Rational Confidence and Standards for Knowledge

Table of Contents

If I hold up a fruit and ask you "Which fruit is this?”, you will know the answer immediately and automatically. And you'll have full confidence in your answer. You'll say “That's an apple.” and you will be right and know you're right. (Or if it’s an ambiguous or hard case, you’ll know that you don’t know, and confidently say that.)

If I ask you to measure the fruit’s weight, you'll stick it on a scale and say "9 ounces" and be confident. You have the right answer and know it.

You could use a ruler to measure its width too, or put a string around it and then measure that string to find out its circumference. You could also time how long it takes you to eat it using a stopwatch. You could be confident about those measurements (knowing, of course, that eating times vary, so you might take more or less time to eat the next apple, and also knowing that none of the measurements are perfectly precise).

But when you try to talk about philosophy stuff, you don't have that sort of confident knowledge. You should. Basically, as a first approximation, this should work the same way in all fields. You should reach similar levels of ease and confidence when you’re good at any field. The same knowledge quality in any field gets about the same results. If you find philosophy far harder, that means you’re far worse at it.

Lowering standards of knowledge ruins our effectiveness. If you have lower expectations about some fields, and accept those easier goalposts, then you’re blocking and sabotaging progress in that field for yourself. When that’s done on a society-wide level, the field gets pretty stuck.

It’s You, Not the Topic Itself

People think some fields are, by their nature, way harder than others. They think the difficulty is an inherent trait of the ideas. Instead of taking responsibility for their skill level, they blame the subject matter. Some fields do have better educational resources available – e.g. better books and teachers – or they’re things our society is currently better at, but those aren’t inherent traits about fields. Some things are easier to learn for you because of what you’re already good (and not so good) at, but again that isn’t a fact about the fields themselves.

People think it’s inherently easy to understand and be confident about identifying common foods or weighing things. But they think (for example) that (many but not all) ideas in science, philosophy, psychology, economics, religion and politics are innately hard, so one can’t have the same degree of rational confidence about those fields. (One can be arrogant and overconfident, but that isn’t helpful.)

That’s incorrect. Difficulty is a matter of your own understanding, not the field. All these fields – the ones you find easy or hard – are at the beginning of infinity (as explained in the book The Beginning of Infinity). In other words, they have some finite amount of difficulty and complexity, which would look tiny compared to knowledge we could have in the future. We could know much, much more advanced stuff. We could make progress way beyond all our current difficulties so that, in retrospect, they don’t seem difficult. We could one day have a society where students, who haven’t finished their education yet, are already much better at science than today’s best experts. The difficulty we have with science is about us and our society, not a fact of reality that couldn’t be different no matter what our society and culture were like.

Some fields take more work and time to learn, including simply because they’re bigger. But it doesn’t matter in a fundamental way. You can learn any field well. What stops you is either your own errors or errors in humanity’s current understanding of the field and educational resources. If the issue was just the difficulty of the field itself, then the result would merely be longer training times for some fields – e.g. it takes longer to become a doctor than a car mechanic, or longer to become a good chess player than checkers player.

What you find easy today was hard when you first learned it as a child. Your perspective on the difficulties of various fields is based on what you learned successfully in the past and where the current boundaries of your knowledge are, as well as based on comparisons to other adults (e.g. you’re a doctor but they aren’t, but all of you can read). When you were three years old, the boundaries of your knowledge were different, and you had to put a lot of work into learning things that you now take for granted as trivial.

There’s (as a rough approximation) a continuum of how advanced knowledge is. What’s way behind you seems trivial and easy to be highly confident about. If you knew more, then what’s currently hard would be way behind you instead. If you knew less, like a baby, then what’s currently easy would be hard. How hard fields of knowledge seem is relative to your own progress, not something inherent in the fields.

Also, our current society is biased towards math, measurement and science over philosophy, explanations and conceptual arguments. Basically, our society as a whole is a bit behind on language skills and has lower confidence at tasks like writing essays. We favor certain specific types of explanations, concepts and arguments, but struggle more with using them in other or freeform ways. Our society is better at some fields than others. (We’re also weak in some other fields, such as art – we struggle to make objective arguments or judgments about artistic matters, and we’re more able to reach conclusions about science than art.) Even people who are personally bad at math and science view those fields as particularly objective. I believe this is basically a global phenomenon – these ideas and attitudes have spread to every country. (You can find some countries where scientific knowledge is less widespread, and superstition more widespread, but those people in those countries aren’t better at having rational confidence about essays or art.)

This all applies to understanding things mentally but not to e.g. being good at sports, since that requires stuff outside the mind like physical strength and speed. It also doesn’t fully apply to winning math or chess competitions that require doing mental calculations quickly, because those partly depend on physical characteristics of your body like how quickly you get tired when using your brain (a lot of those differences are due to people attitude or would change with practice, but some are physical and hard to change). Training and learning make a huge difference for those mental competitions, but those competitions also bring up issues outside your mind like fatigue and memory (if they ban looking things up in books during the competition). They are partly like sports. A normal situation for thinking lets us take our time a reasonable amount and use all our best tools like reference books. My focus in this article is on learning and thinking in normal situations. I’m not trying to comment on edge cases that give a significant role to factors other than the mind.

Language Skills

It's not realistically possible to have the right standard of knowledge for philosophy – to have the high quality, rational confidence needed – unless your English is good enough. (Or you can do philosophy in Polish, Korean or another language.) Note: In the term “philosophy”, I include critical thinking, rational debating, good decision making, and understanding how to learn. Although many academic philosophers are more focused on studying past philosophers or more obscure topics, issues related to how to think rationally are properly part of the field of philosophy, and there’s no other term that’s clearly a better fit.

Philosophy uses words as a key tool. And it has many key concepts that we represent with words like "if", "then", "and", "or", "not", "all", "none”, etc. Those are things philosophers need mastery of (subconscious competence, just like with saying that a food is an apple).

Those tools (like “if” or “all”) are primarily concepts not words. Mastering the concepts is most important, but we deal with those concepts using words, so we also need to be good with words.

People see math and science as particularly objective fields. But this isn’t inherent in the fields. It’s a consequence of their inadequate language skills. People need to get better at using words more precisely – a bit more like math. And they need to automatize this so it’s automatic rather than an ongoing burden. It’s inadequate to be precise when trying really hard and paying extra close attention – instead, if you can do it at all, you should practice it until it becomes second nature and easy. In general, you aren’t done learning things until you practice them so you can do them easily, intuitively, habitually or automatically (in other words, you’ve learned it subconsciously rather than only consciously, so your subconscious can now do most of the work, so it doesn’t require much conscious effort). When you practice things to be automatic and subconscious, it frees up your conscious mind to think about something else, which enables you to do more advanced stuff which builds on the stuff you practiced. If the stuff you practiced still took your full attention, then you’d be unable to build on it.

How The Problems Begin

I suspect around (very roughly) age two is when people begin giving up on the world making sense and start lowering their standards of knowledge. They start, part of the time, for some issues, putting up with confusion and not knowing if they're right or not. That becomes normal. Why? Because their parents and other people boss them around. But the issue isn't mainly that they are told what to do (that they’re not free nor in control of their lives), nor is it punishments.

The main issue is actually that the orders/requests/expectations/demands are confusing. Parents (and teachers) want little kids to do stuff, but then the kids don’t understand what the parent said and wants. What happens next? Kids ask clarifying questions. Sometimes hundreds of them. They often display the stereotypical curiosity of children. But parents don't like to (and can’t) answer all those questions, so kids eventually give up. Then they have to try to act on orders/requests that they don’t understand. They have to start saying they understand, and doing their best to act like it, when they don’t have a clear understanding. (By the way, if a kid refuses to even try to do what his parent or teacher wants, he’s often punished a lot more than if he tries but does it wrong. Kids are strongly pressured to try despite having confusions, rather than allowed to stop and figure things out first.)

Bossing people around is part of the problem. But it’s not enough by itself. If all the orders/requests were fully understood by the child, then it’d do way less harm. It’s the combination of the bossing a child around and the child not understanding the orders/requests well which is really bad.

What if a child was confused but wasn’t being bossed around? Then he could do something else or take his time to figure it out. He could do life at his own pace, deal with stuff that makes sense to him, come back to some stuff later when he knows more, etc. Bossing people around rushes people into stuff, which is a big problem with it. It’s not the problem people normally focus on, though; I think it’s underestimated. There are other things that can also rush people (both children and adults) into stuff, but bossing children around might be the largest early factor that rushes them to try to proceed with inadequate knowledge. Two year olds aren’t yet trying to keep up with the Joneses.

You now know a lot more than you did as a little kid, but there are flaws in some of your old knowledge. You need to review that knowledge and fix some issues with it so that your more advanced knowledge can build on it better. You need to improve its quality to the quality level that it should have been in the first place. If you want to be good at philosophy and rationality, then you’ll need to review your language skills so you can become much more rationally confident when dealing with words.


You must aim for clear understanding and rational confidence (and also practice what you learn to automatize it). When learning, you must honestly recognize when you’re confused – and you must not accept confusion as good enough. If you’re interested in rationality, you’ll need to improve your language skills – so they attain confidence and objectivity more like math or like things that seem really easy to you (such as differentiating a cow and a dog). You can’t get great at things without having confidence at the underlying ideas that go into the things you want to be great at. To deal with philosophy well, you need rational confidence about its prerequisites like using words.

(Critical Rationalists may object that fields like philosophy don’t have necessary foundations. There isn’t just one right way to build up to a field’s conclusions. I agree. You must figure out at least one way to develop philosophical knowledge – at least one path to advanced concepts – and then learn the prerequisites for the path(s) you’re using. Most prerequisites can be avoided by using a different path which replaces them with different prerequisites instead. In theory, perhaps any prerequisite can be replaced with others. But I don’t know of any good paths to advanced philosophy and rationality that don’t use language skills, and I don’t think anyone else does either. And however you learn, effective learning involves some ideas building on other prior ideas. For your learning path, the prior ideas are prerequisites for the things you build using them, and you need to learn those things to high standards.)