Mind Makes Right

After reading “War And Peace” earlier this year I finally decided to give Ayn Rand’s Big Book “Atlas Shrugged” a try. I had read “For the New Intellectual” a few years back and was pretty familiar with her philosophy so none of that came as much of a surprise to me. Some things about the book did surprise me though. I am not going to summarize the book. That’s what Wikipedia is for.

She says about the book that she wanted to make the characters starkly drawn and ideal to illustrate her point. She definitely succeeds here. There are characters in Dr Seuss books with more nuance and surprise than any of the characters in this book.

Its a world where the Mind rules. Spirituality is nothing more than a synonym for weakness. Sensuality (sexual or not) is only valid in the proper philosophical context. Unless you are Dagny (or sleeping with her) there is no real pleasure to be had in anything except beating down —Im sorry, Improving upon— nature. What other possible kind of fulfillment can there be for man? Its pretty clear Ms Rand has never gone surfing.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t cover some heavy topics but it covers them in a very black and white way. Ms Rand’s world is one of perfect Giant Men (Dagny not excepted) whose major inner strife is how to best apply their perfection. Success is all about industrial production from an idealized capitalist perspective, where worker’s rights, environmental impact and safety concerns dare not tarnish the rapturous beauty of the blue green sheen of Rearden Metal.

In the larger context I don’t feel qualified to judge her philosophy er, philosophically, but I do think some of her arguments become much less convincing because of the fact that she seems to need such extreme examples and circumstances to make her point. In over 600,000 or so words Rand finds no room for grey. She calls her philosophy Objectivism, and seems convinced that all other modern thinkers are saying that everything is Subjective and therefore not real or has no real meaning. I am uncomfortable with either and prefer to see the world not as Subjective but very Complicated/Textured and therefore not a good fit a Fairy Tale presentation of the world as she would like it to be.

Still I do see why the book is so attractive to many people who would call themselves engineers of one kind or another, myself included. We have all sat in meetings and felt the life force or money sucked right out of us by the moochers and the looters. Its not hard to see the world as a place were some people create things and everyone else lives off of them. I do think that she is right about many of these points. I understand why the choir listens when she is preaching. Lots of people want to believe they are Henry Rearden when in reality they are James Taggert.

Another thing I didn’t expect is that despite all of the above, its a pretty good story. It reads pretty fast for being over 1000 pages and even has a “hard to put down” kind of feel at least in the first 700 or so pages. I love Tolstoy more but it took me much longer to get through his book despite it being shorter. Towards the end of Atlas though I began to tire of the preaching and the details of each new way the railroad is falling apart and was just waiting to see if something interesting is really going to happen at the end. I won’t spoil it.

I would say overall the most important take away I have from the book is a better working definition of what a Libertarian is.

Its a person who doesn’t understand that Atlas Shrugged is only a novel.

Optimal Flow

I have been hearing alot about the concept of Flow popularized mostly by the pyschologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I decided to read the book to see what more there was to it all. While I liked most of it and I think the concept is a useful one, the book suffers from the same problem most nonfiction books I have read lately in that it has alot more words in it than it has to say. Social scientists and thier ilk seem to accept that anecdote is not definitive evidence but seem to want to compensate for this by just providing alot more anecdotes.

But getting back to Flow. Flow is a state one enters when performing a task where the challenge is matched well with your abilities. Not too easy so you don’t get bored and not too hard so you aren’t frustrated. Csikszentmihalyi says this is Optimal experience and basically says that it is the basis of real happiness. What is a flow experience?

From Wikipedia:

As Csikszentmihalyi sees it, components of an experience of flow can be specifically enumerated; he presents the following:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible).
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time – one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. When in the flow state, people become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging

Now I have certainly felt this way before when doing some computer programming and things are going well. I have also felt it in other situations where its more physical than mental and I have to say that it all cases it does feel great and gives you a sense of real enjoyment.

What I’m not so sure about is are these items above the definition of Optimal experience as Csikszentmihalyi claims.

If this kind of experience is Optimal and the best source of happiness then I think I’m putting way too much effort into self-improvement and building and maintaining relationships with others. I’m wasting my time trying to learn Spanish and alot of the reading I’m doing is at best an inefficient path to happiness.

Why? Becuase I can achieve All  of the 9 items listed above quite readily and sustainably simply by playing Age of Empires.

Nothing about the flow experience which Csikszentmihalyi describes says the activity has to have any lasting meaning or value. He is careful in the book to use examples which seems to indicate clear accomplishments. Most of his examples are about rock climbers, surgeons,  or dancers  which seem like such admirable or at least interesting endeavors. He does try to point out that being drunk or stoned while still feeling good is not really as good as flow and I would tend to agree but I guess I’d like to see his view on the flow experience of a 50 year old obese guy living alone and  playing Counter Strike for 6 hours straight.

He does spend the entire last chapter talking about meaning. But its not really all that connected to the idea of flow. Its basically a summary of (mostly western) views on the subject and some developmental psychology thrown in. I actually liked the chapter in parts but I was not able to connect it to flow. Maybe being able to do that is the real secret.