Nov 8, 2017
I turn 33 today. I can only hope that age brings wisdom.
We’ve been talking recently about the high-level frames and heuristics that organize other concepts. They’re hard to transmit, and you have to rediscover them on your own, sometimes with the help of lots of different explanations and viewpoints (or one very good one). They’re not obviously apparent when you’re missing them; if you’re not ready for them, they just sounds like platitudes and boring things you’ve already internalized.
Wisdom seems like the accumulation of those, or changes in higher-level heuristics you get once you’ve had enough of those. I look back on myself now vs. ten years ago and notice I’ve become more cynical, more mellow, and more prone to believing things are complicated. For example:
1. Less excitement about radical utopian plans to fix everything in society at once
2. Less belief that I’m special and can change the world
3. Less trust in any specific system, more resignation to the idea that anything useful requires a grab bag of intuitions, heuristics, and almost-unteachable skills.
4. More willingness to assume that other people are competent in aggregate in certain ways, eg that academic fields aren’t making incredibly stupid mistakes or pointlessly circlejerking in ways I can easily detect.
5. More willingness to believe that power (as in “power structures” or “speak truth to power”) matters and infects everything.
6. More belief in Chesterton’s Fence.
7. More concern that I’m wrong about everything, even the things I’m right about, on the grounds that I’m missing important other paradigms that think about things completely differently.
8. Less hope that everyone would just get along if they understood each other a little better.
9. Less hope that anybody cares about truth (even though ten years ago I would have admitted that nobody cares about truth).
All these seem like convincing insights. But most of them are in the direction of elite opinion. There’s an innocent explanation for this: intellectual elites are pretty wise, so as I grow wiser I converge to their position. But the non-innocent explanation is that I’m not getting wiser, I’m just getting better socialized. Maybe in medieval Europe, the older I grew, the more I would realize that the Pope was right about everything.
I’m pretty embarassed by Parable On Obsolete Ideologies, which I wrote eight years ago. It’s not just that it’s badly written, or that it uses an ill-advised Nazi analogy. It’s that it’s an impassioned plea to jettison everything about religion immediately, because institutions don’t matter and only raw truth-seeking is important. If I imagine myself entering that debate today, I’d be more likely to take the opposite side. But when I read Parable, there’s…nothing really wrong with it. It’s a good argument for what it argues for. I don’t have much to say against it. Ask me what changed my mind, and I’ll shrug, tell you that I guess my priorities shifted. But I can’t help noticing that eight years ago, New Atheism was really popular, and now it’s really unpopular. Or that eight years ago I was in a place where having Richard Dawkins style hyperrationalism was a useful brand, and now I’m (for some reason) in a place where having James C. Scott style intellectual conservativism is a useful brand. A lot of the “wisdom” I’ve “gained” with age is the kind of wisdom that helps me channel James C. Scott instead of Richard Dawkins; how sure am I that this is the right path?
Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.
And what about number 9 on the list? Believing nobody cares about truth is cynicism, which seems sort of like wisdom. But traumatize someone enough and they’ll reliably pick up some new cognitive styles; it’s much easier to give someone hypervigilance than it is to cure them. Imagine someone reading enough newspapers that they hear all of the worst and scariest things, and maybe start thinking that the country is 50% Nazis and 50% violent antifa. Is the resulting pessimism and paranoia really wisdom? Or is it just a more stable, more thermodynamically-preferred state than innocence?
And if I accept my intellectual changes as “gaining wisdom”, shouldn’t I also believe that old people are wiser than I am? And old people mostly seem to go around being really conservative and saying that everything was better in the old days and the youth are corrupt and Facebook is going to be the death of us. I could model this as two different processes – a real wisdom-related process that ends exactly where I am now, plus a false rose-colored-glasses-related process that ends with your crotchety great-uncle talking about how things have been going downhill since the war – but that’s a lot of special pleading. I remember when I was twenty, I thought the only reason adults were less utopian than I was, was because of their hidebound rose-colored self-serving biases. Pretty big coincidence that I was wrong then, but I’m right about everyone older than me now.
There’s one more possibility that bothers me even worse than the socialization or traumatization theory. I’m going to use science-y sounding terms just as an example, but I don’t actually think it’s this in particular – we know that the genes for liberal-conservative differences are mostly NMDA receptors in the brain. And we know that NMDA receptor function changes with aging. It would be pretty awkward if everything we thought was “gaining wisdom with age” was just “brain receptors consistently functioning differently with age”. If we were to find that were true – and furthermore, that the young version was intact and the older version was just the result of some kind of decay or oxidation or something – could I trust those results? Intuitively, going back to earlier habits of mind would feel inherently regressive, like going back to drawing on the wall with crayons. But I don’t have any proof.
Wisdom is like that.