Dec 28, 2017
It took me the longest time to see through the illusion that was "rational" discussion.
The setting: A friend and I exchange inquiries about each other's beliefs about X.
The result: the friend would give a number of answers that allowed me to piece together their view of X. An astounding percentage of the time, even a majority, perhaps, one of their answers would contradict another. So, I point this out. My friend, after hearing an explanation, agrees it is a contradiction. We move on, me convinced that I had contributed to their work (the work I assumed that others, not just myself, engaged in: namely, piecing together as accurate a model of reality as possible), only to find, weeks or months later, that on discussing X again, they still gave the same contradictory answers as before, with apparently no memory of our past discussion.
Or discussions. This pattern has repeated up to 4 times (that I've bothered to keep track), my interlocutor agreeing with my corrections, and then showing no sign of having even heard of them down the road.
My whole above description of "the result" is faulty in a subtle way, one that undermines the entirety of it. Here's what was really happening, expressed from my friend's perspective.
The (real) result: A friend and I were discussing X. They showed respect for me by asking me to express myself on it several times. At some point, they dared to point out, rather like a pedantic schoolboy, that there was a sort of inconsistency between my expressions and the forms we studied in textbooks on logic. They were not rude, though, so I graciously acknowledged the rather dry, uninteresting observation, after which we happily continued our conversation. I had thought for a moment that they wished to challenge me, but all seemed to be rather well-resolved, so I forgot the particulars of the incident, only taking with me the general, updated state of our relationship, including, for example, the points that my expressions were generally respected, but that my friend was willing to make some small challenges if they felt like it, though also willing to move on after I was gracious in response.
Or something like this, perhaps. And this key difference I call the map vs the button idea.
I, and other nerds, are conceptual cartographers, attempting to piece together a map of reality. I've often wondered how I seem to update my map so consistently, since I make no specific effort to remember any alterations or additions I deem worth making. Shouldn't I be forgetting them? Maybe I should dedicate some time to writing down and reviewing these precious insights!
But I've since realized that my map is very personal to me. I am well-acquainted with its pieces, which are interconnected in many ways. So long as I swap out one piece at a time, while maintaining mostly the same interconnections with the replacement piece, I seem to remember such changes very easily.
When you ask me what my beliefs on some subject are, I consult my mental map, and I produce for you, on the fly(!), a description of what the map says. How do I answer your inquiry? I deduce my answer to your question by referring to my map.
Now the contrast. Others are not making maps. I think of them rather as like a big wall of buttons. Push a button, and a slip of paper comes out. When I ask such a button-type person a question, I am pushing a certain button, and they, without even thinking, spit out the coresponding piece of paper (there is some relatedness here to the idea of "cached thoughts" as Eliezer Yudkowsky spoke of them. You could well say that these people are mostly just vast collections of cached thoughts).
Where do they spend their effort, if not on map-making? On the following:
Some important differences that flow naturally out from these two different methods and focuses:
Belief(1) shall refer to the kind of thing a nerd says when asked what they believe. It is as accurte a report of their model of reality as they can give on the fly.
Belief(2) shall refer to the kind of answer a normal, social person gives when asked. It is as nice (to their in-group, anyway) and as impressive a statement on the subject as they so far know how to give. It's very much like whipping out the verbal version of a pretty bauble to gain ooh's and aah's (attention and status).
And so I say, belief(1) =/= belief(2).
In a very real sense, normal people just don't even have beliefs(1)! More precisely, if we're talking about things where they don't need to be factually right in order to prosper, if we're talking about politics, religion, philosophy, etc., they don't have beliefs(1) at all.
At the same time, they sustain a convincing illusion of having beliefs(1) (not that that's on purpose or anything; thinking in terms of beliefs(2) is their natural instinct), because when you say "what's your belief on gender equality", they immediately produce a nice shiny answer that definitely sounds like it's saying something about the nature of reality.
The natural but mistaken thing to do is treat what is an automatic, unthinking, knee-jerk, instinctive attempt to impress and to signal which groups they owe fealty to as instead an attempt to describe some part of reality, merely because all of the words in their response sound like a description of a part of reality. That's the error.
So, nerds talk in beliefs(1), normal people talk in beliefs(2), and the result is that both sides commit mutual faux pas and talk past each other. Nerds are constantly embarrassing themselves according to social rules, and normal people don't have any ideas worth listening according to nerd rules.
The specifics of these errors can be deduced once you realize that each side sees their own methodology as so natural that they assume the other side is also using it, but are doing so incompetently. So nerds think normal people are failed nerds, rather than successful normal people, while normal people think nerds are failed normal people, rather than successful nerds.
Normal people think nerds are trying to signal and impress (and failing pathetically and amusingly) and nerds think normal people are trying to make models of the world, and epic fail so hard as to be incapable of discussing any subject beyond four sentences without contradicting themselves. And so on.
If you're a nerd, you might read all this and think I'm being hard on normal people (how can you say such awful things about them as that they're not logically consistent and that they don't ponder before answering questions?), while if you're a normal person reading this (haha, jk), you might think I'm awful hard on nerds (how can you say such mean things as that they don't care what others think and are incapable of properly expressing themselves?). This phenomenon occurs again because both sides are judging everybody by their own standard, not recognizing that others have other standards and succeed very well by them.
One last note. I've spoken as if people are in one camp or the other, but it's really more of a spectrum. Even more precise, it might be correct to say that people are on a spectrum of nerdy/normal for each specific topic they care about. Frankly, very few humans manage to be nerdy about politics and religion, even "nerds." People who are nerdy in many ways suddenly turn into political animals, social thinkers, when you bring up anything controversial. And a normal person might well become nerdy and actually try to learn how some thing really works if they happen to be interested in it for some reason.