The Usurper of Complacency: Knowledge

Posted May 5th, 2015 by russfrazierwp and filed in Opinion
Comments Off on The Usurper of Complacency: Knowledge

Isn’t is a great feeling? You’ve struggled at length to grasp something and then finally, “Ah-ha!” you have it nailed and you’re sure you’ve got it wrapped up inside your head, all neat and tidy. Clear, complete understanding. The feeling can happen, for example, by conquering a difficult math problem or trying to figure out how a piece of machinery works. How long does that feeling last?


The Thinker In The Gates of  Hell

The Thinker In The Gates of Hell. Source: Wikipedia

Well, if it had to do with understanding that the Earth was at the center of the universe with the sun, moon, planets and stars all rotating around it, that particular feeling lasted over 2,200 years. That is a lot of warm, comforting knowledge of complete comprehension. Never mind that it was completely wrong1)Not to conflate large scale paradigms and smaller scaled thinking.

When we have achieved that happy level of comprehension we sit back, sip on a refreshing beverage and review the rocky path to our contentment. We smile. We’re self-assured, relaxed and, admittedly, perhaps a bit smug. But we deserve to have our reward for hard work, don’t we? We need to take time to savor the moment. Yes, yes, of course….


Rest on campus

Ah, time to rest now that complete understanding has been achieved

Then after some indeterminate amount of time, we begin to go about our business, temporarily forgetting the vanquished foe of confusion. Yes, those enemies of good feelings: confusion and doubt. We don’t like them. We must drive all befuddlement and hazy murkiness away from the mind.

If a challenge to our solution appears we crush it or ignore it because it is obviously wrong. Why is it wrong? It is wrong because we already fought and won that war. Immediately after winning we were rewarded with that good, comfortable feeling of understanding, thus deepening our conviction. Now it is like an old pair of house slippers, molded perfectly to our feet, cozy and snug. So why go back and make more effort? We’ve fought the battle, we’ve had our victory, end of story.

No, not end of story. And if history is any guide, not even close to the end of story. Why?

Because our understanding of things is built on flimsy, wobbly scaffolds we call our paradigms. Those paradigms are constantly shifting, constantly moving and cannot be taken for granted nor can they be trusted. Our multiple paradigms are constantly growing, to match an increasing number of different endeavors and fields. But almost all of them are subject to alteration, vulnerable to movement and change.


A model

A model

Just like the geocentric paradigm of the cosmos which was certainly correct according to Ptolemy but later shown to be complete nonsense by Copernicus. The same paradigm changes occurred for the spontaneous generation theory, the emission theory of vision, humoral medicine and goose trees.2)Thanks to YANSS 046



Rickety building

Something’s not right here…


Paradigms – those models of reality or constructs that we base our thinking on – are interesting just for that reason. They are never really stable, but we treat them as if they were. We need stable paradigms to run our thoughts through, to formulate hypothesis around. When we are able to use a paradigm to solve a problem, we declare it as good. No need to go questioning something that works. Are they then all nothing but delusions?

Some paradigms are more obviously shaky and unstable so we naturally mock these and their adherents, being of superior intellect. Some of the business organizational paradigms (fads) that arguably exploded during the last 60 years come to mind.

When it comes to technology, we’re on only slightly firmer ground, but the paradigms still shift when we’re not looking. Sometimes it seems as though technology paradigms shift just as fast or faster than business paradigms. For example, just look at the idea of cloud computing. Before 2006 there was no Amazon cloud computing service. That is a whole new technology platform, a new paradigm for selling goods and services.

Scientific paradigms move a bit slower, as they themselves are built upon paradigms of empirical knowledge. And here is where the nonsense is supposed to stop. Testing assumptions through reproducible experimentation is part of the foundation of the scientific method.


Experimental beakers

Scientific methodology at work

What is it about these models we are so fond of creating that make us start treating them as if they were sacrosanct? Is it because if we start to pick at them, to examine their weaknesses and point out their flaws, our hard work begins to vanish and evaporate, like rainwater rising from a hot pavement as mist?

Every new technology paradigm that comes along seems as if it’s accompanied by a midwife announcing a new baby. A bundle of joy to be admired and adored. Why? Because it’s new. The especially good ones have a pedigree, as well, because they’ve been fathered by academic superstars or industrial demigods.

If this topic interests you, consider learning about the work of Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Not to conflate large scale paradigms and smaller scaled thinking
2. Thanks to YANSS 046

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