Saturday, August 18, 2007

Black swan and epistemology

I have bought the book named Black Swan by Taleb and am reading it thesedays. The interesting aspect so far emphasized upon in the book is that we know far lesser than we claim to. The experts are no better than a well organized storage of parts of human knowledge.
The knowledge itself is a small section of the total reality. In any case, the great minds have always claimed that they know only a much smaller sliver of the reality than appears to an untrained eye. I used think that this is their humbleness and it is generally fashionable to make such deep sounding statements when one has intellectually arrived in life. But the more one thinks of it, more one realizes that they are right. It is almost like, the horizons of the reality around you keep expanding as you know more and more of the world. It is not static entity of which you can keep knowing larger and larger proportion. The true reality if any is very highly uncertain. Even in theory i do not think it possible to be able be gauge the extent to which we as humankind have managed to approximate The Reality.
That leaves us with this limited version of reality and our limited understanding of that limited version. In this context JBS Haldane's comment suddenly stops looking like yet another unintelligible profundity and becomes more like a statement of fact.
"The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine". This is what i mean by the double layer of the remoteness of our models of reality from the reality itself. First of these layers is our limited version of steady state reality that we hope to achieve and second of these layers is the extent to which we approximate this limited version itself.

Where does that leave us? We as human beings have always had many roles - which increasingly got split over time as society evolved. I guess in early days, the same individual who gathered food and protected his family did not have much of time left to ruminate about how much he knows of the ultimate reality. Nor did he probably have very crystallized urge for the same. However, one can't rule out any urge in this direction altogether. Otherwise, we would not be thinking about this today.

The complexity of human mind in today's days is a curious combination of the survival instincts that brought us thus far in evolution and the not-so-directly-relevant-for-survival urge to know more of our surroundings. To be sure, not all of us share it. A vast majority goes about the survival part pretty much without the need to understand universe around them. This is not to pass a value judgment on them. It is just to say that even today, despite the split of roles which enabled some of us to think of such higher pursuits, we have a limited understanding of the true nature of the universe around us.

Black Swan claims that the issue which is emerging now is the misplaced arrogance of the seekers of knowledge. The experts are getting smug and have lost the humbleness of the previous generations. Is this a structural change? If so, it would mean that for a long time to come, the limited resources mankind employs in seeking higher knowledge would be restricted in the ideas they are likely to fund/support. Are the mainstream knowledge explorers becoming prisoners to their own attitudinal limitations? Is there any way we can transcend these limitations?

Another more demoralizing possibility is the physical limitation on the human brain in terms of what all it can manage to imagine and thus explore. In quantum mechanics and relativity we have managed to transcend the boundaries of our natural intuition regarding objects (e.g. the particle wave duality is impossible to imagine for us, though we believe in the theory). I cannot fathom how far this can be stretched. And as we go farther from the intuition, how reliable are our theories going to be? The instruments we use to support our claims have their own limitations. Thus in turn, in the domain of knowledge of the physical aspect of the world, our instruments of experimentation are going to limit the boundaries of our knowledge. On other fronts such as dealing with the non-physical aspects of the universe, i am not sure what can be relied upon if not intuition. How can we refine the processes of knowledge gathering without relying on the intuitively appealing concepts? Is there a mental equivalent of the experiementation instruments which can come in handy to test several theories and claims of modern epistemology?

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