The most, if not the single, valuable aspect of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” is its opposition to mainstream, self-help culture and all the ideas it perpetuates. Manson’s approach in his first book is a rejection of “unrealistic” positivism and the focus with being very selective about the things one cares for in life: hence not giving a fuck, but with the subtle addition that this cannot be taken to extremes, as it would lead to apathy.
He diagnoses the problems contemporary society much in the same way Simon Sinek was doing when talking about millennials. Failed parenting strategies, the belief that we are all special, “mass-media driven exceptionalism”, cudling ourselves, and social media have all helped bring out something that he considers to be crisis of spirituality, more than anything else, which explains why the second book is dedicated almost entirely to existentilism and religion. Mark Manson’s answer is directly taken out of Jordan Peterson’s many YouTube lectures: radical responsibility and choice. His most prized piece of wisdom is that, although we cannot control what cards we are being dealt or what others do to us, we are responsible for how we choose to react. Nothing we have not heard before. But then again, all of what follows are things we have all heard before.
A novice’s guide to Existentialism
“Everything is Fucked” opens with a rather shallow exposure to the ideas of the philosophical branch of Existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” is perhaps the tenet the encompasses the existential view of life best: there is no extrinsic purpose to man’s existence. As free agent, man must create a purpose for himself. Therefore, our existence precedes our essence (purpose), as opposed to a tool, for example, whose essence we conceive of first and bring into existence to fulfil that purpose a posteriori. Manson’s approach to existentialism is based on hope. He argues that the things we invest with meaning give our psyche the hope it needs in order to go on living.
The exposure of the philosophical framework he operates inside of is done perfectly well in its aim to appeal to what Romanian philosopher H.R.Patapievici calls “the recent man”, who has absolutely no desire nor time to spend with hundreds upon hundreds of pages of serious philosophical treatises. The recent man has spreadsheets to complete and then fill in other spreadsheets with which spreadsheets are done and which ones still necessitate work. In the absence of Soren Kierkegaard’s work or the rest of the Western philosophical canon, engaging with Mark Manson in this book is still preferable than utter lack of engagement.
Modernity’s spiritual crisis
The data shows that social trust is down, while feelings of loneliness are up and that the wealthier the place we live in, the more likely we are to commit suicide. The opiod crisis has done incredible amounts of damage across the US and Canada. “In the United States, symptoms of depression and anxiety are on an eighty-year upswing among young people and a twenty-year upswing among the adult population.” The book presents all this and interestingly draws attention, almost immediately, that religious people commit suicide and suffer from depression in far fewer numbers than non-religious people do. Manson, therefore concludes that the crisis of modernity is not a material one, but, as we noted above, one of spirituality. At the center of everything he places hope and hopelessness: “Chronic anxiety is a crisis of hope. It is the fear of a failed future. Depression is a crisis of hope. It is the belief in a meaningless future” and “An irrational sense of hopelessness is spreading across the rich, developed world. It’s a paradox of progress: the better things get, the more anxious and desperate we all seem to feel.”
Mark Manson collects a rather impressive set of possible aspects of contemporary society that may have helped cause these. He especially notes that by building a very comfortable society, modernity has greatly removed the doses of healthy struggle that create the experiences we need in order to grow and develop our character:
“Today, an unpleasant social encounter or a few offensive words are considered “trauma”, and necessitate “safe spaces””.
“He [Durkheim] suggested that the more comfortable and ethical a society became, the more the small indiscretions would become magnified in our minds.”
“Material progress and security do not necessarily relax us or make it easier to hope for the future. On the contrary, it appears that perhaps by removing healthy adversity and challenge, people struggle even more. They become more selfish and more childish. They fail to develop and mature out of adolescence. They remain further removed from any virtue.”
Since, at the beginning, when he talked about existentialism, he subtley (or superficially) created an inkling between the investment of meaning, hope, and the will to live, it is only natural that what he chose to explore next was how reason and feeling interacted with one another in the human mind.
The Thinking Brain and the Feeling Brain
Much of the length of “Everything is Fucked” is dedicated to attacking and dismantling the ‘classical assumption’ that our reason and our feelings are in clenched in opposition. Mark Mansons by no means brings any sophisticated, highly scientific, or new arguments to the table, but I believe it important to note that research in neuroscience conducted by the likes of Steven Pinker or David Eagleman shows that he is most likely right: not only are our feelings not a competing force to our reason, but our reason is dictated by them. On the one hand, emotion is what causes us to move to a certain action and carry it out. On the other, feelings also dictate our values, which in turn dictate our character and view on life. This is why facts rarely change our minds. We tend to use evidence that serves our values, not the other way around. Furthermore, Manson argues, values cannot be changed my reason, but by the pain of experience.
Superficial views on religion
It is very fashionable, almost inevitable, that anyone talking about society and human history give their opinion on the initial intended purpose of religion, regardless of their level of education on the topic. Mark Manson falls into the intellectual trap of describing the purpose and workings of religion without having considered the imensity of the subject matter and it greatly shows. As a general rule, no one who explains religion, with its thousands of years of tradition, philosophy, teachings, art, and history in a couple of pages has even the slightest idea of what they are talking about. Manson exposes ideas that sound right and aligned with his discourse, but are so dangerously shallow that they have to be labeled as plain wrong. This can be seen in descriptions such as “kind of arbitrary”, when nothing in big religions is arbitrary; that is indeed the entire point.
And, of course, the AI
After reiterating other thinkers’ ideas (some of whom have been named across this short article) on the ailments of modern society and the human psyche, Manson closes his book by reiterating Yuval Harari’s paranoia about Artificial Intelligence and how it will become a sort of religion in our future development. To keep the article brief and because I have written about this before, there are few things I would like to note here, based on my expertise working with machine learning as a Data Engineer.
AI is, at its core, simple calculus, linear algebra, and statistical mathematics that is focused on solely solving specific tasks. Nothing even close to ‘general intelligence’ exists and I have my doubts if it ever will. At this point, believing that AI will take over aspects of our lifes equates to believing that a stock market transactions algorithm or the Google Maps application on your phone can ‘rise against humanity’. An algorithm is merely a set of instructions for a computer to do something and has no will of its own. We can code certain actions into a machine, but not a desire to act. At one point when comparing AI with religion and its approach to mystery and lack of understanding, Mark Mansons asks “why would AI be different?” The answer is because algorithms are not something we don’t understand and are not higher than ourselves. They will never substitute the transcendentality that we have an intrisic need for.
Further reading and documentation
Steven Pinker – “How The Mind Works”
Steven Pinker – “The Language Instinct”
David Eagleman – “Incognito”
Jordan B. Peterson – “12 Rules for Life”
Yuval Harari – “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”
My notes on Yuval Harari’s “Homo Deus” (in Romanian): https://negofelix.com/2019/03/02/yuval-harari-homo-deus/
My notes on Pedro Domingo’s “The Master Algorithm” and AI (in English): https://negofelix.com/2019/03/02/pedro-domingos-the-master-algorithm/
My notes on the spiritual crisis of modernity (in Romanian): https://negofelix.com/2019/09/07/criza-spiritualitatii-moderne/
Simon Sinek on millennials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNgQOHwsIbg&t=4s
Where can I consult the data?
On religious people and suicide: American Journal of Psychiatry 161 no. 12, 2004
On depression and anxiety in the United States: Journal of the American Medical Association 261 1989 and Social Indicators Research 121 2015
On the opioid crisis: New York Magazine, February 2018
On the link between wealth and suicide: World Health Organization, ‘Suicide Rates Data by Country’]