On The Fragility of Human Knowledge

Posted by on July 11, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 1 comment



Do you know how to light a fire? What about catch live game? Could you grow a vegetable garden without help from your local hardware store? What about collecting rainwater efficiently? If your world depended upon it, say after a large scale cataclysm which knocks out our electricity and communications, would you know what to do? How much knowledge do you really have? How much knowledge do we all have?

Human knowledge is a fleeting thing. A thing that is known in a society can quickly be lost if a society moves in a certain direction, or if the society collapses due to disease, famine, or other calamity such as earthquake or wildfire. What is known at any given time is dependent upon the perpetuation of the people who possess that knowledge for it to be passed on to successive generations. If a society which holds a certain piece of knowledge disappears, often that piece of knowledge disappears with them.

But this does not mean that the knowledge is gone forever. In some cases, similar ideas have arisen in unconnected places on earth and at around the same time period. Agriculture was first developed around 10,000 years ago, and only to its highest potential only in the Eurasian continent, arose independently but later on in the Americas. The invention of complex tools, again arising in the Eurasian continent first, was seen to develop in other areas on earth at later periods. Ideas are never lost, never really, for we carry within all of us the “memetics” of ideas that is shared among the whole of humanity, through our shared historical ancestry.

Memes, which can be thought of as “viruses of the mind”, was a term first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene“. A meme is a thought or series of thoughts that are carried from one generation to the next through conversation and teaching, and build upon previous generations of thought to create the thoughts we see today. Memetics is knowledge’s equivalent to Darwinian selection in life, and likewise, if a meme isn’t pervasive, persuasive, or relevant enough to any given generation, it falls by the wayside. It is never truly lost, for some ideas take centuries to become relevant, and some ideas are just proven to be wrong, and these ideas, if treated in the correct manner, will be left in the annals of history as mere amusements or quirks in our development.

Ideas and information are carried with us in our brains, and are distributed to us from others through communication. Be it books, movies, educational facilities, conferences, study papers, even the humble daily news, our ideas perpetuate themselves based on the fact that we pass them on. Our current ideas are built upon the shoulders of centuries of trial and error, and often, failure. Without the knowledge of our ancestry, our knowledge today would be severely lacking. Due to the fact that we live for a comparatively long time compared to other creatures on earth, we have time to disseminate our ideas and build upon them within every person. As Isaac Newton said in a letter to Robert Hook in 1676:

“What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

We are fortunate that we do live for as long as we do. If humans lived for an average of only 5 years, we would have little time to pass on information from one generation  to another. We are also fortunate that we have developed to be social animals, ones that depend on the group for our own survivals. Edward O Wilson calls this “eusociality“, and it applies not only to humans, but to any species where the group survival is more important than the survival of the individual. So it is not only our intelligence that helps us perpetuate information, it is also out social nature and our lifespans, too. And our adaptability.

Take for example the humble octopus. Octopuses are often praised for their high intelligence, their problem solving abilities, and their ingenuity in camouflage and defense. However the average lifespan is between 6 months and 5 years, and they are largely solitary animals, and they have almost no contact with thier parents. (Some species of octopus even die in the process of waiting for their eggs to hatch). So the onus of knowledge in the world of octopuses is upon the individual to learn about their environments, how to eat, where to hide, and what poses potential dangers to the individual. If evolution had favoured octopodes in a different way, to live a longer and more social lives, the dominant creature on earth may not have turned out to currently be a descendent of apes, but a descendent of a cephalopod.

As I have said, a lot of our knowledge comes from advances made on older knowledge. So one would think that if not for the likes of Aristotle and the Greek Empire, much of our knowledge at this time would be severely limited indeed. Or would it? Knowledge is not confined to one time or space, and many advances in knowledge may appear in different places at different times, independent of each other. Given the nature of humanity to propagate knowledge as we do, surely the ideas as espoused by Aristotle would arise elsewhere in the world and at a different time. But we cannot know this for sure, and mulling over this is just guesswork at best.

So what of the idea of divinely inspired knowledge? Could the ideas as espoused in the holy books such as The Bible and The Qur’an be independent sources of knowledge, arising without any input from history?

It is very unlikely. In the case of The Bible, all of the “knowledge” contained in the Old Testament is either made up of judgement calls on the ways people “should” live their lives according to the words of their early prophets, or of information that holds little use for us in the present era. Advice like not eating pork or shellfish are of little use in a world where we have pretty good control over the quality of our foodstuffs. Most of the talk of retribution against “sinners” is either illegal or shunned as barbaric, and the treatment of women as espoused in The Bible is, by and large, seen as abhorrent. On top of that, the level of understanding of illness and affliction held in The Bible was laughable, and at times tragic. According to a description from Mark 9:

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

Jesus then goes on to rid the child of the “spirit”, by laying of hands and shaking him about, commanding:

“You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

To anyone with a sliver of knowledge about the human body, we know what is being described here is an epileptic fit. Due to the lack of understanding at the time, the only explanation they could come up with was a “demon”, or “spirit”, neither of which feature in the modern medical textbooks of today. For lack of a better explanation, the people relied upon the rudimentary information shared by their peers and local society to decipher the goings on at the time. Whether Jesus healed the poor epileptic boy is dubious, since the explanation of what ailed him was wrong to start with.

Even worse, the claims made about The Qur’an containing knowledge of science that couldn’t possibly have come from a human being (i.e. had to come from Allah) is demonstrably false, since these pieces of insider knowledge were already outlined by Greek scholars such as Aristotle, Eratosthenes and Galen. And worse, the claims made are demonstrably incorrect, and have been repeatedly discredited by the experts of today. As to whether Mohammed received this information from Allah or not is also dubious, since we have a better understanding of anatomy, astronomy, chemistry and biology now than ever in history, and the claims themselves seem nothing more than clumsy grasps at poorly understood, and wrong, information.

This is not to say that these claims from The Qur’an couldn’t have been developed independently of the teachings of the Greeks, the only problem is the Islamic information shares the same ideas as the Greek information and in many cases, the same mistakes. And worse, what they got right is perfectly on par with what the most learned scholars at that time in the Islamic world knew. One should always be wary of claims to knowledge that come from beyond the sphere of human activity and history.

In the information age, I worry about our collected knowledge, and am keenly aware of how fragile it is. We have a particularly rich amassment of knowledge, and live in an era where the dissemination of this knowledge should be getting easier and more efficient over time. However it seems that in the world of mass information we have a problem, one where not only are we seeing the proliferation of bad ideas and falsehoods, but also a tendency toward willful ignorance of the facts and truths that our very knowledge is built upon. Some of the reasons for this trend include religious literalism (where the words of holy books are the start and end of knowledge), an anti-elitist push from the disenfranchised (one where the experts and those with real knowledge are accused of pushing an agenda unrelated to their field of expertise), or simple willful ignorance of the facts presented in true amassed knowledge.

I have no doubts that if humanity were to survive a cataclysm that many of the things we once knew would be lost. In a generation or two, any information not held in surviving literature, or in the brains of the survivors, stands the risk of fading into obscurity. Much of it may reappear given enough time, but much of it may never be seen again. Due to whatever changes are made during the cataclysm, life’s demands and needs would be different, and availability of materials may be different. However, I am confident that if all traces of religion and science were lost to the ages, and humanity was able to continue indefinitely, that science would one day return to be the bank of knowledge we now know, or at least very similar, and the religions would only ever be known from archaeological digs.

This is the difference between real knowledge and knowledge claims; One can survive large-scale changes in society, the other cannot. Facts will survive anything, even humanity, but belief is so fragile as to removed with even a whiff of reality.

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1 Comment

  1. One aspect why this is still or even more so happening in the information age might actually be “because of the information age”. So many people are simply overwhelmed by the available information and the options and choices they have in life today. A very human reaction to this is to reduce the complexity of this seemingly infinite system and create a simpler but comprehensible “logic” you can life with. “Ignorance” then would neither be a willful choice (“hey, let’s be stupid today!”), nor necessarily due to lack of education, it’s a path the brain chooses to survive.

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