On Growth and Knowledge

Everybody has their favorite model of knowledge.This is mine:

The things we understand about the world are like the leaves on a tree. Every time we learn something, we have an opportunity to ask a question that goes deeper and further, bifurcating and allowing for new leaves.

Our knowledge expands like a fractal. There’s no limit to what can be learned because there is no limit to what can be asked. The direction that our curiosity tends to lead us creates our expertise, and where there is no curiosity there can be no growth.

I spent a long time wondering what it is that enables religiosity to persist, even among very well educated people. It is facile to suggest that religious people are simply stupid. It seems to me that it is better explained by the way people respond, not to what they know, but to the boundary between what they know and what they don’t: the outer edges of this tree, and the space of their ignorance beyond it.

How comfortable do we feel with what we don’t know? There’s no bound on the scope of possible knowledge – the more you know the more aware of your ignorance you become, because there should always be an exponentially increasing number of questions, assuming one has enough curiosity.

There is some basic, emotional response to this boundless expansion. Some people just need to feel like there is something or someone in control of that space, and that somehow they have access to that control through religious practices. There is a discomfort in that great, outer fog that apparently most of us would prefer to retreat from.

Notice another implication as well for the progress of science. The method of science can always get us the right answers, but we are the ones determining its direction. By their assumptions and their questions, scientists themselves can limit its range. There is no expectation that science can progress without a bias in its direction. This bias is best counteracted by diversity.

It is said that to be truly wise is to know that you know nothing. Hitchens once put it like this:

…the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, what is true, could always go on.

Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die I don’t know but I do know it’s the conversation I want to have while I’m still alive.

Which means that to me the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having.

I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet, that I haven’t understood enough, that I can’t know enough, that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And I’d urge you to look at those who tell you at your age that you’re dead till you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children. And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift, think  of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is, take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.

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