Why We Learn — Illusion of Knowledge

For many, many years I’ve heard people preach of the value of life long learning and have never quite understood why on a gut level, not until reading the legendary Harry Potter and…

For many, many years I’ve heard people preach of the value of life long learning and have never quite understood why on a gut level, not until reading the legendary Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and becoming outright addicted to SuperMemo. It turns out learning actually has a functional purpose, and as such I must write out what that is.


  • We’ve (mostly) defeated the highly dangerous enemy: the Illusion of Knowledge
  • We learn so we can be better problem solvers
  • We learn to advance faster than expected

This post will be outlining the first of these reasons.

(Disclaimer: the learning I discuss is of course free, self-directed learning. Forced learning at school is a form of torture. We must end school slavery.)

Learning is not just humility

HPMOR details an actually smart character, doing actually smart things in a way no other protagonists do. And throughout the story we are very much inside of the characters head, so we get to hear of all the rules and laws of rationality he’s employing to be as awesome as he is throughout the story. It’s inspiring in a way that’s hard to understand without.

I’ve always been the ‘smart kid’, but reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality humbled me in a way nothing else has.

Looking back with full honesty, my failure to understand why other people loved learning is certaintly from a lack of humility on my part. Inside a dusty unrealised corner of my mind, I thought I knew everything, so didn’t see the point in learning more.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality was such an important book to me because it brought me scope. I was very local in my intellegence. I was the smartest of the people I knew, so the upper ceiling of intellegence I was exposed to ended with me. Hpmor took that artificial ceiling and crushed it into speckles of nothingness, showing me there was an infinitely smarter way to be, and there was a long way for me to go.

It gave me perspective, an opportunity to become more powerful.

The Illusion of Knowledge

This phenomenon is not unique to me. It’s actually quite popular among all of humanity, it’s called the illusion of knowledge, and it’s deadly to your progress. It tells you comfortably that you know everything you need to know.

Unfortunately the illusion of knowledge can hardly be broken in my just simply knowing that there are smarter people out there (like how I always knew of Elon Musk’ existance, for instance) because your brain will unbeliveably quickly cover up that fact and tell you that there’s nothing fundamentally different between you and Musk, he was just luckier, or put in some extra work that you could put in if you wanted to. And so it never crosses your mind that Elon Musk could be on an entirely different step on the conciousness staircase, that he could be playing an entirely different game than the one you think you’re both playing — and so you end up thinking you’re on the same level as Elon Musk.

Truth is, Elon isn’t playing the same game you are. To see the value of learning you need to squash the idea that Elon’s even playing a game with the same rules that you are.

If it helps, see those supersmarts as something far more advanced than a puny human, and comparing you with your default reasoning software to them is like comparing a two year old to you. There are problems you solve for breakfast that a two year old wouldn’t be able to solve if you gave it hours. Not until it grows up, updates its software. Not until it learns. Your operating system is crappy and outdated by default, and without updating it, you’re not catching up with Elon.

How much you know can be exemplified by a circle in space:

The black spots represent the knowledge out there. The size of the circle represents the size of your knowledge.

When your knowledge is small, your circumference is small and it can’t touch much other knowledge — meaning you can’t get a sense at all for how much you don’t know.

Sound familiar? That’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s incredibly well documented.

The Dunning-Kruger effect shows that unskilled individuals often rate their own skill very highly. Specifically, although there does tend to be a correlation between how competent a person is and how competent they guess they are, this correlation is weaker than one might suppose. In the original study, people in the bottom two quartiles of actual test performance tended to think they did better than about 60% of test-takers, while people in the top two quartiles tended to think they did better than 70% of test-takers. (From [Inadequate Equillibria](All Posts – LessWrong)

The circle in the image has already learned all the easy, nearby lessons so far, and its circumference can’t feel any more knowledge directly nearby. It implicitly assumes it knows everything, and is totally blind to the large swaths of knowledge all around, as well as the many golden nuggets.

Now if this brain were to do just a bit more learning, it’d start to absorb more knowledge. With more knowledge, it’s circumference increases exponentially, and the more knowledge its exposed to. At first its not exceptionally fun, and the brain covers up its ignorance by assuming it could have reasoned there anyway. Brains aren’t humble by default, see. It gives them comfort to declare that there’s not much more to be learnt. But if the brain is lucky enough to be humble enough it will keep learning, assuming it must be missing something.

And then it tastes its first golden nugget.

It learns of a piece of knowledge at the excact right time, finally having enough prerequesite knowledge for it to make perfect sense. A dozen, only slightly off levers in the brain previously click perfectly into place, and a the golden nugget serves to contribute a coherent model of the world.

An entire subset of previously elusive problems are rendered effortless at this stage.

The brain finally has some new rules, and hopefully at this point should gain some scope, the artifical ceiling of intellgence being swept away, revealing a massive cosmos of Unknown Unkowns.

It is a glorious, glorious feeling.

So the brain continues to learn (hopefully efficiently with some [[Incremental Reading]]), and here’s the kicker about finding golden nuggets:

It never gets old.

We learn because learning is the most sustainable form of pleasure. The more you learn, the more your circumference expands in ALL directions, repeatedly bumping against the edge of entire swaths of things you don’t know, constantly increasing and constantly revealing more delicious golden nuggets, feeding the (good!) addiction in a self-perpetuating cycle of increasing knowledge, pleasure, problem solving ability and level hopping.

The presented graph can be even slightly deceptive, because the internet is, unfortunately, yet able to show images of infinite size 😉

(Correction from future me — apparently the internet very much *can*??? )

Breaking in the Illusion of Knowledge

There are two things that are needed for breaking in the illusion of knowledge.

1) Genius in (Detailed!) Action

Just witnessing people do genius things isn’t enough, becuase without knowing the rules they’re playing with, their heads become opaque black boxes, and we by default do what we do with black bloxes: assume they’re using the same rules we do..

That’s why HPMOR is so special and effective in changing people’s lives. Inside Harry’s head we get to see every stage of his thinking, revealing in detail where are own defecits are, and just how deep the chasm is between the gameboard’s he’s playing on, and our own.

2) Rapid humility

Actually learning is perhaps the most effective thing you can do to break in your illusion of knowledge. Users of SuperMemo know this feeling well: you never quite end your learning session without being hungry for more, because each learning session only reveals more thoroughly just how deep the treasure trove of Unkown Unkowns is, and it’s incredibly addicting.

Keep in mind that the illusion of knowledge is rarely really over! Not even for you in particular, you. It* is a persistant, ancient enemy that does not give up easily, even after the brain has absorbed many golden nuggets. Once you are sufficiently addicted to learning however, this matters less, as you will keep learning anyway and keep revealing more golden nuggets, constantly punching away at the illusion of knowledge.

As put by Eliezer Yudkowsky in The Proper Use of Humility:

“To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty.”

Therefore I believe it’s acceptable if you never truly eradicate your illusion of knowledge, as long as you keep learning anyway — it’ll keep being knocked down naturally. Though I believe there are a few who truly, deeply have broken in their Illusion of Knowledge one of whom is, at the age of 58, earnestly looks at every experience in life as one of learning, thereby meeting the glorious pleasure of learning at every turn.

This delightfully happy man is Piotr Wozniak, creator of SuperMemo. Coincidence? I think not.

Next up: Why We Learn — Problem Solving

If I’ve convinced you of the magic of learning and you don’t know what to do next — read this.