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No Royal Road to Knowledge; No Mercy for Ignorance

By Daniel Speyer

You are on a journey.

I don't mean tonight's journey of songs and symbols, but the broader journey of life. Perhaps you will move from an engineering position at Google to a student position at Columbia. Perhaps you will move from a monogamous relationship to a 4-colorable polycule. And with positions in life, you will journey through people you can be. Perhaps you will multiclass from bard into wizard. Perhaps you will change from a sidekick to a hero... or a hero to a sidekick. Most likely you will make none of these specific moves, but you will move.

Every move you make gives you new future options, and takes options away. Every action has stakes. And none of it is immediately apparent.

All is murky. Like a journey through a swamp. At night.

You might fall into a pool of urgent problems, and struggle so desperately to keep your head above water that you cannot spare a movement to pull yourself out. And you could drown in work.

You might slip on the treacherous mud of a theory that explains everything and predicts nothing. Never finding evidence against it that would enable you to move on, but neither finding purchase in it with which to do anything.

You might step into the maw of a waiting crocodile – either an unscrupulous human being or a system of unrestrained incentives – and be devoured.

You want to walk on the solid ground.

You can look for it, of course. It's night, but you can see some things, and deduce more.

And you have with you your chosen companions, who can tell you what they've been through.

And you have a map of sorts: the accumulated lore of those who has traveled this swamp before, a tradition stretching back over countless generations.

So that's what you have and what you want. If only there were a simple way to go from one to the other.

It would be nice to say, “Trust in tradition: it might come up blank when confronting new things, but at least it won't lead you astray.” But you can't say that. Not in a world where many generations in many cultures taught their children that slavery was right and proper, and taught their students that fever was caused by an excess of blood. Not in a world where to this day many learned from their teachers only helplessness, and from their parents coping habits that are not merely self-destructive but destructive to all around them.

And the fact that I point out other's bad traditions and not my own doesn't mean I don't have any. My only reasonable conclusion is that I do. I just don't know which ones.

Or it would be nice to say, “Trust in yourself: it might require tremendous effort, but you will find the right answer in the end.” But you can't say that. Not in a world where rationalization looks so much like rationality from the inside. Not in a world where people very much like us supported Stalinism as the next stage in human civilization, with freedom and prosperity for all. Not in a world where young people routinely stumble into toxic or abusive relationships that the conventional wisdom of the experienced could see coming.

Or to say, “Trust in your friends. The likelihood of universal error drops exponentially.” But you can't. Not when they might be saying the same. And even if they are not, your errors and there's are hardly uncorrelated.

It would be nice at least to say, “When your judgment, community and tradition agree, that you can count on.” But you can't. Not when Rene Descartes, surely a greater genius than any in this room, “proved” the existence of the Christian God, confirming the tradition and community of his day.

It would be nice to be able to say something.

You cannot say, “I will trust expert consensus.” Not in a world where five hundred highly respected professional economists can cosign a letter recommending a policy, and two months later six hundred other economists, just as respected, cosign a letter saying the first letter was dead wrong.

Nor can you say, “I will trust my intuition.” Not when your intuition evolved for a different world, and has not caught up with the fact that a motivated searcher can find endless anecdotes to support almost any claim. Not in a world where, even without any malice involved, many people feel more afraid to fly in an airplane than to make a road trip of similar length.

Nor can you say, “At least I can casually disbelieve the utterly absurd.” Not in a world that runs on quantum mechanics. Not in a world in which metric tonnes of water routinely fall from the sky for no readily apparent reason.

Nor can you even say, “I will trust the speeches at the Secular Solstice celebration.” Not when I deliberately included a small error in this one.

No. There is nothing you can say. There is no royal road to knowledge.

And without one, it would be nice to comfort oneself saying, “I don't need one. Perhaps my mistakes will deprive me of a sandwich, but they will not get me hit by a car.” But failure to know which cars are coming is the most common reason for getting hit.

Nor can you say, “I will err, and I will learn from it, and I will go back and err less.” You will do that. And doing that well is one of the most important skills you can develop. But sometimes, there is no going back.

Nor can you say, “My errors will be in obscure, hard-to-learn subjects, with little real-world cost.” Not when a small mistake regarding the ecology of sparrows can generate a famine that leaves twenty million dead. Not when a subtle cyclicness of thinking turned decent, civilized people into the greatest monsters in history.

Nor can you say, “I will do what I can and expect it to work out in the end.” Not when Rome and Easter Island and the great cities of the Mississippi whose very names are lost to history surely had people in them much like us, who did what they could, and it didn't work out.

There is no royal road to knowledge. There is no mercy for ignorance.

It is an old cliché that all you can do is your best. It's not true.

You can try your hardest to make your best better. And join with others to create a collective best that's better still. You can check against reality, at every opportunity, whether that “better” is for real. And if you can keep trying, and keep joining, and keep checking, and keep doing...

Then maybe one day your best will be good enough.

And we will live to see the far side of the swamp.