Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Elevator Speech #9--The pursuit of clarity

One of my favorite words that I rarely get to use is epistemology.  The term was introduced by the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808–1864).  Essentially this word covers three subjects
  • What is knowledge?
  • How is knowledge acquired?
  • How do we know what we know?
The word epistemology has fallen out of favor for many reasons but I like to think it is because the Producers came up with the ultimate answer to these questions--experimentation.  Knowledge is what we can demonstrate.  We acquire that knowledge through experimentation.  And we know what we know because the experiments are published and we can either choose to replicate them or believe the original experimenters.

Unfortunately, philosophy has a long tradition of teaching that we "really cannot know anything."  Of course, when most of this philosophical sighing was originally written, humanity actually didn't know much.  When Montaigne, the father of such skepticism wrote in the 16th century, we didn't even know how fire worked.  We knew nothing about electricity, chemistry, or physics either.  The idea that about 1/5 of the gas around us was oxygen wouldn't be known for a couple of centuries.  So a complaint that was once a sign of intellectually honesty has become a sign of profound intellectual laziness in a world were we can measure the gasses in our atmosphere to six-decimel precision using fairly cheap instruments.

But oh what cheap excuses the debates over epistemology provide! "If one can never really 'know' anything, goes the 'reasoning' of the dullards, then why should anyone put forth the effort to learn anything?"  These folks even have an answer for the Producers that goes something like, "Since your information is always open to revision, why should I learn something that will be obsolete in a few years?"  And so the honest debates over epistemological questions become an alibi for lazy students everywhere.

Because the real economy runs on information that not only can be known, but must be known, the tolerance--nay insistence--of a culture for teaching and perpetuating the intellectual cop-out that nothing can really be known can only have dire consequences.  It might be argued that the economic decline of the USA economy since 1973 can be largely explained by this factor.

I settled my own epistemological questions during the early research for what would become Elegant Technology.  I was hunting for a reasonable explanation for the recession of 1981-82 and making little progress.  I had tried reading political economy, business magazines, advertising publications, and philosophy.  I was a good little Liberal Arts graduate so I organized my search like I had been taught.  And while it was probably a good thing to read Marx and Nietzsche and Keynes, I felt I was just getting nowhere.

Then one warm summer night, a friend and I went for a drive.  He had actually gotten his degree in Philosophy and I wanted to talk about the practical epistemological riddles I had to solve to understand a financial calamity that had caused peaceful farmers to shoot their bankers.  By the end of that drive, I had decided that by setting up some simple epistemological "rules", I could eventually answer my big questions.

  • Since I did not know where my answers could be found, I decided that I would evaluate the factoids I discovered with a simple question--is the information beyond reasonable debate?  If it was, it was a keeper even if I had no idea why it would ever be important.
  • From little factoids grow mighty interesting truths.  No information is too small or unimportant so long as it is beyond reasonable debate.

From these two principles, an interesting worldview emerges.  If you limit your pursuit of information to beyond-debate factoids, you tend not to get sidetracked by idle speculation and weird conspiracy theories.  This process is amazingly flexible--if new information arrives, one merely adjusts the relevant factoid and while an altered factoid will affect the edifice built around it, it will rarely destroy the larger truth being constructed.

Of course, piling up information by itself doesn't lead to anything more intellectually stimulating than any other form of collecting.  For a bunch of little truths to become a big truth, there needs to be a theory to guide the assembly.  And there is no better place to find theory than to study history.  Not only do you find a defense of the best experiments of the human race, you also get a superb list of those things that should never be tried again.

Big truths constructed from little truths tend to hold up amazingly well.  Elegant Technology was mostly finished by 1987 and yet if it were rewritten for today, only a very few sentences would need to be changed.  This durability of ideas is a remarkable demonstration of the power of a Producer Class epistemology that is rooted in that most useful command in any language, "Show me!"

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