Josh Haas's Web Log

Empty your cup

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Imagine a person sitting on a beach writing a book about the earth, for the benefit of any aliens who happen to come along. Let’s say she wants to be really thorough. Can’t take shortcuts with the earth, it’s very important! She picks up a grain of sand in front of her, and ponders it… what can she say about it? Well, maybe the place to start is with the atoms that make up this grain of sand…let’s see, there’s about 80 million… times a million… times a million of them.

She gives up and gets a new hobby.

Knowledge is the destruction of information. Reality is hideously complex, and humans have small squishy minds: trying to fit even the simplest thing into our heads — an insect, for instance — if we took it in uncompressed, would quickly max out our memory. Therefore for us to know anything about the world, we have to creatively throw information away, similar to how a jpeg image is a creative compression of raw camera data.

The way that compression works is through finding patterns. If you know that in general, cats like to drink milk, then you can make guesses about what a new kitty will do when presented with a saucer, without having to have first memorized the behaviors of every single one of the millions of cats alive today.

We rely on these patterns to survive and get around the world. If we didn’t seek out and learn patterns, every situation would be paralyzing in its complexity. We would spend all day sitting on the floor staring at the stain on the carpet.

Patterns are just approximations, though. There are cats who don’t like milk. There are pixels that don’t actually reflect the value interpolated from the jpeg. That’s the cost of using patterns — by compressing the world down to a level of complexity we can actually deal with, we throw out information that doesn’t fit into our compression scheme.

In other words, all knowledge is lies. Knowledge tells us about the world, but it also misleads us about the world. Often knowledge is a white lie: the reason we “know” things is because it helps us survive. But still: lie lie lie lie lie lie lie.

This has a very important consequence: there can be multiple, incompatible descriptions of the world that are both “true”. If you compress an image as a gif instead of a jpeg, you will get disagreement between the two compressions about what the value of a given pixel is. The gif might say it’s blue whereas the jpeg might say it’s aquamarine.

You can zoom in on that pixel and compare it to the original, and say that, no, look, the actual color is closer to blue. So in that sense the gif is “right” and the jpeg is “wrong”. But if you picked a different pixel, the jpeg might be closer, so you can’t conclude from that one pixel that the gif is the truth and the jpeg is a distortion. They’re both distortions, just in different ways.

Truth is both absolute and relative. It’s absolute in the sense that you can always zoom in on a particular pixel, a particular cat, a particular grain of sand. But it’s relative in the sense that humans can only “know” it via a compression scheme, and compression schemes are never right or wrong in an absolute sense.

Truth isn’t just relative, though. It’s relative to a context. The reason we know that cats like milk is because we want to feed Fluffy. If humans didn’t keep cats as pets, a description of the world that contained “cats like milk” would be a bad description — it would be as irrelevant as someone sitting on a beach and counting the atoms in a grain of sand.

In other words, all “knowledge” is relative to the values of the knower. What I “know”, what compression schemes make sense for me, depends on what I care about. If you find a little kid who is into trains, you will discover that there is a lot to know about trains!

Bruce Lee made famous the phrase “empty your cup“. It’s sort of a mystical-sounded martial arts story, but we can actually put what it means pretty precisely. When the Kung Fu master says “empty your cup”, the computer scientist would say:

“I am trying to explain to you a new compression scheme. However, you can’t understand it, because you are already compressing the raw data a different way than I am, and it is giving you different data points, which makes my compression scheme seems ‘wrong’ to you. So, stop compressing for a moment and take in your experience as raw data without trying to simplify it. If you do this, you will be able to see that my compression scheme also works as a description of this raw data, and in fact might be more useful to you than your scheme for learning this particular skill.”

The Kung Fu master is not saying that her way of looking at the world is “right” (or at least, not if she’s super-wise)! She is saying that given the context, which is learning how to throw a hard punch, her knowledge works better than your knowledge. And she is also saying that you can’t learn her knowledge unless you un-know — i.e., un-compress — what you know, because your knowledge is telling you lies that are obscuring the different set of lies that she wants to teach you. Empty your cup.

This gets us to the thing I’m really trying to talk about, which is the contemporary education system in America.

Historically there have been two goals of the education system which people don’t realize are actually in stark competition with each other. The first goal is “acquiring knowledge” and the second goal is “learning to think”.

Acquiring knowledge means learning the set of lies that are currently valued by society. The goal is to take the informal training that young people acquire from their families and communities, and polish it up. Sandpaper off any weird notions their parents might have that don’t quite fit with the mainstream. Fill in any embarrassing areas of ignorance. Get students up to speed with the latest, greatest lies that scientific, cultural and business leaders have been producing.

This kind of training is extremely valuable, and parents rightly pay a lot for it. Society functions based on an agreed-on set of common knowledge. That’s how a young graduate can walk into a job at a company and be useful and productive. That’s how politicians can sit in a room and come out with a set of policies that are acceptable to the community. Parents want their children to acquire knowledge because the people most fluent in society’s knowledge ace job interviews, succeed in business or politics, and attract spouses who are similarly talented. And this is great.

“Learning to think” is a little trickier. Allegedly, learning to think is the goal of a “liberal arts education”, although I’m not sure too many people involved in the process actually have a clear sense of what it really means. In my opinion, what it means to “learn to think” is to learn how to evaluate knowledge. It means to be able to take a statement about the world, and instead of taking it at face value, take it for the lie it is, and ask “is this lie useful? what context is this lie useful in? who is this lie useful for? what values does this lie embody? what experience is this lie compressing, and what are alternate ways of compressing this experience?”

This is a hard skill to learn, because to do this, one has to be willing to face up to the fact that one’s own knowledge is actually just an approximation. This is emotionally unsettling to do, and takes continual practice. It is much more relaxing to feel as if one understands reality, to be confident instead of questioning. Therefore there is very strong inertia against any program of learning how to think. Even if one thinks a little bit, and has an “insight” (having an “insight” means, making the jump from one compression scheme to a different one), the tendency is to then glom onto one’s new knowledge as “truth”, and to stop the process of thinking.

So learning to think is a hard, all-consuming skill. And this is why it is in competition with acquiring knowledge, because it’s very difficult to both learn a set of knowledge and simultaneously learn why one shouldn’t take that knowledge at face value.

Both acquiring knowledge and learning to think are important. A student who just acquires knowledge will be able to function well in existing frameworks, but will be ill-equipped to deal with situations where knowledge no longer fits reality. A student who just learns to think will be able to deal with new stuff, but they will be at a disadvantage in day-to-day life because they’re constantly figuring out what everyone around them can take for granted (they will get rejected from job interviews).

The relative importance of acquiring knowledge and learning to think depends on how stable society is. In a golden age, where a society is prosperous and confident, the existing patterns of compression embedded in social institutions are largely effective. What people “know” about the world is sufficient for them to control their environment, run an economy, deal with external and internal threats. In such a society, independent thought is valuable, but not so valuable — society already has a lot of valuable knowledge, and as a student it makes sense to put a lot of effort into absorbing it.

In contrast, a society is in flux when it’s patterns of compression are not effective. There is uncertainty about the future; threats to the social order; change and chaos. People don’t know yet how to deal with the new things that are going on. In such a world, it’s valuable to learn what society knows, in order to function effectively within it; but the most successful leaders are the people who learn how to come up with new knowledge, because new knowledge is what is needed.

We are in an unstable world. Our educational system is designed for a stable one. There is some emphasis on learning how to think, but in my experience, getting “A”s by and large involves being able to convince teachers that you have absorbed their knowledge, as opposed to demonstrating skill at questioning and un-learning knowledge. This is a generalization of course (another pattern, another lie), but I think it’s a useful generalization when thinking about the education system.

To me, this seems like a big problem. There is a lot of discussion about how to make education “better” in the sense of it being more broadly distributed — how do you get education to everyone in society, not just the privileged few, and how do you get it in a cost-effective way that doesn’t create massive piles of student debt. This is a very important question! The current system disenfranchises a lot of people. I’m worried, though, that with all the emphasis on making education more accessible, the question of “what is education” is getting overlooked. It would be good if society was better at distributing knowledge to everyone. It would be even better if it could teach everyone how to think.

Written by jphaas

June 18th, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized