On the Pleasure of Finding Things Out

puzzle_viaLetIdeasCompeteRichard Feynman famously described science, and curiosity broadly, as “the pleasure of finding things out.” There are certainly few things I enjoy more than to turn over ideas and work them through to some new place, even moreso in quick and intelligent company. I consider it a life philosophy to avoid stopping at the obvious conclusions, and instead to see what more may be learned with a few judicious questions. It isn’t science per se, but it has in common a reliance on method. In learning, as in science, one must start with the assumption that one is wrong.

I do mean “wrong” here in a broad sense: not to presume any one belief or presumption or prior position is wrong so much as to acknowledge that it may be. To learn new things, we must of necessity begin by opening our consideration to unexpected ideas—even more when the ideas we hold at the outset are firm. To fit a new idea into an existing frame, we have to reconsider the assumptions of that frame.

In the scientific method, we would begin by trying to disprove the new idea. But in the scientific method, we have some idea of the weight of evidence that precedes us, and how much it agrees. At least we ought to, but scientists are as human and biased as we all. But the state of the evidence is there if we are willing to look at it.

Things are so much more fuzzy on the personal level, where deep misconceptions are absorbed into our worldviews along the edges, without proper scrutiny. It is easy enough to put extra attention on a new idea that contradicts well-supported truths about the world, but so much harder for us to examine which of those truths are based in evidence and which are based in our cultural and personal biases.

So, on a personal level, I like to begin by examining new ideas critically, but searching also for weak links in my existing frame of mind. If I think something is wrong, I would like to know why I think that. I would like to know how I came to think that. And I would like to know whether I ought to continue doing so.

When I have carefully chosen a belief based on a preponderance of evidence, I often find an alternate idea lacking. The obviousness of climate change remains my go-to example: only through a perverse denial of the evidence, an abominable scientific illiteracy, or a dogmatic ideological loyalty can one conclude otherwise.

But if I have unconsciously chosen a belief based on the choices of those around me, or based on a deep-seated bias, I will still find the new idea lacking. Unless I critically compare the weight of evidence for both, subjecting both to rational evaluation, I will not know which weight is anchoring my thinking.

And thus, I sometimes find a link in my chain that doesn’t fit, a puzzle piece put in backwards or sideways that I hadn’t previously noticed. As with a puzzle, replacing one idea with a better one can swing one’s whole conception of the world. Suddenly you understand that an entire section had been on the wrong side. The whole begins to come together with surprising rapidity. Before long you have found a new and different shape from the one you began with. And because life is an infinite puzzle, there is no end to connections you may discover.

I think the sheer delight of turning those wrong pieces, or replacing them with a better fit, is the essence of what Feynman was describing. It is certainly the thing I most enjoy in discussion or debate. “The pleasure of finding things out” is, in truth, the pleasure of being wrong, and learning it.


Image Credit: Let Ideas Compete


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