Beyond Working Knowledge

One nice feature of this view is that it explains the difference between the best LEGO builders and the rest of us. It’s amazing to see gravity- defying builds—ones where you’re just not sure why the thing doesn’t collapse, no matter the angle you take. But it probably isn’t amazing to highly experienced builders. I’d guess that they look at a life-size LEGO giraffe and think: “Nice.”6 They see that it’s good work, of course, but it isn’t stunning to them. Why not? Because they have a better understanding of LEGO, and hence of what’s possible with it. LEGO experts don’t have better imaginations than we non-experts; they just know more. (That’s why we read their books.)

Nevertheless, working knowledge—at least of the implicit, unarticulated variety—doesn’t always cut it. Think about the sort of question that I raised earlier: could you build a LEGO tower that’s, say, a thousand meters tall? No one’s got a “feel” for LEGO that lets him answer this question. Without some pretty detailed reasoning, you’re not going to get an answer.

Instead, you have to make that working knowledge explicit. You have to start formulating some claims about the properties of different LEGO pieces, about the strength of the various connections between pieces, and so on. And if you want to think about any interesting cases—such as whether you can make a prosthetic leg (spoiler alert: you can7)—you’ll need to integrate those claims with things you know about ABS plastic (from which LEGO products are made), basic mechanics, and much else besides. The upshot: you have to develop a decent theory about LEGO, one that fits neatly with the other theories you take to be true.

None of this should be surprising, and I doubt that it is. A few years ago, some engineers got interested in a debate on Reddit about the tallest possible LEGO tower. They then went to work in their lab: first, they figured out how much force it would take to crush a brick; then, they calculated how many bricks it would take to exert that much force on the first brick in the stack. The answer? 375,000 bricks, which at 9.6mm each, means a height of 3,591 meters, or roughly 2.17 miles.8

What matters here isn’t the answer, which may actually be wrong. (They’re imagining a single stack, and you might be able to do better with, say, a pyramid.) Instead, what matters is that they’ve obviously employed the right method. That is, they took what they knew about LEGO, and made it play with what they knew about material science.

The fact that they obviously employed the right method might even suggest something about what our working knowledge really is: namely, the beginnings of a theory, a kind of implicit understanding of those rules that govern LEGO construction. As a result, we don’t balk at the idea of bringing our LEGO knowledge into conversation with everything else we know, building better theories to help us build yet wilder structures. So my bet? It’s theory all the way down—though we don’t realize it until we start confronting weird questions.

For what it’s worth, I think this is the way things work generally, in the non-LEGO world. (Yes, Virginia, there is a non-LEGO world.) You learn what could and couldn’t be by developing better theories about what is—some of which you can articulate, but many of which you can’t (at least not without some time and effort). If we want to give this view a name, we might call it a theory-based epistemology of modality.9 Suitably dull, right?

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