The Virtue of Narrowness

What is true of one ap­ple may not be true of an­other ap­ple; thus more can be said about a sin­gle ap­ple than about all the ap­ples in the world.

—“The Twelve Virtues of Ra­tion­al­ity”

Within their own pro­fes­sions, peo­ple grasp the im­por­tance of nar­row­ness; a car me­chanic knows the differ­ence be­tween a car­bu­re­tor and a ra­di­a­tor, and would not think of them both as “car parts.” A hunter-gath­erer knows the differ­ence be­tween a lion and a pan­ther. A jan­i­tor does not wipe the floor with win­dow cleaner, even if the bot­tles look similar to one who has not mas­tered the art.

Out­side their own pro­fes­sions, peo­ple of­ten com­mit the mis­step of try­ing to broaden a word as widely as pos­si­ble, to cover as much ter­ri­tory as pos­si­ble. Is it not more glo­ri­ous, more wise, more im­pres­sive, to talk about all the ap­ples in the world? How much loftier it must be to ex­plain hu­man thought in gen­eral, with­out be­ing dis­tracted by smaller ques­tions, such as how hu­mans in­vent tech­niques for solv­ing a Ru­bik’s Cube. In­deed, it scarcely seems nec­es­sary to con­sider spe­cific ques­tions at all; isn’t a gen­eral the­ory a wor­thy enough ac­com­plish­ment on its own?

It is the way of the cu­ri­ous to lift up one peb­ble from among a mil­lion peb­bles on the shore, and see some­thing new about it, some­thing in­ter­est­ing, some­thing differ­ent. You call these peb­bles “di­a­monds,” and ask what might be spe­cial about them—what in­ner qual­ities they might have in com­mon, be­yond the glit­ter you first no­ticed. And then some­one else comes along and says: “Why not call this peb­ble a di­a­mond too? And this one, and this one?” They are en­thu­si­as­tic, and they mean well. For it seems un­demo­cratic and ex­clu­sion­ary and elitist and un­holis­tic to call some peb­bles “di­a­monds,” and oth­ers not. It seems . . . nar­row-minded . . . if you’ll par­don the phrase. Hardly open, hardly em­brac­ing, hardly com­mu­nal.

You might think it po­etic, to give one word many mean­ings, and thereby spread shades of con­no­ta­tion all around. But even po­ets, if they are good po­ets, must learn to see the world pre­cisely. It is not enough to com­pare love to a flower. Hot jeal­ous un­con­sum­mated love is not the same as the love of a cou­ple mar­ried for decades. If you need a flower to sym­bol­ize jeal­ous love, you must go into the gar­den, and look, and make sub­tle dis­tinc­tions—find a flower with a heady scent, and a bright color, and thorns. Even if your in­tent is to shade mean­ings and cast con­no­ta­tions, you must keep pre­cise track of ex­actly which mean­ings you shade and con­note.

It is a nec­es­sary part of the ra­tio­nal­ist’s art—or even the poet’s art!—to fo­cus nar­rowly on un­usual peb­bles which pos­sess some spe­cial qual­ity. And look at the de­tails which those peb­bles—and those peb­bles alone!—share among each other. This is not a sin.

It is perfectly all right for mod­ern evolu­tion­ary biol­o­gists to ex­plain just the pat­terns of liv­ing crea­tures, and not the “evolu­tion” of stars or the “evolu­tion” of tech­nol­ogy. Alas, some un­for­tu­nate souls use the same word “evolu­tion” to cover the nat­u­rally se­lected pat­terns of repli­cat­ing life, and the strictly ac­ci­den­tal struc­ture of stars, and the in­tel­li­gently con­figured struc­ture of tech­nol­ogy. And as we all know, if peo­ple use the same word, it must all be the same thing. Th­ese biol­o­gists must just be too dumb to see the con­nec­tions.

And what could be more vir­tu­ous than see­ing con­nec­tions? Surely the wis­est of all hu­man be­ings are the New Age gu­rus who say, “Every­thing is con­nected to ev­ery­thing else.” If you ever say this aloud, you should pause, so that ev­ery­one can ab­sorb the sheer shock of this Deep Wis­dom.

There is a triv­ial map­ping be­tween a graph and its com­ple­ment. A fully con­nected graph, with an edge be­tween ev­ery two ver­tices, con­veys the same amount of in­for­ma­tion as a graph with no edges at all. The im­por­tant graphs are the ones where some things are not con­nected to some other things.

When the un­en­light­ened ones try to be profound, they draw end­less ver­bal com­par­i­sons be­tween this topic, and that topic, which is like this, which is like that; un­til their graph is fully con­nected and also to­tally use­less. The rem­edy is spe­cific knowl­edge and in-depth study. When you un­der­stand things in de­tail, you can see how they are not al­ike, and start en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sub­tract­ing edges off your graph.

Like­wise, the im­por­tant cat­e­gories are the ones that do not con­tain ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse. Good hy­pothe­ses can only ex­plain some pos­si­ble out­comes, and not oth­ers.

It was perfectly all right for Isaac New­ton to ex­plain just grav­ity, just the way things fall down—and how planets or­bit the Sun, and how the Moon gen­er­ates the tides—but not the role of money in hu­man so­ciety or how the heart pumps blood. Sneer­ing at nar­row­ness is rather rem­i­nis­cent of an­cient Greeks who thought that go­ing out and ac­tu­ally look­ing at things was man­ual la­bor, and man­ual la­bor was for slaves.

As Plato put it in The Repub­lic, Book VII:

If any­one should throw back his head and learn some­thing by star­ing at the varied pat­terns on a ceiling, ap­par­ently you would think that he was con­tem­plat­ing with his rea­son, when he was only star­ing with his eyes . . . I can­not but be­lieve that no study makes the soul look on high ex­cept that which is con­cerned with real be­ing and the un­seen. Whether he gape and stare up­wards, or shut his mouth and stare down­wards, if it be things of the senses that he tries to learn some­thing about, I de­clare he never could learn, for none of these things ad­mit of knowl­edge: I say his soul is look­ing down, not up, even if he is float­ing on his back on land or on sea!

Many to­day make a similar mis­take, and think that nar­row con­cepts are as lowly and un­lofty and un­philo­soph­i­cal as, say, go­ing out and look­ing at things—an en­deavor only suited to the un­der­class. But ra­tio­nal­ists—and also po­ets—need nar­row words to ex­press pre­cise thoughts; they need cat­e­gories that in­clude only some things, and ex­clude oth­ers. There’s noth­ing wrong with fo­cus­ing your mind, nar­row­ing your cat­e­gories, ex­clud­ing pos­si­bil­ities, and sharp­en­ing your propo­si­tions. Really, there isn’t! If you make your words too broad, you end up with some­thing that isn’t true and doesn’t even make good po­etry.

And dont even get me started on peo­ple who think Wikipe­dia is an “Ar­tifi­cial In­tel­li­gence,” the in­ven­tion of LSD was a “Sin­gu­lar­ity,” or that cor­po­ra­tions are “su­per­in­tel­li­gent”!