Wednesday, September 25, 2013

No-knowledge Land

The previous post discussed detrimental impacts of false knowledge. Now, it’s time for the absence of knowledge.

Only a blind man can say that he sees everything. If not for vision, it’s true for knowledge. Anyone who dealt with knowledge carefully would confirm that we know almost nothing about anything. The quest never ends. The no-knowledge land is everywhere else, so it makes natural for humans recognition of our limitations in understanding the world.

And this acceptance is the first step to finding truth. We say, “Let’s assume we are not sure how this thing works and will try to find out.” This start doesn’t guarantee success. You still need to look into the thing right, or you’ll arrive to something like miracles of bloodletting. This acceptance just helps to start looking.

What’s so interesting about it? First, recognition of own limitations is a painful procedure, and this first step rarely occurs at all. Second, fierce enemies of this blank state are both truthful knowledge and false knowledge.

If I know how to make a wheel, I don’t feel much need to reinvent it. For that, I’m unlikely to invent the car wheel or caterpillar. That’s the place to restate the observation saying that scientific theories disappear as their authors die. Authors and supporters are committed way too much to their old theories than to anything what comes next. When you learn about things working one way, you become less perceptive to alternatives. One famous research says that scientists get Nobel Prizes for research made mainly in their thirties. Clearly, many factors matter here, but one is that mature researchers are less likely to risk for new business.

True knowledge has its own dead ends. That just means there must always be some space for alternative ways. Pluralism in the sense of Paul Feyerabend: let those scientists abandon the rules, since their most important strength is in inventing new rules. Rigid scientific methodology prevents new discoveries. And prolific researchers violated rules. They developed their fields in terms of methodology and criteria of truth. Physics and economics, for instance, are still very different in delivering concepts about the world, despite their rapid convergence over the last 50 years.

As for false knowledge, Cartesian doubts are up to this. You question everything to bring things back onto no-knowledge land. You even question things that came after rigorous research. It’s not a method. It’s a principle.

Science is kind of famous for dealing with no-knowledge lands. The issue is actually more pronounced in business and governance, where doubts are a sign of weakness and recognizing knowledge limits is something to get fired for. A boss can’t tell about her doubts because that may harm her subordinates’ confidence. And a subordinate can’t do either, because his competence would be questioned.

The areas are institutionally protected from doubts. Business and governments proceed in a Darwinist fashion, hoping that confident actors with mistaken beliefs disappear. But they don’t, while all the major decisions affecting humans still happen here. And it’s a great challenge for social sciences to understand how humans make decisions and how to improve these decisions.

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