A Religious Experience.
On how data can explain our existence.
What is a religious experience? Have you had one? For me, growing up in an agnostic household, a spiritual experience was one of awe and wonder. A moment when one could be taken over by how majestic and complicated the world is. That even though we might not understand it, we can still appreciate it. I think that I feel it when I look at flowers, dive into clear water, or ride in an airplane and marvel at the glory of what life is. The feeling of being both small and meaningless and something more than the sum of both your genetics and experience.
I won’t assume that we agree. What comes to mind for you when I say ‘Religious Experience?’ I think that perhaps most people associate a religious experience with something like an encounter with a supernatural being of sorts. There was this one time when I went to see Patty Smith speak at the Norse Theater in SF about her creative practice. She read from Just Kids, answered people's questions, and at the end, she asked everyone to stand up and sing with her. We all sang The Night Belongs to Lovers at the top of our lungs. And there was this incredible energy that filled the space. Inspiring. Connective. Spiritual. Unexplainable. Patty Smith, herself was not a diety, but there was a power she had. Maybe she was something akin to god? I cannot speak to that.
Religious experiences often come with revelations, caused by contact with a higher power or truth. I have told myself over and over that I want to join a faith community. I just have not found one that has worked for me yet or a good fit for how I want to make sense of the world. I long for a community to talk about the meaning of life and create theories on how to explain and understand it. There is something seemingly antithetical to the coexistence of blind faith and the scientific method.
That being said, I have been thinking about Dataism. And it is starting to really scare me.
Have you ever had a Spotify algorithm understand your music taste better than yourself? Or have you found yourself in the last 5 years saying things like, “I just don’t have any data points that suggest I can date cancers…?” I found myself using the phrase “data points” to keep myself from spiraling out of control when I was scared to move forward. To look back on the past, assuming you are alive at this moment and note that since you are alive there have been lots of data points that suggest you can do/make it through hard things. Turns out, you are a surprisingly resilient creature.
A therapist who I hated told me that once. She said that the probability that I would make it home on the right train was high because I had done so with success countless times.
Nevertheless, if you are not familiar with the term Dataism, take this quote from Yuval Noah Harari:
For we are now at the confluence of two scientific tidal waves. On the one hand, biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body and, in particular, of the brain and of human feelings. At the same time, computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When you put the two together, you get external systems that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can. Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms…
For scholars and intellectuals, Dataism promises to provide the scientific Holy Grail that has eluded us for centuries: a single overarching theory that unifies all the scientific disciplines from musicology through economics, all the way to biology.
- Yuval Noah Harari on big data, Google and the end of free will
Dataism is attractive to me. It fills my need for a certain type of logic that makes sense with my understanding of the world. If the role of the brain is to make meaning from our bodies and senses, this unromantic (in my mind, tho I am sure one can romanticize anything with the right context) explanation fits.
The religious experience that I had recently was reading the recent book, “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” By Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. It just came out. I hate the title. I am steadfast in the idea that our bodies know the answers and there was something antithetical to that idea in the title. The book doesn’t expressly address the current emphasis on listening to our bodies over our minds (this is a different topic, but I feel like it can co-exist).
However, I came around to the title. I feel like I understand why he used it. It is controversial in the ways that make you want to pick it up, the subheading also promises to help you use data to get what you really want in life. Seth is clear that this book is a “self-help” book.
And for me it was. For me, I didn’t want a path to getting what I want in life, but this book and the ideas in it explained the why. I felt like the data explained why I was the way I am. Data in a way is kinda like an all-knowing being that can explain away your pain and joy.
For years, I have been explaining where I am at, and what success I have had, with the idea of luck and work. These are both nebulous concepts. That anyone could do what I do if they just worked long hours. I am nothing special (though in my heart of hearts, all I want desperately is to be special).
So I hate to admit that this book illustrates (perhaps confirmation bias) any advantage I have had and explains any success. In my mind, I imagine that Seth used data to find out what would relate to the most people and what would resonate and wrote that. I imagine he is laughing in a tower of wealth and education at my expense. But I just don’t care. I loved the book.
He claims that the data shows that no decision that you make as a parent is as impactful as where you live. And I checked into it, it makes sense. I don’t want to believe that location plays as much of a role as parents do but if you visit The Equity of Opportunity Project website, the findings are SO INTERESTING. They use tax data to find the neighborhoods where there is the highest potential for upward mobility. And number 2 is Minneapolis (I am from there).
Next up, I just happened to start a business in a creative field. Despite being told all of my life that artists can’t make a living from their work, data suggests otherwise. You will have to read the book. But it has to do with price competition. If you are interested, being creative makes the top six most lucrative professions. And it is arguably fun (all the other jobs one could choose to make money I find uninteresting, personal preference).
The first part of the book talks about online dating. And it is sad, yet hopeful. Turns out jobs matter. Beauty matters. But most of all, height. People want to date tall men. You can be a broke, ugly tall man and people will still click on you. This was surprising to me since I thought that most people would be attracted to an interesting profession (writer or educator), but nope. I have never online dated. I don’t have a sexy name or an unsexy name. I am attractive (this makes me extremely uncomfortable to say) and able-bodied. I will define attractive in the sense that I am of average height and weight, somewhat symmetrical, and apparently people like that in the western society that I am a part of.
All and all, reading this book transformed my personal narrative. I also read it while multi-tasking (I read during breathing treatments for my daughter). It is super accessible. I skipped over the sports stuff, cuz I was not that interested. But maybe you are into sports? I don’t know, but this book changed the way I thought about my personhood through data. I think the goal of the book is to help you make better decisions and to get what you “want” in life, but I think that just scratches the surface of the massive implications that each data point suggests.
Seth doesn’t really rest too long on the idea of free will. Perhaps not having free will in some ways goes against the idea of the self-help genre for obvious reasons. For me, it offers a pop-psych approach to understanding how data can explain life as we know it. And that feels undeniably spiritual.
I get to talk to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tomorrow. And I will try to make sense.