I’ve finally put pen to paper, fingertips on keyboard, and started to write a real article. Before I write about any of the stuff I’m actually interested in, I feel I should write some kind of introduction. Some background. Hence this.
I’ve been putting “this” off. Thinking, planning, tinkering with my thoughts, hoping that they would fall into place all on their own and just roll out of me in a well-ordered stream of comprehensible, insightful prose. That didn’t happen, but my desire to write has been growing lately, and thoughts keep banging on the inside of my head so forcefully in an attempt to escape their increasingly cramped and noisy quarters that I can’t ignore them any more. For a brief moment, hopefully one of many to come, they have overpowered my procrastination.
I’m writing this on a train. My half hour trip home from work is really the only time I have to do this, since it requires a bit of focus. It’s ironic – after enjoying a lot of free time for most of my life, the moment I pick to do some real writing for the first time in well over ten years might actually be the worst possible choice. My second child was born a few months ago, and my oldest is two and half years old. With two small children, work, our old house and its garden, I probably have less time and energy right now than at any other time, ever.
Yet here I am. I desperately need to write something because I’ve spent most of my life just gathering knowledge, which meant success as long as I was in school. But it’s been a while since school now, and when you’re an adult nobody cares that you can ace a test.
Just hoarding knowledge with no particular goal or creative output at an age of 32 years starts to look less like admirable scholarship and more like compulsive behavior. I need to get it all out, and not make my head my ideas’ final resting place.
There are lots of books that summarize important results from various fields and tell you how it applies to your life and your everything. This type of book, often built around some central theme and with a punchy neologism ending in -ology or -omics prominently displayed on the cover, has long been one of my favorite types of intellectual snack. They´re great appetizers, but can, like non-metaphorical appetizers, be less than filling in the long run.
The best kind of such books are the one that teaches you important concepts and theories. It’s a great way to let intellectual tools painstakingly developed by researchers become part of everyone’s cognitive arsenal. Call it trickle-down intellectualism. I’m less fond of the kind that mostly seem to argue a point – something like “[thing] is important!” or “[thing] is a thing!” that really don’t need an entire book – or put forward a single idea, concept or analytical tool that can be grasped more or less by just reading the summary on the dust jacket.
Over time my appetite became more discerning. It wasn’t enough with pop-idea books that champion a single thing or just line up a series of tools and insights from a single field, held together by a nifty theme. I wanted more than that. What’s the next level, efter pop-idea books? Well, you can read more technical books, or scientific papers. Well, I do sometimes, but those are as a rule even more specialized and narrow than pop-idea books, and lack that crucial element of “bringing down the goods from the ivory tower to the town square”.
I wanted to go up a level and aggregate, build larger systems of ideas, integrate elements from many fields into a coherent whole. A wide-angle lens, not a microscope. This type of literature doesn’t seem to really exist. There aren’t any journals of “Everything Studies”, no specialists in not being specialists, and no books that these people put out, letting everyone know How to Understand Everything.
So I had a thought, I wanted to gather useful cognitive tools from each field I had dipped my toenails in. I wanted to create a large book with short essays each describing an idea – what it was, how to use it, and how it related to other ideas. Concepts from math, economics, biology and computer science would mingle with models from psychology, linguistics, philosophy, politics and literary theory in one great transdisciplinary mixer.
Quite early it became clear that ideas often build on other ideas and some essays had to have other essays as prerequisites. I had grand plans of an intricately structured network, looking like the tech tree from Sid Meier’s Civilization.
I made notes of what ideas were to be included, where I could find more detailed information about them, and what other ideas they depended on. I did just about the right amount of planning (ever the planning… considering I’m not the planning type in general, I suspect this was just procrastination dressed up as diligence) to feel I hadn’t abandoned my project, while still making sure it wasn’t going to be finished. Progress slowly crept to a halt. I didn’t abandon it as much as have it ‘fall out of fashion’.
If you do something a lot, and you do it intently and for a long time, you’ll likely develop some kind of expertise. I haven’t really done that with anything besides wasting time on the internet. My favored means of procrastination has often been lurking on discussion forums. I can’t get enough of that stuff. Politics, philosophy, economics, social issues, music, art, games, television, books, movies, language, science, history, everyday life. When people discuss ideas and exchange opinions it fascinates me, not just great ideas and well thought out opinions (which aren’t always so common), but also the remarkable differences between people, how they experience and think about things in such radically yet sometimes subtly different ways.
You also notice certain standard failure modes. Discussions predictably break down and turn into shouting matches or stalemates born of baffled confusion. And it’s often totally avoidable if the participants can find the real sources of their disagreement. It seems to me that people don’t get mad when other people disagree with them, they get mad when they’re not being understood.
Sources of disagreement can sometimes be traced very far back in intellectual history. Ultimately many debates about politics and social issues can be seen as expressions of philosophical disagreements that go back centuries, even to the ancient greeks. Others seem to be the ultimate expression of fundamental differences in people’s temperaments, emotional responses, modes of cognition and perception.
Reading forums gradually became a kind of disaster tourism for me. The same stories played out again and again, arguers butting heads with only a vague idea about what the other was saying but tragically unable to understand this. Something had to be done.
When an engineer-brain sees a particular type of problem occur predictably, it begins to try to fix it. Now, I can’t fix online discourse (but if I could, I think I’d deserve the Nobel Peace Prize), but I felt I could at least create some resource that would make it easier to identify pitfalls, maybe defuse a fight somewhere, sometime, and have someone walk away with a more, rather than less, nuanced view of the world.
This was a few years after my nerdy rite of passage, by which I mean reading Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and being appropriately wowed. One thing I took away was that dialogues really are a great way to present ideas (although as a forum-addict I was probably predisposed to thinking that). So I devised another grand plan. I was going to write The Perfect Debate, the Dialogue About Everything that was going to resolve all the issues that get discussed over and over again once and for all. Not by declaring a side the victor, no, but by digging through layers of confusion and pinpoint the precise origins of the disagreements and explain how they come about. That is, what people were actually disagreeing about beneath layers of miscommunication and bad will. I wanted to see what online discussion would look like if the real world was populated exclusively by Aaron Sorkin characters.
Ok, so that’s a bit overly ambitious. But at least it would make me feel better if I could at least once read a debate that went the way I thought it should. And I could placate the impulse I had to grab the wheel and keep debaters from repeatedly driving off cliffs.
I started. Not to write, mind you, but plan. It became clear that The Perfect Debate could not be a linear text, because as soon as you make a statement with more than trace amounts of controversy in it several philosophical issues come into play. In fact, that’s true of any statement at all, controversy optional. I planned a large dialogue that would branch and merge like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book. It would split when an argument invites several different responses, and merge when different topics converge on the same abstract idea.
I made notes. I scribbled down a disordered mess of concepts and scraps of dialogue on page after page. References everywhere, “relate this to X”, “continue into Y” and “same thing as Z” accompanied by arrows in all directions.
After a while I had to tell myself that I couldn’t plan it all in advance and I needed to stop putting off writing and start. Piece by piece is the only way to get anything done. Then something happened in september 2014.
While surfing Reddit, minding my own business, I came upon a link to Slate Star Codex. Before long, this led me to LessWrong. It turned out I was far from alone in wanting to understand everything in the world, form a coherent philosophy that successfully integrates results from the sciences, arts and humanities, and understand the psychological mechanisms that underlie the way we think, argue and disagree.
I spent the next year absorbing much of the materials at LessWrong and Slate Star Codex. Like a computer system undergoing an extensive software update, my mind was in overdrive. Lots of things mapped on to concepts I already knew but hadn’t worked out in detail, and I often thought to myself as I read “Yes! Yes, that’s precisely what I mean!”. Other things felt revelatory. Some of LessWrong is a bit out there, that much should be admitted. But sorting the solid from the speculative wasn’t that hard.
Besides the material itself, those sites were a great way to find other high quality reading. I stopped feeling shitty because I read too much crap online, and started feeling shitty because reading good, interesting things took up too much of my time.
This massive upgrade in concepts, terminology and general discourse level in my reading materials had some psychological effects. The influx of all these new tools kicked my own thinking into a higher gear, leading to an almost constant sense of puzzle pieces falling into place to form a picture of reality, human thought, and the drama-packed, often dysfunctional relationship between the two.
It became much harder to listen to ordinary public discourse without becoming annoyed by its constant failures. Everywhere I’d perceive fallacies, biases, philosophical weaknesses, hidden indefensible assumptions, and manipulative narratives. Not that I didn’t dislike public discourse before, but now, you know, more. More pervasive. Before I could just choose not to think about it, but not now. I had to stop reading newspapers to not drive myself mad.
It also became much harder to focus on my work. It felt increasingly shallow and staying motivated started taking more effort. I’m a consultant, and the ideas and language that come with that have their own set of philosophical issues. It was much more engaging to use all my new cognitive toys to think new exciting thoughts. These have to go somewhere. Hence this place.
In Harry Potter, professor Dumbledore has an object where he keeps his thoughts. He says:
I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.
Lacking a real Pensieve, this will be my substitute.