Believing in magic pyramids shows that you think differently

https://www.tomdekan.com/think-differently


Last week I moved to Bonn. My new landlord, Jenno, had left lots of his stuff in the house. Because of this, I spent my first night sleeping next to a large glass pyramid; a bowling ball filled with gold that counteracts the earth's "geopathic stress"; and two salt crystal lights that glow orange.1

My initial reaction was to joke about the magical bowling ball that Jenno had left. But, actually, his stuff shows an admirable quality: he is an independent thinker. He believes things that most people don't believe, which many people would criticise him or mock him for believing in.

Looking at the "archtypes of godhood" poster that was sellotaped to the wall, I thought about how at any point in human history, most people in the present society: 

a) think that the commonly held beliefs are true, and 

b) many of the things that the previous generation thought were obviously wrong.

For example, nowadays most people think: how could previous generations have been so stupid not to realise that smoking / not wearing seatbelts / asbestos / environmental destruction / burning fossil fuels / slavery were so bad?

The natural follow-up thought is: if I had lived at that time, I would have realised how wrong most people's beliefs were.

Maybe that's true.2 But, this reminds me of the the Cross study where 94% of teachers rated themselves as above average teachers. And the Svenson study where 93% of polled US drivers said that they were a better than average driver.

The power of group influence is also strong. The Asch conformity experiments provided a nice example of this. A person (who was being tested) came into a room with a group of people (who were actors). Everyone was shown four lines on a board. One line was clearly longer than the others. The examiners asked each person to say which line he or she thought was the longest.

75% of the time, the person being tested agreed with the clearly wrong suggestion that the majority of the group suggested. Only 25% of the time did the person disagree with the group.

Thinking unconventionally

To have radical ideas, you need to think in an unconventional way. For instance, Isaac Newton spent time on both physics and alchemy. Both ideas probably seemed equally stupid to most people at the time. They were wrong, Newton was right.

Newton needed to ignore this popular inertia against unconventional thoughts. Thinking unconventionally requires you not to care about other people thinking that your ideas are wrong. Unconventional thinkers will probably be wrong most of the time, but they have the chance to be really right where others are currently wrong.

Here's a test to consider if you think unconventionally.3 Ask yourself: what beliefs would you be hesitant to share with some of your friends?

If you can't think of any beliefs, you might be a more conventional thinker than you thought (or extremely confident). If you can think of unconventional beliefs, I would be very interested to hear them.

 

(Cross-posted from my blog at https://www.tomdekan.com/radical-openess in case   some fellow LessWrongers will be interested in this article. Let me know what you think)


  1. This is probably because everyone likes to think of themselves and their thoughts as unique.
  2. The mixture of stuff also included 3 cabinets and a fridge shelf full of supplements and alternative medicine potions, as well as A4 paper runes under the beds and on all electronic devices.
  3. As Paul Graham suggested in his essay: How to think for yourself
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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:58 AM

What is and isn't stupid to believe depends on the general state of knowledge.

Given what Newton's society knew at the time, alchemy wasn't stupid - not enough was known about the nature of matter to know that alchemy was hopeless.

150 years ago nobody had researched smoking - it had some obvious positive effects and no obvious bad effects. Nothing stupid about smoking, then. Almost the same can be said for seatbelts and asbestos (they had obvious pros and cons, of which the magnitudes were not understood).

Environmental destruction is not bad at small scales, nor is burning fossil fuels. It's scale that make them bad.

On the other hand, today we know enough about the way the universe works to say that pyramid power, crystal healing, and runes on A4 paper are stupid. As is your landlord.

That's an interesting comment about environmental destruction. I think that I disagree. I would say that almost environmental damage is bad. For example, I hate seeing people discard plastic wrapping or throw things out of their car window. Every action like that spoils a part of nature that has evolved over millenia. Increased scale certainly makes environmental destruction worse. 

Given that plastic doesn't biodegrade, that is a problem, even at small scales.

What you mean that alchemy was hopeless? We now know how to make gold from non-gold today so there is/was a hope of producing gold.

Most people probably don't look into alchemy. The obvious reason would be 'Alchemists didn't do that, chemists did that.' which suggests alchemists were doing something wrong. Perhaps their approaches were very different.

Particle accelerators are in the domain of physics and outside of chemistry. With present knowlegde producing gold from a compound that doesn't already contain gold via chemical reactions is impossible but with nuclear reactions possible.

If we at some point produce AGI but the science that produces it is no longer called computer science does that mean that computer science was hopeless?

Ah, what is the point of computer science? 'To produce AGI'? I don't think so. (Also, what is computer science? And how could AGI be produced 'without it'?)

I think the name change relates to a shift in at least a few factors. Some googling suggests the difference is a less supernatural epistemology. I'd guess it was a tradition change (although said googling turned up the perspective that chemistry descended from alchemy).


Particle accelerators are in the domain of physics and outside of chemistry.

I'd say it's still nuclear chemistry, and there isn't always a hard line between physics and chemistry.

It seems that historically chemistry as a separate field was about to be born/distinguish itself from the other aactivities. Fanboying over stuff like "experimentally verify the amount of elements instead of assuming 4" seems to be "sciency chemist" stuff. If you inject good epistemics to a bad field is that raising the sanity water level or succumbing to taintd fields? It could be that "chemistry" was not concievable topic of interest and people that were interested in mixing stuff were directed alchemy sources.

We also didn't come up witha new science to support helioscentrism and let a geocentrism kill out a deadend field. Rather within fields there are paradigm shifts.

To have radical ideas, you need to think in an unconventional way. For instance, Isaac Newton spent time on both physics and alchemy. Both ideas probably seemed equally stupid to most people at the time. They were wrong, Newton was right.

?

If Newton spent time on both, this presumably meant that he thought both were equally non-stupid, making him just as wrong as everyone else. (And didn't he spend more time on alchemy than physics, too?)

I'd say that Newton was somewhat less wrong, given that his beliefs led to a productive outcome while their beliefs didn't.

Nicely put.

If Newton spent time on both, this presumably meant that he thought both were equally non-stupid

No. Playing sports and learning rocket science does not mean you think both are equally 'smart'. After all, if I play ping pong once, and spend years studying, the difference in time spent does mean something.