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trying to trim the tree of possible paths by Alan Z. '23

an Aristotelean inquiry

Act I: A (Probably Flawed) Introduction to Aristotle

Although I’ve left my copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics back in Cambridge,01 this is particularly tragic because some of the quotes are from that text (quoted in papers I wrote) and some are from an online text, meaning they come from different translations I still remember from freshman fall, when I was taking CC.110,02 Becoming Human: Ancient Greek Perspectives on the Good Life, a required class for almost all Concourse first-years that Aristotle argues that “what is sought out for itself is more complete than what is sought out on account of something else”; i.e. that which is most complete and most choiceworthy is that which is chosen for its own sake.

This may seem kind of notion, but I think it’s useful in interrogating why we do things. Consider, for example, the following hypothetical conversation:

A: Why do you want this UROP?03 Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program; often used as a noun or verb to refer to specific UROP positions
B: Because I need a job.
A: Why do you need a job?
B: Because I need something to put on my resume.
A: Why do you need something to put on your resume?
B: So I can get a well-paying job when I graduate.
A: Why do you need a well-paying job when you graduate?
B: So I can live well.
A: Why do you want to live well?
B: Because living well would make me happy.
A: Why do you want to be happy?
B: Because I want to be happy.

Contrast it with this conversation:

A: Why do you want this UROP?
B: Because the topic is interesting to me.
A: Why does that make you want the UROP?
B: Because I want to do things that are interesting to me.
A: Why do things that are interesting to you?
B: Because it makes me happy.
A: Why do you want to be happy?
B: Because I want to be happy.

The conversations end where they do because we’ve reached a complete end:04 i.e. purpose, goal, intended outcome or consequence, such as in the phrase 'the ends justify the means' something sought out for itself, and itself only. One might say, then, that the reason person B wants the UROP in the second conversation is more complete than the reason in the first conversation, since it is closer to a complete end. This is not to say that one situation is inherently better than another—that, I think, fails to admit a lot of additional external factors which could be at play, and, besides, the example is obviously exaggerated. The point, however, is illustrative: surely, all things being equal, you would want to apply for a UROP that inspires “second conversation thinking” over one that inspires “first conversation thinking.” When making a decision,05 this is not a strictly complete description of the philosophy at hand; in fact, Aristotle argues that no ethical theory can provide a rule-based decision procedure, and that the good person makes a decision by trying to rationally query out what is virtuous or good in a <em>given set of circumstances</em>. you want to pick the choice that is more complete.06 this is not equivalent to hedonism (picking the fastest route to pleasure) because of the definition of happiness used; see below

The reason both of these hypothetical examples end in happiness is because it seems obvious that the end goal of human actions ought to be happiness.07 in Greek, eudaimonia. this is the standard translation but does not capture the whole of the phrase This is distinct from pleasure—instead, it is the most complete human good, or human ‘flourishing’. Following from this, Aristotle argues that happiness must be “activity in accord with virtue,” since virtuous activity is the most excellent form of the human function, which Aristotle identifies as the “activity of the soul in accord with reason.”08 since reason differentiates us from plants and animals Aristotle goes on to argue that that virtue is itself a “mean”09 i.e. an average between extremes; for example, courage presents a mean between rashness and cowardliness, while generosity presents a mean between prodigality10 i.e. wastefulness and stinginess. Aristotle acknowledges that it is hard to hit on the mean exactly, but instead we must “sometimes incline toward the excess, sometimes toward the deficiency.”

This is a fairly broad-brush introduction to Aristotle and the field of virtue ethics as a whole, and much of the rest of this post will stray from the Aristotelean path11 parts of this will be intentional. other parts, however, result from the fact that my knowledge comes mostly from one portion of one class taken over a year ago, and the <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/">Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy</a>. in a variety of different ways. Some of these ideas will be useful ways of thinking about things, however, as we go through the rest of the post. So, to review: something is more complete than something else if it is closer to a complete end, something chosen for its own sake. The most complete end is happiness, which is the most complete human good; i.e. the most excellent form of the human function. Aristotle’s belief is that this ultimate end is virtuous activity, which must be a mean between extremes, though it may be hard to achieve precisely.

This brings us to the point of this post.

Act II: What Was I Thinking Last Semester?

I chose to take what was objectively too many classes this past semester, and, through a variety of poor decisions, ended up taking all of them on grades. The semester was rough, in a lot of different ways. As the sun set earlier and the days got colder, my motivation drained, bit by bit, until at the end of the semester I found it hard to get myself out of bed in the morning to do things; indeed, I found it difficult to find the self-control to even go to bed on time. But I managed—I built flexible systems which made sure I stayed on track or close to on track each week. I turned in all my assignments, finished all my tests, and ended up doing well in all of my classes. I stayed about as socially engaged as I could expect, with daily crossword calls and occasional socially-distanced meetups.

I chose this workload for this semester partially because there were less social and extracurricular activities, but primarily as a means of exploring many disparate topics and as a hubristic challenge to my personal capacity. It’s the same reason I chose to take 69 units of class my freshman spring. In particular, as I wrote about a year ago in a private blog:

I think my classes this semester are telling a story of me testing my limits. I’m reaching to the edge of my abilities and seeing what’s there. This is true in a lot of different ways—I’m taking a lot of different classes to try and find where my academic interests lie. I’m taking as many classes as I can to see where the limits of my workload lie. I’m taking hard classes, [like] 18.100B/Real Analysis, to see how well I can do on difficult classes and if I’m ultimately smart enough to take the classes I want in the fields I want.

Unfortunately, that semester was disrupted midway through by the pandemic, meaning it was hard to gauge what would’ve happened if things were normal. This semester certainly wasn’t normal either, although professors were more prepared for the circumstances.

More problematic, however, is this: I haven’t actually learned much about these questions, even without considering the circumstances. It turns out that I can take 93 units in a semester, though I probably shouldn’t. It turns out that I’m still interested in writing, mathematics, and computer science. It turns out I can, for the most part, handle difficult classes. I wanted to walk out of one of these semesters having dropped a class out of exhaustion, difficulty, or lack of interest, because at least that would’ve told me something. Instead, however, I am here, again, trying to figure out what I want to do for spring semester and beyond.

A cursory application of our discussion from Act I is sufficient to tell us what needs to be done first—somehow, I need to be able to allow myself to take less classes. After all, 93 units certainly seems very far from what might be considered a mean; I have done my “[inclining] toward the excess”, and I must now turn “toward the deficiency.” Furthermore, consider the following hypothetical conversation:

A: Why do you want to take less classes?
Me: I would not be as overwhelmed.
A: Why do you not want to be as overwhelmed?
Me: It would make me happy.

This seems pretty close to a complete end. On the other hand, the answer to the question “why do you want to take so many classes?” is harder to answer, but a complete interrogation might be something like this:

A: Why do you want to take so many classes?
Me: Because that’s how my CourseRoad12 <a href="https://courseroad.mit.edu/">CourseRoad</a> is a tool MIT students use to plan their classes; it has data on when classes are taught, what major requirements are, and how many hours classes are supposed to take based on course evaluations works out.
A: Why does your CourseRoad work out that way?
Me: Because it has two majors and two minors,13 these are: <a href="https://shass.mit.edu/undergraduate/joint">a joint major (21S)</a> in Writing and Mathematics, a second major in 6-3 (Computer Science and Engineering), and minors in 7 (Biology) and 21M (Music). also, I’m doing a Spanish <a href="https://registrar.mit.edu/registration-academics/academic-requirements/hass-requirement/hass-concentrations">concentration</a>. and a few additional classes I find interesting.
A: Why do you want to do two majors and two minors?
Me (waffling): Because the subjects are interesting to me and I want to have a somewhat deep understanding of them…?
A: Why do things that are interesting to you?
Me: Because it makes me happy.

The choice seems pretty obvious from here. Take less classes. But that’s easier to say than to be convinced of, speaking as someone who once went through the entire course catalog to identify all the possible classes I might be interested in and ended up with a six-page document. Each set of classes I might take is a possible path, and with each comes a different set of knowledge I might obtain, and a different set of skills I would have for the future. Each of those skillsets corresponds to a set of different possible career paths, and correspondingly paths through life.

So the question of which classes to take becomes a bigger question, a question of which futures I would like to leave on the table. Before we get there though, another question arises.

Act III: What Is The Human Function, Anyway?

Let’s take a moment and re-evaluate the framework we’re using for this discussion. Say that we buy Aristotle’s claims on their face. This doesn’t really answer, however, the question of what future to choose.14 cf. annotation 5; Aristotle really doesn't put forward a decision procedure. This makes sense—it’s not as if Aristotle is necessarily arguing that we should all become philosophers,15 some of what he says, particularly toward the end of the <em>Nicomachean Ethics</em>, takes this bent, but in general this is false nor any other profession.16 and if he did, he certainly wouldn't tell anyone to become a computer scientist

We’re going to take a slight diversion, therefore, from Aristotle, and ask again—what is the human function? Is it really simply the act of reasoning? Although it certainly separates us from animals and plants, something ought to be said for the power of human society, and the relationships we build with each other.

Perhaps a better way to ask this question is: what is the ultimate end of living, if not virtuous activity? Or, in a more straightforward phrasing, what makes life meaningful? This, of course, is a very difficult question that plenty of philosophers have attempted to answer in their time, and therefore one that I don’t want to claim to answer for all people. But I do think having some concept of what the answer is for oneself is pretty important.

One popular answer which I fundamentally don’t buy is “having a major, measurable impact on the world in some way,” because the probability of that happening is vanishingly small for any individual.17 of course, this depends on your definitions of major, measurable, and impact, but in most cases when people say this they usually mean something like ‘inventing something significant’ Making that one’s goal seems hubristic and seems to imply that most people do not have meaningful lives, which is surely false.18 note that this take fundamentally rejects nihilism in a somewhat unacademic manner. notably, however, i don't explicitly rule out that life broadly does not have meaning; rather, i claim that people must create their own meaning to live—which is ultimately why i reject this first answer.

For me, I’ve had a somewhat complete answer to this question for a few years now, which is essentially other people. I wrote in December of 2018, back when I was still in the middle of applying to colleges, that:

We are not ourselves in a vacuum, but rather we have been keenly shaped by the people around us, and that process not only means that ultimately we are not solely responsible for our success (which is actually relatively self-evident, although some people do forget it) but also that we are responsible for the success of others, and to be little, positive parts of other people’s stories is perhaps the best we can hope to be, as we ourselves travel through life.

Although the person I was in December of 2018 certainly wasn’t thinking about Aristotle when they wrote this, it seems to me that this is a fairly good answer to our initial question. Say that the human function is the creation of human relationships, and the support and organization they provide. Then, most excellent form of the human function would be friendship—notably, not just any friendship, but, as Aristotle describes, a “friendship of those who are good and alike in point of virtue,” instead of those predicated on mutual pleasure or utility. This kind of friendship is fundamentally complete19 i.e. it depends on no external goods, and serves no end other than goodness itself and therefore is choiceworthy in itself.

So, we have a sort of broad end goal. The things that ultimately make life meaningful for me are friendships that are inherently virtuous, or, in a less abstract sense, friendships where people support each other and make it possible for each other to do good things. I’ve been fairly fortunate to be able to participate in a few things where I’ve been able to support others directly—helping to run REX, for example, felt like a direct way to be a small, positive part of the experience of some of the 2024s as they adapted to MIT.

The question we now return to is that of how to bring that broad understanding into practice.20 i think this is the literal meaning of praxis, but i mostly see this word in academic memes so who knows How do I take this ultimate end values and transform it into a set of actions to take?

Act IV: So, Which Futures To Prepare For?

We’ve spent a lot of time in the world of theory. In practice, things are a little more complicated. The discussion above has guided a lot of the choices I’ve made in the past—it’s part of the reason I’ve stuck with the extracurriculars that I have, and I’m reminded of it every time I have to decide between doing something with my friends and finishing an assignment. Friendship is a complete end—schoolwork is not.

The reason, then, I’m stuck taking so many classes is that I’m afraid of cutting down a branch of possible paths. Each of them contains a fractal world of possibilities. In high school, I attended a talk that was allegedly about cosmology, but involved a serious discussion of Schopenhauer’s geometric argument21 notably, this geometric argument actually depends on quadratic functions of each variable, which means that, similar to Aristotle, it assumes that both the excess and the deficiency of any given thing are bad that the average world is the worst of all possible worlds; in fact, it is infinitely worse than the optimum. On one hand, this means that it is extremely hard to hit on the optimum. On the other hand, it means that whenever you make a decision—whenever you cull the tree of possible paths—you have a chance of destroying the optimum.

This shouldn’t be concerning to me, but it is. There’s a reason we have phrases like “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” but when the optimum is infinitely better than the average, expected utility still suggests that it is good to aim at the optimum. This is in spite of the fact that I know expected utility maximization is misleading in cases of existential gain or loss, and in spite of the fact that I am strongly opposed to quantitative utilitarianism as a model for human decision-making. Something about the intuitive nature of the mathematics tells me that I ought to keep as many doors open as possible for fear of regret, even though all the Aristotelean discussion we’ve had so far emphasizes that decision-making ought to occur through rational inquiry about virtue and not a decision theory driven by shoddy mathematics.

And so here I am, with a Courseroad with two majors and two minors and no decisions made. Our discussion in Act II tells me that I ought to cut something, but the question of “which one?” seems not to be immediately answerable by any of our discussion above; all seem like they serve the immediate end of being something interesting to me, and none seems closer to the ultimate end of being a positive part of other people’s lives. So I waffle, unable to decide which one to cut, all while the utilitarian part of me clings to the idea of keeping it all.

The problem about this situation is that it doesn’t feel sustainable. One eventually has to choose what they want to do, and every moment I decide not to cut something I’m interested in studying is also pruning the tree of possible paths. Not making a decision is, in and of itself, a decision; the consequences are just less obvious and immediate. I’d like to be able to say positively that I want to do one thing or another, but I’d settle for the positive decision of not specializing; I would be thrilled if I could say, with confidence, that I am going to stick with everything. Here again, however, we find another trap: although I know that there’s plenty of academic debate about whether society needs more specialists or generalists, I find myself pulled by the allure of specialization—I yearn to take more advanced classes and do more research, as a sort of proof of deep, technical knowledge, and so I can leave open the chance of going to graduate school.

And although I know that there are plenty of people who have studied many things at once,22 including <a href="https://nickm.com/me.html">my academic advisor</a>, who also studied both CS and writing I can’t help but wonder if they had a clearer view of where they were going with those subjects. I know that the phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ ends with ‘though often better than master of one’, but I don’t know if the person I will become at the end of these four years will be hireable or be able to get into graduate school, if I end up wanting to go that path. I worry about internships, about UROPs, about letters of recommendation and job references, about job experiences and classes to take, because ultimately I still don’t know what I want to do beyond this broad Aristotelean ideal, and I don’t feel like I’m any closer to knowing after two semesters of trying hard to find out. I worry about these things because although I’m still just a sophomore now, I’ll be halfway done in just one semester and out the door in just four more after that.

And I know, and I repeat to myself, over and over, that at the end of this journey I will end up becoming myself, but I can’t envision who that is, or what they will want to do. I find it extremely hard to see myself in any possible future, whether that be as a professor, a software engineer, a teacher, a writer, or any other career; it just feels so distant and impossible. I can’t see a future where I am certain that I am best serving this ultimate end, that I am doing the right thing, whatever that actually means.

Part of my worry is likely a form of impostor syndrome—the sense that other people already know what they want to do, the sense that they will be miles ahead of you by the time you decide on something. Just because something is identifiable as irrational doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel it just the same though, and I feel utterly lost to do anything except drift along, unable to make the decision to cut off any particular branch of the tree of possible paths.

Act V: A Somewhat Unsatisfying Conclusion

All of this worry culminated in a recent existential crisis where I was up until 5 AM re-engineering my CourseRoad. In the process, I did manage to excise a good number of classes from the coming semesters, in accordance with Act II’s discussion. I abandoned a small portion of my plan, cutting off the tiniest branch by switching plans from 6-2 to 6-3.23 6-2 is Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, 6-3 is Computer Science and Engineering. I have discovered I do not care about circuits quite enough to endure the extra classes about them. These are small steps, but they are steps in the right direction.

On the other hand, I’ve pre-registered for 82 units next semester—including 3 full24 i.e. 12+ unit technicals and 3 full HASSes.25 Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences classes This is one less technical and 11 less units26 a unit is one work per week in a semester; three units is approximately equivalent to one traditional semester-system credit hour than last semester, but it doesn’t feel significantly different. The rest of my CourseRoad settles down a little more, with the number of hours falling down to something much more reasonable starting in junior fall; these new hours, I hope, will be filled doing UROPs and spending more time with people. The classes will, of course, change with class scheduling and whatnot, but they are at least somewhat definite.

This is not a particularly good answer to the questions raised above. Aristotle says of the virtuous man:

First, he must know [that he is doing virtuous actions]; second, he must decide on them, and decide on them for themselves; and, third, he must also do them from a firm and unchanging state. The many, however, do not do these actions. They take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people.

This post contains a lot of arguments, but ultimately very few decisions. It is hard to be “firm and unchanging” when there is so little to be sure about in the future, both short-term and long-term. Part of me is still hopeful that I’ll eventually come to my senses and find something I enjoy more than anything else. Part of me knows that this is likely a lost cause, and that I ought to start picking and choosing what stays based on other criteria. Part of me feels that everything has to work out okay in the long-term, because things usually regress towards a mean. Part of me is still worried that I’ll be left without a coherent set of useful skills at the end of these four years.

More broadly, it is possible, and perhaps probable, that these kinds of big questions don’t have answers that can be arrived at by arguments from first principles, and that we must instead find our way by making small decisions that apply our philosophies “to the exigencies of [each] particular case.” To that end, IAP starts tomorrow, and I’m doing a few small things that are a little out of my comfort zone in order to try and see what different possible futures could look like. I’m trying harder to aim towards a mean, and although I know that I will still end up doing too much as the person that I am, perhaps it will be slightly less too much.

It’s certainly possible, albeit unlikely, that some day I’ll have some kind of revelation, philosophical or otherwise, about what I want to do in the future, and how that all works as part of a means to an ultimate end. For now, I think, this’ll have to do.

  1. this is particularly tragic because some of the quotes are from that text (quoted in papers I wrote) and some are from an online text, meaning they come from different translations back to text
  2. Becoming Human: Ancient Greek Perspectives on the Good Life, a required class for almost all Concourse first-years back to text
  3. Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program; often used as a noun or verb to refer to specific UROP positions back to text
  4. i.e. purpose, goal, intended outcome or consequence, such as in the phrase 'the ends justify the means back to text
  5. this is not a strictly complete description of the philosophy at hand; in fact, Aristotle argues that no ethical theory can provide a rule-based decision procedure, and that the good person makes a decision by trying to rationally query out what is virtuous or good in a given set of circumstances. back to text
  6. this is not equivalent to hedonism (picking the fastest route to pleasure) because of the definition of happiness used; see below back to text
  7. in Greek, eudaimonia. this is the standard translation but does not capture the whole of the phrase back to text
  8. since reason differentiates us from plants and animals back to text
  9. i.e. an average back to text
  10. i.e. wastefulness back to text
  11. parts of this will be intentional. other parts, however, result from the fact that my knowledge comes mostly from one portion of one class taken over a year ago, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. back to text
  12. CourseRoad is a tool MIT students use to plan their classes; it has data on when classes are taught, what major requirements are, and how many hours classes are supposed to take based on course evaluations back to text
  13. these are: a joint major (21S) in Writing and Mathematics, a second major in 6-3 (Computer Science and Engineering), and minors in 7 (Biology) and 21M (Music). also, I’m doing a Spanish concentration. back to text
  14. cf. annotation 5; Aristotle really doesn't put forward a decision procedure. back to text
  15. some of what he says, particularly toward the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, takes this bent, but in general this is false back to text
  16. and if he did, he certainly wouldn't tell anyone to become a computer scientist back to text
  17. of course, this depends on your definitions of major, measurable, and impact, but in most cases when people say this they usually mean something like ‘inventing something significant’ back to text
  18. note that this take fundamentally rejects nihilism in a somewhat unacademic manner. notably, however, i don't explicitly rule out that life broadly does not have meaning; rather, i claim that people must create their own meaning to live—which is ultimately why i reject this first answer. back to text
  19. i.e. it depends on no external goods, and serves no end other than goodness itself back to text
  20. i think this is the literal meaning of praxis, but i mostly see this word in academic memes so who knows back to text
  21. notably, this geometric argument actually depends on quadratic functions of each variable, which means that, similar to Aristotle, it assumes that both the excess and the deficiency of any given thing are bad back to text
  22. including my academic advisor, who also studied both CS and writing back to text
  23. 6-2 is Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, 6-3 is Computer Science and Engineering. I have discovered I do not care about circuits quite enough to endure the extra classes about them. back to text
  24. i.e. 12+ unit back to text
  25. Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences classes back to text
  26. a unit is one work per week in a semester; three units is approximately equivalent to one traditional semester-system credit hour back to text