The First Man To Know Nothing

17/05/19

Various historical figures have been cited as the last to know everything, that is, they were sufficiently intelligent to have read and understood the relatively small amount of published books at a time when science was a relatively confined field.  Compared to today, the total sum of knowledge in all academic areas was so limited that it was at the very least, theoretically possible to know it all.  But now it’s even unlikely that you can learn everything within a very specialised sub-domain of a speciality, because not only is that body of information huge to begin with, it is also growing rapidly, and will even give rise to its own specialism eventually.  This is as true within the humanities as it is in the sciences.

This fragmenting through the discovery or creation of new realms of knowledge is a democratisation of information, like Jesus feeding 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and a couple of small fry.  It’s not that something long-winded and technical has been rendered simple and accessible to everyone as in the case of photography thanks to Kodak, but that knowledge itself has been broken up into small pieces so that each person may have their part.  In a sense, the true democratisation of knowledge is getting more and more impossible over time, which challenges our notions of what it means to know and what it means to be ignorant.  It could even be said that what we began with was an egality of knowledge derived from personal experience, but as advanced methods of generating, and more importantly, storing information came about, this caused a shift towards an emphasis on the written word and the possibility for knowledge to accumulate.  Either the sum of knowledge is limited, and therefore easy to collect, or it is vast and difficult to grasp, except in a post or trans-human society. 

But what does it mean for us to be unable to know everything, with what we do know representing an ever-smaller, and seemingly insignificant part of the whole?  Well, remember when I said that ” It’s not that something long-winded and technical has been rendered simple and accessible“?  This actually describes the situation quite well if you consider how it is that the human brain is capable of dealing with a constant stream of stimuli from all 5 senses.

In order to make any large quantity of data manageable we need to filter it and have criteria for doing so.  In the case of our brains, this results in a long list of cognitive biases which is the price we paid for survival in the ancestral environment.  Today’s landscape is radically different however, with a whole host of new, attention-grabbing, man-made stimuli, along with an unfathomable amount of information broadcast to us from all angles.  What this means is that as a coping mechanism, in response we have developed, and will continue to develop and use methods for handling information in this highly stimuli-laden environment.

Living in rural France I am keenly aware that when I travel to a city, especially somewhere like Bordeaux, Paris or London, I am ill-equipped to survive there because my senses have grown accustomed to allowing the relatively simple environment to grab my attention whenever it wants or is needed.  I hear the multitude of birds chattering away, the bark of a distant stag calling during mating season, and even the busy footsteps of a crawling termite colony or a small spider running across a dried leaf.  I spot a deer’s antler on the forest floor in amongst some old, dead branches, despite it resembling a piece of wood itself: I am free to observe without being overwhelmed, yet when in the city I am forced into myself, to shut down my senses to avoid overload and fatigue, to become less observant and more dismissive. (Side-note: these types of experiences may also be characteristic of how introverts deal with different types and levels of stimuli.)

Essentially, our modern environments demand us to become more biased, and perhaps increasingly so, rather than allowing us to evolve into a kind of ‘rational animal’ that is no longer bound by biology and our psychological heritage.

This is not only true of our daily interactions with the physical environment, but it is also true of how we appear to cope with the storm of accumulated knowledge that the information age has brought us.  How, when referring to anything other than our direct experience, can we know what is true or not, who is trustworthy or not, and who can we rely on to answer these questions?  The first and most direct answer is that we simply decide based on gut instinct, preference and bias, which is to say that this method represents a very basic and flawed system that is more likely to just re-confirm pre-existing beliefs than arrive at any objective truths that often require counter-intuitive thinking.  But in this day and age, with the power of a smartphone in our pockets we can call upon the instant omniscience of the cloud in order to ask these questions of a larger intelligence.  However, the problem still remains that to arrive at any conclusion, not only must we limit the extent of our knowledge, but who we trust to give it to us must still ultimately come down to heuristics.  Sifting through all this information and the conflicting opinions about it becomes an impossible full-time job, where digging doesn’t result in more clarity, only confusion.

In order to be rational we would have to question our sources instead of just accepting them as an infallible authority, and at the same time we would have to judge the credibility of any critique of this authority, but in a world where we cannot be an expert or anything anywhere close to it on every subject, our ignorance must be substituted for the knowledge of someone who is a specialist in the field.  This means that in many, if not most cases, what we have is not knowledge but a chain of deferred authority and responsibility for the truth, with the hope that the particular authorities we have chosen turn out to be the best ones, and that we ourselves were as rational as possible in making such choices.

A problem with this method is that we are vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect as we struggle to keep up with the infinite number of topics there are to study and discuss.  In this case, not knowing or having an opinion might actually be better than the default which is to become someone who thinks they understand, but actually does not.  I’d argue that changing an incorrect opinion is more troublesome that forming an accurate one in the first place.

It seems we are doomed to either being a specialist (at best) in a single area, or a know-it-all in many areas, which appears highly problematic from a rational standpoint, although it might actually be what the social media environment is selecting for on some level.  We cannot live an existential crisis of inconclusive answers, so eventually we must settle on what is really a placeholder for truth, to relieve ourselves of the dissonance.  It’s not that we are driven by a desire to know, but that above all we crave the satisfaction and comfort that comes from thinking we know.  With the answer to a question comes the sensation of finality, unless we are stupid enough to continue asking.  What information brought to us by all media sources represents is thus an endless series of chains of questions, many of which we would never in a million years be prompted to ask ourselves.  These questions or topics are presented by a wide variety of sources, from typical old media such as TV news, debates and documentaries, to unknown individuals who, like me, simply felt the need to express themselves and to share their opinions publicly.  Such diversity is like the lights of Times Square: beautiful if you can’t read.  So not only is there the question of who to believe and why, there is also the problem of deciphering which topics and ideas are actually important or worthy of our attention on a day to day basis.  But with all of the agendas, self-interests and financial motivations all playing a role in trying to attract and hold our attention, we are back to the problem of being unable to escape our biases in this complex decision-making process.

This also raises the fundamental question; are there ideas or questions that are objectively more important than others, and if so, how do we determine them, but ultimately what exactly are they?

Due to my own biases I am inclined to suggest, instinctively nonetheless, that we should privilege not just those things that are practical and relevant to our (immediate) circumstances and environment, but also our own interests and knowledge.  Unless you are just fascinated by the topic there’s probably little to be gained by the average person delving into the problems of creating friendly artificial intelligence for example.  In this way, many of these questions should actually be taken as intellectual entertainment.  If we can neither act upon nor contribute to the body of information, then why engage with it at all?  If we are not open to our minds being changed and our actions altered, then it’s likely that any new information will reinforce pre-existing beliefs.

Understanding that avoiding or attempting to counteract any bias naturally requires lots of deliberate effort, and is very taxing on cognitive resources, it raises the question whether or not, given such a complex and information-rich environment, it is actually rational to do so.  In a sense, our biases and ability to generate heuristics and filtering rules seems as much a part of our survival mechanism as fight or flight is, which leads me to think that even if we can alter it, there may be significant, unforeseen consequences to doing so, because being unbiased may have greater negative effects than those that arise from biased thinking, which we already know about.

Our evolutionary psychological history isn’t just a testament to how much work may be involved in attempting to modify our minds, it is a signal of how well such characteristics have served us during our evolution, meaning it would be naïve to think that we can simply cast them aside or replace them with something man-made now that we have discovered flaws in them.

The existence and popularity of various ad-blocking plugins would seem to suggest that we need further mechanisms to help us stay focussed by essentially removing certain stimuli altogether, while at the same time we also want our internet experience ‘personalised’ by algorithms that track  behaviour and try to guess at what we might want to see or buy next, which demonstrates the different ways in which we become dependent on these new and automated forms of filtering.

The problem is that there really is no end to how much control we can or want to give up to automation, which brings me back to my earlier point which is that in wishing for a life of unimaginable ease, we are actually incapable of comprehending what that might mean when taken to its logical conclusions and lived out.  Existing research into human motivation and value appears to support the idea that the very things we are attempting to eradicate are at the very least, intrinsically linked to those we actually want to preserve.  In short, effort and personal input are inseparable from our concepts of value and meaning.

The simplest method for avoiding distractions and questions you may not even deem yourself capable of determining to be of importance to you or not, is simply to abstain from, or if you have the organisation, willpower, and mental clarity, to limit your contact with all media types.  It becomes a lot easier to eat healthy food if you don’t fill your kitchen cupboards and fridge with junk in the first place, but it does require you to exercise control for that relatively short period of time you are in the shop, confronted by temptation on all sides with a cherry on top.  This however, carries with it the social disadvantage of not being able to talk about all of those seemingly-relevant topics everyone else happens to know about for some reason.  Not being in the loop about various events and opinions from around the world also signals that not only are you happy in your ignorance, but that you also don’t care about the rest of humanity.  The price is that you are punished for the taboo of failing to choose and express a particular group affiliation in relation to the subject, because being opinionated and belonging to a particular popular team is seen as virtuous.  But despite ostracisation, in this way at least you get to actually win by opting out, instead of being forced to play, only to fool yourself along with everyone else, that you’re winning what is a perpetually losing game.

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