The flight of the badminton shuttle

Once upon a time, I was sitting in a computer lab with a management-type. Let us call him A. A was a quite successful manager, male, late 30s, who wanted to beef up his career with a master’s degree from a top institute to further climb the corporate ladder.

As was our wont those days, we would sit into the late hours of the night, solving assignments, writing papers or writing up theses. In those days, I was more intuitively-argumentative (as opposed to tempered-argumentative) as he centered on “If you truly believe X is possible, then X is possible”.

Even at the time, I was struck by this solipsistic position, not because it was a surprising idea, but because I did not expect it from a successful businessman who was possibly approaching his midlife crisis.

His position was that if you believe that you can fly, like in the song (you know the one), then indeed you can. And most (all) people cannot fly because they do not believe hard enough.

I was of course unsuccessful in convincing him at the time that belief had nothing to do with it, and we went on a little back and forth on the mechanics of flight – and air densities and lifts and such – because of which, actually, we are able to build flying machines although we humans couldn’t ourselves fly like birds; at the end of which, he concluded that I did not believe hard enough, and I was too caught up in my engineer modes of thought. The argument spread (as arguments do) into mechanistic thinking; whether or not God exists; how is it that we are able to anticipate and hit badminton-shuttles without needing to understand projectile-motion-mechanics; and how for all my purported mechanistic ways, I still promoted use of blackguard “thought-experiments” – which for him was unholy smoke.

He called the argument off with “This is what is wrong with you engineer types. You think that science explains everything”. I was miffed not because he drew a stereotype as some may have objected, but because he drew an imprecise and incorrect stereotype (which is stereotypically what an engineer may say, for instance).

Subsequently, I have encountered several solipsistic arguments ranging from Boltzmann brains and brains in vats – to the less fancier – “If one isn’t there to watch a sunrise tomorrow (eg., if one dies in one’s sleep), then indeed there isn’t a sunrise tomorrow at all”. I have also encountered – usually from the receiving end – several avatars of this Mr. A brand of “optimism bias”, from people in varied stations in life.

Anyhow. Carpe Diem will probably say that such thick, extra dollops of optimism bias enable Mr. A to ride the engineer types who will be forever left singing paeans for realism in the dust that the rosy-visionists will rake up. Meanwhile, I wonder why Mr. A needed this rosy-outlook at that stage of his life.

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28 comments
  1. Mohit said:

    I am in the potential “Carpe Diem” camp on this one. Extra dollops of optimism are good motivation. Successful businessmen have the ability to temper optimism with a dose of pragmatic realism.

    I think it all boils down to motivation. No one is riding no one here. The engineer gets his thrills from doing his (her?) thang and the manager gets his from doing his thing.

    Eventually realism will bite the rosy-visionist in the rear if their vision is all rose.

  2. madhuri said:

    Rosy outlook helps keep you upbeat as you get older. The more exposed you are to reality, the more susceptible you are to buying optimism. Otherwise, you’ll start thinking, whats the point anyway, my life sucks. Explains why all atheist/practical uncles suddenly become spiritual as they near old age.

  3. unawoken said:

    “The more exposed you are to reality, the more susceptible you are to buying optimism.”

    — that is an interesting take. Yes, people do become more spiritual over time, but do they become optimistic too? I’d think the opposite. I mean, they become pessimistic about their current life and become optimisitc about their “afterlife”.

  4. However, I do agree with you that “the turn to spirituality” represents a deep optimism bias among older people. Their optimism extends beyond this life.

  5. Anonymous said:

    @ Madhuri, By more exposure to reality, you mean more experiences in life right? Coz, the exposure to reality doesn’t increase over time.

    Anyway, I think that very few people change their stances drastically over time, most people simply use their life experiences as examples of their already held opinions and strengthen them more. So a person with an inclination toward spirituality will find that rosy optimism lends credibility to it and embrace it further.

  6. I fail to understand, why being spiritual is always linked with old age?
    Having a rosy attitude with some practical/scientific thinking/background always helps, may you be in twenties or in your mid-life crisis. Its very typical of youngsters to walk the extremes in life and derive strength from the negativities they see around them. In this rat race, we tend to not absorb the positivity that surrounds us, albeit not always evident but present in some form or the other. Realising this positivity is the essence of sprituality and thus helping develop a rosy attitude towards everyday things.
    I believe that “If you truly believe X is possible, then X is possible” is in turn feeding our brain and our mind, the fact that being positive will go a long way (not literally that everything is achievable in any given circumstance), but the strength and faith that nurtures due to this positive behaviour will in turn help a great deal.

  7. Carpe Diem said:

    The commentary on the sheer literalness of the Mr.A discussion will have to wait. I am arrested by the claims on spirituality here. In characteristic Unawoken style, I would like to call for some precision, before we get too carried away.

    1) It is the YOUNG who are irrationally optimistic. It is youth, with its unbounded horizons, massive energy, sexual drive, lack of life experience (and the dark side of humanity one encounters as one grows through life experiences) and a certain ignorance of “mortality” that has better conditions for optimism. Older people tend to be more pragmatic and realistic than younger people. This is why they can harness the energy and optimism of younger people by taking on management roles (where they will exercise essentially parental behaviour, witholding and doling out approval, and motivating the optimism bias of the younger human being with dollops of encouragement, forcing the younger person to expend energy, time, and backbreaking labor from which the older “manager type” assembles “results”). If you want to argue this, go to HR and have them print out for you the median age by management title (Mgr, Dir, VP, SVP and so on) at your local massive corporation.

    2) Older people become spiritual not because they are dreaming of the afterlife (which is true of Indians, but come on, Jews and Christians become more spiritual as they age as well) but because their wider and deeper experience (cumulative) of human nature allows them to be more empathetic. they are also more conscious of their own mortality (and the rapidly advancing finish line) and of the inherent uncertainties of life. Having tried more things (marriages, jobs, ventures, games, friendships, fights), they have realised that luck plays a key role in defining one’s successes, and learn to be a bit more “zen” about life (and I use “zen” in a loose way, to mean, detatched, and relaxed).

    I will come back to Mr. A and whack his managerial ass later. But the essential flaw in Unawoken’s argument with Mr. A is the supposed literalness that each side has taken. if Unawoken has posted this as a joke, to bait comments, I will be wasting my time. But if Unawoken is serious in asking why “management types” believe in optimism, I think there are very clear arguments.

    • Hi Carpe Diem, Like your description and wider distribution of people by age and how spirituality affects their lives. Maybe you should also visit my blog sometime.

      Sadly I have to refute the comment on young people being sprititually challenged. I, personally know of tons of young folks who have embraced the spiritual way, but have not changed a thing about the other things they do in life. I think the crux of the problem is in the term “spirituality” being always and strongly associated with “experience and age”. I strongly believe that one can be enlightened at the age of 10, 15, 20, 25. Of course one wouldnt know how to put it in perspective but if in the right environment and with continous belief in what has been learnt, can help in a huge way. For me, getting enlightened, is realising that one has a pure heart, one can be good (all the time), one can detach oneself from everything and still love everything available in all forms. This might be the lowest or most narrow definition, but come to think of it, this is the starting point. For a young child of 9, to understand this, and to believe this and act along, is evident from the way he behaves with his friends at school and at the playground and also with his family at home. The more he reads about these things (and he neednt read big books of philosophy) but even inspiring tales of little friends and such stories that are more closer to his level of understanding, can help nurture the goodness of the being.

      When it comes to management degrees as such, yes, one needs to go to school, for that one needs to achieve a level of education, for that, one needs to be of a certain age, and thats how our system is setup. If there was such an intelligent child that could jump levels, maybe there is room for exceptions?

      • Hi wordsfromyonder,
        Good response to Carpe Diem, and I just wanted to comment on this:

        “tons of young folks who have embraced the spiritual way, but have not changed a thing about the other things they do in life.”

        — this is what I find very surprising. Of what use, or in what sense does one embrace the spiritual way, if one doesn’t change a thing about the other things ones does with one’s life? One lives one’s life in every respect exactly as one did before, except that now one’s thoughts are spiritual instead of nonspiritual?

  8. wordsfromyonder, thank you for your comment, and welcome to my blog 🙂

    “I fail to understand, why being spiritual is always linked with old age?”

    — I will let madhuri or “Anonymous” to answer that, since they brought the pov to the table.

    ““If you truly believe X is possible, then X is possible” is in turn feeding our brain and our mind, the fact that being positive will go a long way (not literally that everything is achievable in any given circumstance)”

    — I do understand such a tempered positive attitude, and its usefulness. But since “not literally that everything is achievable in any given circumstance” is true, why would one proclaim the more outrageous “If you truly believe X is possible, then X is possible” claim, instead of the more tempered “a positive attitude is useful and gratifying”?

    • Hi unawoken, Thanks for your reply comments.
      I believe most people proclaim the outrageous, instead of adopting a more tempered postive attitude because they enjoy to derive energy from that proclaimation. Energy that the self feeds on. I believe it could be their way of living in this world and not comparing with the next person “UP” on the ladder, but kind of pushing oneself to achieve and succeed by standing alone. This is good and bad in its own way. Good because one is always self-energised, which is the greatest form of strength and energy if tapped, realised and put to use. Bad because of the lack of recognition of competition around us and maybe leading to an escapist attitude towards life?, by living as a singleton to a certain extent and this might not be successful at all levels.

      • wordsfromyonder,

        “I believe most people proclaim the outrageous, instead of adopting a more tempered postive attitude because they enjoy to derive energy from that proclaimation”

        — that is a good answer, and I believe you are on to something there. I think they are trying to program themselves (and those who are around to hear the words), and are not literally speaking the truth, but are speaking “in code”.

      • Carpe Diem said:

        “Good because one is always self-energised, which is the greatest form of strength and energy if tapped, realised and put to use. Bad because of the lack of recognition of competition around us and maybe leading to an escapist attitude towards life?”

        I think this hits the nail on the head, thanks wordsfromyonder!

        Homo sapiens is both a “social” being (as in, has a cognitive machinery whose parameters and functioning are largely set by external influences, through mimicry and hierarchy – even dogs and lions are social) and a “political” one (as in, having evolved complex codes of behaviour, customs/traditions etc., to govern person-to-person interaction and relationship – much more fluidly and variedly than in animals).

        I think it would be disastrous to rely purly on internal compass, and forget that we live within a social matrix that has expectations of us, and exercises a lot of control over us. Likewise, it is painful to be externally driven, and not have an inner “locus of control” at all. The healthy being lives with balance, and I think you hit it on the head. Living as a singleton (with cat like social mores) can only take one so far… (whatever that “so far” means, and yes, unawoken – it has everything to do with social approval, and material gains)… ultimately, recognizing the structure of the matrix we live in, and understanding its own rythms, expectations, and time-constants is critical to being truly functional in a social/political sense.

        And Unawoken finally seems to be releasing the “literal interpretation” of Mr. A (however stupid Mr. A maybe), and recognizing that we speak in code. Indeed, I believe we do.

        The way I see it, trading truths and realities all the time (as Larry David might be wont to do) is a best relegated to an ivory tower of highly evolved beings that can set aside their more visceral emotional responses. The vast majority of humans lives at a lower plane, and need to sustain optimism bias, and use lots of “code” (social stroking, approval seeking and giving) as a kind of emotional lubricant to facilitate the trading of truths.

        Like they say “People won’t care how much you know (of the truth) until they know how much you care (about them)”. Write it off as an aphorism not backed by a peer reviewed paper, but unless we use enough “code” to facilitate, lubricate and otherwise “grease” the spreading of “truth/knowledge” we will run into frictions (emotional ones) that prevent the dissonance from getting through to its next level (“realization”).

  9. Carpe Diem,
    The comments-section has now been handed over to the “spirituality in late-life” discussion. So be it.

    “2) Older people become spiritual not because they are dreaming of the afterlife (which is true of Indians, but come on, Jews and Christians become more spiritual as they age as well) but because their wider and deeper experience (cumulative) of human nature allows them to be more empathetic. they are also more conscious of their own mortality (and the rapidly advancing finish line) and of the inherent uncertainties of life. Having tried more things (marriages, jobs, ventures, games, friendships, fights), they have realised that luck plays a key role in defining one’s successes, and learn to be a bit more “zen” about life (and I use “zen” in a loose way, to mean, detatched, and relaxed).”

    — In all religions, and in the whole laundry list of life experiences you mention, where optimism comes in is in this — “there is something more than ‘just’ this”, or a more generic “you know, these travails are what life is about, but guess what, there is a higher plan/grander purpose or some other exit on the freeway”. In that sense, optimism of youth is squeezed like toothpaste into a grander narrative spiritual optimism about there being “more than ‘just’ this” of later life.

  10. Loki, from Iceland said:
  11. @Carpe Diem,

    ““Good because one is always self-energised, which is the greatest form of strength and energy if tapped, realised and put to use. Bad because of the lack of recognition of competition around us and maybe leading to an escapist attitude towards life?”

    I think this hits the nail on the head, thanks wordsfromyonder!”

    — With much respect to wordsfromyonder, I am not sure which nail it hits on the head. Competition around is not the only barrier one needs to overcome to “do anything” in “anything is possible”. There are a lot of non-human barriers for example, like gravity.

    “I think it would be disastrous to rely purly on internal compass, and forget that we live within a social matrix that has expectations of us, and exercises a lot of control over us. Likewise, it is painful to be externally driven, and not have an inner “locus of control” at all. ”

    — I think you and wordsfromyonder are talking about two different things here. wordsfromyonder meant that “Anything is possible” is an internal-motivation-message. And people hold this in order to rely on themselves. You seem to mean that I rely solely on an internal compass, while some others are solely externally driven. I understand that you are talking beyond the scope of this post based on our other discussions, but I think you are not talking about what wordsfromyonder is talking about, here.

    “And Unawoken finally seems to be releasing the “literal interpretation” of Mr. A (however stupid Mr. A maybe), and recognizing that we speak in code. Indeed, I believe we do. ”

    — I do not think that I “released the literal interpretation” so much as received an answer to my question through wordsfromyonder for “Why proclaim this obviously (to me) ridiculous statement, when all it takes is a couple of lines of thought to see past it?”, and the answer was “We speak in code, and the real purpose of the statement is something else”. Now, that answers my question, and I buy it.

    “we will run into frictions (emotional ones) that prevent the dissonance from getting through to its next level (”realization”).”

    — the way I see it, this realization is not my self-declared job, whereas the dissonance is. I do agree that someone who is more intent on the realization would go about this task differently.

    • Carpe Diem said:

      Unawoken, some responses here.

      1) “Gravity”. Why would any (reasonable) person see the (immutable) constraints of the natural world as being identical with the (situational) constraints of the social world and treat them at the same semantic level?

      I have not met a single “management type” yet that would argue that the human frame (in its current state of evolution, absent fins, feathers, rotors or a gigantic jet afterburner evolved within the colon) can overcome gravity (absent technological aids), @ g = 9.8m/s^2 if its surrounding fluid medium is air at sea-level pressure.

      Perhaps we need a definition of scope on the dimensions of (a) what is the timeframe, (b) what is the extent of “i”/”we”? and (c) what is the “domain” of the claim that is being made and (d) what assumptions are allowed regarding available resources and technology. Then, you and I can agree on “fallacies” for different combinations of (a), (b), (c) and (d). Else we can always alter one or the other parameter to create a counterexample to the offered explanation.

      Thus, @ a == 4 human lifespan (baseline 2009), b = average citizen in top quartile OECD population, and c = physical goal (which is an actual physical accomplishment of some feat that involves navigating the constraints of physical laws), and d = yet-to-be-invented-technologies. Then it is indeed possible to have someone say “I will fly” (with small jetpacks, or maybe using wings made of some cool, yet-to-be0invented material) and be “within reason” semantically correct.

      As for the broader optimism bias discussion, I think there is something called “hope” that drives people to consider “alternative universes” or “alternative realities”, and drives them to explore how those states can be “realized” (either through political manoeuvering for business/political goals, or by inventing/buying technology for physical ones). There are both good and bad consequences to such an exploration. When it gets carried away (and irrationally exuberant, like the Loki video above), it hurts the believer (by running into either physical constraint, or some other economic/societal “belief”/resource constraint). Management is usually employed to drive an organization TOWARDS a reality that is desired (and feasible within reason, and within the constraints of physical law) but not yet existent – so they have to be more hopeful (and inspire that hope in the employees) as well as more realistic (in committing these goals to their bosses and investors).

      • unawoken said:

        Carpe Diem,
        From your response, I cannot help but think that we are on the same side of the argument here, not on different sides! It may be the way I present things, because of which you think we disagree. Firstly, what you say here falls under what I would consider “the language of a realist”!

        “Why would any (reasonable) person see the (immutable) constraints of the natural world as being identical with the (situational) constraints of the social world and treat them at the same semantic level?

        I have not met a single “management type” yet that would argue that the human frame (in its current state of evolution, absent fins, feathers, rotors or a gigantic jet afterburner evolved within the colon) can overcome gravity (absent technological aids), @ g = 9.8m/s^2 if its surrounding fluid medium is air at sea-level pressure.”

        — But this is exactly the point! you haven’t, but I did! Not only that, I made the arguments you make here, regarding framing the possibilties in a), b), c), d) which he did not buy! Moreover, it was clear he was a completely normal, sane, achieving, manager type. All this together made me make this post, albeit several years later. From what you say here, I cannot help but think that you would have made the same arguments I did with him. Which is why I was asking here as to why such a person would say such a thing after years of life experience?

        — Please read my post: https://thingsundone.wordpress.com/2008/04/04/40/. you already have once, but if you read it again, you’ll see that basically I say some of the things you said here.

        “As for the broader optimism bias discussion, I think there is something called “hope” that drives people to consider “alternative universes” or “alternative realities”, and drives them to explore how those states can be “realized” (either through political manoeuvering for business/political goals, or by inventing/buying technology for physical ones). There are both good and bad consequences to such an exploration. When it gets carried away (and irrationally exuberant, like the Loki video above), it hurts the believer (by running into either physical constraint, or some other economic/societal “belief”/resource constraint). Management is usually employed to drive an organization TOWARDS a reality that is desired (and feasible within reason, and within the constraints of physical law) but not yet existent – so they have to be more hopeful (and inspire that hope in the employees) as well as more realistic (in committing these goals to their bosses and investors).”

        — I completely agree to this. Where we do disagree is that I consider this a “realistic” position, whereas you consider it an “optimistic” position, perhaps! I have a growing feeling that we agree on issues, but disagree on the terminology. To me, recoginising that hope/optimism is a driving force and management is about harnessing this force — is a realist’s read, not an optimist’s read! the realist’s read has to consider and accept all that we know and understand about human and nonhuman behaviour, including optimism, drives, emotions, evolution, need for spirituality – why it arises, persuasion – how it works and why, etc. etc. etc. If as you contend, I neglect some of these (such as the role of positive thoughts, or stroking, or emotion in engaging with reality), then I will have failed in my quest to be a realist!

  12. Carpe Diem said:

    On “Hope” which, IMHO, is the paramount (and most broadly shared) version of the Optimism Bias.

    • unawoken said:

      thanks, will check later and comment. gotta pack for BM

  13. unawoken said:

    ” …
    I would ask you to approach us as fellow humans who share your concern and interest in the welfare of others. I would ask you to be as culturally intelligent as you are scientifically intelligent, and to work to understand our culture as clearly as you understand the techniques, ideas, and modalities that have sprung from it. We are a people, not a problem.

    One of the biggest falsehoods I’ve encountered is that skeptics can’t tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can’t handle mystery—not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

    We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don’t have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don’t create answers just to manage their anxiety.”

    http://www.csicop.org/si/show/bridging_the_chasm_between_two_cultures/

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