Sheep

Some Things You Know

“I don’t know any math,” said I, about six months ago.

“You know math,” says my conversational partner.

It’s true. Earlier he dropped two crayons into my hand, then two more. “Two plus two is three,” he said then; and then told me to metacog. Of course two plus two isn’t three. Even if someone smart looks skeptically at me when I disagree, I basically don’t update. I consider the hypothesis that they’re talking about something different than I am. Or they’re trolling me. Or… ? But there’s a thing I’m sure of, that has something to do with crayons and earplugs and sheep, and being doubted doesn’t really change that at all. It makes me confused. But not about how many sheep I should expect to see in the pasture once I let a pair of sheep in, and then another pair of sheep.

Addition is a simple sort of hypothesis (arguably). But I can feel that way about more complex theories. I remember the point at which I noticed feeling that way about natural selection and evolution. Not necessarily as an argument against creationism per se. But as a set of pressures and patterns to see in the world that almost has to be ongoing in the living beings around us. It would in some sense be easier (for me) to believe that the world was created five thousand years ago than to believe that selective pressures don’t cause evolution. Evolutionary theory seems knitted into reality. The depth to which you’d have to alter the reality fluid before these sorts of patterns and shifts didn’t happen… Yup. The basics of it feels a lot like the crayons and the sheep.

Turns out, I’m allowed to have knowings like this around issues relating to xrisks, too. The fact that all such knowings are going to be controversial is a thing to update off of, to some extent, but it needn’t preclude the knowing. [Ooh, but I’m not going to list any such knowings here. Walk before you run, I say]

But here’s another angle: courage as colorfastness, as Plato’s Socrates describes in The Republic:

We selected the soldiers and educated them in music and gymnastic …. that they should receive the laws from us in the finest possible way like a dye, so that their opinion about what’s terrible and about everything else would be color-fast because they had gotten the proper nature and rearing, and their dye could not be washed out by those lyes so terribly effective at scouring: pleasure – more terribly effective for this than any Chalestrean soda and alkali; and pain, fear, and desire – worse than any other lye. This preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what not, I call courage.

My beliefs tend to crumple under disapproval and skepticism, and – to be honest – even the thought of such. The disapproving faces in my mind prevent me from putting my weight on my beliefs even if I never speak them aloud. (This is most of what makes writing so hard for me, I think; I’m running it past an imaginary audience in my Inner Simulator, and whenever that imagined face looks askance at a sentence I’ve written, I get all tangled up and fall over, like a bicycle not pedaling). So how not to crumple? 

But I’ve started to notice that the question “what do I wish I did in this situation?” seems to elicit incomplete answers. Because “not crumpling” feels like the goal, and maybe even is. But when I imagine me++, of say 2 years from now being magically teleported into a situation where she’s just crumpled, she’s not doomed.  Me++ isn’t just better at avoiding failure modes than I am, she also recovers more quickly, more fully, and more gracefully

Unlike a dyed piece of wool, it seems like I ought to be able to regain my colorfastness, even after losing it in a conversation or a class or writing a blog post. What does that look like?

In the moment of crumpling, I notice thoughts like “Asch conformity, maverickdom, you’ll never be able to improve on the consensus this way…” threading through my mind. My self-narrative requires that I have Socrates’ courage, and I’ve failed at that.

When a narrative thinks I’ve failed, but I’m dissatisfied with my reaction to failure, it’s usually because I haven’t actually failed entirely. And the narrative is forgetting to take that into account; it’s premature shame/despair.

So what narrative can remind me that my work isn’t yet done? How would me++ regain good posture after crumpling, and why?  A few of my first thoughts:

(Though consider spending a minute or two trying to generate a hypothesis before reading them)

One: pivot to exploring the other person’s map. This is one I’ve had pretty good success with; even if I lose track my faith in my own opinions, I can still remember and believe in my skill as a duck. Propose thought experiments, look at edge cases, ask for examples. I don’t need to have opinions in order to meaningfully contribute to a dialogue.

Two: remember that noticing where I crumple is on the path to eventually closing the gap between my explicit verbal models and the true causes of my beliefs. If I get to the point where I can’t justify my opinion but nonetheless don’t update away from it, then I’ve found a place where I have work yet to do. Add a bookmark. Sometimes the only way to learn about electricity is to repeatedly throw yourself against the electric fence, and if it’s important enough, then that’s a worthy endeavor even though you’ll keep getting pain signals that do in fact correlate with some sort of damage.

Three: just as courage isn’t an absence of fear, it’s also not necessarily taking correct actions right out of the gate. The highest customer satisfaction comes not from perfect service, but from an exceptional response to initial mistakes. The recovery, going back into battle, is a kind of courage all its own.

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