Do you intend to succeed?
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
Why did the Soviet Union fall? Why did the Covid epidemic happen? Why did the editor reject my article? Why has the price of apples risen? Why did John marry Jane? Why did you get up late this morning?
This post will delve into how we answer such questions. We will explore the factors and motivations that influence our decisions and how the answers we give can impact the outcomes of those decisions.
When something that matters happens, we look for an explanation. Our ability to give explanations is essential for making sense of the world and making the right decisions. If we can’t explain the past, we can’t predict the outcome of our decisions. Though we know that there are a wide range of causes for every event, we tend to over-focus on a single cause. We not only communicate a single cause, but we also tend to fixate on it, pushing our awareness of the complex multi-causal reality away into the back of our mind.
The reason our mind hyper-focuses on only one cause is related to the way our brains process and make sense of information. Our brains tend to simplify complex information as it is the most efficient way of dealing with limited resources. The concept of “Occam’s razor” states that when multiple explanations are possible, the simplest one is most likely to be true. This tendency to simplify information and seek out a single cause is also known as cognitive parsimony. However, it can lead us astray, as a single cause is simpler than multiple causes working together, each contributing a bit. It may be simpler, but it is less true.
When we simplify information, or when our brains have a preference for the simplest explanation, we might create a representation that is not true to the original and undermine the idea of the original. Jean Baudrillard, (1929-2007), a French philosopher and sociologist, popularized the concept of simulacrum, which explains that this representation becomes more real to us than the original. In modern society, we are saturated with images and representations, and they have become more real to people than the things they represent. For example, sitting in an armchair, we cannot grasp the completeness and multi-faceted nature of a war with all its conflicting human elements and complex morality. We fool ourselves into thinking we understand it by replaying sound bites and short, emotionally-charged image sequences. We imagine a cartoon or caricature of the real world.
This process applies to global events, but it also applies to our daily decisions. When explaining our own behavior or considering a course of action, we tend to focus on a single factor. We reflect on what motivated us or on the reasons for our actions. It’s worth noting that, when it comes to ourselves, we often select the one element in our decisions that is most flattering to us.
It would be more valuable to be realistic and be aware of as many of the drives working towards a decision as possible. For example, when choosing to help someone, a large factor in the decision is likely to be a genuine desire for the other person to succeed. However, there may be other reasons at play, such as a desire to feel good about ourselves or to look good. The reason this matters is that some motivations will only be rewarded if we actually succeed, whereas other impulses might be satisfied by the fact that we tried. There’s no harm in being motivated by the act of making the effort, but our chances of being successful and effective will be significantly improved if we emphasize end-point motivations.
Be aware of all aspects of yourself and all the reasons for your plans, but allocate your energy as much as possible towards success-oriented motivations.