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synthesis by Vincent H. '23

on changing my mind

spoilers for the book siddhartha


i. at the beginning of my first 21w.755 (reading and writing short stories) lecture last semester, the professor asked the class if we knew what the hegelian dialectic was. he got back a wide variety of responses: one student said it documented the relationship between masters and slaves; someone else said it was about the id, ego, and superego; another person said it modeled election cycles and political movements; and so on

it turns out the answer he was looking for was much simpler – he just wanted to talk about the relationship between thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in writing. specifically, a thesis is introduced at the beginning of a text (oftentimes in the form of a character or setting), it encounters an antithesis (eg. an opposing character or some kind of conflict, external or internal), and through this interaction a synthesis is produced that incorporates elements of both the thesis and antithesis (eg. a character grows or their world changes). my professor received so many different answers when he asked his question because people have applied this framework in a broad range of settings; it is such a general model of change that some might even consider it vacuous


ii. my high school world history class was a two-year course that attempted to cover art history and regular history simultaneously. one of the many things we talked about was how early america adopted neoclassicism, an art style which in many aspects attempted to imitate the classical style from ancient greece and rome. for instance, many well-known buildings in washington dc, like the capitol and supreme court, feature roman domes and greek columns

i remember learning about this and being confused – i thought at the time that art was supposed to consistently progress towards greater expressivity and completeness. so if we were copying a style from over a thousand years ago, what was the point of all the art produced in between? was it all worse or less valid than what came before it? 


iii. one behavior i notice a lot is people changing their mind on something and then being reluctant to change their mind a second time. for example, people at mit sometimes decide to switch from pursuing academia to pursuing industry, and then afterwards they realize they made a mistake but feel that it is unacceptable to switch back. i’ve seen some other people go through the exact same process except with the roles of academia and industry reversed, or with two different majors or fields of industry or grad schools, or with startups and non-startups. or, for an example not related to career decisions, people often exit a club or social circle, miss it, and then feel like they’re not allowed to rejoin even when their peers would be happy to have them back

in my experience the phenomenon of feeling like you can’t change your mind again usually comes from wanting to avoid embarrassment or from wanting to avoid feeling stupid. avoiding embarrassment as in: i worried that if i changed my mind a second time, people would ridicule me for being dumb the first time around. this was especially true in my early days of blogging, when i wrote about every time i had a major update and felt like i wasn’t able to retract previous updates that i no longer agreed with. avoiding feeling stupid as in: changing my mind twice felt like i was going in circles and not making progress, like i was just wasting my time and would’ve been better off simply staying put, and i did not like that realization. it took a long process of me conquering parts of my ego and becoming more detached to reach the state i am at now, where i feel comfortable with admitting both to other people and to myself when i am wrong about practically any subject

here is one interpretation of all this through the dialectic: changing your mind twice does not indicate regression, it indicates synthesis. it means you started with a thesis and explored an antithesis; the resulting synthesis is a reaffirmation of the thesis, but it is not the same as the thesis because you now understand the role of the antithesis and are able to reject it. it is like how neoclassicism is not the same as classicism because choosing to revisit classicism when you have access to over a millennium of new developments is different from choosing classicism because it is the most recent of styles; this choice does not make everything from that intermediate millennium less valid, it just means that those things aren’t what you need right now

and as a result you are never really regressing even when you retract your previous opinions or choices or efforts. you are never truly moving in circles because every time you complete a loop of the circle you are also moving forward. it is okay to change your mind. it is okay to change your mind twice. it is okay to do this as many times as you need to, as long as you are doing so with good reason. there is nothing stupid or shameful about this, and even if people do mock you for it they’ll forget and stop soon enough anyway


iv. i keep revisiting the topic of social media addiction because it is something i and many of my friends have struggled with, and i think people who’ve read my writing for a while are getting annoyed because i say the same thing each time, but every time i feel like i can express what i want to communicate better than i could the previous time so i keep taking new stabs at it

the main idea i keep repeating is very simple: that getting off social media on your own, reducing social media time through app or website blockers, and spending minimal time on social media because you’ve never used it are extremely different states of being, even if they result in the same short-term outcome. they represent different degrees of awareness about why spending too much time on social media is unsatisfying and how to best address that dissatisfaction. or, to put it differently, they represent different levels of incorporation of the antithesis

in siddhartha, the protagonist siddhartha is raised in a studious household where he meditates intensely, but he quickly realizes spirituality is meaningless and descends into a life of hedonism, encountering and rejecting the buddha along the way. a few decades later he decides being rich and having sex with attractive women isn’t fulfilling, and he tries to raise his son “the right way” so that he learns to be patient and wise and virtuous

during my favorite chapter of the book, the son gets bored of trying to live “the right way” and runs away from home. siddhartha tries to bring him back, worrying to his friend “But look, how shall I put him, who had no tender heart anyhow, into this world? Won’t he become exuberant, won’t he lose himself to pleasure and power, won’t he repeat all of his father’s mistakes, won’t he perhaps get entirely lost?”

to which siddhartha’s friend replies “Would you actually believe that you had committed your foolish acts in order to spare your son from committing them too? … How could you? By means of teachings, prayer, admonition? My dear, have you entirely forgotten … that story about Siddhartha, which you once told me here on this very spot? Who has kept Siddhartha safe from sin, from greed, from foolishness? Were his father’s religious devotion, his teachers’ warnings, his own knowledge, his own search able to keep him safe? Which father, which teacher had been able to protect him from living his life for himself, from soiling himself with life, from burdening himself with guilt, from drinking the bitter drink for himself, from finding his path for himself? Would you think, my dear, anybody might perhaps be spared from taking this path? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself!” 

siddhartha hears this, decides he can’t teach his son to be a good person by forcing it upon him, and lets him go in peace. he understands that the only real way to learn what you should do is to try things you shouldn’t do and then realize that you made a mistake – to revisit the social media example, someone who has spent their entire life abstaining from social media has no idea how they’ll behave when circumstance forces them to use it, whereas someone who has successfully wrestled with social media themselves knows exactly how to get off every time they need to


v. when i look back on the subjects i took a spontaneous interest in during college, it’s a bit laughable how many areas i explored and how irrelevant many of them are to what i currently do. in chronological order, i spent at least a month primarily working on: applied math for biology, theoretical cs research, big tech, healthcare, biotech, web development, finance, computer systems, crypto, and mental health software

i know a lot of college students, especially at mit, who have carefully planned out their classes, the jobs and research they’ll take on, the social groups and clubs they’ll participate in, etc. with very little tolerance for deviation from the plan. it is possible to organize the next few years of your life in this manner and have everything go accordingly, so that at the end of it all you more or less become the person you expected to be

i don’t have a problem with the plans themselves. i think plans are important for bringing focus and direction to your life, especially in the short term. the problem is when commitment to long-term plans blinds your view of the world, when a refusal to change your mind prevents you from experiencing the antitheses that you need to experience in order to reach the syntheses that you could have reached

for a different view on how limited these kinds of long-term plans are: a year ago i didn’t know how computers worked under the hood, two years ago i didn’t understand what neural networks were or how to use them, and three years ago i didn’t know anything about the internet or web development. all three of these are now fairly central components in my knowledge of computer science despite me not having learned about them until relatively recently, and i’m pretty sure most cs students at mit had similar if not steeper learning curves

so what does it mean when a generic high schooler walks into mit and says they want to major in computer science or any other major? do they really have any idea what it’s actually like to study the thing they say they want to study? a small minority of them probably do, but i’d bet the vast majority are like me and have no clue what working on computer science, or any other subject, truly entails. and this lack of understanding means that committing to a very specific long-term college plan is in my opinion a bit absurd

it is okay to make mistakes like getting hooked on tiktok or picking the wrong major or getting lost in materialism. it is okay to change your mind and your plans and anything else that needs to be changed. every choice is okay as long as you are seeking out antitheses and paying enough attention to understand the syntheses that emerge

one of my friends says that all of their beliefs are “strong opinions, weakly held”, eg. putting earnest effort into pursuing a goal but being open to changing the goal. “strong opinions” because you need to hold positions distinctive enough to notice when those positions are wrong – for example, if you’re worried about the covid vaccine and tell your vaxxed friends “i’m scared that covid vaccines might be extremely dangerous” they’re likely to point you to science on why it’s relatively safe, whereas if you say “i’m scared that the covid vaccine might have side effects which are potentially harmful” they will probably just nod along and you won’t learn anything. “weakly held” because, once you realize an opinion is wrong, you need to be able to change it. this system is sometimes used by obnoxious people to justify making rude statements, but it’s also led to my friend being one of the most consistently correct people i’ve ever met, so make of that whatever you will