Mar 24, 2009
This post, which touched on the allowedness of admiration, started me thinking about the nature of things that are awesome.
The first thing one does in such a situation is generate examples. And my brain, asked to enumerate things that are awesome, said: "Douglas Hofstadter, E. T. Jaynes, Greg Egan..."
Upon that initial output of my brain, I had many other thoughts:
(1) My brain was able to list more than one thing that is awesome. I am not going to dwell on this, because I think it needless to go around saying, "Douglas Hofstadter is awesome, but E. T. Jaynes is awesome too," as though to deliberately moderate or subtract from the admiration of Hofstadter. The enjoyment of things that are awesome is an important part of life, and I don't think a healthy mind should have to hold back. But the more things you know that are awesome, the more there is to enjoy—this doesn't mean you should artificially inflate your estimations of awesomeness, but it does mean that if you can think of only one awesome thing, you must be missing out on a lot of life. And some awesome things, but not all, are compatible enough with yourself that you can draw upon the awesome—Hofstadter and Jaynes are both like this for me, but Greg Egan is not. So even leaving aside certain mental health risks from having only one awesome thing—it is both enjoyable, and strengthening, to know of many things that are awesome.
(2) I can think of many places where I disagree with statements emitted by Douglas Hofstadter and Greg Egan, and even one or two places where I would want to pencil in a correction to Jaynes (his interpretation of quantum mechanics being the most obvious). In fact, when my brain says "Greg Egan" it is really referring to two novels, Permutation City and Quarantine, which overshadow all his other works in my book. And when my brain says "Hofstadter" it is referring to Gödel, Escher, Bach with a small side order of some essays in Metamagical Themas. For most people their truly awesome work is usually only a slice of their total output, from some particular years (I find that scary as hell, by the way).
(3) Once you realize that you're only admiring someone's peak work, you also realize that the work is not the person: I don't actually know Hofstadter, or Greg Egan, or E. T. Jaynes. I have no idea what they are (were) like in their personal lives, or whether their daily deeds had any trace of the awesome that is in their books. If you start thinking that a person is supposed to be as universally and consistently awesome as their best work, so that every word from their lips is supposed to be as good as the best book they ever wrote, that's probably some kind of failure mode. This is not to try to moderate or diminish the awesomeness: for their best work is that awesome, and so there must have been a moment of their life, a time-slice out of their worldline, which was also that awesome. But what the symbol "Douglas Hofstadter" stands for, in my mind, is not all his works, or all his life.
(4) This made me realize a strange thing: Whenever someone compliments "Eliezer Yudkowsky", they are really complimenting "Eliezer Yudkowsky's writing" or "Eliezer Yudkowsky's best writing that stands out most in my mind". People who met me in person were often shocked at how much my in-person impression departed from the picture they had in their minds. I think this mostly had to do with imagining me as being the sort of actor who would be chosen to play me in the movie version of my life—they imagined way too much dignity. That forms a large part of the reason why I occasionally toss in the deliberate anime reference, which does seem to have fixed the divergence a bit. And these days I have videos of myself online. But then the inside of my head is something different again. It's an odd thought to realize that everyone else who uses the symbol 'Eliezer Yudkowsky' uses it to refer to a quite different thing than you do.
(5) What chiefly conveys to me the experience of the awesome is to see someone—pardon me, see someone's work —that is way above me. My most recent experience of the awesome was reading the third book in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, and realizing that although I want to write with that kind of emotional depth, I can't, and may never be able to in this world. I looked back at all my own tries in (unpublished) fiction, and it paled to grey by comparison. It was the same way with reading Hofstadter the first time, and thinking that I could never, ever write as well as Gödel, Escher, Bach; or reading Permutation City, and seeing how far above me Greg Egan was as an idea-based science fiction writer. And it would have been the same way with Jaynes, if that time I hadn't been thinking to myself, "No, I must become this good." This is also something of a reply to Carl's comment that we may feel freer to admire those who do not compete with us—for me, the experience of the awesome is most strongly created by seeing someone (or rather their work) outdoing me overwhelmingly, in some place where I have tried my hand. I don't think there's anything unhealthy about making this a basis of admiration.
(6) My brain did not immediately enumerate all sorts of things that are too much a part of my background world to be salient: Science, space travel, the human brain, and the universe are all awesome. But the latter two are not human works, and you can't draw power from them the same way you can from a human work that is awesome and at least partly imitable. And the virtue of narrowness seems to play an important part here: an awesome thing that can be viewed in one small chunk and understood in detail will seem more awesome than something big and diffusely awesome. I would probably admire the space shuttle far more if I knew about it in more detail!
(7) One of the reasons why I object to Adam Frank's attempt to salvage the concept of "sacredness" from religion, instead of reinventing it from scratch, is that e.g. being contaminated by religious experience makes you more likely to think that sacredness should only be about stars or something—those works that were once thought to be of God—whereas there is often a lot more awesomeness stored up in a human work that you know is human. If I want to canonize something as sacred, I'll take Gödel, Escher, Bach over a mountain any day.
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