Quote for Discussion: Epigraph

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

~Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 46

No one has yet been found so firm of mind and purpose as resolutely to compel himself to sweep away all theories and common notions, and to apply the understanding, thus made fair and even, to a fresh examination of particulars. Thus it happens that human knowledge, as we have it, is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident, and also of the childish notions which we at first imbibed.

~Francis Bacon, Aphorism 97

I began this journey several years ago, full of the feeling that I knew things, and that those things were worth sharing, and that there was much to be gained by sharing those things with others and debating their implications.  Since that time, most of what I have learned has been negative: the things I “knew” I didn’t “know” in a meaningful sense of the term, the things I learned was mostly that knowledge in general and human knowledge in particular was generally in error and deeply fallible in any case.  

They weren’t goths or loners.

The two teenagers who killed 13 people and themselves at suburban Denver’s Columbine High School 10 years ago next week weren’t in the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” disaffected videogamers who wore cowboy dusters. The killings ignited a national debate over bullying, but the record now shows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn’t been bullied – in fact, they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshmen and “fags.”

Their rampage put schools on alert for “enemies lists” made by troubled students, but the enemies on their list had graduated from Columbine a year earlier. Contrary to early reports, Harris and Klebold weren’t on antidepressant medication and didn’t target jocks, blacks or Christians, police now say, citing the killers’ journals and witness accounts. That story about a student being shot in the head after she said she believed in God? Never happened, the FBI says now.

A decade after Harris and Klebold made Columbine a synonym for rage, new information – including several books that analyze the tragedy through diaries, e-mails, appointment books, videotape, police affidavits and interviews with witnesses, friends and survivors – indicate that much of what the public has been told about the shootings is wrong.

~Greg Toppo, US News & World Report

This is but one of innumerable instances where what everyone “knew” about something was false, in almost every particular.  Because forecasting errors compound, this means that not only what we “knew” about that particular incident, but also everything that we “knew” that was in any way illuminated by that incident is false.  We begin with a falsehood, and no amount of work can undo it.

It has come to my attention that for some time, this is all the insight I’ve had to share with others.  Be cautious, very cautious, of what you think you know.  You are almost certainly wrong, and so am I.  I’ve said more than once that to me, the most shocking thing about the current financial crisis is that all those highly-paid, expert risk managers built their models without any risk factor for the model being wrong.  But upon reflection, that really doesn’t seem so shocking, does it?  All of us, myself included, are similarly attached to what we believe we know, and similarly dismissive of the improbability that what we know qualifies in any meaningful way as knowledge.

But even that conviction that I now hold strongly is flawed, and more to the point, tiresome when presented in this format.  I’m grateful to buhdy for hosting my thoughts, and for all of you who read them.  I hope that all of you will feel the same way should I come to a future where I have something else to say.

Cheers.

51 comments

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    • Edger on April 19, 2009 at 2:11 am

    This sentence is a lie?

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – especially after reading some of that stuff about the “myths of Colombine” recently.

    And it all reminds me of a quote from Betrand Russell that inspired an essay not too long ago.

    Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages … But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back — fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be.

    • geomoo on April 19, 2009 at 5:19 am

    Well, that sucked.  I had a good three paragraphs painstakingly laid out and my browser froze.  This time around will likely be more sloppy.  Oh well.

    The nature of mind is to self-referentially create itself as solid and factual.  It habitually places itself at the center of the universe.  Even when it has seemingly self-effacing thoughts, it is merely using its trickery, saying “Look at me, I’m not self-centered.”  The mind is always self-centered, that is its nature.  The mind will create any fiction needed to hold its status.  Thus, relying on the mind inevitably leads to delusion.

    It is the nature of the mind, for example, to read a brilliant thought such as you have quoted, and say to itself, “I understand this now.  I will not be guilty of this mistake.”  Later, when this very thing is happening, the mind will deny that it is.  Avoiding these sorts of errors requires disciplined practice in addition to an initial understanding.

    These are not speculative thoughts.  When the mind is glimpsed in action from a “place” outside mind, as happens in mediation, its disconnected, unembodied, illusory nature is immediately, blatantly obvious.  People who have never observed the mind in operation suffer from the delusion that their thoughts are real and reliable; those who have had some moments of catching the mind in action sometimes remember that they have an inkling of a notion that thoughts are not what they seem.

    One aspect of the self-centered mind is its pretense to make rational decisions.  Studies have shown that emotion related activity in the belly precedes thought.  People make decisions from the gut, then the mind solidifies the thought, and finally reasons are made up to make the decision seem rational.  This explains many irrational behaviors by sane, rational people which have resulted in death.  I could flesh out this notion with a couple of examples if anyone is interested.

    Bacon’s insightful quote came at a time before our modern understanding of psychology and emotion.  We have the opportunity to understand what he is getting at more fully than he himself did.  Reason alone can never lead to an understanding of the actions of Harris and Klebold, just as thought, no matter how clear, is an insufficient basis for creating a humane society.  And thought will never be completely honest in acknowledging its own limitations.

    I believe one of the scourges of our time is a misplaced faith in reason to solve our problems.  I could go on and on about that.  I occasionally take on this issue with my humanist friends in a desperate attempt to convince them that a crucial part of the solution to our current ills–militarism, greed, intolerance–lies at the heart of every religion.  I feel it is a tragedy that many of the best people are so horrified by the history of organized religions that the truths underlying them are rejected as well.  Spiritual truths are based in practice, not in understanding, and every religion has buried beneath its accretions of beliefs the practices that can free us humans from our destructiveness.  The answers cannot be figured out and understood; they must be practiced.

    Another thing that comes to mind is a profound lesson I learned from R.D. Laing:  motivation determines perception.  The response to the Columbine shooting is an example of this idea: gun regulators saw the need for gun control, 2nd amendment activists saw a need for more guns, bullying experts saw a problem with bullies, Christians saw persecution, etc.

    I could discuss this topic indefinitely–a lot more aspects come to mind–but I’ll stop there and go watch a film with MsMoo.  Thanks for introducing it.  I’ll check back later to see the rest of the interesting comments.

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