in Productivity

How to Think About Knowledge

It's easy to get stuck in a binary way of thinking. 

  • Are eggs healthy or unhealthy?
  • Are GMOs bad or good?
  • Does a higher power exist or not?

It's even easier to think that we know — as in truly, absolutely, 100% confidence know — how something works.

But a simple glance at the scientific past shows us how wrong we've been. Here are a few theories that were once widespread and commonly thought to be "the way the world worked":

  • The four humors - blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm needed to be balanced in order to be healthy. If they were out of balance, they would cause illnesses of various kinds. This led to treatments like bloodletting or purging.
  • Phlogistons - Materials high in phlogistons were more prone to burn. By burning a material, like wood, you would release phlogistons into the air. When air (oxygen) was removed, fires would burn out, which "proved" that air could only absorb so many phlogistons. Caused people to believe that one of the reasons we needed to breathe was to release phlogistons from our body, so we were less likely to burn.

The point is, we've been way off about how the world worked in the past, and there's no reason to think that we're not off now as well.

All we're doing is getting less wrong about it.

And that's where we can get more practical. In our normal lives it's easy to think we have something (or someone) figured out, that we know the way it works.

Maybe we do this to simplify our lives a bit, but I find it's more helpful to adopt the mental model of varying degrees of certainty instead of believing something is absolutely true or absolutely false.

Outside of fiction, no one has ever seen a unicorn and been able to prove it. But we also can't disprove the existence of unicorns, because we haven't scoured every inch of the globe looking for them. And that's not to say that there can't be some mutation in a horse that eventually leads to a subspecies of horse that may as well be what we call unicorns.

This is a ridiculous example, but it's on purpose. If you can place your belief in unicorns on a spectrum of true / false that is REALLY close to false, but not 100% false, you'll start to understand how you can look at other beliefs in life in a more helpful way.

Thinking about the world this way helps you catch edge cases and non-intuitive situations much easier, because you're not absolutely sure about anything.

This has ever more applications when you think of it in the context of a body of knowledge, like math, medicine, or biology. Some of these fields have knowledge that decays quicker than others. Facts that are disproven or updated at a greater rate.​ There's a great book about this called The Half-Life of Facts that you should take a look at if this topic interests you.

I'll leave you with a quote from Richard Feynman about how vital it is to be uncertain in your knowledge:

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely certain of anything, and many things I don't know anything about! But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things. By being "lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose" — which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me."