Thinking in Silence — Notes Written During an Interintellect ‘Silent Salon’


By Karan Chawla

These notes were written during the Silent Salon hosted by Anna Gát on 27th Feb 2021.

Like the lazy Saturday afternoon I wrote these on, they lack a clear structure. It’s mostly me thinking on paper and reflecting on the ideas I’ve been thinking about lately. If any of these interest you, and you’d like to discuss these further, feel free to hit me up here.

Permissionless agency

Remember how in The Castle, where the protagonist had an important petition to present to the King? He traveled until he came to the castle and asked the guard to let him in. The guard said, “Entrance is prohibited.” He waited and asked the guard the next day and got the same answer.

He waited at the gate his whole life until he was old and grey and still had not delivered his important message. On his last day on earth, he asked the guard why he could not enter and see the King?

The guard told him, “All I said was that entrance was prohibited. You could have gone in at any time.”

You don’t have to live like the above protagonist. I have been thinking about agency and how it’s the only thing that moves the needle.

It’s never the pontificating in the public sphere, giving talks at conferences, or handing out memorable sound bites on TV shows. It’s about showing up every day, not waiting for permission, and acting. It’s the small actions compounding over time that lead to the creation of something meaningful.

Camus’s pessimism vs. Sartre’s optimism

The fundamental difference between the two was not in their view on freedom but in their view of human nature. Sartre was an optimist believing that by changing social structure (via revolutions), it is possible to increase human happiness and improve the human condition. Camus was a pessimist who believed that the human condition is limited by human nature, consciousness, reason and that happiness and freedom are incompatible. Camus thought that religions and ideology offer people an escape from the problem of existence. The cost of this escape is the loss of freedom, for him, the most important achievable human quality. He thought that people can and should opt for freedom despite and because of human inability to be happy. The way to achieve this is to rebel, but not collectively by trying to create better social structures, neither to rebel by withdrawing from the world as monks do, but by rebelliously accepting it and living with the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world.

This rejection of revolutionary ideas (not his philosophy) made Camus popular in the West despite dominant Western ideology being much closer to Sartre’s optimistic idea that the human condition is ameliorable through a change in social structures. The only difference between dominant Western ideas and Sartre’s is in means, not the goals of human actions (continuous progress vs. incremental revolutions).

My view is that justice and freedom can coexist on the personal level where both freedom and justice are personal qualities that get projected onto the collective level.

What people tried and failed to achieve for so long was to create these qualities at a collective level (either through religious believes, liberal idea of progress toward a just society or Marxist idea of revolutionary progress) optimistically hoping that they could be passed down to individuals.

That said, I reject Camus’ pessimism. There are two realities — one today and one tomorrow. We can rebelliously accept the present while working towards a better tomorrow. Instead of letting our institutions rot over time and restarting through revolutions, we can continuously improve.

On Reputation

Reputation has become a central pillar in our modern collective intelligence. The greater the amount of information, the more we lean on reputational devices to evaluate it.

This is paradoxical because the greatly increased access to new information doesn’t empower us to be better decision-makers or be cognitively autonomous. But it leaves us ever-more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

We are moving from Information Age to the Reputation Age.

Reputation is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by those who have status. This means we consume information that is morphed by the perception and biased judgments of these people who share it, most of whom we don’t know personally. We should not only question whether the information we’re consuming is correct (much of the existing debate around misinformation talks about this), but we should also consider the reputational trajectory a piece of content took before we were exposed to it. To thrive in our kaleidoscopic present and our trust deficit future, we must question the information and critically assess the meta-epistemology of the information.