Thinking for oneself is hard. It’s probably not our default setting. Or maybe I am phrasing this wrong. Maybe I should say it is hard to know what is true, and to have confidence that what one thinks is on sound footing.
Almost nobody, most likely nobody, in the wild uses axiomatic and rigorous language. So we can be confident that a certain share of what gets said is factually wrong, or logically wrong, even among people who trust each-other and believe that truth is being told.
I have started to get a blunt sense that even most of the very smart people I know, in day to day life, really don’t do much critical thinking. I don’t want that to sound like a condemnation, it isn’t. It’s an observation that applies equally to me. There is a lot of talk today about mindfulness. We need this talk, and it offers benefits, because we are creatures of habit. Habit is the opposite of thinking, because thinking logically is using willpower. A + B = C. It doesn’t come to us without pausing and considering. We don’t spend the majority of our day doing this, or we wouldn’t understand the word pause in this context! We pause and think. So it is our normal way of being that we interrupt, which is not thinking.
An observation. I have been watching lectures online, because I am trying to learn. Students almost never ask the instructors questions. I also remember being in school, and almost never asked questions, myself. There are a couple reasons I can think about. The first, it’s because everything is so new. You barely grasp the material, let alone have the wherewithal to pose an intelligent question. We don’t know what we are ignorant about. But the second reason is that it’s because most of the lessons are simple, and so student’s think they understand, and so no need to ask questions. They don’t believe they are ignorant. They don’t pause and think!
The second reason is related to overconfidence, but also fear. Overconfidence, because, we don’t see our own ignorance. Fear because people don’t volunteer their lack of knowledge about simple concepts. Feynman talks a lot about this problem. It is a problem. We learn the labels of things, like the names of the different birds in the forest. We don’t spend time making predictions about how those birds will behave, and seeing if those observations end up coming true. Watching predictions be falsified or confirmed is how we know things are valid. It;s the essential difference between book smarts and street smarts. People with street smarts know what they saw with their own eyes. What do we really know if we can name all of the birds, but then can’t say anything else about them? That is what Feynman asks of us.
It’s up to us an individuals to go out there and learn what is true and what isn’t. If only we can pause, think, and have the wherewithal to test what people present to us as facts. Unfortunately, the only members of our society that do not have this fear are children.
Maybe that is why we find children so amusing, and so enjoyable to be around. It is exactly the title of the Feynman book. It is the pleasure of finding things out.
I still feel this pleasure a lot of the time. It is one of the most important things to me. It’s the reason I can spend an entire day watching lectures on YouTube or building charts. At work that is all I do, really, get some data, make a chart, and think about it. It’s also the reason I don’t get much pleasure out of a lot of pop culture.
I have been reading Feynman again. Specifically, The Pleasures of Finding Things Out. Most of what I have to say is regurgitating ideas from him.
It’s lonely and disheartening. The will of groups is how we mostly organise ourselves. It could be business, sports, whatever, doesn’t matter. Usually there is some version of going with the crowd.
It means that to engage in conversation with others, we first have to come to understand the groupthink, and this is hard to do. It takes a lot of the resources we have available in our brains. We also have to keep track of what we, as individuals, believe and hold true. We also have to keep track of where, specifically, there is disagreement between groupthink and our personal knowledge.
Other people also have a tendency to reject ideas out of hand. I am also equally guilty of this. It’s because I do not pause and think about what people are telling me. I am not always mindful. I am not always paying attention. But most of us aren’t. We are on some level of autopilot.
And this is perfectly fine. I think most of the time what we are actually doing, as people, is understanding what is in eachothers heart. Or you could say we are trying to figure out a host of other things about people around us. Whether they are happy or sad, whether they need help, whether we need them to help us. I think we sometimes look at other animals and think that they act out of instinct, and that somehow we have no instincts. We are social animals, and our instincts are mostly social. That is what separates us from pretty much all other animals. Its the basis of culture, after all. Which gets us to the ability to reason in the first place. In a way, what we do on autopilot is necessary to even have the luxury of pause and think.
Anyway, the title of this post is embracing ignorance. So I will explain that.
I used to think I understood many things about the world. But as the saying goes, the more you know, the less you understand.
It’s because I have built up all of this education, and I think I know some things, and then I go and make a chart, and nothing about the chart makes any sense. After doing this for a few years now, I have started to come to grips with how little there is to take as fact.
And then I have to go sit in meetings, and watch people talk about the charts. They have such confidence, unless you ask them simple questions about the chart. They don’t have answers. They might even get angry with me for asking the questions. Actually, often they get angry.
Confidence is all anyone seems to care about. That’s the groupthink. So then, you have to ask questions about the sacred truths of the groupthink. You have to find a way that, even in their accounting of the chart, it doesn’t add up. This gets really difficult.
They say you have to know how to solve a lot of equations, first, before you can ask any questions. And there are infinitely many different types of equations, and different experts all have different ideas about which equations are important. And you can spend all of your day just doing equations. And then end up back to where you started. The chart still doesn’t make sense.
That is because we really are ignorant. We would do better off if we started with the premise that the chart doesn’t make sense. Maybe we could make some progress. And we will probably never solve this problem, that people are mostly on autopilot. That they don’t pause and think, and the natural response is rejection of questions, and the questioner. It’s part of life.
So it goes.
But it poses us with a choice. Each of us. Everyday. You have to chose which pieces of your reality you are going to challenge or not. This is what it means to live the “Examined Life.”
Ignorance is something we should not fear. It is the natural state of being a person. Deciding that it is bad is living in denial. There are infinities that exist within larger infinities. We can shrink the infinite. So we can shrink an infinite ignorance. We can find things out. It’s just a choice we make, to engage with the world in an honest way. It is only a sense of entitlement that holds us back. And maybe a fear of the crowd.