Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Can You Choose What You Believe?

It's a simple yes or no question, right? Either you can choose what you believe in the same way you can choose what to have for breakfast, or you can't in the same way you can't choose to obey the law of gravity.

Well, no. Whether or not something is a choice is not a simple binary yes or no. It is, as nearly everything else is, a continuum. We don't normally notice it, because we usually only encounter examples at extreme ends of the continuum, like breakfast or gravity.

But there are examples of in-betweens. Consider a person with OCD. Does such a person choose to wash their hands over and over? To a degree, they do, but to a degree they don't.

It's the same with choosing what to believe. You form beliefs based on what you see and hear, and you can't really change that. But you can choose what to look at and who to listen to. And even when beliefs are deliberately chosen, it still takes a long time to really convince yourself of it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

If You Can't Explain It...

There is a common saying with a variety of forms that generally goes like this:
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.

If you understand something, you can explain it in its simplest form.

If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it.
I disagree with this saying. The ability to explain something well is a skill separate from the thing you're trying to explain.

Consider a watchmaker who can make intricate watches that work correctly, but who can't tell you why certain pieces go where they do. Not only can he build watches, but he can also innovate designs to make them better. Does he understand watchmaking? Clearly, he does, otherwise he wouldn't be able to make them work at all. His inability to explain is a problem with his communication skills, not a problem with his understanding.

Further, how difficult something is to explain depends not only on how well you understand it and how good you are at explaining, but also who you're explaining it to. This is the concept of inferential distance. It's a lot easier to explain calculus to someone who understands algebra than it is to explain it to someone who doesn't even understand arithmetic.

And if you're really good at certain forms of communication, you can explain something that you don't understand at all (though not correctly).