2018-02-24 epistemology

Writing imposes structure and rigor upon my beliefs

The thing I love about writing is it forces me to reflect on the things I think I know. So many of my day-to-day thoughts are governed by feelings and emotions and hunches. These are amorphous, unrefined intuitions that, without further reflection, simply go unchecked. Writing shines a spotlight on these.

Here’s an example:

“I think being smart is overrated.”

It’s easy to think that, then move on. I think it’s true. More aptly, I feel it’s true.

But when I actually put pen to paper, suddenly that statement needs to stand on its own. By itself, it now begs for context and justification.

The first thing I notice is that I’m unable to challenge it.

And so the intuition begins to take shape.

One thing that that becomes immediately clear is that, even if the statement is “true,” it can be so imprecise as to be unfalsifiable or meaningless. A statement can be broadly true but sufficiently imprecise that it really doesn’t say anything at all[1] - in fact this can be used as a particularly devious form of persuasion.

To actually say something then, we need to be more precise. Typically, that’s achieved by defining your terms, which is always the starting place of any cogent line of reasoning.

Where does this lead? In this case:

Writing gives us a tool for refining our beliefs.

[1] A surprisingly huge portion of conversations go like this. Have you ever wondered how people can be so agreeable and friendly when meeting for the first time? Because they intentionally converse on different planes of abstraction that could in no way lead to disagreement. Everything is true if you stay broad enough[2].

[2] Incidentally, when you’re actually looking to figure out what’s true, one of the best ways to figure out if someone is intentionally (or unintentionally) obfuscating is to see how precise they are willing to be. Truth should be evaluated based on precision and bias.