Against Thinking About The Unactionable
Originally published on my blog.
There’s always something that bothered me about people that talk too much about politics, especially at a national or global scale, especially using abstract concepts like “capitalism” and “socialism” rather than pointing to specific laws and regulations.
There’s always something that bothered me about people that talk too much about history. Especially the kind where they focus on specific regimes, or battles, or empires or rulers… the kind of people that will argue about what-ifs during the world wars.
There’s always something that bothered me about the areas of science that deal with items that can’t be proven experimentally. Such as cosmology and geology, making models 1001 inferential steps away from what can be observed, for the sake of “understanding” rather than for pragmatic purposes (predictive power).
i — Usefulness
I think the best way to summarize this is it bothers me when people talk about unactionable things.
There’s obviously no hard line between the unactionable and the difficult. Two hundred years ago we may have said that a theory of evolution or genetics is “unactionable”, but it turns out that with our modern tooling it’s quite actionable, and in part, our modern tooling may have been developed due to those primitive theories. A hundred years ago we may have said relativity is “unactionable”, but it turns out that it’s rather essential once you want to launch and use thousands of satellites.
But some things do seem clearly unactionable. Talking about poorly documented battles 2000 years ago as though they bear any relevance to anything except a macabre enjoyment of territorial violence is just silly. Talking about “how the universe began” or “how the universe will end” is equally silly.
What about talking politics?
Let’s take a simple example like “debating the benefits/drawbacks of socialism”. If you are a countries president, doing this might be somewhat relevant. Yes, socialism is a vague concept, but going in front of a nation and saying “this government will implement/retract socialist reforms” is highly relevant, it gives your subordinates and your population a sense of direction without having to read 5000 pages of laws. Similarly, debating it with an opponent is useful, because, once again, neither of you can read the 5000 pages of laws your teams are proposing. Having it as a general idea when approving the laws your team is proposing is good, it can be a north star to guide your actions.
But what if you are an average Joe on the street? Someone with 1 vote out of 100 million, a vote that you probably very know who you will cast with anyway.
It seems fairly safe to assume that you should spend at most a few minutes thinking about “the benefits/drawbacks of socialism”. It bears about the same relevance to you as understanding string theory, though probably less since string theory does at least describe something very fundamental about reality, even if that description seems kind of useless.
Yet average Joe’s on the street put a lot of effort into discussing and “understanding” and “forming opinions around” such vague concepts. While completely ignoring the elements of politics they could actually be informed about and make a change in, for example electing small-time local officials with a voter base of hundreds to thousands, where there’s a good chance a vote or a convincing argument to a friend may make a felt difference to your life within the next few months.
Indeed, this goes beyond politics, and in areas that flabbergast me much more. I have heard dozens of people talking about monetary policies, cryptos, corporate regulations, and governance. Over, and over, and over for hours on end, sometimes even when sober. Yet you ask them about what they invest in, and most of them shrug and say they don’t actually invest, or they just put money into an arbitrary pension fund their employer suggested to them when they were 18, or at best they buy index funds. Why not spend all that energy thinking about and debating a better investment strategy than buying SYP puts?
This seems harmful to me for several reasons.
For one it’s just a lot of wasted creativity, energy and, focus. Science is not perfect by any chance, doing actual science (read: experimenting) is hard. But theorizing and reviewing research is also difficult. Heck, even suggesting ideas for experiments or experimental methods is non-trivial.
Many-o interesting findings came out of a bar argument turned experiment. Foundational theories of neuroscience and biology came from people getting high and spewing almost-random nonsense at each other about the world. Deliberation and uninformed mind-wandering are not nearly as useful as focused research, but we do a lot more of it, and it’s much easier and more fun.
This need not happen on a global scale to be worthwhile. Indeed, to you or I, it is more valuable the fewer people do it. There are currently numerous multi-disciplinary gold nuggets to be stumbled upon by anyone that’d manage to turn a large chunk of their discussions and dialogues to practical matters, or at least matters with a probability of being practical that isn’t asymptotic to zero.
ii — Harms
I think the main reason this is harmful, besides all that lost potential, is reaching conclusions that collide with reality.
In the abstract, you could think of this in predictive processing terms as inducing a large amount of stress, because reality as it “should be” does not match actual reality, and there is no way to reconcile the two.
You can think of people becoming social recluses because they don’t “agree” with broad social or political trends. People so distraught about “capitalism” or “modern sexuality” or “dropping the gold standard” that they start making irrational decisions that withdraw them from society, cost them friends, money, and, most importantly, internal peace and quiet.
The extreme end of this needn’t and usually doesn’t happen. It can be something as simple as a person being too anxious and angry to function optimally, to enjoy life. Going for a hike through a beautiful valley and having the mind constantly wonder to predicting the results of tonight’s game.
Another harm, I’d speculate, is that we end up with maladaptive conceptual frameworks which are easy to access.
If you think of everything as a “struggle for power”, life will never be good. You will view every situation as adversarial, everyone as “out to get you”, every institution as unjust.
If you shoehorn problems of meaning into religion and cosmology, you might just manage to overlook the blinding meaning of almost countless things, actions, thoughts, and the way they blend.
If you approach the study of nature within the framework for studying history you will be stuck thinking about impossible puzzles instead of going out in the world and querying reality experimentally.
It may well be that unactionable subjects are easier to think about and get into.
Indeed, I’m almost certain they are much more memetically fit than actionable ones, otherwise, they’d have been eliminated by virtue of the people they infect losing social influence.
But this is not necessarily a good thing.
I noticed that discussions about things like politics have a tendency to go late into the night, are often correlated to drug abuse, and sometimes lead to fights.
Conversely, I think most conversations I’ve heard and had about actionable subjects tend to stop when participants are tired enough that they notice no progress is being made. They encourage some degree of sobriety, sufficient that I don’t think they correlate with liver and lung damage.
However, much like fruits start tasting sweet and flavorful if one gives up candy while being filling enough to not lead to overeating. So could constructive and actionable subjects feel pleasant and easy to discuss if you are careful to limit exposure to their harmful but more memetically fit counterparts.
Note: I know I’m kind of handwaving a lot here by saying “memetically fit”, sorry, I can’t think of any other short way to convey the idea.
Finally, I think it’s harmful because it makes us overlook solutions to our problems by mistaking their cause. I think my favorite SMBC comic puts it best:
To give a meta example here: I am writing this post because I got a new article in the mail from a blog I frequently read; I noticed that it dealt with politics, namely the macroeconomic, pie-in-the-sky, let’s change the fundamentals of the world kind. I disagree with ingesting these sorts of ideas for the reasons described here. But I noticed that the very existence of this article caused me distress… a bit of, anger, anxiety.
Why might this be? Obviously, because it is a memetic threat to me and the people I care about, I must do something to stop this! … No, no, I looked at the clock and noticed it was almost 1 AM. That’s likely what is causing me distress, I drank coffee and stayed up late, I think it had little to do with the actual email. I may indeed be right in what I am writing here, but my reasoning for doing it is deeply flawed.
Even if my distress is a combination of being up too late and that article, the bit I should be focusing on is going to sleep since that’s the one thing I’m certain I can change.
We may use pie-in-the-sky unactionable issues as a mask for doing the hard-but-actually-useful things that would change our lives for the better.
- I am depressed because I live in an oppressive oligarchic patriarchy!
- Did you try allocating 2 hours a day to physical activity, doing breathing exercises, getting a stable sleep schedule, and reducing your eating window?
- That wouldn’t fix the system!
- No, but it might fix the mental state you’re in, and that may reveal how much “the system” is to blame for how you feel and how much of it is just extrapolating personal issues onto society as a whole.
That kind of thing.
This is not to say this applies to every situation. If you live in Russia or Ukraine right now you’re probably actively being made miserable by armed criminals sent to commit mass murder by the oligarchs controlling them. The KGB remains an issue no matter how hard you “work on yourself”. But even then, thinking about actionable things such as fleeing or helping a resistance movement with small acts is probably still much more useful than just decrying the horrible conditions you are under; Without invalidating the fact that the things outside of your control are actually horrible and the main cause of your issues.
iii — Against
I think there are a few good arguments against my stance here, so I will go through them one by one and give a short reason why I believe they fail.
I’ve noticed that both for myself and others, watching or reading fiction is a good way to fall asleep. For nights when I am particularly restless I have a book about quantum computing ready on my e-reader, it has never failed to guide me to the kingdom of dreams. Almost 2 years in I’m still only halfway through, the efficacy of it is tremendous.
The same applies to many other things, after all the signals our bodies send to us are not always “correct” in the broad scheme of things. With things like food and sex, they are almost certainly always wrong due to living in an environment full of superstimuli and “unnatural” abundance.
Plus, if we don’t interpret these stimuli wrongfully through “unactionable” frameworks, we might interpret them wrongfully through “actionable” frameworks. This is the entrepreneur that earned a lot of money in spite of the fact that what they needed were love and validation. The monk went into isolation for years when all they really needed was to move to a smaller town with less pollution and fewer people. The patient got a life-ruining surgery for back pain that was caused by chronic muscle tightness which would have gone away after a few more months or years.
We aren’t anywhere close to perfectly reasonable or rational. So in that sense, thinking about unactionable problems might be a useful trick to limit the harm we can do by misattributing the sensation of being exposed to superstimuli.
I would say though, that this is an argument for reading and caring more about things like fiction or games. These are perfectly “unactionable” in the sense I am describing, they lead to no change upon physical reality, but are easy enough to dissolve at the right time that they won’t cause too much harm.
It’s easier to say to someone “relax, it’s just game” than “relax, it’s just a change of government”.
Next up, I think one could argue that unactionable frameworks are easy to latch onto and can serve as an umbrella for acquiring new actionable ones.
The prime examples here are scientific theories with little or no falsifiability or predictive power that contain useful sub-theories. Tectonic plates may be, for all intents and purposes fictional, but it provides a shared abstraction under which to learn practical theories.
As a personal anecdote, I’ve made some pretty major changes in my life by striving to live under a low-tax regime and learning how and where to change my fiscal residency if matters turn sour with my current setup. I also want to say I have some above-average investments in terms of safety while maintaining significant profits
These, I believe, first came about via exactly the kind of empty chatter about pie-in-the-sky issues around taxation, economic safety, and fairness, which at the time I had no way of addressing. But once an opportunity arose that “fixed” those issues I was able to see it clearly and snatch it.
I still think this leaves out a lot of unactionable subjects which we can historically see bought little to no such benefits.
Finally, you could argue there are benefits derived from talking about such subjects.
Benefits that do lead to practical results in the real world and convey wellbeing to the bearer of unactionable subjects.
One can blame Lenin for uselessly thinking about the pie-in-the-sky idea of communism right up until he managed to convince enough people about it to become the de-facto dictator of Russia. It’s arguable whether or not this was good for Lenin, for the sake of argument let’s say it was. The same goes for essentially all important politicians.
In the realm of writing, it’s no secret that more eyeballs are drawn to hot-button unactionable issues than to more practical subjects which often seem dry.
My first argument against this stance would be something like the categorical imperative, but talking about pie-in-the-sky impractical matters, that may well be one of them.
My second argument against this is that you aren’t immune to the things you are paddling, and all of the harms caused by having those frameworks will not only haunt those you infect with them but also yourself. So you may be gaining benefits, but they come with drawbacks.
My third argument against this is that there are ways of discussing unactionable subjects such that they do lead to more practical matters, which would be hard to drive interest towards in any other way. But you must at least make the effort to try and explicitly point out the useful conclusions.