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Philosophy of interaction

Story – A priest, a scientist, and a philosopher

If you want to hear the short story that led to this article, watch my “A priest, a scientist, and a philosopher” speech.


Free will is just the things science hasn’t figured out yet.

That’s from Robert Sapolsky. It reminded me of a philosophy of interaction that regularly bounces off the sides of my skull.


I do not claim anything written here is true, only that it’s a useful way to live (for me). You don’t need to discard your belief in free will to use this mindset. You need to suspend belief at key moments. If you can’t contemplate that, stop reading now. If you’re looking for reasoning on why we do or don’t have free will, look elsewhere. I’m only interested in what works. If that’s not your primary objective, save your time.

How can I think to optimize interactions with people?

  1. Believe you have free will. I am not a robot.
  2. Believe no one else has free will. People are robots.
  3. When you feel depressed, remember you don’t have free will either. Damn, I’m a robot.

Remember you’re a person and you have to deal with yourself more than anyone else. And you might drive yourself insane if you’re not careful. So optimizing interactions with yourself is two-thirds of this philosophy. Take care of yourself and the rest takes care of itself (mostly).

Remember these three attributes. If you don’t want more motivation, empathy, and sanity, “This is not for you. Never was for you.”

Why is this effective?

Because it works. I have more energy, less waste, and feel better from operating this way.

#1 – Free will for yourself for motivation

Believe we have free will so we get out of bed in the morning. If we believe our choices don’t matter, why bother? With anything. Free will makes us feel like we have more influence over our future. That’s motivating and reason enough to believe in free will for ourselves. That’s the easy part.

#2 – No free will for others for empathy

Believe no one else has free will so we have more empathy for them. When’s the last time you yelled at someone who cut you off in traffic? Why? It only hurts you. Alright maybe it feels good in that moment but that stress ain’t good for us.

And how can it be their fault they’re an a$$h#!@ when they had no choice? Their genes, their environment, their parents, their friends, their teachers, everything led them to this moment when they cut you off like an a$$h#!@. It’s not their fault.

You might think they should take responsibility for their life. They should. But I don’t want to parent the world. It’s hard enough parenting myself. So why am I shouting at them? They’re just a programmed robot sent from the heavens executing their instructions.

Escaping the need to blame people for the bad things that happen makes me a calmer person. It’s not my job to push penance on people for their mistakes. It’s not my job to reform them. And the world would be a nicer place if we all thought of each other as robots when something goes wrong. Who yells at a robot? Seriously.

Now the a-h#!@ in traffic isn’t our spouse, our kid, or our best friend. We might feel invested in reforming them when they act “wrong”. Don’t. It’s their life. And life is hard enough without people reforming us.

Kids, when they’re kids, are the exception when they’re learning their operating system. They need more selective reforming.

Most adults (like me) are big kids but none of us like being treated as we are. Only in the most selective circumstances when your best adults are on the wrong path (their wrong path, not your wrong path) might you inject indirect feedback to gently guide them back on the right path before they fall off the rails. Support your best people (by thinking of them as robots when they make you mad).

Now you know me and think, “He thinks I’m a robot. Bastard!” I’m sorry. But I only think of you that way when things go wrong. Recognizing the beauty in humanity is easy for me. Escaping the need to blame is hard. We’re optimizing for empathy here. Find another philosophy if you have a hard time seeing the wonder in people.

#3 – No free will for yourself for a safety valve

When life kicks us in the gut and we feel so bad about ourselves we’re about to spiral down a rabbit hole to hell, remember we don’t have free will either. Be kind to yourself. This is the hardest part.

We need to hold two opposing perspectives in mind. On the one hand, believe in free will so we get out of bed. On the other hand, don’t believe in free will when it might drive us into a depression. Remember that clear line of demarcation. This isn’t for a bad day. It’s a safety valve for the worst moments and thoughts patterns catapulting us into endless rumination. That’s it.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F Scott Fitzgerald

Believe in our free will most of the time so we recognize our mistakes, learn from them, and improve. Learn from depressing mistakes too. Stand way back and view the situation from a ten-thousand-foot level by remembering your lifetime longitudinal timeline.

  • What are all the genes, environments, experiences, influences, people, events, minutiae, atoms that led to the “bad” thing happening?
    • How many of the factors that led to that moment were within our control?
    • And that one that really feels like it’s directly our fault, is it?
    • How does it help to blame yourself and feel bad about it?
  • Is there something else from our past that put us in the right position to do the “wrong” thing?
    • Take a seat on the psychiatrist’s couch in your mind and think back to your childhood.
    • How did your parents screw you up or let other people screw you up?
    • We don’t get far by not improving upon these circumstances.
    • But remember them when the world collapses on you.

The only value in assigning blame to yourself is learning from the experience. Why not just learn from the experience and skip the blame? Life is too short to feel bad about mistakes. Guilt wastes energy. Save that energy for improvements.

Who would you rather associate with:

  1. the person who’s stuck in life because they’re down on themselves?
  2. the person who’s constantly learning and improving?

Do you care that the second person doesn’t feel bad about their mistakes? You might. So just don’t tell people about this more effective mindset. (Oops.)

Why use this philosophy of interaction?

  1. Motivation for ourselves
  2. Empathy for others
  3. A safety valve to prevent rumination

And because it works – if you want to live a calmer, connected, inspired life.

Table showing a summary of the article already described in the text.


I fail at applying this philosophy all the time. But even a .300 batting average makes life better. In the game of interactions, that’s an all-star performance.