Socrates’ epic origin story began in Delphi where he was visiting the Oracle; a temple who’s priestesses were said to have supreme knowledge of both the past and future.
When it came time for Socrates’ reading he was told that he was the wisest man in all of Athens. “I don’t know anything,” Socrates objected, confused about how that could be possible.
The Oracle informed him that while others mistakenly thought that they had a great deal of knowledge, Socrates was the only one who admitted that knowledge was very scarce.
This, by the priestess’ measure anyways, made him wiser than all the various experts in the most enlightened city of the era.
The Knowledge Paradox
Socrates was eventually killed for spreading the good word of the Oracle. He went from expert to guru to authority and used his rhetorical skills to show them that what they thought they knew often contradicted itself.
It turns out that the common sense view of knowledge that people seem preprogrammed with doesn’t actually pan out. No matter how certain we feel there is always some bizarre coincidence that could have occurred.
Add to that the fact that we are all working with second hand information given to us by our senses. If you’re not aware of just how profoundly our senses can mislead us google optical illusions.
The point is not that we sometimes mistake things for other things but our brain actually shows us the other things that it believes we are seeing.
Still images can appear to move sometimes.
A quiet sound in the night may cause you to actually hear someone calling your name.
When an object blows into the road you really sometimes see a small animal until you look at it more closely.
And yet today we actually have collected more information than ever before. It may not be the sort of absolute knowledge our ancestors were looking for. But it lets us predict all sorts of things they never could.
Whatever sort of knowledge we have it is valuable.
And that’s the problem. When you start talking about how absolute knowledge doesn’t exist people imagine that we are completely ignorant. Which clearly isn’t the case.
Local Knowledge is Probably All There is
To explain how knowledge actually works I want to use an example from math. I know that a more common sense example might help. But I don’t have one. Sorry.
There are a few different ways to estimate a function by using several points. If you don’t know what a function is just imagine a graph with a curvy line on it. That’s basically it actually.
When you estimate using a single point you get a horizontal line. Feed the estimation a second point and you get a line that has the same slant as the original curve.
With a third you get an actual curve which usually exactly matches the original curve at one section. From there the estimation gets closer and closer to exactly matching the original.
But if the original curve is complex enough you’ll never get an exact match. Even though your estimation may be identical in certain areas.
The worst deviation comes from the area on the original curve that is outside the area where you’re talking all of the points from. The estimate often drastically shifts away from the curve and goes off in one direction.
Our knowledge of the world is more like an estimate of reality than a simple match for it. We are not adding to our knowledge one data point at a time but instead are adding information to the estimators in our brains and getting back an understanding with some of the same qualities as our curve estimations.
Our knowledge often mirrors reality almost exactly in places where we’ve had the chance to make many observations. But once we try and use our knowledge to see far beyond anything we’ve ever tested we get sloppy generalizations that look nothing like the real world.
This distinction is important. Not because it has any impact on the things we’ve been able to test over and over. It likely doesn’t. But when we try to think hypothetically about very abstract concepts we’re likely way off. Even if it feels like we’re just as certain based on our knowledge.
It’s likely that the divide between large scale physics and small scale physics has something to do with this. As does the many problems we have in defining things like consciousness and free will.
In many cases it is not that we don’t understand what we think we do. It is that we cannot trace from it to where we need to go. We need to keep scope in mind when we’re trying to estimate things.
And then there’s always the chance that some things just won’t ever fit into our minds.