Concepts Are Tools, Not Artifacts

The delightful John Nerst points out that we have more of a problem organizing and moving around knowledge than we do creating it. I think we need a Conceptual Logistics that tells us what kind of patterns people have observed over the centuries, how they relate to each other, and where we can find evidence for them.

The simple way to say it is: we need ways of organizing information about the patterns observed about the world and what we believe the scope of this pattern is. What makes patterns complicated to "scope" is not so much about figuring out some perimeter where this knowledge applies and where it does not, because the shape of that perimeter is fractal-like and unknowable. Since this is infeasible, we are left to reason by "positive spaces" we believe concepts can be usefully applied. Most important is the kind of metonymies we will accept for a given thesis: what parts of a statement can be replaced without distorting it too deeply?

If I say "Birds fly." to a child it is not long before they discover the Penguin and the Ostrich and look at me with scorn. Yet, most children quickly learn that this is the precision they can expect.

If I say, "Too much individualism is killing us!" then who would you believe "us" refers to? Probably I'm talking about some subset of what might be called the "West", despite the fact that many "Eastern" countries are experiencing increasing individualism as we live through the 21st century. That's because my choice of English as a language and my choice of words recall similar statements that I am assumed to have some relationship, statements about the decadence of Western society and how it is falling apart.

Again, I would like to return to the problem of teleology. We tend to view things as being for uses, even though things just exist. In this same way, we tend to view the history of a field as a stepping-stone path to the place we have come to today. It may be the path that was taken, but for most fields the knowledge that exists today should be verifiable by other means that the fact that an important person wrote about it.

Looking at historical documents is important for many reasons. The three main ones I feel strongly about are:

  1. Summaries of other people's ideas are distorted and censored, consciously and unconsciously. The real thing is whatever the real thing was allowed to be at the time, which is as good as you're going to get.

  2. Documents that have survived for a long time and are important to some group usually tell you interesting things about that group and often reveals changes in historical circumstances.

  3. Facing the mistakes of past thinkers is the most important exercise for being a truly self-critical thinker.

However, I believe that none of these necessitate introducing ideas as products of history. Don't get me wrong: ideas are products of history. And I believe the reason we teach them as having "arisen" in history is (a) because that's kind-of-sort-of how it happened and (b) because it makes it clear that they come from somewhere, they're not God-given. And yet, teaching and storing and writing about ideas history-first has led to three things I think are really awful:

(1) Cargo Culting ideas of a given thinker, because the thinker is often smarter in some certain way than anyone else seems to be. Many of these historical figures really are that insightful, but I really don't care for anything that you can't give me grounding I can go and find in the world, even if that "world" is the archives of historical documents. Marx comes to mind.

(2) Believing that different "parts" of the idea have to work together in a certain way, because literature that describes them describes the historical idea's anatomy very closely. Ideas are anything you can conceive of and we can change them in subtle ways that are hard to come-up with if we're taught in terms of boundaries. For instance, natural selection occurs in lots of phenomena, like rocks, not just things with genetics. However, I have trouble explaining natural selection of anything non-genetic or non-meme related to most audiences because people can't "see" the natural selection there. They were taught the boundary more than the mechanism.

(3) The most painful issue, for me, is that people seem not to believe they have the right to believe things from the ground-up. "Didn't X big thinker say Y, which is basically the same?" Newsflash: "basically" isn't good enough. We need conceptual tools that work for us today and usually we want to take apart ideas into components and see how robust these parts are. I call this their metonymic robustness, because it generally describes how much different parts of a statement stand-in for more general categories.

Conceptual Logistics

Teaching, describing, studying, and adding to fields as if they are historical scrolls you have caught the bottom of has many uses, but I think there is a space for a new kind of conceptual logistics, one that tries to isolate the usable tools from history. We will leave a paper trail to the original thinkers in our footnotes, but we need modern thinkers that see how the assumption of Chekhov's Gun operates in people's readings of GPT-3 outputs, convincing them of the importance of every quirk.

There will be no single "conceptual logistics", instead it will be a style, defined by the description of theses as tools that have dynamics that are well-understood in certain environments and still need to be studied in others. This is the problem of learning how to use guns in space; what components of gun use on earth and physical laws can we extract predictive power from that will minimize astronaut casualties?

The Inexact Sciences has a unique need for such a style, because too much of human behavioral studies are clouded by assumptions and styles of the time. The pipeline was never filtered because this murkiness became the culture of these fields, even as it mutated. It is time we became serious about concepts as tools, not artifacts.