I am starting a new series entitled "reprise" - featuring older posts of mine that might deserve another appearance before my esteemed audience. The "reprise" pieces will be accompanied by short musical "reprises" such as the one below.
The great American physicist J. A. Wheeler contends in his A Septet of Sybils: Aids in the Search for Truth:
"Our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible."
The flip side of our unrivalled success in making the world ever more conveniently inhabitable for us, is our constitutive ignorance. We are so incredibly good at adapting to our environment because our ignorance forces us to keep on searching for more light. We - at least the wisest and the best thinkers and scientists among us - are aware of the limits of our knowledge, unlike the omniscient crocodile that thinks it knows all there is to know. There are many reasons why we are necessarily ignorant, probably the most important one is this: our brain is an organ that evolved primarily to make us survive, serving at best secondarily to map truth accurately (truth being correspondence with the facts).
Sure, had our precursors not developed a pretty good ability to adapt to, say, a three dimensional world, they would have dropped from the trees to their death and we would not exist. But the fit between human cognition and the real world is no guarantee for command of the truth, not least because much of what is to be known and much of what affects us lies outside the mesocosmos (the world of medium dimensions to which we are adapted), this outside having evolved
(1) prior to,
(2) independent of, and
(3) with no need to be immediately accessible to our mesocosmic faculty of cognition.
A situation somewhat analogous to the epistemological fate of Lucky, the Dalmatian I dog-sit, who is fantastically well adapted to our mutual slice of the world, without knowing much about it. The assumptions he works on are often spectacularly erroneous, a circumstance that I amply exploit to create joy and harmony between us.
Adaptive competence (like following the right rules and behaving in a certain way) is an alternative to insight, especially when we are to deal successfully with information impossible to be collected and processed by the unaided human brain: markets are such an extension of the brain, they are indeed a veritable prothesis of the brain.
So, we cannot overcome our ignorance ever altogether, but we can reduce it incrementally and improve our conjectural knowledge of the world, by constantly calling into question what we think we already know. This is precisely what markets do, and what science does. We achieve progress by incessantly discovering the flaws in our present and provisional knowledge. The faster we discover the flaws the more advancement we achieve in the course of our unending quest: "our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible."
All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.
Hayek, F.A. (1978) The Constitution of Liberty, p.30
When I was twenty I became apprenticed to an old master cabinetmaker in Vienna whose name was Adalbert Pösch, and I worked with him from 1922 to 1924, not long after the First World War. He looked exactly like Georges Clemenceau, but he was a very mild and kind man. After I had gained his confidence he would often, when we were alone in his workshop, give me the benefit of his inexhaustible store of knowledge. Once he told me that he had worked for many years on various models of a perpetual motion machine, adding musingly: “They say you can’t make it; but once it’s been made they’ll talk different!” (“Da sag’n s’ dass ma’ so was net mach’n kann; aber wann amal eina ein’s g’macht hat, dann wer’n s’ schon anders red’n!”).
A favourite practice of his was to ask me a historical question and to answer it himself when it turned out that I did not know the answer (although I, his pupil, was a University student—a fact of which he was very proud). “And do you know”, he would ask, “who invented topboots? You don’t? It was Wallenstein, the Duke of Friedland, during the Thirty Years War.” After one or two even more difficult questions, posed by himself and triumphantly answered by himself, my master would say with modest pride: “There, you can ask me whatever you like: I know everything.” (“Da können S’ mi’ frag’n was Sie woll’n: ich weiss alles.”)
I believe I learned more about the theory of knowledge from my dear omniscient master Adalbert Pösch than from any other of my teachers. None did so much to turn me into a disciple of Socrates. For it was my master who taught me not only how very little I knew but also that any wisdom to which I might ever aspire could consist only in realizing more fully the infinity of my ignorance.
These and other thoughts which belonged to the field of epistemology were occupying my mind while I was working on a writing desk. We had at that time a large order for thirty mahogany kneehole desks, with many, many drawers. I fear that the quality of some of these desks, and especially their French polish, suffered badly from my preoccupation with epistemology. This suggested to my master and also brought home to me that I was too ignorant and too fallible for this kind of work. So I made up my mind that on completing my apprenticeship in October, 1924, I should look for something easier than making mahogany writing desks. For a year I took up social work with neglected children, which I had done before and found very difficult. Then, after five more years spent mainly in studying and writing, I married and settled down happily as a schoolteacher. This was in 1930.
At that time I had no professional ambitions beyond schoolteaching, though I got a little tired of it after I had published my Logik der Forschung, late in 1934. I therefore felt myself very fortunate when in 1937 I had an opportunity to give up schoolteaching and to become a professional philosopher. I was almost thirty-five and I thought that I had now finally solved the problem of how to work on a writing desk and yet be preoccupied with epistemology.