Sunday, March 01, 2009
Recently I found out the way I think seems damn peculiar to most people. One friend blogs about my "amazingly weird way of looking at life", another said the same thing at dinner, and my wife is amused that in "in the centaur universe, everything catches on fire, then has to be banned" - referring to a thought experiment I frequently use to think about public policy.
It's hard to see how you think, so it's hard to know what makes my thinking weird. William James said that thinking about thinking is like trying to turn up the lights in a room to see the darkness. But maybe I can look at the way other people think and try to see how I'm different from normal people - or similar to "weird" people, like "geeks".
Sometimes "geek" is a dirty word. There's a whole overlapping set - "nerds" are socially awkward, "geeks" are obsessivley interested in the technical details of a subject, "fans" let that thing take over their whole lives. But while few people I know are comfortable being called "nerds", many are comfortable being called "fans" or "geeks".
You don't have to be a nerd or geek to be a fan: there are plenty of football fans who wouldn't miss their favorite team, and plenty of baseball fans who wouldn't miss a game no matter who was playing. And you don't have to be interested in sports or scifi to be a geek: there are plenty of sound system geeks, though they prefer to be called audiophiles.
But a lot of people who self-identify as geeks mean something more than being obsessed with a subject; instead they mean people who think about things other people don't think about. A couple of uber-geeks I know put it best when they said a true geek is someone who doesn't filter thoughts out.
My friend Henry best epitomizes this: when I toss out some safe-sounding generalization, he works hard to find a specific example that breaks it. For example, in arguing about the tax code, I said "there's nothing wrong with just being rich" - to which Henry said, "there's some dollar value one man could have, say one hundred trillion, that you would see as a threat."
This led me to my current thinking about public policy. My first instinct is that the government should not regulate anything - but my favorite counterexample to my own argument is "if something sets people on fire, we might have to ban it." Some things can cause so much harm that we may have to be pre-emptive; most things don't, so we should let them alone.
As another example, virtually every law is enforced at the point of a gun, so every law passed is an evil, and must be balanced by a some greater good. Most people don't want to think about that, and get evasive or even angry when you remind them. In their minds the laws they like must be good, and therefore can't be associated with any kind of bad.
I don't want to go down the rabbit hole of politics right now because it's a charged topic. More importantly, I'm not a perfect "geek" - there are probably a lot of things that I don't like to think about that are my own blind spots. So I could be wrong about the above - and finding out how you are wrong is something I've noticed a lot of people don't like to do.
I started paying attention to this when I began digging into science more deeply - not just the history and philosophy of science, but the writings of practicing scientists, particularly Richard Feynman. Then I started to see that the bulk of the history of human thought was people clinging to ideas that are almost certainly wrong.
In my view, this applies to everyone - Christians, atheists, physicists, astrologers, New Agers, reductionists. People don't hold ideas because they think they're wrong; they hold them because they seem to work. The more convinced you are, the more likely you have fooled yourself; the more aware you are of how your thinking can fail, the safer you are.
It's hard, and often painful, to think of the ways in which you can be wrong. I can irritate people who are complaining about some horrid event during their day when I ask, "why do you think the cashier acted that way towards you"? Rather than getting angry, seek first to understand why the other person is doing what they're doing, and how you contributed to it.
This really offends a few friends of mine who are "conservatives". They get angry when I ask questions about how our policies contribute towards people's attitudes towards us. But to me they're living in a fantasy world in which actions have no consequences - a fantasy no better than the "liberal" one in which there are no real villains with irreconciable differences.
Another thing I reject is reasoning from appearances. There's a huge swath of common sense thinking we can't do without. But there's also a huge swath where the appearance of things around us is just wrong. Appearances tell us the passage of time is fixed, the Earth is flat, and the sun goes around it - but none of those things are true.
It's important to understand the models behind the appearances - even though we know the models can be wrong, they're better than trying to reason from the illusion. When you go deep down this path, a lot of what happens in the world seems obvious - and the light of the Earth shining on the darkened face of the Moon takes on new meaning.
This can lead you into traps. To me it is seemed obvious that Meteor Crater in Arizona was caused by an impact: the sedimentary rock layers have been tilted onto their sides. How could anyone have thought this was a volcano? But then I went to Hawaii, and saw the side of a volcano eroded away, with the same pattern, this time deposited by multiple eruptions.
But if you are on guard, this model-based way of thinking can be very rewarding. Feynman claimed that anyone who didn't find quantum mechanics weird didn't understand it; but if you understand it really deeply you start to see it has to be that way. Many other issues, from free will to consciousness to relativity, also start to seem clear once you dig into them.
I still don't know what the weird way I think is. I'm sure many people think the same way I do, while others don't. I'm sure much of what I think about how I think is wrong, just like much of the rest of what I know could also be wrong. But those few odd comments made by my friends were certainly a good source of inspiration for thinking about thinking.
Hopefully this let some light into a darkened room, but not so much it catches on fire.