Inspired by the recent slate star codex article:
Thinking back to highschool, I recall a question on my year twelve legal studies exam that has always stuck with me. It was one of the first questions in the exam, and it pertained to the passage of a bill through parliament. The question contained an excerpt and asked which stage the excerpt was talking about. To anybody who had even bothered to skim the first chapter in the textbook, the answer was obvious; it was talking about royal assent.
But to anybody who had read the first chapter closely, they would have known that proclamation of the law was also one of the stages, and the excerpt itself was stated to be from a government gazette, from which laws are proclaimed. So the students who were more clued in recognised that it was a trick question. The actual answer was ‘proclamation of the law’.
But to anybody who had properly done their study, and who had a strong grasp on english grammar, it didn’t matter whether the excerpt itself was from a government gazette, because the question was asking what stage was being talked about inside the excerpt; who cares where the excerpt was from? So those students, the strongest of all, reverted back to the answer of ‘royal assent’, in turn sharing the marks with the weaker students, and leaving the average students behind.
I can’t recall which answer I gave, but I can recall feeling completely stumped by the question, falling down a spiral of confusion, trying to figure out just how meta the exam writers were trying to be. And I also recall not being alone in my confusion. ATAR Notes, the forum where all the VCE students would congregate to discuss these things, had a long thread dedicated to the conundrum. Some people thought it was a non-issue; it was obviously royal assent, period. Some people still thought it was proclamation. And some people spent their efforts berating the exam writers for failing to write questions that would fairly rank students.
It’s probably telling of the quality of VCE legal studies that the ensuing fallout from that question stuck with me more than anything from the actual coursework. But I’ve never really been able to put into words why I feel like it’s such an important case study.
All the time, I see similar situations: you have a person believe something because they haven’t actually thought about it much, or the alternatives. And then they learn a few more things and all of a sudden they switch to the other side of the debate, this time actually feeling passionate about it. And then time passes and they learn more, and now they’re back to their original position, except they actually know why they are there, why they are right, and why the alternatives are wrong. And THEN they start to lose faith in any of the positions being universally ‘correct’, and start sliding back towards the centre, where most people who have never thought about any of it seriously reside.
I went from not caring about politics, to fundamentally thinking that socialism was the only thing which made any sense, to thinking that socialism in practice did not work and that libertarianism made far more sense, to thinking that libertarianism also didn’t have answers to every economic problem, to thinking some balance of libertarian and socialist policies would be ideal, then to over-representing the extent to which I thought libertarianism was actually a good idea, purely because it’s underrepresented in the political sphere and it’s better to be the guy always arguing the libertarian perspective than to toe the line when you know socialist ideas are going to be overrepresented thanks to an abundance of people who never left stage 2.
Likewise, it’s not hard to find intellectual heavyweights who have dedicated their entire careers to finding the right solution to some political or economic problem, only to wind up on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. As a commoner lacking a degree from Harvard, I wonder what point there is in bothering to investigate these issues myself when flipping a coin takes less time and is just as accurate?
If there’s anything this flip-flopping has showed me, it’s that I have no idea about anything and the road to the truth is windy, and as I pour more mental effort into understanding something, there is no guarantee that the place I happen to stop along the road isn’t farther from the truth than where I started.
It actually goes one step further than that: I can come into contact with truths that are represented in my brain in a way that actually distance me from reality. As a primary school kid, a friend told me that when a flower pollinates another flower, they’re actually having sex, and the pollen is the sperm. That was a big step up for me in terms of understanding plant reproduction, but the main takeaway was ‘that’s gross! Plants have sex too?!’. The way that I viewed the world before my friend ‘enlightened’ me was probably closer to reality than afterwards, because if your mental schema only has room for ‘plant reproductive morphology’ in the cluster that also houses ‘sex’, ‘porn’ and ‘gross things’, you may be better of without it.
Luckily, the more you learn, the better your brain gets at making the right connections between concepts. If you have to have the wrong idea about a fact before you can have the right idea about a fact, it’s not the end of the world. That’s why we first learn about electrons as if they were moons revolving around the planet of the atom, and later on we treat them as probability clouds.
In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (I’m not pretending to have read it), Ludwig Wittgenstein reads:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb beyond them
I just hope that the people who end up shaping the future of our civilisation do so with a proportionate dose of self doubt. Because on the road to the truth, you don’t get to see how far there is to go.