Am I too logical?
November 12, 2009 1:37 AM   Subscribe

How do I talk to people when I am choked by logic?

Kind of tricky to explain my dilemma, but I'll give it a shot. A little about my background: I'm an atheist, and I was heavily influenced while growing up by a very very logical, rational-minded person (my stepdad). I've always been told that you should question everything, and that you shouldn't shy away from uncomfortable answers.

I think a lot and I really think that I'm very logical and honest in my way of thinking. Over the last couple of years, I've challenged all of the absolute values, or ideals, that I held. And I've pretty much knocked over every one. I've seen the pros and cons of pretty much every idea or event, the flow of logic and inevitability that sweeps through all of human existence. I can't feel passionate about anything because I can understand why it came to be, why it couldn't help but come to be, and what fundamental problem makes it impossible to solve.

For example, I used to believe that stopping climate change was a worthwhile thing to do, now I see very clearly the chain of events that will make it inevitable - how oil consumption is linked to current population levels and affluence, resulting in increased emissions, and how it isn't just people driving cars but every single facet of modern human life, and the only way to stop it would be for everybody to voluntarily stop eating and buying and reproducing... and I can see through every single vouched solution, because it is so easy when you apply concepts like natural selection, thermodynamics, population ecology...

So now when someone tries to talk to me about climate change - and they're passionate and reaaaally want to do something about it - I basically have to bite my tongue and force myself not to explain why it's pointless. When they talk about how all we need is more windfarms, I can think of a million reasons why windfarms don't work, and even if they did... If I do open my mouth, I think I scare people. And I hate stripping people of their values, because it's so hard for me, I think, well, why shouldn't they believe something if it gives them a sense of purpose?

And it's like this with almost everything. I feel very worried by conversations, because my mind is always working on a very high, abstract level, and I can't connect to people or speak my mind without getting into some very murky territory. I can drown people in shades of gray.

Other than waiting for the irrational thunderbolt of falling in love to come and clear things up for me, what can I do? Does anyone else feel like this? I have a sneaking suspicion that this is linked to my possible hypomania... when I am in a manic-feeling state, I tend to feel that there is something beautiful and essential in the pure act of being alive, so my conversation reflects that. When I am feeling down, this stuff clouds in very heavily.

It's not just when I talk to other people - it hamstrings my sense of purpose in life, in what I am doing, in what I am thinking about. It can be very cruel.

I hope I don't come off as arrogant in this post. This feeling is not one of arrogance - this feeling doesn't inspire scorn in me... just a sad and deflated sense of jealousy for those who are a little simpler, a little more irrational. And I hope that I actually explained myself, because it certainly feels very confusing when I try and lay it down.
posted by schmichael to Religion & Philosophy (54 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
It must be a tremendous burden being so much more thoughtful and logical than every other person you meet, but you may be surprised by how much we all can learn from other people, and furthermore how little being right matters if everyone thinks you're an arsehole.

A Mark Twain quote to ponder. I'm guessing you're under 25, possibly 20.

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."
posted by smoke at 1:52 AM on November 12, 2009 [33 favorites]

" now I see very clearly the chain of events that will make it inevitable"

I'm taking a guess here -- because you don't say you've spent the last couple of decades intensely researching in depth the world energy economy, ecology, climatology, physics -- so you have, what? An elaborate, plausible-sounding, but untested hypothesis? Based on, what? Your own synthesis and some light reading? You're guiding your interactions with other people based on this, and aligning your values based on it? I hope you do realize that just because systemic thinking comes easily to you, you aren't actually going to be right by default?

" I can think of a million reasons why windfarms don't work"

So can I. Last I looked there were profitable, net-positive wind farms already in existence, though, and that they're a well understood and well tested component of most transitional energy plans. You can't run the whole planet at current energy consumption levels on them, but nobody's asking you to.

I'm not sure you come off as arrogant so much as ignorant. Assuming you understand it all because the pieces seem to fit together pretty well in your mind is not necessarily the mark of a great intellect so much as it is indicative of a narrow one.

" I'm guessing you're under 25, possibly 20."

Yeah, what you describe sounds to me an awful lot like the naïvety of youth. If you manage to reopen your mind to concepts that are counterintuitive but true, you'll probably get out of this phase with time and experience.
posted by majick at 2:19 AM on November 12, 2009 [9 favorites]

Over the last couple of years, I've challenged all of the absolute values, or ideals, that I held.

It sounds as though it might be time to turn that questioning attitude in on itself, and ask whether you can really discover the Truth about everything through pure abstract logical thought. Challenge the primacy of Logic in your personal value system.

Also, if you have come to the conclusion that every major problem facing humanity is insoluble, it sounds as though perhaps your thought process is somewhat biased. Consider that innumerable smart and logical people have come to conclusions different than yours. Remember that you are working from incomplete information. Take joy in your relative ignorance.
posted by fermion at 2:27 AM on November 12, 2009 [9 favorites]

I recognize myself in your situation though not to the extremes that you describe. I have always had problems with small talk and conversations in which it is, to me at least, obvious that people see things they way they want them to be instead of the way they are. However I have also learned that this,while very annoying, is not, in the grand scheme of things, really THAT important. Simply put: life is not about being right. From my point of view life is about the joy of life itself and making connections with other human beings is a vital part of it. Clever really does not help you very much when you need warmth / support or whatever non-logical human emotion you might need.

There must be things that you enjoy, that give your life meaning? Find people who enjoy the same things. You're an atheist so why not fight that good fight (see Richard Dawkins' site for inspiration) and let others worry about climate change?

Logic is wonderful wonderful thing but too much of a good thing is just that, too much. Do you exercise? Do you do anything that requires you to use the rest of your body, not just your brain?
posted by dinkyday at 2:47 AM on November 12, 2009 [7 favorites]

I've thought similar thoughts.

First, I was helped to realize that there kind of is no right or wrong. Not absolutely anyway.

Then, be the change you want to see in the world ... and also build it wrong, but build it.

Optimize for time, not correctness.

And remember that you're too small to see all the options in the position. The only arbiter of failure is when a task has been attempted and it has failed, given reasonable starting parameters. Just work - perform! - on something you have a reasonable hunch will do something good. Do it well. Try to put it into performance with other things you have a reasonable hunch will do something good. Do that well. Repeat.

Also, there are a million reasons for wind farms to fail. There were also a million resons for the Internet to fail. Or the aeroplane. A million things can fail for a billion reasons. No one man will know how to save the world - but he has a piece of the puzzle in his hands.
posted by krilli at 2:51 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

You seem to be suggesting that your rationality, combined with some reading that you have done, allows you to predict the future of the human race so infallibly as to make attempts to alter it futile.

However, there seem to be very few other thinkers that agree with you. It seems generally understood that predicting the future is extremely difficult. People frequently try it and then are proved embarrassingly wrong later; take for example predictions about the economy.

Trying to predict the future, or even understand the present, by merely thinking about it a lot, is a concept that sank with the advent of science.

In order to test your supposition that you can predict the future, how about making a large number of smaller predictions about what will happen in the shorter term, writing them down and then seeing how many of them really come true?
posted by emilyw at 2:54 AM on November 12, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm confused why you mention atheism. Logic and faith are not mutually exclusive.

While I applaud your embracing of logic and rationality, you must make room for things that are not based on nor proved by logic alone.

How does one experience love? Joy? How can you not look at a great piece of art and get lost in it, almost to the point of forgetting The Self?

How can you look up at the night sky and feel humbled? Not whether a vague being made it or not but just the sheer expanse of it and how small we are yet still having our part to play?

Best way to deal with people when you get 'choked by logic'? Be passionate in your rebuttal.

Also, maybe see a doc. Possible bi-polar with the massive mood swigs.
posted by Dagobert at 2:57 AM on November 12, 2009

Am I too logical?

No. I don't mean this as snark at all: This is a phase, and you'll probably grow out of it.

How do I talk to people when I am choked by logic?

Listen a lot more, and talk a lot less. You never learn anything if you are always talking, or formulating your next comments, instead of listening to others.
posted by Houstonian at 3:16 AM on November 12, 2009 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You've gotten some good answers already.

I used to be like that in some ways when I was younger. At some point I realised a few things.

Yes I could demolish a lot of positions by holding them up to the harsh glaring light of objective eternal truth. Hardly anything measures up actually. But then nothing much is left.
I realised that for me this seeking of 'eternal truth' had emotional and social underpinnings. Being happy and engaged with people would obviate the paramount need for logical truth.

Another take on this is that logic shows inconsistencies perhaps but can't say anything about what is of value. What is of value is necessarily founded on subjective emotion and experience and thus inextricably linked with dependent truth, inconsistencies, experiental truths. Those people whose logic you criticise are probably much better in reasoning in this experiential logic than you are. In my opinion this kind of reasoning is an essential life skill to have a fulfilling life.
I used to question the point of it all until I realised that there's not always a lot of sense in asking about a higher cause; that need only arises when things on this plain are emotionally and socially unsatisfactory.

Also demolishing other peoples positions gave me a sense of worth; I was able to see things that they apparently couldn't. At some point I realised what emotional need drove my behaviour and that the payoff wasn't that satisfactory.

So if I were you I'd focus on how you can get to be in a better place socially and emotionally. And start learning other social tools beyond the ones that your father showed you. I expect that the logical approach to everyone and everything will diminish a bit.

my answer has elements in common with fermions and dinkydays perceptive comments.
posted by jouke at 3:26 AM on November 12, 2009 [5 favorites]

btw there was a book that made me realise a lot about the underpinnings of this. It is Goudsbloms 1960 PhD thesis "Nihilism and Culture".
posted by jouke at 3:33 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: I think your premise is flawed.

Take this for instance:
I've seen the pros and cons of pretty much every idea or event
Really? Every single one?

How about this:
why it couldn't help but come to be
We're all inevitably doomed. Really?

And this:
So now when someone tries to talk to me about climate change ...I can think of a million reasons why windfarms don't work, and even if they did... Now, why can't you use your [intellectual] powers for good? Can't you think of a million different ways to manipulate people and have them working for, demanding more suitable power sources?

well, why shouldn't they believe something if it gives them a sense of purpose Well, that's reasonable, but you can go a little further than that. It's not your responsibility to decide what people think and believe in. Really. Now if you were talking to a climate change expert who knew far more than you did, and you had questions about the way it should or could be implemented and the difficulties pro-green power factions face, now that would be fine. On the other hand, not so fine to say, "hey Dr Scientist, you think you know more than me about this, but truly, I've thought about it, and unfortunately, you're wrong. It's all inevitable. We're doomed. We're all going to die." We are of course going to die, but probably not from climate change reasons (not just yet), and you probably haven't had a chance to become an expert in every field yet.

And that's the thing. You're no doubt very bright. You've probably dealt with a bunch of teachers (even lecturers) who aren't as bright or as quick as you are and you've lept to the understandable but erroneous conclusion that you are the smartest person on the planet, and you can see what's going to happen, and it's all totally useless.

Well, at the risk of attempting to change your beliefs, which I'm only attempting because you've invited it with this ask me question: It's not all useless or a waste of time. Suppose I pat my cat and cause it to purr for a while this evening and a meteor hits our house tomorrow, and me and the cat both being atheists end our lives and do not go on to a second or spiritual future - that patting time was not wasted. Both the cat and I would have enjoyed it. Those moments sharing the same space and appreciating each other was a goodness, gone, of course, and not remembered by anyone, but not wasted. What else is life but a series of moments that eventually will never be remembered by anyone? Why are we living, except to experience the goodnesses sandwhiched between the not-so-good bits for comparison?

So, what will bring some happiness or pleasure to your life or someone else's? Surely not convincing them that any attempt to save the earth is wrong or futile, even if you are correct (so, there, you see I agree with you a little). Do something worthwhile - read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, a swim, a run. Learn how to do something totally new, challenge yourself. Make someone laugh, or smile. These truly are the great things and will be enough to get you by until you re-develop your philosophy again (which in my experience, thinkers keep doing, because the philosophy of a 20 year is fine for someone that age, but may well not fit someone in their 30s or 40s.)
posted by b33j at 3:48 AM on November 12, 2009 [6 favorites]

You already know that most people do not share the same devotion to logic that you do. Isn't it illogical to know that and keep trying to relate to them using only logic?

(Or, um, it might not actually be strictly illogical. I'm an INFP and frequently get kind of tripped up by logic, though I wouldn't call myself simple.)

So you were taught not to shy away from uncomfortable answers. Sometimes the answer is "well, it just is" or "that's what I feel" or "I don't care to explain it any further."
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:00 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Think a bit harder, I'd say, because this, if representative of your reasoning powers:
For example, I used to believe that stopping climate change was a worthwhile thing to do, now I see very clearly the chain of events that will make it inevitable - how oil consumption is linked to current population levels and affluence, resulting in increased emissions, and how it isn't just people driving cars but every single facet of modern human life, and the only way to stop it would be for everybody to voluntarily stop eating and buying and reproducing... and I can see through every single vouched solution, because it is so easy when you apply concepts like natural selection, thermodynamics, population ecology...
is pisspoor. Only mass individual voluntarism would affect consumption patterns? Even a cursory survey of the competing economic systems of the twentieth century tells you that's not true. Since few of us are individually responsible for the complex processes that bring the goods and services we consume to the point at which we consume them, there's a whole number of points in the chain where institutional or other intervention can have an impact.
Maybe if instead of just assuming you know better, you said what you thought and had the arguments, you'd find people who would knock holes in what seem to be you rather shallow understanding of world-historical processes. If that type of person isn't in your immediate social circle, read some of the bigger thinkers. Smoke's Twain quote above is bang on the money - part of the process of growing up is seeing ever more of the complexities of the world, though I wouldn't want to discourage you from believing in your own thinking abilities, just keep putting them to the test.
posted by Abiezer at 4:06 AM on November 12, 2009 [4 favorites]

Yeah, you're not trying hard enough. Try out your "logic" regarding climate change on - say - beachfront holiday houses. Demand for them depends on affluence and population too, right?

But also prices and other rationing devices.
posted by hawthorne at 4:15 AM on November 12, 2009

Just a few little tidbits:

1) I read the biography of a famous logician named Bertrand Russell years back.

Its easy to feel humbled by their work in the field of logic. Have you tried to study logic? Its not a simple undertaking.

Here are a few small articles to whet your appetite:

2) Einstein said that imagination is more important than logic. Who knows what solutions people will find in the future based on imagination AND logic, not logic alone.

I'm currently studying problems and I come up with my own solution but I'm amazed at the variety of solutions other people are coming up with for the same problem.


But I think its really good that you are asking this question. Too many people think they know the answers. At least you are questioning whether you do or not.
posted by simpleton at 4:25 AM on November 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

Over the last couple of years, I've challenged all of the absolute values, or ideals, that I held. And I've pretty much knocked over every one.

This is a grandiose way of saying you're a relativist, right? Then apparently you're not as skeptical and doubting as you think, since relativism is a famously flawed position. (For one thing, I'm sure it's not true that you've overturned all your absolute values. For instance, your question implies that people should value getting along with each other.) If you doubt all values, doubt relativism.

Also, I don't understand how your views on global warming have anything to do with disbelieving in absolutes.

To get to your social question, you present this as if it were simply out of the question for you to explain your honest opinion to people. It's not. You could just say: "But I don't see how X would work -- wouldn't it be thwarted by Y?" You just need to drop your self-aggrandizing attitude and realize it's extremely unlikely that you've actually achieved a comprehensive understanding of the global warming problem. Again, if you're so doubting of humanity's ability to achieve things, doubt your own ability to figure out everything.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:30 AM on November 12, 2009

Just understand that lots of people need to believe in something in order to be happy - whether that's god(s), astrology, democracy, communism, environmentalism, American Idol, etc etc etc.

You've concluded that humankind can't be saved by any of these things, I personally agree with you. So what's left? Individual happiness and wellbeing. If confronting someone with your ugly truth is going to either do nothing (at best) or just make them unhappy in the short or long term, why do it? If saying nothing or pretending to agree causes no harm, why not do that?

In case you want to, there are plenty of good causes you can get behind purely on the basis that doing so will increase quality of life for individuals - human rights, education, disaster relief, medical aid. No need to believe in anything fundamentally kooky.

As far as saving the world is concerned, I'm sure you're enlightened enough to understand that you could be wrong. Right? I mean.. If your brain wasn't working properly, how would you know? So maybe you've missed something. I don't think there's anything bad about limiting your personal impact on the planet, just in case.

Live life, be happy, don't hurt anyone, and don't worry too much.
posted by dickasso at 4:46 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Though I agree with a lot of the comments so far, I think a more direct answer to your question-- how you talk to people-- could help.

Most people you meet-- co-workers, family, people at parties-- don't want an argument, not because they're irrational but because they're probably trying to do something else at the time, like having a good time with each other.

It's not really your job to challenge their values or make sure that everyone shares your pessimism about climate change. Social times are for having fun and making connections. It might help to think of yourself as a reporter: find out about people's lives, what they do, what they're passionate about, what stories they have to tell, without imposing your own views. People like to talk to a sympathetic listener; they don't like being put down by someone who thinks they have all the answers.
posted by zompist at 4:53 AM on November 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've struggled with this point of view sometimes. Here's something to chew on: maybe meaningful social change, or economic or environmental change, does indeed have to come from multitudinous individual, voluntary actions. The problem then becomes how to motivate multitudes of individuals to behave differently. It's a terribly difficult problem, so much so that the overwhelmingly greater part of discussion focuses on other approaches -- electing different leaders, inventing new technologies, passing laws to "make" people do the right thing -- even though these approaches are very often missteps, if they are even possible.

However, you can turn your mind to the terribly difficult problem of individual behavior. There are other people who are doing so. Behavioral economics is one field you might find interesting, or behavioral decision theory. Yes, it's slow work, and may not yield real fruit very soon, but it's something.

Also, the fact that public education is as advanced as it is (or as it was) accounts for the fact that so many people can even understand, to the extent we do, the problems we as a society face. Keeping, and improving, that system is worthwhile; maybe, if we'd been even better educated, we'd see a way through this, but more importantly, it may be that evolving the way people are educated now or in the near future will be significant -- a way of approaching the difficult problem of individual behavior.
posted by amtho at 4:57 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: Also: realize that the people who are telling you not to challenge others, or that you sound arrogant, mean well. From your question it sounds like you've already learned on your own not to insist on your point of view socially. I know that this is a genuinely painful and depressing perspective to possess, and that not talking about it adds to the distress; you wish someone could convince you you're wrong. It's not about arrogance, although it sometimes seems that way to others if you dare to try to discuss this feeling.

You sound like someone who is genuinely seeking a way forward, intellectually and emotionally, and who is not easily distracted by the solutions others grab onto without looking at those solutions critically. Being as critical as you are can certainly make you unpopular. There is something to be said for staying out of others' ways when they are working on whatever solutions they love; even if these solutions don't solve everything, they'll probably achieve more than they would if they sat around mired in indecision!

However, you probably need to find others who are as critical as you are. Achieving some kind of advanced educational degree is probably one good way to do this, if academia agrees with you, although that realm seems to have significant shortcomings -- you might get so removed from the rest of the world, and so much reward for your critical nature, that you'd cut yourself off from something truly novel. However, being the most critical person you know -- or rather, the only person who sees flaws when everyone else is gung-ho -- can make you cynical, bitter, or just plain unpleasant.
posted by amtho at 5:08 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: Mmmm. I know what you're talking about, because I've been there. This is the problem: you aren't logical enough. If you were, you would be able to see through your own logic, your own pet concepts (thermodynamics, population ecology, natural selection), and realise how flimsy and flawed they are. Your conviction that certain beliefs are pointless is, in itself, a pointless conviction. Since you are adept at knocking over absolute beliefs, you should be able to knock over your own absolute belief in the inadequacy of other absolute beliefs as well.

Once you reach that stage, you'll realise that logic doesn't empower you, or choke you, it paralyses you; traps you in circles of argument and counter-argument that you can't quite get out of because you have nothing to stand on, not even the belief that you have nothing to stand on, since you might.

Then maybe you'll say to yourself, fuck this shit, and apply your intellect and yourself to other endeavors; not because they are meaningful (in an absolute, logical sense), but because they are fun.

In other words, farewell modernism, hello postmodernism.
posted by nihraguk at 5:18 AM on November 12, 2009 [12 favorites]

You know what a closed system in chemistry is, right? It's pretty easy to get a closed system to equilibrium, because nothing new is introduced. Your mind right now is like a closed system. You may have worked out infallible arguments based on the facts that you know, but believe me, there's a lot you don't know, pesky little things that will screw up your whole balancing equation. You could just keep your system closed and ignore those things, but that doesn't make you right in arguments. It means you are choosing what to believe.

Nobody really knows that much, in the scheme of things. One of the best ways to know a little more is to actually listen to other people.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:25 AM on November 12, 2009 [5 favorites]

I know you. You're [like] that guy who lived across the hall from me in college who wouldn't quit getting into arguments with people about subjects he only understood in the most tenuous fashion, on the basis of supposedly having read "studies" that bore out his positions.

What you need to learn: how to recognize when you've come to the limits of your knowledge in a given subject area, and how to then retire gracefully for further study and reflection, rather than pressing on and arguing nonsense about ideas you only tenuously grasp.

In short: Work to develop a sense of when you're on thin ice, both knowledge-wise and conversationally.
posted by limeonaire at 5:26 AM on November 12, 2009

I think you should really go back and read your own answer to a question about alternative medicine. I'll highlight some of your phrases that might be useful in your own self-evaluation.

I feel like I can give you some good advice on your situation. One of the problems with wading into the Western vs. alternative medicine debate is that it is a debate - and in debates, people take sides and stick to them like glue, inflating anything which supports their side, ignoring anything which doesn’t. For instance, a few of the above posters show their prejudices for either viewpoint strongly; I would urge you to be careful in picking through their advice.

It is very easy for someone raised on the principles of Western medicine to look at alternative medicine and scoff. It's hocus-pocus, so it must be worthless, right? I have done it in the past. But dismissing alternative medicine as rubbish is every bit as dangerous as believing in it slavishly. The fact is that usually, when people do something in droves, and keep doing despite huge pressure not to, then there must be some damn reason why they're being so pig-headed. It's very important to look deeper than our initial impressions and apply some actual thought to these matters.

Yes, alternative medicine isn’t backed up by studies. Yes, it is not regulated. Yes, it is ridiculously easy to get a certificate from some internet site and start selling crystals and manipulating auras. Yes, most of it probably doesn’t work, and has no reason to work. But that’s exactly why it works. It is a total rejection of the value-set of western medicine, and it represents a huge need in the souls of modern culture. It allows people to find that surety and caring attitude and positivity that only blind optimism and ignorance can bring. And that is important.
posted by proj at 5:31 AM on November 12, 2009

proj: your quote seems to reinforce why the OP is unhappy; he personally isn't able to embrace one point of view or another, because all seem insubstantial. He probably wishes he could "...find that surety and caring attitude and positivity."
posted by amtho at 5:36 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: And I hate stripping people of their values, because it's so hard for me, I think, well, why shouldn't they believe something if it gives them a sense of purpose?

You're halfway there already. You've probably seen this XKCD before—it applies even more to real-life conversations than to internet debates. Or as Vonnegut put it, "live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy." (Of course "harmless" is a key word there. Feel free to continue challenging untruths which are actively harmful, either to the person who believes them or the people around them.) I used to be like you, holding Truth as my highest value, and seeing it almost as a sacred duty to correct misinformation wherever I found it. I still regard truth highly, but no longer consider it an absolute value above all others, and don't always feel the need to correct others any more (although I still sometimes have to bite my tongue to stop myself from doing it).

But I think what you're asking, on the social side, is roughly "is there a happy medium between 'tell people how wrong they are' and 'just smile and nod'?" I think there is. Depending on the social situation, a lot of times "just smile and nod" is in fact the right response, but if the situation is right for an actual discussion, there's gentle prodding and further questioning of their position, and polite ways to ask, "well, what about X?" (rather than "You're wrong, because of X.") And when you do find yourself in such a discussion, be prepared to accept that maybe you'll actually encounter a new idea or new data you hadn't considered before, and you might have to revise your beliefs based on that. You probably don't understand "natural selection, thermodynamics, population ecology..." as well as you think you do. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe you do; I don't know what your background is. But in my experience, most people—even very intelligent people—don't understand, say, thermodynamics as well as they think they do, and I can say that with some authority, having taken an upper-level university course on thermodynamics or two. Entropy is a particularly grating example. A lot of what people think the Second Law of Thermodynamics says is wrong. "Disorder" and "chaos" are, at best, analogies for entropy, sometimes useful for giving a general idea to those who haven't encountered the concept before, but like all analogies, it breaks down at some point. (I don't claim to fully understand entropy, either, but I understand it at least well enough to know that treating it as "disorder" or "chaos" doesn't always work.) So be prepared to come to a better understanding of a topic when you're discussing it with other intelligent people, and acknowledge that you might be wrong, and have to change your mind.

(Also on that note, welcome to MetaFilter! I think you'll find this an excellent place for just that sort of discussion. If you see a post on climate change in the Blue, and they do come up with some frequency, you might try out your "trying to stop climate change is futile" position there. You'll find MeFites who are "passionate and reaaaally want to do something about it" but whose views are also more nuanced than "more windfarms!")

I can drown people in shades of gray.

Your view on climate change doesn't sound gray to me—it sounds pretty black-and-white.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:03 AM on November 12, 2009

I hear you.

I find that books, fiction and non, where the protagonist struggles with these feelings help me:
The Razor's Edge.
A History of Western Philosophy.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a bit cheesy in parts, but the protagonist undergoes this exact crisis).
Franny and Zooey.

Find good work to do, devote yourself to it even knowing it may be flawed, find love for your fellow flawed humans, and hope for the best.
posted by Jorus at 6:09 AM on November 12, 2009

Er, I mean to say, accept that we are all flawed, but that understanding your flaws and those of others can be a wellspring of compassion to cleanse your selfish disappointment.

(source, odd as it may seem)
posted by Jorus at 6:20 AM on November 12, 2009

Yes I could demolish a lot of positions by holding them up to the harsh glaring light of objective eternal truth.

Realizing that you can do this is a transitional stage to deciding that you won't do this. Keep growing, you'll get there if you apply your own precious logic and observation.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:22 AM on November 12, 2009

I'm gonna go ahead and take a different route than many of the posters here, who seem to be saying that this cold-hearted logical analysis is foolish and naive. I know how you feel, and I know that you will be very unlikely to change your logic-based belief system, because I am like you. Or at least I am like you think you are. I try to challenge all my beliefs on a very regular basis and determine whether they really hold up to scrutiny and logical analysis.

However, I don't think you're quite there yet. If you really, truly believe in the power of logic, you ought to do a little more introspection and realize how ridiculous you sound. There is no, nada, none, absolutely NO way to "see very clearly the chain of events that will make it inevitable." The notion that you could see all the way through the complicated models of climate change, human behavior, economics, and so many other factors to determine that a certain result is 100% likely is ludicrous. For starters, unless you are a leading expert in multiple fields of science, how do you know what breakthroughs are possible in the future?

This kind of thinking confuses logic with cynicism, and making a bad name for true logicians everywhere. Use your strong belief in logic to your advantage by realizing that your arguments are illogical. Acknowledge that you can't know all the contributing and complex interacting factors. Once you realize how hard it is to conduct the real logical analysis in these situations, you'll realize that these difficult situations are not quite so hopeless as you describe.
posted by RobotNinja at 6:57 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: i agree with sticky carpet. moreover, realizing that most of your positions could be equally demolished by being held up to the harsh glaring light of somebody else's objective eternal truths is useful.

more simply: your objective eternal truths ≠ the universe's objective eternal truths. most of the world cannot be reduced, or can only be reduced by logic to a faint shadow of its true complexity.

I think you may want to investigate the concept of splitting. Splitting is a psychic mechanism for self-protection, indicated by the dramatic and frequently harmful polarization of opinion and thought. It flattens paradox and the organic squicky greyness of conversation, academicism, social interaction... everything... and polarizes it into a pair (triad, quartet) of arbitrary but meaningful camps: good, bad / logical, illogical / nice, not-nice / human, angelic, demonic / smart (me, and the geniuses of history), stupid (the unwashed masses) / athiests, stupid sheep-people, etc., etc.

Splitting is common as a developmental stage in children (good boy/ bad boy) but loses its utility as the intricacy and interconnectedness of the world begin to reveal themselves to growing people. For any number of reasons, though, it can stick around as an operating process for some adult individuals. Trauma, self-protection, stress, some chemical trigger, or nothing at all... can be the cause. But what matters is recognizing it for what it is, and for the difficulty it can cause in your life. As of late, it is sometimes diagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder. Sometimes not. If your 'logical' worldview is causing you to miss out on good conversation, kindness, happiness, or some other aspect of your life you wish you experienced 'my mind is always working on a very high, abstract level... I can't connect to people or speak my mind without getting into some very murky territory' I think there is a strong case for BPD or some other psychic malaise. And if that is the case, there are lots and lots of things to do, read, think about. This is the kind of thing a therapist can be great at (if you feel you're a candidate, and wanting to change the way you interact), and one that can end up bringing you a great deal of pleasure.
posted by mr. remy at 7:00 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you are perfectly fine being as logical as you are. But I also I think you don't know everything you don't know yet, so you're basing your logic on incomplete facts. Heck, we, as humans, don't even know everything we don't know yet. We used to believe, as fact, that the sun orbited the earth. I mean, we had evidence that appeared completely logical, right? We don't feel our planet moving, and the sun definitely moves from the east to the west, therefore, earth is still and sun moves. And then someone came along with other completely logical facts and forced us to reevaluate our conclusions based on new evidence.

I like to compare this way of thinking with that old tale of the blind men and the elephant:

"In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement. The story is used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one's perspective, suggesting that what seems an absolute truth may be relative due to the deceptive nature of half-truths."
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:06 AM on November 12, 2009

Logic is but the beginning of wisdom, not the end.

Your ignorance is blessedly deeper and wider than you know. Much of what you take for fact is--in fact--contingent.

You understand that values are in the mind of the evaluator, so unless you are just going to lay down in a ditch and die, you should figure out what's important to you. A philosophy should help, if you can find one that works for you. Check out utilitarianism, humanism, secular buddhism, the teachings of Surak.

For some people, the meaning of life is having a job they enjoy, a partner they adore, and good food.

(I felt like you for a few minutes about ten years ago.)

posted by General Tonic at 7:16 AM on November 12, 2009

Actually I think that a meta-analysis of the Blind Men and The Elephant is a perfect example of what's going on here. People like to cite this story as an example of how "strictly logical" thinking leads to incorrect conclusions; however, only the most naive and sophomoric logicians would play the part of the blind men in this story. If you had a group of blind Bertrand Russel's, you certainly would not have them insisting that the elephant is "like a tree" or "like a block of marble" or "like a large wall". They would compare stories and realize that they were inconsistent. They would perform careful and objective analysis of the analysis of each of the other Bertrand Russel clones and observe that there were no logical inconsistencies in their approach. Each person would then make a judgment call based on the sum of their past experience and value systems to determine whether or not to accept the word of the other Bertrand Russels. They would certainly not be 100% convinced that their own experience was the one and only true description of an elephant. In short, they would realize that the situation was currently unknowable, and decide whether to conduct additional investigation. That's what true logic is all about, and there's nothing negative or foolhardy about it.
posted by RobotNinja at 7:17 AM on November 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

I guess my only suggestion is to not be concerned about whether somebody else is right or wrong unless it has direct and significant impact on you or on the world. People are wrong all the time. So what?
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:40 AM on November 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, by the way, I'm pretty much on the same defeatist page as you re: climate change. I became more optimistic through reading about the collapse of ancient civilizations: We are unlikely to go extinct. Its simply the End of the World As We Know It. Look for ways for your family to thrive in the coming bad times.
posted by General Tonic at 7:47 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: I swear... a year ago I probably could have written this.

Into philosophy? Read some of the stoics. Start with the Enchridion, then try Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Basically, you need to figure out what you have control over, and what you don't. And then drop the stuff you don't have control over. Don't worry about it at all. You can think about it, but don't worry about it, because worrying about it doesn't do any good at all... and it also makes you depressed, which keeps you from doing anything period. (Rational, right?)

This feeling is not one of arrogance - this feeling doesn't inspire scorn in me... just a sad and deflated sense of jealousy for those who are a little simpler, a little more irrational.

I don't think you're jealous of their irrationality, I think your jealous of their ability to not worry about what they don't have control over (or what they don't know about). You only have control over your own actions, not those of other people. You need to train yourself to know this and deal with it.

Whether it was a few or a great many people that got us into this mess, it's going to take all of us that get us out of it. And yeah, it's most likely not going to be pretty. Start learning to accept that fact. And then use that incredible goddamn brain of yours to figure out what you can do. You have no control over whether you save the world, you only have control over whether you try.

When I used to tell people about peak oil, for the few who understood what I was trying to tell them and believed me, they always asked: "So what do we do?" And I never had THE answer. And it depressed me, until I realized there was no one answer. And until I started trying to figure out what I could do, which seemed hopeless at first. But it's not hopeless, since that's all anyone can and has ever been able to do.

(And if you want to chat, email or memail me.)
posted by symbollocks at 7:48 AM on November 12, 2009

Argh... it's going to take all of us to get us out of it
posted by symbollocks at 7:53 AM on November 12, 2009

Well, I feel some sympathy because I feel very much like I was in your shoes once upon a time. I was upset that seemingly no one would think critically about things and further that if you thought hard enough nothing seemed worth believing in. I agree with other people that this perspective might change as you get older (although I guess I am assuming like others that you are college aged).

It's interesting that you point your logical lens at climate change. My take on something like that is that if you study history, even very recent history, you would see that people often think a certain kind of cultural change is impossible only to be proven wrong later. Obviously cultural change is a fractured process, but if you'd told people in the 1950s that states in the 2000s would legalize gay marriage, 1950s people (or even 1980s people) would think you were crazy. If you had told me during 2004 at the height of Bush's power that the next president would be an African American, I would have had a very, very hard time believing that. It sure didn't seem very "logical" then.

Several people have pointed out, and I would agree, that logic is a tool by which you can compare points of view, but it is not a way to create a point of view. Logic is comparative rather than generative.
posted by Slothrop at 8:24 AM on November 12, 2009

schmichael: "I hope I don't come off as arrogant in this post. This feeling is not one of arrogance - this feeling doesn't inspire scorn in me... just a sad and deflated sense of jealousy for those who are a little simpler, a little more irrational."

What the fuck. One of the primary points of logic is that it simplifies questions, you are the simple one if you are using logic to dismiss questions that they are still considering. This is not an argument against logic mind you, but the advantage of logic is its ability to simplify.

And you are absolutely wrong, that is an arrogant attitude. Pity is as arrogant as scorn, if not moreso.
posted by idiopath at 8:49 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: OK, I think my last answer may have been less than helpful.

What you are experiencing, I think, are the negative side effects of the attempts to shore up your self esteem against your insecurities. The encumbrance of your psychic armor, so to speak. You strike me as being very insecure, and your sense of self worth is wrapped up in being right when others around you are foolish. And that skill at cutting others down just happens to be just as good at cutting yourself down.

Despite your claims of not being arrogant, your every word is dripping with the conviction that you belong to a different superior class of human being who can see through the foolishness of the others around you. Most people live lives full of delusions. Being able to point out those delusions is not a question of intelligence but rather a question of being willing to deal with the negative social consequences of being the one who points out delusions.
posted by idiopath at 9:03 AM on November 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Add me to the tally of people who think that you're probably overly impressed by your own affinity for logic. My experience is that people who adore their own mental capacity in this fashion are just exceptionally certain that they're right about everything, rather than genuinely being in possession of some unusual degree of rationality.

Also, "drowning people in shades of gray" sounds to me like someone who constantly shifts the topic of conversation, which I often suspect is done so that the speaker can keep dropping anecdotes and tidbits of factual information, or little tangential arguments the speaker can be assured of being right about, to to attempt to reassure themselves of their dominance on the central issue under discussion. No matter how refined and deft and subtle your opinion on an issue is I am skeptical that it's really so difficult to sort out the salient issues and focus the discussion on them. What you are imagining to be dissertations of ironclad reasoning may appear to others as a flighty and rambling stream of consciousness.
posted by XMLicious at 9:24 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: And for another possibility:

...I was heavily influenced while growing up by a very very logical, rational-minded person (my stepdad).

Is it possible that this is all just due to your relationship with your stepdad? Is he the kind of person who will seek to constantly prove everyone else wrong, or to demonstrate that his view on a topic is more rational or otherwise superior in some way to your own, no matter what you say? What idiopath said about insecurity makes sense: are you seeking to always prove yourself right with other people because your stepdad would never let you be right when you were a kid? I had an experience similar to this with my father.
posted by XMLicious at 9:33 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If your answer to every empirical question is the answer that's most hopeless, or requires "the rational person" to just throw up their hands and not act, you might think about whether that's a coincidence.

Rationality doesn't require inaction, pessimism, hopelessness. Action can make a difference even when it doesn't solve the whole problem. Consider cases in history where some imperfect solution has still made a positive difference. (Eg consider rivers that were horribly polluted in the 1970s but which are cleaner today because of the Clean Water Act. Consider that smallpox was once a widespread death sentence for humans, and is now eradicated in nature. Consider that we once thought it was impossible for humans to fly. Etc.) The history of human efforts to influence the world is a mixed one - we've improved some things and made some things worse.

Rationality doesn't require seeing small-scale human interactions as devoid of meaning. I'm a raging atheist and I teach logic, AND I get joy from affectionate interactions with family and friends, out of helping children and students and strangers, out of hearing a good joke, reading a good book, and so on. Sure, I'm a material being and eventually my constituent atoms will be scattered to the winds, and eventually the sun will burn out, etc. So what? If you're making the bar for happiness or meaning be so high that no human could ever attain it, I submit that you're engaged in pointless masochism.

You say you have manic periods. You might look into whether this feeling of "hopelessness is the only truth" is a product of depression, too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:48 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a logical way to look at it. During each conversation, ask yourself: Why am I having this conversation? Not Why are we on this subject, but rather, Why am I spending precious moments of my own life interacting with this other person?

The answer is probably not Because I have a compulsive need to deconstruct everything, and this person just happens to be standing closer to me than anybody else. More likely, the true answer is, I want some human contact, or I want to make friends, or I want to learn more about what makes this person tick. And the truth is that to achieve those ends, you don't have to criticize the discourse of your interlocutor.

Take your conversation on climate change. Take a step even further back from the conversation, and consider the specific dynamic going on between two people, one of whom happens to be you. Is this person a roommate you want to get along with? A woman you'd like to date?

Chances are good that their real agenda is not really about climate change either. Maybe they want to show you, or themselves, that they're a passionate person. Maybe what's really going on is that they're frustrated with the inevitability of death, and believing that the world can be brought back from the brink is a safe way of talking about that, without really talking about it. And maybe the real reason they've chosen to voice this opinion to you, is that they want you to validate their feelings (not their logic, their feelings). Consider that there are ways for you to respond other than agreeing or disagreeing. You can say something like "You're very passionate about this. How did you first get interested?" This may, in turn, lead to a revelation about what the subtext was.

I once took a film directing class from an accomplished actress. Her main technique was to take a script, and, above every single line, write a translation that indicates what the character is really saying. So, above the line "Not tonight, honey, I'm tired," might be written: I'm punishing you for flirting with my sister. And, of course, the greater subtext of the class itself was that this is how all communication works, in reality as well as in fiction.

More often than not, at the bottom of every conversation, both people are just saying: I'm real. I'm alive. My thoughts matter. Won't you please make me feel better by acknowledging that my thoughts matter to you? It's the only conversation that ever really takes place. Allowing yourself to be part of it requires you to admit nothing more than the fact that you're human too.
posted by bingo at 11:28 AM on November 12, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think someone needs to point out your comment about mental illness here. Have you been diagnosed as having hypomania, or is this a self-diagnosis? Because, if it's the former, you should be well aware of one of the common symptoms, which is grandiosity, which I feel you exhibit in your post. If you've not been diagnosed with hypomania, but think you might have it or a similar disorder of the bipolar kind, you should see someone about it as soon as possible. It doesn't matter if you think you know all about it and the procedures used to treat it; see about it, anyway. If you do have a mental illness, some of your issues with human interaction could likely be improved with therapy and/or medication.

Medical issues aside, you remind me of a close friend of mine. He is very logic-based, and I get along well with him for that reason. However, we differ in our strategies with other people. I believe in appealing to people, helping them see why they would benefit doing things a certain way; and I believe strongly in letting people choose for themselves (so long as they'll harm no other), even if I think their choices aren't "wise" or "right." He, on the other hand, believes in beating a dead horse until it is ground meat, then beating it some more and more and more until he's gotten to the center of the earth with his club in hand. The end result is that a lot of times people tend to see my reasoning and still think of me as friendly, while my friend is unfortunately seen as antagonistic and, at times, "militantly atheistic." It comes down to finesse. We have many of the same beliefs, but my strategies are more effective and peaceful.

If you're truly interested in having your opinions taken seriously by others, you're first going to have to drop thoughts and phrases like this: "I've seen the pros and cons of pretty much every idea or event, the flow of logic and inevitability that sweeps through all of human existence....I can drown people in shades of gray."

Drop them, because they're bullshit. You do not know everything; you probably don't even fully understand all you think you do. Your interaction with others will feel a lot less labored when you stop believing that your learning process (with anything) has ended. My father, who is mentally ill, has never learned this, and it has cost him jobs, relationships and everything else you can imagine. He's made enemies, where he could have made friends, all because he thought he understood things better than others. And, you know, sometimes he did, but now, as he's nearly 60, divorced, with few job prospects after years of arguing and thinking he knew best, and largely alone, do you think it matters? Being right all the time, even if it's just in your head, is not any way to live. It will cost you dearly, either in terms of your relationships and career or in terms of your own sanity. Reading the autobiographies of some of history's great thinkers will show you how different personalities handle great mental capacity; I think you'll find that those with a good sense of humor and a laid back attitude managed best.

There will always be some areas where you feel you know more than others. I think we all have something that we are particularly interested in and therefore know more about than others we meet on a daily basis. Talking to people about something you clearly know more about is annoying sometimes, because, in your own head, it's hard to fathom how the other person just seems to know nothing. And so, your solution in cases such needs to be to change the subject. This is good form for them and yourself.

I have friends that I talk politics to, friends that I try to get interested in politics and friends that I never mention politics to. This is because we're all different people with different personalities, and sometimes it's worthwhile having a political discussion with certain people, while at other times it's not. You need to realize we're all individuals, and while you may (or may not) know very much about, say, climate change, and therefore don't feel comfortable discussing the issue with just anyone, I assure you that there have been people who've come into contact with you, spoken about some issue with you and then thought, "Wow, he doesn't know what he's talking about," as they walked away smiling.

It seems like you need to find some sort of purpose or mission. Have you thought of traveling a bit, starting a business, etc? More than anything, though, I'd see about that possible hypomania. It sounds like it or possibly some other mental issue is affecting your life a little.

Hope I've helped.
posted by metalheart at 4:29 PM on November 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

The fundamental necessity for logical thinking is knowledge. You need knowledge *before* you can question positions. So, when you are in conversation with someone and they say something that sounds dubious to you, first expand your knowledge before questioning their premises. Ask yourself "what does this person know that I don't? Why do they think they are right?" and use that line of questioning as a basis for continuing the conversation. It is a great test of one's own assumptions, a way to find out about new research, ideas, and perspectives, and also a way to carry on a conversation without feeling alienated by one's own knowledge and perspectives.

Re: social changes needed for climate change. Your knowledge about what is needed for change is limited. I highly recommend Energy in America, which talks knowledgeably about the energy sector as a whole (including "green" and fossil energy sources and technologies). As was pointed out above, there are many points in the system that could be changed for great effect that wouldn't require the type of individual actions that you posit.
posted by carmen at 9:42 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's one way you could embrace your own enthusiasm for logically viewing a problem without scaring others or stripping them of their sense of purpose:

Random Person: Did you see the latest news about climate change? It's worse than we thought! I'm so committed to stopping this crisis. I've started walking to work and I'm even recycling my bottles now!

Schmichael: You know, I think a lot about climate change, too. I'm afraid I've gotten pretty discouraged. As far as I can figure out, there's nothing we can do to make a real difference. But I'd hate for that to be true. I wonder if I've overlooked something. Do you think recycling bottles will really make an appreciable difference in the long run? Or if not, do you think anything can?

This is a way to continue questioning your assumptions - in this case, your own assumption that you fully understand the issue. It gives you an opportunity to learn more.

It's not just when I talk to other people - it hamstrings my sense of purpose in life, in what I am doing, in what I am thinking about. It can be very cruel.

It sounds like your belief, or assumption, that you know how things will turn out is interfering with your desire to control more of your own actions and decisions. One way to question that assumption might be to search for instances of dramatic change happening where it seemed impossible. Just for example: name two countries that elected political prisoners to the presidency in the past century. Doesn't that seem impossible? Doesn't the fall of the Berlin Wall seem impossible? And yet it happened.

When you find yourself frustrated by your certainty, ask yourself:

* Could I be wrong?
* What would that mean, if I was wrong?
posted by kristi at 10:02 AM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: Wow.

I feel annoyed with myself for leaving this question for a couple of days, so that the momentum has gone now, and any comments I make will probably not be read. To be honest, I felt completely embarrassed after reading the first comment which a) nailed my real age (I am twenty, I'm flabbergasted at the accuracy of that guess) and b) nailed my worries about doing a terrible job of asking what for me is a very difficult and ill-defined question, by pointing out the seeming arrogance of my words.

But I'm really glad I forced myself to come back and look at what the question turned into. I really appreciate every single comment I received. Many different viewpoints were offered, and all of them - critism and critiquing as well as sympathy and support - I found very helpful. The question was very messy, and it is debatable what I was really asking, and I also didn't give the writing of it enough time to really get my point across, but I do believe that this whole process has helped me clarify a little bit what's going on inside my head.

Despite the fact that it's been a few days since the question was fresh, I'd like to do justice to all the viewpoints I heard by responding in full. It will be a big response as well, because as I've seen there is a lot going on in the question I asked.

Firstly, I'd like to say that although I hear a lot of you when you bring up points about the arrogance of my thoughts, and the sloppiness of my thinking, I'd like to argue that it wasn't an easy question to ask, I wasn't sure what I was asking or how to ask it, and I rushed it because it was embarrassing and hard to think about. I possibly made a mistake in trying to give a specific example of my thinking, although it was good to hear my viewpoint (however sloppily expressed) of a very large and difficult issue being critically appraised. I'm not just dismissing claims of arrogance out of hand, but I do have a rough idea of how my own arrogance works, and I've done a lot of work to improve my approach to other people this year, and it has paid off, so I'm going to stand by my belief that this isn't entirely an arrogance problem. If it counts for anything, I am much less arrogant than I used to be.

Next, I'd like to thank those who brought up points about the basic social or emotional processes that drive this sort of thinking. Yes, loneliness is an issue for me. Yes, I have struggled with insecurity in my life (although again, I have done a lot of work on that this year.) Yes, unhappiness tends to produce this sort of negativity. And when you factor in my suspicions of having some sort of mental condition, a lot about the way I think starts to become clearer.

I'm also going to point out that, like everyone, I'm complex - and a couple of paragraphs about one type of social problem doesn't constitute me. It's difficult to vouch for my character on the internet, but I do believe that there's a bit more to me than this question would evince, and that some of the responses reflect these limits. I'm not autistic. I have strong qualities, and although I tend to be very different in temperament from day to day, people generally like me. And I am smart, even though my question didn't exactly demonstrate that. I do know that I'm not the smartest person in the world, although I'm often one of the smartest in the room. I'm a medical student, so I tend to hang out with people who are, at the very least, accomplished. And while many of my classmates are far better at tests and studying than I am, I can honestly say that I stand out from them. Also, seeing that one answerer actually went to the trouble of looking into my Askme history, I'd like to point out that, possibly having some mood swing problems, it's a tricky business trying to fit my answers into a wider pattern. I'm not a stable person, and my attitudes differ - a lot - from day to day.

As far as the actual logic of my example, perhaps I would have been better off by staying away from the rambling and saying that most of my grandiose intellectual exercises in connecting the dots and spelling defeat over and over again are basically different variations on the idea that 'water flows downhill.' Sure, you can think up wacky scenarios where water doesn't flow downhill, but basically, that's the rule, right? Populations expand until something necessary becomes a limiting factor. Simple and true - the same idea. All transformations of energy result in less energy being available for work. Same thing. Current human society uses oil as a essentially 'free' source of energy. Oil reserves are most likely finite.

None of these ideas require incredible powers of observation to realise, and none of them are radical. I don't think I'm amazing or special in thinking them. But what am I supposed to do, when my auntie asks me how medicine is going and all that comes into my head is, 'great, but you know, modern medicine is completely dependent upon fossil fuels which are a) running out and b) leading to climate change.'? What am I supposed to do, when a friend comes to me, eager to talk about their commitment to 350, because they respect my intelligence (and like one answerer pointed out, want validation from me for their feelings), and I know that if I speak my mind I will just be trying to make him as depressed and gloomy as I get?

But what am I after, coming here and asking how I can get over this? Am I looking to have my logic questioned? That doesn't make sense - after all, aren't I expressing my negativity in questioning things? Wouldn't doubt about my doubts lead me ever deeper... The fact is, like all of my depressive thought complexes, I know full well that it is a trap that I have made for myself, and that because I have built it, it fits me perfectly. It isn't surprising that I was dissatisfied when I attempted to set out my 'logic' (thank you for making me wary of that word and its implications) in ordered form, and the subsequent appraisal of it. I don't think it matters whether what I think is 'right' or 'wrong', it matters that I know in the bottom of my heart that I can't be argued out of my beliefs.

If you're making the bar for happiness or meaning be so high that no human could ever attain it, I submit that you're engaged in pointless masochism.

I really feel like this is extremely significant. It's a really good point - this sort of relativistic thinking is really good for creating as many reasons to despair as you would please. Everything is ephemera, everything passes, everything is relative, so on and so on. If you want a reason to be miserable, relativism is happy to oblige.

Like everyone has been saying, we are all human beings, we all crave certain basic things - intimacy, love, warmth, food, family - and all the intellectualisation and abstraction and defense mechanisms in the world don't take away from that. I know that I have issues. My childhood, my parents, my marbles. I know that as long as there have been humans, humans have felt hopeless and doomed. I know that despair isn't a special logical result of living in the first world in the year 2009.

I realise that I have in fact decided to try and value the irrational, to choose as my value human connection. That I am working, in my own maybe slightly damaged fashion, to the same endpoint as everyone else. When you boil it down, my question is probably more of a lament about loneliness than anything else. I mean, knowing myself better than anyone here, I can say that those of you who intuited that this is a loneliness thing are pretty on the money. I think it's funny that this is how I use Askme - trying to hide something as big as life itself in the disguise of a small issue.

Anyway, I'm a little bit exhausted from thinking through all of the comments and then my reply. I'll just mention that I am going to see a psychiatrist on the 20th. I'm well aware that I have a lot of work to do. On that note, I'd like to thank everybody for all the awesome thoughts and challenges and support. Really appreciated.
posted by schmichael at 12:16 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think just the fact that you've shown yourself open to this and have taken it all in good part can only be a really good sign schmichael. Great doubt, great faith and great effort, as the man said.
posted by Abiezer at 1:27 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

going to see a psychiatrist on the 20th. I'm well aware that I have a lot of work to do.

Just wanted to note that the reason so many people chimed in here is because we recognize the way you're feeling. The pattern of thinking you're going through is very common in bright ambitious young people -- you aren't some kind of terrible broken person, so I hope you won't beat yourself up over this.

If this is partly due to depression, a psychiatrist can help you get back on a more even keel. But it's not like there's something fundamentally broken about you that will be fixed or stay broken. Even as older people, we all have times where we feel like it's hopeless in the grand scheme of things -- so the point isn't to eradicate those thought, it's to cope with them in a way that doesn't interfere with living your life, maintaining relationships, having joy and a feeling of meaning in your actions. Therapy and meds can help you to recover more easily from those down days.

One more thought - you say you're studying medicine. That's a wonderfully hopeful, optimistic human endeavor. You know, I expect, that as a doctor (or whatever) you won't be able to fix everything, but you will be there to help as much as you can. This is a hopeful, good thing. You'll need a way of thinking about your work that allows you to keep going at those times when the limits of human knowledge/abilities prevent you from fixing everything you might like to fix. We're all limited, and that's ok, and helping imperfectly is still helping.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:24 PM on November 16, 2009

Seconding LobsterMitten: I think many people who are "from the internet" know how it feels to be "too smart for my own good." The simultaneous sincerity and arrogance of that sentiment can be very confusing.

Also, just wanted to share something that has helped me: Anthropology. In the last century or so of anthropology has (again, IMO) made great strides towards a holistic but lucid understanding of what its actually LIKE to be a human being. Especially in reference to your concerns about relativism (concerns which are well founded, IMO), anthropological engagement with postmodernism may be helpful.

Anthropology helped me understand that almost everybody's world view makes as much sense to them as my mine makes to me. It also helped me grasp the vast amount of knowledge and joy I stand to gain from listening to people.

Anthropology is also a discipline which mixes the imaginative, social exercise of storytelling with a well developed (if eclectic) body of theory on which to gorge your intellectual sensibilities. I believe there is no logical structure more complex than even the simplest of social situations! Some of the greatest minds of our age have been people who had incredibly acute understandings of the rules which guide everyday interaction, to the point where they could manipulate them towards certain goals- I'm thinking MLK, Warren Buffet, Richard Nixon, Bella Abzug (look her up!).

This also speaks to the sub-debate here about climate change: "mass individual voluntarism" is the only reason that language and shakedown schemes and national borders work! How did they convince everyone that money was a good idea?? Anthropology devotes itself to the study of collective and individual meaning-making.

PS. Like I said, this worked for me when I was coming from a place similar to the OP. I def don't think Anth is better than any other discipline.
posted by Truthiness at 7:18 PM on November 16, 2009

I came in to say what Abiezer said, but also to remind you that the first mental health professional you see may not be necessarily be the one that's right for you. Also, if you're considering working through some of these issues, psychologist often offer practical advice and skills rather than thinking of your issues as being an illness that needs to be cured.

Also, LobsterMitten is absolutely right about the recognition thing. Do drill through some old Askme's and see if you can find other gems there. You may have already been directed to this thread - I'm sure you'll see some kindred spirits.

I would also like to second Truthiness, partly because of the awesome name, but also because I agreed with everyone else, but unfortunately I know nothing about anthropology, but it certainly sounds like a good plan.

Take your time on this. There is no deadline, and you'll hopefully be examining your life for a long time to come. I'm still working at it and feel like an absolute beginner at 42.
posted by b33j at 5:23 AM on November 17, 2009

Good on your for taking some of the thoughts on board, dude. And you should never feel embarrassed about being interested in self-improvement. My comment was less to deride you than point out that a) these feelings are common at your age and b) the way they could be interpreted by some people.

I would highlight how important it is to contextualise some of your feelings - not just in the context of your own personality and life (which you've clearly devoted a lot of thought to) but in the context of medical students.

Without making a blanket generalisations, many of the med students I've known have come from hyper-competitive, hyper-achievement orientated families, and their natural tendencies to reward and value certain behaviours is exacerbated by a (medical college) environment that gravitates towards competition and external accomplishments as a measure of worth.

I'm not saying this describes every one of your fellow students, but spending some more time with people outside that environment may help you a) gain some more friends b) increase your skills at dealing with people socially and c) help put into perspective what you should and perhaps shouldn't be worried about.

The other thing I would say is - honestly - don't worry so much. Many of us spent our late teens and early twenties torturing ourselves about what the best way to act, think, be is. As I became older, I learned to trust my instincts about when I was acting or feeling like a dick. It doesn't stop me from being a dick! lol, but it does help me know when I'm not.

You may find Virtue Ethics helps give you a good framework for this kind of thinking. In a nutshell, it involves you thinking "what would the best Schmichael do in this situation? What is the way that the cool me, the better me, the happy me would react in this situation?". I'm simplifying, but look it up, you will get the drift. You may find it gives you both the agency to change your behaviours, and a system with which to guide you.
posted by smoke at 4:13 AM on November 19, 2009

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