Deep Knowledge: A Pure White Stone (Part 4 of 4, unfinished)

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This series reaches its climax with a resounding…lack of resolution. We’ve covered the dream of a firm “place to stand”, something that can be known and proved. We’ve looked at the idea that we see “through a glass, darkly”. We’ve visited my chamber of “sticky notes”, a place filled with provisional models of the world and my subjective assessment of their quality–along with a few un-provable things I’ve chosen simply to hold as true. (Visit that post for an interesting interchange in the comments. It reveals my status as a near-complete layperson in the realm of philosophy, but includes some helpful insight from my conversation partner.)

I initially intended this post to be the end of a four-part series, shading substantially into the “religious”–as, I think, do most attempts to explore the nature of knowledge and of the world. As I tried to write it, though, I discovered that, at the moment, I can’t really write the intended post. The ideas, I think, were sound–but just aren’t coming together in useful, fleshed-out form. As a sketch, though, consider with the previous three posts that:

  • One’s model of reality is ultimately based on at least one, and probably many, unprovable assumptions.
  • One therefore must act without the comfort of provably “knowing” that one is acting correctly.
  • I make the huge jump of assuming that a supreme god, who is powerful, good, and loving, and who created physical reality, exists and actively builds channels of relationship with humanity–and that that God self-revealed as YHWH and as the first-century Jewish man Jesus. At this point, Dawkins thinks my “flying teapot” assumption is foolish and Marx thinks I’m turning toward numbness rather than addressing the real problem–and I can’t prove the validity of my assumptions, though they’re no more poorly warranted than strict materialist assumptions.
  • If such an assumption is actually true, then “loopholes” to the impenetrable veil of uncertainty may be possible, by the action of the One who transcends physical reality. It would be possible to “know”, not by sheer deduction but by revelation. And yet–even pure, divine revelation comes to finite, biased, flawed, humans in biased and flawed societies, and the Venn diagrams of mystical revelations, mental illness, and chemical journeys aren’t simple. I cannot know, with provable certainty, that my faith is in something “real”.
  • The early writers of my faith tradition beat me to this realization: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). In another letter, the Apostle Paul wrote that “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Rom 8:24).
  • Faith is trust. Faith is not “knowing” or even deeply understanding; what is known is no longer a subject of faith. Faith is lack of knowing, but acting in reliance on a truth or a person despite being unable to make certain that you’re “right” in your trust.
  • Even “knowing” is a complex term. I “know” my wife and I love her, despite being unable to prove that she actually exists! And yet, while I think I know her well, there’s much of her essence that I know I don’t know, and much that I don’t yet know I don’t know. I “know” the language I use to develop software: not in terms of what it “truly is”, but in terms of how I interact with it.
  • …and somewhere in all of that is where the “pure white stone” comes in. In the strange, glorious and beautiful, horrifying and bloody, confusing apocalyptic vision of John (according to church tradition, the John who was Jesus’ companion), a transcendent Jesus promises that “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). And somewhere, deep in my psyche, I “know” that John, and other prophets and mystics, encountered something real, something that my materialist reflexes can’t deal well with, something that needs to be woven with the rationalist threads of my being to make a rich, paradoxical, whole. The “what is it” and the “secret name”, that powerful, effectual symbol of my essence, are gifts from one who embodies power, gentleness, and paradox.

To use my mind is essential for perceiving truth. To use my mind leads to the conclusion that the mind cannot, with certainty, perceive truth. We sapiens are built for knowledge, and to find it fatal. We “level up” our understandings of the physical world and the world beside or behind it–and we do violence to both as we vivisect them.

I’m a skeptic. I’m a mystic. I’m a stoic, and a believer that real men do cry. I’m a superstitious materialist, and a doubting believer. Pick a category, and I’ll disappoint your expectations. But, if my faith is indeed in something real, I’m loved. And one could do a lot worse as a philosophical north star.

(Note: you should really visit the comments to the previous post. Those comments make very clear my status as a philosophical naïf; it’s been a long time since Philosophy 101, and, it was Philosophy 101. But it’s clear that I’m addressing myself to subjects that minds far sharper and more experienced than mine have also addressed over the centuries, and would do well to orient myself again to the topics and prior work–and I’m intrigued by the prospect!)

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include:

Deep Knowledge: The Chamber of Sticky Notes (Part 3 of 4)

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I’ve been looking for the solid truths of the world, things I can know without a doubt. And yet, I’ve discovered that–though I don’t doubt the existence of the truly real–to say that the real exists is a very different thing than to say I understand the real.

You may have seen the movie version of a command center: panels of screens, some with scrolling data, others with plots of missile trajectories or disease outbreaks, and yet others awaiting instructions (authenticated by iris scan or voice-print, of course) from the Very Important People. They know what they need to know. They have eyes in the sky, NSA taps into Internet chokepoints, radar, real-time data feeds. They know how to respond, and they do so decisively. It’s a very satisfying story.

The command center of my psyche is a bit different. Behind a sliding bookcase, at the end of a tunnel that glows with candlelight and smells of incense, is a windowless room. It’s anything but gloomy, with warm wood walls and abundant cushions for reclining. There’s a desk and a comfortable chair…and on every wall, a chaos of sticky notes.

“I should eat more protein; p=0.6.”. “Cycling even in horrible air is still a net positive for health; p=.55”. “John is generally trustworthy; p=.95”. “Killing a person without provocation is morally wrong; p=.999”. “I should not give to beggars by default; p=.5”.

You might know the story of Erwin Schrödinger’s hypothesized cat, who lived (or died) in a box with a flask of poison and a switch to open the flask (or not) based on the randomness of radioactive decay. Until the box is opened, says Schrödinger’s interpretation of quantum theory, the cat is both dead and alive. Aside from the flask-of-poison thing, the cat has a wonderful life. It will not, it cannot, commit to so simple a thing as being either alive or dead!

Unlike the cat, I’m often forced to decide. I’m often forced to act. And those decisions are never perfect ones, based on a perfectly clear view of reality. I’m forced to make a provisional decision, a guess, and then move forward from it. But the guess might be wrong!

Some guesses “feel” more confidently right than others. I really don’t think I’ll conclude anytime soon that, well, execution by flaying is after all an appropriate action in some cases; my opinion on the subject is really rather firm. But my sense that “it will probably take about an hour to go across town” has much less confidence attached–neither half an hour nor an hour and a half would be completely shocking. Both of these have subjective probabilities of being right; the “no gruesome killings rule” with near certainty, the travel-time expectation with about 50% confidence. And yet, I sometimes have to act on an assumption that’s as likely to be wrong as right–or even, sometimes, on a “best out there, but probably wrong” one.

The problem is, the inability to see perfectly inheres in being human. In other words, flawed perception and flawed reasoning is guaranteed. (If you haven’t had your fill of umlauts, go check out Kurt Gödel for one lens on this.) In such a situation, the question is not whether you’re wrong, it’s a question of how wrong you are. And then, to act in the way that seems least wrong, with no guarantees that it is indeed the least-wrong way. And so, my sticky-noted beliefs have probabilities attached. They might be wrong. Even the probabilities might be wrong. But life often demands answers, and the sticky notes provide them–acknowledging that they’re imperfect, that I’m imperfect, and that I can truly, indubitably, know almost nothing at all. To claim otherwise is to assert my perfection, which I’m far from ready to do.

“Sticky notes” aren’t just for insignificant issues. Often, the “wishy-washiness” of a sticky-note isn’t because its subject doesn’t matter; it’s because it does, and the issues are far too important and too complex to risk “locking into” a wrong position. And yet, since many situations demand “answers”, the sticky notes are there: acknowledgments that my understanding is certainly incorrect and incomplete to some degree, and that each of my “answers” is provisional, and subject to change if I find a better one.

Among the sticky notes, there is one small cluster of metal etchings. That’s a cluster of things I simply choose, completely indefensibly, to hold as true. (I don’t pretend to have moved beyond the smallest foothills of understanding it, but Michael Polanyi’s work on “personal knowledge”, as filtered through the first part of Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence, was nevertheless a game-changer for me on this, an argument that a set of some such indefensible commitments is essential to communicating about any kind of knowledge.)

Each of my sticky notes helps me engage the world without collapsing into indecision. Each one reflects the reality of my cognition: three pounds of soft tissue trying to grasp something far vaster than itself, with the guarantee that its perceptions will be incomplete and incorrect, and that their processing will be influenced greatly by the “noise” within and without.

Sometimes, in the windowless comfort of the Chamber, there’s an inexplicable whisper of wind. The notes on the wall rustle; occasionally, one falls to the floor and I can’t quite figure out where to reattach it. And I rest, and I read, and I sort, and I update my scribbled portals to the world.

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include:

Deep Knowledge: A Foggy Window (Part 2 of 4)

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This post follows “A Place to Stand“, in which I described my search for deep knowledge that could let me understand and control my world.

Reality exists. Descartes demonstrated at least that, as he realized that a non-existent entity is unlikely to be considering the question of its existence. And even a simulated consciousness points to the “reality” of the simulator. I think it’s fair to assume that a reality of some sort exists, and (as long as I ignore the faint meowing of Mr. Schrodinger’s cat) that it exists largely indifferent to my understanding, or even awareness, of it.

Reality exists. I understand reality to exist in a certain way. I experience gravity pulling me down as I write. But is that attraction the mass of my body being pulled toward the larger mass of Earth? Is it simply a manifestation of the way my body and the planet mutually warp space-time? Or are the things I think of as “I”, the planet, the universe, and the relations among them just ways of interpreting the vibrations of 26-dimensional strings? (By the way, to anyone reading this who actually knows what they’re talking about in physics, my apologies.) Reality exists. That doesn’t meant that I understand reality.

I know that, at one point, the Americas contained societies very different from those of Europe. I know that Europeans came to the Americas and became the dominant culture in what is now the USA, that fighting broke out, and ended with England ceasing to govern “the American colonies” and a new, federal government being formed. Although I think these are fairly universally accepted facts, a Native American, an “American Patriot” of that era, a Loyalist American of that era, or a Briton would all have different understandings of what “really” happened–even, I suspect, if miraculously given all the necessary ability and time to observe every event and every person’s thoughts at the time.

My perspective is finite, is biased by my history and environment, and is therefore incomplete and inaccurate. So is that of every other human who has ever lived. It isn’t that we have not yet learned the correct perspective; it is that there is no possibility, given three pounds (or three megatons) of brain matter, of ever achieving a perspective that is complete and fully accurate.

The thing is, I know there’s a reality that’s worth digging for. Or, at least, I’m acting in faith that that’s so. But my confidence that I, or anyone else, is able to clearly perceive it has been on a steady downward trend for most of my adult life. The Apostle Paul, a couple of millennia ago, spoke of the situation (as translated to the English of the 1600s) as “seeing through a glass darkly”–gaining hints of reality, through distorted filters. In a strange paradox, the more you learn about your own filter, the more you can correct for it–but the more you learn about the distortions of the filter you know about, the more likely it seems that there are other filters to which you’re still oblivious.

The anthropologist Paul Hiebert proposes “triangulation” as a helpful tool for reducing distortions in our perception, using diverse viewpoints to help correct each other to estimate what’s behind the veil. I think he’s right–but it’s an issue of reduction rather than elimination, and a process subject to its own biases, and a collaboration among finite beings. It’s worthwhile–but, two thousand years after the apostle wrote, we still find ourselves gazing at reality through clouded panes of glass, and unable to completely pierce the clouds.

When reality matters, and when one can’t clearly see it, what is one to do?

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

-Stephen Crane

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include:

Daring A Little Bit

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I’ve been reading Brené Brown recently–specifically, Rising Strong. But if you know her work, you know about the idea of “daring greatly”, an idea from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt, as cited on GoodReads

Brown, from her work on vulnerability, identifies being vulnerable with “daring greatly”: bringing your self, not some illusion of your self, to the arena, knowing that it’s the only real path forward. And knowing that if you do that often enough, you’re eventually going to find yourself, bloody and dirty, on the ground.

I’m not ready to dare greatly, especially in the capricious sadism of the online arena–but perhaps I can dare a little bit.

I like to process things for myself, considering them thoroughly–sometimes for minutes, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades–before bringing them out for others to inspect. Or, sometimes, leaving them locked in a storage room. I might, after all, be wrong about something. Others might disagree with me, whether I’m wrong or not. Or I might not have the appropriate caveats and nuances in places. Or I might leave out an important corollary that I’ll wish later I’d mentioned. And if I’d show others a piece of my work, of myself, that is flawed, that is not the finest it could be…how sad that would be; how embarrassing, and how damaging to my future prestige and influence!

Or, perhaps, not. Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

I love words. I love learning. I love thought. I love reading those writers who, with razor pens or evocative poetry, beautifully express powerful thoughts and change the world thereby. And in the meantime, I’m at best a journeyman writer, and probably still an apprentice. I love learning and wisdom, but I’m often intellectually lazy. I love the transcendent paths of faith and philosophy, and I often betray them. I marvel at the insights of scholars and philosophers…and realize I have nothing original of my own to offer. I delight in the beautiful ways others present timeless truths…and realize that any art of mine has already been far surpassed.

And yet…those who went before weren’t demigods. They sometimes saw more clearly than most, offering apocalypses of scientific or mystical insight. But all were humans. People who, universally, began their lives unable to write or think well. Scared people, arrogant people, brilliant people, people of deep common wisdom, people with impostor syndrome and people with god complexes. Prodigies, people who came late to the table, people from the best universities and from no university at all. And each, whatever their giftings of intellect or environment, worked to develop their craft. And along the way, they produced a lot of garbage, whether it’s been preserved for our eyes or not. And, if everything else was aligned and they worked well, they improved over time in their thought and expression.

So maybe there’s hope. And maybe it’s OK if I don’t change the world with my writing. And if I don’t get everything said that should be said. And if I’m wrong sometimes. And if I produce a lot of embarrassing, unoriginal, pedestrian garbage…as long as I’m thinking, processing, learning, and growing, and perhaps occasionally writing something worth reading. Maybe there is nothing new under the sun, but maybe my re-mixes aren’t worse than everyone else’s. Maybe, even if I’m not now an especially remarkable thinker or writer, I should think, and I should write.

If I can’t now “dare greatly” in heroic effort to change the world, perhaps I can dare a little, dare to drop what occasional pennies I may have into the temple offering.

The Coding Game

codinggame

I started whetting my taste for computer programming when my family didn’t have a computer. We actually had had one earlier, a Radio Shack TRS-80 that my dad had purchased, and upgraded to 768KB of RAM. I’d enjoyed playing Asteroids-style and other ASCII-graphics games on its green screen. Eventually, though, the TRS-80’s floppy drives gave out, and we were without a family computer for several years.

During this time, we loved going to the local public library. We’d go with half-bushel laundry baskets, and come home with them full of books. I loved browsing the shelves, finding mysteries, biographies, fantasies…and a few lovely books, designed for kids and filled with arcade-style graphics and BASIC code for simple computer games. When we finally got another family computer, a Packard Bell 486-DX2 66Mhz with 8MB of RAM and a 540-MB hard drive, running Windows 3.11, I was ready to go! With Microsoft’s QBasic language bundled with DOS, I had fun writing my own small programs–even getting as far as a visualizer for the Mandelbrot set (courtesy of A.K. Dewdney’s The Armchair Universe, also from the public library). And when I realized that Microsoft had even included the QBASIC source code for several games, Gorillas.bas and Nibbles.bas, I was thrilled!

The CodinGame site seems to do a great job of re-capturing some of that early sense of wonder at what one can do with just a bit of code. It uses dramatic graphics (such as the Space Invaders-like shot above), but has you write the code to solve each puzzle. It’s simple enough for coders just starting out, but also has more challenging puzzles–and support for many languages. If your niece wants to learn to program, if you want a nice set of C++ (or standard-library) kata , or if you’re an expert developer and want to learn Ruby, Swift, Go, or Rust…this may well be the game you’re looking for.

If the stories, graphics, and online environment of CodinGame aren’t doing it for you, also check out Project Euler, for a set of basic-to-challenging problems to be solved in the language of your choice.

It’s all practice

On quizzes and big exams

When I was in college, most of my grades were based on some combination of assignments, quizzes, and–heavily weighted–the mid-term and final exams. If I bombed a quiz, I wasn’t happy about it, but it wasn’t a major disaster. If I’d completely failed a final exam, though, it would have been a Big Deal.

In the years after college, I sat for the three levels of the CFA exams. Multiple months of focused study, a cost of $600 for a given exam, a six-hour proctored exam given only once* a year, driving up to Kansas City the night before to stay in a hotel close to the test center…for me, passing these exams qualified as a Big Deal.

The thing is, I didn’t actually sit for three CFA exams–I took somewhere between six and a dozen exams, across the three levels. Fortunately for my sanity, my work, and my marriage, most of these exams were “practice” exams–exams that I “proctored” for myself, that I graded myself, and that I used to figure out what areas I still needed to work on for a given level. By the time I sat for the “real” exam, I at least had a good idea of the “shape” of my knowledge, and a very general idea of how I might fare on the officially administered exam.

When I finally sat for a given level of the exam, failing it would not have been fun–but, if I’d failed and re-enrolled for the same level the next year, the first try would have given me both resources and lessons to help in the second round.

You see, life is practice. Very rarely is a “test” really a final exam. Losing a job, failing in business, damaging a relationship, missing a big opportunity–each is unpleasant, but each is recoverable

Galton boards and conscious navigators

I find it easy to think of life as though it’s a Galton board. You’ve probably seen one, though, like me, you might not have known what it was called. It’s a triangle of steel pins, where a marble dropped into the top of the triangle falls in a random sequence of “lefts” and “rights” on its way to the bottom of the board. And once a ball falls on the left side of a pin, a part of the right side of the board is forever closed off…and another leftward fall closes off more of the right forever. And there’s some truth in this. If you let yourself get addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s really, really hard to move out of that section of the board.

Galton board
A Galton board

As like a Galton board as life may be, though, we aren’t falling marbles under gravity’s control. We can–through our own volition, and sometimes through others’ interventions, take unexpected paths through the maze. We can backtrack, take unexpected paths, sometimes even jump across gaps in the maze. We might be falling through Galton’s maze, and gravity and randomness can predict a lot about where we’ll end up–but they don’t necessarily get the final word. If I start with a couple of rightward choices, I could still end up at the far left of the board. Choices matter, but they’re usually much closer to quizzes than to final exams.

a Galton board with the ball taking unexpected paths
A conscious path

Practice well

Of course, your life will ultimately end, and it will be somewhere between “wonderfully lived” and “wasted”. But until the grades are turned in, it’s all practice.

Interesting reads

Feedback

Please let me know your thoughts. If you want to affirm or elaborate on what I’ve written, to express disagreement with it, or to help sharpen my writing or thinking, I’d love to hear from you.

Footnotes

* Actually, Level 1 of the CFA exam is given twice a year, in June and December; the subsequent levels are only in June.

Project Euler: Programming skills through play

I recently learned about Project Euler, and have found it addictive. It’s a wonderful site for learning programming. It’s not powerful tools that make it great. The site’s design looks ancient; it has no programming editors; it doesn’t even have any tutorials. But it has wonder, and a series of progressively harder challenges, and lets you discover what you need to learn in order to solve those challenges. Basically, it’s a site to support exploratory learning–learning of the sort that happens when you start a new job, a new business, or a new hobby. Learning of the kind that delights when you figure out the problem, learning that sticks. Learning that happens when you dive in, get your hands dirty, and learn what you need to know along the way.

James Somers wrote a good article about Project Euler at The Atlantic. I’m still in the first dozen or so problems out of over 500, but if you want to follow my progress, my profile is here and my friend key is 858072_k8PHIvJ2fpmYfHwCObWWZ59Ql4jckfYS.