When learning a new idea or concept, often it doesn’t make a lot of sense at first. The various descriptions may seem dubious, and we might fail to see the structural similarities that bind them. Then, at some point, if we keep at it and are lucky, we “get it”, it “clicks”, we have an epiphany, a sudden insight into how the idea works. It suddenly crystallizes in our mind, gels in a way it didn’t before, and the various descriptions (at least the good ones) suddenly make sense.
I still remember when I first understood how evolution could be true, and how natural selection worked. That was an idea where the earliest descriptions I’d seen as a boy simply hadn’t made a lot of sense. They made the concept easy to criticize and dismiss. Until an episode of the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan, where he discussed it in a manner in which I started having glimmers of how it could work, and then finished with a visual sequence that finally made it click into place.
Afterward, the vast majority of the criticisms of natural selection, which had seemed so potent before, started seeming misguided, clueless, attacks of an idea the critic didn’t seem to truly understand. At first it was easy to remember my own pre-epiphany state, and to understand where the critics were coming from.
But then, as the years went by, another common effect started to kick in. Once we’ve had the epiphany, once we do understand something, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember our previous state of mind. Once we understand something, and become used to understanding it, it increasingly looks self evident and obvious, and the people who don’t get it seem almost willful in their lack of understanding. It becomes harder and harder to talk with them about the idea.
Even if we do grasp that they’re simply on the other side of the epiphany, our way of talking about the idea has become hopelessly contaminated by our perch on the other side. What now seems like the most crystal clear way to discuss it, often seems like gobbledygook to them, or worse, obfuscated double talk. This is known as the curse of knowledge.
Pondering it all raises three questions in my mind.
The first is, if we suspect we’re on the pre-epiphany side of understanding an idea, how do we cross that boundary? This is difficult, because it often means unlearning one or more things we think we know. The only solution I’ve ever found is to keep studying the idea from various perspectives and sources and hope for that breakthrough.
This recently happened for me with David Deutsch’s way of describing the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which I discussed in a post a few months ago. Very recently I got it and realized that Deutsch truly is in fact just talking about the same theory (Everett’s universal wave function) in a different manner. This particular epiphany came by thinking about how energy works in each version, and realizing they were the same dynamics. Despite some of you making the case to me that this was a difference in perspective, it still took from September until now to climb over the barrier.
The second question is, for those of us on the post-epiphany side, taking into account the curse of knowledge, how do we help pre-epiphany people make the crossing? It doesn’t seem like we can carry or drag them across. Each person has to do it for themselves. Crucially, they have to be willing to do it. I learned long ago that on many topics (evolution being a prime example), some people truly don’t want to understand it, often unconsciously. Sometimes they view those on the other side as brainwashed, or have other negative associations, and so want nothing to do with it.
But for those who seem willing, all I know to do is describe the idea as best we can, perhaps in many different ways, and support their journey. One thing I’ve learned with this is that often the most accurate way of describing something is not the best for someone attempting to grasp it. Brian Greene, who has a powerful gift for science communication, noted that sometimes you need to explain something in an overly simplistic manner, then do cleanup. (I really wish more Wikipedia editors understood this principle.)
The final question is a difficult one. Is there really an epiphany to be had here? Maybe those on the post “epiphany” side really are brainwashed or indoctrinated. Maybe the concept isn’t as solid as they claim. But here an important clarification needs to be made. Grasping a particular idea doesn’t necessarily mean accepting it as reality.
For example, I’m not a panpsychist. However, I find much of the criticism of it to be from people who don’t seem to grasp the fundamental idea, who are in the pre-epiphany stage for it. I think I do grasp the idea, or at least many common variants of it, and have noted before that if I thought consciousness could not be explained by physical processes, panpsychism would be a tempting proposition. But while I understand it, I don’t take it as reality.
That said, there are times when an idea actually is just not that coherent. Anyone who looks through the archives of this blog will see cases where I’ve reached that conclusion. But I think we should be cautious about jumping to it for any proposition that large numbers of intelligent people accept. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of summarily dismissing a concept just because we’re struggling to get it.
It’s worth noting that failure for an idea to click often has little to do with intelligence. There are many extremely intelligent people who struggle with particular concepts and never seem able to get there. Many scientific and philosophical debates happen across these boundaries.
Of course, many times people think they’re on the post-epiphany side while their debate opponents aren’t. How can we be sure which side we’re really on? There may be no way to be certain, but it seems like there’s a lot to be said for making sure we understand our opponent’s view, to the extent of being able to try it on and imagine seeing the world from their eyes, or at least be able to describe it in a manner they agree is fair and unbiased. (I know I need to work harder on this myself.)
What do you think? Are there better answers to these questions? Or am I in the pre-epiphany stage of something here?