The following is adapted from a talk I gave on May 1st 2016 at the Looking at Junk conference, put on by the graduate students of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, as well as the York Science and Technology Studies program.
I’d like to draw your attention to a situation that we are all completely familiar with, but which rarely gets talked about. So in a sense, you all already know everything I’m going to say. Nevertheless I think it bears calling attention to a few things about the situation we all find ourselves in.
That situation is the finitary predicament. This is that awkward situation where you’re a finite being in a seemingly infinite universe. At the very least, we’re really really tiny compared to the universe. That’s a literal, physical version of the finitary predicament. So the main topic of this post is how hilariously tiny we all are compared to the world we inhabit. We are physically small, but we’re also cognitively limited. To a very close approximation, we’ve observed 0% of the universe. We know that just from the bits we can already observe.
And even for the stuff that we have observed, and thought about, and written about already, we individuals can only deal with a tiny fraction of that. If you studied every moment of your life you wouldn’t even make a dent in the sum of human knowledge as it exists today. And every day, it expands by way more than a day’s worth of study. So far this week PhilPapers, one of the main online repositories for new papers in philosophy, added 994 new papers. This week. That means not only can I not keep up with academia at large, I can’t even keep up with my chosen field!
So not only are we hilariously tiny in our bodies, we’re mentally tiny as well compared to the complexity of the world, and none of us has any hope of taking it all in.
That’s the finitary predicament. We’re all in it, and I actually think it’s getting worse every day. That’s because the world keeps getting more complicated. That’s not a law of nature as far as I know, but it definitely seems to have been the trend around here for a while now. There’s more and more to know, and the same number of hours in a day to learn it all.
I take it that’s all completely obvious to everyone who would be reading this. This shouldn’t be news to any of you. But with that in mind, how is it that we treat ourselves and others as though it wasn’t true? We feel stupid, and sometimes maybe try to make other people feel stupid, just for not knowing things. Oh, you haven’t read Sartre’s masterpiece Being and Nothingness? What do you mean you don’t know what a p-value is? You haven’t read Homer? Are you unfamiliar with even the basic tenants of Marxist historiography? But surely you must have read some Chaucer? Don’t you know the term ‘finitary predicament’?
Academics do this to ourselves, and to each other, way too often. It’s usually not as gross and obvious as the caricature I just did. The most standard way of acting out this attitude is just to use words or references without explaining them. You drop names and move on, leaving behind anyone who doesn’t happen to be on the exact same tiny square of the humongous knowledge pie as you.
So mostly, the point of this talk is just to plead with you, don’t let this illusion, that not knowing things makes you dumb, seep into your treatment of yourselves and others. Not knowing almost everything is the only possible state for a rational agent to be in, when the world so vastly outstrips our ability to understand it.
The smart thing to do, in fact, is to intelligently ignore almost everything. That’s the other half of the title of this post, of course. And it’s the connection between this post and the theme of the conference it was originally presented at, junk. We cognitive agents have to toss almost all of the information available to us on the junk pile, without even looking at it! Looking at something to decide it is irrelevant takes time, and there is simply too much to look at it all. So we have to throw almost everything on the junk heap (which is to say, we ignore it completely) without even consciously thinking about it.
I wish I could tell you how we manage to do this strange trick. I have no idea.
But it’s obvious that we manage to do this, pretty much all day every day. We intelligently ignore almost everything, and home in on just those facts that are relevant. Exactly how we manage to do this is called the Frame Problem in cognitive science, and solving it is one of the biggest hurdles towards building truly intelligent machines. Computers are now incredibly good at solving problems once you’ve told them exactly what is relevant and what isn’t, and what operations are available to it. We humans, so far, are still the only ones able to decide what is relevant, and come up with new operations to perform.
Ok, but that is the general state of affairs for all sentient beings. We’re academics, and so let’s talk a bit about how to manage this Frame Problem from the perspective of academic work. I have a few suggestions, none of which are any good. They’re not as bad as they sound, but I’m still pretty unsatisfied with them. So I hope you can come up with something better. But here they are anyway.
How to deal with the fact that you have to intelligently ignore almost everything, in a world where not knowing things is considered a kind of minor sin:
1) Say bad words
2) Forget it
3) Give up
Let’s take them one at a time.
1) Say bad words
I have in mind a specific genre of bad words that I recommend to all of you. They’ve got a kind of liberating quality for the person saying them, and sometimes for other people listening. I think they’re the appropriate response to the aspect of academic culture I mentioned before, which is to pretend to ourselves and others that it’s standard to just know everything. You should say things like: “I’ve never heard of that” and “I don’t know what you’re talking about”.
When I want to really show off how confident and secure I’m feeling in an academic setting, and someone is doing the standard name-dropping routine, I like to stick up my hand and admit that I’ve never heard of that person before, and have no idea what they’re talking about, and ask them to explain it to me. I notice that nervous, insecure people never do this. It’s a lot easier to just stay quiet and pretend you know exactly what’s going on. But that just feeds into this problematic culture of excluding people through jargon and name-dropping. When no one says anything, it’s standard for us insecure primates to assume that everyone else must know what’s going on, when it’s quite possible that the person speaking is the only one who does. So no information is being communicated, and we’re all just pretending like it is. That seems like a rather disastrous situation for people who claim to be committed to communicating knowledge.
Of course, it’s not always appropriate to do this. I wouldn’t try it in a job interview, for example. You should have at least some degree of real security before you start professing your ignorance. For people who are already marginalized, this strategy could make things even worse. So I propose that the responsibility falls on people who are secure, and who aren’t as marginalized: speak up, and let people know when something which is not common knowledge is being treated as though it is.
And of course, try not to name-drop and use unnecessary jargon in your own speech, as much as possible. But this is much harder than it sounds, since it’s so easy to forget that not everyone has read what you’ve read. And of course, we should all try to receive that sort of feedback as best we can. It’s not easy to adjust your background assumptions about what your audience knows, but we should all be training that skill. People need constant feedback, to keep them tuned up in this regard. So please, say bad words like “who is that person you’re referring to?” or “I don’t know that concept, can you explain?”. And of course, please treat people who are brave enough to say that kind of thing both nicely, and seriously.
2) Forget it
Another thing that we need to be better at as academics is forgetting stuff. I don’t know if you all have a similar impression, but I feel like I’m constantly meeting incredibly smart people who are unfortunately drowning in their own knowledge. They’ve read so much, and understood so much, and they think they can’t ever forget about any of it. And that’s exactly how they end up writing papers of the form, “Jones reply to Brown’s critique of Smith’s argument fails to account for the complexities raised by Lewis’ critique of the Davidsonian tradition”. Philosophy is especially prone to this sort of thing, I suspect. It is perilously easy to get completely swamped by knowledge, to the point where it becomes impossible to have an original thought.
Nietzsche put this point nicely:
Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic. (Untimely meditations, p. 62, Breazeale trans.)
He goes on to compare someone who never forgets to someone who is forcibly deprived of sleep, and I think that may be the literal truth about our cognitive lives. The old theory about sleep and memory was that sleep protects us from ‘interfering stimuli’, so that we can better remember our day. But in the last few years, opinion has shifted to the idea that sleep is actually where we optimize the long-term storage of memory. That is, sleep is where your brain works out what bits of your day it can forget, cutting it down to only that stuff that is likely to be relevant. This, I suspect, is why it helps to get some sleep while working on essays and papers. You can learn stuff during the day, but it’s only in sleep that you do the equally important task of forgetting the stuff that’s irrelevant. And without that, you’ll drown in knowledge. So get some sleep and forget it.
3) Give up
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, give up. Obviously you don’t want to give up on everything. If the most important part of our cognitive lives is deciding what’s relevant, treating everything as irrelevant won’t get you very far. The trick is to give up on exactly the right things.
For example, consider Newton. In his day, there was a very clear picture of what counted as a scientific explanation. It should be mechanical, in the sense of only referring to bits of matter in motion, and the only power matter can have is pushing on other bits of matter, physically excluding it. The whole aim of science, according to this picture, was to reduce things to stories about local pushing and pulling of bits of matter on each other.
And then Newton came up with his theory of gravity, which violated this picture entirely. Instead of stories about matter pushing on other bits of matter, Newton claimed that there were invisible forces connecting all things, holding the solar system together over vast distances. When asked about how this could possibly translate into a mechanical picture, he famously said ‘hypothesis non fingo’, which I believe literally translates as ‘who cares?’.
Newton decided to give up on the picture of scientific explanation which everyone subscribed to at the time, and by giving up he changed the world. This is what we need: courageous, even heroic acts of giving up. By giving up on just the right things, you can transform everything.
Did you know that ‘thesis’ once described part of the beat in Greek poetry? During poetry readings, the beat would be stamped out with the foot. The part of the beat where you put your foot down was called the ‘thesis’. That works, right? The thesis is where you put your foot down. But there was a complement to the thesis, the other part of the beat, where you raise your foot up. That’s called the ‘arsis’. And the analogy works really well I think, because you can only put your foot down as many times as you pick it up. There is necessarily a balance of thesis and arsis, setting views and retracting them. But we have no concept of arsis, no notion in modern academia that giving up on ideas could be as important as asserting them. That seems deeply unbalanced to me. So if I may, I suggest that you see giving up on bad ideas, or ideas which are past their prime, as just as important as developing the new ones.
So that’s it, those are my suggestions. Say bad words, forget it, and give up. I hope to have brought your attention to the fact that we need to manage the cognitive junk in our lives, to pay attention to it so that we don’t get buried in it.