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Friday, July 23, 2004
Eat Me, Drink Me, Read Me
I have been meaning to write an entry one of these days explaining, somewhat ironically, why I think reading is bad. But I may never get to it (who would read it anyway?), so instead I'm posting this excerpt of an email from a while back that brushes on the topic:
In all of the evolution of the mind, we were never exposed to anything but truth prior to the advent of language. As such, we basically are not equipped with proper defenses against false experience [...]
I have a friend who regularly argues with me in support of his favorite philosopher. One day he handed me his book, so I could read for myself. I borrowed the book, with full intent to read it and learn interesting things, but within the first page, I found a number of presuppositions (premises, but not explicitly called out as such) which I wholeheartedly did not agree with. I told me friend this -- that I could not get past the first page -- and he said "you just have to read the whole thing through, and then these things will make sense to you". And in so doing, he told me, without knowing this is what he told me, that his brain had been damaged by that book, because this is exactly the signature of how presuppositions infiltrate one's thinking and establish themselves as obvious truths even when they have no basis in reality. It explained to me why my friend's philosophical arguments were always circular -- because his belief system is circular! If one only accepts in each moment what one truly understands for oneself, it is fairly easy to avoid circular belief systems; but if one is presented with a large circular belief system and sets about "learning" it, one can easily assimilate it, and often the circle is too large to be seen from the inside; so once there, one is potentially stuck there for life.
The value of language is that truths learned in the past can be passed on to future generations without them having to learn it over from scratch. But in order for truths to be useful, they must be understood, not merely memorized -- and to be understood, they must be, essentially, figured out. So there is a sense in which all real knowledge practically has to be derived by the learner anyway; and ergo, the best use of language is only to present possibilities -- to act as a guide, to tell you which avenues are worth exploring. But those avenues have to be explored with your own mind, not with you being led by the hand (through language) down someone else's path, because if we do the latter, we get their mistakes along with their wisdom, and then pass these mistakes on again and with a few more just due to entropy, and pretty soon we are the purveyors of a circular belief system that long ago departed from the comparably simple real world.
In all my life's experience, most (all?) good ideas can be expressed very simply, and understood fairly easily by someone in a position to understand them. If an idea cannot be understood easily, either it is because it is part of a circular structure which the "learner" must adopt in whole before any of the pieces fit to anything, or because the learner simply hasn't reached the point of having the necessary prerequisites (whether experience or understanding).
There is always, of course, the possibility of a well-constructed belief system which is just presented poorly, but there is no excuse for that in a philosophy that has been around for hundreds or thousands of years -- surely if it could be expressed well, that would have been done by now. So to my mind, if you cannot truly understand and agree with every aspect, premise, and presupposition of a work page by page, it is time to put the book down (possibly to be picked up again if later you learn more and can continue, or possibly to be left aside ever after if the book is, as I think more are, circular in nature).
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