There’s a quote by Eliezer Yudkowsky that I rather like: “Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge.”
It springs to my mind when I’m reading a book and the narrative makes some sort of leap that I don’t follow. I’m not talking about when a character makes an intuitive leap and, for however long it takes for one of their companions to wrestle them to the floor and sit on them until they explain everything (unpack, Miles), we don’t know what’s going on. I mean the sorts of things you gloss over when you’re a kid, because that’s just the way things work as far as you know, but when you get older they jolt you out of the story.
Take Tintin. I loved Tintin when I was a kid. I read every book I could get my hands on. Years later, I tried rereading one of the stories. Tintin’s in some city. His dog, Snowy, gets kidnapped (Tintin’s probably tipped off to this fact by something obvious, like a brick with a ransom note attached being thrown through his window). He goes, “Oh no! Snowy! I’d better go find him!” and wanders off. Suddenly, he’s walking along a road winding through some red, rocky mountains. Wait, what? I continue reading, and find out that Tintin just happens to happen along the shack where the kidnappers are hanging out. In the mountains. Which Tintin walked to, coincidentally, on foot, from the town house which his dog had been stolen from.
Kids tend to not be very rational. They’re at home with cognitive dissonance, because they believe just about everything they’re told (except the useful stuff like “don’t jump off that big rock, you’ll hurt yourself”), and they’re often told conflicting, or apparently conflicting, things. Kids don’t grok shades of grey, so you tell them “Stealing is bad, you should never do it” and then they watch Aladdin, and Aladdin steals a loaf of bread but gets caught and then is ‘hired’ to steal something even better and he gets a genie which is way cool and marries the princess which is only cool if you’re a girl. Wait, and all this good stuff happened because he stole stuff?
The world works however the grownups say it does, because they are old and know everything. And this book was written by a grownup, and if that’s the way Tintin finds Snowy, well, it must be right. I mean, this sort of thing (finding animals kidnapped by drug cartels, or whatever) is something kids have zero experience in. It’s not even worth trying to work through the mechanics of the thing, because as far as they know any outcome can be explained away by the uber-knowledgeable adults, and all of them will sound equally likely. (Typical explanation: Well, science says…wait, biology was, like, over a decade ago. Um. Magic, Honey. It’s magic.)
Kids have zero knowledge, and they frelling know it.
The problem (at least, the problem that I’ve had) is how and when to snap out of that frame of mind. When do you stop blindly taking everything adults tell you as true—never mind the mechanics—and start paying attention to the actual steps involved? When do you stop taking for granted that this is just the way it’s done and start noticing that, wait, maybe it isn’t?
I don’t have an answer to that. But at least I’ve got the beginnings of a question.