The Twin Webs of Knowledge

by Kaj_Sotala3 min read28th Aug 200972 comments


Personal Blog

Related to and partially inspired by: Joy in the Merely Real; Entangled Truths, Contagious Lies.

Where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite. -- Ghost in the Shell

There are those among us who resist the steady march of science, who feel that the reductionist creed takes away the beauty of things, who would rather enjoy sacred mysteries instead of naturalistic explanations. I suspect not many of them are reading this site. But even among aspiring rationalists, there are probably many who still feel some sympathy to that line of thought, who cannot but feel a twinge of pain where something mysterious ends up explained.

To them I reply thusly:

Picture in your mind a vast, glowing network of things, at the center of which are you. I visualize it akin to a great, vast city at night, a city that never sleeps. For some reason, all the lights in the buildings are out, so all the light comes from the myriad cars, trains and buses bustling in the night. Greg Egan's phrase, "making the pulses race along the tracks like a quadrillion cars shuttling between the trillion junctions of a ten-thousand-tiered monorail" comes to mind. Though it is not the tracks or roads themselves that we are the most interested in, but the hubs where they meet and from which they emerge.

The hubs in the network are many in kind: some are other people, some are books and items in which information is stored, some are past events and experiments once conducted. The brightest hubs are the ones closest to you, from which information is flowing to you directly: they are your glowing constellation of stars. Beyond them, the hubs glow less and less bright as they get more distant: finally they are but dim, barely visible dots in a sea of blackness, spread out like the rocks at the bottom of the seafloor. Further still, even those dots vanish, but you know it doesn't mean there aren't any: it simply means that you don't know what and where they are.

Now overlay this network of lights on a landscape. Not just the physical landscape of the Earth and the universe, though the net covers that as well. To see things in full, you must also overlay the network on the maps showing the sum of all human knowledge: that which is known in maths, physics, biology, literature, and all the sciences and arts besides. By themselves, all these landscapes are dark and impenetrable: with the great web of knowledge overlaid, the hubs illuminate their surroundings, revealing the landscape's contents. You could say that the people and events illuminate the landscapes around them, but you could likewise also say that they are drawing their light from the landscapes, for every pulse of information that moves across the lines in the network has its origins in one of the landscapes.

As you move and seek out new people, you forge new links and make previously dim hubs glow more brightly; where you lose contact with people and lose interest in things, connections fade away and hubs disappear back into the darkness. You yourself are glowing as well: as an infant, your glow was dim and weak, your parents and elder siblings the main things you were directly connected with. As you sucked in and absorbed their knowledge, your light grew brighter. Now, as you absorb more and more, you become better capable of understanding all you see: you learn to find understanding by simply looking at things, seeing in them much that you were previously blind to. Thus the radius of light surrounding you grows ever wider, in all the dimensions and fields you choose to pursue.

For this network of things is mirrored by another network in your mind: the network of things you have learnt. As the other, this network is constantly changing, new nodes and connections appearing as you learn new things, vanishing as you forget them. When someone or something in the other web illuminates its surroundings, you can take what you see around him and store it in your mind, link it with the other previous things you already know. For as long as you do not forget this new thing, you will retain a connection to the source you learned it from. Thus the places you once saw will remain illuminated for as long as you remember, though as time passes you only retain the memory of what those places were once like, not necessarily the way they are now: and you may need to revisit them to find out that they have changed.

As you come to know more and more related things, those things are bound tightly together in your mind's web. The places the knowledge was drawn from will likewise stay brightly and evenly lit, pushing back the darkness. As you expand your mental web of things more and more, entirely new fields of understanding will open themselves to you. Below the abstract fields of sciences and arts are the fields you mastered back as a child, the fields that your webs were once limited to and have now branched out from. Are you not for some reason mute, you will have learned the art of producing speech: are you not disabled, you will have learned to walk. But even if those fields wouldn't be known to you, the fact that you understand what I am writing means that you have learnt the basic fields of human understanding. In some way, you have learned to communicate, and you have learned to reason and to think. From this foundation, vast depths of knowledge have become open to you.

Fear not that new understanding would render things cold and boring. If you avoid new understanding, you are limiting the reach of what you can learn. If you embrace and actively seek out new understanding, you will spread out across the entire universe.


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This seems to me a bit maudlin at times in the overall tone of the work. I guess my question would be what is point of this? Are you trying to bash anti-reductionist arguments, or anti-science or some mix of the two, or am I missing the point all together?

2Kaj_Sotala12yIt was an attempt to counter the impression of science and learning as cold and boring by presenting it in emotionally compelling terms, to make it seem like something attractive and exciting. It seems it didn't work very well, but I'm not sure of whether that was because it was poorly carried out, or because the audience here both a) already considers as obvious what I was trying to say b) is negatively predisposed towards arguments that appeal primarily to emotions.

Hum. Plenty of people have apparently had the time to read this, but the post itself appears to remain at zero karma. I'm curious: is that because it's getting an equal amount of up- and downvotes, or did genuinely nobody consider the post any good?

As far as my more poetic sort of writing goes, I thought this if not good then at least adequate, and am a bit puzzled of the lackluster reaction it seems to be getting.

1Vladimir_Nesov12yWhen I read this, I wanted to say something about porn [], but shied away.
0Kaj_Sotala12yTrue, though... it was intended to be a way to sell rationalism and science to those who aren't already rationalists (as well as enforcing the rationalism of those not so certain about it), so being pornish was kinda part of the design spec. Though looking at it that way, I can understand that it might evoke negative reactions because of that.
0orthonormal12yI voted neither up nor down, because I feel it takes too long to describe a fairly simple analogy; stretching out a poetic piece in this way gives the impression of a sermon. Two paragraphs, in the context of another substantive post, would have worked better for me, and I suspect it would have worked better for new readers as well. I know it's difficult to be simultaneously poetic and concise, but it's generally worth the extra effort.
2Kaj_Sotala12yThank you, that's valuable advice. (Funnily enough, I originally thought that one of the problems may had been in the fact that it was too short to make an impact.) So in your opinion, it'd have been better if it'd been something like this: ...hum. It still needs some work, but you are right - it does seem better.
0SforSingularity12yI voted it down. Sorry ;-0 EDIT: I like most of your posts, so I guess I hold you to a somewhat higher than average standard.
0Kaj_Sotala12yThat's okay - anything in particular that made you vote it down? Just the thing about finding out about your own nature, or something else as well?
2SforSingularity12yI found the post sounded a little bit too wooly/new age.
0gwern12yI thought it was adequate. I think I've seen better appeals to intuitions, though, like Indra's net: The original Hindu descriptions of Indra's net are even better but I don't have on hand.
0AndyWood12yI thought it was wonderful, and voted it up. I think often about the interplay between the internal and external world, and the expansion of consciousness that occurs as one's knowledge grows year-over-year. I find it helpful for understanding, and yes, appreciating, reality. This post added something to my internal picture of it all. Unfortunately, I only have one vote to give.
0Kaj_Sotala12yOkay, glad to hear that at least somebody liked it. Thanks, you saved my day. :)

There are those among us who resist the steady march of science, who feel that the reductionist creed takes away the beauty of things, who would rather enjoy sacred mysteries instead of naturalistic explanations. I suspect not many of them are reading this site. But even among aspiring rationalists, there are probably many who still feel some sympathy to that line of thought, who cannot but feel a twinge of pain where something mysterious ends up explained.

I can make a stronger complaint than that: that the more we find out about ourselves, the emptier ... (read more)

Finding out about human nature, and particularly your own nature is typically a soul-destroying experience,

Either we have very different natures or you're doing it wrong. Are you sure you're really understanding your own nature, or are you just being told in a flat voice that it's non-mysterious but without actually having the sort of knowledge you'd need to e.g. build a copy of yourself?

I've been pleasantly surprised by the fact that every piece of knowledge I feared has turned out not to cause an internal catastrophe once I obtained it.

3SforSingularity12yI wouldn't say "internal catastrophe", more just a long line of disappointments. To wit: finding out that when we humans profess our undying love for each other, we are actually simply deluded. The real nature of human relationships is a compromise between co-operation and defection, as evidence by human nonpaternity studies. Or, take the example of charity and the extent to which many people give just enough money to charity to purchase moral satisfaction and no more. And the degree to which people are eager to help people like tramps who are near and immediate, but not the much more worthy cause of third world poverty. And also the extent to which people react badly to suggestions about efficient charity. Hell, consider that most people just don't give anything to charity, and don't think that there's a problem with ordering their nice new flatscreen TV whilst the kids in Africa die of malaria. And, of course, there's an evo-psych explanation for this. Or, to take a leaf from the book of Frank Adamek [], consider the extent to which humans do not magically become super-motivated and super effective when they know that their actions determine, with non-negligible probability, the fate of the universe: In each of these cases, more self knowledge shatters our pleasant delusions about ourselves. Now, since I am still here, I haven't had an "internal catastrophe" upon learning these things, because as PJEby says, knowing your weaknesses is the first step to overcoming them. In essence, this little comment explains both the urgent need for transhumanism, and why it is so unpopular. And lastly, the best thing one could ever learn about human nature is that we will succeed this century in spite of our flaws. And that, I guess, is singularitarianism. Unfortunately, it is a dream which may or may not come true.
2Psychohistorian12yI'm not sure where you got your standards, but I'm reasonably sure they're a bit high.
0SforSingularity12yIrrelevant - the claim is whether or not more self-knowledge is a happy set of surprises or a set of mostly disappointments. I do not think that my pre rationaliy expectations about human nature were unusual for a human being. Maybe this is your claim? You think that there are people who read evolutionary psychology and were pleasantly surprised?
5Kaj_Sotala12yI've found a definite relief in evolutionary psychology - as many others, I have maintained an unrealistically positive self-image. Then at times I have found out that my actions don't match up with the ethics I was previously claiming to follow. Looking at evpsych and realizing that this kind of behavior is actually normal has helped me to accept that I don't need to feel guilty about being less ethical than I actually am... and accepting that has helped me actually become more ethical [], in more ways than one, as I don't need to waste time feeling guilty instead of actually changing things.
2SforSingularity12yNow that is an interesting take on the matter. Thank you, Kaj. Of course, before the "realization" that your misdemeanours were caused by lawful physical malfunctions of your brain, rather than by a nonphysical black box called your "self", one could always entertain the illusion that misbehaviour was, for oneself, an abberation which would be expunged if only you really tried hard enough. To realize that it is the default scenario is saddening.
0Jonathan_Graehl12yclarify: about the possibility of being less ethical than you are now? Obviously you can't now be less than you are now.
1Kaj_Sotala12yI think I meant to write something along the lines of "about acting less ethically than my unrealistically glorified self-image claims I would act".
4scotherns12yI was VERY pleasantly surprised. Suddenly an enormous set of previously baffling data (i.e. the behaviour of most of humanity) began to make sense :-) It's hard to fix the root cause of a problem without understanding it.
0SforSingularity12yIf I had simultaneously discovered Evo Psych, and a viable strategy to debias the human race quickly, I would share your enthusiasm... as it is, the situation could be construed as hopeless, so it might be better if we lived out our lives in ignorance. Whether it is actually hopeless is another question, and one that I want to answer.
0scotherns12yI thought it was hopeless before I discovered Evo Psych. Now it's just very difficult. Quickly debiasing the human race seems a bit optimistic :-) Knowing Evo Psych at least makes it possible to make better predictions, and take more effective action. How can this be a bad thing?
2Douglas_Knight12yI think your expectations about human nature were unusual, though typical for a nerd. They're probably what everyone verbalizes, but you're a nerd who is dominated by words, rather than paying attention to (and imitating) how people actually act. I think the answer to Psychohistorian's question about where you got your standards is from other people, who described them in the language of Normal people, while you spoke only Nerd. Also, your complaints are all phrased in terms of other people, not self-knowledge. It is compatible with your claims that you live up to your standards and other people just don't hold them. In particular, you complain that you're not important because people don't act. But if most people don't act, there's little competition to be important! That doesn't mean it's easy, but it means that it's difficult in ways that are different than you thought before, and you have the advantage of knowing this. Probably you don't live up to your standards, but pay attention and check what you actually do. Don't take ev psych's word for it, since (I claim) you got in this mess by paying too much attention to words.
0SforSingularity12ySo basically, the solution to the problem of being depressed because I now have too much knowledge about my own, and others' flaws is to get one more piece of knowledge: nobody else really believes in these standards, and furthermore are are continually emitting Genuine BullShit (tm) when they speak about standards - i.e. they compartmentalize - abstract ethics goes in one compartment, actual criteria for taking actions go in another.
1Douglas_Knight12yMaybe my comment mislead because of the context. I didn't say it was a solution. Mainly, I meant to unbundle "what" from "why." I think it is what people do that bothers you. For people who are already disappointed by "what," learning "why" might be a positive experience. I didn't say that self-knowledge makes you happy, though I agree with Kaj Sotala. And self-knowledge is necessary for self-improvement, for you produce your own happiness.
1SforSingularity12yI think that people who do not know about human cognitive biases tend to hold lots of false beliefs on the "what" side, for example by employing various pieces of dark side epistemology to protect certain cherished false beliefs about human nature. yes but self-knowledge is not necessary for happiness - let us be clear, you might never get as much happiness back through effort as you lost through debiasing. Not that that bothers me, because I value truth very highly, but it would bother some people.
0Psychohistorian12yQuite simply, there is nothing inherently "depressing" or "disappointing" with how people happen to be. It would be nice if people were genuinely charitable, and, to the degree that it's intelligible, it would be nice if love were more than "mere chemical reactions." But it's never been this way, and neither will ever likely actually happen. The fundamental problem is that your reaction works as if changing your understanding changed the world, rather than the other way around. What I meant by high standards specifically is that one need not think people are perfectly charitable to generally like people. People you don't know behaving somewhat worse than you would hope is not a reason to become dispirited, particularly when they were never that way to begin with.
0SforSingularity12y"Depressing" is a 2-place predicate - Depressing(x,y). A certain situation x may or may not be depressing to a certain individual y. The situation that humans are both uncharitable, selfish and furthermore deluded about that is depressing to me. Causally, this is because I also used to be deluded about it, so finding out that people are not as nice as the propoganda says they are feels like a loss, though, as you point out, it is not. But the fact that the causal explanation for my disappointment in humanity is that I used to be deluded does not logically compel me to change my standards. Indeed, I think that it is precisely because we are mostly deluded about what our own typical behaviour is, and what our typical motivations are that we even have a concept of goodness. Our concept of goodness is what happens when we believe our own bullshit.
1kess3r12yI would suggest reading: []
-2Vladimir_Nesov12yHuh? Some teleology. Obligatory reading: Existential risk [].
1SforSingularity12yI said may or may not come true - I realize that existential risk is the main power behind "may not"
-1Vladimir_Nesov12yYou did say that, but you also said that "we will succeed this century *in spite of* our flaws", which seems like a clear contradiction.
1[anonymous]12ySuppose that you're just an ordinary person, with an ordinary person's personality, habits, and idiosyncrasies. Then, somehow, you come to find out that your personality, habits, and idiosyncrasies are all caused by the fact that there's not enough iron in your blood [], or some of the proteins in your brain are misbehaving [], and you fix the problem, causing your personality, habits, and idiosyncrasies to be erased and replaced with something else. Maybe you're happier and also more skilled as a result. But what part of you has been preserved?
0CannibalSmith12yMy feeling of existence.
0[anonymous]12yWhat if I just replaced you with a copy of, I dunno, my high school English teacher? You would still have a feeling of existence if I did that.
0CannibalSmith12yIf you did that gradually, maybe.
0Douglas_Knight12yWhat did you fear? Maybe I'm reading too much into this phrasing, but I really don't like that "once I obtained it." It would be plausible if you were saying that you feared things from afar, but once you were forced to deal with them, it turned out that you could live with them, and you could have figured that out if you'd confronted them ahead of time. But it sounds like you're saying that they only turned out to be unproblematic when you got close to them, which sounds suspicious to me.
1pjeby12yThat's only true if the insight isn't accompanied by the ability to change that nature. Finding out just how messed up you are is liberating when you realize that 1) you're not to blame for the past, and 2) it doesn't have to be your future any more.
0SforSingularity12yThis is true, to some extent. We are able to make small changes to human nature, including our own nature. Just how far do you think that can be taken, though? Can a lazy person recognize that they are lazy and go on to become a millionaire?
0PhilGoetz12yI can think of 6 of my friends who became multi-millionaires at a young age. 4 of them got wild lucky breaks with stock options; 1 of them inherited it; 1 of them worked for 10 years to build a large company starting from nothing, which I think he still owns 50% of (the other 50% being owned by his initial angel investor). So, 5 out of these 6 millionaires got there almost completely by luck. Ironically, at least 2 of these 5 are absolutely convinced that anyone in the US who is smart and works hard will become a millionaire.
2SforSingularity12ythat 5 of your friends all got very lucky seems very unlikely to me. Perhaps you have a biased sample of intelligent, motivated friends (i.e. more intelligent and motivated than average).
1saturn12yPerhaps Phil prefers making friends with people who are already millionaires.
-1PhilGoetz12yIt was not just luck in the stock-options cases. They wouldn't have gotten lucky if they weren't capable, motivated people. So, biased sample, yes. But, still, lucky. saturn - No, I didn't initially know that they were millionaires.
1SforSingularity12yhow do you know? Do you have 5 other capable, motivated friends who shot for millionairedom and failed over and over again?
1pjeby12yWhich two?
0pjeby12yI'll wait to answer that question until I become a millionaire a second time, so I can replicate the result. ;-) (The first time might have been overly influenced by the dotcom boom, and in any event didn't involve me changing any personal characteristics.) More seriously: I've changed a ton of other characteristics in myself, both minor and major, and this is not uncommon among people I've trained. Realizing that you do something for a reason -- even if it's a stupid, outdated, reason -- is often a relief in itself. But once you understand the reason, then using the right method(s) allows change to take place almost instantaneously. It's finding the reasons in the first place that's more complex, since the brain does not (alas) have a "view source" button.
0SforSingularity12yHow did you first become a millionaire?
0pjeby12yStock options.
0SforSingularity12yIn a dotcom startup that made it big? Were you a founder? Early employee?
1pjeby12ySomething like that. I designed a customer ticket tracking system that decreased customer-perceived latency of cases handled by email (using a novel scheduling technique derived from the Theory of Constraints), improved interdisciplinary co-operation across a physically and organizationally-distributed workforce, and enabled private-label support for OEM clients without needing dedicated staff for each client. It made a huge difference to the ability to land private-label deals while keeping the overhead for each deal low, as well as easing product-line integration as the company expanded. In terms of value to the company, it was probably worth at least $20-30million during the time I worked there. I probably should've asked for more options. ;-)
0SforSingularity12yAnd the skills required for this were? Programming experience and your innate intelligence, plus a modicum of business sense and what we would call rationality here?
1pjeby12yI don't think that much of what gets discussed here would've helped much or been particularly relevant. It was more a matter of knowing what I wanted and what the company needed, as well as my previous 12+ years practical experience about what people will and won't do when confronted with a computer program that they don't necessarily want to use in the first place. It was a problem of whole-system design, including both social and HCI aspects. For example, many characteristics of the system were designed specifically to promote viral adoption of the software within the company, as well as to create subtle social pressures towards customer- or company-beneficial behaviors. I had previously apprenticed under a teacher who taught me the social dynamics of business, as well as the art of designing systems that merged machine and human information processing with social manipulation to achieve business goals. (Specifically, in the field of real estate office management software, but the lessons were pretty universal.) In a way, you could say my understanding of irrationality was at least as important, if not far more important, than my understanding of "rationality". (Though I learned a lot of instrumental rationality principles during my apprenticeship as well.)
1SforSingularity12yVery interesting. And you must have been, what, 30 when you did this? 35?
0Kaj_Sotala12yThat sounds interesting. Could you provide some examples?
2pjeby12yWell, one of the more obvious social pressures was the WCD metric, which showed up at the case and queue levels as part of the normal display. Cases were advisory-locked by working on them, and this information was shown as part of the queue display, making it obvious who's working on something that's part of a case, and who's not. The last person to send a response to the customer was visible, to encourage people to prefer to continue work on the same case, but to take over if the person isn't around. The WCD metric was also designed so that a customer never had to wait in queue a second time due to needing to email back for clarification, since what WCD measures is how long customer(s) are waiting for the resolution of an issue, rather than the duration of a single pass through the queue, or how long the customer sat around between responses. IOW, WCD was a "chess clock" timer, such that a response by the company stopped the timer until the customer made another move. One of the viral aspects was that it was extremely easy to do all sorts of interdepartment workflows, but nobody was penalized for foreign WCD. If you transferred a case that the customer's been waiting three days on, every department that sees it is going to prioritize it as if it's been waiting three days, even if they've only just seen it now. The ease of relationship made departments demand that any department they relied upon use it, since it meant they could immediately begin a customer response as soon as they got what they needed. And departments that were receiving delegations by email from other departments, wanted to get on it so they could track the stuff. I arrived at these design features by starting with the fundamental design dynamic of groupware, which is that nobody will ever do any work to put information into groupware unless they perceive a benefit to themselves. ;-) (There are some other dynamics, of course, but they're not coming to me at the moment. I do not really design by
0Kaj_Sotala12yThank you, that's very interesting. I need to remember those techniques, some of them may come in handy later on.
0Douglas_Knight12yWhat does WCD stand for? ("whole case delay"?) Are we supposed to know? If you mean for it to be opaque, you could signal that by putting it in quotes ("WCD metric") the first time.
1pjeby12yHm, I could've sworn I spelled it out somewhere abovet, but can't find it now. "Weighted Customer Delay". It's roughly analagous to TDD (Throughput-Dollar-Days) from the Theory of Constraints, only measured in customer-hours rather than dollar-days.
-1wedrifid12yThey can. A lazy person recognizing they are lazy and becoming a driven go-getter type would be a far less plausible outcome. Lazy + intelligent + flexible ethics is a reasonable combination for becoming a millionaire (or a prison inmate).
-1Vladimir_Nesov12yThere is no ability to change human nature as yet.
3thomblake12yWhat do you mean by 'human nature'? It seems like 'nature' is in general ill-defined in the first place. If you mean simply, "what it's like to be a human" then I think in many relevant ways we're changing that all the time.
0gwern12yAs the Nietzschean quip goes, if the human nature is to be in flux, then you can't change it by changing yourself or others.
0PhilGoetz12yYou can change it in 5 minutes with an icepick [].
0pjeby12yIf you re-read the comment you're replying to, you'll see I was answering the part about "your own nature", not "human nature". However, if you consider that most of what constitutes "human nature" is actually metaprogramming that drives the acquisition of our individual nature, then an enormous part of that nature is not actually hard-wired. People who've not done any significant amount of mindhacking are horribly biased towards believing that aspects of their individual nature are in fact universal. (Actually, everyone is so biased, it's just that non-mindhackers are an order of magnitude worse, because they don't have the experience yet of seeing the consistent disconnect between their automatic thoughts and external reality.) Stupid example: earlier this week I realized that I was choosing not to aggressively pursue certain goals because I felt the "rush" to complete them would be stressful. Then I realized that there was no intrinsic association between "rush" and "stress" -- that was a learned response, and a fairly specific one at that. (My mother always freaked out whenever she was late... which was virtually all the time.) However, until I thought to question that specific assumption, I was not conscious of it being my individual nature - it was assumed to be part of human nature, or just the nature of the world itself. (i.e. "of course it's stressful to rush") It's impractical to question every implicit association, though, and practical knowledge/experience is needed as a guide to know what assumptions to surface and question. (A good rule of thumb, though, is that anything that provokes a negative emotional reaction should be questioned thoroughly.)
0ferrouswheel12yModafinil removes the urge to sleep pretty well - but as thomblake mentions, it depends on how you define that ill-defined concept.
0wedrifid12yFor the individual at least. Eugenics of course gives the ability to change human nature (albeit with a time scale and logistical difficulties that make it useless to most purposes).
0Vladimir_Nesov12yHow generally [] does your statement apply? How do you know it? There are wrong ways [] to learn, but also good ones. Also, the level of happiness usually can't be systematically affected.
2SforSingularity12yIt is probably true that learning things is unlikely to make you any happier or unhappier than you were to start with.
0SforSingularity12yIt seems to be fairly general. Can you point to a set of news items about human nature that makes us feel better about ourselves? I can point to lots that probe human self-delusion, weakness and mechanicity.