How to Seem (and Be) Deep

I re­cently at­tended a dis­cus­sion group whose topic, at that ses­sion, was Death. It brought out deep emo­tions. I think that of all the Sili­con Valley lunches I’ve ever at­tended, this one was the most hon­est; peo­ple talked about the death of fam­ily, the death of friends, what they thought about their own deaths. Peo­ple re­ally listened to each other. I wish I knew how to re­pro­duce those con­di­tions re­li­ably.

I was the only tran­shu­man­ist pre­sent, and I was ex­tremely care­ful not to be ob­nox­ious about it. (“A fa­natic is some­one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the sub­ject.” I en­deavor to at least be ca­pa­ble of chang­ing the sub­ject.) Un­sur­pris­ingly, peo­ple talked about the mean­ing that death gives to life, or how death is truly a bless­ing in dis­guise. But I did, very cau­tiously, ex­plain that tran­shu­man­ists are gen­er­ally pos­i­tive on life but thumbs down on death.

After­ward, sev­eral peo­ple came up to me and told me I was very “deep”. Well, yes, I am, but this got me think­ing about what makes peo­ple seem deep.

At one point in the dis­cus­sion, a woman said that think­ing about death led her to be nice to peo­ple be­cause, who knows, she might not see them again. “When I have a nice thing to say about some­one,” she said, “now I say it to them right away, in­stead of wait­ing.”

“That is a beau­tiful thought,” I said, “and even if some­day the threat of death is lifted from you, I hope you will keep on do­ing it—”

After­ward, this woman was one of the peo­ple who told me I was deep.

At an­other point in the dis­cus­sion, a man spoke of some benefit X of death, I don’t re­call ex­actly what. And I said: “You know, given hu­man na­ture, if peo­ple got hit on the head by a base­ball bat ev­ery week, pretty soon they would in­vent rea­sons why get­ting hit on the head with a base­ball bat was a good thing. But if you took some­one who wasn’t be­ing hit on the head with a base­ball bat, and you asked them if they wanted it, they would say no. I think that if you took some­one who was im­mor­tal, and asked them if they wanted to die for benefit X, they would say no.”

After­ward, this man told me I was deep.

Cor­re­la­tion is not causal­ity. Maybe I was just speak­ing in a deep voice that day, and so sounded wise.

But my sus­pi­cion is that I came across as “deep” be­cause I co­her­ently vi­o­lated the cached pat­tern for “deep wis­dom” in a way that made im­me­di­ate sense.

There’s a stereo­type of Deep Wis­dom. Death: com­plete the pat­tern: “Death gives mean­ing to life.” Every­one knows this stan­dard Deeply Wise re­sponse. And so it takes on some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of an ap­plause light. If you say it, peo­ple may nod along, be­cause the brain com­pletes the pat­tern and they know they’re sup­posed to nod. They may even say “What deep wis­dom!“, per­haps in the hope of be­ing thought deep them­selves. But they will not be sur­prised; they will not have heard any­thing out­side the box; they will not have heard any­thing they could not have thought of for them­selves. One might call it be­lief in wis­dom—the thought is la­beled “deeply wise”, and it’s the com­pleted stan­dard pat­tern for “deep wis­dom”, but it car­ries no ex­pe­rience of in­sight.

Peo­ple who try to seem Deeply Wise of­ten end up seem­ing hol­low, echo­ing as it were, be­cause they’re try­ing to seem Deeply Wise in­stead of op­ti­miz­ing.

How much think­ing did I need to do, in the course of seem­ing deep? Hu­man brains only run at 100Hz and I re­sponded in re­al­time, so most of the work must have been pre­com­puted. The part I ex­pe­rienced as effort­ful was pick­ing a re­sponse un­der­stand­able in one in­fer­en­tial step and then phras­ing it for max­i­mum im­pact.

Philo­soph­i­cally, nearly all of my work was already done. Com­plete the pat­tern: Ex­ist­ing con­di­tion X is re­ally jus­tified be­cause it has benefit Y: “Nat­u­ral­is­tic fal­lacy?” /​ “Sta­tus quo bias?” /​ “Could we get Y with­out X?” /​ “If we had never even heard of X be­fore, would we vol­un­tar­ily take it on to get Y?” I think it’s fair to say that I ex­e­cute these thought-pat­terns at around the same level of au­to­mat­ic­ity as I breathe. After all, most of hu­man thought has to be cache lookups if the brain is to work at all.

And I already held to the de­vel­oped philos­o­phy of tran­shu­man­ism. Tran­shu­man­ism also has cached thoughts about death. Death: com­plete the pat­tern: “Death is a pointless tragedy which peo­ple ra­tio­nal­ize.” This was a non­stan­dard cache, one with which my listen­ers were un­fa­mil­iar. I had sev­eral op­por­tu­ni­ties to use non­stan­dard cache, and be­cause they were all part of the de­vel­oped philos­o­phy of tran­shu­man­ism, they all visi­bly be­longed to the same theme. This made me seem co­her­ent, as well as origi­nal.

I sus­pect this is one rea­son Eastern philos­o­phy seems deep to Western­ers—it has non­stan­dard but co­her­ent cache for Deep Wis­dom. Sym­met­ri­cally, in works of Ja­panese fic­tion, one some­times finds Chris­ti­ans de­picted as repos­i­to­ries of deep wis­dom and/​or mys­ti­cal se­crets. (And some­times not.)

If I re­call cor­rectly an economist once re­marked that pop­u­lar au­di­ences are so un­fa­mil­iar with stan­dard eco­nomics that, when he was called upon to make a tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance, he just needed to re­peat back Econ 101 in or­der to sound like a brilli­antly origi­nal thinker.

Also cru­cial was that my listen­ers could see im­me­di­ately that my re­ply made sense. They might or might not have agreed with the thought, but it was not a com­plete non-se­quitur unto them. I know tran­shu­man­ists who are un­able to seem deep be­cause they are un­able to ap­pre­ci­ate what their listener does not already know. If you want to sound deep, you can never say any­thing that is more than a sin­gle step of in­fer­en­tial dis­tance away from your listener’s cur­rent men­tal state. That’s just the way it is.

To seem deep, study non­stan­dard philoso­phies. Seek out dis­cus­sions on top­ics that will give you a chance to ap­pear deep. Do your philo­soph­i­cal think­ing in ad­vance, so you can con­cen­trate on ex­plain­ing well. Above all, prac­tice stay­ing within the one-in­fer­en­tial-step bound.

To be deep, think for your­self about “wise” or im­por­tant or emo­tion­ally fraught top­ics. Think­ing for your­self isn’t the same as com­ing up with an un­usual an­swer. It does mean see­ing for your­self, rather than let­ting your brain com­plete the pat­tern. If you don’t stop at the first an­swer, and cast out replies that seem vaguely un­satis­fac­tory, in time your thoughts will form a co­her­ent whole, flow­ing from the sin­gle source of your­self, rather than be­ing frag­men­tary rep­e­ti­tions of other peo­ple’s con­clu­sions.