On the experience of confusion

I recently discovered something about myself: I have a particularly strong aversion to the experience of confusion. For example, yesterday I was looking into the relationship between common knowledge of rationality and Nash equilibrium in game theory. I had planned to spend just an hour on this, leisurely dipping into the material and perhaps coming out with a clarified understanding. Instead, what happened was that I became monomanically focused on this task. I found some theorems, but there was still this feeling that things were just slightly off, that my understanding was not quite right. I intensely desired to track down the origin of this feeling. And to destroy the feeling. I grew restless, especially because I was making some progress: I wasn’t completely stuck, it felt like I must be on the cusp of clarity. The first symptom of this restlessness was skipping my pomodoro breaks, usually a sure sign that I am losing self-control and will soon collapse into an afternoon nap. The second smyptom was to develop an unhelpful impatience, opening ever more new tabs to search for the answer elsewhere, abandoning trains of thought earlier and earlier. In the end I didn’t have time to do any of the other work I had planned that day!

This happens to me about once a week.

I don’t know if this writing was at all effective at communicating my experience. It’s something far more specific than simple curiosity. I’m fine with not knowing things. I’m even happy to have big gaping holes in my knowledge, like a black rectangle on an otherwise-full map of the city. Provided the rectangle has clear boundaries and I know that, as a matter of principle, I could go explore that part of the city, and if I made no mistakes, I could draw the correct map.

I’m not at all bothered if a tutor tells me: “The proof of this theorem, in appendix 12.B., relies on complicated math. You may never understand it. But you have a good grasp of what the theorem states.” I have a picture in my head like:

I am infuriated if a tutor tells me: “When there are sticky prices, equation A looks like this.” What do we mean by sticky prices? And how does the equation follow? Tutor: “Here’s the mathematical statement of sticky prices. It involves completely different objects than equation A. Also, here’s a vague, hand-wavey intuition why the two are related.”

The problem is not that there’s an empirical fact that I don’t know, or a proof step I don’t understand. I don’t even have a label to put on my confusion. It’s not that the map has dark patches. I don’t even know if I’m holding the map rightside up or upside down, and the map is written in cyrillic.

In school, I used to make myself unpopular by pursuing these lines of inquiry as far as they would let me, leading to long back-and-forths with my teachers. These conversations were often unproductive. Sometimes the implication was that I should just learn the words of the vague hand-wavey intuition as a kind of password. Naturally, I resented this. Both possibilities were enraging: either the educators themsleves believed that passwords could pass for real understanding, or they just expected me to shut up and learn the password. Sometimes I was gently chided (or complimented?) for my curiosity, my apparent desire to know EVERYTHING, not to rest until the whole map was filled in. This too felt wrong: I’m not complaning about a small corner of the map left unfilled. The entire eastern part of the map is in cyrillic!

Although I hope that some of the people reading this might relate to my experiences, I suspect that I am out of the ordinary in the strength of my aversion to confusion. I have long thought that any of the success I’ve had in my academic pursuits was not due to intelligence but to my refusal of explanations that felt unsatisfying in some sublte way. I say this not to humble-brag: I have good evidence that I am less intelligent than most of my peers. In school everyone used to participate in this maths competition every year. The questions required clever problem-solving, I consider them pretty close to an IQ test. They were completely different from our maths exams, which prized definitional clarity and rewarded practice. I was around the class median at the competition, but among the best at the exams. As another piece of evidence, I am seriously terrible at mental arithmetic: I routinely get simple sums wrong at the bakery, and not for lack of trying!

So I had long been aware that there was something different about how I asked questions, but only recently did I acquire the language to describe it accurately. I used to think it was “intellectual curiosity”, but as we have seen, “visceral aversion to even slight confusion” would be a more accurate label.

I have already talked a bit about how I think I’ve benefitted from this habit of thought. I think it may be one thing that people who get really into analytic philosophy have in common. It also comes with costs, mostly in the form of getting sucked into a productivity-wrecking hole of confusion, like with the game theory example. It would be much more rational to remain clam and composed, let the confusion go for a day or two, and then decide whether it makes sense to allocate more time to it. Part of why I’m getting sucked in so much, I suspect, is because I fear that if I stop, I will let the confusion slip by. I find that thought distressing. Perhaps it’s because I don’t want to forget I was confused, later remember the password, and adopt the confused knowledge that comes with it.

One way to help solve this is to keep a list of everything I am confused about. Then I can set a time limit on my intellectual escapades, and if I’m still confused by the end, I can write it down. Even if I never return to it, it feels much more satisfying to have a degree of meta-clarity (clarity about what I’m confused about) than to let confusion slip into a dark corner of my mind.

Written on August 6, 2017