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Effective learning requires practice. Practicing math problems is widespread. I’ve been teaching people to practice grammar, particularly with dependency grammar trees. I also included some practice problems in my grammar overview article. Some types of English practice are common in schools, including for the alphabet, handwriting and reading, but many students never do any type of grammar diagrams. Inadequate language practice has downstream consequences like people struggling with philosophy. Additional learning and practice for fairly basic skills, to understand and automatize them better, is important for anyone who wants to be a great critical thinker.
Math and language are prerequisites to philosophy skill. They’re building blocks that can help you work towards being a good thinker. And they’re relatively easy to practice. People make worksheets for them. But there’s a big gap from math and language skill to reading an advanced philosophy article. People need a gradual succession of steps to practice.
One of the core concepts in philosophy is error correction. People learn the abstract concepts of what an error is (something going wrong) and what correcting an error is (fixing it). But they don’t usually do any practice associated with it. Without practice, people can change their conscious ideas without much change to their subconscious. So they start developing a problematic gap between their conscious and subconscious thinking (or they just stick with their old, intuitive, subconscious ideas and give up on philosophy). It’s important to keep your conscious and subconscious ideas in sync by practicing new things you learn consciously so that your subconscious can learn them too.
If you can’t figure out how to practice something, that’s a sign you don’t know how to use it in your life, and you haven’t learned it well enough. We all rely heavily on our subconscious in daily life (that’s not a bad thing). So I want to show people how to practice philosophy.
This article uses video clips from MachinePix for examples to practice the philosophical skill of seeing error correction at work.
Basketball Court Painting
Did you notice any error correction in the clip? Did you recognize that you were watching a philosophical concept in action? If not, that’s OK. You can’t be good at philosophy automatically. Practice is needed first.
There are steps you can follow to help you think it through. Repeat these steps for many examples and you’ll develop better philosophical intuitions.
First, consider the goal in the clip. What are they trying to accomplish? What’s their purpose? If you’re unsure, brainstorm many things that could be the goal, then go back over your list and try to narrow it down. Many people will be able to jump right to the answer for the goal: they’re painting lines for a basketball court.
You need to know the goal(s) before you start thinking about error and error correction. Error means failure at a goal. The goal lets you figure out what success and failure look like.
Brainstorming means listing a bunch of possibilities without worrying very much about whether they’re right. The goal is to relax the quality filter you apply to your thoughts so you’re more free to be creative. You create a greater separation between coming up with ideas and thinking critically about them. After brainstorming you can do a critical review as a separate activity.
Second, brainstorm potential errors. What are some ways they could fail at their goal? What are some bad outcomes they’d want to avoid?
If you’re having a hard time, you can also brainstorm about the context. List some pieces of contextual information that could be relevant. E.g., sports are relevant, and if you lack general familiarity with them you’d have a harder time understanding the clip. You could do some research if necessary like looking up the rules of basketball or watching some game footage. Other relevant pieces of context include floors, paint and tape. If you were unfamiliar with any of those, the clip would be hard to understand. The clip also uses a concept (the compass) that you may know from geometry.
If needed, you can also brainstorm additional details about the goal. For example, they want crisp lines with clear, precise edges. They want easily visible lines. They want the lines to be in just the right places on the court. They want durable lines that will last after being stepped on repeatedly. They want to create the lines reasonably quickly and cheaply.
Next, consider things they’re doing to avoid or fix some of the potential errors. If you don’t know right away, brainstorm.
There are many right answers. When I watched the clip, two types of error correction stood out to me and inspired this article.
First, it’s hard to paint perfectly straight lines. Tape helps correct errors about the locations you paint. You can paint a little extra on both sides of your line, but that extra paint is on top of tape. Then you pull up the tape and it removes the erroneous paint with it. This is a well known and effective technique used by painters. Taping a straight line is much easier than painting one without tape. Even having a pencil outline to guide the paint wouldn’t work well.
Second, it’s hard to paint lines in the right places by eyeballing it. Instead, they measure. And, in particular, they attach the tape dispenser to a rigid pole which they spin around a center point. That lets them get a precise arc (an arc is a portion of a circle). They’re using a version of a compass, which is an old tool for drawing circles and arcs. I remember using compasses in geometry class. They’re fairly simple to understand if you use them a bit, but they could seem pretty mysterious if you’ve never practiced with one.
I suggest you stop and think about this yourself before reading my answers.
The goal is a smooth, even layer of epoxy covering the whole floor. Possible errors would include uneven spots, gaps, or a rough top.
The flat spreader helps correct unevenness errors and make the top smooth (though I think a lot of the smoothness is just due to the material itself). If you just poured the epoxy out of a bucket and stopped there, you’d get a more uneven result.
Thinking about alternatives (what if some step or tool was left out) can help you see error correction better. You can imagine how things would go wrong if something were missing, which shows you the error being corrected.
He pushes the epoxy with overlapping strokes instead of doing each rectangle of floor exactly once. That helps avoid the error of missing a spot. He can’t cover a perfect line, but with overlapping he doesn’t need to.
I missed another type of error correction on first viewing. And I probably would have missed it entirely without the caption. Spiked shoes help avoid the error of slipping and falling. I don’t have the experience to give me an intuitive sense that the epoxy would be very slippery to stand on (but I now assume it is, or he wouldn’t bother with special shoes).
Stop and consider the clip before you keep reading.
What’s the goal? To feed many cows with reasonable portions and low labor.
A more detailed goal appears to be spacing the feed out instead of having a constant line of feed. That seems efficient. You can have almost as many cows eating at once with less food. Or if a line had the same total amount of food, it’d have less food per square foot, meaning the food would mix into the dirt more, so more would be wasted.
The size of the hole in the tire (along with the speed of the vehicle) helps avoid the errors of putting out too much or too little food.
The sturdiness of the rubber helps avoid the error of additional holes forming and letting out extra food in between the piles. That’s the kind of obvious thing people may take for granted without saying it. It’s fine to take things for granted sometimes (you can’t comment on everything, every time – there’s way too much stuff in the world), but it’s also good to be able to consciously recognize “obvious” things and state them in words.
A philosopher needs to be able to consciously consider “obvious” things, and discuss them with words, so that he can find and correct some errors in what other people don’t analyze. This relates to to Socrates’ idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. Part of thinking like a philosopher is examining things more than other people do.
Putting out many piles of food (with enough space around them for many cows to fit) helps avoid the error of some cows not getting fed.
The large tire fits enough food. It avoids the error of running out of food and having to go get more in the middle of one feeding session.
The rigid pole the tire is on keeps it going in a straight line behind the vehicle, which avoids the error of food getting chaotically spread out.
Helicopter Tree Trimming
This may be an example of lack of error correction. It looks worrying because there’s no clear, good mechanism to prevent the trimmer from swinging into and cutting the power lines. You can see in the video that they’re using a flexible rope, not a rigid pole, so the trimmer has significant freedom to swing around.
You may have some past experience with heavy objects attached to a rope or string – they can be hard to control just using the rope. And instead of controlling the end of this rope with a hand (that you have good control over), it’s controlled with helicopter piloting (which is much less accurate). You can see the trimmer swing around quite a bit in the video; it doesn’t look precisely controlled.
You can imagine some theoretical error correction mechanisms they could have. Ever heard of the Saw Stop? It’s a system that can very quickly stop a table saw when it starts to cut someone’s finger. It detects when the saw is touching the wrong object. Maybe a similar mechanism could be invented that can stop a saw when it comes in contact with a power line. But I doubt they’re using that in the video.
Intuitively seeing and understanding inadequate error correction is important too. Besides considering what error correction is present, you can think about whether that’s adequate and what error correction should be present.
There may be better error correction mechanisms in this clip than I realize. Maybe, for some reason that I don’t know, it’s reasonably safe after all. Or maybe my intuitive worry is correct and they shouldn’t be doing this.
Practice finding and understanding error correction (and other philosophy concepts) in real life. Build up good intuitions and effective subconscious thinking for simple examples before expecting to be great at complex, abstract philosophy.
If you have a hard time, remember the steps and go through them one by one in order. The steps are considering five things:
- Context (optional)
- Goal details (optional)
- Potential errors
- Error correction mechanisms
For each step, if you have trouble with it, go into brainstorming mode. And if you have trouble with step 4 or 5, then work on 2 and 3 more. If you brainstorm lists with at least 10 things for the first 3 or 4 steps, and you’re still stuck, you can also ask for help at my forum. (You can ask questions regardless of what you’ve done, but people will be more helpful if you put in some effort on your own and share what you did so far.)
If you can’t brainstorm 10 things, you’re probably suppressing your thoughts to try to hide your low quality ideas. In that case, you should practice brainstorming in general with some easy prompts. Brainstorming can be practiced alone as its own skill. It’s generally easier to practice one thing at a time. Break skills up into small chunks to learn separately. Some easy brainstorming prompts to start with are “toys”, “food”, “furniture”, “plants”, “animals”, “minerals”, “machines”, “types of stores”, “kitchen stuff” and “colors”. You should be able to brainstorm at over ten things in each category without much difficulty. You could then try somewhat harder prompts (e.g. strategies for winning a footrace), and work your way up to more advanced brainstorming.
I also made a video where I watch clips and comment about error correction. It demonstrates a way you can practice thinking about the world in terms of error correction.