I am very low-verbal compared to Scott Alexander, so in most cases I’ll read an essay by him and go “I’d never think of that”. But sometimes I go “this is a much much higher-resolution+coherence+completeness version of some vague scattered thoughts that have been bugging me for a long time, thank you Scott for giving voice to them”. Those essays tend to especially endure in memory.
One of them is Does age bring wisdom?, which Scott published the day he turned 33. The following passages resonated deeply with me:
We’ve been talking recently about the high-level frames and heuristics that organize other concepts. They’re hard to transmit, and you have to rediscover them on your own, sometimes with the help of lots of different explanations and viewpoints (or one very good one). They’re not obviously apparent when you’re missing them; if you’re not ready for them, they just sound like platitudes and boring things you’ve already internalized.
Wisdom seems like the accumulation of those, or changes in higher-level heuristics you get once you’ve had enough of those. I look back on myself now vs. ten years ago and notice I’ve become more cynical, more mellow, and more prone to believing things are complicated. For example:
1. Less excitement about radical utopian plans to fix everything in society at once
2. Less belief that I’m special and can change the world
3. Less trust in any specific system, more resignation to the idea that anything useful requires a grab bag of intuitions, heuristics, and almost-unteachable skills.
4. More willingness to assume that other people are competent in aggregate in certain ways, eg that academic fields aren’t making incredibly stupid mistakes or pointlessly circlejerking in ways I can easily detect.
5. More willingness to believe that power (as in “power structures” or “speak truth to power”) matters and infects everything.
6. More belief in Chesterton’s Fence.
7. More concern that I’m wrong about everything, even the things I’m right about, on the grounds that I’m missing important other paradigms that think about things completely differently.
8. Less hope that everyone would just get along if they understood each other a little better.
9. Less hope that anybody cares about truth (even though ten years ago I would have admitted that nobody cares about truth).
All these seem like convincing insights. But most of them are in the direction of elite opinion. There’s an innocent explanation for this: intellectual elites are pretty wise, so as I grow wiser I converge to their position. But the non-innocent explanation is that I’m not getting wiser, I’m just getting better socialized. Maybe in medieval Europe, the older I grew, the more I would realize that the Pope was right about everything.
I’m pretty embarassed by Parable On Obsolete Ideologies, which I wrote eight years ago. It’s not just that it’s badly written, or that it uses an ill-advised Nazi analogy. It’s that it’s an impassioned plea to jettison everything about religion immediately, because institutions don’t matter and only raw truth-seeking is important. If I imagine myself entering that debate today, I’d be more likely to take the opposite side. But when I read Parable, there’s…nothing really wrong with it. It’s a good argument for what it argues for. I don’t have much to say against it. Ask me what changed my mind, and I’ll shrug, tell you that I guess my priorities shifted.
But I can’t help noticing that eight years ago, New Atheism was really popular, and now it’s really unpopular. Or that eight years ago I was in a place where having Richard Dawkins style hyperrationalism was a useful brand, and now I’m (for some reason) in a place where having James C. Scott style intellectual conservativism is a useful brand. A lot of the “wisdom” I’ve “gained” with age is the kind of wisdom that helps me channel James C. Scott instead of Richard Dawkins; how sure am I that this is the right path?
Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.
The lattermost paragraph is sad, because I can feel it happening in me too.