Jan 14, 2018

The joy of creation of knowledge

From Deutsch: The Beginning of Infinity

...scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures. Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them.
Indeed, according to Deutsch, this not just the process by which scientific theories are created, but the process by which all knowledge is created.

This struck me as true when I first heard Deutsch talk about it in a TED Talk and when I read The Begining of Infinity and heard him talking with Sam Harris. And it's even truer each time my friend Mark Lesser and I interrupt one of our conversations and talk about what we're doing and how we're doing it.

So let me interrupt myself and explain. (This is adapted from an interruption in one of Mark's and my conversations.)

Years ago I wrote satire that ended up in a newsletter that I sent to my kids, and later in a blog. I thought I got pretty good at it--at least I made myself laugh a lot. And my kids liked it. And some other people thought it was pretty good, too. People said that I was a really good writer. But I knew better. I wasn't a good writer; I was a really good editor. Someone who was a good writer would sit down and write and out would pop one of the pieces that I eventually produced. Instead, I'd write something, and then edit it and say: "That's not working." So I'd change some words and edit it and say: "Nope." And then I'd mess around with it some more, and say: "Still not right." And eventually, I might think "This is starting to get pretty good." And then I'd make some more edits, and do some more rewriting and eventually I'd have something that I thought was starting to get good. I'd know it was starting to get good when I started giggling as I edited. And when I'd giggle each time that I did an editing pass, then it was good enough. A real writer would do that first time.

I didn't know how to write something good, but I knew what was good when I saw it. That's my skill as an editor.

There had to be a certain amount of writerly skill, you could argue. I couldn't make completely random changes and have it come out good. But a lot of the changes I'd make were not driven by a creative vision. I'd rearrange what was there. I'd mix in an idea from some other place. I'd take a template joke and adapt it to the piece that I was working on.

OK, back to Mark and me and the creation of knowledge. When we talk, we throw out ideas and immediately start to criticise them and to edit them. It doesn't matter who gave voice to an idea. We each attack ideas that come out of our own mouths as vigorously as we attack ideas that we hear from the other. We're not attacking those ideas the way you attack an opposing army, but the way that you attack a job of work, or attack a meal when you're hungry.

If someone who did not know us heard us, they'd think we were arguing with one another. It would sound a lot like that. But it's not argument. As Deutsch says elsewhere, it's error correction. Every idea is a conjecture, which is a fancy, Oxford University (where Deutsch is situated) word meaning "a guess." And every guess calls for criticism and then a better guess. It might sound like conflict, but it's collaboration.

And it's the creation of knowledge. Everything that we're doing takes the understanding that we start with and improves it. We don't always end up in agreement--although we might eventually agree. But by the time we're done--by the time we've moved on to another topic or we've interrupted our conversation to move on to a related point, or to an unrelated point, or to tell a joke, or a personal story--each of us understands the idea we voiced better than we did originally. And that's progress.

And it's fast progress. It's fast because we talk fast; and because if we think we know how a sentence is going to end, we don't wait for it to end--we jump in; and because if we're wrong about how we thought a sentence was going to end, that's OK, too--there's in that, too; and because we're making both small, but significant refinements and bold conjectures; and because we sometimes seem to have completely changed the subject but we know that we're not--because no matter how the subject seems to have changed, it's really all the same conversation.

And every interruption and every change of subject provides new information. Information theory tells us that if you can use the information that you've already got to predict the next thing that happens, then that next thing provides no information. It might serve as confirmation of your predictive model, but confirmation provides no information.

Interruptions tend to broaden the discussion, not narrow it. We're looking to say things that we're confident that the other person doesn't know. Even better, I think we're looking to say things that we don't even know ourselves. We're looking for surprise.

There's a lot of laughter. Sometimes the laughter comes from surprise. Sometimes the laughter comes from a joke, a story that one of us has thrown into the mix. And sometimes it's just from the exhilaration of being challenged--by ourselves and by each other--and by the joy of meeting the challenge.