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No Solution To A Lack Of Knowledge

May 9, 2011

As I was responding to Kristina’s comment on my last post, I remembered a quotation of my own which I would like to ask you guys’ opinion about.  It goes like this,

“There is no solution to a lack of knowledge.”

I came up with this principle years ago, and I have yet to see it violated.

I’ll supply a handful of examples to illustrate, though it probably doesn’t need to be explained all that much.  If people aren’t aware of scientific advances and the importance of research currently underway, and they’re asked to make decisions regarding whether or not it should be funded, the ethical implications involved, and how we as a society should think about it, they’re going to make all the wrong decisions.  If people aren’t knowledgeable as to how the universe works, such as biology, physics, chemistry, etc., they’re going to have worldviews that don’t line up to the evidence and which inhibit future progress.  If people lack an understanding of the economy, the political issues we face, and the extent and scope of what’s facing us as a society, they will vote for the wrong politicians, and they will take stances terrible for everyone involved, themselves included.

If people have to make a decision, and if by the time they are to make that decision, somehow, by some method, the proper knowledge hasn’t made its way into their head, things will go badly.  I believe this to be a core law of the universe.  It’s like entropy.  The sheer probability is that things will end in a disordered chaotic state.  That’s the natural flow of things in this world, and absent knowledge to correctly navigate the world’s treacherous waters, we’ll sink.  The multitude of choices set before us at any given time is so vast, to correctly guess by chance alone which path will move us forward is about as likely as monkeys typing out a prize winning novel as they flail away randomly on the laptop keyboard left in their cage.

What we so often focus on is getting people to listen and hear each other out.  Is that a good thing?  Of course it is, but that’s far from all there is.  Yeah, it’s good that people listen to one another, and work together.  But, and this is a BIIIIGGGGG but, you can cram a room of idiots together and they can come to a consensus, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good consensus.  There’s one core principle behind all of this: actions have consequences.  This universe of ours is lawful and orderly, even though it’s extremely difficult to figure out.

Philosophers and great minds have always sought to give us some method, some simple universal principle which we can use to guide us in every decision we make.  It doesn’t exist.  A lot of people think, “Love one another as you love yourselves” will fix things, but without knowledge it’s not enough.  In most cases, good intentions won’t take you very far at all.  The common man thinks, “If we could just get a good honest man in office, he’d fix it.  He’d end the corruption.”  The problem is, if you’re not extremely knowledgeable and intelligent, you won’t even be able to identify corruption when you see it.  Bertrand Russell has a great quote, and it’s so good that I’ll add a picture with it as well!

Fools are so certain of themselves.  They think they understand everything.  The wisdom of the wise leaves them timid and unsure of all life’s complexities, and unless they’ve spent many years in focused study on that particular area or issue, they’re not inclinded to have a strong opinion.  But fools, they know it all.  The first step is to get them to understand that they don’t understand.  That is by far the hardest step of them all.  The same foolishness which makes them feel certain of everything keeps their mind closed.  This step is made even more difficult by the fact that they don’t even know the state of stupidity they’re in.

This brings us to the next step along the road to wisdom: knowing what you don’t know.   You’d think that people would know what they don’t know.  After all, almost everyone will tell you, “I don’t know everything.”  But that’s not what this step is.  Knowing what you don’t know is more than saying that phrase; it’s actually obtaining knowledge of what you don’t know.  You have to painstakingly learn it, and it takes a long time.  On the road to become an intelligent individual, you’ll spend your days studying various introductory books on a wide array of topics.  The main point of this is to make you aware of a humongous framework of knowledge which you currently lack, and if this step is truly successful, it should leave you feeling very small, humble, and far more cautious in your opinions.  There’s a world of difference between this semi-educated person saying, “I don’t know everything”, and the complete fool saying, “I don’t know everything.”

These two steps can’t be skipped.  There is no other solution to them.  If our education establishments fail to accomplish this goal, they fail and our society suffers.

Now of course, nobody can be an expert in everything.  So what do we do?  This is where you do the next best thing:  you hold people to a method of thinking and quality of argument established by the scientific method, rooted in strong empirical evidence, historical observation, and peer review.   We judge an “expert” by the quality of the arguments presented.  But, even then, people can write up reports which sound scientific, they quote numbers, present all kinds of cause and effect relationships, have charts and other data to support each claim, and so on and so forth.  What do we do now?  There’s nothing we can do.  Obviously the next step is for us as a society to let the expert make decisions in his or her special area.  But which expert do we follow?  How do we know an “expert” really knows what they’re talking about?  We can’t.  The only way you can know for sure is if you yourself are an expert too, but considering all there is for us to know in this world, that can’t happen.  In the end, we just have to trust one of our experts.  Why?  Because there is no solution to a lack of knowledge.  If you have to make a decision in some area, even if that decision is to let someone else make a decision, that person must have knowledge as to the consequences of their actions, and if that knowledge is not present in their head at the time they make that decision, or if they choose to do actions which benefit themselves and their buddies instead of you, that’s just how it is.  We’re left with another bad decision.   But even if this is as far as we’ve gotten, a group of critical thinking people is infinitely better than fools who feel they know it all and base their decisions on god knows what.   Hopefully the knowledge we’ve picked up from the introductory level education courses will help us decide between the experts and filter out those who are obviously wrong.  And, most of all, at least everyone’s minds will be open enough to have a quality discussion, and we can all make our case.  Keep in mind though, all of this only brings us to the starting line.  It doesn’t solve the problems at hand.

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