The Illusion of Knowledge

illusion of knowledgeToday is Wednesday, December 18, 2013.

Human beings are pretty good at being wrong.  We’ve been wrong so many times that it’s embarrassing, actually.  Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest theoretical physicists alive today, says, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance.  It is the illusion of knowledge.”

How can this be true?

The Zen Buddhists have known this for a long time.  Zen masters, when training an initiate, give the trainee a question called a koan.  One of the most famous of these is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  It’s funny to watch a group of Americans debate this question, because they all start out with the same assumption: there must be an answer to the question.  To Americans, there is an answer for every question; we just don’t always know it yet.

The reason the Zen masters gave their students koans was not to get them to find the answer.  It was to get them to throw out everything they think they knew until they got to the place where they said, “I don’t know.”  When that happened, it was said that the student had achieved “Zen mind,” and he was ready to receive instruction.  Think of it this way:  If your wine glass is already full, you can’t have any more than you already have (in the same glass, anyway).

This is one reason why it often takes so long for human beings to accept new information.  When we think we already know the answers, we don’t bother to look around to see what other answers might be out there.  When we think we know exactly what to do, we don’t ask for any help from other people or from God.

Another reason that we don’t accept new information well is that some of what we think we know is tied to our spiritual beliefs or our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and our place in society or our place in the universe.  We develop emotional attachments to our ideas, which makes it very difficult to let go of what we thought we knew in favor of something new, even in the face of evidence.   It’s really much, much easier to put someone in jail or to burn them at the stake for heresy than to stop and maybe make some uncomfortable changes.

In the past, people have, at one time or another, believed that the earth was flat, and that there were monsters in the oceans that could eat whole ships.  We believed that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that the sun went around the earth.  We believed that babies were born with a totally blank slate, with no built-in personality or other proclivities.  We believed that character traits might be located in specific areas of the brain.  We believed that there might be a planet called Vulcan, located between the Sun and Mercury.  We believed that human settlement causes a permanent increase in rainfall.  Seriously – that’s why the  Great American Desert in the Great Plains of North America,  as well as the deserts of South Australia were settled.   We believed in alchemy – the idea that base metals could be turned into gold.   For many years, some people believed that California was completely separate from the mainland of North America.  (And the interesting thing is that Baja California probably will be separate, in about 25 million years.)    We believed at one time in the “four humors” to explain health and illness, and that a mother’s thoughts during pregnancy could result in birth defects.  (I really feel sorry for the poor mothers who got blamed for that!)  We believed in spontaneous generation of life from inanimate matter because the Bible said that humans were created “from the dust.”

Until very recently, we believed that space is a vacuum and that a vacuum is empty.  We also believed that the atom was the smallest particle of life, and that the speed of light is constant.

Now we are finding out that the Sphinx has suffered erosion from water.  Water!  In a desert!  So maybe it wasn’t always a desert, and maybe the Sphinx is a lot older than we thought.  We are finding that human civilization may be much older than 5000 years old because underwater cities of India have been carbon dated t0 9000 years.  We are finding that the ancients were master astronomers, but we can’t explain how that is possible.

Two ideas that many of us still believe include the “fact” that all matter is one thing in different states, and that human beings are the apex of life and that humans are the most intelligent beings on earth.  Another idea that we stubbornly cling to is the notion that ancient humans were not as technologically advanced or as knowledgeable as we are today.  This is why we have for so long totally ignored marks on stone artifacts in Egypt that were clearly made by machines!

A growing number of thinkers today are asking some uncomfortable questions.  They are asking whether we are holding ourselves back from new discoveries simply because of what we think we already know.   Some of them are wondering whether there was perhaps a great cataclysm, or perhaps more than one, that killed so many people that the survivors were forced back into the “stone age” again.

It’s true that if there were a cataclysm today and only a small group of people were spared, we could not re-create the world as we know it right now.  How many of us can explain exactly what electricity is and how it works?  How does the zipper work?   Can you explain how a bicycle works well enough to recognize a drawing of a working bicycle?  If you think you can, you are not alone.  Lots of people think they can, but they are mostly wrong.

If you’re up for trying a little experiment, go to a website put up by the National Geographic Channel called What You Don’t Know, and take the challenge.

Our own brains trick us into thinking we know more than we really do.  It’s estimated that we actually have enough storage for information in our brains to contain 2.5 petabytes of comparable computer memory.  (There are a million gigabytes in a petabyte.)   Since we have access to a lot of information, to say the least, our brains take some shortcuts.  Some of these are pretty smart, actually.  For example, when we were still in survival mode, when we heard a sound in the bushes, it was better to think we knew what it was – maybe a wolf?  Maybe a bear? and act accordingly, rather than to sit there and say, “Gee, I don’t have any idea what’s making that sound.”  The problem, though, is that we are mostly no longer in survival mode, anymore, and reacting to something as if we know what it is when we really don’t can be a big mistake.   This is called the overconfidence effect.

Then there is something called anchoring, where we rely on one standout piece of information and make decisions based on that.  An example of this would be using the mileage on the odometer to decide whether a used car is worth buying or not.

Another cognitive bias is availability heuristic.  This means overestimating a piece of information because you are familiar with it.  Here’s an example:  Your grandpa smoked like a fiend until the day he died at a very ripe old age, and he never got sick from smoking.  You, therefore, decide that the warnings about lung cancer and emphysema are probably not worth paying attention to.

Confirmation bias occurs when we pick and choose information that suits our perceptions.  If you believe that all rock stars die young just because Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain did, then you are ignoring the evidence of others such as Carlos Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and all the rest.  This is what is at work when we stubbornly cling to ideas that come from a written scripture handed down over the centuries.

The illusion of validity is a process where the brain shapes information into a plausible story line in order for us to make sense of it.  Some of the ideas about how the Great Pyramids might have been built come from this type of cognitive bias.

Finally, the fatigue factor means that the more choices we have to make based on what we “know,”  the more mistakes we will probably make, as well.

If you’ve read this far, here’s a treat:  Watch this video to see how Jason Latimer busts the notion that we can’t shape water outside of a container.  He shapes water into a ball and takes it out of a bowl.  Amazing!  One thing he says in the video has been said by others, as well:  “The right question changes everything.”  When we begin to ask the right questions (and some of these questions are hard to ask, given what we think we know), we will find some answers, and they will very likely not be what we were expecting.  🙂


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