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The Pitfalls of Knowing Too Much

And the hidden gem of overconfident revolutionary types


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Tuan Lima

3 years ago | 6 min read

If I asked what is the purpose of life, I would say that a lot of it is creating and solving problems. It’s crude, I know. There’s more to it, of course. But from a rationalist point of view, it’s quite like that.

Life evolves in the direction of anything which appears as an obstacle. We involuntarily map the world in terms of what is not okay, finding thus the purpose of solving it. That same force is also present at the level of the species. That’s why we wanna go to Mars, to solve the problem of depending on a single habitat. That’s why we develop artificial intelligence, to expand the limits of our reasoning, so that more problems can be solved.

An interesting point on the evolution of thought and of knowledge is upon us. Throughout the history of large-scale problem solving, the only possible approach was to study these complex issues in biased and restricted ways. Otherwise, we would have to understand them holistically, but life is too complicated for that. So we make do with partial solutions.

Say we wanted to know what to do of the decreasing credibility of monarchs. Possible considerations for the monarchy crisis would go like: it’s a problem of trust; no, it’s lack of dynamism; what about concentration of power?; the concentration of knowledge is also an issue…

Anyways, we’ve always felt very inventive. The field of possibilities was immense and our attempts of intervention seemed to yield good results. We felt confident about contributing in some way, though limited our mental resources.

The past two centuries, coinciding with what we call modern history, have inaugurated a period much different. Heightened self-consciousness and relativism have become the norm in academic and public discussion.

Guys like Kant, with his fixation on grounding truth, and Nietzsche, correspondingly interested on the foundation of a moral basis, have contributed to the crazy realization (contrary to their original intent, I suppose) that we are pretty much floating in terms of what we are and where to go.

Nowadays, seeing through historical perspective, it’s frustrating to hear prominent academics like Slavoj Zizek abound of witty and spirited remarks that lack a common unifying claim. Or to see prominent atheist figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss get stuck in a foundational (of morals) project — because it’s just too damn complex.

The psychology professor Jordan Peterson, although generally very pragmatic in his teachings, seems also to gravitate towards the vortex of hindering complexity. In a famous speech he says

Our society is complex and we teach our students that they could just fix it. It’s like: go fix a military helicopter and see how far you get with that. What you’re gonna do? You’re like a chimp with a wrench: whack! “Oh, look, it’s better”. No, it’s not better. Things are complicated…

It’s not my intent to question the advice in its practical significance. It’s actually very good to signal that students very often fall prey to arrogance and oversimplification. My point here is not a critique, but a worry.

Complexity awareness is on the increase and we are about to get overwhelmed. A single problem like the legality of abortion, or the use of guns, has so many variables, many of them unconscious. It seems discouraging to invest serious time solving them and expecting to have a non-partial and non-biased solution.

For instance, artificial intelligence. The problem: how far to go with it. In order to start tacking a problem this big seriously, we would have to go beyond the technology per se. What are its implications in terms of replacing manual and cognitive work? Do we even want to work in the future? What about all the doors it’s going to open for privacy violations that cannot be regulated? What is even the amount of privacy which is healthy without leading to sterility?

We don’t know. AI is also being used as a symbol of development and strength of a nation, like the nuclear bomb during the cold war. Can a country even step back from the race without delegating part of its own future (maybe too large a part) to an unknown winner?

Solutions to problems like this are not on the table. Instead, a kind of paralysis hangs over the political and the academic debate.

What was the last US and French presidential elections, along with the Brexit referendum, if not signs of confusion and even hesitation stemming from the ideological exhaustion of the left and of the right? When you start to deepen into real large problems, considering more complete holistic solutions, things start to get gray in the political spectrum.

It’s like a strange rebirth of Socrates. We only know that we don’t know. But instead of using that in a creative and motivating way, we get blocked.

TV news reports and the media, in general, try to overcome by force the wind of uncertainty by neglecting the patent complexity of things. They look to be continually paraphrasing Samuel Beckett. In unison they imply: “I don’t know enough. I know enough.” The price they pay is expensive. They lose what they have of most valuable, their credibility.

Not so dumb a proposition

In spite of all this paralyzing complexity we’ve stumbled upon, we’ve actually solved many problems in the past. How could that be? The fundamental laws that govern the universe and nature didn’t change. How come we discovered things like democracy, liberal markets, the presumption of innocence and free speech without truly understanding nature and, most importantly, ourselves?

Well, it happens that natural selection is more general then it may look at first. It works with live organisms. It works with ideas. It works also with problem-solving. The process is like:

First, someone figures the problem. Then, some smart-ass comes up with a proposition of change that intends to solve it. If there is a competing idea, they contend about it and the winning one is acted out. If it performs well, it is kept, if not, it’s overthrown by some other proposition. It’s similar to trial and error, without being totally random, of course. Notice the lack of a requirement for an understanding of how stuff really works on a large scale.

Do not kill the spirit of the young

There’s a trend of critique, coming from the right, addressing the left for supposedly teaching students “to just go and fix it”, in the words of Dr. Peterson. To be frank, that’s really what left leaning liberals are doing. It’s no secret that revolutions are mostly driven by the young, frequently referred to as mindless overconfident revolutionaries — which they are, to some extent.

But, what if that’s what they are supposed to do? Maybe the young are the wildfire which (half-) blindly works to put the whole thing to the ground so something can grow anew. Criticizing them solely on the grounds of lack of deep understanding may be a sign of lack of deep understanding, if you excuse me the cyclism.

If we want to continue progressing, we will have to get past the illusory view for which we only act when we know in depth what we are doing. We’ve got to integrate the inherent blindness of life, lest we grow incapable of operating in the world like we always did.

Let’s not yet kill the wild revolutionary beast in us, it’s a major agent of development.

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