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Why academia?

April 11, 2021

As an exercise for our "leadership assessment center" on a job, one of our tasks was to define what gives us energy and strength to do things that we are doing. The three things that I extracted were:

  • unbounded curiosity
  • making the world a more bearable place
  • philosophical standpoint

(my nodebook that I presented)

Philosophical standpoint is about the stuff I can reason about and can explain to a certain extent, so I can generate arguments and counterargument for a particular view. Concretely, arguments like:

  • default is that things are shit; things degenerate over time and that it's highly unlikely that anything good will happen without putting in an extra effort ("can't just with for it, you have to work for it")
  • what is life even, without a good challenge?
  • if you find something that brings you joy and you find meaningful, it's more than fine to sacrifice a bit (or a lot) of yourself for that goal

But the first two arguments stem from something that I cannot fully reason about (I cannot dissect them much further than that), and they are based on - feelings. I feel joy and excitement when doing something interesting and new, when learning, when discovering, when working on some hard problem and challenging myself to the extreme. It is what I enjoy the most of all things - good challenges, and I find all the purpose I need trying to advance on solution to those problems. This explains my desire to work on hard scientific problems (qualia, as probably one of the hardest problems there is and, in my view, one of the most important ones!), my hobbies over time (magic tricks, juggling at which I sucked at for a long time, solving Rubik's cube blindfolded,...), why I like programming (because it's vast and has different challenges that aren't too hard and once you get good at them you can utilize all of that knowledge of solve any of the other problems), why I write (I deem good writing incredibly difficult and I enjoy immensely when I manage to optimize my writing - beautiful writing is at an intersection of precise and abstract writing that succeeds to capture a specific idea or emotion gracefully), why I enjoy building a company (or at least trying to) as it's the hardest practical things I've tried doing by an orders of magnitude,...

Feelings are at the deepest level of my belief system. As a scientist, this is "frustrating" in a funny way, but I find knowing about that as a fact to be sufficient to be of practical use to me. Since I know that my being cannot (at least for now) be further subdivided, it can help me to build on top of it. As I managed to identify the things that I simply cannot do without, that can also help me pick a direction in which I should go.

But feelings aren't always only of positive kind. I've experienced sufficient number of misfortunes and failures, some driven by external forces, some completely caused by my own choices and actions. I've learned to appreciate good things and the amount of work that needs to be invested in for them to even have the chance to realise themselves ("default is that life and everything in it is degrading and we have to put extra work for a mere chance of achieving something nice and positive"). Simply put - life's hard. The suffering is imminent. And that is where the second part comes in place.

And it was always true that any help from the outside alleviated the situation.

To improve our situation and to get a chance to do things that we enjoy, we must find or create new opportunities, and those require us to make progress (which are mostly embodied in the scientific pursuit). And when somebody is prevented from doing just that - from progressing, that is what angers me and saddens me, because you can empathize with them and understand that whatever their situation it is, it cannot be made better, no matter the amount of desire or how big of a force of good it is. World and people in it should be allowed to enjoy it and to do good things, and constant progress is a necessary requirement for that, and not being able to that is a reminder of our inferiority and how little control we usually have over our lives. It's a defeat of our soul and a puts restrictions on what we can achieve, rendering us helpless, as mere observers of all the ugly and unfair things happening around us and to us, and that is terrifying.

I enjoy hard challenges and I enjoy that we collectively can chose what we work on and what are actions are - that is literally what enables us to bend world more to our will and to make something nice and meaningful out of it. But when our ability to do that is impeded, we collectively can empathize with hardship that can stem from such situations. And one of our objectives is to create an environment in which probability for such things is minimized as much as possible. This is why we have a tendency to help not just the people we care about, but also anyone in our surrounding. That is why I care. And it's particularly reflected in a broken academic system.