How to Understand a World without Knowledge

Plato said that knowledge is not possible in a world of change. Think about that for a moment. We can’t know what is true if things are constantly changing. Remember COVID and how our understanding of it changed earlier this year? Some thought it was “no worse than the flu,” others thought that it was a serious threat that we ought to be donning masks against.

Plato’s solution to this ignorance was to find universal truths (called forms). The forms are true for all times and all places. The form of a horse is what every horse has in common which makes it a horse. They’re intellectual constructs, not tangible objects, kind of like numbers.

But I disagree with Plato. Pursuing universal truths isn’t the most pragmatic solution to ignorance. They’re just not as helpful! To explain why, I need to first explain what the scientific method does.

Our closest method to discovering the “true form” of an object is the scientific method. Now, I’m a fan of the scientific method. It’s pretty freaking awesome and ingenious, and has let us save and sustain lives through advances in medicine, agriculture, and perhaps warfare. Way to go Francis Bacon!

When you use the scientific method, you assume that the knowledge you derive of the object is useful in every and all domain. For example, take salt (NaCl). If you know that it’s made of Sodium and Chloride, then you can know what happens when you put it in water, or mix it in vinegar (you create some sort of acid which you can use to poison people).

So great, what’s the problem then?

Here’s what it is.

Try using the scientific method to tell me what a car is. Or what a cow is.

Let’s go with a cow. What is a cow? Scientists would likely reduce a cow to its biological, chemical, and physical mechanisms. It’s made out of cells, it eats, it poops, it creates babies, etc. That’s all fine and good and useful.

But you know what else a cow is? The greatest earth-warmer we have.

If you got 100 Nobel laureates and UN delegates in a room and asked them how we could warm up the earth, they’d probably think of a, gosh, 50,000 ovens opened up at the same time, or something like that. And because they went to Harvard, they’d then apply the scientific method and say “oh, yeah, our 50,000 ovens work better than our 50,000 street lights or 2 nuclear bombs. That’s simply the statistics talking.

But an omniscient God would say “create an insane demand for beef.” The farts from those fatty animals form a huge chunk of greenhouse gases. And yet, a “scientist” would never have been able to see that a cow had this property.

A scientist might respond by saying that greenhouse gases are not a property of the cow, it’s a consequence of the cow’s body. and if you bred enough cows, of course warming would occur.

The issue here is that the cow’s “potential” to warm up the globe is opaque to us. The scientist cannot see the cow’s potential by studying a cow’s cells.

These invisible properties eventually come to our attention. Eventually. But they’re not obvious to us immediately. We don’t have a method to figure out what they are either. The scientific method is not meant for this task.

And furthermore, cows are just cows. What about things like the Internet, the printing press, the assembly line, or social media, which utterly revolutionize life and our modes of thinking? One could argue that cars destroyed close knit communities because people no longer had to socialize with only the people in their neighbourhood.

So, there are two questions we should ask. One: how do we come to learn what the properties of these things are? Two: how should you interact with things knowing that you don’t know what their properties are?

For the first question, I don’t have a good answer. It’d be tantamount to seeing the matrix itself. You just have no idea how things are connected. The least-worst answer I have is that you must have skin in the game. This will expose you to all of the properties of an object. For example, if you’re going to breed more and more cows, then you can’t just go live 100 km away – you have to deal with the stench of the place too. A better example – if you’ve just invented the car, people should be able to sue you for warming up the planet.

For the second question, I think that Dr. Jordan Peterson offers the best solution. The best way to confront a world of potential is with truth and attention. The world that unfolds as a consequence of that is the best that could be. This is an assumption of faith that you take.

In my personal life, this is true. When I’m truthful about how I feel, even when it’s harsh, the other person trusts me more. They may dislike me more, and we may end our friendship, but it has never resulted in residual animosity.

Confront the potential properties of objects by taking responsibility for them and by using truth and attention.

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