Beyond the surface of realities (#30)
Realizing I was living in a bubble prompted me to leave my job, among other reasons. All the people around me worked at big techs. I felt disconnected from the broader reality.
I believed traveling would connect me to this bigger world. Unable to travel then, I embarked on a “virtual travel” project, where I planned to experience the world from my home through books and the Internet. I soon realized that I needed more than the intellectual experiences from screens and paper; I wanted direct, hands-on experiences.
When I was finally able to do so, I traveled the world for four months. I made few plans and let things happen to me. It was my first solo travel to completely unfamiliar places.
Halfway through, despite the fun, I began to question: After many random conversations with others, I didn’t feel I understood the world as deeply as I expected. Yes, my guide in Istanbul explained how inflation affected their lives, but my limited macro-economic knowledge left me unsure of what further questions to ask. I was amazed by the intricate beauty of the bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat, yet I couldn’t put the art, history, and religion into perspectives.
Despite my physical travels around the globe, I still felt encased in a bubble. How, then, can I understand the world better?
Before the trip I thought one needs to do direct, hands-on work to gain real understanding. Later I recognized humans can understand the universe by being stationary on Earth, suggesting it’s not necessarily so.
I had perhaps naively believed that reality was tangible, something I could see or touch, derived from my immediate senses. But in The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch introduced a different definition: “If something can kick back, it exists.”
‘Kicking back’ here does not necessarily mean that the alleged object is responding to being kicked — to being physically affected as Dr Johnson’s rock was. It is enough that when we ‘kick’ something, the object affects us in ways that require independent explanation. For example, Galileo had no means of affecting planets, but he could affect the light that came from them. His equivalent of kicking the rock was refracting that light through the lenses of his telescopes and eyes. That light responded by ‘kicking’ his retina back. The way it kicked back allowed him to conclude not only that the light was real, but that the heliocentric planetary motions required to explain the patterns in which the light arrived were also real.
I realize it’s not that the “virtual traveling” is detached from reality and thus inferior to actual traveling. It’s that they’re different.
Two modes of learning
Direct, hands-on experience is visceral and emotionally engaging. It provides rich contexts and nuances that may leave a stronger imprint on our memory. But it is confined by our physical presence and time constraints.
In contrast, indirect, observational learning overcomes personal experience limits, key for understanding theoretical concepts, frameworks, and models. The risk here is a detachment from practical realities.
I think the “kick-back” definition of reality helps bridge the dichotomy: one should aim to get feedback. Keeping the door open is a way to stay in touch with reality even when you’re doing indirect learning.
Two kinds of information
If the above is about how to learn, there’s another dimension of what.
Anecdotes, drawn from real experiences, are specific and relatable but may lack generalizability. While theories can apply across various contexts and disciplines, they can be challenging to comprehend and risk over-simplification.
Both are part of reality. Anecdotes provide tangible insights. Theories, as Karl Popper’s “third world” of objective knowledge, offer deeper, often unseen understandings of our world.
Four quadrants of understanding
We can visualize the interplay between the modes of learning and the content in a four-quadrant diagram:
Indirect way of learning from theories: study them through textbooks and lectures
Direct way of learning from theories: conduct experiments to test them
Direct way of learning from examples: try recipes, do practice questions
Indirect way of learning from examples: read biographies, case studies, and stories
We don’t need to delve into academia. Two takeaways:
Embrace a dynamic learning approach: Consider combining direct and indirect learning with anecdotal and theoretical knowledge to gain richer understanding.
Adapt the strategy based on your specific goals and needs: For general knowledge, indirect learning like books, articles, or lectures often suffice. But if you’re delving into your field of expertise or a subject where detailed practical knowledge is crucial, engaging in all four quadrants becomes necessary.
For more practical application,’s summary of Tyler Cowen’s approach to leading an intellectually fulfilling life is great.
Thanks for reading Abundant Game!
How do you navigate the balance between direct experiences and theoretical understanding in your own journey of learning?
Until next week,