Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What a Piece of Work is Man

by Baxter Radcliff, aka "The Man"

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" - Hamlet, Act II, scene ii.

In reading through Conroy's fascinating list, I was reminded of Hamlet's speech, reproduced above, which greatly exaggerates the scope of human nature—and in the process ignores, denies, or contradicts the view that man is a constrained animal, which is Conroy's view as well as my own. Yet in one fell swoop it ironically demonstrates our self-interest (the important question for Hamlet is: what about me?); our false beliefs concerning our own capacities and limitations; our ability to suffer, especially from feelings of alienation; the fact that emotion can overwhelm our understandings; and, of course, our love of beauty. Despite my affection for the romantic idealism of Hamlet's speech, I believe that we may be the "paragon of animals," but we are far closer to the ape than the angel. And it is our peculiar curse to know it.

The truth is, we live in a world of limited resources—a constrained world. These limitations include our mental resources, our ability to acquire and process information. Our faculties are not infinite. These also include our social resources, our network of friends and family. We depend on others, and yet at the same time our social lives are riven with strife, for conflict is ubiquitous, not only in our social lives but in the natural world. Learning to understand and successfully manage conflict is therefore a worthy subject and one I intend to grapple with from time to time here on this blog. I may also take up the sword now and again myself, in order to cut down spurious, erroneous, or misleading arguments.

When I'm not brandishing my sword, I will discuss on occasion some fundamental game-theoretic concepts, which provide a structured way of thinking about conflict and a strategy. These concepts can help us understand non-obvious truths about the world. Sometimes, for example, the rational pursuit of self-interest can do damage to the broader society. The prisoner's dilemma and the tragedy of the commons provide patterns that can help us think about such situations. I may also discuss the methods by which legal structures attempt to correct and mitigate the weaknesses of human nature for the greater good; and how certain legal structures fail to do so. Sometimes, however, it is not social structures, but our own misjudgments that lead us astray. Fortunately, an awareness of certain well-studied cognitive defects may help us to reduce the number of our misjudgments. I will discuss these defects and how we can attempt to conquer them.

In any event, through posting to this blog I hope to learn a great deal from our readers, from Conroy, and ultimately from myself—for one of the benefits of maintaining a blog (I believe) is the self-knowledge that the act of writing gives to us, as we attempt the difficult task of composing our thoughts and responding to our most thoughtful critics. I look forward to posting again soon...

No comments:

Post a Comment