DRMacIver's Notebook

All knowledge is connected

All knowledge is connected

I read a lot. You might have noticed.

Additionally, I read a lot about a really broad range of subjects.

It gives me a lot of really weird spikes in my skill set, and one of my favourite things is getting about half an hour into a conversation with some specialist and having them suddenly go "wait, hang on, aren't you a computer science? I forgot you weren't actually in my field" when I ask some really dumb question despite having been able to talk about the subject at expert level up until then.

One of the things that you notice when you read this widely is that (extremely Dirk Gently voice) everything is connected.

You may not think that understanding nuclear war has much to do with understanding gender (ICBM dick jokes and recent controversial stories about the militarization of gender technology aside), but Thomas Schelling's "The Strategy of Conflict" was one of the most informative things I've read about gender until I read "The Origins of Unfairness" which is more directly about the game theory of gender. These both tie in well to "Conflict is not Abuse" (a book about speech norms in LGBT and social justice communities), and to "Queer Phenomenology", about how we use gender to orient our way through society, or to "Models: Attract Women through Honesty" (a surprisingly good book of dating advice for men), or to Raewyn Connol's "Masculinities", or to...

You get the idea.

When I say "All knowledge is connected" I don't mean that "Every piece of knowledge is directly connected to every other piece of knowledge". The link between "The Strategy of Conflict" and "Models" would not have been at all obvious without some of those other books as intermediaries. I call such books bridging books - ones which unify two previously unconnected things in a way that enriches your understanding of all of them - but increasingly I think that limiting it to books is too confining and I should just call them bridges.

One prompt for this was the paper I read recently on ghost knowledge. This ruined the idea of bridging as a book specific thing both by pointing out how much of the world's knowledge isn't written down anywhere, let alone in books, and also by itself being a bridge between How to talk about books you haven't read's ideas about communal libraries and the notions of hermeneutic and contributory injustice from the epistemic justice school of thought.

A useful metaphor for understanding how this works is Susan Haack's Puzzling out science, and obscure-ish piece of philosophy of science. In it, she argues that a great metaphor for the process of science and reasoning about the world is the crossword puzzle. In a crossword puzzle you have both the clues, and the grid. The clues are things you observe about the world, and the grid is the thing that forces them to be consistent with eachother. You might fill in parts of the puzzle independently of eachother, and then try to join them up and discover to your annoyance that this square that you thought was a "c" cannot possibly be one and still fit with this other clue. The process of solving a crossword puzzle is thus a constant tension between solving it locally based on evidence and using the constraints to force updates to other part of the puzzle when you discover inconsistencies.

This propagation is why the connectedness of knowledge matters: Although there's no real direct connection between nuclear war and gender, there's this long chain of connections, and updates in one place might inform updates in others by propagating through that chain.