Mental Real Estate

Certain topics are too complicated to form strong independent opinions without practically making a full-time job of it. If it’s not your job, you need to either rely on the authority of others, or maintain indifference. You can rely on the authority of others either in a casual way, filtered through the public consensus and the common opinions of your friends, or in a deliberate way. But when you deliberately choose an authority, either his field of authority is simple and uncontroversial (in which case his authority derives from his judicious choice of which material matters in a presentation to laymen), or not. If the field is messy and multi-sided, then there are multiple people professing incompatible positions, all claiming authority.

If you were an expert in the messy field yourself, you would judge the merit of these claims on the basis of truth of the claimants positions; but if you could do that you wouldn’t need to rely on an authority. Perhaps you can, through serious research, figure out who to trust as an authority without doing so much research that you inadvertently become an expert in the field in your own right; but not always, and never without great sacrifice.

Ars longa, vita brevis. The world is, by grace of God, unfathomably complex. Its parts aren’t quite as complex as the whole, of course, so it is generally not too difficult to choose one tiny part of Creation that seems worth fathoming. But where it becomes unfathomable is in the immense number of its parts; and in their immense number of interrelationships; and in the many possible different ways of partitioning it (partitions which have surprising effects on what is fathomed and what remains unseen).

So you have time to become an expert, maybe even an authority, on one complicated topic; even a dozen; perhaps – optimism! – as many as a hundred. And if you redistribute the time it takes to master one hundred complicated topics across a larger number, with the goal merely of identifying true authorities, you can multiply that by another factor.

The effort isn’t futile. Learning has profound rewards. But it’s never enough: there are countlessly many topics (and sub-topics generated by the application of general principles to particular clusters of cases, or by interactions between the principles of specific fields). Inexhaustible.

So in the end you are going to have to either rely on others for most of what you know about the complexities of the world you live in, or remain indifferent.

Indifference is hard. There is a Socratic myth to the effect that the wise are content with the limits of their own ignorance. Maybe that’s true of the wise; but not being particularly wise myself, I can testify that the more I know about the world, the more rarely I’m satisfied with scio me nescire.

Now, there is a Socratic element to learning. Much of it is rooted in the ignorance of narcissism and self-centeredness. Most people have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect. If memory serves, Dunning and Kruger administered short exams to students and discovered that the ones who didn’t know the answers overestimated their own performance (both absolutely and relative to all the test-takers) while the best underestimated their own performance.

Psychology is a mess in general, and beyond general replication-crisis concerns, I’ve read follow-up studies that tried to tease apart different explanations by, for example, giving the students more information about average exam-performance to see how it affected their self-evaluation; so there is some doubt about what exactly is going on in the (classical) D-K effect. But the general situation seems to be that the ignorant can’t imagine all the ways in which they might be wrong, and can’t imagine that there might be other many people who know far more. Meanwhile, the learned can’t stop imagining all the different ways they might be wrong (all the different considerations in favor of X vs. Y vs. Z). Nor can they stop imagining the other test-takers as smarter, more perfect; but what they can’t imagine is how anyone could be perplexed by the “obvious” facts that the ignorant (i.e., the majority) consistently get wrong, time and again.

You lose perspective. Learning passes from explicit and conditional to implicit and transparent, in many ways and under many aspects. At one point, you had to learn it: Socrates was Greek, Socrates liked to talk with people in the marketplace, Socrates committed suicide by drowning. No, hemlock! It was hemlock! And eventually it all becomes so clear that you draw on thousands of “facts” at once in quick propositions. This is how we learn math, too: first 2+2=4 is a rule you get scolded for disobeying, then it becomes so automatic and semi-conscious that it can be folded up inside other rules — folded up multiple times, inside more complex operations that themselves undergo the same sublimation.

(And so you get people using “2+2=4” as a symbol of truth, when there are many perfectly respectable groups where no such equality holds! But you can hardly blame them; the same presentiment which fuels this innocent misconception is responsible for much more culpable misconceptions, like Principia Mathematica. Not to pick on mathematicians: replace “2+2” with “Socrates”, and you can say the exact same thing about rigid designation.)

When you know something at such a fundamental level that it comes an instinct, your second nature, not only do errors become inconceivable (and also: wonderfully, absurdly amusing) but knowledge itself becomes more streamlined, more taut, more tightly-organized. Just like a bridge-builder knows exactly how much weight to balance on each arch, the learned begin to pass over the inessential for the essential. Each item in the expert’s armory is used just so. He brings each fact or insight to bear where it matters, where it elucidates; he tends to pass over whatever is consistently ineffective, or unreliable, or whatever is tiresome to combine with the rest of his conceptual panoply.

I read somewhere that when you ask undergraduates studying biology to draw a structure – say, a neuron – they attack it as though they were studying to be artists, lavishing attention on perspective, structure, shading, texture, and of course the shape and proportions of the ganglia and the cell’s organelles. Graduate students, given the same task, scrawl out a flatter, lazier version of the same outline, leaving out the frills (and the organelles). The professors don’t even draw shapes, though. They draw points and lines. Their neurons are schematic; the visual embodiment of a theory about how the world works.

I’m inclined to believe the story because you can see the same thing in art from every age. Ancient Egyptian artists could depict horses with great zoological fidelity, but somehow missed the crucial fact that riding horseback involves sitting on the horse’s back — not its rump, as with donkeys. Mangled scientific instruments are another symptom of the artist’s worldview, as are chess boards of irregular size. A draftsman who understands what he’s looking at may lack all artistic talent, may depict it in cartoonish simplicity, may even pare it down to an icon, but he gets it right.

But ignoring things indifferent is not equivalent to indifference to ignorance. The expert, say the professor of biology, is not somehow humbly and modestly accepting of his ignorance of the exact texture and proportions of the neural ganglia. For him, these things simply don’t exist; he doesn’t see them, they’re clutter, a distraction from his task. But if there is something he does need to know about his schematic-neurons, no matter how trivial or inane it might seem to us, he will move heaven and earth to get an unprecedentedly fine-grained measurement of the variable of interest.

The curiosity that animates dilettantes is, in many experts, a driving obsession; I do not know if that is why they became experts, or it happened along the way. But an expert’s obsessive pursuit of wax slippers in his own field is a déformation professionelle that helps him prove his status and pay his bills.

The problem is that it’s never only just “his” field. It’s those devilish interconnections again; they’re to blame. Anything you try to understand is linked to all sorts of other topics you weren’t trying to understand. Or at least, you didn’t realize you were.

The world can be a pleasant mystery to the under-informed. Sometimes it is a mystery simply in the sense that it is inscrutable, but given mankind’s astonishing talent for pattern-recognition and -invention it can be a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense as well: characters, drama, narrative tension, culpability, confrontation. In a world where everything is anomalous, nothing is particularly confusing. An unintelligible world is like a contemporary poem, entirely lacking meter and rhyme: if the reader has no expectations, the poet cannot disappoint him (although he can still bore him, and frequently does).

If the world is fully of inexplicable events and strange sounds, the creaking you hear in the dead of night doesn’t bother you. We teach children not to be afraid of spirits and fairies, with the charming result that they are terrified by the unseen creatures which (they quite rightly assume) must be making the creaking, or the rustling, or the tapping that they hear in bed at night. Much later we get around to teaching them about thermal expansion, fluid dynamics, and all the rest…

Another example (hopefully a better one): for millennia, roaring rivers were emblematic of swiftness, power, and rapid change. It never occurred to anyone to ask why rivers flow so slowly. They don’t flow slowly… do they? Fast-forward to 1750: Jean le Rond d’Alembert crafts a beautiful extension of Newtonian physics to fluid dynamics. Incidentally, his treatise explains why river-water is continuously accelerated as it flows downstream, reaching ever-higher velocities. But within a mere forty years, another mathematician noticed that rivers do not, in fact, continuously accelerate. Perplexing!

So the indifference approach to knotty topics probably isn’t going to work. In the end, you’re always thrown back on the authority of the people you associate with, and the people you admire. They dictate the terms in which a conversation will be conducted, and they determine the bounds of propriety for each one. They have their models, their principles, and their working hypotheses: they circulate the common opinions that are accepted as legal tender (or at least recognized as having some worth, if they can be exchanged for an opinion of equal value in a more useful currency). They will feed you information about the parts of the world they’ve had a chance to investigate, if you will only be so kind as to condescend to share their assumptions about all the parts of the world they haven’t had time to study. And they’ll recommend authorities, too, who can explain to you whatever they know nothing about; or they’ll tell you that they know a guy who knows a guy who can recommend an expert.

But when you think that their assumptions are entirely wrong, and you can even phrase the questions that you need answered because the questions presupposes facts which are, in their view, crimes… then you’re in trouble.


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