Insatiable Hunger

pedagogy, abstraction

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I finally got around to fixing my RSS feed, which means you can subscribe and get easy access to all of the wonderful things I’m going to write in the near future. Seriously–I’d recommend clicking on that link riiiiight… wait for it… now!

I

Why does science work? In keeping with the wizard-theme I’ve been cultivating over the last few blog posts, I’m going to describe science as “developing the ability of divination”, which is to say, getting starry-eyed and incanting prophecies about the future.

Kind of neat way to think about the scientific method, isn’t it? It’s essentially just being a seer and calling the future before it happens. Hypotheses–based on potential models for how the world works–are formed before the experiment is carried out, and if the hypothesis turns out to be true, we elevate our belief in the underlying model. The more times your model turns out to accurately predict the future, the more trust it garners in your mind.

If we generalize a little bit from here, we can imagine science as an environment for evolution. Models are selected in the Darwinian sense by accurately predicting results. Being falsified is the same as being eaten by a tiger: it makes it very difficult to pass your genes (or memes, in this context) on. Successful models propagate forwards, and derivative ideas are based on the most successful ancestors.

To answer my original question, I believe science works partially because it doesn’t care about the ideas themselves; all science cares about is how well an idea predicts the future. There’s an inherent pragmatism to it. The other reason that science works is because it doesn’t trust humans to get things right; it requires them to prove that they’re right. Or, at least, that they’re not wrong.

Take a second to consider why this act of necessary proving is important. Throughout all of human history that we know of, two things have invariantly been true. 1) We assumed we had an accurate model of the world. 2) We were wrong.

Mythology, geocentricism, flat-earth, spontaneous generation and phlogiston are a few examples that I just came up with off the top of my head.

Let’s stop right here and ask ourselves the following question. Given that literally throughout all of humanity people have considered that they were right about everything, and that they weren’t, what are our chances for having it right this time?

Personally, I would bet on that proverbial snowball in hell before considering that no seriously you guys, this time we’ve totally got it right. But maybe that’s just me.

II

My last post was pretty hard on traditional philosophy. This one is about to get harder on it, but might give you a little more insight into where I’m coming from.

I can remember the exact moment when I gave up on philosophy-as-it-stands. Certainly I had been doubtful of it for quite some time, but I hadn’t yet given up on it. The moment was when I was talking with an eminent philosopher at my university, a man who is highly regarded in most of my philosophical circles for being pragmatic about philosophy. A man known for applying scientific principles to the study: if holding this idea won’t change the way you live your life, then what good is it?

Surely if there were anyone who were doing philosophy correctly, this man would be a strong contender for the title.

Please forgive my hubris, but I was actually impressed by this man. That is, until I sat down with him and began discussing Bayesianism1. He disagreed (vehemently, he said) with it, which is totally cool–it’s not the most popular of philosophies out there. But when I asked him what specifically about it he disagreed with, he didn’t have an answer. Thinking that maybe he had just evaluated it previously and forgotten, I reminded him of a few of the big names and concepts on the topic, and it became clear that he actually had no idea what Bayesianism talks about.

…but he disagreed with it vehemently regardless.

Clearly, if there were an art to thinking, this was not what it looked like. If you can immediately dismiss ideas without knowing anything about them, unless your current beliefs are perfectly accurate, your beliefs are going to be wrong.

III

Previously I had mentioned how daydreaming is a rudimentary form of what I’ve been calling Painting with Thoughts. It’s rudimentary in the same way that a child randomly hitting keys on a piano is rudimentary music. Like, if you look at it the right way. As the child’s parent. It’s not all that pleasurable for other people to experience, except that it should be celebrated because it’s the first step toward something much more monumental.

The reason that randomly hitting keys on a piano isn’t musically appealing is because it doesn’t conform to our concept of artistic autonomy, which is to say that there is no understanding of the rules behind why the art form works. Music works because of how harmonics combine and how humans experience sound on a psychological level. Fiction works because characters are believable and the make-believe worlds have verisimilitude. I’m not quite ready to talk about what the artistic autonomy of Painting with Thoughts is, but astute readers probably already know the answer. If not, just hold tight. We’ll get there.

I’m not saying that the rules of music theory should never be broken (and likewise, the artistic autonomy of thinking), but I am saying that if you plan on breaking the rules, you need to do it intentionally. If you’re not breaking the rules intentionally, you can only be breaking them out of ignorance2, and that makes you look like a poseur at best, and a cheap hack at worst.

This intentionality is the difference between John Cage’s 4’33“ and silence. 4’33" is set in the context of music, and from there it breaks the rules. Like seriously, it really breaks them. It takes delight in tearing the rules asunder and pooping on them. 4’33" is completely and absolutely ridiculous (it has timed movements for chrissake), but, as it turns out, John Cage is actually a really good composer when he tries. Like, he’s not just a gimmick. This implies that he knows what he’s doing, and that he knew what he was doing when he composed a song consisting entirely of silence.

What I’m trying to say is that this context is key. You need to understand an art form at some level before you can start working on your style. This is my promise that there will be opportunities to develop your own personal style of Painting with Thoughts, but a little patience is required lest we all look like cheap hacks.

IV

Unfortunately for us, traditional philosophy is the context under which we must work, at least temporarily. This is the reason I keep talking about it, because I think it misses the mark entirely of what it’s trying to do, and I think it’s a corruption of the art I’m trying to share. I am attempting to break the rules, but to do so I need to first prove that I know what I’m talking about, and so we must take one final detour before we can finally begin to get to the real meat of what Painting with Thoughts really looks like.

I would like to draw a (granted, relatively poor) metaphor here between philosophy and popular music. To make it a DOUBLE METAPHOR, we can draw another line between popular music and empty calories. Sure, it will fill you up when you’re hungry, but there’s no real nutrients or sustenance to it. It feels like it’s filling a need, but it’s not really. Popular music is made to be consumed, rather than cherished. Sure it’s kind of fun and catchy, but in 20 years nobody is going to be studying how great a song “Call Me Maybe3” was. In fact, I suspect in 20 years, nobody who wasn’t alive in 2012 will know what “Call Me Maybe” is.

I’m not trying to beat up poor Carly Rae here, no, actually I think her music is kind of fun and exactly what I need sometimes. What I’m trying to beat up is traditional philosophy, which, despite having been studied for approximately 2500 years in its current form, hasn’t grown in its entire lifetime anywhere close to how much any other subject has grown in the last 50 years.

To me, this implies a fatal flaw. Surely after all this time, someone must have gotten somewhere?

The problem, I think, is that being a philosopher is like being a pop artist. It’s a very prestigious job, and that’s why most people seem to chase it. People want to be rock-stars rather than make music, and they want to be philosophers rather than actually improve the human experience.

Because really, if knowing great philosophy doesn’t change your life, how can it improve anything?

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this mindset. People are allowed to get up to whatever kinds of things they choose to get up to for any reasons that they want, but personally this route doesn’t appeal to me. If I’m going to spend my time working on something, it damn well better have some value–either intrinsically, or have at least taught me something in the process–or otherwise I’m just wasting my time.

The art of thinking is just that: an art. Like artists chase their art because they want to express themselves, we too should have similar aspirations. Daydreaming is rudimentary in that it’s just for entertainment purposes, but we should strive for more than just mere entertainment. I’m not saying that the art can’t be fun, but it is entertaining in the way that a difficult project is fun. It’s a challenge–a chance to prove things to yourself. It’s a steep learning curve. It’s an opportunity to create a manifestation of yourself, something to pour your soul into.

If you only care about empty calories, then stick to daydreaming and commend yourself anyway, because even this is a huge improvement over most of our modern adult lives. Creativity in any form should be applauded.

But if you feel like I feel, if you have the hunger to create, the need to self-express and the insatiable urge to understand all that can be understood, then these empty calories will not, no, can not be enough to gratify our curiosities.

It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that we must take on the colossal task of reinventing normative human thought. If nothing will sate our hunger, we will need to do it ourselves.


  1. Really super duper quick turbo introduction: uncertainty exists only as a property of the human mind. Reality itself is never surprising–only relative to incorrect human models about how it should work.

  2. Which, contrary to popular belief, is not bliss.

  3. Oh my god, was this song actually released two years ago? I couldn’t think of any music more contemporary, which might be my point exactly.