I’d like to share a visual metaphor that I’ve found quite useful over the past few years when trying to understand and reason about different people and ideas.
Imagine the existence of an objective, omnipotent entity ala God that associates every human being with a virtual 3D bubble.
Visualize one of these bubbles surrounding every person that you meet, with the size of each bubble being proportional to that person’s aggregate life experience, world understanding, and self-awareness.
We'll call these wisdom bubbles.
The more knowledge, life experience, and world understanding you gain, the larger your wisdom bubble grows.
The more sheltered, inexperienced, and ignorant you are, the smaller your wisdom bubble shrinks.
For the more mathematically inclined, you could imagine these bubbles as high dimensional surfaces where each dimension corresponds to some concrete aspect of knowledge. This abstraction is a lot harder to visualize and reason about, however, so for the purposes of this thought experiment let’s stick with the projection of these high dimensional surfaces onto three-dimensional spheres.
Now let's explore the implications of this thought experiment a bit.
Natural properties that should hold true for all wisdom bubbles would include:
- All babies would start with small, roughly equal-sized, non-zero volume bubbles. They would have a positive volume at birth due to built-in knowledge and behaviors that all humans start with. (eg no clean slate)
- The size of your bubble wouldn’t necessarily grow monotonically over the course of your life. In other words, it’s possible for the size of your bubble to grow and shrink in response to stimuli as you grow older. Some examples of experiences that may cause your bubble to shrink would be the onset of a major depression or joining a misguided cult from which your world view is either temporarily or irrevocably damaged.
- The size of your parent’s bubbles would be a strong factor affecting the rate at which your bubble would grow during adolescence, with this factor weakening as you grow older.
Let’s see what we can infer about individuals, society, and our overall sense of self.
First off, some people’s bubbles will naturally be quite a bit larger and some will of course be much smaller.
If you overlap two people’s bubbles, the resulting 3D Venn diagram would represent the subset of experiences and understanding about the world shared between two individuals. As you may imagine, this overlap could be used as an abstract measure of the shared wisdom between any two individuals in a population.
Some heuristics that I believe would strongly correlate with larger wisdom bubbles but not necessarily always correspond:
- Travel / being exposed to different cultures and ideologies
- Living in different geographical areas and being forced to confront differences in culture and ideology
- Higher education
- Being born into wealthier families or more affluent areas
- Adopting a scientific mindset
- An innate desire to remain open-minded
- Exploring love and sexuality
- Comfort level with expressing yourself
- Major life experiences such as having children
- Being more independent
It would generally take strength across all of these areas to have the largest possible wisdom bubbles, though some outliers who focus on several of these factors would inevitably exist. Take the Dalai Lama, for example.
Some heuristics that would strongly correlate with smaller wisdom bubbles but not necessarily always correspond:
- Religious extremism
- Lower levels of education
- Homogeneous geographical experiences
- Trusting of authority
- Tribal affiliations
- Given a constant baseline observer, how would the average size of the world's wisdom bubbles change over time? How would, say, an average prehistoric adult’s bubble compare to that of an average modern toddler growing up in the US?
- If we adjusted for changes over time to society’s aggregate wisdom, similar to how economists adjust for inflation, how would someone like Leonardo Da Vinci compare to someone like Albert Einstein? Or Elon Musk?
- How would society differ if this form of objective wisdom bubble was real and visible to everyone? There’s a Black Mirror episode that’s somewhat related to this, though it focuses more on a subjective, social score of popularity as opposed to an objective measure of wisdom.
- Is there any type of correlation (positive or negative) between the size of one’s wisdom bubble and their general happiness in life? What would the shape of this graph be? Possibly a parabola where ignorance is bliss and most people in the middle are somewhat happy and the most enlightened and wise among us find true happiness?
- Is there any type of correlation (positive or negative) between the size of one’s wisdom bubble and the magnitude of their contributions to society?
- Is there any type of correlation (positive or negative) between the size of one’s wisdom bubble and their eventual financial wealth?
- What would it look like to compare the wisdom of various figures throughout history and/or across widely different industries?
- Is there any type of objective test that approximates this type of metric? Standardized testing, IQ, etc all only measure very small subsets of wisdom.
- My best guess is that the Dunning-Kruger effect would apply whole-heartedly to one’s ability to estimate the size of their own wisdom bubble.