Comments on “The illusion of understanding”

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Non-ordinary states

Binge Reader 2015-10-12

Dear David,
I’ve been reading your various websites nearly non-stop for two days now; terrific stuff. This is part of a six-month long binge of ravenous reading (mostly re-reading stuff from my formative years, from Buddhism and C.S. Lewis to Dostoevsky and Chomsky), trying new kinds of meditation, and generally searching and exploring. You might be interested to know that all of this was triggered by a psychedelic experience. This was, for me, the first of its kind and very intense, bordering on traumatic. If there’s anything I can say about the take-away, it is that the intense sense of realization I got of “getting it” has gradually distilled into ideas very similar to yours (much of it was probably there all along). That there is meaning; that I need to navigate towards it despite uncertainty, despite having no expectation of cosmic rewards or heroic deeds; and that ethics is closely tied to rejecting nihilism even in the face of uncertainty or terror. I do believe that these kind of non-ordinary states can be extremely beneficial, and done “right” are usually beneficial. I’ve seen people come out of similar experiences with eternalist ideas, but I think in many cases the differences boil down to the words we end up using to describe simply realizing (and/or choosing to believe) that Something Meaningful Exists. It seems that the rejection of nihilism and basic ethical behavior reside in our phenomenological core; as you write, it’s almost impossible to be a consistent nihilist (as in the German nihilist gang in Big Lebowski: “His girlfriend gave up her toe! She though we’d be getting million dollars! Iss not fair!”). Like for you, celebrating this fact is, to me, as good as it gets. But I also think that an eternalist may actually sincerely believe, and derive real comfort and inspiration from, his or her belief system. C.S. Lewis is one of my heroes, despite my being constitutionally unable to accept any of the external aspects of his belief system. (Do you happen to be familiar with his work?)
Thanks for your work!

C.S. Lewis

David Chapman 2015-10-13

Hi, thanks for an interesting comment!

Yes, I’ve read all of C.S. Lewis, I think. A lot of wisdom there, although of course I don’t accept Christianity.

Can Openers

Jayarava 2016-03-15

In response to the challenge above - I have stopped reading to describe a can-opener.

A can-opener is a device for opening canned food. Food that is “canned” is stored in an hermetically sealed metal container (a “can”), usually made of steel (these days) and sometimes lined with plastic. A can is usually a cylinder sealed at both ends. The flat “lid” is sealed by welding after food is placed inside and getting access to the food usually involves removing all or part of the lid using a “can-opener”. The edge of the lid end of the can also usually has a small lip which is designed as a fulcrum for certain kinds of can-opener, particularly a rotary can-opener.

Importantly the can is made of relatively soft steel and the can-opener is made from relatively hard steel. I could go on about how sharp objects pierce surfaces, metallurgy of different steels, metallic crystals, metal fatigue, van de Waals forces, and so on, but I think for the purposes of this exercise we’ll have to take all that as read.

The can-opener must first pierce the lid of the can. It does this by a combination of a sharp point or edge and leverage. The simplest can opener is a hand-held sharp, pointed blade made of hard steel and a built in fulcrum. The blade is held by or attached to a small handle that acts as a lever. The fulcrum is much closer to the blade end than the handle end. The point is pushed through vertically down through the lid at the edge until the fulcrum makes contact with the edge. By rocking the can-opener in the right direction so that it pivots on the fulcrum the blade of the can-opener tears the fabric of the lid, making a small incision. Next one moves the open along until the edge of the blade is again in contact with the metal of the lid, and applies leverage, extending the incision. This procedure is repeated until enough of the lid comes away allow access to the contents of the can. These types of opener leave ragged edges.

Other types of can openers use the same basic principle of a metal cutting blade, a fulcrum and applied leverage. What varies is the configuration of the blade and the levers.

Given an appropriately stocked workshop, I could totally design and make a can opener from scratch. I’m not sure I could reliably identify a source of iron ore and mine it here in the UK, but if I was home in Auckland I know where the nearest deposit is (Black iron sands from ancient volcanic eruptions) and how to extract it using a reducing furnace. I have worked in a steel mill and learned basic metal work.

I would estimate that in thinking about and articulating the problem my understanding has increased somewhat. Sorry.

How they work

David Chapman 2016-03-15

Nice, thanks!

The main revelation I had when examining can openers is that there are two common types (in the US—apparently there are others elsewhere). One type—the one illustrated at the head of the page—drags a fixed blade through the can lid. The cutting force is primarily in the plane of the lid (although the blade itself is diagonal, so this isn’t exactly true). The other type has a rotary cutting wheel, whose cutting force is primarily normal to the lid (although to the extent that it extends below the lid, this isn’t exactly true). So these actually cut in quite different ways—in addition to their driving mechanisms being different.

The dragging type has only one wheel, which looks like a gear, but actually just has teeth to grip the lip of the can. The rotary type has two wheels. One of them appears to have two gears on it, but one of those is actually a lip-gripper. The other wheel has a gear and the cutting wheel. The gears mean that the cutting wheel is not just dragged through the lid, but actively driven. (It took me a surprising amount of time to understand this even after looking at it!)

Jayarava, most people haven't

sausage 2016-03-16

Jayarava, most people haven’t worked in a steel mill and learned basic metal work. Most people couldn’t design or build things like this with an appropriately stocked workshop. Most people aren’t like David either, who have an engineering background or mindset.

David is generalising. When generalising, you will find exceptions to the generalisation. It doesn’t mean he (or the research he is basing this article on) is wrong in general.

Atypical readers

David Chapman 2016-03-16

I’m not sure whether or not Jayarava was disagreeing!

In general, it’s likely that my readers will have more of an engineering/science background than the average person, and therefore what I said about understanding is probably less true of them.

However, I think the general point is still true, that everyone (even those with a strong STEM background) gets fooled into thinking we understand things we don’t.


Jayarava 2016-03-16

I definitely wasn’t saying that David was wrong. I was taking the challenge because I like that kind of thing and was in need of something else to think about other than the shit that was getting me down at the time. The trouble with the internet is that everyone and everything is out of context.

Davids thoughts on politics were particular apposite I thought. And his observation about mystical insights is very interesting as I’m in dialogue with a couple of people who have no self and never have an unethical intention - according to their own testimony. I am all too aware of Hume’s criteria for judging such testimony, but I find taking them on face value the most interesting stance at present. Still one does wonder how their minds work - assuming that they do have minds that work.

I was pondering this today

Jayarava 2016-03-16

I was pondering this today and my sense was that I very often feel that I don’t understand anything important, that the world is just very confusing and people in it baffling. I could design and make a can-opener, but so what? It doesn’t help me with my day to day problems. I’ve learned all the wrong things. And as for control, well, I can barely control myself let alone what’s going on around me.

Which, again, is not to say I disagree with the premise of the argument.

can openers

lk 2016-11-28

I had a go at this a while ago, and just remembered I never posted my attempt here - surprisingly challenging! My awful pictures are in the tumblr link…


David Chapman 2016-11-28

Thank you—that was a lot of fun!

I hadn’t noticed the asymmetrical teeth; that was news to me!

I went and looked at my two-wheel opener just now and was like “what?? what are all these bits?” Which shows that, even if I understood it accurately a few months ago, I promptly forgot everything. Since there’s no reason to remember, it just drops out of your head, apparently.

You're running into problems

Bad Horse 2017-12-16

You’re running into problems here. One is that this is all written with the naive assumption that there is “an” ethics–that we can talk meaningfully about “the 6 stages of ethical progression” in a normative rather than a descriptive sense. This seems dangerously close to what you call eternalism.

More troubling to me are your casual dismissals of utilitarianism and consequentialism. Here you’re dismissing things because most philosophers dismiss them. Unfortunately, most philosophers are stupid. We can see this, for example, in the raven “paradox”: Hempel proposed the paradox, and then he gave the proper solution, which is that choosing one objects from the set of all non-black objects and discovering it is not a raven actually does give evidence that all ravens are black. This is not something one can debate; it is a mathematical result. Yet that solution has been rejected pretty much universally by philosohpers–because they’re lousy mathematicians, who think they’re good mathematicians because they can do Boolean logic.

Utilitarianism and consequentialism can’t be wrong, because they’re not claims, they’re formalisms. There are lots of standard objections to both, but they’re all stupid. If you simply accept the consensus opinions of philosophers, you’re guaranteeing that you will throw out any good work that’s already been done.


Bad Horse 2017-12-16

Consequentialism and utilitarianism are identical: they are both the claim that ethics is about producing good outcomes, rather than about having the right feelings, or feeling good about ourselves, or following the will of destiny or God (which covers most of the proposed alternatives). So, yes, they are making a claim, but I’m not interested in talking with anyone who would question that claim, and would characterize such a person as insane.


Bad Horse 2017-12-16

Bentham’s original utilitarianism did include the claim that a utility function should sum over all of “the people”. That’s a radical claim which I don’t agree with, but it isn’t what most utilitarians I know mean by “utilitarianism”. They mean the framework in which one represents one’s ethical system as a utility function. This can be applied to any coherent and complete ethical system. An inability to construct a utility function means that an ethical system contains inconsistencies (it isn’t transitive) or gaps (it fails to state a preference between some outcomes).

The claim that an ethical system should not contain gaps–that it shouldn’t have cases where it throws up its hands and says “I don’t know!”–is also a major claim and potential flaw of utilitarianism, but it is not one of the standard objections to it.

Maybe it's you

ralitso 2021-03-18

Bad Horse, you say:

So, yes, they are making a claim, but I’m not interested in talking with anyone who would question that claim, and would characterize such a person as insane.

You are by your own admission not a philosopher, who you call “stupid” and “lousy mathematicians.” Unfortunately, philosophy is not math, and it’s also not generally very simple. Enough people who have devoted their lives to philosophy disagree with consequentialism for competing frameworks such as value ethics not to be considered fringe. Is it really a rational response to dismiss all of these people as “insane” rather than considering that you may be missing something? Are you sure what David calls “rationalist eternalism,” which you might see as a good thing, isn’t restricting your view?

With that out of the way, here’s what I came up with when thinking about why I don’t find consequentialism fully satisfactory:

Let’s assume a harmful action has both an internal cause (the will) and an external effect (the damage). (I don’t want to get into whether “true” free will exists here (which I doubt) - let’s assume that some approximation of will is an emergent phenomenon.) Consequentialism asserts that only the damage matters.

When considering what action to take among a set of alternatives (the most prototypical type of ethical question), I agree.

When determining how damage should be compensated for in an ideal judicial system, it also makes sense to only consider the damage.

But in practice, ethics is often applied to a different question: in an ideal judicial system, what consequences should the perpetrator face, other than compensating for damage? Here, I believe we must consider the will/intention. If we believe the purpose of a corrections system is to reform behavior and prevent it from happening again, a malicious act should be taken much more seriously and admonished more harshly than an accident.

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