Sharing Knowledge

The informational age that we live in today is interesting. We feel (at least I feel) a great urge to share the knowledge we gain from reading, interacting with smart people, and by simply being present in the world. Personally, I have also almost always felt that I was supposed to have some type of an opinion about any given topic. The world, it seemed, always wanted me to say one thing or another and have thoughts about one thing, even if I didn’t know much about it.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca briefly touches on this same point. He often started many of his letters in a build-up to the advice that he was passing along. One of those sections opening one of his letters read, “Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, in their book The Elephant in the Brain, explain why Seneca felt this way 2,000 years ago and why I feel this way today. They explain that communication is not really about sharing valuable information. If it was, we would only want to share our valuable information if someone else shared their valuable information first. In a sense, our society would be kick-ass at listening, and Ted Talks probably wouldn’t be a thing. What is really happening in our social worlds is that we evolved to show off. We want to show people how much useful information we have, what unique insights our experiences have given us about the world, and what new knowledge we have. Possessing new, unique, and helpful information 50,000 years ago meant that we could help ourselves and others survive. Sharing that information freely showed an abundance of knowledge and resources on our part, and made us a useful ally which helped us thrive in social groups.

 

We probably should not turn against this urge to share useful knowledge. Books, insightful anecdotes, and Ted Talks seem to have worked out pretty good for humans in terms of sharing and passing along useful information. We should recognize, however, that often the desire to share our knowledge is not as altruistic as Seneca might have you think. Our urge is a bit self-serving, so before we post on Facebook about how obviously correct our political views are relative to others, we should recognize the evolutionary forces driving us to have an opinion and encouraging us to blast those ideas out into the world in an attempt to show off. Ultimately, if you are going to share your thoughts, try to spend some time developing them so that they provide real value to the person who may encounter them.

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.

 

You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.

 

No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.

 

A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”

 

Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.

Remember Your Bubble

A huge challenge for our world today is the way we get stuck in our own echo-chambers and fact bubbles. The world is a large and incredibly complex place. We never truly know that much about any one thing. We might be an expert in our field of study, we might be an expert in the area we work in, and we might have a hobby that has made us an unofficial expert in a random thing, but we can never truly know everything there is about a subject or topic. As a result, we rely on a body of knowledge that is incomplete to make assumptions to form a belief about the world.

 

Colin Wright writes about these fact bubbles in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, “We also find ourselves stuck inside fact bubbles which reinforce our existing ideologies, and which fail to provide us with full context, with complete, accurate information, and which leave us, as a result, holding worldviews that are not based on accurate representations of what’s happening.” This is not a new problem in human history, but it feels like it is a more acute problem today than it has been in the past. We have more access to information today than any humans before us, but the overwhelming tidal wave of information that we can focus on puts us in a position where we have to make choices about the information we take in. We can build a world for ourselves in which our worldview is always reinforced, and never seriously challenged. We can create a world in which all of our problems are blamed on some “other” who we must vilify in order to improve things. We advocate for specific ways that we think the world should organize itself because it is what we see, what we know, and what is familiar for us.

 

These bubbles however, are incredibly limited and our singular perspective does not accurately represent the complete range of experiences and possibilities for the human condition. As a response to these bubbles, many people advocate for stepping outside our groups and tribes to understand the worldviews and ideas of others. I do not think this is realistic advice.

 

The world is busy and we only have a limited amount of time and attention to direct toward any given thing. Trying to take in information that we can understand and identify is in many ways a by product of long work hours, long commutes, too much information to know where to focus, and a world that seems to place unlimited demands on our thoughts and actions. Rather than trying to jam in more time reading things that challenge us or listening to news that might spike our blood pressure, I instead advocate for more self-awareness. Recognize how frequently we act and are inspired by a story that makes us look like the hero. Acknowledge the times when you select something to read because it looks like it will already fit in with what you want to believe. Be aware that your perspective on the world is incomplete and that the information you absorb is limited and filtered to present the world a certain way. We likely won’t be eliminating bubbles from our lives any time soon, but we can at least acknowledge their existence and recognize that we don’t have the certainty we would like about the information that helps us know what is really happening in the world.

An Important Task

Scott Russel Sanders continues in his letter of advice for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, writing about self awareness, spirituality, and philosophical ideas.  Towards the end of his letter he writes, “To understand as well as we can who we truly are and in what sort of world we have been set down may be our most important task.”  What I like about this quote is that it takes away the importance of obtaining material things and addresses the questions or doubts that we all constantly sift through.  For Sanders, what he is showing in this quote is the value of objectively understanding ourselves, the world, and our place in it.
The first part of Sanders quote speaks to me about the purpose of self reflection.  Being able to think about what we are good at, what we enjoy and why, and what we truly want in life will help us find a path that is comfortable and appropriate for us.  This is a truly important task for each of us, because an increased self awareness will allow us to begin to live our lives intentionally rather than living in a reactionary way.  We do not have to chase the goals that our friends, the media, religion, and family tell us we need to chase. Self awareness and knowing who we are and what we truly desire will allow us to find a meaningful path to follow to a destination that we will be happy with.
The second half of Sanders quote seems to be a little more difficult in my opinion.  I have come across many people who write and speak about self awareness, and while the road to self awareness is bumpy and full of obstacles (especially when you first set out) the road to a true understanding of the world we are in is more challenging and subjective.  Self reflection (examining your goals, desires, motivations, and skills) takes practice and it can be hard to learn that life should not be judged by the sports car you drive, but there seems to be something more challenging about finding true sources for understanding the world.  We will each approach the world with different perspectives and experiences, and we will each appropriate separate values to ideas and topics.  I do not think we can honestly understand the world if we have not first mastered honestly knowing ourselves, and then it is a constant practice to source out the good and bad information.  I am not saying, and I don’t think that Saunders would either, that we should just look for positive information about the world, but that we should search for objective information about things that will actually matter and have meaningful impacts in the world.  With the avalanche of information on the internet, it is easy to get lost among fake news stories that do not represent the true world we live in.  At the same time we can all have so many unique niche interests that we investigate and learn about, and each of these interests build new experiences and perspectives through which we can understand the world.
I think that Sanders in reaction to my writing would say that the first step to fulfilling our important task on this planet is to understand ourselves, including our perspective and how our experiences have shaped our perspectives.  Next, Sanders would argue that we absorb as many other perspectives as possible, to help us begin to view the world in a new and meaningful way. This would involve vigorous research on our part to sift through the nonsense and gossip.