resonate with me; it just doesn’t seem that important.  (That’s my impression; I’m not trying to defend it.) On the other hand, extreme poverty in developing nations such as North Korea seems like by far the most important problem in the world.

I also find much less meaning that usual in ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, graduations and other such events. I’m not a social person.

When I was a young academic, my research was meaningful to me.  As I got older, I realized that people simply didn’t care and it lost meaning.  What made my depression book so hard to write is that I did it after I’d become disenchanted, after I realized the book would be ignored.  Fortunately, the hardest part (all the research) was done by the time I reached that view, but it was still an agonizing process to write the book.

Conversely, I got a lot of meaning out of a brief summer course I taught at Cato this summer.  I was great seeing younger students from really good schools that were interested in market monetarist ideas.  My blog also gave me meaning, especially during the early years when I still had new things to say and the readership was larger and more engaged.  I still have modest hopes for my blog book, but I don’t think book length projects are my forte.  If I were actually able to influence Fed policy, that would seem meaningful to me.

For me, the greatest meaning in life comes from art, broadly defined to include aesthetically beautiful experiences with nature, old cities, and scientific fields like astronomy and physics.  The most meaningful experience in my life might have been seeing the film 2001 at age 13.  I’ve never tried LSD, but after reading about the experience it reminds me of this film, and indeed the director was someone who experimented with acid.  (It might also be the only “psychedelic” work of visual art that’s actually any good.  Whereas pop music from the 60s is full of good examples.)

To me, art is “real life” and things such as careers are simply ways of making money in order to have the ability to experience that real life.  After art, I’d put great conversation second on the list.  And the part of economics that most interests me is the ability to converse with like-minded people (such as at the Cato summer course.)

I’m sort of like a satellite dish, receptive to ideas and sounds and images.  My ideal is Borges, who regarded himself more as a great reader than a great writer (of course he was both, and a great conversationalist.)  I’d rather be a great reader than a great writer.  I’d rather be able to appreciate great music than be able to produce it.

I’m not at all like Trump.

PS.  I’ll answer some other Ted questions in later posts, here and at Econlog.


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37 Responses to “What do we mean by meaning?”

  1. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    26. August 2018 at 15:36

    I’m not at all like Trump.

    Of course you are. You regularly stick to favored narratives even when corrected.

    Let me begin by noting that I often have a sort of “inside view” and an “outside view”. Thus my inside view is, “of course I have free will” and my outside view is, “of course free will doesn’t exist.” Similarly, my inside view of meaning is probably not too dissimilar from the views of others, while my outside view is that meaning doesn’t exit. Life is just one damn mental state after another.

    With free will, my outside view is not just that free will doesn’t happen to exist, but that something like that can’t possibly exist. Similarly, my outside view is that meaning can’t possibly exist. Since my outside view is uninteresting, and a bit depressing, I’ll focus the rest of my post on my inside view.

    Because of my outside view, I prefer not to talk about “finding meaning”, as if there is something out there to me found. Rather I’d prefer to say “seeing meaning”, which implies meaning occurs in our minds. I’ve long believed that the very young see more meaning in life than older people, and that meaning gradually drains away as you age. Meaning is also more likely to be visible in dreams, and (I’m told) in psychedelic trips on LSD or mushrooms.

    Wise.

  2. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    26. August 2018 at 16:21

    I endorse the concept of you doing ‘Ted talks’ and I think Ted has chosen some really good topics. You seem to write about extra-curricular ideas from time to time for reasons that are not predictable to me (at least), so it seems this time Ted has set you off at a time that coincides with your mood taking you there.

    Great! Except that although I found this post very interesting, I also found it a bit depressing: I feel equally that work and careers are fairly meaningless except in so far as you get to meet and learn from interesting people and perhaps help a few of them. I am also a consumer of ideas, but like Ted, and too lazy to read much and generally stick to blogs and podcasts. But I find less meaning in art than you do, or at least in the types of art that you mention. Plus I’m a bit younger than you and so have to live with all this that much longer. On the bright side, I enjoy spending time with my dog!

    Interested in your other readers’ reactions.

  3. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. August 2018 at 19:12

    Your post sounds depressing, I hope you are not.

    Of course, if you think about life long enough, you can look straight into the abyss.

  4. Gravatar of Raver Raver
    26. August 2018 at 19:38

    Who are your top 10 favorite novelists? Of all time.

  5. Gravatar of artifex artifex
    26. August 2018 at 19:48

    > If I were actually able to influence Fed policy, that would seem meaningful to me.

    That is not asking for too much.

    It is an injustice that political power held over us is not exercised by competent people in a competent way. That a committee charged with overseeing the size and rate of growth of the money supply of a country leaves trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk. That an executive branch delegated authority over trade policy exercises it in a way that destroys trillion-dollar potential gains from trade.

    It is an injustice that the powerlessness of fixing these injustices discourages people who have the ability to contribute genuinely good insights about how the world works from doing so.

    At least you are not powerless to fix the last injustice; your research is meaningful to the corner of the Internet that cares about the truth.

  6. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    26. August 2018 at 21:08

    @Christian: It sometimes seems to me like every thing we all do as humans is almost completely about forgetting about and avoiding thinking about that abyss.

  7. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    26. August 2018 at 23:03

    Thanks for this, Scott.

    I thought maybe its just me that’s undergoing this kind of perspective shift as I grow older.

    On the details there are some differences – I value family and friends even more now, but on most other items I feel quite similarly. In general, I more and more value personal experience over anything else, while losing interest in things abstract or theoretical as I grow older.

  8. Gravatar of derek derek
    27. August 2018 at 05:04

    Are you willing to discuss what makes your “outside view” an outside view? I ask because I understand an outside view to be one that incorporates similar cases; here, I think this would mean an outside view that incorporates other humans’ experiences. Since you reference your consumption and enjoyment of art, I am somewhat surprised that your outside view does not seem to reflect the meaning that some artists find and imbue into their art. Perhaps your position would be that the most successful (and thus most persuasive) high art is that which acknowledges a lack of inherent meaning in the universe and seeks to create its own, to make something out of nothing — a pretty fair point. However, since I think that there are a number of works of art that do successfully create/reflect meaning that the creator has found/created/experienced in their mind, it’s hard for me not to see this as its own kind of meaning, even if the creator’s meaning is merely “occurring in our minds” (also not sure this is such a small thing).

  9. Gravatar of bill bill
    27. August 2018 at 08:00

    Thanks for a great post. I see many things the same way. One thing I see differently is that I would definitely take a job on the FOMC (especially to be the chair). Later in the post, you say that influencing Fed policy would be meaningful (I agree!). With that in mind, are you sure that you’d turn down the chance to be the Fed Chairman?

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. August 2018 at 08:06

    Rajat, Dogs can be very meaningful.

    Raver, I tend to like two types of novels. One is 19th century English language novels by Conrad, Stevenson, Hawthorne, Chesterton, Melville, etc.

    Another is recent novels by Europeans and Asians, such as by Max Sebald, Murakami, Bolano, Marias, Knausgaard, Pamuk, etc. From a slightly earlier period you have Calvino, Kundera, Nabokov, Cortazar, Naipaul etc.

    I’m actually not very well read, and there are many famous novelists that I know little or nothing about. I haven’t read many 20th century American novels, or many 19th century European novels. I have trouble understanding novels about society (say Jane Austin) and gravitate toward novels about loners.

    Thanks artifax.

    mbka, Just to be clear, I probably value family and friends more than I used to. But meaning seems to gradually drain out of life over time.

    Derek, You said:

    “However, since I think that there are a number of works of art that do successfully create/reflect meaning that the creator has found/created/experienced in their mind, it’s hard for me not to see this as its own kind of meaning, even if the creator’s meaning is merely “occurring in our minds” (also not sure this is such a small thing).”

    Not only is it not a “small thing”, I’d argue that what’s in our minds is the only thing that matters in the entire universe. Parts of your comment hinge on what we mean by “meaning”. This is a hard term to define (like free will). Art certainly has meaning to the creator, and presumably to the viewer as well.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. August 2018 at 08:07

    Bill, I’m not qualified to do that job. There’s much more to the job than understanding monetary theory.

  12. Gravatar of JS JS
    27. August 2018 at 09:46

    I took a very amateurish dab at a question very similar to this in college. Not worth much but made me content for some time when I wrote it. Sharing it below.

    What do you want?

    You ask, “From whom?” I reply, “Life.” And I rephrase the question: What do you want from your life? You ask, “Why should I want anything?” I say, “Because you are a person. And people usually like to want.” You are convinced enough and agree to play along temporarily to think about what you would want from life if you wanted anything from it.

    Now that you are here and alive you do stuff like eat, drink, breathe, sleep, shit, and hopefully, at times, think. You need to do these things to live, but these aren’t what you would like to claim what you wanted from your life? Well, you didn’t have a lot of choice over many things when you were born. To start with, as far as I can guess, you didn’t get to choose your parents, country, religion of birth, schools, siblings etc. Maybe you did, but we are not sure that the divine creator went over all your preferences before you landed on a ball of mass called earth from your biological mother’s womb. Some people, who for some reason, like to call themselves scientists just think that life is an accident. Some even claim that it is a particularly bad one for most of us.

    Hopefully, you would agree that the above list isn’t the most important part of your existence over the small snippet of time for which you will exist in organic life form.

    Good food, booze, music, love, power, sex, money, fame, respect, happiness, friends, revenge, knowledge, wisdom, and if you get really lucky, a good sense of humour. These are the usual suspects that most people say what they want from life. Basically, we want to have a good time. The above list just gives us options of how to do that. The list is indicative, not exhaustive.

    In the book, The Sense of an Ending, the protagonist Tony reflects, “when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

    Well, we can infer that these things can confirm a common observation: we are social animals (to some extent at least) and we need others to add meaning to our lives. Now you say, “Isn’t that obvious?” I say, yes. But it is the obvious that is often overlooked.

    Things are the instruments which we want or can help us get what we say we want. But would these things have any meaning if other people didn’t exist? Maybe, if you were made entirely of non-organic compounds your priorities would be different.

    You don’t answer, but instead suddenly ask, “What is the meaning of meaning?” I am confused and you see that, so you help me out and patiently explain eight possible meanings of meaning, which thankfully, Robert Nozick once pointed out and you ask me to pick the ones I want to answer your question. They are, Meaning as, 1) As external causal relationship (those spots mean measles; smoke means fire), 2) as external referential or semantic relation (“brother” means male sibling; a white flag means they surrender), 3) as intention of purpose (he meant well; what is the meaning of this outburst?; Did you mean to do that?), 4) Meaning as Lesson (The Nazi period means that even a most civilized nation can commit great atrocities; Gandhi’s success means that nonviolent techniques sometimes can win over force), 5) Meaning as personal significance, importance, value, mattering (You mean a lot to me; repeal of that legislation means a lot to them), 6) Meaning as objective meaningfulness: importance, significance, meaning, 7) Meaning as intrinsic meaningfulness: objective meaning (6) in itself, apart from any connections to anything else. 8) Meaning as total resultant meaning: the sum total and web of something’s meanings 1-6.

    I am still lost about which meaning to pick. But before I can pick a meaning from the above meanings of meaning, you ask why is it important to have meaning in anything?

    You change the topic before I can think of a reply and ask again, “Why should I want anything?”This time you emphasize the ‘I’ in the question. Again before I reply, you ask, “Do you want to know what I, the individual, want?” I reply, “Yes.” You calmly say, “But there is no individual.” I look at you, bewildered.

    You tell me that the Buddhist term for an individual, a term which is intended to suggest the difference between the Buddhist view and other theories, is santana, i.e. a ‘stream’.

    You explain what the Buddhists and the Buddha said,

    A sentient being does exist, you think, O Mara?
    You are misled by a false conception.
    This bundle of elements is void of Self,
    In it there is no sentient being,
    Just as a set of wooden parts,
    Receives the name of carriage,
    So do we give to elements,
    The name of fancied being.
    Buddha has spoken thus: ‘O Brethren, actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not. There is no one to cast away this set of elements and no one to assume a new set of them. There exists no Individual, it is only a conventional name given to a set of elements.’

    I begin to realize it’s time the prank is given up. You grin. We head to the tapri for tea. On the way, you tell me, “We want to fill the void.”

    _______
    Barnes, Julian. 2012. The Sense of an Ending. Vintage International. Page 80.
    Nozick, Robert. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Belknap Press. Page 574-575.
    Parfit, Derek, 1983. Reasons and Persons. Cambridge Press. Page 503.
    Parfit, Derek, 1983. Reasons and Persons. Cambridge Press. Page 502.

  13. Gravatar of Hazel Meade Hazel Meade
    27. August 2018 at 09:54

    You should definitely give LSD a try if you get the chance, I think you would enjoy it on multiple levels (the visual hallucinations and the internal emotional/intellectual experience). People who like art tend to enjoy it.

    On meaning, I have to ask if you have any children? One thing about life is that you may derive less meaning from things that you enjoyed when you are young, but being a parent is a whole new set of experiences, a different phase of life that is both novel (if you’ve never done it), and a source of meaning, since you get this chance to more or less mold and guide another person into being. And that person will live on after you so you sort of have this influence on the world after you die through your children (so be a good parent and make that influence a positive one.)

    (If you haven’t had any children, why not? Do you wish you had had the chance and/or had chosen differently? )

  14. Gravatar of Student Student
    27. August 2018 at 10:18

    Interesting stuff as usual. The part about your inside and outside views on free Will reminded me of Article 1 of Question 83 of the First Part of Summa Theologiae.

    In particular where Thomas answers and replies to Aristotle’s objection (from book III, 5, of Nicomachean Ethics)… on the question of whether man has free will?

    Thomas – “I answer that, Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain. In order to make this evident, we must observe that some things act without judgment; as a stone moves downwards; and in like manner all things which lack knowledge. And some act from judgment, but not a free judgment; as brute animals. For the sheep, seeing the wolf, judges it a thing to be shunned, from a natural and not a free judgment, because it judges, not from reason, but from natural instinct. And the same thing is to be said of any judgment of brute animals. But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. For reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectic syllogisms and rhetorical arguments. Now particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one. And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will.”

    Aristotle – “Objection 5. Further, the Philosopher says: “According as each one is, such does the end seem to him.” But it is not in our power to be of one quality or another; for this comes to us from nature. Therefore it is natural to us to follow some particular end, and therefore we are not free in so doing.”

    Thomas – “Reply to Objection 5. Quality in man is of two kinds: natural and adventitious. Now the natural quality may be in the intellectual part, or in the body and its powers. From the very fact, therefore, that man is such by virtue of a natural quality which is in the intellectual part, he naturally desires his last end, which is happiness. Which desire, indeed, is a natural desire, and is not subject to free-will, as is clear from what we have said above (I:82:2). But on the part of the body and its powers man may be such by virtue of a natural quality, inasmuch as he is of such a temperament or disposition due to any impression whatever produced by corporeal causes, which cannot affect the intellectual part, since it is not the act of a corporeal organ. And such as a man is by virtue of a corporeal quality, such also does his end seem to him, because from such a disposition a man is inclined to choose or reject something. But these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason, which the lower appetite obeys, as we have said (I:81:3. Wherefore this is in no way prejudicial to free-will.

    The adventitious qualities are habits and passions, by virtue of which a man is inclined to one thing rather than to another. And yet even these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason. Such qualities, too, are subject to reason, as it is in our power either to acquire them, whether by causing them or disposing ourselves to them, or to reject them. And so there is nothing in this that is repugnant to free-will.”

  15. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    27. August 2018 at 10:37

    These kinds of topics draw me to them like a moth to flame—-don’t know why. Plus I always think I have better answers than anyone—-just me—-or can get to them better. Which is not the same as that being true. I am not at all clear what you mean by “meaning”. I have never understood that word in any other way except as a “definition” (e.g., the meaning of the word “acceleration”; or the meaning of the words “heart attack; or the meaning of the term “gamma-ray bursts” etc, etc,). You do not mention if you feel more “content” or “anxious” than when you were younger, but for some reason it seems like the former.

  16. Gravatar of bill bill
    27. August 2018 at 11:19

    Fair enough. Would you take a position on the FOMC? Even if you couldn’t persuade anyone there, just being a lone contrary vote can be a great way to highlight your ideas.

  17. Gravatar of Jason Smith Jason Smith
    27. August 2018 at 11:29

    It’d be impossible for me to not comment on a blog post that references both 2001 and Borges. I recently bought a first edition of the 2001 comic book (no, really) and it sits next to my copy of Borges: Selected Non-Fictions (which includes many of his book and film reviews).

    It’s funny that I’ve switched my personal interests in the opposite direction from physics to economics — because I saw econ as a new frontier open to discovery.

  18. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    27. August 2018 at 15:11

    Scott, your religious beliefs are absurd and self-refuting, or at least the certainty of them is. How do you know there isn’t free will? You act as if there is – you need this belief to function. Shouldn’t this tell us something, something about the power of thoughts, the meaning-giving power of language.

    Open yourself to the littlest bit of mystery and see what happens. For human beings with rich internal live, with such nuanced psyches to be able to even have an “inside” and “outside” view – for this to be the product of accrued chemical accidents – this seems ridiculous.

    We are God’s children, Scott. Whoever God is. Regardless of theology, I assure you that there is a way to avoid despair without self-deception. And I would add that meaning is more magical than the sentimental attachment a child has with their favorite toy car. I’m not sure how to precisely define meaning, but I think it is subjective in the best of senses: it is the indestructible and most inner self reifying, asserting its everliving vitality.

    Best,
    Steve

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. August 2018 at 15:59

    Hazel, Yes, I have a child who is now grown up and doing well. But I’m not sure I had much influence on her. She’s very much her own person. I certainly didn’t “mold” her. Still, I enjoy seeing her success.

    Student, I don’t see how that relates to the free will debate. We all agree that people have reason and also make choices.

    Michael, Yes, perhaps less anxious than when I was young.

    Bill, Probably not at this point in my life. I’m content out here in California, where I just moved. I’d also have no interest in going through confirmation hearings. Check out the Goodfriend hearings and then imagine they started asking me about my blog posts!

    “Inflation doesn’t matter”?

    “Well, it’s not what you think . . .”

    But no worries, Trump would never pick me.

    Jason, For me, genetics are an interesting new frontier. I enjoy all the articles about who migrated where throughout history.

    Borges’s nonfiction might well be his best work.

  20. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    27. August 2018 at 16:21

    Might be too late to add this, but since you mentioned an interest in physics and astronomy…

    Your post reminded me of a feeling I’ve had in recent years where the progress of life seems a bit like the ‘heat death’ of the universe. I heard this expression on a Brian Cox doco and was blown away – here it is for lazy people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Untoik6c_gs

  21. Gravatar of Student Student
    27. August 2018 at 18:42

    Interesting because I think it’s right on point. The existence of human reason implies that free will must also exist even if Aristotle’s objection is accepted.

  22. Gravatar of Larry Larry
    27. August 2018 at 23:38

    Your work has been quite meaningful to me. You changed the way I think about something I consider to be very important. The other guy who did that was Milton Friedman. I expect that your work on the Depression will steadily seep into the mainstream, as MM is doing.
    The metric I use for my life is “contribution”, not “meaning”, which I find much harder to define. It’s a big world. I don’t expect that my actions will shift it much, but work toward ensuring that any such shifts will be directionally good. If anything, advancing age has given me more of a nuanced interpretation that has increased my sense of contribution. Your contributions have not been what you’ve told us you’ve read, but what you’ve written. That work is moving us forward, albeit too slowly. Thanks.
    Writers:
    Fiction – Melville, Bellow, Nabokov, Stephenson
    Non: Pinker, Diamond, Haidt, Chernow

  23. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    28. August 2018 at 07:00

    More than anyone, Scott Sumner is responsible for bringing NGDP targeting into the mainstream. That is, without a doubt, one great career accomplishment. And one that will have an enormous impact on the Fed, more impact than if Sumner had been Fed chair. I’m a bit older than Sumner, and I sometimes am guilty of looking back and contemplating what I might have done differently. We make choices in life, sometimes for selfish reasons and sometimes for more noble reasons. I don’t know why Sumner chose to make this blog post, but his students, his readers, and his friends can assure him that he has enriched the life of all of them.

  24. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    28. August 2018 at 08:45

    What’s the book on psychedelics? I just finished “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan on the revival of research into psychedelics. When reading that book and your post, I was reminded of this verse from Wordsworth:

    “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight
    To me did seem
    Apparelled in celestial light,
    The glory and the freshness of a dream.
    It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
    Turn wheresoe’er I may,
    By night or day,
    The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

    Pollan’s book, in a nutshell, is about how psychedelics turn off the default mode network in the brain to let us see the world as children again.

  25. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    28. August 2018 at 10:01

    To summarize: Youth has supreme value over aging, and we have no control over that. The facets of life we do have control over, such as careers, ultimately have little value in life. That is quite a fatalistic, miserable outlook.

    One logical conclusion is that “the most important problem in the world” would involve curing these horrific aspects of aging that are afflicting 100% of people on Earth.

    Would Sumner rather have perfect youth, but live in the poverty of North Korea, or have a high standard of living in the US , with the health problems and lack of meaning and other horrors of advancing age?

  26. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    28. August 2018 at 11:09

    “Thus my inside view is, ‘of course I have free will’ and my outside view is, ‘of course free will doesn’t exist.'”

    I think the idea of whether free will does or doesn’t exist is a little pointless, or meaningless. Here for once Brad Delong is way ahead of our hero (SS, of course). A couple of years ago he linked to a great piece by a brain researcher pointing out, I thought in convincing detail, that our understanding of how the brain works is far more rudimentary than most people believe – we don’t really have any idea how it really works, yet.

    And then much more recently Delong linked to JA Wheeler’s “it from bit” paper. The universe is just information – okay, now that I know that, what?

    I think when you put these two things together the correct “outside” view on free will (if I understand this term correctly, I take it to mean something like “intuition” versus “what we actually know”) is not “of course free will doesn’t exist” but instead something more like “of course we may not be even 5% of the way to answering the free will question, or perhaps even understanding the question.”

  27. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    28. August 2018 at 11:16

    “The most meaningful experience in my life might have been seeing the film 2001 at age 13.”

    Here’s where it all went sadly wrong. Imagine how much more rich and complex – and meaningful – this man’s life would have been if he was inserting the words “Barry Lyndon” here, and not “2001.” Oh well.

    (Obligatory moronic comment, sorry).

  28. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    28. August 2018 at 11:25

    “Meaning is also more likely to be visible in dreams, and (I’m told) in psychedelic trips on LSD or mushrooms.”

    What if SS is not being truthful here? To be honest, I have long ascribed p > 0 to the theory that all of the amazing insights SS has put forward on this blog are in fact “psychedelic” in origin. (This isn’t the first time drugs have been a topic here).

    From here there are two main branches of thought. One is that SS’s (putative, of course) tripping has led to these insights due to standard “re-adjusting the brain’s wiring” theory. The other is that said tripping has left SS “open” to some kind of occult forces; e.g. some sort of 2001-like pan-galactic consciousness or perhaps some sort of human extra-human consciousness.

    Maybe SS has actually been channeling the insights of some famous economist of the past, like Smith or Hume!

    Or maybe he never enjoys anything stronger than an occasional glass of wine. Oh well.

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. August 2018 at 15:34

    Rajat, Sounds more like “lack of heat death”.

    Student, I don’t see why.

    Larry and Rayward, Thanks.

    Carl, Yes, that’s the book.

    Massimo, I did mention North Korea in the post.

    Anon/Portly, I think you misunderstood me. I also find the free will question to be meaningless, or uninteresting.

    I’ve seen Barry Lyndon several times, it’s a great film. BTW, there’s a huge difference between best moviegoing experience and best film. Seeing “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” at age 8 was near the top of my “experience” list, but I doubt it’s a very good film.

    As far as admitting LSD use, I’d gladly do so if it were truthful. I’m actually sort of embarrassed that I’m too apathetic to have even tried the drug. The only illegal drug I ever tried was pot, and that was when people passed it to be at a party. I’m quite lazy.

  30. Gravatar of Raver Raver
    29. August 2018 at 00:21

    Dr. Sumner,

    I have a really dumb question. I’ve been reading economics blogs, including yours, for about a decade. As an undergrad, I took both micro and macro economics courses (at UT Austin), but didn’t feel like I learned anything in them (probably my fault).

    But overall I’ve read a decent amount about economics for a non-economist, at least I think so. I read Marginal Revolution every day and have read a number of books on the subject.

    My dumb question is simply about the laws of supply and demand. After all these years, I’m still confused about what exactly demand is. Supply is easy, it’s quantitative. There’s a certain number of cattle out there. But what the hell is demand? It sounds like it’s what people want and can afford. Is there a better definition than that? If not, isn’t it really weird that supply is so objective while demand is so subjective? They seem to be treated as if they are both equally objective, yet I can’t fathom that they are. Demand seems nebulous and subject to fashion. I even get the feeling sometimes that demand is best described as “fashion”.

    Am I way off board on my ideas about demand? Is there a better way to describe it? Is there any philosophical concern within economics that demand is treated as if it were as objective a concept as supply?

  31. Gravatar of Student Student
    29. August 2018 at 19:08

    Scott, you have already acknowledged that humans are rational and make choices. If they make those choices without some coercive influence or by more than simply natural instinct, what else would you call that if not free will? Clearly human beings are not like rocks or even animals.. right?

    We posses the ability to reason and make free (free-er) choices. Not perfectly, or everywhere and all the time and in every particular action. There is a probabilistic and path dependent aspect of human action as well but the ability to reason and to reason creatively (not accidentally, instinctually, or under coercion) means free will has to exist at some level, no? Determinism just doesn’t fit the bill.

  32. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    30. August 2018 at 14:43

    I’m glad you saw some meaning in the summer course you taught, and I hope you also saw some meaning in the students you taught at Bentley. At least a few saw some meaning in the courses :)

    It’s been almost six years since your course and the things you taught me still have a huge influence on my work as a professional investor!

  33. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    31. August 2018 at 09:12

    @Student:

    The ‘no free will’ position is that all of those human actions and decisions you are calling ‘freely willed’ are just the result of chemicals in your brain that ‘you’ have no control over, and that are happening because with no volition of your own you were born and raised to have those particular chemicals and electrical impulses occur when you make decisions. There’s no ‘you’ only chemistry.

    It’s pretty bleak.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. August 2018 at 15:50

    Raver, I’m afraid you are wrong about supply—it’s not the number of cattle out there. Supply and demand are both similar concepts, they are the amount offered for sale, or to purchase, at various price points.

    Garrett, Yes, I have very fond memories of teaching you and the other students at Bentley that had a real interest in the subject.

    Student, I also deny personal identity, the idea that there is a “you” to make choices.

  35. Gravatar of Student Student
    4. September 2018 at 14:02

    Scott,

    Interesting. So If you don’t believe people have free will or that there is any exogenous there there in a person… it seems as though you would have no valid objections to something like slavery. If you do, I would like to know why. I mean, if one were to provide their slaves with a steady supply of something like cocaine, they would be plenty happy since happiness is just a mental state that we could induce via cocaine, and since they have no free will anyways, we don’t need to worry about their free choices or anything like that. So no harm no foul, right? On what basis would you object to that, given you deny the existence of free will or the existence of a exogenous “me”? Sometimes you come off as a “blue pill” kind of guy.

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. September 2018 at 21:00

    Student, You said:

    “So If you don’t believe people have free will or that there is any exogenous there there in a person… it seems as though you would have no valid objections to something like slavery. If you do, I would like to know why. I mean, if one were to provide their slaves with a steady supply of something like cocaine, they would be plenty happy since happiness is just a mental state that we could induce via cocaine, and since they have no free will anyways, we don’t need to worry about their free choices or anything like that.”

    I doubt that cocaine makes people happy. But even if it does, I’d rather be a free person using cocaine than a slave using cocaine.

  37. Gravatar of Student Student
    6. September 2018 at 21:53

    Come on man. Engage the central argument. What is freedom without free will and sapientcy?

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