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Descartes on the Cure for Indecision

“There are no grounds for fear of the unknown: for often the things we most dreaded, before we experienced them, turn out to be better than those we desired.”

Descartes on the Cure for Indecision

“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist,” wrote Dani Shapiro in her beautiful meditation on why creativity requires leaping into the unknown, “is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” John Keats called this “negative capability” and it resides at the heart of Rilke’s timeless incantation to “live the questions.” But ours is a world strewn with dualities, where everything exists in parallel with its opposite, every point tethered to its counterpoint. And among the most pervasive dualities are uncertainty and indecision — one a constructive force of self-expansion predicated on an active embrace of the unknown, the other a destructive contraction of the spirit paralyzed before possibility.

The cause and cure of the latter is what the great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) explores in a section of The Passions of the Soul (public library) — his final published work, which gave us Descartes on nobility of soul and the crucial difference between confidence and pride.

Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648
Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648

Descartes considers indecision a “species of fear” — like jealousy, envy, despair, and superstition — and writes:

Indecision is also a species of fear that, holding the soul, as it were, in suspense between several actions it might carry out, causes it to perform none of them, and thus gives it the time to make a proper choice before opting for one of them. In which respect, it is genuinely of some use.* But when it lasts longer than it should, and causes us to squander on deliberation the time we need in order to act, it is very bad. Now I call it a kind of fear, even though it may happen that, when we have a choice between several things that appear to be virtually equal in goodness, we remain uncertain and undecided, without, however, feeling any fear. For this kind of indecision stems purely from the situation, and not from any agitation of the spirits: hence it is not a passion, unless the uncertainty of the choice is aggravated by the fear of making a mistake. But in some people this fear is so habitual and so powerful that often, even though they have no choice to make between alternatives and see only one line of action to pursue or to avoid, it holds them back and causes them to waste time in looking for other possibilities; in this case, there is an excess of indecision, which stems from an excessive desire to do the right thing, and from a weakness of the understanding, which has no clear and distinct notions, only a host of confused ones. That is why the remedy for this excess is to accustom ourselves to form definite and determinate judgements about whatever things we are confronted with, and to believe that we are always doing our duty when we do what we judge to be best, even though, perhaps, we may be judging quite wrongly.

He examines the subject of indecision and its seedbed of fear from another angle in a 1646 letter to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, to whom he dedicated the book and whom he considered a woman possessing intelligence “so far above the common run that she grasps with ease what our scholars find most difficult.” In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to echo half a millennium later in asserting that “the things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation,” Descartes writes:

I am convinced that resolution and promptitude are very necessary virtues in the handling of a business already begun. And there are no grounds for fear of the unknown: for often the things we most dreaded, before we experienced them, turn out to be better than those we desired.

For a vitalizing counterpoint to this particular portion of The Passions of the Soul, see psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in praise of missing out, then revisit Descartes’s twelve timeless tenets for critical thinking.


Genes and the Holy G: Siddhartha Mukherjee on the Dark Cultural History of IQ and Why We Can’t Measure Intelligence

“If the history of medical genetics teaches us one lesson, it is to be wary of precisely such slips between biology and culture… Genes cannot tell us how to categorize or comprehend human diversity; environments can, cultures can, geographies can, histories can.”

Genes and the Holy G: Siddhartha Mukherjee on the Dark Cultural History of IQ and Why We Can’t Measure Intelligence

Intelligence, Simone de Beauvoir argued, is not a ready-made quality “but a way of casting oneself into the world and of disclosing being.” Like the rest of De Beauvoir’s socially wakeful ideas, this was a courageously countercultural proposition — she lived in the heyday of the IQ craze, which sought to codify into static and measurable components the complex and dynamic mode of being we call “intelligence.” Even today, as we contemplate the nebulous future of artificial intelligence, we find ourselves stymied by the same core problem — how are we to synthesize and engineer intelligence if we are unable to even define it in its full dimension?

How the emergence of IQ tests contracted our understanding of intelligence rather than expanding it and what we can do to transcend their perilous cultural legacy is what practicing physician, research scientist, and Pulitzer-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee explores throughout The Gene: An Intimate History (public library) — a rigorously researched, beautifully written detective story about the genetic components of what we experience as the self, rooted in Mukherjee’s own painful family history of mental illness and radiating a larger inquiry into how genetics illuminates the future of our species.

Siddhartha Mukherjee (Photograph: Deborah Feingold)
Siddhartha Mukherjee (Photograph: Deborah Feingold)

A crucial agent in our limiting definition of intelligence, which has a dark heritage in nineteenth-century biometrics and eugenics, was the British psychologist and statistician Charles Spearman, who became interested in the strong correlation between an individual’s high performance on tests assessing very different mental abilities. He surmised that human intelligence is a function not of specific knowledge but of the individual’s ability to manipulate abstract knowledge across a variety of domains. Spearman called this ability “general intelligence,” shorthanded g. Mukherjee chronicles the monumental and rather grim impact of this theory on modern society:

By the early twentieth century, g had caught the imagination of the public. First, it captivated early eugenicists. In 1916, the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, an avid supporter of the American eugenics movement, created a standardized test to rapidly and quantitatively assess general intelligence, hoping to use the test to select more intelligent humans for eugenic breeding. Recognizing that this measurement varied with age during childhood development, Terman advocated a new metric to quantify age-specific intelligence. If a subject’s “mental age” was the same as his or her physical age, their “intelligence quotient,” or IQ, was defined as exactly 100. If a subject lagged in mental age compared to physical age, the IQ was less than a hundred; if she was more mentally advanced, she was assigned an IQ above 100.

A numerical measure of intelligence was also particularly suited to the demands of the First and Second World Wars, during which recruits had to be assigned to wartime tasks requiring diverse skills based on rapid, quantitative assessments. When veterans returned to civilian life after the wars, they found their lives dominated by intelligence testing.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Wild

Because categories, measurements, and labels help us navigate the world and, in Umberto Eco’s undying words, “make infinity comprehensible,” IQ metrics enchanted the popular imagination with the convenient illusion of neat categorization. Like any fad that offers a shortcut for something difficult to achieve, they spread like wildfire across the societal landscape. Mukherjee writes:

By the early 1940s, such tests had become accepted as an inherent part of American culture. IQ tests were used to rank job applicants, place children in school, and recruit agents for the Secret Service. In the 1950s, Americans commonly listed their IQs on their résumés, submitted the results of a test for a job application, or even chose their spouses based on the test. IQ scores were pinned on the babies who were on display in Better Babies contests (although how IQ was measured in a two-year-old remained mysterious).

These rhetorical and historical shifts in the concept of intelligence are worth noting, for we will return to them in a few paragraphs. General intelligence (g) originated as a statistical correlation between tests given under particular circumstances to particular individuals. It morphed into the notion of “general intelligence” because of a hypothesis concerning the nature of human knowledge acquisition. And it was codified into “IQ” to serve the particular exigencies of war. In a cultural sense, the definition of g was an exquisitely self-reinforcing phenomenon: those who possessed it, anointed as “intelligent” and given the arbitration of the quality, had every incentive in the world to propagate its definition.

With an eye to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s culture-shaping coinage of the word “meme”“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs,” Dawkins wrote in his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene, “so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” — Mukherjee argues that g became a self-propagating unit worthy of being thought of as “selfish g.” He writes:

It takes counterculture to counter culture — and it was only inevitable, perhaps, that the sweeping political movements that gripped America in the 1960s and 1970s would shake the notions of general intelligence and IQ by their very roots. As the civil rights movement and feminism highlighted chronic political and social inequalities in America, it became evident that biological and psychological features were not just inborn but likely to be deeply influenced by context and environment. The dogma of a single form of intelligence was also challenged by scientific evidence.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

Along came social scientists like Howard Gardner, whose germinal 1983 Theory of Multiple Intelligences set out to upend the tyranny of “selfish g” by demonstrating that human acumen exists along varied dimensions, subtler and more context-specific, not necessarily correlated with one another — those who score high on logical/mathematical intelligence, for instance, may not score high on bodily/kinesthetic intelligence, and vice versa. Mukherjee considers the layered implications for g and its active agents:

Is g heritable? In a certain sense, yes. In the 1950s, a series of reports suggested a strong genetic component. Of these, twin studies were the most definitive. When identical twins who had been reared together — i.e., with shared genes and shared environments — were tested in the early fifties, psychologists had found a striking degree of concordance in their IQs, with a correlation value of 0.86. In the late eighties, when identical twins who were separated at birth and reared separately were tested, the correlation fell to 0.74 — still a striking number.

But the heritability of a trait, no matter how strong, may be the result of multiple genes, each exerting a relatively minor effect. If that was the case, identical twins would show strong correlations in g, but parents and children would be far less concordant. IQ followed this pattern. The correlation between parents and children living together, for instance, fell to 0.42. With parents and children living apart, the correlation collapsed to 0.22. Whatever the IQ test was measuring, it was a heritable factor, but one also influenced by many genes and possibly strongly modified by environment — part nature and part nurture.

The most logical conclusion from these facts is that while some combination of genes and environments can strongly influence g, this combination will rarely be passed, intact, from parents to their children. Mendel’s laws virtually guarantee that the particular permutation of genes will scatter apart in every generation. And environmental interactions are so difficult to capture and predict that they cannot be reproduced over time. Intelligence, in short, is heritable (i.e., influenced by genes), but not easily inheritable (i.e., moved down intact from one generation to the next).

And yet the quest for the mythic holy grail of general intelligence persisted and took us down paths not only questionable but morally abhorrent by our present standards. In the 1980s, scientists conducted numerous studies demonstrating a discrepancy in IQ across the races, with white children scoring higher than their black peers. While the controversial results initially provided rampant fodder for racists, they also provided incentive for scientists to do what scientists must — question the validity of their own methods. In a testament to trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer’s assertion that the way we frame our questions shapes our answers, it soon became clear that these IQ tests weren’t measuring the mythic g but, rather, reflected the effects of contextual circumstances like poverty, illness, hunger, and educational opportunity. Mukherjee explains:

It is easy to demonstrate an analogous effect in a lab: If you raise two plant strains — one tall and one short — in undernourished circumstances, then both plants grow short regardless of intrinsic genetic drive. In contrast, when nutrients are no longer limiting, the tall plant grows to its full height. Whether genes or environment — nature or nurture — dominates in influence depends on context. When environments are constraining, they exert a disproportionate influence. When the constraints are removed, genes become ascendant.


If the history of medical genetics teaches us one lesson, it is to be wary of precisely such slips between biology and culture. Humans, we now know, are largely similar in genetic terms — but with enough variation within us to represent true diversity. Or, perhaps more accurately, we are culturally or biologically inclined to magnify variations, even if they are minor in the larger scheme of the genome. Tests that are explicitly designed to capture variances in abilities will likely capture variances in abilities — and these variations may well track along racial lines. But to call the score in such a test “intelligence,” especially when the score is uniquely sensitive to the configuration of the test, is to insult the very quality it sets out to measure.

Genes cannot tell us how to categorize or comprehend human diversity; environments can, cultures can, geographies can, histories can. Our language sputters in its attempt to capture this slip. When a genetic variation is statistically the most common, we call it normal — a word that implies not just superior statistical representation but qualitative or even moral superiority… When the variation is rare, it is termed a mutant — a word that implies not just statistical uncommonness, but qualitative inferiority, or even moral repugnance.

And so it goes, interposing linguistic discrimination on genetic variation, mixing biology and desire.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Intelligence, it turns out, is as integrated and indivisible as what we call identity, which the great Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf likened to an intricate pattern drawn on a tightly stretched drumhead. “Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance,” he wrote, “and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” Indeed, it is to identity that Mukherjee points as an object of inquiry far apter than intelligence in understanding personhood. In a passage emblematic of the elegance with which he fuses science, cultural history, and lyrical prose, Mukherjee writes:

Like the English novel, or the face, say, the human genome can be lumped or split in a million different ways. But whether to split or lump, to categorize or synthesize, is a choice. When a distinct, heritable biological feature, such as a genetic illness (e.g., sickle-cell anemia), is the ascendant concern, then examining the genome to identify the locus of that feature makes absolute sense. The narrower the definition of the heritable feature or the trait, the more likely we will find a genetic locus for that trait, and the more likely that the trait will segregate within some human subpopulation (Ashkenazi Jews in the case of Tay-Sachs disease, or Afro-Caribbeans for sickle-cell anemia). There’s a reason that marathon running, for instance, is becoming a genetic sport: runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, a narrow eastern wedge of one continent, dominate the race not just because of talent and training, but also because the marathon is a narrowly defined test for a certain form of extreme fortitude. Genes that enable this fortitude (e.g., particular combinations of gene variants that produce distinct forms of anatomy, physiology, and metabolism) will be naturally selected.

Conversely, the more we widen the definition of a feature or trait (say, intelligence, or temperament), the less likely that the trait will correlate with single genes — and, by extension, with races, tribes, or subpopulations. Intelligence and temperament are not marathon races: there are no fixed criteria for success, no start or finish lines — and running sideways or backward, might secure victory. The narrowness, or breadth, of the definition of a feature is, in fact, a question of identity — i.e., how we define, categorize, and understand humans (ourselves) in a cultural, social, and political sense. The crucial missing element in our blurred conversation on the definition of race, then, is a conversation on the definition of identity.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fascinating The Gene with young Barack Obama on identity and the search for a coherent self and Mark Twain on intelligence vs. morality, then revisit Schopenhauer on what makes a genius.


An Artist’s Life Manifesto: Marina Abramović’s Rules of Life, Solitude, and Silence

“An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.”

An Artist’s Life Manifesto: Marina Abramović’s Rules of Life, Solitude, and Silence

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” E.E. Cummings wrote in his spectacular meditation on what it really means to be an artist. But if “all art is based upon nonconformity,” as the great artist Ben Shahn asserted, and if unlearning our cultural conditioning is essential to creative work, why do we have such a voracious appetite for the writings, daily routines, and manifestos of celebrated artists?

That tension between guidance and rebellion is what Marina Abramović (b. November 30, 1946) plays with in a piece titled “An Artist’s Life Manifesto,” which opens the twelfth chapter of Walk Through Walls (public library) — the magnificent memoir that gave us Abramović on art, fear, and taking risks.

The manifesto is divided into three parts — an old-fashioned list of rules of personal conduct, the kind which artists like Eugène Delacroix and André Gide kept in their diaries in the nineteenth century; a portion devoted to the artist’s relationship with silence, that ennobler of speech and fertilizer of the imagination; and a section dedicated to the relationship with solitude, that seedbed of self-discovery and supreme fuel for creative work.

To be sure, the manifesto itself bears the characteristic fusion of sincerity and subversion that marks Abramović’s work — although the tenets are rooted in the earnestness of her own experience, it is an undeniable contradiction for an artist who has spent half a century defying the dogmas of art by inventing new forms to prescribe a set of dicta for artists to follow. Out of that deliberate contradiction arises a testament to philosopher Jacob Needleman’s abiding assertion: “There is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.”

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present. Photograph by Marco Anelli.
Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present. Photograph by Marco Anelli.

Abramović writes:


An artist should not lie to himself or others
An artist should not steal ideas from other artists
An artist should not compromise for himself or in regards to the art market
An artist should not kill other human beings
An artist should not make himself into an idol…
An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist


An artist has to understand silence
An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his work
Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean


An artist must make time for the long periods of solitude
Solitude is extremely important
Away from home,
Away from the studio,
Away from family,
Away from friends
An artist should stay for long periods of time at waterfalls
An artist should stay for long periods of time at exploding volcanoes
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at fast-running rivers
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the horizon where the ocean and sky meet
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky

During our recent public conversation in San Francisco, Abramović shared three more life-rules she borrowed from her dear friends Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson:

1. Have a good bullshit detector.
2. Fear nothing and no one.
3. Be tender.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly terrific Walk Through Walls with Mary Oliver on the third self and the artist’s task, James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity, and Sol LeWitt’s electrifying letter of advice on overcoming self-doubt, then revisit Abramović on pain as a focal lens for presence.


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