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Rejecting Self-Interference While Reading

Sometimes when I’m reading a difficult book, I realize that I’m not just having the thought “I didn’t understand that”, but also the thought “What if I didn’t understand that?” The former is clarifying and helpful. I can respond to it by re-reading a paragraph or opening a notebook and putting the idea in my own words. The latter is self-interference, generated by fear of looking stupid. And I’m tired of living with it.

In college, I stuck pretty firmly to physics and math courses, even though I’ve always loved reading and had broad interests. Knowing now how much I enjoy reading philosophy, I’m frustrated that I didn’t take the opportunity to take more traditional humanities classes when I had it. In retrospect, I can see that choice was fear-driven, too. I thought I had to succeed as a scientist in order to be a worthwhile person.

Responding to that fear rather than responding to my curiosity didn’t work out so well for my physics career. The times I’ve had the greatest success as a software developer have come from pursuing my fascination for its own sake and the greatest threats to my work have come from letting fear back in.

I’m in the middle of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, which is a well-written and comprehensive attempt to integrate several schools of thought on ethics. I haven’t read most of the thinkers Parfit references, so fear creeps back in:

Am I even allowed to read this? I haven’t read Kant, so how can I know whether Parfit is making a good argument about Kant? Why am I reading this, when I can’t write about it or the people who actually know this stuff will laugh at me.

Writing out that fear makes it really apparent how stupid it is. Parfit (like most thoughtful writers) summarizes the arguments he is responding to. That’s enough to follow along. There’s no test at the end of the book and the only measure of the value in reading it is my own satisfaction.

If I get Parfit’s argument wrong and write something that badly misinterprets him, then the worst case scenarios are:

  • No one ever reads the thing I wrote.
  • Someone reads it, points out my mistakes, and I learn something.

That doesn’t seem so bad. And I don’t need anyone else’s permissions to be curious or to follow my curiosity. I’m reading the book because I give a shit about how we respond to global-scale moral dilemmas, Derek Parfit also gave a shit about the same thing, and he had ideas about how to improve our moral frameworks accordingly.

That’s a good enough reason to keep reading.