1 min read

Wrestling with Abstraction

Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory has a concept he calls a MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin is an Object of Desire, around which merry plots are constructed to thrill/amuse/frighten/engage the viewer.

A recurring topic of Ben's writing is how narrative drives our lives. A MacGuffin is the focus of that narrative. It's "inflation," "taxes," "crypto," or whatever the narrative of the day is.

Nat Eliason has a concept called atomization. Atomization is focusing on one concept to the exclusion of others. For example, focusing on being fit leads to going to a physical trainer once a week rather than having a lifestyle that results in you being fit.

Atomization encourages us to reduce multivariate experiences, often the most important parts of life, to their single most obvious element.

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has a concept called Moloch. Moloch is the primordial god of abstract concepts. It's the compulsion to win zero-sum games.

I think Ben, Nat, and Scott are describing the same concept. The pursuit of an abstract goal. I've talked about the dangers of pursuing abstract goals before, but I'm seeing them everywhere now.

David Foster Wallace wrote about the phenomenon in his famous “This is Water” speech:

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough... Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly... Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. - David Foster Wallace - This is Water

What is the solution?

I think the solution, as Nat and Iain McGilchrist say, is integration. If you worship money, don't just look at the number, ask yourself what you willwill you do with it. If you worship your intellect, what can you build? If you worship your body, test it. What can you accomplish in your life?

Test your abstract pursuits in the real world.

🔗 The MacGuffin
🔗 De-Atomization is the Secret to Happiness
🔗 Meditations on Moloch
🔗 Insights from “The Matter with Things.”
🔗 This is Water