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Upgrade Your Thinking Skills: Avoiding 6 Misconceptions

Upgrade Your Thinking Skills: Avoiding 6 Misconceptions

Naval Ravikant (the entrepreneur, investor, and philosopher) called this book "an upgrade for your brain".

This article is a crash course from The Beginning of Infniity on 6 misconceptions (to avoid) to level up your thinking skills today.

You will learn how to recognize and avoid these traps, which are more common than you think (even in science).

We'll explore the 6 popular misconceptions covered in Chapter 1 of The Beginning of Infinity:

  1. Justificationism
  2. Empiricism
  3. Inductivism
  4. Relativism
  5. Instrumentalism
  6. Occam's razor

Now, let's go upgrade our brain!

Misconception 1: Justificationism

What the hell is justificationism?

It's the theory that knowledge can be trusted only if it is justified by some source or criterion. Truth is defined as a "justified true belief".

This may seem a bit abstract. But it has been the most common view for most of human history. From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, beliefs were considered true if they came from a specific source: the Church, the State, or the authority of the day.

Theories were not examined based on WHAT they said but WHO said them.

In this view of Truth, it is possible to arrive at a point where we are "certain" of a belief if it ticks the right criteria.

Why it's wrong

But Justificationism ignores 3 important facts.

  • Searching for the Truth should mean taking feedback from reality. Otherwise what's the point? When the criteria for truth is not reality but authority, we are on the wrong path.
  • Certainty is just a subjective feeling, so it cannot be the goal in the quest for an objective Truth.
  • Humans are fallible. We always have and always will have errors in our knowledge. So no authority can claim the truth for themselves.

Why it's still a problem today

For these reasons, justificationism is a deep misconception. But notice how pervasive this view still is today.

Well-meaning people "Trust science". It means that your criterion for truth is "does it come from a specific authority?" (here: scientists)

"Listen to the experts" falls in the same bucket. You can listen and have the same views as experts... if their explanations make sense. But you should not take someone's word for it based only on their credentials.

Misconception 2: Empiricism

Empirical seems good but what does it mean?

Empiricism is wrong but not all bad. It's the theory that we 'derive' all our knowledge from sensory experience. Basically, we get knowledge from observing (with our eyes) and drawing conclusions from that. One famous empiricist metaphor is that we create knowledge by reading in the 'Book of Nature' (when we make observations).

Why empiricism is wrong...

Truth is not obvious. Science explains the seen by the unseen.

The idea of the Book of Nature implies that truth is apparent when we observe (carefully). But truth is not obvious, otherwise we would have barely progressed since humanity existed. And we would all agree on knowledge.

In fact, science is mostly about explaining the seen by the unseen. Otherwise, we would still think that stars are small cold dots in the sky. And not giant hot balls far away in Space. Or we would think that the Earth is not rotating but is fixed.

It's impossible to have pure observations.

Observations are always intermediated by "layers of conscious and unconscious interpretations".

First of all, you need a theory for what to observe. You cannot observe at random. It's not a passive act, but an active one. It requires a motivation, which is formulated in the mind - not in the "Book of Nature".

You also need theories to use instruments. A telescope is not assembled at random. You need theories that explain how and why it works. Nature does not provide telescope.

What's the counter-argument?

One common rebuttal is: "Surely, you must have made observations before formulating theories. If you have never observed a phenomenon, you cannot reason about it."

It's true. Observations can inspire problems to be solved. But minds have to guess the theories. There is no derivation from the observation to the theory. There is no direct link.

Newton observed an apple falls towards the center of the Earth. He wondered why and conjectured a theory. But it's not like he could observe the law of universal gravitation with his eyes.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water: Why empiricism is not 100% bad

That's because it was the first theory to reject knowledge from authority. It helped us escape this trap.

Furthermore, observations do have a role in science. They are used to decide between theories. Here's how it works:

  • Different theories make different predictions about reality.
  • Then we create tests to see which predictions come true.
  • These tests contain observations.

For that purpose, observations are useful. But they are not the source of knowledge.

To summarize: observations help choose between theories or inspire problems, but are not the source of knowledge.

Misconception 3: Inductivism

I've heard the word "inductive" before, but what does it really means?

This theory says that scientific theories are obtained by generalizing or extrapolating repeated experiences. And that the more often a theory is 'confirmed' by observation, the more likely it becomes.

This shares the idea with empiricism that knowledge is derived from experience. Although the emphasis of inductivism is on repetition. But inductivism shares the same misconceptions as empiricism.

Science is not only about our experiences but also what we don't experience. We don't see what is happening inside stars. We don't experience atoms. We don't experience evolution. But we have theories about them anyway.

Inductivism still claims that if we have repeated experiences, we can form theories from them.

The classic example is: the sun comes up everyday so we have a theory that it will come up tomorrow. Said differently, the future will resemble the past.

But this does not explain how we form these theories. That is because induction is in fact impossible. There is no physical process that can make you derive from a repeated experience a theory. Theory comes first.

Even with the example of the sunrise, we don't rely solely on our experience but on theories. For example, if it's a cloudy day and we don't see the Sun, we don't suppose that the Sun has stopped coming up. Because we have a theory that the Sun is still there, behind clouds.

With that faulty logic, inductivism pretends that a repeated experience is more trustworthy. Inductivists get more and more confident when an experience is repeated.

A black swan vs. a thousand white swans

One famous counter-example: all your life you see only white swans, so you assume that it is the only color for a swan. Every time you see one, you get more confident in your theory. Then the 1001th you see is black, completely refuting your theory. But at the 1000th you were at your peak confidence, when you should have been at your lowest.

Induction is still taught alongside deduction, like if it were a valid mode of reasoning. It is not. Abandon inductivism.

Misconception 4: Relativism

My vote for the most dangerous idea goes to relativism

This is the theory that there is no objective truth, only different beliefs held by different people or cultures. In this view, all of those beliefs are equally valid, and it is not possible to judge one belief as better or truer than another.

Despite being obviously wrong, this ideology seems to have gained ground in some universities or companies. Some might criticize it as the central idea responsible for "woke ideology". It also appears as a moral argument in which all wrong acts are equivalent.

Why is relativism false?

Relativism denies reality. If there is an objective reality, then statements can be evaluated compared to this reality. So there can absolutely be objectively false statements or objectively true statements. Give up quickly relativism or accept that reality does not exist.

Relativism also commits the cardinal sin of a theory: if you take it seriously, it falls apart. Indeed, relativism is not even self-consisten.

If all beliefs are equally valid, then the belief that "relativism is wrong" is worth as much "relativism is right".

Any form of relativism is dangerous because it shut down rational debate. It's an intellectual dead end.

So relativism is wrong. A better position is that humans are fallible. So our statements contain errors as well as some of the truth. Progress is going from misconception to better misconception (e.g., from Newton's laws to Einstein's theory of relativity).

Misconception 5: Instrumentalism

This one is even pervasive in scientific circles

This is the idea that science cannot describe reality, only predict outcomes of observations. In that view, it means that explanations should not be part of truth-seeking.

This is because explanations are supposedly stories, and in a way "made-up" distractions to rigorous (mathematical) predictions. At best, they are useful fictions.

What matters is only the observed data, which can be predicted and measured. As long as it works, it's fine.

What if we take instrumentalism seriously...

Here I cannot resist quoting David Deutsch directly:

Indeed, it is impossible to make a prediction without an explanation. In particular, you need to say when your prediction applies. Even if unconscious or uncontroversial, every prediction relies on explanations about how the world works.

This is for example the error we make when we use statistics without an explanation for the data.

Would you listen to a doctor that prescribes a drug without knowing how it works at all? And that claims that it is not relevant to understand it.

Thinking that the laws of nature can be reduced to predictions is the same as coming back to the old myths "the Gods did it".

Always seek an explanation. People who accept predictions without explanations believe in magic.

Misconception 6: Occam's Razor

Occam's razor in the most basic sense is true...

Occam's razor is the heuristic that one should always seek the 'simplest explanation'. And if you have to decide between two theories, you should prefer the one that has less assumptions.

It is true that adding assumptions beyond necessity is bad. This would mean that these assumptions are arbitrary (and therefore have nothing to do with what they are describing).

...But that does not mean that the simplest explanation is the best.

There are plenty of bad simple explanations. "The Gods did it" is a simple explanation that can be used to explain everything.

This might seem like a caricature of Occam's razor but the point is that "simple" is not the best criterion for a good explanation.

A better criterion is "hard-to-vary", which is the central thesis of the book. But that's for another post.


We have seen how all these views of knowledge are in fact misconceptions: justificationism, empiricism, inductivism, relativism, instrumentalism, Occam's razor.

Most of them are still in use today. So learning about them will help you stand out in the search for the truth. Block them from your reasonings, and you will have upgraded your brain.

A few principles to remember:

  • Truth does not come from any authority. Ask "why is this true?" Not "who said it?". Take no one's word for it, even scientists or experts.
  • It is impossible to derive knowledge from (repeated) experiences or observations.
  • Observations can inspire problems to be solved or help choose between theories, but they are not the source of knowledge.
  • There are objective truths and falsehoods. Denying it leads to irrationalism.
  • Insist for explanations, predictions are not enough.
  • The simplest theory is not necessarily the best. Simple is not good enough as a criterion.

Further reading: The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch