SSC’s review of postmodernism got very mixed reviews. Some of them made a good point: why should I be trying this at all? I’m not a postmodernist, I’m not a philosophy professor, surely someone much more qualified has already written a blog-post-length explanation of postmodernism.
This is all true. My only excuse is that trying to figure out complicated concepts requires a different approach than trying to teach simple ones.
Some knowledge is easy to transfer. “What is the thyroid?” Some expert should write an explanation, anyone interested can read it, and nobody else should ever worry about it again.
Other knowledge is near-impossible to transfer. What about social skills? There are books on social skills. But you can’t just read one and instantly become as charismatic as the author. At best they can hint at areas worth exploring.
There are lots of books about social skills, and there should be lots of them – I don’t know which social skills book is the best, but it doesn’t obsolete all the others. Maybe it’s because you need a kind of triangulation – one person’s views on social skills give you one perspective, another person’s views on social skills give you another perspective, and after reading enough different books you can sort of make out the shape of the territory in question. Maybe it’s about different people having different problems and deficiencies, but our language is imprecise enough that they all get called “Social Skills” and it won’t help unless you stumble across the one solving your specific issue. Or maybe it’s about different people’s minds working in different ways, so that you can only make sense of a book by someone who thinks like you – whose mind groups things into the same concepts as yours, so that you can import them over directly. There are some Social Skills For Autistic People books out there, and the autistic people I know say they’re much more helpful than the generic-brand. Autism is a well-circumscribed thing; how many less-well-circumscribed groups are out there with similar needs?
Complicated ideas are like this too. I remember reading a mathematician talking about how there were two different-but-equivalent formulations of some high-level mathematical concept – let’s say an algebraic one vs. a geometric one. He’d always learned it as the algebraic one and had only the slipperiest grasp on it. Then one day he read a textbook presenting the equivalent geometric version, and it made perfect sense; he really understood it, could mentally manipulate it, could think creatively with it and make progress. He wondered why everybody didn’t teach the geometric version first. Another mathematician responded that he had the same story – except that for him, he’d learned the geometric version first, hated it, and only really been able to make progress once he learned the algebraic version. Then a third mathematician chimed in, said that both the geometric and algebraic version had confused her, but that in some obscure textbook she was able to find a third equivalent formulation she thought was better than either.
My own version of this experience was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s A Human’s Guide To Words, which caused a bunch of high-level philosophical ideas to slip neatly into place for me. Last week David Chapman wrote about what was clearly the same thing, even centering around the same key example of whether Pluto is a planet. A Gender Studies major I know claims (I can’t confirm) that the same thing is a major part of queer theory too. But Chapman’s version and queer theory don’t make a lot of sense to me; I was able to understand the former only because I already knew what he was talking about, and I have to take any statements about the latter on pure faith. On the other hand, nobody else seems to have found Guide To Words as important as I did; I don’t see paeans to it all over, nobody’s offering Eliezer any Nobel Prizes. It was a perfect fit for where my mind was at that moment – but there are probably a hundred other versions equally objectively good, some of which don’t even realize they’re versions of the same thing.
To carry on the analogy to social skills: even after reading the best, most perfect-fit social skills book in the world, it’s still not going to be enough. People need to ask questions. Both in my psychiatrist role and my community-member role, I have to answer (and sometimes ask) a lot of “Hey, is this socially acceptable? What’s the best way to behave here?” type questions.
And questioning requires mental fit at least as much as straight information-transfer does. Speaking of having poor social skills, I remember what I used to be like in college. A professor would say something that didn’t make any sense to me. I at least had the social skills to avoid saying “that doesn’t make any sense”, so I would raise my hand and ask the professor “Excuse me, I don’t understand what Aristotle meant when he said everything had a telos. Do snails have telos? Do air molecules? Does a random rock?” The professor would mumble something kind of meaningless that didn’t answer the question, and again being too polite to say so, I would say “I’m not quite sure what you meant by that ‘only specific things have a telos’. Which specific things are you talking about? How would we figure out which ones?” And then so on, until I became more and more exasperated with the professor seemingly giving irrelevant responses or completely misunderstanding my questions, and the professor started thinking I was some sort of hostile troll trying to embarrass him. I quickly learned that there were some professors, tutors, and fellow students who would immediately understand what I was asking and answer as best they could, and others who would go through the motions of answering while leaving me even more confused than before.
And continuing on the social skills analogy even further: at some point you have to go to a party, try out what you know, and totally humiliate yourself. The intellectual version is something like steelmanning – you try to construct the position you’re trying to understand as best you can, then see if it sounds right to people who know about it.
One of the great things about the old Less Wrong was that it was a community built for this kind of thing. A bunch of people with a certain worldview and way-of-thinking explained some curated hard-to-understand knowledge to other people who also shared their worldview and way-of-thinking. Then they discussed it among themselves, questioned it back and forth, agreed or disagreed with it, and absorbed it in a social way. This is also what I’m trying to do with SSC. The knowledge itself may or may not be original – I think at a certain level of complexity “originality” becomes hard to monitor (what percent of the 10,000 psychology books that have been published are truly “original”?). But it’s packaged slightly differently than what’s come before, and it’s well-targeted at a community of people who have the right mental fit to absorb it and then refine it among themselves.
Some of the academics I know say similar things about their own field. It’s not just that you have to read lots of books, although you do. It’s the experience of working with an advisor and other grad students, of coming up with theories and having them be shot down. Two stories I’ve heard from multiple grad student friends: “I spent two months working on something really cool, and in the first thirty seconds of presenting it to my advisor she came up with a simple proof it could never work” and “I spent two months working on something really cool, and in the first thirty seconds of presenting it to my advisor, she said ‘Oh yeah, that’s Smith’s Lemma, very exciting when it was published forty years ago.'” But eventually you come out of it not just with book learning, but with the thought-patterns and methods of a field baked into your brain, a strong sense of what is or isn’t interesting, can or can’t be done.
The spiritual traditions seem to endorse some similar process. They have some complicated thing you’re supposed to ‘get’ – enlightenment, gnosis, whatever. They make a big deal of how it’s useless to communicate in words. But they also make a big deal of reading the scriptures, of having teachers, of the importance of back-and-forth conversations with teachers beyond just reading books and listening to lectures. So you read lots of sutras, and you do lots of meditation, and you talk to your guru a lot, and then suddenly (at least in some traditions), it makes sense. You see a falling leaf, or you hear a raindrop, or someone hits you with their stick, or something else that’s never the same for two different people, and you get it. I know the suddenness aspect is exaggerated, I know there are some traditions that say it’s not like this at all, but they all share this view of a knowledge which can’t be mass produced through traditional educational methods.
Maybe this is on my mind because of the recent post on Kolmogorov complicity. Some people asked – why can’t people just figure out what’s taboo, either believe it quietly or reject it openly, and then shut up about it? And part of the answer has to be that the process of coming to understand a field at all has to involve this pattern of back-and-forth questioning, approaching from multiple sides, devil-advocating, etc. Lots of the process will look the same whether you end out ultimately rejecting or accepting a truth; you’ve got to go through the same steps just to understand what you’re considering.
The Internet seems like an increasingly hostile place for this sort of thing. I can’t remember how many times I’ve read an essay I really liked and appreciated only to see somebody mocking it for “reinventing the wheel”. Oddly enough, none of these people ever point out who said the thing first, or what its standard name is. Maybe they think it’s too obvious to mention? Or, if someone screws up, or asks a stupid question, it gets screenshotted and goes viral all over Twitter as “Look what this stupid person said now!” I will admit being complicit in this – I get really nervous whenever someone posts something unsophisticated in the comments here or on the subreddit, because I’m worried it will go viral as an example of “what those people at Slate Star Codex believe”. I’m not even talking about offensive things here! Just stupid ones!
There’s an awkward tension between blogs and comments as “something some random person has typed into a box on the Internet” vs. “strong claim to authority and of being worthy to educate everyone else”. Offline it’s easier to distinguish these sorts of things – tone of voice, what kind of situation you’re in, whether you preface it awkwardly with “This is stupid, but…”, whether you’re just talking to your equally-stoned friend. On the Internet, having a blog gives this aura of “Hey, I’m going to educate you about things using my superior knowledge”. I try to fight that with epistemic status tags explaining when things are tentative or just me looking for feedback, but I guess maybe these are sometimes hard to believe. Sometimes they just earn more anonymous hate: “If you’re admitting you’re too stupid to have an opinion on this, you must be really stupid to give it anyway!”
This is a shame. The authoritative-lecture format works for facts, but isn’t enough when you’ve got any subject more complicated than thyroid anatomy. Collaborative truth-seeking where people are throwing out ideas, trying to reconstruct arguments themselves, asking questions, and arguing – these are more promising, but they leave you open to accusations of reinventing the wheel, arrogantly dabbling in fields you don’t understand, or being too insular. When some of the topics involved are taboo, add the sins of “just asking questions” or “thinking it’s my job to educate you”. But unless you’re such a good lecturer that everybody will understand you on the first try, this is a necessary part of communicating hard things.