The Knowledge Journey

On my ride in this morning I had a mental conversation with my boy about encyclopedias in general and Wikipedia in particular. I figured it would be a good thing to add to my blog, so here she be…

There are no absolutes in knowledge. There is only the best picture at present. Open minded people grasp that immediately, others not so much. Any student of science will know that what is known absolutely one day might be completely contradicted the next (this doesn’t happen very often and when it does it sometimes takes an entire generation of old fogies to die off before the new, more correct (really, less incorrect) paradigm becomes accepted (see the back story on plate tectonics for a great instance of this effect)). Any and all sources of knowledge were assembled by people and all people have biases and agendas. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to glean the biases or agendas of the author(s), so it is best to get into the habit of not trusting any single source of data and to seek multiple sources for comparison. This is not immune from issues either, but the diversity helps to get an improved impression of the agreed state of the art.

Knowledge is generally considered more likely to be ‘true’ (note that there is no universal truth for anything, only increasingly accurate measurements of physical constants and events) when there is a strong preponderance of the evidence in support of the most widely held theory/hypothesis. Even there, sometimes scientists build theories they know are inadequate to cover _all_ observed events because they can explain a great deal with partial theories and no one has yet developed a more encompassing theory (the divergence between gravity at the large scale and quantum events at the tiny scale is a great example; each aspect has very detailed, well developed theories with great predictive value, yet can’t explain the events in the other aspect).

With this as background, on to my original ‘conversation’. When you want to learn about something encyclopedias (do they even print them any more) such as Wikipedia are great places to _start_, but since they are assembled by humans, they are inevitably biased and have agendas that might be difficult to discern. Even when the biases or agendas are obvious, the source might still be useful, as long as a firm grasp of the bias/agenda is kept in mind. So, when people tell you that Wikipedia is a terrible source of information because so much is wrong, keep in mind that there is nothing that is really better. Even when you drill down to primary literature there is no escaping bias, so anything built on such a foundation must remain suspect. Also, be sure to ask those complaining about Wikipedia what their preferred alternative is, their response will surely be revealing their biases and/or agendas.

So, what can it mean to ‘know’ something? In school you are taught all sorts of things are ‘facts’ and not subject to dispute. At a young age it is almost impossible to get into the philosophy of life, the universe and everything, you simply lack the depth and breadth of knowledge to have meaningful discussions. So, at an early age it is almost a requirement that you accept what you are told as ‘truth’. For instance, 2+2 is nearly universally accepted to be 4 (in the numbering systems that support enough digits, of course); though there are bizarre edge cases (for example: when measuring lines drawn on a curved surface). When you are young it is best to ignore those edge cases or you might never learn anything because you spend so much time discussing the edge cases (the number of edge cases can, in principle, be infinite). Generally speaking most ‘facts’ are ‘true’ for the vast majority of the cases (say, 99.9% or better), so statistically speaking these ‘facts’ are, indeed, ‘true’. Some people never seem to acknowledge that ‘facts’ are not ‘true’ except in a broad sense and that those who assemble ‘facts’ and deem them ‘true’ inevitably have bias and agendas. I am hoping you can grow up to be the sort of person who realizes that while you can rely on commonly accepted ‘facts’ as being ‘true’ most of the time, some of the time (perhaps a very small amount of time!) these commonly held ideas/concepts are just plain wrong. I am hoping you will grow up to be curious about edge cases (in whatever excites you) and want to develop better, more encompassing, theories about life, the universe and everything. I find learning that I am wrong, while sometimes painful and frustrating, is more interesting in the long run because with better understanding of knowledge brings increased opportunities.

Why thinking takes longer as you get older (or should, anyway)

This represents the first of what I plan on being a series of posts that I am hoping my boy will read as he gets older (perhaps, if I am really lucky, he will even reread a few). He isn’t yet old enough to engage in the sorts of philosophical discussions I like so much (you dear regular reader(s) get exposure to quite a few) and until I lit on the idea of writing them up here, I was worried that I might not always think of these things to talk about when he did get older. I have a few friends who I can engage in these sorts of discussions, but it is so rare that we spend extended time together any more and since I tend to run off about whatever subject I happen to have recently read about (or am currently focused on research-wise), even when I have a chance I seldom drop into the philosophical realm.

So much of what I write here is topical and 10 years (or much less) from now it will be totally irrelevant. We will either be so deeply into the police state (for instance) that I will have been trotted off to the concentration camps for my ‘terroristic’ writing (terrorism being, of course, the current code-word for ‘anything against the powers-that-be’) or the pendulum will have swung back and all my posts will be quaint idiocy that comfortable complacent folk can laugh about (boy to I want to be laughed at by comfortable complacent people!). As such, in the event that my boy takes an interest in anything his old man ever had to say, I wanted to set aside in some way stuff I would like him to read without his having to wade through the irrelevant blather from a bygone day. Thus I created the category ‘Letters2MyBoy’ just for him (and, of course, for any other of my dear reader(s) (it might also simplify things for my wife if she ever takes an interest in reading my blather)). I have my other category, ‘OriginalContent’, that I use when I think I have something to say that isn’t simply an opinion on someone else’s writing, but that isn’t necessarily something that has me speaking directly to my boy. Hopefully we will be able to discuss some of these topics when he gets older.

This post is somewhat analogous (but opposite) to a quote I formulated at a developers forum I frequent (under the handle ‘mitakeet‘):

It is not that old programmers are any smarter or code better, it is just that they have made the same stupid mistake so many times that it is second nature to fix it.

As a by the by, another quote (not mine) that I really like:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. (George Bernard Shaw

Anyone who knows me knows I am a most unreasonable man, so someday I hope to turn that into progress ;-).

When we are young we tend to have a very black and white view of the world (some people (the GOP Tea Partiers come to mind ;-)) never grow out of it). I think that is in large part to simply not knowing very much, so when new (or new to you) ideas come along it takes very little time to consider alternatives because you don’t have that many alternatives to consider. I think this is why teenagers think they are so smart and their parents are so dumb (thinking about that is what prompted me to think about this which lead to this post), teenagers can quickly develop conclusions because they have so little information to consider. As we get older (and hopefully a bit wiser) we get more information that needs consideration in order to develop conclusions or make decisions when something new comes along. I have noted as I get older that I have shifted quite a few of my thought processes. I have decided I am way more liberal than I was when I was younger and I attach much more value to the (potential) good that government can do (unfortunately, the majority of that good is squandered by corrupt operatives, but that is a separate issue in my mind). I haven’t (noticeably) changed in my general dislike of the human species (I like plenty of individuals, but am supremely unimpressed with the species in general (for the last several years my favorite curse word is ‘human’)), yet I find myself increasingly interested in expanding the resources humans have at their disposal.

Things that used to be simple simple to me (e.g., government that governs best, governs least) have been overtaken as I have considered how I might do things if I were in control (I found myself dramatically leaning toward governments like Singapore, for instance). The idea of an extensive social safety net used to be problematic to me but now (and not just because I got to be homeless and destitute (not that there was the slightest bit of help from what tatters of social safety net existed when I needed it)) I see it as critical to a well functioning society and a requirement to maximize the potential of the entire population. I feel I was ‘born paranoid’ in that I never remember a time where I wasn’t obsessed about security, but as I got older (and learned more about security) I realized that perfect security is an illusion (and a dangerous one at that) and that even the most paranoid person with unlimited resources could never achieve security and peace of mind and as such, even if I had unlimited resources I doubt I would do much to change my situation (though I can imagine going nuts with some passive monitoring, that near infrared stuff is really cool).

Accumulating wisdom, though, is not merely getting older and learning more stuff. Some people get old without learning a damn thing and retain their youthful ability to make snap decisions. Some people never reevaluate their prior decisions, so even as new information comes along, they reflexively stick with their old thoughts. Wisdom, in my mind, is taking new information, then pulling out your old decisions/conclusions and then reevaluating them in light of the new data (this, btw, is supposed to be what science does, too bad there are so many ‘scientists’ who fail to grok that concept). I hope that I am wiser than I was when I was younger and I really hope that I am less wise now than I will be as I get older. That wisdom comes with a price, though, and that price is a slower decision making process. Not necessarily a slower _thinking_ process (the title notwithstanding), but as you accumulate wisdom you have more things to consider before coming to a conclusion and, worse, that conclusion is increasingly apt to be fluid as you explore the topic and dredge up more knowledge (either from within, from conversations with others, or increasingly, from on-line research).

This is not to say that you become sympathetic to everything and are paralyzed by analysis. Understanding someone else’s viewpoint doesn’t mean you have to share it. You can still disagree with someone even when you both share the same knowledge base and are both wise. You can easily continue to disagree with someone even if they lack the same knowledge and are not wise while still understanding their viewpoint. However it is quite possible that by understanding someone else’s viewpoint you can better communicate with them and perhaps convey your conclusions in a format they can (or are willing to) understand and thus persuade them to your point of view. That, I think, is the true power and value of wisdom. I would note, though, that I am a argumentative person and sometimes use my understanding to exacerbate the situation, so accumulating wisdom is not the same thing as being agreeable, at least in my case.

There are very very few things that have absolute answers in the human condition. Even in physics and math there are plenty of areas where, despite decades of effort and a huge accumulation of information, it is still possible for reasonable, intelligent, engaged, wise people to disagree. I do think, though, that wise people who disagree are vastly less likely to do so at the point of a gun and are much more likely to discuss some sort of experimental design that can provide the information necessary to resolve the differences they see, thus enabling them to contemplate a situation in the future where they would agree. I hope that my boy will develop wisdom as he gets older. I think my father sought the same thing I and I am sure that there were times I vexed him with my lack of wisdom. I used to hate the guy for a long time. He would drive me nuts all the time, no matter what subject I picked he would invariably choose the other side and would cheerfully (at least it seemed so to me at the time) pick holes in my arguments. I hated him for years until one day I realized I was just like him and since I wasn’t willing to hate myself, I had to give that up. I suspect, for better or worse, my boy will go through the same thing I did, but I am very grateful to my dad (I believe I was able to make that very clear before he died) for his stubbornly taking the other side of my arguments (I do recall a time or twain when he kept having to preface his responses with the statement that he actually believed the same as I did, but I don’t think that had much impact at the time). I believe that due to his efforts I have been able to develop wisdom and can continue to work toward increasing my wisdom as I get older.

Taken to the naive, illogical extreme, eventually it will take an infinite amount of time to make a decision/reach a conclusion, but I think that cheats wisdom a bit. I think that once having considered a particular line of thought (or a series of lines of thought) it becomes practical to ‘pre-think’ some ideas and thus have the capability to more rapidly reach superior decisions (on average; I am sure no amount of wisdom will overcome brain cramps and occasional pigheadedness). The ‘trick’ would be to reexamine those lines of pre-thought each time some new information is made available and be willing to change the pre-decisions/pre-conclusions if warranted.

So, my boy, just because it takes me longer to come to the same conclusion you arrived at doesn’t mean you are necessarily smarter than your old man. He might just have more stuff to consider.