Thursday, 18 May 2017

Reality is complicated

In Reality has a surprising amount of detail John Salvatier explains that there are a lot more details involved in doing things than we generally expect.
It’s tempting to think ‘So what?’ and dismiss these details as incidental or specific to stair carpentry. And they are specific to stair carpentry; that’s what makes them details. But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.

You can see this everywhere if you look. For example, you’ve probably had the experience of doing something for the first time, maybe growing vegetables or using a Haskell package for the first time, and being frustrated by how many annoying snags there were. Then you got more practice and then you told yourself ‘man, it was so simple all along, I don’t know why I had so much trouble’. We run into a fundamental property of the universe and mistake it for a personal failing.

If you’re a programmer, you might think that the fiddliness of programming is a special feature of programming, but really it’s that everything is fiddly, but you only notice the fiddliness when you’re new, and in programming you do new things more often.

You might think the fiddly detailiness of things is limited to human centric domains, and that physics itself is simple and elegant. That’s true in some sense – the the physical laws themselves tend to be quite simple – but the manifestation of those laws is often complex and counterintuitive.
Before you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for. But after you see them they quickly become so integrated into your intuitive models of the world that they become essentially transparent. Do you remember the insights that were crucial in learning to ride a bike or drive? How about the details and insights you have that led you to be good at the things you’re good at?

This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.

That’s why if you ask an anti-climate change person (or a climate scientist) “what could convince you you were wrong?” you’ll likely get back an answer like “if it turned out all the data on my side was faked” or some other extremely strong requirement for evidence rather than “I would start doubting if I noticed numerous important mistakes in the details my side’s data and my colleagues didn’t want to talk about it”. The second case is much more likely than the first, but you’ll never see it if you’re not paying close attention.

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