Monday, June 21, 2021

A few thoughts on a fashionable virtue

Alice is thinking about a question q in science or philosophy, and concludes that figuring out whether a certain mathematical proposition p is true will help her make progress on q. So Alice tries to prove p. She puts some time in, but keeps on failing. She tries another approach for proving p. That also fails. And another, with the same non-existent result. This makes Alice think that perhaps p is not true at all. She tries out a few potential counterexamples. Some of them turn out not to be counterexamples, though for one or two she can’t prove or disprove whether they are counterexamples. She goes back to trying to prove p, and makes no progress. Then she goes back to q, and finds a different mathematical proposition, p2, such that figuring out whether p2 is true will help her make progress on q. She now tries to figure out whether p2 is true. And so on. This is a not unrealistic picture of how research in mathematics-heavy theoretical disciplines sometimes goes.

Alice’s research activities involve a lot of persevering but also a lot of quitting: she perserves for a while on an approach, and then quits (perhaps only temporarily), and tries a new one. The quitting is itself in the service of a higher level goal. For instance, she quits trying to prove p in order to try to disprove p, but both tasks are in the service of trying to figure out whether p is true, which in turn is in the service of learning about q. There is thus a lot of quitting which is actually a form of perservering in investigating q.

Alice’s research behavior can easily sound like it exhibits the virtue of grit. But it might also be an instance of one of the virtue’s opposed vices: being a quitter or being stuck in a rut. The story I gave is compatible with Alice putting too little time and effort into each sub-goal, and it is also compatible with Alice being under the sway of the sunk costs fallacy and spending too much time and energy on each approach before moving on to a different one. As is often the case, the virtue here is a balance between opposed, a balance that cannot be quantified but requires sound judgment to determine.

We normally think of grit as opposed to being a quitter, but quitting in order to move on to a different approach to a higher level goal can be an exhibition of grit. This can repeat at even higher levels of the hierarchy than those mentioned in my initial story. Alice might quit working on q and instead work on some other question in her discipline. Or she might quit working in her discipline, and aim to advance human knowledge in another discipline. Or she might even quit trying to advance human knowledge, and seek to advance human wellbeing in a different respect than knowledge.

But there is a sense in which the vice of being a quitter—a form of acedia, I suppose—is more opposed to grit than the vice of being sticking in a rut. What can be rational is to quit working for one valuable goal in order to work for another valuable goal (often, but not always, the other goal will be a subgoal of some goal that one is thereby continuing to work on). But there is such a thing as quitting completely: giving up on life. And that is always extremely bad. On the other hand, getting stuck in a rut forever, and never quitting, is bad, but at least there is some hope—it might work out, in a way in which completely giving up will not.

1 comment:

Benjamin Stowell said...

What if choosing to live is giving up on the noble project of facing death with bravery over running away from death in cowardice? ;)