I am the type of person who has a good understanding of many different domains but is not an expert in any of them. I studied philosophy at university and loved every moment of it. I get bored quite easily and found that philosophy affords me the opportunity to learn about a diverse set of disciplines, but just enough to understand and critique an argument without the need to invest a lifetime of studying subtle details.
Philosophy studies are not very demanding compared to some alternative disciplines. This fact allowed me to continue my studies even as I worked as a programmer, designing and building systems for large telecom operators. If you lived in the U.S. in the early 2000s, the phone calls you made would likely, sooner or later, traverse the systems I created. I never studied computer science. My father was a journalist and, as a result, we had a computer around the house which I played with from a very young age.
For a while I saw my future diverging along one of two possible paths. In one I stayed in academia, became a professor, and spent my days reading and writing, but mostly thinking. This scenario seemed to me to be totally plausible. My second possible future focused on leading a progressively larger team of programmers, then founding a startup or two, and eventually growing my own little business.
Because of my long-standing fascination with the subversive, disruptive potential of technology, I chose the second path. I led the teams, founded the startups, and am now an owner/director of an amazing company called Energized Work, which affords me the privilege of working with some of the best digital product makers in the world.
In all the years, however, I never lost touch with philosophy. To this day it is still the predominant mental model for how I interpret the world. But being an entrepreneur meant investing myself in the business, so life got busy. It then got even busier when I had children.I then realised how invested I had become in philosophy while at university. I missed the reading and exploration and, most of all, the deep thinking.
They say the best way to understand a complex topic is to teach it, and this sentiment was the incentive for starting this blog. I find thought experiments absolutely fascinating because they are used by such a diverse set of disciplines and thus provide the structure for me to immerse myself in different domains for brief periods — and again, to do some deep thinking.
It takes me about two months to publish a post. Most of this time is spent reading and thinking. I have a list of about 100 thought experiments I’d like to cover (although I come across new thought experiments all the time). My first step is to pick the experiment I’d like to work on. I then research the specific subject area online. This could be anything from Alexander the Great to Quantum Mechanics. I have a bias towards primary sources and so read the primary sources both relating to the thought experiment, and the specific area of the associated discipline. I then read the interpretations. Finally, I spend two non-consecutive days writing. This usually starts with a brief outline which I then proceed to flesh out. I then stop for about a week and do other things. When I get back I proofread the post, ask colleagues for comments, work them in and then finally publish.
In other words, I’m not smart enough to figure the really clever bits of philosophy out myself. So I try to master the best of what other people have already figured out.
I hope you enjoy the result.
You can find me on twitter @yobo.
On Thought Experiments
I find thought experiments absolutely fascinating. In theory, they should not work. How can we learn something new about the world from thought alone? Is this some strange remnant of rationalism?
Yet thought experiments are astonishingly useful. Immensely popular in physics, supposedly the most empirical of the all sciences, as well as in a host of other disciplines; including philosophy, mathematics, biology, computer science and economics. They are routinely used to challenge the limits of our understanding and often result in significant shifts within the discipline where they are used.