January 23rd, 2022
LessWrong. What a good name. It is a name that belongs to a community blog dedicated to improving rationality. They are into improving one’s “epistemic rationality” - having beliefs that accurately map over to reality. One of their approaches is being hypervigilant about cognitive biases. The gist of their name: become less wrong to be more right.
I like their name because I like the principle of via negativa. The essence of the principle: focus on the “bad” to reveal the “good.” To quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
The principle that we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.
This principle shows up in many places. Charlie Munger refers to this as “inversion” - reflect deeply about what you do not want to happen to give yourself a competitive edge. And the Stoics use the principle of “negative visualization” - focus on the worst-case scenario to have a chance at avoiding it.
All these via negativa-inspired principles are practical. I write a lot about wisdom in these journals, and about practical philosophy. If philosophy is the love of wisdom, how does one become practical about expressing this love? To love something you need to become intimate with it, and that includes what the polar opposite of it is.
I love “polarity management,” but I love “polarity artistry” even more. I see polarities in everything these days. It is so beautiful. I sense a “wisdom sense” is needed to beautifully balance all of the polarities, including wisdom’s own polar opposite: foolishness. Would engaging in a via negativa with wisdom itself help? Perhaps we can adopt a similar approach as the rationalists do with rationality - to become more wise we need to become less foolish.
My sense is yes. I sense we need something first though. This could be a foolish thing to say, but we need to become more foolish before we become less foolish.
My favorite wise guy, Socrates, was my kind of fool. He had a sense of unknowingness about him, aka he knew he knew nothing, in an embodied way. He was wise enough to seek counsel though, so he asked the Oracle of Delphi to find out who was the wisest person, and to his surprise she said that he was. He then was like: Da fuck? Me? No way. I only know I know nothing. I gotta fact check this.
So he did some fact-checking, going around to inquire with those who had the reputation of being wise. He held space for them, poking around with simple questions, revealing that they were like him - they did not really know anything either. The difference is that they refused to feel this fact, hence they did not embody this unknowingness; they felt the opposite instead.
Richard Rorty has a good word for this: knowingness. To quote Rorty: Academic disciplines are subject to being overtaken by attacks of "knowingness"- a state of mind and soul that prevents shudders of awe and makes one immune to enthusiasm. Like the people Socrates inquired with, modern academics have a sense of knowingness, blocking the sense of being awed by the mystery of what is. What a foolish thing to block.
I like the unknowingness and knowingness distinction. They both have an embodied quality to them, and if you have embodied both qualities yourself, you can easily spot those who predominantly embody one or the other. They are both foolish of course, and I can probably tease out a foolishness taxonomy now. This taxonomy might help us to become intimate with foolishness.
Here is my provisional taxonomy on the four types of fools:
Someone who does not know things, with embodied knowingness.
Someone who knows things, with embodied knowingness.
Someone who knows things, with embodied unknowingness.
Someone who does not know things, with embodied unknowingness.
The first class of fool can be called “the idiot” - the person who talks shit without thinking, spouting all kinds of ignorance with the sense they know everything. The second class of fool is what Taleb calls the “Intellectual Yet Idiot” (IYI) - the person who has a “good education” with the stink of arrogance regarding his intelligence, which is really a cope for their fear of being an imposture. The second class often dunks on the first class. To quote Taleb:
The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.
This fool is the main influencer of our broken legacy institutions, and they lack a complexity awareness, responding to the complex with complicated means. They are also the ones steering the COVID response measures, messing up things pretty badly, while scapegoating the first class of fools to cover up their mistakes. What a foolish thing to do.
The third class of fool is interesting; this is where many in The Liminal Web are at: having the capacity to embody unknowingness, while using many mental models to navigate complexity. They often know as much as the IYI, but they are not playing the rivalrous game that embodied knowingness invokes. The “weirdo” might be a good name here, since the IYI gets weirded out when interacting with this class of fool. The etymology of the word “weird” is also fun: having power to control fate. While the IYI’s are in control of the dying system, obliviously going down with the Titanic, it is the weirdos who have the power to control fate, midwifing the new system into existence.
The last class of fool is where Socrates hangs out - the holy fool. The Buddhists called this “crazy wisdom” and the Christians called this “foolishness for Christ.” This class of fool has the embodied unknowingness like the weirdo, but all the fancy models fade, leaving them with knowing they know nothing. This allows them to be in the fullness of their foolishness. I will refer to this as being “foolbodied.”
Being foolbodied is being the most foolish one can be. It is peak foolishness - a really delicious state to be in. It feels like I am oscillating between the last two classes of fools these days while learning enough “social alchemy” to engage in authentic mimicry, helping me lovingly relate with the first two classes. This seems like the wise enough thing for me to be doing.
Once we become the most foolish, we can start becoming less foolish together. Foolishness is what gives wisdom a chance.
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