One pattern of learning is to delve deep into a subject, going far beneath the surface to find the treasures that no one else sees. These mines hold treasures, and they’re unassailable–but it’s easy to block the entrance to the “surface” world.
Another pattern is that of the Mongol hordes. Their pattern was to move fast, spend a bit of time securing the territory, and then sweep onward, taking with them a harvest of intellectuals and craftsmen from the conquered cities. They were formidable…and as they went, their culture changed to something new.
The Mandelbrot set, a fractal, is infinite in detail, yet it fits in a constrained space. Yeast also grows in fractal fashion, yet in expansionary mode.
The empire of the mind needs to produce its own treasure. The empire needs intellectual raiders.
As a kid, I brought home library books by the laundry-basket-full. My books-per-week rate has gone down substantially as other responsibilities have grown, but I still love reading.
My current “basket” is relatively small, though it holds more than the books below. A few of the books I’m currently excited about/intrigued by:
Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregerson. I’m several chapters in. Interesting discussion of the power, uses, and abuses of questions.
The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker. This was a magical book when I first read it 20(ish) years ago; it still is, partway through my current re-read. Drucker was a prophet of business, lucidly describing the effective “knowledge worker” long before most others. Actually, his whole corpus is wonderful. Also pick up The Daily Drucker for a daily, one-page nugget of (frequently) transformative thought.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein, is a book I haven’t yet read, hadn’t even heard of till recently, but am very excited about starting soon. It sounds like he interacts with a lot of other interesting ideas: Gladwell/Coyle/Syed/Dweck on the development of talent and growth mindset, the tension between “deep dive” and “broad survey” approaches to knowledge (and the magic that happens at the intersections of fields), and in general, something approaching the “latticework of mental models” that Charlie Munger uses for evaluation of ideas through diverse frameworks. (See Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street, or a simple Google search for more on Munger and models.)
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality I’m barely past the introduction. My initial sense is that it will be an interesting, and non-simplistic, examination of how economic growth moves the “average” upward, how it causes inequality…and how inequality can, in turn, contribute to economic growth. The author starts with a story of his father’s “great escape” from mining…and a reflection on the many in similar circumstances whom his father’s “escape” left behind, then uses this as an example of the many “escapes” that happen. I’m looking forward to seeing how the author interacts with the ethics of the issues.
I’m a wannabe intellectual. I always have been. I love the life of the mind, admire those who’ve done the work and come up with original insights–but I haven’t put in the hard work, and have no Revelation From The Deep Well of Reality to share.
But it occurs to me: maybe all intellectuals are wannabes. Not one knows everything there is to know, even in his particular field. And despite the occasional originality, most intellectual advancement comes from remixing the thoughts of others. Remixes happen under the influence of a particular person’s experience and cultural context; even if they aren’t “original”, they may bring new insight. And ideas don’t flow instantaneously and freely throughout humanity. So, if the group of which I’m a part would otherwise never encounter the ideas of a “great intellectual”, to translate and bridge her ideas into my context is not arrogance, is not redundant effort, but is service to those around me and to the world.
All true intellectuals “wanna be” better, and want the world to be better, and invest mental and (probably?) communicative energy in that. “Better” is a moving target, individually and corporately, and we won’t ever declare complete success–but perhaps even one who isn’t a “real”, qualified, worthy intellectual of the highest caliber can add value in this effort.
I am anything but an accomplished intellectual. But maybe it’s OK to be a wannabe.
“The Loving Intellect”, a worth-reading article (focused on a “Christian intellectual”) in First Things, a publication I often regard with some skepticism. I found to be helpful the idea of deconstruction as a tool for use in a larger effort.
A few of the many sources I love for “remixing”:
Farnam Street: impressively wide and deep consideration of how to live, learn, and think well; introductions to many other thinkers.
Brain Pickings: wide-ranging reflection; introductions to many others.
“Three-minute thoughts” are quickly written, minimally fleshed out, possibly wrong, certainly non-comprehensive, and may or may not become a regular feature in some form.
We learn through analogies (“this is like that, except for…”), and most of our useful thinking is done through analogies. The boundaries of our thought are, generally, constrained by what we can mentally access for analogy. Being mostly a “surfer” of the intellectual world is not inherently deficient, as long as you maintain velocity–the more ideas and models of the world you encounter, the more you can organize your intellectual library of curiosities, the more likely you are to recognize the value (or lack thereof) of an idea, and the richer will be your treasure store of material for use in analogy.
Offhand questions: How does this connect with the ideas of spaced repetition for retention of important knowledge, the value of forgetting in maintaining a functional mind, or the ideal of T-shaped knowledge?
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: