Here Be Epistemic Dragons
In Rhetoric, Aristotle said that in an argument, “...if the decisions of judges are not what they ought to be, the defeat must be due to the speakers themselves… the underlying facts do not lend themselves equally well to the contrary views. No; things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in.” Yet we might argue most about those rare topics where we do encounter difficulties in proving or believing what’s true or best; perhaps the operative word in the quote is practically. To capture the hero’s journey quality of inquiry, let’s call these exceptional cases epistemic dragons. We have to deal with more research than ever before, which constantly pushes the boundaries of what is proven or believable and spawns epistemic dragons at a historically extraordinary rate.
Although we can take a sociological or anthropological view of the scientific, media, and political industries that generate so many of these epistemic dragons, each worker in these industries is an individual jonesing for truth. Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems,” but all our industry has not yet devised a way to mass-produce standardized rational minds, although we are trying.
It’s best practice to base beliefs on the preponderance of evidence, especially controlled and well-replicated experiments that look at a problem from many angles. That’s the paved road through safe territory. A science progresses faster when its frontiers can be expanded that way, but this is often not possible. Science should converge at a border drawn precisely at the point where lie the limits of our ability to conduct controlled experiments. Here be dragons.
Adventures in this dangerous territory aren’t often motivated by the pure desire to consume an entire body of subject literature for its own sake. Our human values, a puzzle-solving itch, intellectual wanderlust, or industrial and professional objectives often lead to a study that is of necessity rather shallow, amateurish, and interdisciplinary. Various broad forms of consensus, logical solutions and storytelling based on descriptive models, direct perception, forecasts and prices, and durability over time are some of the instruments we navigate by.
I want to shift gears for a minute and talk about what it’s like to read. When I was little, my parents read to me, and the experience was, for a time, closer to music than to storytelling. That is still with me. I find it mysterious how my brain assembles an intellectual structure from that music. Sometimes my brain feels “warm” when I have just been writing or engrossed in reading, and I wonder whether that’s my subconscious working, a sort of afterglow, or an illusion of thought that is perhaps the origin of overconfidence.
Why does this epistemological phenomenology matter? The important, tractable, neglected framework is a neat conceptual compass that points toward areas of thought and action where we have the chance to be pioneers. That means striking out for novel and therefore risky areas of thought and action that have been subjected to only the most minimal tests, perhaps with little consensus or public awareness, fragile and incomplete models, contested forecasting data. I’m not the first to say that those who profited most from the Oregon Trail or the Klondike Gold Rush were probably the people selling equipment, sustenance, and navigational tools to settlers and miners. If a thing is important and tractable, why is it neglected—and will it remain that way long enough for me to cash in? History, our intellectual predecessors (Aristotle), and the logic of markets all scream for suspicion about claims for free money, easy impact, hidden truths with magic power. We should not let arrogant overconfidence about our own abilities make us naïve, but in our fear of naïveté, we can start to give excessive attention to our inner voice of paranoid intellectual conservatism. This generates a certain form of qualia that inhibits an acceptance of the calculated gamble required to undertake innovative work. I think acknowledging that dynamic and learning to cope with it is important for rationalists.
Scott Alexander wrote a thoughtful essay about “epistemological learned helplessness,” which prompted this reflection. He concluded that on some topics with a mainstream scholarly consensus and a range of incompatible but compelling fringe theories, an intelligent amateur reader will never be able to resolve the debate for themselves, and might do best to rigidly adhere to the mainstream interpretation. “Learned helplessness” evokes an image of our minds restrained and hunkered down like a demoralized dog in a cruel experiment. I think of it instead as savvy shopping in the intellectual marketplace. Self-made instruments have a tendency to fail unexpectedly.
In Alexander’s essay “What Developmental Milestones are You Missing?,” he lists several such milestones in the development of our mental operations. I would add two more.
A theory of appropriate common practices for furthering an argument so that we can at least be conscious when we see them. Reading should not only be a way to discover new parts of the intellectual jungle, but also an opportunity to increase our sophistication as navigators. Once I made my list of tests, I started to see them every time I opened a book, which changed the way I read. It’s like learning to see a pin or fork in chess.
An effort to distinguish thinking from pseudocognitive qualia—investment advice for beginners points out how the ups and downs of the market make investors overexcited or scared, and warns them against making bad decisions based on a gut reaction. Maybe rationalists should take a leaf out of that book.
My intuition tells me that these two milestones are sources of creativity, helping us to form a response to the text and join with the thought of the author, rather than being charmed into sleep by the music or disconnecting from it in a fit of paranoia. When I look at the bookshelves in my office, I see a noisy marketplace where the vendors of infinitely recursive maps are hawking their wares, and I feel the wanderlust, that pseudocognitive qualia, come over me. I notice that dwelling on qualia has a gravitational pull that is somewhat embarrassing, and I don’t want to expose myself too much or appear too human. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent?
I am left wondering whether there is a productive way to reflect on qualia associated with cognition in a way that leads to general principles, and what other non-experimental test categories I’m forgetting.