The Need to Explain

July 18 2023

Blog archive

Last 10 blog posts
How Hard is it to Adapt a Memory Allocator to CHERI?
"Programming" and "Programmers" Mean Different Things to Different People
pizauth: First Stable Release
The Need to Explain
Two Stories for "What is CHERI?"
My Interview with Eelco Visser on Parsing
Why Split Lexing and Parsing Into Two Separate Phases?
Displaying My Washing Machine's Remaining Time With curl, jq, and pizauth
pizauth: dump and restore
How Big Should a Programming Language Be?
One of my in-built quirks – present, I'm told, from a very young age – is spotting patterns. Whenever I see X, I also see Y; there are 3 As for every B; if this happens, then that is more likely to happen afterwards; and so on. It's not something I do particularly consciously, and few of my observations even reach the lofty heights of banal. Fortunately, it's not all wasted effort, and a small number of these observations end up making my life a little better. My train home always leaves from platforms 1 or 8. If I arrive at the station as my train is due to leave, my best bet is not to check the departure boards but to run past platform 8 to see if my train is there and, if it isn't, run straight to platform 1.

As I've grown older, I've learnt to keep more of the observations I've made to myself. This isn't because my observations very often offend, but because some people view them as creating a void which must be filled, as soon as possible, by an explanation. The problem with spontaneous explanations on topics beyond our purview is that they are often obviously wrong. One of my other quirks is that I find it difficult not to rebut obviously wrong explanations. This can then cause an endless loop of further explanations and rebuttals, which is rarely useful or enjoyable.

To my surprise, I've realised that further attempts at spontaneous explanation become less convincing more often than they become more convincing. One obvious lesson to draw from this is that it is easier to disprove incorrect explanations for a phenomenon than it is to generate a correct explanation. As a researcher, I have learnt that lesson the hard way more than once!

But, over time, I've come to be fascinated by the meta-observation: many of us seem to feel a need to find explanations for everything. I certainly felt that need when I was younger, due to a combination of insecurity and egotism. But, at some point, I realised that while I really want to find out the explanations for a small handful of observations, I'm generally comfortable with not having an explanation.

Why does my train leave from platforms 1 or 8? I probably could find out the explanation for this if I really wanted to, but it doesn't seem like a good use of my time. In many cases – for example, pretty much anything involving physics – I'm probably not capable of uncovering a compelling explanation even if I devote the remainder of my days to the investigation!

Of course, I sometimes can't help myself idly speculating as to possible explanations for an observation. Perhaps this suggests that we have a deep need to feel that we live in a world governed by well-defined laws? Perhaps our willingness to spontaneously think of explanations is the enabler of progress? Honestly, I don't have a clue. The observation alone has been enough to change my behaviour, and make my life a little easier.

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