On mischaracterizing your own comparative advantage

Or: On intellectual training and life's absurdity

Recently I noted that a point Jason Strasser made about poker--that people trained in it persistently mischaracterized what's special about that training--applies much more generally:

  1. Poker players often say they're good with odds, but all sorts of disciplines train that, and people can learn it readily enough without poker. (Jason didn't mention this, but poker players also say they're uniquely good at "reading people." Basically every walk of life needs some of this--and often a lot more than poker does.)
  2. Academic philosophers often say that they distinguish themselves in "argumentative hygiene"--checking arguments for consistency, finding edge cases to test definitions, and so on. But all intellectually respectable people are in the business of not presenting invalid arguments and knowing what it is they're talking about. Meanwhile, philosophers are distinctively good--when all goes well--at reading and writing, and at balancing rigor and progress when reasoning about less-empirical subjects.

    (There's a strong argument to be made that metaphysics, in the sense of Aristotelian "first philosophy," is another a comparative advantage of philosophy, having more to do with its subject matter. A lot of academic philosophers are pretty down on "first philosophy" these days, though.)
  3. Programmers like to say that they're uniquely logical, but (again) all sorts of disciplines train one in logical thinking. One tricky thing about the software world is that there are enough different kinds of software engineering that there is probably nothing much to say about the comparative advantage of the field as a whole. (As for me, I think that the distinctive cognitive advantage I have as a result of my training has something to do with reasoning about dependencies and interfaces.)

Why do people get this wrong?

Here I think about Thomas Nagel, whose work is unified by its attention to the distinction between the first- and third-person perspectives. "The Absurd," my favorite Nagel article and one of my favorite things to teach, begins by asking: Why do we so often find life absurd, but give reasons for that absurdity that are (i) obviously bad reasons but that (ii) nonetheless "provide a natural expression for the sense that [life is absurd]"?

Nagel's answer is elegent and profound: we can think about our lives from both the first-person and third-person perspectives. From the first-person perspective, we're the center of everything: however selfless and broad-minded we are, that's just what it is to be in the first-person perspective. From the third-person perspective, we are decidedly not. When we give bad arguments to the effect that life is absurd, they nonetheless "naturally express" the sense that life is absurd by making the contrast between those perspectives salient.

"Absurd" doesn't mean "weird" or "troubling;" it's a distinctive form of strangeness having to do with incongruity. There are incongruities that, upon examination, go away (as when we solve a puzzle) or reveal themselves as mere appearances (as when we understand an optical illusion as an illusion, whether or not it persists). The incongruities arising from our living with both the first- and third-person perspectives aren't like that. There are times where one perspective is more appropriate than another, but we can't and shouldn't abandon either of them, and they don't give the same story about our importance. Thus, our lives forever seem both utterly central and utterly peripheral to us; that's absurd.

When you ask people what makes their intellectual training distinctively valuable, I suspect they snap into a third-person perspective, and mention things that are (i) obviously true of their discipline and (ii) obviously respectable from that perspective: logic, math, definitions, whatever. Meanwhile, back in the trenches, they struggle: with losing at poker, with a difficult philosophical text or argument, with some hard-to-wrangle computer system. And they grow from those struggles.

Those intellectual struggles (and the growth) are much more salient in the first-person perspective; I think that's why they get lost in those third-personal self-reports. So when you hear people say what they're really good at, beware that they're likely to be wrong. But be kind: it's not easy to cope with absurdity.

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