Zettelkasten Forum

Stop Relying on a Source and Have Faith in Your own Thoughts

imageStop Relying on a Source and Have Faith in Your own Thoughts

A Zettelkasten is a personal tool for thinking and writing that creates an interconnected web of thought. Its emphasis is on connection and not mere collection of ideas.

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  • “ information is not a property of things in the world”

    Love this article.

    I think it would be more accurate to say:
    “Meaning is not a property of things in the world“

    The world is 100% information. Individuals make meaning.

    Just discovered this site thru August Bradley’s newsletter. Glad I did!

  • edited April 2021

    While I agree with the notion behind this I struggle with the idea that there should be a blurred line between thoughts of our own and thoughts of others.

    A prime example is when learning a new concept we rely on the ideas of others to help form our own thoughts. But since we are still novices in that concept we may be wrong if our thoughts are based on misunderstandings or errors in the thinking of others. This implies we should have some form of distinguishing between our own thoughts and the thoughts of others, which is why I distinguish the ideas from a source with (L.YYMMDDHHMM) in the title.

    This may be an artifact of my overall approach though: I try to use phrase-based idea-capturing titles and work towards defining heuristics and executable strategies wherever possible.

    Here is an example note from my own zettelkasten: Speculation has much less effect on stock prices in the long term (2103281102). Normally I would title this Speculation has much less effect on stock prices in the long term (L.2103281102) (note the L. in the suffix) to denote that it is an idea from a source I processed, in this case a 2018 paper by Distillate Capital. But I'm experimenting with migrating away from the L. suffix after earlier discussion with @Sascha that "a note is a note" – and I'm finding that it concerns me... (as I said, I struggle – I am of both minds on this issue....)

    So this title produces a useful heuristic I can use to guide my thinking going forward: "don't worry so much about short term volatility impacting returns over longer investment periods." But what if it is wrong? The paper makes a compelling argument, but it is also written by a company that focuses on long-term investing so it has an interest in biased reporting, and there are questions about the data being potentially cherry-picked to fit the conclusion.

    I happen to agree with the paper but that's beside the point – my reasoning could be flawed.

    If I made this a "regular" permanent note in my zettelkasten (without the L. in the suffix) then I risk over time coming to believe this to be 100% true because I can no longer distinguish between my own thoughts and the thoughts of someone else.

    As I become more confident in the truth/relevance/applicability of that particular idea in my own life I can then evolve that note away from being "just a literature note" into being a true permanent note in my zettelkasten. This is easily done by removing the L. from the suffix. (as was done in the example above, since again I am experimenting with going direct from a source to permanent note now, and finding this to be a concern)

    In my approach, outline notes then start to become guides for living just by scanning the links, with each link being an aphorism capturing an idea. Having the L. helps me see at a glance in the outline whether this is truly my own well-formed thought or if I am relying on the thoughts of someone else, with a potentially brittle understanding as a result.

    The easy response to this is "no note should be considered as 100% true forever" – and that's true of course. But when it comes to designing heuristics and strategies for living our lives we have to at some point decide that a concept is "good enough" and it is useful to have a signal that "this idea seems useful but it may not be fully understood yet" – which is why I add the L. to the suffix. The alternative is having to always question whether every note I write is "good enough" to base any decision on at all, and that's a giant philosophical rabbit hole from which there may be no escape and would seem to defeat the purpose of taking notes at all – if we can't rely on our own notes then why bother writing them in the first place?

    I'm curious what others think of this concern, again keeping in mind my approach is to try to use my notes to build heuristics and strategies through outline/hub notes.

  • edited April 2021


    To me it seems, that you're just in search for a heuristic for the strength of supporting evidence for the claim that governs a note.

    The separation of what is ones own and what not does is not a good tool for that. I have many ideas and thoughts of other people that I trust more than my own. Example: I have many notes on dog training that are based on the ideas of others and more trustworthy than my own ideas because I am not an expert but more of an intermediate learner.

    I think you are trying to solve the eternal problem of induction. There are practical solutions to deal with trust in knowledge. But I'd recommend to develop something more fine tuned and applicable to the individual note than a binary system.

    One example is shown here: https://examine.com/supplements/creatine/

    Each claim ("creatine leads to...") is related to:

    • The level of evidence (they use a four levels)
    • Magnitude of effect
    • Consistency in the studies
    • additional notes

    The table shown in the last article is basically that: It is a tool to test the claim "The stock X is a buy" and relate the claims on different stocks to each other.

    The question of trust should be asked anytime you encounter a note by habit and not delegated to a binary tool of note classification, I think. You need different tools for different types of knowledge. A tool of note classification does not suffice. (No, different types of knowledge do not need matching note classification)

    I am a Zettler

  • Many years ago I was discussing the Social Constructionist approach to psychology with someone more intelligent than I, and commented that, in a sense, any notes made about a piece of text were a "distortion" of it. They replied that actually any reading of a text was a "distortion" of it, because the reader inevitably read the text from their own point of view, and therefore any reading was a unique interpretation of what was in the text.

    There is an interesting passage in the Wikipedia article cited above, which is perhaps worth quoting:

    In 1886 or 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that, "Facts do not exist, only interpretations." In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann said, "The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance" between people and their environment. Each person constructs a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. People "live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones." Lippman's "environment" might be called "reality", and his "pseudo-environment" seems equivalent to what today is called "constructed reality".

    Social Constructionism has been heavily criticised for going too far along the route of "there are no facts, only interpretations", and not dealing well with questions of materiality, embodiment, power, and so forth, but it is still a thought-provoking way of looking at the world.

    As @Anya said, human beings are meaning-making "devices". Viktor Frankl wrote about this, and his book is well worth reading, though it is difficult (dealing as it does with human experience in concentration camps). I do not know the German title, but in English it was published as Man's Search for Meaning.

  • Thanks for the responses. I agree with the subjectivity of information in general (though I also agree it can go too far) so that does factor into my struggles here.

    Part of my issue may be something addressed by @ctietze in the article, namely that my approach encourages extracting all ideas from the source, creating a pool of atomic idea notes sitting alongside the source waiting to be mined and used in permanent notes as needed over time. But given our automatic application of an interpretive lens we are necessarily filtering that information anyway, so the argument seems to be to be more proactive in defining and applying that interpretation so as to only extract the information deemed worthy at the time. But that also seems counter to the ZK approach which specifically supports extracting information and classifying it (such as it is) by placing it in relation to other notes (as Luhmann did with his branching ID system, for example – not resurrecting that argument, just giving an example) for later discovery. (Luhmann's "principle of surprise" etc)

    Obviously this in part comes down to the level of effort to be expended on a source. But in @ctietze's case he spent many hours deconstructing, atomizing, and synthesizing the ideas from a simple pop psychology book into his ZK. Were all of those ideas "relevant" at the time they were extracted? Or were they extracted in the assumption they may be relevant to the future self? If the latter then doesn't that mean we should focus on extracting many ideas, not just the few we may find relevant at the moment? And if so, shouldn't we have a system in place for handling the "flood" of those ideas in a structured manner?

    I'm mostly just thinking out loud (so to speak.... er, write) here, since this is getting very philosophical again. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  • I think that when processing the work of others it is our first responsibility to represent their message/views as accurately as possible (as we comprehend) in our own words and be sure to record where we obtained this idea (Book, Page Number) for citation later. We need to keep this separate from our own thoughts on the matter. Depending on what we are researching we may or may not have to summarize the author's ideas in full. It is difficult for me to leave out information when doing this. But, I have to remind myself that I am not trying to record detail, but rather explain the idea as simply as possible with just enough detail to get the point across solidly. But only later, after I have summarized the ideas of leading authors on a particular subject, after I have understood the main points of all the data on a particular subject, should I go in and start to record my own thoughts in permanent notes and link them. That doesn't mean I can't ask questions along the way and/or state tentative disagreements. But one must be careful not to allow bias into the process of understanding another's views.

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