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understanding is rare
Nicholas de Stael, Agrigente, 1955
It's only in the past couple of years that I've started to understand what I believe in. Before I had all these ideas and aspirations that I just absorbed from the culture around me. But culture, as Terrence McKenna says, is not your friend. To say that I was liberal or conservative or capitalist or critical of capitalism or whatever—I look back and find it so funny that I could be so earnest about those views because my understanding of them was so shallow. Of course, people don't need to understand any of the things they profess to believe in, because we offload expertise in order to live. I go to a doctor because I don't know that much about medicine. I believe that Venus is 146.61 million miles away from Earth when I read it on Wikipedia because I don't know that much about space. All of us intuitively understand that we defer to other people’s knowledge all the time. But we don't like to believe that our ideas about society, our political beliefs, our personal aspirations are similarly inherited and thoughtless.
Some clarification: I'm defining "understanding" as having meaningful insight into a complex idea or system that seems to be objectively true (as in, holds up over centuries). I'm writing about it here mostly in the context of social, political, technological, and philosophical ideas, all of which of course interact and overlap with each other. I’ll use the so-called truisms of Buddhism to illustrate what I think of as understanding: be in the moment, love is all there is, the self is empty. I would say that most people obviously don't understand a single one of these because if they did they'd be living completely differently. (In fact, most people who actually understand them are probably literally enlightened.) True understanding necessarily changes your life: it’s transformative, demands action.
A thought: I've been interested in psychology for a long time, I make a living writing about it, and I don't think I really know anything about psychology. I mean, I know a couple of things, I have better intuitions than most people, and that's about it. Did Freud—genius, founding father of psychoanalysis, etc etc—even understand that much about the human psyche? It’s obviously true that you can think about something your whole life and still be substantively wrong. We see evidence of this all the time: 15 years of dead-end Alzheimer’s research, the way even economists seem to barely understand anything about the economy, the replication crisis in published research. Turns out it’s just really, really hard to be right about things. Understanding is so rare—the systems we live in are complex and incoherent enough to leave most experts lost. The good news is that you totally don't need to understand anything to be able to function in society. Despite basically not understanding anything my whole life, I was somehow able to go through life doing well at school and having reasonably fulfilling relationships and getting into lengthy debates about Marx. Makes you think, doesn't it? Conversely, I've come to believe that if you can understand just one or two important ideas in your life and communicate them well you can change the world. That reminds me of something Adam Curtis said in an interview about how we gave up on technorationalism, but rationality in some ways is all we have:
HUO: It’s interesting that the artist Liam Gillick has also worked a lot on this question of rationality and McNamara. In urbanism, we also saw the failure of the idea of social planning, which is related, wouldn’t you say?
AC: Yes. I mean, that generation of technocrats—from architects to economists to people at the RAND corporation—genuinely believed they could plan things, didn’t they? That was the project that I was dealing with in Pandora’s Box, where you have large parts of the twentieth century that are about this idea of rationality. Of course, rationality and scientific rationality are absolutely brilliant, and we wouldn’t have the world we have today without them. But after World War II, there emerged this idea that you could take scientific rationality and apply it to all social and political questions. And that led to unforeseen consequences, because you can’t do that, whether within the Soviet plan, or by mathematically working out which villages to bomb in Vietnam, or to work out an economic plan. I came in around the end of the ‘80s and the early ‘90s when the failure of that project became apparent, and I wanted to know why. McNamara’s generation really believed that they could “scientify” everything, technologize and rationalize everything. And that didn’t work. But it doesn’t mean that building great buildings is wrong. And it doesn’t mean that scientific rationality is wrong. That’s the important thing to realize. And that’s what the series argued, that the failure of the project didn’t mean that science was “bad,” it’s just that there are certain areas that it cannot be applied to, above all the chaotic and dynamic world of politics and history. But that’s not how the postwar generation took the failure. Two very powerful groups in the West who you would have thought were totally different in outlook—the conservatives and the liberal hippies—both reacted to this failure in a very similar way. They said, well, this means that you can’t plan anything—science is wrong and rationality is wrong. The liberals then sit there and say, “oh dear”, or retreat into mysticism, while the conservatives then grabbed the initiative and said, well, all you can really do is allow the free market to flourish and order will come out of that. And then, in the 1990s, a surprising number of the hippies joined the conservatives in this—especially in Silicon Valley. But I think this is wrong. In the end, I think rationality’s all you’ve got to work with. It’s just that there are areas where you can’t apply it.
To me, the takeaway is that understanding is worth pursuing, even though we almost always fail. There’s a David Graeber line that always makes me cry: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” I don’t actually think it’s true that we can easily make it differently. But it seems possible.
Here's what I've come to see as the guiding light of my life: simple ideas, explained very clearly. You only really need, like, one or two compelling ideas that you deeply understand. And then you have to be able to make other people understand them, which is the hard part. You have to distill, and in a way distillation is harder than creation. Simplicity is only achieved after extensive labor because you have to understand something inside and out to be able to identify the most essential components.
I first felt this on a personal level when I found myself saying in heated conversations, "But you don't understand." It was shorthand for my frustration at my inability to communicate clearly. This became a lifelong preoccupation of mine: how do you make people believe what you believe? How do you make people feel what you feel? In recent years I've gradually been overtaken by the idea that I can be most useful by being clear. This is the driving force behind many of my choices. For instance, I’ve always wanted to write in a colloquial voice—there’s something about making language unnecessarily obscure that feels wrong to me. And I’ve always disliked credentialism because it promotes the idea that certain people’s opinions should be valued because of their background, when opinions should only be valued if they’re good. And I’ve always valued reach because I’m obsessed with distribution. I guess what I want most is to be a good tool or vessel for the few things I do understand and believe in. Something about that feels both urgent and meaningful.