Recognizing Ignorance: Pascal’s Circle

Founder of enYouVen, Scott Larsen tries to use his background and experience to help make the world a significantly better place.

We are ignorant of things outside our circle.

photo credit: las – initially via photopin cc

Blaise Pascal has an analogy for ignorance, presented with a circle: what he knows is inside the circle, what he doesn’t know is outside the circle — and the more he learns then the more he realizes that he doesn’t know (because the perimeter of the circle gets bigger). As his circle grows, the more he discovers and recognizes that he doesn’t know.

For me, the circle is more like a living amoeba: some things I have to relearn a few times, some things I forget,  I’m always hungry, and perhaps I cause some people a little indigestion sometimes.  But the circle’s a good enough analogy for today, so let’s stick with that.

On the surface, the analogy is simple.  But just under the hood are a few important points we should not miss:

  • Sometimes people who know very little (tiny circles) have no idea how ignorant they really are.  I think we’ve all met this person, the one that always talks like they know stuff and yet everyone else knows that this person is clueless.  But, almost by definition, it’s hard for us to see to what extent we are that person.
  • People who know a lot are people who are very aware of how much they do not know.  The connection here is a lot stronger then first appears: Humility is a key element of learning.  To learn, we must respect the truth and we must recognize and respect our lack of knowledge.  People who think they know already, don’t learn.

and now I’ll talk about Fertility?

When I started my PhD, everything I read about this one relatively new and fertile research area was exciting, cool, and powerful. I decided to make this my area of research, become an expert in the area, contribute to the field and expand the body of knowledge in this area. I did: published a fair bit, contributed, got my PhD, etc. Yay!

But towards the end of the experience I learned something: to those in the know, “a fertile field” is code for “there may be  lots of weeds.” When I first entered that field, everything I read was great. By the time I left, I recognized most of it as weak and at least somewhat erroneous. I had learned more, and as a consequence I realized that my original impressions were somewhat a function of being naive and ignorant.

I was reminded of this just this last week: I started reading and researching a new topic that I’ve been interested in and wanted to research for some time. As I did so, I was impressed that all the material I came across was so good and exciting etc. And yet this time a little red flag went off in my head: “that probably means you’re ignorant – I’ll bet most of what these folks are saying is rubbish and you’re just too ignorant to be able to sort it out.” Little flags like that make me smile.

Flagging my Ignorance

A really powerful and tremendous asset is the ability to distinguish between what we know and what we just think we know. But, only knowing what’s inside our circle, that can be a tough call to make.  So, we should look for little red flags to help clue us in.  So here are two of my personal flags:

  • When you think you know it all, you definitely don’t (small circle syndrome).
  • If you think everything that everyone’s saying on the topic is right, then you probably have no clue.

So here’s the question: what are flags for you? What are flags that help you identify and distinguish between things you really know and things you think you know but maybe don’t?

The languages of your intelligence

Founder of enYouVen, Scott Larsen tries to use his background and experience to help make the world a significantly better place.

Ever thought much about what language your intelligence is made of?  I sure haven’t.  Someone pointed me to this little curiosity a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it since.   While the author states matter-of-fact-ly a few points that I’m not sure I buy, there’s still some rich food for thought buried in there.  Executive Summary: the languages we know and use are the languages that our experiences get formulated into, our creativity comes out in, and after a while result in us being shaped by the language we use.  Interesting thought.

I don’t know French

I have good friends whom have learned various other languages, and I’ve always been a little jealous.  I took some French as a youngster, but honestly: my jealousy was not enough of a motivation for me to learn a new language.  So, am I missing out?  Yea, probably.  But I think that article just tips on an iceberg much bigger than it intimated, and there’s a much bigger piece here.  There are more languages than just spoken languages, and yes indeed, the languages we use shape our intelligence.

one language of some sort of intelligence

When I was working on my PhD, my advisor kept trying to get me to write more, “it helps you formulate your thinking.”  He’s right, and I’m glad I listened to him.  While I think I’m a decent writer, I’d really like to write more and improve it. The primary reason is: I want to better formulate my thoughts.  But let’s leave spoken/written languages there and go somewhere else (comparable, but still else).

I know a handful of programming languages.  Have they shaped my thinking and who I am?  I’d never thought to ask the question until I read that article, but as soon as I’d asked it I knew the answer: Yes, for sure.  The time I spent in Prolog while in high school totally reshaped the way I thought about problem solving.  The first time I sat down and learned a functional programming language (e.g. Lisp or Scheme at the time) it totally changed the way I thought about things – and not just computing problems, but things around me and the workings of the universe around me.

Is Math even a language?

“What’s the purpose of learning Math?” my elementary aged children ask me.  The answer is very well put in math with bad drawings:

[Math] teaches how to solve problems through abstraction. You learn how to spot good puzzles; how to frame them; how to uncover patterns, to advance by logical steps, and to strain towards higher levels of generality, until the problem at hand becomes as simple and automatic as tying your shoes. It teaches the superpower of logical, abstract thinking.

Well, now I have another answer: because it shapes who I am.  The language of Math shapes how I perceive, how I create, and how I understand.  Programming languages do that too.  And so does Photography, English, and walking in the woods on a snowy evening.  My closest friends know that Math shapes how I interact with religion.  Other friends have seen how my computer program debugging skills come to full demonstration when I encounter a news article.  The formulations in which information and experiences enter my existence, and the formulations of my interactions with the universe, those are what we’re talking about here.  And they very strongly influence me, my intelligence, and the very nature of who I am.

 But now I realize that I know even more languages than that.  The French like the “language of love” and that’s great.  There are also languages of interpersonal communication.  Yea, body language, the eyes, etc.  Yep.  Learning to read people is such a tremendous skill.  Learning to speak “people” is a ninja skill I wish I had more of.  The photographer speaks, the poet sees, the musician connects.  I’m in love with these languages, but there are too many languages for me to be able to master in a lifetime.  Still, the reality remains: my intelligence is a function of the languages I know and use.

What are some other languages that shape our intelligence?  Should some be prioritized above others?