The Arrogance of Vision

Humility is almost uniformly lauded in our culture, to the point that many people have forgotten the appeal of pride. I’m bullish on pride because I can’t help noticing how inherently appealing arrogance can be. On TV there’s an endless litany of charming characters like Gregory House, Sherlock Holmes, and Tony Stark whose defining characteristic is their bullheaded ability to plow through social and cultural norms with the sheer force of intellect.

I want to pinpoint a taste for particular type of arrogance today. Perhaps to be clear I think it’s not truly about arrogance at all, but it certainly comes off that way. I associate this character trait with the eye: people who have it are gifted with a particular strength of vision, and the confidence to rely on it. This trait is personified by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Consider:

Look, you don’t understand human nature. People wouldn’t try for five minutes before giving up if the fate of humanity were at stake.

Use the Try Harder, Luke

Sometimes I think the main difference between people who like Yudkowsky and people who hate him is whether they respond well to this kind of arrogance. I imagine a simple litmus test is whether you identify with the writer who uses a lot of italics to drill into your thick skull how very important this point right here is.

But I digress.

Culture Simplifies

Culture is a powerful and simplifying thing – it lets us label a messy world with a discrete set of approved categories and interact with this world through a set of approved actions. The world that’s too complicated and contains too much action space for a single human to search by himself. And as part of the social contract, because we need the simplifying power of culture, we pretend to be much simpler, much cleaner, much more inoffensive than we are. Think of culture as an GUI for social reality, an enormous simplifying force that lets you assume the stranger on the street will not pounce on you and tickle you, that your relationship is acceptable because a number is greater than eighteen, that this cap makes you a brooding artist but that one with the different brim makes you a creepy neckbeard.

I derive endless pleasure from reading the subreddit r/relationships, and one of the most interesting patterns I’ve noticed over the years is that people tend to ask “is the way my husband screamed at me normal?” as often or more often than “is the way my husband screamed at me right?” And of course the former is seen as a proxy for the latter, because, you see, to answer  “is this normal?” requires only a simple verification against the rules of culture, whereas to answer “is this right?” requires a detailed analysis of context and a complete moral philosophy, something very few people have access to.

The Role of the Eye

Every so often, a highly disagreeable individual with a good eye comes along and says: the overlay is kind of broken. It’s oversimplifying here. It’s mis-categorizing there. Stop using it. You have built into you the faculty to see the world as it is, to interact with reality on its own, in all of its wonderful complexity, without recourse to this child’s gadget called culture. Every six months I have to stare at the Kandinsky print on my wall and remind myself that not only is this a symbol of my rarefied taste, it’s a painting I actually enjoy looking at.

Next time you make an important decision, notice how what you’re trying to calculate is what you’re supposed to do. Notice how you can also calculate what is right instead. I’m not saying you need to be a hero and go do that instead – maybe the answers to both questions are the same, even. But notice how different the processes by which you answer these questions feel. That to figure out what is right requires so much more work, and such a richer interaction with reality.

And maybe if you can live like this for a period of years, taking the time to independently verify the answers that culture drip-feeds you, there will come a day when you too have the confidence to take off the overlay and see the world as it is.

At least that’s what I tell myself.