1. The idea of emergence
2. There are no secrets to success
3. School is stupid
4. There’s no such thing as a genius
5. There’s no such thing as a teenager
Here are my top five worldview convictions; ideas that I was not raised believing but came to accept through thought, observation, and communication with others. In a sense, they are like epiphanies; for each idea there was a time I had either no idea about it or believed the opposite. And all of them are subjects of debate; for each one of them there are plenty of people out there who vehemently disagree with my position.
The books listed are simply the best ones I’ve read on the subject. Although certain books have certainly helped convince me of some of these things, please do not think that I believe anything blindly; there are plenty of authors I disagree with. A book’s contents and ideas are always subject to my own observations, analysis, and judgment.
1. The idea of emergence
OK, this first one isn’t necessarily that anti-intuitive, but it’s something a lot of people still seem to have trouble understanding or accepting.
There are still ongoing debates about how exactly to define this idea of emergence, but I’ll define it like this: an emergent property is a large scale property that emerges from a bunch of small, usually simple, interactions on a small scale.
A simple example might be a rush hour traffic jam. A bunch of people get off work and drive home at the same time. A traffic jam emerges from a bunch of individual decisions to drive at that specific time. A traffic jam itself is a collection of cars; one car is not traffic jam, and a traffic jam can be made up of different cars at different times.
A famous example is John Conway’s Game of Life. Conway made a grid and came up with a few simple “breeding” rules. A square on the grid is either living or dead, on or off. Then the player (or, more efficiently, a computer) uses the breeding rules for each square to determine if it would be living or dead in the next iteration (or generation). Might seem boring, but playing around with it for a while, one can easily see patterns emerge, structures that cycle through patterns, structures that cycle but move around, structures that build other structures, etc. All from a few simple rules applied to a bunch of grid squares. The point is that they all interact with each other, and the patterns emerge.
Another example would be life itself, and nature’s use of DNA. When combined with the machinery of a living cell (life doesn’t just pop up around a DNA strand all by itself), DNA contains instructions on what proteins to create. From a bunch of small physical chemical interactions, a body grows. Hands, brains, eyes, teeth, hair, etc. It’s all encoded in the DNA, and it all emerges with trillions of tiny chemical interactions. It’s important to understand that a physical body is the outcome of these interactions; though it’s encoded in the DNA, it’s not actually in the DNA. Similarly, a music file encoded in a computer is just a long string of 0’s and 1’s, but it’s not music until this sequence is interpreted by a computer, played back through speakers, and ultimately heard by ears. We can’t just look at the string of 0’s and 1’s and know how the music would sound.
One reason emergence can be hard to grasp or agree with, especially in the context of living systems, is that we humans tend to perceive intent, even when there’s no intent. (There might be a more technical word for this problem, but I don’t know it.)
When we seek a reason for an event (or for the existence of something), we can seek two sorts of answers: intent to be fulfilled (a purpose), or a causal reason (cause and effect). For example, if we ask “Why does the heart pump blood?” we can give two sorts of answers: an intent to be fulfilled (“The heart pumps blood to provide the rest of the body with supplies that travel through the blood”), or a causal reason (“The heart pumps blood because the brain sends a signal to it and its muscles contract”). We can understand both these answers, but one is wrong: the heart has no consciousness; it doesn’t care what the rest of the body needs; it doesn’t do anything on purpose. So why is it so natural for us to give the heart the human ability of having intent?
We can simulate similar systems in which emergent properties arise on a computer using genetic algorithms. For example, we can program a robot to roll through a maze based on simple rules. But we can also program the robot to figure out those rules on its own. When it’s done, the rules might seem intelligent to us, as if the robot thought about his problem and solved it with intent to solve. But really it’s just all the outcome of the simple rule-making rules of our program. (Unless, of course, we have succeeded in programming consciousness!)
If you think about genetic algorithms, it’s not really an amazing feat. You just have the program come up with a bunch of random rule sets, test them, and weed out that ones that don’t produce the results you want.
The same thing happens in real life. If the rules of making a life form (as dictated by the DNA) cause the life form to die before it breeds, its rules won’t be passed on. Duh. So in the end all we get are rules that “passed the tests.”
Although we do not yet know the exact science of it, emergence makes it quite plausible that God is not needed to explain the emergence of life on earth, or human life specifically. This is enough to lead some people to atheism. But to me it seems if your belief in God is dependent on ignorance regarding the origins of life, your faith is rather thin to begin with. This really isn’t any sort of proof that God doesn’t exist.
There are quite a few books on this subject, and many more that relate to it, or utilize it in some way. The two best books I have read on this subject are Emergence: From Chaos To Order by John H. Holland and Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. (Complexity: A Guided Tour is really about the subject of complexity, obviously, but the concept of emergence is an important part of it.)
2. There are no secrets to success
If you understand the idea of emergence, this isn’t a big leap of logic: success, at least in terms of fame and money, is an emergent property. The fame of a person or a person’s work emerges from thousands, or millions, or billions of human interactions that take place each day.
This is anti-intuitive because it’s just too complex to understand. When something becomes popular, we want to know why, and we feel that we should have the ability to know. So we analyze the work of art (and the perhaps the traits of the culture that made it popular) and try to pinpoint what factors must’ve made it popular. We try to reverse engineer its success.
Ultimately, though, the system is just too complex. There is no way to guarantee success. There are no key factors.
And yet so many people want to analyze and analyze and analyze. Why?
OK, this might not actually be very anti-intuitive to a lot of people. But it implies something else, something that might be more anti-intuitive. Eventual popularity is not inherent in anything, be it a person or a work of art or whatever.
What I mean by this is that people sometimes look at famous things and take it as an objective measurement of greatness, as if there’s something undetectable but inherent in the work that makes it have such widespread appeal. However, by feeding into this, they are unknowingly becoming a part of the social system that makes the object famous in the first place. For example, it’s easy to look at the popularity of Mozart’s music and claim that it’s popular because genius is simply inherent in it, even though we can’t identify what factors make it so genius.
This sort of thought has pervaded through cultures for centuries, and it’s wrong; it’s a complete misunderstanding of what exactly popularity is and how it comes about. That is, more specifically, it’s a wrong guess about how it comes about.
You’ll notice that many of these ideas simply involve giving different, sometimes anti-intuitive (but more correct!), answers to the question “why?”
The best book about this sort of thing is The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. OK, it’s not exactly just about objective greatness and popularity in art; it deals with the bigger problem of induction in general. But the two subjects are very related.
3. School is stupid
This really seems to get people riled up for some reason, I suppose because the idea of school being necessary is so embedded in our culture; we grew up with it and simply can’t imagine (perhaps even fear) a world without it. It’s odd, because when people are young students, they usually fully agree that school is stupid. But for some reason, as they get older, they change their minds. Usually they’ll defend the necessity of school when they are no longer required to go themselves, as if that’s suddenly a more objective position from which to judge it?
Notice that I did not claim that education was stupid. And I don’t doubt that school is about education; it just has an extremely inefficient and overall harmful way of educating.
There are quite a few reasons formal schooling is dumb, and I won’t go over all of them here (there are books on the subject, after all), but I’ll mention the big ones.
The biggest problem with school is the material taught. School systems simply want to teach too much. This comes from a misunderstanding of intelligence. People seem to think (and I’ve blogged about this before if this is sounding familiar) that intelligence is merely about knowing stuff, and the more you know the better. I suppose it’s a bit like the idea behind hoarding—it’s better to just keep everything you can in case you need to use it someday. But hoarding makes it difficult to live, difficult to have room for the stuff you want later, etc. True, memory doesn’t work quite like that, but the point should be obvious: knowledge that you don’t use is useless. The time and effort spent acquiring it is wasted.
And people already know this, otherwise students would be taught to memorize phone books. Some knowledge is clearly useless; it’s not like the concept of useless knowledge is simply foreign to educators. They’re just bad at figuring out which knowledge is useful and which isn’t. In fact, usually someone figures it out for them, and they’d rather not think about it or question it. How many times is a teacher asked “When will I ever use this?” and the teacher replies something like “You’ll use it on the test!” or “You’ll use it on your homework!”? It’s easy to say that a teacher who utters such words should be immediately fired, but the intellectual crime he is committing and that instance probably deserves worse.
Figuring out what knowledge is useful and what isn’t shouldn’t be a difficult feat, nor should it be up to the government or any collective institution to determine. It’s very simple, you just ask yourself: will I use this knowledge? If you are interested in the knowledge, then yes, of course, it’s automatically useful because it gives you pleasure. If you need the knowledge to get something you want (like a job), then yes, it’s useful; you are going to use it to get something. If it does not fit one of those categories, it is, at the moment, useless. What if it will be useful later? Then learn later! That’s why people write books. Books store knowledge. You don’t have to know it until you need it! Amazing, huh?!
But you might protest: “How will I know whether or not I need a piece of knowledge until I know it?” Easy: if you find yourself asking yourself a question, then you need more knowledge. You could be asking yourself a question because you’re just curious (“What’s the population of the USA?”), or you could have a specific goal in mind (“How do I play the piano?” or “Can I make this work I have to do easier somehow?”).
Then you must search for the answer. It is (or should be) up to you to find it; you can’t (or shouldn’t) just sit back and hope someone will come along and tell you.
Sometimes the answer can be found through a simple search query in Google. Sometimes you want a deeper understanding that a book can provide. Sometimes you might need several books. Sometimes you might be interested in talking to a professional. Sometimes taking a well-designed school course in the subject is appropriate.
Sometimes no one really knows the answer, and you must figure out how to find it yourself (that’s why people do experiments) or get used to the disappointment of ignorance. (We’ll never know how many hairs were on Thomas Jefferson’s head. Too bad for us.)
The point is that you know beforehand that there’s some sort of knowledge you want to gain, and then you seek it.
You probably realize that public schools have the process almost completely backwards. They teach (or try to teach) students things before the student has any use for them. This is completely counterproductive.
There is only one case in which this is justified, and that is in the teaching of young children. Children are too inexperienced to understand what they want to learn, or why they need to learn certain things. Some things are hard to learn, and they might naturally resist. Most parents would agree that children need to learn to use the toilet, to pack up their toys, to not throw things at the wall, to not hit their siblings, to eat their vegetables, to tie their shoes, to dress themselves, to act politely, to read, etc. Adults naturally need to guide their children in learning these things, even if the children claim they don’t want to learn.
This is not the case with many subjects taught in school. There is no reason to force-teach calculus, the phases of the moon, the date George Washington died, how to calculate torque, the names of the big rivers in California, etc.
How do adults figure out what should be force-taught and what doesn’t need to be? Again, the answer is simple: do most adults use the knowledge on an everyday basis? If not, then force-teaching anybody such knowledge is a waste of time. (Note that just because most adults know a piece of knowledge does not make it useful. Most adults could know that the USA has fifty states, but that does not imply that children need to be taught that specifically. It’s not useful information; it’s just common sense trivia. As with all common sense trivia, children will naturally pick it up eventually.)
(Sometimes people say: “I have very eclectic interests. Sometimes I just read random books without searching for any specific answer.” Well, that’s great; go for it. But that’s not the same as subjecting yourself to a strict classroom setting, where tuition is paid, schedules are followed and tests and grades are given. In other words, this doesn’t justify anything; it’s irrelevant to the argument I’m making.)
So, from what I can tell, that is the biggest problem of our (the USA’s) current public education system. I’ve met a lot of people who agree that public schools have problems, but they completely miss this point. They argue for fewer grades, less work, better teachers, smaller classrooms, etc., but they uphold the belief that so much knowledge should be force-taught in the first place. As long as so much is force-taught, schools will be flawed and wasteful. You can’t solve any other problem without first answering: why are we teaching this in the first place?
The other problems do include the grading system. While it provides numerical assessment, it is wrongly used as a motivator (“If you don’t do this, you’ll get a bad grade!”), punisher (“You got a low grade, so you must do more work!” or “You got a low grade, so no TV for a week!”), and comparing system (“Sean had the highest grade in the class, so he is the best! No one else is as good as him!”). All of these hinder the actual act of learning. There are other ways to assess educational progress. Note that if the knowledge is useless in the first place and the student knows it, there is no honest way to motivate the student to learn it. This is an example why solving these smaller problems will not help if the previously mentioned bigger problem is not dealt with first.
Another problem is that schools are thought of as factories (they are “systems” after all). Students go in ignorant and come out smart. But in structuring it like a factory, students are treated like prisoners: they are split apart by age (what purpose does that serve?), they are required to sit as long as they are told, they need permission to use the bathroom, they all must work at a similar pace, they are all taught the same material at the same time, etc.
There are problems with teachers: they are underpaid (people who might be good teachers don’t become them), they cannot be fired easily, and they sometimes aren’t very good.
Creativity is not cultivated as well as it could be; it is sometimes considered a detriment. Music programs are sometimes cut before math programs, for example. Why is math considered inherently more important?
There are probably books on this, but I actually haven’t read any. As I’ve said before, people, including authors, usually discuss the smaller problems, but don’t see or agree with the bigger one.
4. There is no such thing as a genius
There is such thing as one person having more skill than another. However, the notion of “genius” comes from a human misunderstanding of where that skill comes from. Sometimes a skill seems to come so easily to another person that we simply can’t attribute it to practice; therefore, we suppose, it must be innate, it must come from DNA, it must be a gift from God.
Sometimes intellectual fame is also considered an inevitable product of genius. Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein, Newton, Edison, etc. are considered famous because their minds were special and the rest of the world just naturally recognized it.
But, as discussed in idea #2, their (and their works’) fame (“success”) is actually the product of our complex social interaction system. That is, it’s an emergent property. Mozart was not special. Newton was not special. Edison was not special. Yes, they’re special in the sense that they’re famous, but they never had greater intellectual potential than anyone else. Their status of fame is the result of both their hard work and luck. (By “luck” I don’t mean pure random chance; I simply mean it is an emergent property, a product of a system that is otherwise far too complex for us to understand.)
You, yes you, whoever you are, can play the piano and compose symphonies as well as Mozart. But you have to put in the time, and a lot of it. But it’s not beyond your mental abilities (though perhaps it’s beyond your time resources). You can understand the theory of relativity, you can study quantum mechanics, you can paint a beautiful sunrise. But you’ve got to put in a lot work and practice. Sometimes it does seem like a skill comes to some people faster than others, but no one is ever just born with it.
Again, hard work won’t guarantee fame. Since Mozart’s famous touring-as-a-prodigy childhood, there have been plenty of other parents of young pianists seeking the same kind of fame. But fame was not just the product of Mozart’s skill; it was an emergent property. Mozart got lucky, not just in his time, but throughout history (at least to this day; nobody knows what people hundreds of years from now will think).
Making a breakthrough scientific discovery is a bit trickier. Again, it comes down to luck. We might like to think it comes down to natural genius, but once you come up with your discovery, it’s not as if you’ll be the only one who’ll ever be able to understand it (if that were the case, your discovery would be useless anyway). It might take hard work to arrive at your theory, but there’s nothing you can do innately to guarantee that you make the discovery first.
There are a few books on this subject, such as The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.
5. There is no such thing as a teenager
Similar to the notion of a genius, a teenager is a purely cultural idea that emerged from a purely cultural way of raising children. Biologically, after puberty, humans are ready to go out on their own and breed. For some reason, culturally, we don’t accept this. We might even think of it as disgusting and wrong for a thirteen or fourteen year old to get pregnant. But that’s what the body is designed to do. (Or perhaps I should say that that’s how the nature of the body emerged.) The reason it seems disgusting and wrong is cultural; we were raised in a culture that thinks of it as wrong and disgusting, so we accept the belief ourselves.
What is the basis for it?
Well, you could argue that teenagers are unruly and irresponsible. But is it really biology that makes them that way? I think yes and no; that is, biology indirectly makes them that way, and would make adults that way too if they were put in similar environments. Biologically and psychologically teenagers are ready to take the reins of adulthood. But they are not given those reins. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers deny teenagers the reins for several more years, sometimes up to a decade longer than they should. They exert control, sometimes giving them only more adult responsibilities without adult privileges.
The consequences of this should be apparent and predictable, and they’re exactly what we observe: teenagers resist.
But then society makes the mistake of guessing that a teen’s troubles are due directly to biology and psychology; they conclude the teenager is in fact not ready to be treated like an adult, and the vicious cycle continues.
Does that mean parents of teenagers are bad? Well, I wouldn’t say they’re evil. After all, the belief is cultural; it’s natural and understandable that most parents would accept the common societal views of teenagerhood. But they’re still wrong, and usually end up doing more harm than good.
Unfortunately this wrongness is even embedded in national law, so even if a parent wanted to treat their teenagers more like adults, there would be still be lawful limits on just how many privileges the teenagers could be given.
The best book I’ve read dealing with this subject is The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by Robert Epstein. However, there are still scientific papers and articles on the differences between the teenage brain and the adult brain that try to explain teenage rebellion, so this is still quite a controversial subject.
I hope that was interesting to some people out there! I continue to see these ideas all over the place. Emergence is everywhere and helps shape our world in complex (sometimes mysterious) ways. The problem of induction leads people to false knowledge and a misunderstanding of the nature of fame and success. Schools continue to waste so much time and effort, and the people trying to make it better often miss its main problem. The cultural notion of genius encourages people to underestimate their own true abilities. And what people think about teenagers leads to vicious endless cycles of strained relationships.
I was considering adding more ideas, such as compatibilism (the notion that free will and determinism are compatible) and Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness (I do recommend The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged to everyone), but they didn’t quite make the cut. Maybe next time.
I’m tempted to think some people get too satisfied with their convictions; they naturally resist any sort of idea that might change how they see the world. I suppose they’re afraid that if they change their outlook, it implies they’re stupid. But the opposite is true. No one is born with perfect knowledge. In fact, you’re really not born with very much knowledge at all. Most of your current knowledge came from somewhere. Your convictions should be changing as you grow older. I’m not saying they have to completely reverse every few years (that would be awful and probably would imply your stupidity), I’m simply saying one should be open and honest with himself in his judgments. Changing your mind about something is not a sign of stupidity.