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How to make progress

Humans have existed for a long time. But only since a few hundred years ago have we begun to make solid progress on all fronts. On a personal level I’ve had years passed by but didn’t make much progress looking back. I didn’t know what I was doing and why I was doing what I was doing. What are the conditions for progress to happen? How can human progress teach us about personal progress?

One such condition is error correction. We need to have the will to correct what’s wrong and broken. And we need to have the agency to do so.

Having the will means being rebellious. Not accepting what’s given by others. Question everything. Some people are born with it. But I believe this can be learned. One underlying belief to remember and internalize is, you don’t hold on to any belief. Everything you know cannot be justified to be true. They’re always wrong. But you can get closer to truth by rejecting beliefs that are wronger.

Having the agency means you need to make the error correction happen. You may create a condition to test the theory you think is better. The goal is to let it be wild so we can get feedback from reality. It’s the only way to know if that’s closer to the truth. Tossing the idea in the brain is not enough in most cases.

Practically, this means you need to be open-minded. You are willing to change your mind when reality proves you wrong. You seek opportunities and design experiments to correct your existing beliefs.

But when something is wrong, what do you correct it to? You need to have an alternative theory. Not just any theory, but a precise explanation. Being precise means it’s hard to vary. There should be some clear-cut criteria to reject. If the criteria are proven right, then you need to discard your explanation. You don’t want to have a loosely-defined one and tweak it to make it work. It’s the same as having no explanation at all. Don’t fool yourself.

For example, “Eating ice cream makes me happy” is not precise enough. A better one might be “Eating ice cream every day makes me happy all my life.” You don’t need experiments to know this is not true. Your health will suffer.

How do you know eating ice cream every day is bad for you? Because you know (at least heard of) the explanations. You won’t be able to test everything out, but you can build on what other people already know scientifically. It’s not to say that’s right, but that’s the best explanation we know.

You should try to give an explanation by yourself too. Why does eating ice cream make people happy? Then you start to ask, is happiness the goal or the ice cream the goal? Are there other ways to make yourself satisfied?

How do you come up with a better theory? You cannot simply “deduce” from the experience. Eating ice cream itself won’t let you realize that you shouldn’t eat too much of it. At least not in an obvious way. You need to use your creativity to come up with some ideas first.

We don’t know too much about how creativity happens, but what seems to work for me is to have time and freedom to explore what I find curious about. And learn what others have figured out and build on top of it.

If we can make the effort to correct what’s wrong, and come up with an alternative precise explanation, we can make progress. And we need to loop this again and again.

Is this true? I don’t know. Will this work? Let’s find out.

Thanks to David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity. And Brett Hall’s essays on Creative and Critical Thinking.

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