I’ve been looking for the solid truths of the world, things I can know without a doubt. And yet, I’ve discovered that–though I don’t doubt the existence of the truly real–to say that the real exists is a very different thing than to say I understand the real.
You may have seen the movie version of a command center: panels of screens, some with scrolling data, others with plots of missile trajectories or disease outbreaks, and yet others awaiting instructions (authenticated by iris scan or voice-print, of course) from the Very Important People. They know what they need to know. They have eyes in the sky, NSA taps into Internet chokepoints, radar, real-time data feeds. They know how to respond, and they do so decisively. It’s a very satisfying story.
The command center of my psyche is a bit different. Behind a sliding bookcase, at the end of a tunnel that glows with candlelight and smells of incense, is a windowless room. It’s anything but gloomy, with warm wood walls and abundant cushions for reclining. There’s a desk and a comfortable chair…and on every wall, a chaos of sticky notes.
“I should eat more protein; p=0.6.”. “Cycling even in horrible air is still a net positive for health; p=.55”. “John is generally trustworthy; p=.95”. “Killing a person without provocation is morally wrong; p=.999”. “I should not give to beggars by default; p=.5”.
You might know the story of Erwin Schrödinger’s hypothesized cat, who lived (or died) in a box with a flask of poison and a switch to open the flask (or not) based on the randomness of radioactive decay. Until the box is opened, says Schrödinger’s interpretation of quantum theory, the cat is both dead and alive. Aside from the flask-of-poison thing, the cat has a wonderful life. It will not, it cannot, commit to so simple a thing as being either alive or dead!
Unlike the cat, I’m often forced to decide. I’m often forced to act. And those decisions are never perfect ones, based on a perfectly clear view of reality. I’m forced to make a provisional decision, a guess, and then move forward from it. But the guess might be wrong!
Some guesses “feel” more confidently right than others. I really don’t think I’ll conclude anytime soon that, well, execution by flaying is after all an appropriate action in some cases; my opinion on the subject is really rather firm. But my sense that “it will probably take about an hour to go across town” has much less confidence attached–neither half an hour nor an hour and a half would be completely shocking. Both of these have subjective probabilities of being right; the “no gruesome killings rule” with near certainty, the travel-time expectation with about 50% confidence. And yet, I sometimes have to act on an assumption that’s as likely to be wrong as right–or even, sometimes, on a “best out there, but probably wrong” one.
The problem is, the inability to see perfectly inheres in being human. In other words, flawed perception and flawed reasoning is guaranteed. (If you haven’t had your fill of umlauts, go check out Kurt Gödel for one lens on this.) In such a situation, the question is not whether you’re wrong, it’s a question of how wrong you are. And then, to act in the way that seems least wrong, with no guarantees that it is indeed the least-wrong way. And so, my sticky-noted beliefs have probabilities attached. They might be wrong. Even the probabilities might be wrong. But life often demands answers, and the sticky notes provide them–acknowledging that they’re imperfect, that I’m imperfect, and that I can truly, indubitably, know almost nothing at all. To claim otherwise is to assert my perfection, which I’m far from ready to do.
“Sticky notes” aren’t just for insignificant issues. Often, the “wishy-washiness” of a sticky-note isn’t because its subject doesn’t matter; it’s because it does, and the issues are far too important and too complex to risk “locking into” a wrong position. And yet, since many situations demand “answers”, the sticky notes are there: acknowledgments that my understanding is certainly incorrect and incomplete to some degree, and that each of my “answers” is provisional, and subject to change if I find a better one.
Among the sticky notes, there is one small cluster of metal etchings. That’s a cluster of things I simply choose, completely indefensibly, to hold as true. (I don’t pretend to have moved beyond the smallest foothills of understanding it, but Michael Polanyi’s work on “personal knowledge”, as filtered through the first part of Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence, was nevertheless a game-changer for me on this, an argument that a set of some such indefensible commitments is essential to communicating about any kind of knowledge.)
Each of my sticky notes helps me engage the world without collapsing into indecision. Each one reflects the reality of my cognition: three pounds of soft tissue trying to grasp something far vaster than itself, with the guarantee that its perceptions will be incomplete and incorrect, and that their processing will be influenced greatly by the “noise” within and without.
Sometimes, in the windowless comfort of the Chamber, there’s an inexplicable whisper of wind. The notes on the wall rustle; occasionally, one falls to the floor and I can’t quite figure out where to reattach it. And I rest, and I read, and I sort, and I update my scribbled portals to the world.
Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include: