[extropy-chat] Maths ability

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky sentience at pobox.com
Sat Mar 4 17:37:12 UTC 2006

ben wrote:
> Amara, i'm a good example of someone with a low aptitude for maths. I
> *want* to understand it, and have tried on countless occasions, but i
> just don't seem to get it. i can work out percentages and even do a
> little trigonometry, but only by dint of memorising the procedures. I
> don't UNDERSTAND them, and you have no idea how much frustration that
> causes me sometimes. As a kid, it was differentiation that finally made
> me throw the towel in. Totally baffling. Believe me, i'd love to
> understand maths, it's not laziness, it's something else. As a kid i've
> been in tears of frustration at not understanding it.
> I regard this as my own personal disability, as i can see how easy it
> seems to many others, like yourself and Spike. You'll probably laugh (or
> cry) at this, but i still don't know the answer to (-1) - (-1). I can
> get several answers to this. I've been told the rules before, but
> i don't understand the why of it (if you subtract, is that going to the
> left, i.e. more negative, or is it going towards zero?).
> But i haven't given up hope, and still try different learning strategies
> when i find time for it. One day, one day i will understand complex
> numbers. And what the hell they're for! It's just that i might need to
> re-wire my brain to do it.

I'm not laughing, Ben.  I've met other people who, no matter how hard 
they truly and honestly try, will never be comfortable with algebra; who 
will never understand the fundamental theorem of integral calculus.  I 
expect you'll get a lot of well-meaning advice from list members who 
simply can't conceive of what it's like to be bad at math.  It is 
theoretically possible that, as they will helpfully tell you, you've 
just been doing it wrong.  But in all probability, you're right about 
the brain rewiring.  A fast, powerful nonhuman intelligence is going to 
have to do some gradual, subtle neural tinkering before your mind wakes 
up to complex numbers.  (I would not advise that you try doing it to 

When you're born richer than other people, you can, if that makes you 
feel guilty, give away the money.  When you're born smart - well, you 
can't give one IQ point to fifty people.  I'm glad I don't have that 
choice to make.  It would be too cruel.  You can use talent or waste it, 
but you can't give it away.  The only thing I can offer you is that I'll 
go on using my own mathematical abilities to work toward the day when it 
all starts making sense to you.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                          http://singinst.org/
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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