The Strangeness of Everyday Things

Have you ever repeated a word to yourself so many times that you begin to notice the strangeness of the sound it makes? The repetition begins to conceal the meaning of the word, so you notice what it actually sounds like.

I’ve found the same thing happens the more you learn about a subject. As you burrow in, the surface layers of common sense peel away until you’re left with something stranger.

Strangeness is a good thing. It means you’ve ventured into new territory, where opportunities can be found and falsehoods shed. I’d say my goal in learning anything is to try to find this zone of strangeness.

The Danger of “Obvious” Truths

If something seems “obvious” to you, it generally means one of two things: either you understand it so well that it has become intuitively grasped, or you don’t understand it at all. My experience tells me most people suffer from the latter condition.

Richard Feynman creates a window into the strangeness of reality in his explanation of magnets. To most people, the effect of a magnet is mysterious—how does it repel things without contacting them? However, as Feynman explains, this reasoning is backwards, contact forces are based on these “mysterious” action-at-a-distance principles.

Or consider something that couldn’t be more “obvious”: consciousness. I think, therefore I am. Except, as in the case of split-brain patients, I can sever the wires connecting your left and right hemispheres and turn you into two separate people. If you have an indivisible loci of consciousness, how can it be split with a scalpel?

What about the more practical context of your career? I have had several friends who are able to charge double their employment salaries, simply by changing to an independent consultant. Their work is the same, but yet everyone seems happy to pay them twice as much.

Human beings fear strangeness, so when we see things which don’t fit our “obvious” maps of reality, we have knee-jerk reactions. We try to dismiss them, as Einstein famously did in his initial rejection of quantum mechanics. Or we shoot the messengers of strangeness, claiming that these consultants are rip-off artists, or that employees are being exploited.

Rejecting evidence that the world is different from what it seems isn’t new, and it isn’t restricted to fundamentalist theocrats. We all resist the strangeness, and it takes effort to push through that.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I think my obsession with learning stems from realizing how essentially strange most things are. No, most things are not “common sense”. What we even call “common sense” is often approximations which work in specific contexts but fail outside of the realm of past experience or the intuitions endowed in human nature.

In fact, much of what we call common sense is neither common, nor sensical. We use the hindsight bias to pretend facts which come to us were apparent all along. As a result we rob ourselves of the strangeness that lies ahead.

The strangeness totally overwhelms the obvious, the unknown vastly overshadowing the known. This isn’t a defense of mysticism or a suggestion we should throw up our hands and live in ignorance. It’s the opposite—our individual ignorance actually makes the marginal value of new knowledge so valuable. Each new insight has enormous potential, so we should be much more curious than we are.

A simple insight, such as that we may have less conscious control than we realize, can have profound consequences. It suggests that the way to make changes, like getting in shape or becoming productive, isn’t by trying to be superman, but by making miniscule shifts with overwhelming focus.

Defending Old Ideas from the Assault of the Strange

Smart people often fall into a trap. Their intelligence and quick wit makes them excellent at defending their ideas. As a result, they can easily trounce the straw-man and ad hominem arguments of their dullard opponents.

These victories accumulate, and the intelligent person’s lack of defeat becomes a sign of infallibility. This creates an impassable barrier between the smart person’s ideas and the encroaching strangeness of reality. Without regular exposure to the strangeness, that person may even forget it exists.

I’m not immune to this weakness either. The only thing you can do is strive to let the strangeness come in, especially at the oblique angles, where your intellectual immune system isn’t bracing for a full-scale assault.

Moralizing Away the Strangeness

The most insidious practice to avoid dealing with strangeness is to simply declare any ideas in the wild territory as being immoral to even consider. This allows us to avoid any potential strangeness, or worse, unsettling consequences.

I find it amusing that many people who laugh at those who dismiss scientific arguments without hearing them, often quickly dismiss economic arguments on the same grounds. When an argument about economics or evolution becomes taboo to even consider, truth becomes a casualty.

Perhaps there are some areas we’d prefer to live with comfortable delusions. But the cost of self-deception is high too, so moralistic over evidentiary arguments should be sparingly applied.

Feeling Strangeness

True mastery of an idea tends to come with noticing its strangeness. Like the word you utter endlessly to hear the peculiarity of its sound, ideas begin confusing, become intuitive and end strange. This isn’t the strange that comes from confusion or frustration, but from seeing the idea from so many perspectives that you notice its sound, not just its semantics.

Fake understanding doesn’t have strangeness. It’s the memorizing of formulas and the verbatim regurgitation of arguments. When you master the chain rule of calculus through rote, you don’t actually see what is happening deeply. I know I’m starting to learn something deeply when it stops being “obvious” and begins to seem strange.

Strangeness is good, and the only way to get there is to keep learning. To keep digging deeper, even if it sometimes means venturing into a place that looks very different from where you started.