Humbleism: How the more we learn the less we know

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

There is a new subject matter emerging, which may become known as “humbleism”. It treats of what we don’t know, rather than what we do know.

In ancient times, when faced with frightening natural phenomena people turned to priests, who looked to the skies and came up with convincing sounding explanations that made them feel better. Bizarre human rituals resulted, such as the Aztecs’ practice of ripping hearts out of their own people to keep the sun shining (an early lesson in how correlation is not always causation). In early Christian times, all the knowledge of the world was thought to be contained in the bible. In the Enlightenment, science and reason provided the answers.

Now, with computing and artificial intelligence, we are promised processing power matched with learning ability on an unimaginable scale. This has the potential to end human life as we know it because the new arts, culture and science that emerge are set to be of several orders of magnitude more advanced than today’s, such that if today’s version of ourselves tried to understand it, it would be like a dog trying to read Shakespeare.

The enduring promise through the ages has thus been that someone wise somewhere knows the answer to the world’s mysteries. But the new humbleism says, hang on a second, we don’t, and won’t ever, know much. A theory of everything from a scientist or priest is unlikely because every time we discover something new, we seem to find out how little we know, not how much we know, as these discoveries just open up vast new worlds that we hadn’t been aware of.

Our knowledge has therefore constantly increased as a proportion of what we thought we knew, but constantly collapsed as a proportion of what we knew plus what we realised we didn’t know. Just when we thought we were approaching the light at the end of the tunnel it just got bigger and further away. In other words, the more we learn, the less we know.

When powerful telescopes were invented it brought us closer to the stars than we had ever been revealing a sun 1,500 times the size of our own, which itself could fit a million Earths, which itself is millions of times larger than a human being. But it also revealed that 95% of the universe, which we realised was not actually fixed but expanding, was made up of dark matter and energy, which is a stylish way of saying we don’t know what it is. We know barely anything about what goes on in the substance that makes up most of the planet, water, despite being able to dive down to survey the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor. Theoretical physics tells us there are not three dimensions plus time but 10 plus time, but the many-worlds theory states there may be infinite alternative universes existing in parallel to this one with infinite alternative versions of us infinitely tweaked, so if you have black hair you would have brown hair in version 2, red hair in version 3, blonde in version 4 and so on ad infinitum. The old certainty that all knowledge could be contained in one book, theory or person’s mind seems absurd.

Humbleism humbly points out the gaps this new knowledge exposes, the holes in our existing knowledge, and how we can’t possibly know everything. This new field includes Donald Rumsfeld (with his unknown unknowns), David Deutsch who views the Enlightenment as the beginning of an infinite sequence of purposeful knowledge creation and the author of The Hidden Half, Michael Blastland. Blastland shows how there may always be a part of a subject matter we just don’t understand. He tells story after story of how we thought we had narrowed down a field of knowledge only to be disabused of this certainty in new and shocking ways.

Choice blindness is just one example. In an experiment people were asked to express a view on whether spending and taxes should rise or fall. The participants wrote down their answers and submitted them but unawares to them, the experimenters changed their answers before handing them back. The extraordinary thing was that when asked to explain their answers the participants rationally and intelligently argued the exact opposite of what they had originally put. Whereas they had written they favoured cutting taxes and spending, when looking at what they thought was their answer (now to raise taxes and spending) they argued it coherently, blatantly contradicting themselves. Their supposedly strongly held beliefs were nothing of the sort. Never mind the universe, we may not even know what we think we know about ourselves.

Judging by the past, it is a good bet that AI will solve many puzzles we have now but open up infinite new ones. This is a joyous, exciting time to be alive, but one in which we must remain humble about our own limitations and seek assistance where we can. As Blastland says, the problem is not that we don’t know, it is pretending that we do know. Editors can, humbly, help, in this attempt to make sense of it all.