Crystallization and confirmation bias

In De L'Amour Stendhal suggests the concept of crystallization, which according to him is part of the process of being in love. Crystallization is, as Stendhal puts it, "a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one". I think Stendhal is right, that is, that everyone who has the experience of being in love has the experience of crystallization.

"Crystallization" seems to me, however, just a fancy term for the kind of confirmation bias that a lover has towards her beloved. A person has confirmation bias towards something that she wants to be the case when she selectively notices or focuses upon evidence that would support it while ignoring evidence that would confute it. A lover wants her beloved to be perfect, which is why she "draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one", and is blind to whatever flaws her beloved has. When you call this confirmation bias, it sounds bad; but when you call it crystallization, it sounds romantic. As it is sometimes said, this is mere semantics.


Stendhal's epitaph

Stendhal wrote his own epitaph: "Errico Beyle, Milanese: visse, scrisse, amò." (Henri Beyle, Milanese: he lived, wrote, loved.) His real name was Marie-Henri Beyle, and he did live, write, and love. If I were him, however, I would reverse the order of the words and write "he loved, wrote, lived". It was because he loved that he was able to write about the things he wrote, and it was because he loved and wrote that he lived his life to the fullest extent.


Fame as a disequilibrium

In The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, Milan Kundera says something very interesting about fame:

A man becomes famous when the number of people who know him is markedly greater than the number he knows. The recognition enjoyed by a great surgeon is not fame: he is admired not by a public but by his patients, by his colleagues. He lives in equilibrium. Fame is a disequilibrium. There are professions that drag it along behind them necessarily, unavoidably: politicians, supermodels, athletes, artists.

Kundera seems to imply that fame as a disequilibrium is a bad thing, that is, bad for the person who is famous. But why is it bad for a person that the number of people who know him greatly exceeds the number of people he knows?

I think in order for fame to be bad for the person who is famous, there has to be another disequilibrium: the number of people who know him is markedly greater than the number of people who have good reasons to know him. Such disequilibrium is bad for the person who is famous because what he gets is no more than others' attention. Such attention is not accompanied by respect or admiration, but may still give the person who receives the attention a false sense of accomplishment and an inflated ego.


How to read Wittgenstein

I always emphasize to my students that philosophy starts with problems rather than answers or solutions: if you have not been troubled by and grappled with a philosophical problem, it would be a waste of time for you to try to understand suggested solutions to the problem. This is, I think, Wittgenstein's view of philosophy too. I cannot agree more with John W. Cook when he writes:

It would go very much against Wittgenstein's spirit to proceed as though one could recognize the solution to a philosophical problem without being oneself in the grip of that problem. Unfortunately, many of Wittgenstein's would-be followers seem to think that one can do philosophy by starting from Wittgenstein's view that philosophical problems are nothing but intellectual muddles. Those who proceed in this manner tend to think that philosophical problems can be dealt with, as it were, from the outside, as if one could plant oneself firmly in some safe, uncontaminated region and hand down solutions in a pontifical manner. The 'solutions' thus arrived at typically fail to engage with the problems they are meant to solve, but they also, because of their glibness, infuriate philosophers who are grappling with those problems. Their glibness, which is merely annoying, is of less moment than the fact that they fail to engage with the targeted problem, which makes it appear that Wittgenstein, too, failed to address those problems. (Wittgenstein, Empiricism, and Language, p.202)

This passage beautifully connects Wittgenstein's view of philosophy to how Wittgenstein's philosophy should be read. Bravo!


State of nature in the snow

Here is an interesting moral question posed in an article in The New Republic:

For those who managed to liberate their cars from the Snowpocalypse of 2010, another tricky moral dilemma can lead to some volatile confrontations: If you dig your car out from its frozen tomb, do you then own that parking spot until the sun melts open the rest of the curbside space?

Some cities have laws that help answer that question. Boston has, for example, a city law that says if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, you can mark that spot as yours for at least two days. Most cities, however, don't have such laws.

If this kind of situation is considered a small-scale state of nature, then we may use Locke's definition of private property in the state of nature to answer the above question: You own something if it is a result of your mixing your labor with freely available materials. The answer is thus "Yes, you own that parking spot." But there must be laws to make sure that people act according to this definition.

Indeed, in those cities in which there are no relevant laws helping determine who owns a parking spot like that, the situation does look like a small-scale state of nature. Here is the closing paragraph of the article:

After the 1996 storm, a man was killed outside New York after a dispute over a shoveled parking spot. In Philadelphia in 2000, it happened again. In South Boston, a handful of assaults, slashed tires and other cases of vandalism end up in District Court each year after drivers are perceived to have broken the code.



I have always found the notion of randomness hard to understand. It is not that I don't understand what people are saying when they use the word "random" in certain everyday contexts, such as when someone says "I was randomly assigned to this team", but that I don't have a clear understanding of how randomness is supposed to be understood as related to probability, chance, and predictability.

Right after the first appearance of the word "random" in his An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic, Ian Hacking remarks, "Randomness is a very hard idea." This really struck a chord with me when I first read it. Although Hacking goes on to give something like a definition of "randomness", he is very careful in formulating it:

Outcomes from a chance setup are random (we think) if outcomes are not influenced by the outcomes of previous trials.

Notice the parenthetical "we think".

I am going to read with some colleagues Hacking's famous book The Emergence of Probability. Hope this will help me understand randomness better.


Murakami's trick

I like to write in the morning, particularly if I am writing something long and difficult, something that requires a very clear mind. However, if I start in the morning but am not able to get much written after several hours, I will feel like I have lost my momentum and for the rest of the day I probably won't be able to write much either. The following trick that Haruki Murakami uses, which he mentions in his book What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, may help solve my problem:

Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day's work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up with the rhythm.