Original Seeing

Followup to:  Cached Thoughts, The Virtue of Narrowness

Since Robert Pirsig put this very well, I'll just copy down what he said.  I don't know if this story is based on reality or not, but either way, it's true.

        He'd been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn't.  They just couldn't think of anything to say.
        One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred word essay about the United States.  He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.
       When the paper came due she didn't have it and was quite upset.  She had tried and tried but she just couldn't think of anything to say.
        It just stumped him.  Now he couldn't think of anything to say.  A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer:  "Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman."  It was a stroke of insight.
        She nodded dutifully and went out.  But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time.  She still couldn't think of anything to say, and couldn't understand why, if she couldn't think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

        He was furious.  "You're not looking!" he said.  A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say.  For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.  The more you look the more you see.  She really wasn't looking and yet somehow didn't understand this.
        He told her angrily, "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman.  The Opera House.  Start with the upper left-hand brick."
        Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide.
      She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana.  "I sat in the hamburger stand across the street," she said, "and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn't stop.  They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is.  I don't understand it."
        Neither did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and concluded she was evidently stopped with the same kind of blockage that had paralyzed him on his first day of teaching.  She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say.  She couldn't think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn't recall anything she had heard worth repeating.  She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before.  The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

                —Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Part of the Seeing With Fresh Eyes subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "The Logical Fallacy of Generalization from Fictional Evidence"

Previous post: "The 'Outside the Box' Box"

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I'm not quite sure what that meant, but it sounded great! ;)

It looks like a lot of people are of a similar mind. Judging by the comments, most people seem to be taking this merely as a way around writer's block, or a praise of depth first analysis as a way to narrow down to "a topic about which others haven't already said everything". The most insightful comment (at least to my sense of quality) proclaims this:

If Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were a math textbook, the rule would be clear: "if you examine something, you will have something to say about it."

There is of course The Virtue of Narrowness, but what I think what Phaedrus is getting at is that people in general, not just in their writing, tend not to put much effort into thinking new thoughts and thinking for themselves. One tool he has apparently employed successfully on his students is to have them narrow the scopes of their essays, forcing them to think for themselves rather than echo back what other people had already said. But reading just this segment of the story out of context might be a little like reading one of Yudkowsky's later sequences without reading earlier ones. Allow me to supply some of that context.

The book is about Phaedrus's ongoing obsession with finding his own specific version of the nebulous "ultimate good" or "objective morality" that so many philosophers have sought after. He calls his form "quality", which is a mixture of the mechanical/analytic structure of science/rationality with the organic/emotional creativity of art/spirituality. The character is unique in the world with this particular brand of philosophy, and so does a lot of original thinking, placing little value on traditional Aristotelian thought. There are 2 types of people in the world: Aristotelians and Platonists, and he is neither.

Given this, I would suggest that Phaedrus is trying hard to think new thoughts himself, and places little value in small adaptations of existing philosophy. The character would suggest that humanity made a wrong turn in Plato's time, with the divide between passion and logic. Fixing this requires an extraordinary amount of out-of-the-box thinking. Science needs to take seriously the quest to learn where hypotheses come from, and how best to nurture passion, creativity, insight, etc and make them a real part of the scientific process. On the other hand, our culture needs to learn to appreciate beautiful engineering alongside beautiful art, and to find Joy in the Merely Real instead of mystery. These efforts call for new paradigms, new ideas, new modes of thought, and an entire upheaval of societal norms, not unlike during the enlightenment and scientific revolution.

The single concept he sees as uniting those two worlds is "Quality". Quality implies both sound engineering, and elegant, desirable form. It's at once beautiful and offers utility. It can't be defined, because to define it you would have to define every whim of an entire human mind. Even so, we all know intuitively what quality is, because we can all agree that one essay is well written or poorly written, even if we squabble about the precise letter grade it deserves. Quality isn't just what people like. The word "just" has no place in that sentence. Quality IS what people like; everything that we can appreciate, for it's design, it's elegance, it's beauty, it's ingenuity... everything.

If any of this piques your interest, I recommend reading the book itself. What I've done is rather like trying to summarize all of The Sequences in one small post. But the point is, we are not talking about a technique to get over writer's block; the author and Yudkowsky are definitely hinting at insights into the human mind. Our minds are predominately an echo chambers of everything we learn from others, but we must try and add an original thought to the mix every now and then, if we want to improve this world we live in.

There was an interesting exercise for overcoming writer's block somewhere, which said to pick a word, any word at random. After you did that, you were told to write a sentence which included that word. After that, a paragraph which included that sentence.

It felt surprisingly effective.

This reminds me of vocabulary homework where I had to write a sentence using each vocabulary word. I couldn't do it. We would get extra credit if we also included one of the extra credit vocabulary words. That I could do.

Fucking hell, that completely and instantly worked. I looked at the first object in the room, determined to come up with something interesting about it- the corner of three planes in the wall, over by the foyer, which makes a 3d platform about 7 feet off the ground. Instantly I was thinking about its structure and what it concealed and what was on top of it. I would not have been thusly inspired to think about that wall had I not set out to see it that way. Nice.

Regarding the first reply here (a year later...): perhaps there is another problem visible here, the problem of when advice is too plain. The story advises in a fashion so transparently evident that even SHRDLU could get it: the poor student quite literally wasn't looking at anything, so Pirsig/Phædrus gave her a topic so mundane that she had to go down and see for herself. If Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were a math textbook, the rule would be clear: "if you examine something, you will have something to say about it." But because writing is a mysterious art, it is assumed that the moral of a story about writing must be mysterious as well.

(Oddly, I never fell prey to this with the visual arts. I thank whoever told me about the negative-space/outline trick - that worked so well that I cached "drawing is seeing" instead.)

Betty Edwards encountered the same problem when teaching students how to draw.

She made a still-life with a ball infront of a vase. But the student drew the ball beside the vase. When she said "Look the ball is in front", he replied "Yes but I don't know how to draw it that way."

Like the essay writer the student was trying to replicate symbols he had already practiced instead of seeing with fresh eyes. She gave the students an image upside down and they were able to replicate it accurately because it forced them to look instead of draw learned symbols.


Interesting! But I wonder how they phrased that to the kids, I mean if they said something like "Here I'll show you!", and then sat next to the kid as shown, that kid probably felt some pressure to do as shown, regardless of logic, while the apes just want the candy. Would be interresting to see the kids when left alone with a box like that...

But here I am, second guessing the study that a team of presumably really intelligent researchers have spent a long time working on, a few minutes after seeing a tiny bit of all their work... reminds me of xkcd.com/277/

Wait, reading just a little more reveals:

NOTE: This is a dramatic reenactment of an experiment for a TV documentary. The actual experiment criteria: The children used ranged from 41-59 months. The chimps used ranged from 2-6 y.o. Chimps mature at 13-14 for females, 15-16 for males. The box always contains a sticker. When the child gets the sticker, they trade that in for a food reward. The child is instructed to get the reward any way they can, then the experimenter leaves the room. The test is filmed. When the child is successful, they say "I have got it!" and the experimenter returns to the room and gives them their reward.

[Edit: Spelling]

Was the girl trying to say something about the US, or say something that nobody said before?

A I understand, narrowness is very useful in the latter case, because it gives you a topic about which others haven't already said everything. And Antony van Leeuwenhoek would agree that you could find details that are otherwise hidden.

Still, school essays rarely require you to write something truly original. I could write 500 words about "the United States" right now. So I feel that this is a sort of a bad example.

There's your disagreement. Get to analyzing.

So let us find very concrete examples of disagreements close to us and see if we can identify the key biases.

There is much to be said for looking at the super-specific. All the interesting complexity is found in the specific cases, while the whole often has less complexity (i.e. the algorithmic complexity of a list of the integers is much smaller than the algorithmic complexity of most large integers). While we might be trying to find good compressed descriptions of the whole, if we do not see how specific cases can be compressed and how they relate to each other we do not have much of a starting point, given that the whole usually overwhelms our limited working memories.

Staring at walls is underrated. But I tend to get distracted from my main project by all the interesting details in the walls.

Next time I need inspiration I'll just stare at a wall then.


Watching myself trying to write (or speak), I am coming to realize what a horrendous hack the language processes of the brain are. It is sobering to contemplate what sorts of noise and bias this introduces to our attempts to think and communicate.

This happens to me every time someone asks me to explain what I believe. I say "uhhh..."
I try to ask people to be more specific (what do you believe about this particular topic)
If they don't, I just tell them I believe human rationality can come to an understanding of everything, and can at least attempt to account for the things it doesn't understand. I may be wrong, but it's so damn hard to start from nothing, even if you do know everything (which I don't).

Most of what I see is what other people have already written... I don't get out of my house much, being a job-free Internet addict. When you live a life in which words are almost all there is, what does that do to originality?

Addendum (Out of concern for appearing too vague and mystical):

What is interesting about a brick wall?

Is is in the texture of a brick or its color or its cracks? Is it in the alignment pattern of the rows, or the deviations within the rows? Is it in the statistical regularities of the rows and columns forming the wall? Is it in the demonstration of rectangular tiling in the plane, properties of containment and division? Is it in the ecological aspects of the wall in relation to it's environment? ...

What is interesting in Borges's Library of Babel, in all it's vast algorithmic complexity?

What's commonly lacking from scientific accounts of the world is the essential role of the observer, not in the world itself, but in any accounting of it.

The benefit of staring at a wall is to become aware of the observer, beyond that it's relatively pointless.

When I first read this, I didn't take it to mean that it's easier to think of something if you narrow your focus. Instead, I took from it the lesson that in order to actually think about something, you should prepare your mind by temporarily deleting/quarantining everything that other people have said about that thing. When you're thinking about what other people have said about a thing, you're not thinking about the thing itself.

Of course, testimonial evidence is very useful and shouldn't be dismissed, but I found this piece enlightening because it pointed out the not-intuitively-obvious difference between thinking about testimonial evidence and thinking about the thing itself.

Reading it for a second time, I understand that this piece can also teach the virtue of narrowing your focus to find more to say about something. For example, I could think that by saying "I survived the teletransportation" I would have proclaimed an irreducible truth, while, really, there's so much more to say about the event if I use concepts with a higher resolution.

Hi this Marty again, this story defines a very open way of thinking. compared when I write I think of a word to describe what I'm thinking If the word is not the correct fit the word has no meaning in my mind. And I find a better thought to fit the word. Is this a good way to translate what is in my mind to English? Or, do I need to think in English before using the word. What still puzzles me is what is a troll? Please remember I have only studied English for maybe, a half a year so your help is greatly appreciated.

Anders wrote: All the interesting complexity is found in the specific cases, while the whole often has less complexity...

I would offer that it's not the algorithmic complexity, but the interconnections that are "interesting", and any (perceived) relationships in a block universe necessarily entail an observer. This is the "zen" running through Pirsig's book about the meaning of meaning.