My interesting capacity for useless knowledge

So… it’s been a while since I posted anything here.  I could lean towards a more libertarian-free-will outlook and chide myself for recently not having put much effort into organizing my ideas and hammering them out into blog posts.  But right now I’m more in the mood for explaining my behavior through “determinism-leaning” excuses.  Like many, I find my willpower for accomplishing certain tasks to be seriously lacking at times, and the mere desire (however strong) to do better seems insufficient for overcoming this.  There are probably many mechanisms at play behind this within the folds of my gray matter, but today I want to write about what feels to me like my main issue, which I’ve intended to make a post about fairly soon in any case.  And while I’m experiencing a bit of writer’s block with regard to the more abstract content I’ve been intending to put here in upcoming posts, it might be nicer to do a lighter, free-form, and more personal post in the meantime.

For me, the verb “to interest” (really, its passive form) holds two very distinct meanings.  I considered writing them as “interest1” and “interest2”, but their respective senses feel better conveyed to me when I call them “interest” and “Interest”.

In the first sense, I become interested in things in the way that I expect that most people become interested in things most of the time.  That is, I consider a certain topic or issue, determine that it has relevance to me, and decide to pay attention to it.  Some random examples that come to mind include economic theory, ecology, and websites which show the best apartment ads so I can move next year.

But then there’s Interest.  While I imagine that other people do have a few Interests in certain topics, I doubt whether there’s usually as much of a stark difference between their feelings of interest and Interest as there is with me.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been subject to intense passions for certain issues and subjects which don’t seem to come from any sort of rational selection process and which sometimes generate unreasonable levels of obsession.  There is no “good” reason whatsoever for me to be Interested in these things, especially while there are so many more relevant things to be studying.  And I can’t really justify the extent to which I’ll spend time and energy on pursuing the subjects I’m Interested in, when there are so many more “objectively worthwhile” things for me to spend my time on.  But it seems like there’s just no arguing with my brain when it locks itself into these pursuits.  Current examples include linguistics, human age / body records, and American presidential political history.  (I almost said something here like “random examples”, but any set of examples I give is going to sound pretty random.)

I want to make clear that when something Interests me, it really does require plenty of time and energy for me to gain an extensive knowledge of it.  Acquisition and retention don’t become automatic for me just because the topic at hand is Interesting, and I can’t just effortlessly memorize facts about these topics.  It takes work: perhaps many hours of attentive reading and/or memorization through repeated self-drilling.  But somehow when a certain topic becomes an Interest, I suddenly find myself endowed with the willpower to put myself through this kind of work.

The main frustration resulting from this is, of course, that when it comes to apportioning my mental energy, those things which I decided upon rational reflection to be interested in are often very much at odds with those things I’m Interested in.  Here are just a few examples:

  • food / environmental ethics: there are obvious reasons to be interested in this, but any attempts at real learning have so far come to nothing; ideally, I’ll wind up in a serious relationship with someone who’s both knowledgeable about and committed to such causes and willing to lead me
  • serious cooking (related): I want to eat healthier, and I really enjoy eating good food, so why not at least experiment with trying to cook good healthy food?
  • bicycle repair: it would make a lot of sense to learn how to adjust things on my bike so that I don’t periodically have to take it into the store and pay them for labor
  • just generally understanding how my computer / the internet works
  • macroeconomics, foreign policy, world history, all the relevant background for evaluating platforms of our presidential candidates

Now there are some interesting topics, especially those which have a very concrete relevance to my life (e.g. how to find an apartment for next year), which I seem to do well enough at engaging with.  And there are some Interests of mine do have some significant amount of usefulness (e.g. understanding American presidential history, although this is clearly not the most effective area of study for, say, evaluating the realisticness of Bernie Sanders’ economic proposals).

I think the solution here, as I hinted under the first of the above examples, is to find a person or a group who I trust to be knowledgeable and reasonable about the topics in which I have interest but not Interest, and follow their lead.  It’s for this reason that organizations like GiveWell are very appealing to me.  It’s always bothered me that I don’t donate anything substantial to charity.  But I’ve always felt a sort of learned helplessness in regard to learning what particular charity organizations actually do with their money, let alone how to calculate the actual utility resulting from their causes.  For some reason, even though utilitarianism-based rationalism more or less dictates that this is the most important subject for me to understand something about, it fails to be Interesting enough.  Now here comes an organization that has done the research for me, and whose findings I have good reason to put my faith in.  All that’s left then is to make a pledge, which while obviously qualifying as a sacrifice in some sense, at least doesn’t require any intellectual effort that my mind doesn’t want to go to.

Of course, it’s not all about learning information with the intention of applying it to something important.  Sometimes I just want to enjoy a particular hobby.  And the saddest situation for me is when something that used to be an Interest somehow loses its capital-I status and gets demoted to an interest.  This happened years ago with my Interest in lucid dreaming, and I’m beginning to be afraid that this is happening to my Interest in conlanging as well as I can no longer seem to find the willpower to sit down and work on it.  In general, I’ve gradually lost Interests over the years, perhaps because of my increasing intellectual struggle with math research, as well as the fact that I spend much less time wanting to divert myself while listening to lectures I find boring than I did back when I was younger.  Anyway, I always hold out hope that my brain will continue to realign in such a way that old Interests return.

And sometimes Interests that seem to be waning will rally when I kick-start my brain by forcing it to go to a relatively minor amount of effort on their behalf.  Which is more or less what I’m doing by writing this post.  With any luck, it’ll work.

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4 thoughts on “My interesting capacity for useless knowledge

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