Rediscovery, the Mind's Curare

2021-04-10 • 4 min read

Drawing by Viktoriia Shcherbak of inventor's desk.

I’m often apprehensive about writing things that may already have been written, of sharing ideas that may already have been thought of, of saying things that may be cliché or dull or commonplace. I think I can trace this to a fear of being seen as ignorant or uneducated, which itself can be traced to my valuing knowledge and education.[1]

I remember once when I was young and thinking, as one does, about free will. I thought, Well, probably humans are like those stones that roll down the slope of a mountain: the places they end up are precisely determined by their shape and density, the arrangement of the mountain slope and the permanent laws of mechanics. So we too always do the thing that we were always going to do, as determined by the arrangement of our sensory inputs and the particular configuration of neurons and synapses in our brain. But that is not what we humans mean when we talk about free will. Because though it is determined how we will act – so I reasoned to myself – no one actually knows what has been preordained. So as far as we’re concerned our actions and those of other humans can still take countless possible shapes, no fewer than the ways a stone can roll down a mountain slope. Thus thought the teenage me. But months or perhaps years later, happening upon an article on free will, I learned that views very similar to these were called determinism and compatibilism and had been known and discussed in philosophy for decades if not centuries.

I don’t mean to suggest that everything has been done before. That is obviously not true, even in a weaker sense. I just mean that it’s damned difficult to come up with unique ideas, ideas no one has ever expressed, and that those who do are a damned rare species. Whatever topic you choose to write on is most likely the mere playground of a scholar who has spent years foraging it. I’m sure the very ideas that I am expressing here have been thought and expressed by other people, too.[2]

On the one hand, this apprehension probably has some good sides. It means I’m more likely to research things before writing them. It means I’m more likely to leave unpublished some writings that would produce a deserved negative response. It means I’m more likely to be original and have original thoughts. Maybe …

But it also seems irrational. Where’s the harm in writing about something that’s already been expressed? And what about the harm in holding back on something that’s never been expressed?

Writing blog posts about things that are not wholly new has numerous other benefits, but two that I think are relevant here are (1) that reinventing the wheel can be useful as a learning method and (2) that even if an idea has already been stated, it has not necessarily been stated as well as you are stating it, or not at a time that is favourable to it, or not to the people that make up your audience.[3]

Imitation is a key part of human cumulative cultural evolution.[4] In programming, we reimplement programs that already exist in order to learn. In musical composition, we reorchestrate famous passages in order to learn. In thinking, we learn to think by constructing thoughts of our own. But you cannot construct a thought that you’ve already received readymade, pared down and streamlined to facilitate learning. You have to reproduce the process of thinking and reasoning.

Imagine a planet where no one ever writes anything that has been written before. First of all, there would be much less writing overall, because it’s really hard to come up with original ideas. The paralysis would be complete. Second, one’s chances of coming across any given idea would be smaller on account of the reduced activity. There would be less transmission of ideas; and transmission is beneficial to innovation.

The thing about blogging is that it’s not academic research; it’s more akin to conversation …

On this view, we can allow for some redundancy. It is a good thing to have the courage to say something that is new to oneself, even if it turns out that that thing is not new to the world. Self-doubt, a product of human psychology almost certainly manufactured in larger quantities than is good or necessary, can be disabling.

I was not around to see it, and I admit to be looking kind of from afar here, but I’ve understood that Less Wrong and especially the effective altruism community were wilder, wronger and less professionalised in their early days. That would make sense, of course, as bloggers have since gotten jobs as professional researchers, once fledgling organisations have turned into something more like institutions, founding members have refined their ideas and things in general have settled into the places accorded to them as the movements have matured. This was probably enhanced by an emphasis, present mainly in the effective altruism community but also in the rationalist community, on avoiding harm, in other words precaution. This might increase quality on average, but surely it decreases both quantity and variance. Is that what we want?

Footnotes #

  1. This seems like irrational fortune telling, but never mind that for now. ↩︎

  2. See e.g. here and here for posts on whether one ought to familiarise oneself with the literature on a subject before publishing a post on that subject. That is a little bit different from what I am talking about, though. In my case, it’s possible to have done some research on a subject, written about it and still fear that one has missed some key fact or objection. ↩︎

  3. Of course this restatement is more useful if it also refers to sources where the subject matter has been discussed. That makes the article more of an explainer, the product of research distillation. ↩︎

  4. Wasielewski, H. (2014). Imitation Is Necessary for Cumulative Cultural Evolution in an Unfamiliar, Opaque Task. Human Nature, 25(1), 161–179. ↩︎