About knowledge, ignorance, and acceptance

What follows is an excerpt from a private exchange. I am sharing it with the permission of my correspondent, without disclosing their identity. The quoted/indented parts are from my correspondent.

I’ve been enjoying your philosophy videos. I’d love to hear your thoughts about pursuing knowledge, how to deal with our own ignorance and the ignorance of others, and pedantry.

Sure, I am happy to help however I can. In short:

  • The pursuit of knowledge is fine, provided you do not feel inhibited by the absence of knowledge. A common example of self-induced powerlessness is the scientist who voices no opinion on what is happening around them on the premise that “I am not an expert”, then suffers from political decisions with a direct effect on their science. Who are the experts in politics? Why must we think in terms of all or nothing and choose nothing?

  • No matter how knowledgeable you are, you will never have perfect insight. Forget about theoretical issues and think about everyday stuff, such as finding a pet dog: you cannot learn everything about the specific animal before living with it. All you can do in the beginning is start with the fairly limited knowledge you have, trust that it will work, and learn as you go. Our choices in life come with a degree of uncertainty and so we must accept the fact that we are always partially relying on our beliefs/faith to fill in the blanks.

  • As for pedantry, you will feel free once you learn to ignore it and not do it to others. The expression “sod off” is an excellent way to deal with pedants.

As someone who loves computers and computing since an early age, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to dig through the noise of a field that differs from others, in the sense that it abnormally welcomes people who are not necessarily with their souls invested in it. I do not think that this is inherently a bad thing — different people have different goals in life — although I can’t help but to notice it’s consequences for people like me.

I’m a young computer engineering student, so I don’t really know if that was always the case, but being someone like me — someone that would be in this field even if it didn’t paid well — in this day and age is somewhat discouraging.

I imagine there are lots of fields where people work in them without being enthusiastic about them. It has to do with the fact that “it’s just a job”. There are practical reasons to pick a profession. Though yes, when not many people care, the working environment can be uninspiring.

The point though is that you do not control the prevailing conditions. You can try to change them, perhaps together with others, though the odds are against you. If you are disappointed by how things stand, you must either learn to tolerate this state of affairs or find something else that does not drain you of your vitality. This goes back to the point of lacking perfect knowledge: when you feel really bad about something, consider trusting your body and don’t wait too long for some irrefutable personalised truth to be revealed to you, since in practice you do not have the luxury to wait.

Real life is lonely. Social media seems devoid of value, content online was reduced to “X vs Y”, “which [X tool] is better?”, “never do that!” and that kind of stuff. Most discussions online provide little to no value because of the urge to prove a point, gain influence, and preserve the ego. Truth was left as last priority, claiming without truly knowing became the norm. For most people, if it works, if it lands you a job, there’s no need to know deeper.

You are right. Though this is not an Internet-only phenomenon. If you ever go to a village café, you will find non-techie people who (i) are too opinionated about topics they know nothing about, while (ii) constantly switch topics as soon as you try to go a bit deeper. I guess people prefer to take it easy when they can.

Same idea for the “claiming without knowing” part. Socrates was pointing this out in ancient Athens, for example (relevant comment of mine, though it assumes some familiarity with the topic: https://protesilaos.com/commentary/2023-07-25-comments-socrates-apology/).

I am pointing these out to suggest that we better not have too high expectations about what people should be doing. If we are disappointed and/or frustrated about such a common issue, we will keep encountering it again and again without the power to stop it. The solution is, again, to tolerate what we perceive as imperfection and work with what we have.

I’ve found me struggling to accept myself.

Many of my comments are on the theme of acceptance. It is about recognising how things stand, not how we would like them to be. Such recognition extends to our self, where we acknowledge what we can and cannot affect. Without acceptance, we suffer because there is a misalignment between our idealised view of the world and its actuality. Put simply, we are on the right path when we accept that we are all human and that what we imagine is true for angels is only true for them, not us.

Often my preferences lead me to places that are rather unusual, tools that are not the most popular, like emacs. Suddenly, I find myself in the edge of communities that are small, but full of the most brilliant people, in that moment I know deep in my guts that my choices will lead me to fulfilment, but I struggle to jump in. “Is that it? Isn’t it weird that most people are wrong and I’m right?” I think often.

If you think about it, it is likely that most people are wrong about most things. Suppose you survey a 100 random folks on an engineering issue you are an expert in: their average opinion does not really matter to you because you still know better.

Finding niche communities and, generally, not going with the majority is not a problem per se. The tricky part is to make those choices while remaining open-minded. For example, you choose Emacs because you like it right now, but still do not want to be fanatical about it: if, say, a NeoVim user shows you a workflow that is better than the Emacs equivalent, you acknowledge as much. Otherwise, all is good.

The pitfall with niche topics is that you may become one-dimensional if you are too invested in them. Try to learn more about general issues in the world around you. They will help you keep things in perspective and thus remain open-minded. It also is good to have varied interests as you can connect better with people while also have more diverse stimuli for your intuition.

I feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale computing has become. The psychological effect of the mass opinion diverging from yours is not negligible, and not everyone has the nature to fight that. I guess I care too much about what other people think.

Caring can be a good thing because it shows you are sensitive to what is happening around you. The key, however, is to care with moderation, i.e. to recognise the “too much” and know it is harmful. This is easy to say, but hard to do. Be mindful of it though and try to practice where possible.