Much of the world’s highest knowledge is not like picking fruit, available to anyone who passes by the tree. Differential equations, for example, are understood only by people who have studied calculus; people who have studied calculus must also have mastered basic arithmetic skills, and probably have a good working knowledge of algebra also. The knowledge of these things are all prerequisites to higher knowledge.
Here’s a clever little bit of Perl I came across recently:
y/12/NY/-5||print for 0..2x5
It prints all combinations of 5-letter strings consisting of ‘Y’ and ‘N’:
NNNNN NNNNY NNNYN NNNYY ... YYYYN YYYYY
Anyone can run this program and see what it does, but only people who have several years programming experience with Perl can understand how this works. Some prerequisite knowledge is required before you can have a valid opinion on this.
Appreciation of more complex kinds of music also comes at a price. Modern popular music is deliberately engineered (and I use that term deliberately) in a way that even little children can immediately like the easy beat, rhythms, and simple musical patterns. This kind of music appeals to many people because it doesn’t have any prerequisites to understand or appreciate.
Much of modern jazz and most classical music, however, does require some background to appreciate, and even with background, only musicians of an extremely high caliber can fully grasp the works of other musicians at that level.
What’s interesting to me is that all kinds of domains fit this model: the more we study a thing, be it mathematics, music, programming languages, or ping pong, the more we realize that the sky is the limit when it comes to comprehending it: knowledge isn’t finite, but expansive, no matter which direction you go.
To bring this into a post-modern context, even this essay is an attempt to enter a domain already heavily populated by gifted writers and strongly opinionated pundits. I probably shouldn’t be writing it, let along publishing it for other people to read, but this is the great thing about the whole matter: while it takes some expert knowlege to have an opinion that people can trust, that has never stopped people from having an opinion anyway.
As long as there are people with less knowledge than you, you can fool them and make them think that your opinion is worth something too, even when it’s not. Even more common: someone with expert knowledge in one area begins to branch into areas they’re not expert in. This doesn’t mean that what they say is wrong, but it doesn’t mean that it’s right either. Each work has to be considered on its own merits.
I can think of a tiny group of people who would take this essay seriously, a slightly larger group of people who wouldn’t understand it, and the balance of people who would either laugh at it, or simply dismiss it before reading it.
The trick for the writer (or the artist or the programmer) is to keep trying anyway, in spite of the critics. It’s ok to talk baby-talk when you’re a baby in something, just know that not everyone wants to hear you babbling.
Take correction when it’s warranted, don’t be too proud to admit when you’re wrong. Learn to argue well, and learn to take bad arguments for what they’re worth. Just because a point is couched in bad reasoning or is poorly worded doesn’t mean it’s not valid. But consider the well-reasoned arguments first.
We call intelligence that mental gift or capacity to comprehend a thing quicker and with less effort than most people. It varies in its nature, of course, being many kinds of intelligence, and there is always someone else who is probably more intelligent than you are.
Intelligence is like a muscle man—he can pick up heavy objects easier than other people, and some objects he can pick up that some people can’t pick up at all.
Intelligence, like all other gifts, can be cultivated and improved. Like muscle building, someone with little natural strength can still improve. There may be only so much he can do, however, and will never be stronger than those who are naturally strong and also work out. But the fact remains that hard work directed right will always yield for the worker. So think harder!
An intellectual is lonely in part because any conversation is spent largely on trying to prove a priori—things you shouldn’t have to explain—instead of getting to the meat of the real argument.
It’s like talking to children all of the time—the topic of conversation is limited to the comprehension level of the inexperienced child. You can’t have a philosophical discussion with a 5th grade vocabulary and a 5th grade life experience, and you really can’t catch someone up in an hour, or even a week.
I don’t want that to come out wrong—I’m not saying that the people I meet are equivalent to 5th graders, but I illustrate it that way because most people I deal with no longer read books if they don’t have to, they no longer seek to understand their world or deal with hard questions about life and its meaning. They’ve stopped working intellectually.
I take great pleasure reading what the best minds of history have to say. I can’t understand why people would not take that opportunity when it is free for them, but for the time required to read and ponder.
So the problem then is that “them that has, gets” (the Matthew principle); as it is in wealth, so it is in knowledge. We build ever higher edifices of knowledge, building on top of foundations, sometimes shoring things up, sometimes replacing things. Sometimes tearing down and rebuilding in a different location. But always building higher and greater structures.
Most people never build, though. They have a nice little cottage that meets their needs, is stable and well-grounded. Why reach for more? Why not be content?
I am not content because I have tasted the greatness of some of the minds of the world and the fruit is delicious to me. I’m not a great mind, but I love associating with them. And it seems to be a lonely road. Hello?