Putting the Puzzle Together
Vol 21: Worldviews, Puzzles, & Solving Big Questions
One of my close friends is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. They have an uncanny ability to intuitively read people. I remember the first time we met: I proceeded to learn that my shoes (& and shoes at home) revealed enough to astutely describe not only my social inclinations, but what I valued, how others saw me, and even how I saw myself. They definitively dissected me.
I’ve since seen them do this again and again, with all sorts of different people in a whole host of different settings, and not just from analyzing shoes. They just have a gift.
I share this partially in jest, but partially because there’s something so alluring about this deductive power certain people seem to have. An ability to see disparate dots, and connect them together to see an elaborate picture — in piquant detail.
I’m humbly trying to do the same, except I’m focusing on How We Got Here, the State Of Affairs, and Where We’re Going.
The only problem is that in order to connect the dots, you need to see them in the first place, and that’s not as easy as you may think.
We Don’t Know Very Much
Bridgmanite is the most common mineral on Earth; it makes up 38% of the whole planet. But we didn’t know it existed until 2014. We never saw it or named it because it comes from high pressure, so it never appears on the surface. The only reason we know about it now is because a meteorite that had been subject to immense pressure and heat contained a tiny amount.
We think we know a lot about the world, but the reality is we’re just starting to understand it.
This extends to virtually every domain you can think of. We like to think of science as this indelible edifice, but the reality is that the scientific process is all about disproving what we think we know with repeatable processes.
So, it’s important to recognize this and acquire a set of tools so you can see things in different lights. And once you gather these tools, you need to switch between them to grasp what’s really going on.
If one worldview dominates your thinking, you'll explain every situation in life through that lens. I like to think about changing my perspective like putting on a pair of glasses with colored lenses. — James Clear
The world is messy, and it’s highly unlikely that everything can be explained by a single worldview.
Every once in a while we forget this fact, and that’s how you can get something like the Great Recession. We forget about the Messy Middle. We forget that other people, with totally different perspectives, have different goals and desires.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Mark Twain
Never Ending Expansions
I’ve documented my worldview expansion on Embers, but it’s useful to remember that it’s a process that never really ends, on two fronts: you have to constantly evaluate and calibrate existing worldviews, and you need to be ready to embrace new ones, while potentially sunsetting outmoded ones.
Every time something new happens in the world, it’s an opportunity to see how the dice lands. Because most worldviews talk about what happened in the past, which makes for compelling stories — but that’s the opposite of how life works. Predictive power is probably more important than assigning a clean story to the messy (incomplete) past.
Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.”
— Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History
The story part, perhaps unsurprising to those who have been reading what I write, is crucial here.
Worldviews are at their core stories about why things happened, and based on that, what will happen in the future. They pluck whatever facts and stories best support them, and cleanly ignore the rest of the past.
Some of these stories are a bit more clever than others: the best worldview builders confront countervailing evidence head-on, but they do so in a way that leads to a: “but actually, that apparent dislocation is actually further validation of this thesis, and here’s why.”
Last week I talked about how stories shape us; I’ve since finished The Storytelling Animal, and the author ends the book with a few pieces of advice, one of them being: understand we are suckers for story, and when we hear a good one, know that we’re usually blind to its flaws.
When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.
— Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal
At first I thought this was silly, obvious advice. But Jonathan is right, when we’re immersed in a story, we don’t easily step back and recognize we are in a different, virtual world.
Which brings us back to James Clear’s tweet: don’t leave one pair of glasses on for too long, because it will invariably distort your vision. Plus it’s more fun when you look at things differently. Especially something like what we’re swimming in.
Gathering New Tools
How do we find new worldviews? There are all sorts of ways, and the best singular answer is ABC: Always Be Curious.
Talk, but more importantly, listen to people, of different backgrounds, beliefs, and ages. This is easier today more than ever, thanks to the world we live in. You can do this in person, over the Internet, or from podcasts, videos, or books.
Speaking of books, one of my favorite reads last year was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn details how science as a discipline progresses over time — he is responsible for bringing the word paradigm into the modern lexicon.
The book documents the history of science as a practice, and Kuhn proposes various phases that lead to new paradigm shifts. From Wikipedia:
Kuhn challenged the then prevailing view of progress in science in which scientific progress was viewed as "development-by-accumulation" of accepted facts and theories. Kuhn argued for an episodic model in which periods of conceptual continuity where there is cumulative progress, which Kuhn referred to as periods of "normal science", were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. The discovery of "anomalies" during revolutions in science leads to new paradigms. New paradigms then ask new questions of old data, move beyond the mere "puzzle-solving" of the previous paradigm, change the rules of the game and the "map" directing new research.
What I like most about this book is the way it outlines how science advances. It’s descriptive without being prescriptive. If you boil it down to its essence, science is a way to learn how to explain and understand the world. Kuhn thus argues that such a process isn’t continuous, but lumpy, and fits into distinct eras.
An analogy I loved was solving puzzles:
If it is to classify as a puzzle, a problem must be characterized by more than an assured solution. There must also be rules that limit both the nature of acceptable solutions and the steps by which they are to be obtained. To solve a jigsaw puzzle is not, for example, merely “to make a picture.” Either a child or a contemporary artist could do that by scattering selected pieces, as abstract shapes, upon some neutral ground. The picture thus produced might be far better, and would certainly be more original, than the one from which the puzzle had been made.
Nevertheless, such a picture would not be a solution. To achieve that all the pieces must be used, their plain sides must be turned down, and they must be interlocked without forcing until no holes remain. Those are among the rules that govern jigsaw-puzzle solutions. Similar restrictions upon the admissible solutions of crossword puzzles, riddles, chess problems, and so on, are readily discovered.
But when we’re dealing with such complicated matters, a problem emerges. We don’t know if we’re solving puzzles or not. Kuhn continues:
Consider the jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are selected at random from each of two different puzzle boxes. Since that problem is likely to defy (though it might not) even the most ingenious of men, it cannot serve as a test of skill in solution. In any usual sense it is not a puzzle at all. Though intrinsic value is no criterion for a puzzle, the assured existence of a solution is.
There might not be a solution to big problems. Instead, we’re left to determine if these pieces fit together or if they are in fact incompatible.
Putting it All Together
The world isn’t a puzzle. It’s a series of puzzles. Taken together they form an intricate tapestry that we’re just beginning to weave together.
Perhaps each of these puzzles are themselves puzzle pieces, waiting for us to have the recognition to assemble an even grander puzzle. That’s what we’re trying to do today with string theory and the god equation. We’re trying to see if all these puzzles, these laws of physics, fit together.
Can there ever be a unifying theory of the future? A lot of people much smarter than me seem to think so!
And yet, history is the study of unprecedented things happening over and over. Sure, History Rhymes, but there are so many unknowable questions, many of which rely on how people will feel in the future. How optimistic they are, what stories they believe, and what storytellers are sharing.
As Morgan Housel shared: “I don’t know what kind of mood I’ll be in tonight, let alone how a bunch of strangers will feel years in the future.”
On top of all this, knowledge accumulation never ends. One of the books I’m still parsing through, David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, discusses this extensively. The human frontier is truly endless, and it’s an idea many others have talked about.
Furthermore, nature may be inexhaustible and limitless, even if it is based on a handful of principles.
Consider a chess game. Ask an alien from another planet to figure out the rules of chess simply by watching the game. After a while the alien can figure out how pawns, bishops, and kings move. The rules of the game are finite and simple. But the number of possible games is truly astronomical. In the same way the rules of nature may also be finite and simple, but the applications of those rules may be inexhaustible. Our goal is to find the rules of physics.
— Michio Kaku, Physics of the Impossible
That might leave you wondering, what’s the point of trying to figure everything out? If science and human knowledge is this unsteady edifice that we’re constantly dismantling and rebuilding, then why spend so much time trying to figure everything out?
That’s a question you have to answer for yourself. For me, it falls into the same category of many others: Why go to space? Why climb Kilimanjaro? Why attempt hard things? Why read or write when it doesn’t do anything?
Those all have a nihilistic tone to them — and I think the answer to each of them lies in the heart of humanity. We’re a species obsessed with exploration. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical, digital, mental, or virtual. Our brief time in the universe has been marked by a continuous expansion of knowledge. It started with fire and sticks, and now it’s marked by smartphones and spaceships.
Not everyone needs to actively contribute to this collective search for answers, but I’m pretty sure that we all do our part, whether consciously or not. It’s impossible to fully map out how our own lives impact the world, just as it’s probably impossible to do the same for the workings of the universe.
But there’s always a chance you can. My friend is living proof that some people can see things others can’t. Being able to synthesize all that information is an alluring proposition, and one that motivates many.
But I’ve also found it fiercely intellectually gratifying. There’s something magical about figuring something out, and then sharing that with people you know. Maybe that’s an evolutionary mechanism: the species that disseminate knowledge would likely outpace others.
Perhaps the most challenging component to all of this is realizing that life’s puzzles aren’t tactile. We can’t pick up the pieces and see if they fit together. It’s almost entirely a mental exercise. And our brains probably can’t fully process all the intricacies of the world without malfunctioning.
But like climbing Kilimanjaro, or trying anything hard, it’s not really about the destination. It’s about the journey you take to get there. There’s something special about adversity and challenges, they awaken us in a unique way.
Absorbing information about the world is fun, and endeavoring to see how it all connects is one of the more interesting intellectual pursuits you can chase. I don’t think I could share how I try to connect the dots, even if I wanted to. It’s something that just happens inside our heads, and that type of thinking is a black box, even to ourselves.
One of the exciting aspects of Embers is that I get to put these puzzle pieces together one at a time. I struggle to get a lot of (written) pieces out because I want to finish them, but as I’ve learned in the past two years, waiting is a losing game. I never published my post on COVID I started in February 2020, same with inflation in 2021, and I still haven’t finished sharing my concerns on warfare and Russia from February 2022. No more! Here are less conjoined, but hopefully still intriguing, assertions about the world.
They’re my attempt at putting all of these puzzle pieces together. Will they be right? Probably not. You just don't know. But that's why I'm writing. To see if I can figure it all out.
Sherlock Holmes to John Watson: Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
This also speaks to the power of names. They give us ways to collect and categorize the data around us. I talked about this with my own reading process in Becoming Limitless:
One of the ways I can tell I’m reading enough is based on the number of new tags I create in my notes. Innate Experiences was a very recent addition, as are a few other ideas I have yet to write about. That’s the best learning metric I have: the number of things I write per week against the number of new tags. These tags could be themes, ideas, Truthisms (ineluctable kernels of truth I’ve discovered) — or they could be related to new posts or world events (New Battle Lines, and the Ukraine War are illustrative examples).
Here we note that he is providing an attractive story, one that just like any other piece of work, has flaws. But on the whole, it’s valuable. And, Kuhn doesn’t proclaim divine insights into the future of science. It was a true labor of love.
Storytelling also falls into that same category.