The Knowledge Tower

25 July 2022

A while back I wrote an analogy of what I think building knowledge looks like. This was not any sort of rigorous study or comprehensive analysis by any stretch of the imagination. It was simply more of a mental model and for the sheer fact that it’s fun to muse about these things on a lazy afternoon.

Some more thoughts I made.

To paraphrase Gibson’s law:

For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.

Why does this happen?

If we think of our knowledge as a tower with multiple floors, all new knowledge is stacked on top of what was previously built. We build new floors assuming stability on what lies below. If foundations are different though the tower will end up looking very different meaning we will end up disagreeing a lot with others, having a difficult time setting common ground.

Now imagine that you come across information that conflicts with your own and what you have built so far. Not only on some minute detail somewhere on a floor high up but in some core root floor of your knowledge tower, down near the foundations. Subtracting any piece in this stage is high risk because the stability of the whole structure is jeopardized. If you accept the other conflicting view you must be willing to tear down a large part of the elaborate structure you have built so far in order to start construction again. Just like farming new seeds for future harvest. The harvest takes months or years whereas the tearing down process takes seconds, literally.

From a distance, we all say of course one should revise their position if confronted with new information and start over but this is incredibly hard to do. It’s great to theorize about the diversity of opinion but when confronted with the reality of it the heart starts beating up-tempo. Especially when professional titles, status signaling, and personal identity are in the mix, belief perseverance gets increasingly hard to break free from. So things get primal. That is why we see experts fighting over seemingly core subjects for decades without ever finding common ground. Questions that we should have answered by now.

And the strange thing is that all the fighting is coming from undoubtedly intelligent people. They fight over how catastrophic climate change really is, if Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme or not, if renewables are efficient enough, if we are overpopulated or underpopulated, if capitalism is better than communism or if we should legalize weed. The list is endless.

Being smart isn’t enough in order to find nuance in the aforementioned questions. Smartness is a tool to help you find the most optimal way to build your knowledge tower. Whatever you feed it it will optimize so it doesn’t guarantee rightness or immunity from human fallibility if foundations are shaky. It will simply optimize for growth. You feed, I go, your smartness will say.

Smart people keep over-arguing because their foundations are different. Their whole world view was built floor by floor over a long period of time with each addition further solidifying what came before. They are not willing to start over again and tear down that part of the structure that all of their opinions, beliefs, and certainties rely on so dearly. So they double down on what they have built so far while continue building new knowledge, new opinions, and new beliefs with the framework that kinda worked. This results in an ever-growing divide of experts leaving the rest of us in the debris of endless debates, confused and baffled as usual.

But what can we do in order to combat this hairy problem? Should we stop trusting others or become more aware that other people’s knowledge — just like our own — is a work in progress with errors along the way?

The road to progress itself is nothing more than a story of trial and error, but as a society, we don’t value the trial part much and we stigmatize the error part. And when I say we don’t value it I mean we don’t reward it enough. In some fields, we do reward it, like in startups or entrepreneurship where failure is often considered a badge of honor. It is not uncommon for investors to be reluctant to invest in your company if you haven’t failed two or three times already. So what else can you do other than double down on the threat of being wrong? Why being wrong isn’t celebrated more by saying “hey you found a dead end so no one else needs to take this path”. Or “you freed thousands of hours of research for the rest of us. We thank you”. Maybe this way we would be less defensive when our knowledge is challenged.

All new knowledge starts with conjecture and then endlessly attacked with criticism to find errors, correct what it’s to be improved or ditch the theory altogether. In the meantime, we build knowledge in this shaky territory so the tearing down process is a given, guaranteed to occur at some point. It’s like trying to drink hot tea on a moving train. You will get burned for sure, at some point.

One could argue that fields like science should be immune from this kind of confusion and would have established proper practices, right? Since we have a unified methodology for deriving conclusions we should be better suited finding common ground, right? And since science is the exception we could adopt its techniques for our personal knowledge inquiry, right? The scientific method is settled after all, right? Well no, it is not.

In his book, The Beginning of Infinity David Deutsch went on to describe the philosophy of how we conducted science throughout history with all its ups and downs.

At first, we relied solely on sensory experience thus empiricism was born. Empiricism was an improvement from what prevailed at the time like holy books, priests and other authorities but it didn’t have a framework on how to explain what our senses can’t see like what stars are made of. Although with its weaknesses, it marked the beginning of experimental science.

An extension of empiricism would be to conclude that we form new knowledge from observing what is out there and let repetition of occurrence reinforce our confidence that something is right. For example (mentioned in the book), we expect the sun to rise every morning because we see this process happening every day of our lives. But we can’t derive a theory that the sun always rises just because we observe it repeatably — this alone doesn’t make it right. What if you are in Antarctica? You would observe very different sun patterns. Deriving scientific theories in this way is known as inductivism.

Amongst many other doctrines are justificationism where knowledge has to be justified by some authoritative source, positivism where everything not derived from observation should be eliminated from science, and realism where we concluded that since the physical world exists in reality, knowledge of it exists too.

All the wrongs and rights in these approaches show us that nothing is settled. The scientific method or epistemology is a moving train with no fixed destination. Science is an error correction machine that helps us form new knowledge and discard or update inconsistent knowledge.

(A tradition of criticism being its most vital ingredient which was practiced and developed during the Enlightenment)

Some of these approaches are present, not only in science but on an individual level as well, and work in a similar fashion where they dictate our method — or lack thereof — of how we test and verify our ideas.

A good education is probably the most robust foundation we have at our disposal. Not to say it’s perfect since it has a poor error correction method by adopting shut up and calculate or cause I say so tactics which are in fact the educational system doubling down on its methods due to some error in the roots. It does, in a sense, offer some guidelines for critical thinking though but this is too much of a complex skill to be taught in a classroom. Not all things can be taught but all can be learned and critical thinking is sure one of them. Critical thinking is best formed by having experience in the tearing down of fallacies — a process that has to take place many times since it is the natural state of knowledge(being under construction) and a prerequisite is you want to be a clear thinker.

Error is the normal state of our knowledge, and is no disgrace. There is nothing bad about false philosophy. Problems are inevitable, but they can be solved by imaginative critical thought that seeks good explanations. That is good philosophy, and good science, both of which have always existed in some measure. For instance, children have always learned language by making, criticizing and testing conjectures about the connection between words and reality. They could not possibly learn it in any other way. — David Deutsch

There are no silver bullets here. You can’t be guaranteed that you are following the right method because there is none that is complete and error-free. The best thing you can do is to just try realizing that we share more ignorance than knowledge and let that humble you. It is necessary, at times, to stand your ground and defend your opinion, but also be prepared to tear down a core part of your knowledge in order to build something new that is more robust and honest. Maybe you shouldn’t tie your identity too strongly to your knowledge, opinions, and beliefs. Maybe parts of your illustrious structure are not worth protecting, all the time.

Let them go and you shall be free.

We are all equal in our infinite ignorance. - Karl Popper

Thanks to Ioulia Nizamidou and Danae Vogiatzi for reading drafts of this.

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