Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

5.03.2012

Intellectual Humility

"Undergrads are useless."

A physics Ph.D. said that in a conversation I was part of a couple of weeks ago.  He said he too was useless as an undergrad, that uselessness is just a fact of being in that particular place in one's life, and the only way to stop being useless is to mature with time and the act of graduating.

He didn't say this explicitly, but I'm sure in the background of the statement was the idea that undergrads just haven't attained enough knowledge and self-awareness to realize how little they actually know, to become curious seekers of learning with the proper humility and modesty.  I've heard it said about both advanced degrees and martial arts black belts, that, even though both are considered marks of mastery and expertise, really all they indicate is that their bearers have finally reached a level that allows them to fully become students and finally begin their learning.  You have to learn quite a lot before you realize that you know almost nothing and are willing to accept just how limited and incomplete your knowledge will always be.

In Another Convergence, I wrote, "One of the areas David Brooks explores repeatedly in The Social Animal is non-linear associations and intuitive connections."  Here's a good representative quote:

This is a different sort of knowledge.  It comes from integrating and synthesizing diverse dynamics.  It is produced over time, by an intelligence that is associational--observing closely, imagining loosely, comparing like to unlike and like to like to find harmonies and rhythms in the unfolding of events.

And, as I was typing it just now, as part of my reflection on what this post is and where it's going, I made another association.  This time I noticed the word "synthesizing" and recalled something I've thought previously.  In Speaking of Supervillians, I wrote that if I could be a superhero my power would be based in my ability to synthesize:
c. Your superhero alter-ego is . . .

The Synthesist
(Bringing together disparate: 1) ideas, to solve problems and mysteries; 2) materials, to address physical issues (MacGyverish); and 3) people, to overcome conflict.) 
I was taking a broader view than Brooks does--mostly because I needed to extend the idea into superhero territory and tangible action--but what he describes is certainly a part of what I was trying to get at, one I try to regularly express in my ramblings here.  The paragraph that immediately follows the one I quoted above goes on to say, in reference to associational and rational thinking:

The modest person uses both methods, and more besides.  The modest person learns not to trust one paradigm.  Most of what he knows accumulates through a long and arduous process of wandering.

I love that image of being a knowledge and wisdom wanderer, and he expands the metaphor after introducing it.  A wanderer, to me, is an open-minded seeker, which is someone I've always tried to be.  Intellectual curiosity combined with an awareness of just how much there is to know and how limited and finite our ability to know--much less actually grasp--all of it really is.  The goal really shouldn't be to master knowledge, which is impossible, but to wander through it and glean as much from it as we can.

Brooks considers all of this in a section with the heading, "Epistemological Modesty."

Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life.  This attitude is built on the awareness that we don't know ourselves.  Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review.  We are our own deepest mystery.

Not knowing ourselves, we also have trouble fully understanding others. . . . 

Epistemological modesty is a disposition for action.  The people with this disposition believe that wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance.  We can design habits, arrangements, and procedures that partially compensate for the limits on our knowledge.

That reminds me very strongly of what Dan Ariely says in Predictably Irrational, which I considered extensively in Readers Digest Irrationality and have referenced many times since.  He approaches the idea of rational thinking from the realm of economics, and largely debunks it; he shows how our economic decisions are clearly not rational, but based in emotions and assumptions and other illogical dynamics.  But, he says, we're irrational in predictable ways, so if we can understand those patterns we can at least do something like "design habits, arrangements, and procedures that partially compensate" for the silly things we'll do when faced with economic decisions in the future.

It also reminds me of the title of a blog I discovered recently (which has become I book I hope to read), that I referenced in Do I Think Any True Thoughts? and Perception: The Interplay of Habit and Attitude.  I think the blog's title says it all and should certainly, in my opinion, lead to an attitude of modesty and humility: You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self Delusion.

And, of course, it's the attitude I try to express in interactions with others, in the controlling metaphor at the top of this blog, in posts like Do I Think Any True Thoughts?, and in my basic stance toward life.  Even as I passionately plead for positions that make sense to me, I know I'm doing so as a seeker with just a bit of the knowledge, not as an omniscient expert with the single, definite say on the matter.  I know my emotions and subconscious factors control my perceptions and reactions at least as much as my conscious rationality and studied knowledge.  I know I'm finite and limited and irrational, and so I try to keep from taking myself too seriously or inflating my sense of self-importance.

And I think it sure would be nice--the world might even be a better place--if more people took the same approach.

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