Jun 13, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

I love this entire argument and you have me convinced and therefore in thrall to your provocative truths and subsequent status that I hope to tap into over time for my own purposes by reading your Substack.

However, one nagging and very fundamental question occurs to me:

You never said (or proved) *why* interesting stuff is "overrated" and why reality is actually preferable to bullshit.

And, I especially found this statement unfounded: "If there’s one thing that’s preventing us from connecting with our fellow human beings, it’s this perverse obsession we have with being interesting." Isn't that the very thing you spent the whole essay explaining that helps us connect with our fellow human beings? Our grandiloquent bullshitting ability?

Again, you spent an entire essay talking about how bullshit is more interesting than reality because, basically, we "guys literally only want one thing and it's f*cking disgusting!" WE WANT TO FIT IN. That's really the prime directive for a humanity that survives best in groups. It's the most adaptive thing we do!

If fitting in requires a total abrogation of reality, so be it! So, then, maybe it's reality that is overrated! Or maybe a *certain kind of reality* the (theoretical) kind that exists outside of our social world and human, subjective, brain-saddled cognitive models.

Because the reality that matters for humans is social reality. Human life, like other life, (seems, at least to our status-hungry evolutionary biologists) to be all about survival and reproduction. And the killer app humans found to survive and reproduce and become the dominant complex life form on the planet is to socially coordinate with other humans. The more we do this, the greater our individual chances of both. Status has clear evolutionary utility. And, therefore, so, too does bullshit.

Remember that famous quote attributed to a Bush Administration aide by Ron Suskind:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do'."

This is appalling, cynical, and hubristic, but I now think I appreciate it's deeper truth after having endured the Trump Era. Is not "Teflon Don" the best paragon for the practical usefulness of bullshit? He's got two impeachments, two divorces, six bankruptcies, thousands of civil suits, two active criminal indictments to his name, and (most damningly) two electoral defeats but he is STILL the theoretical front-runner for the Presidency of the United States. And even after all his bullshitty predations (and those of the country underneath him), the United States is STILL the most powerful country on the planet. Despite... or BECAUSE... of all its bullshit? You tell me! Because it's not just Donald Trump's MAGA bullshit that is so captivating at home and abroad. But all that considerable soft power that the US has always wielded is, by your definition, also bullshit. Even the much preferable Obama Era "Hope and Change" and his famous eloquence and ability to inspire us to "the better angels of our nature." I mean, what is that, if not bullshit? I liked it, too, but it's bullshit. It's just much nicer bullshit. And, like the MAGA bullshit, it was very good at motivating groups of people to coordinate.

Another way of putting it was the title of the recent book by Peter Pomerantsev about the "post-truth" world of Putin's Russia: "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible." Putin is, if anything, very full of bullshit. But it "works" for him, doesn't it? He's still in power after two decades. He's perhaps quietly the richest man on the planet. Russia seems to run on fumes, but it runs yet, despite the many many rumors of its collapse. Putin uses his bullshit to coordinate his countrymen to an unlikely degree so that they put up with outrageous untruths and unreasonable hardships toward... what? "Greatness!" "The Russian Mir!" Bullshit.

But hey now... the limiting factor to bullshit, I hear you saying, is that eventually Reality wins, right? You can't bullshit forever! Putin is certainly learning this in Ukraine right now. We did in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, et al. (Or did we learn...?) Sure, and we may well bullshit our way to oblivion as a species this century because of Climate Change, nuclear war, the AI apocalypse or whatever. But, from the perspective of a single organism in a social species, it is always better to maximize for short-term than long-term. Blag on now and leave the consequences to your future self. You'll be better prepared for the backlash when you consolidate your social position now, anyway. The jury is more kind to the rich and sexy! Anyway, even if you think you're so rational and non-bullshitty, the future is always uncertain and we have extremely limited control over it. What you can control right now, though, is how good of a bullshitter you are and therefore how socially successful you are. So do that!

But what about the immediate utility of understanding some basics about reality and not making stupid choices? You don't get the Manhattan Project and world-ending nuclear weapons with just bullshit, right? No. But you don't get the massive social coordination that made the Manhattan Project successful without thermonuclear levels of bullshit. J. Robert Oppenheimer isn't going to go against all his core principles without placating him with a lot of bullshit. Nor are you going to convince 130,000 workers (including some of the world's premier geniuses) to pack up and move to the desert and carry out some mysterious tasks in secret without bullshit narratives about The National Interest, etc. A lot of those scientists were now on their second or third round of jingoistic bullshit, riding around on different regimes with different flavors of bullshit to coordinate their efforts toward some other dubious bullshit like the racial imperative for eradicating the Jews or bathing Eastern Europe in blood in the name of Lebensraum. But the United States was better at bullshit than the Germans or anyone else at that time, so we got the A-Bomb and rockets to the Moon and epically cool stuff that... fundamentally doesn't matter, either, except to, yep... DISPLAY OUR GROUP'S SUPERIORITY.

This reduces all of human history to bullshit, I know. But I just went one step further than you in your provocative thesis. And I'm arguing that the reason nobody wants to get over their bullshit is that bullshit is really useful. Even if/when the future gets hella bad from all our bullshit, whom do you think will survive? The practical, reasonable people? No! Nobody likes them! The bullshitters will inherit the earth! Or what's left of it, anyway...

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You make a lot of great points here about people bing interested in "information that helps us get what we want from the people around us, including the ugly things we can’t admit we want." But I'm unconvinced that people aren't *also* interested in and motivated by truth and usefulness. Both things can be true at the same time.

The first two points in your "list of problems with the idea that humans are primarily interested in useful truth"—the ones about humans being interested in fiction—disregard that there's a ton of truth and usefulness in fiction.

Roger Ebert has said that movies are like machines that generate empathy.

Sam Harris has spoken (https://dynamic.wakingup.com/course/CO00BB451?code=SCD1708C8&share_id=7226F5F3&source=content%20share) and written about self and other and theory of mind as they relate to the unique form of "social encounter" that movies allow us, saying—among many other things—that "it is difficult to find a situation in which we feel *less* self-conscious than when sitting in a darkened theater watching a film, and yet, we are contemplating the beliefs, intentions, and desires of other people the entire time."

George Saunders has called Anton Chekhov's stories "reconsideration machines" that seem to bring both author and reader into "a constant state of reexamination. ('Am I sure? Is it really so? Is my preexisting opinion causing me to omit anything?')."

There is truth and utility to be found in all of that.

(The list of people saying things like this about fiction obviously goes on and on. I mention these examples specifically only because they are fresh on my mind from having just written this essay: https://symbolsandrituals.substack.com/p/connection-machines)

Even if every one of us is hopelessly full of shit, which I agree that we might be, particularly in the social realm, I would argue that fiction—including/in addition to writing, music, stand-up comedy, and all other meaningful forms of art—is one of the few things that can make us a little less so. Coupled with some kind of awareness practice (meditation, journaling, whatever), it reveals people to themselves in ways that other mediums can't.

For anyone who's interested in understanding themselves and others better, that is useful.

As far as truth goes, here are a few sentences from No Country for Old Men that came to mind today with Cormac McCarthy's passing:

"My daddy always told me to just do the best you knew how and tell the truth. He said there was nothin to set a man’s mind at ease like wakin up in the morning and not havin to decide who you were. And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it. Dont haul stuff around with you."

There's more truth and utility in those words than in any of the ones in the last DocuSign contract I signed, although that and all of the other boring things you mentioned have their own boring truths and uses, too.

Lastly, on contemplating things like the meaning of life, I mostly agree with you. But going back to Saunders one more time—he has misquoted Einstein many times as saying, "No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” He uses it (in part) as a teaching tactic for writing short fiction. But I think it applies to many things in life. Contemplating the meaning of life, the human condition, human nature, and so on might not (i.e., almost certainly won't) lead us to answers to those specific questions/problems. But that doesn't mean they won't lead us to other useful truths about living and being a person.

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Nov 14, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

I love boring.

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Jun 16, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

This article is correct, and I can tell because it sounds true despite how biased I am against it -- I'm consistently the most interesting person any of my acquaintances know, am frequently eloquent and thought-provoking, and have never actually contributed any value to society whatsoever.

Just kidding: in addition to those true statements about myself I am also the kind of person who is proud of already knowing all this and already tells everyone that everything is bullshit. This article correlates well with my existing biases.

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Jun 15, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Another blockbuster from the House of Pinsof

Bro you criminally underrated ! ! Hat tip 🙌👏

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Jun 13, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Great article. There's a lot of rationalists who aren't very rational but want to to be seen as one on Twitter. Also, I'm aware that I recently subscribed to this newsletter because I want to signal that I don't fall for BS!

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deletedJun 14, 2023Liked by David Pinsof
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