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Reblogged:'Nerds,' Beliefs, and Rules

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Programmer/entrepreneur Paul Graham often writes about nerds, which I take to mean people given to scientific or technological interests, many of whom are socially awkward, at least when they are young. As a nerd himself, Graham is certainly qualified to do this. His essays are always thought-provoking and his advice is often very good.

But I disagreed with him on a couple of matters in his latest such essay, on what he calls "Fierce Nerds."

I'm not sure what fierce is supposed to mean, exactly, and it's mostly unimportant to this discussion, anyway. That said, as a nerd with a philosophical bent, I feel more than qualified to speak about the matter of social conventions and rules. (I don't normally self-apply this term for reasons that will become evident later.)

On the former matter, Graham states:
It's hard to be independent-minded without being somewhat socially awkward, because conventional beliefs are so often mistaken, or at least arbitrary.
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Image by TheRegisti, via Unsplash, license.
Wolfgang Pauli -- who is usually credited with the phrase not even wrong -- might agree with me to disagree with part of this: Yes, when one values being correct, one will be prone to forget/refuse to follow/bristle at common conventional beliefs that are wrong.

But in the face of such beliefs, one has some solace knowing that adherents may simply be ignorant of the truth. Changing such a person's mind is credibly a matter of helping them fill in some gaps in their knowledge. Furthermore, such beliefs can and often do at least make sense when they follow logically from or otherwise comport with error(s).

Not so with arbitrary, not-even-wrong beliefs: Those are just held on faith -- that is, in disregard (and often in open contempt) for the need for evidence.

(The commonality of religion in our culture muddles the issue somewhat, but the more commonly acknowledged superstitions can save the day, so to speak. For example, I liked astronomy as a child and got very annoyed when the parish priest confused that with astrology in front of all my classmates. I spoke up and corrected him, of course.)

Followers of arbitrary beliefs are, at best, simply going along to get along. The best one can say of them is that they haven't gotten around to thinking about whatever arbitrary belief they have.

And, yes, such beliefs can also integrate into a coherent whole, but it is often the case that this makes the arbitrary basis much more evident, making such beliefs all the more an affront to someone who cares about the truth.

(Example: I wasted lots of time and energy arguing with a creationist back in college. I could have forgiven someone being unaware of all the evidence in favor of evolution or honestly thinking it didn't hang together enough. But I was initially floored by the open rejection of evidence and reason the day I got him to thump his Bible in a pique.)

In short, I'd say that the problem with beliefs that leads to awkwardness is this: Conventional beliefs are often mistaken, if not outright arbitrary. It's far easier to anticipate and understand mistakes than it is outright whim, which is ultimately what "underpins" arbitrary beliefs.

My second issue is related. Graham a bit later states regarding rules:
[Fierce nerds will] be annoyed by rules, rather than dreamily unaware of them.
I presume that to the degree that "fierceness" matters, it changes the degree of awareness of -- or the emotional reaction to -- social rules. But otherwise, the common denominator is that the nerd sees rules as not worth much attention.

Again, the problem, aside from the fact that the nerd in question probably hasn't thought much about said rules, is likely that -- given how common mistaken or arbitrary beliefs are in our culture -- the rules that arise will also often be of questionable value as guidance.

I remember growing up and wishing there were rules (when I didn't think there were) or rules that made sense. Indeed, the mistaken-ness (actual or apparent) or arbitrariness (actual or apparent, also) of such rules is likely why so many intelligent people get bored or put off by them in the first place.

Perhaps, in a society that overall valued reason more, there would be no need to call anyone "nerds," because seeking truth, applying reason, and insisting that things make sense would be much less remarkable than they are now.

-- CAV

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