Epistemological Humility

My journey from wanting to know everything to realizing that I can know nothing

Epistemology: The study of what we can know and how we collect and assess knowledge.

I don’t know precisely how common it is, but I suspect that the desire to know everything is heavily represented in the pre-teen group. I often speculated as a kid that, if granted one wish (and not allowed to wish for more wishes), I would wish to know everything. This presumably would have allowed me to do anything I wanted, or, as I later realized, at least know what things I could not do. This childish fantasy was pushed into the background of my life goals as I went through middle school, high school, and college, but I always detected a thirst for knowledge that I couldn’t quite explain. I have often wondered if I have some sort of complex that makes me want to be intellectually superior to other people, but I don’t detect any aggression in my quest for learning. I don’t try to prove people wrong or get into debates to feel better about myself, so I’m hoping that it comes from someplace else. Also, I don’t mean to say that I continued to think that I could know everything. As time went on and I was exposed to the vastness that is human knowledge I realized that reading everything in the world was a preposterous mathematical impossibility. Still, deep down, I figured that by living to about 110 years old, I could read enough of the good stuff to solve most of the worlds’ problems.

When I left the US for the Peace Corps in 2010 I met a fellow volunteer within a couple of days and she diagnosed me as having a particular personality as described by some theory of personalities(http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/) and I was shocked by how accurate it seemed to be. The personality was an ‘Investigator’ and its basic motivation is described as wanting “to possess knowledge, to understand the environment, to have everything figured out as a way of defending the self from threats from the environment.” I immediately recognized this desire in myself. Much of my idealism is founded on the belief that with enough empathy, knowledge, and communication skills, the world’s conflicts and injustices can be resolved and, as a bonus, I could make myself intellectually invulnerable. My thirst for knowledge was a thirst for control and security. This was the tenor of the beginning of my Peace Corps service; reflecting on my own need for control through knowledge and what it means about me and the world around me.

The usefulness of the personality theory pretty much ended there, but as I continued reading and exploring different ideas about knowledge, narratives, human cognition, and economics I started seeing all the ways in which people (myself certainly included) convince themselves that they are in control. We simplify stories as struggles between good versus evil, we pay more attention to things that confirm our preconceived notions, we take cognitive shortcuts, we identify patterns where there are none, we make assumptions based on little information, and we stubbornly persist in our belief in an autonomous free will despite mounting evidence against it. These are all built into our brains, and their prevalence is logical from an evolutionary perspective. Our brains developed in a setting that benefited pattern-seekers and cognitive short-cutters(who escaped more predators), so we descended from those that exemplified these traits. The problem is that our modern world is too complex to rely on these instincts. We make lots of mistakes by over-identifying patterns in an increasingly random world and we fail to grasp the nuances of reality.

For a brief period, like a naive airplane inventor convinced that he is flying for a second before he sees the ground rushing up to meet him, I thought that by examining the precise limits to my knowledge, I could know at least everything that is knowable. My mistake is obvious in hindsight: It is impossible to realize everything that you do not know because ‘what you do not know’ is part of what you do not know. I think I wrote that right, but it’s confusing. This realization felt like both a disappointment and a relief, like shedding some burdensome childhood expectation of becoming an astronaut or millionaire and thinking about what you want realistically. When I’m reflecting about these things I feel temporarily freed from the need to understand and control my environment because it is literally impossible. No amount of knowledge will allow me to predict the future nor comprehend chaotic and complex systems.

There’s no denying that this is a really uncomfortable reality to confront. I think we like confronting our lack of control even less than we like to reflect upon our inevitable demise. As a defensive measure, it’s easy to conclude that if we can’t really control anything, then at least we can pretend that we have control to feel better. I agree with that in part, but I maintain that the consciousness of our fallibility and imperfect knowledge should temper our egos and judgment of others so that we have a greater chance of finding common ground and respecting our differences. Paradoxically, we can control more of our lives and world if we begin to acknowledge how little control we have. I think I have recovered my hope and optimism in this belief. Lots of writers and thinkers have contributed to this sense of epistemological humility that I’ve adopted, and I’d like to share some of them with those of you who are interested in thinking about the topic more.

As far as I can tell, here are the main people and ideas that have convinced me of the limitations on what I can know:


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mom on September 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Fun and useful. Thanks.


  2. Great post man I really enjoyed it! I like your term epistemological humility…I think it’s one of the most important functions of philosophy to point out what we can’t know and why. Awe is the beginning of innovation. Here’s how I tend to think about the “we can’t control anything” idea.

    I like to think that we can, by virtue of our reason, logic, cognitive faculties, establish little kingdoms for ourselves, carve them out of the random noise of reality. We then lord over these realms, exercising our dominion and control. It’s not absolute control of course, but it’s the illusion of control (this is what you mean, I think, when you say “we can pretend that we have control”). The great power of this illusion is exactly the fact that it does not at all feel like an illusion!

    How do we make these domains? We define them with our *necessarily incomplete* knowledge, experience, and expectations, to the point where, to our reckoning, reality accords to our predictions of it. It’s like we build a wall and a moat and a castle and defend our kingdom from the invading unknowns. But that doesn’t mean they’re not out there, and it also doesn’t mean you built a perfect wall.

    I think a nice example of this is the process of integration into your site as a Peace Corps volunteer. When you see your site for the first time, you know absolutely nothing and you feel foreign, out of place, and exceedingly uncomfortable. I would also venture to say that your very first impressions of the place and the people are probably the most accurate (that is to say, in accordance with reality), by virtue of your uncomfortable feelings. You are more in tune to what is actually there and not to your mentally-mapped construction of what is there.

    After a few months of integration, you’ve formed your mental map of the town. You know who lives where, who talks to who, where they sell the best bread, when the busses leave, and all of that gets plotted onto your map and actively informs your perception of the town, altering your interpretation of reality. Some might argue that you’re learning more about reality, but I think what you’re really doing is forming rigid opinions, constructing invisible barriers, and defining the bounds of your world, and this action *necessarily* limits and simplifies reality.

    The advantage of the mental map, however, is huge. It gives us predictive ability and control. It makes us feel accepted. It makes us comfortable. This is a necessary element of any human’s life. The control that this gives us is unquestionably real because we can make things happen and predict the outcomes of our actions; what it isn’t, however, is complete and infallible. Our control only exists within the dominion we have created. Beyond the walls of the fort rages a messy reality, and it often penetrates our tiny kingdoms.

    I hope these ruminations make some kind of sense… Again, great post! Can’t wait to hang out again soon.

    Also, check out this book, Genesis by Michel Serres. It might be my favorite book of all time. (so far)



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