Two Windows

Tautologies are statements in logic that are always true. A = A. As such, they’re usually not very useful for telling us anything about the world. Wittgenstein coined the term to apply to logical redundancies.

One of the useful ones directly bears on the quasi-political discussion that we’ve been having here. Libertarians are so focused on maintaining an open, creatively destructive, innovative world because we have an appreciation for how limited and finite our knowledge, wisdom, and experience are. This appreciation takes many forms, like Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, or the Black Swan theory. But in this excellent paper, Jeffrey Friedman argues that our ignorance isn’t rational, it’s radical. The tautology that’s useful is; we don’t know what we don’t know.

This kind of radical ignorance has interesting implications for how we think about science. Science isn’t a claim that all phenomenon are explainable within the context of science; instead it can only refine our evolving knowledge. It’s like a pier built out into the ocean, a limited construct over an unknown and unknowable gulf. The same theory has interesting applications for religion or spirituality, and it doesn’t preclude their compatibility. Consider this video, from Reason.tv.

Dr. Ayala is the recipient of the 2010 Templeton Prize; given to a person who has made an exceptional contribution to the study of spiritual realities. He donated the $1.5 million monetary portion of the prize to the University of California, Irvine, to create a scholarship fund.

Ayala has the unique experience of studying both science at Columbia University and theology at a seminary in Spain. Since leaving his graduate studies, he has become a leader in the world of genetics and evolution. He now teaches and conducts research in evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.

The context of scientific claims, as well as religious claims, is contextualized by a system. Any claim that the system is self-evidently universal bears about as much relationship to reality as a pier does to the Mariana Trench. Perhaps this is why a new study found it relatively easy to find priests who are no longer believers. If we can’t ever know what we don’t know, it’s never possible for us to say we know everything that can be known.

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2 Responses to Two Windows

  1. We can’t know what we don’t know, it seems likely to suggest that we can get a certain amount of probability that what we think we know is true. But I think the skeptical claim, even the mitigated skeptical claim as my boy Hume makes, is still somewhat radical. What we attribute commonly to be knowledge turns out to be not anything we know, conclusively, after all.

    But then again, I am not sure that rational and radical are mutually exclusive.

    • Aaron says:

      They aren’t, but if we accept radical, it means the rational school makes claims it both over- and understates. Meaning its deeply flawed. I’m thinking around page xv of the friedman paper (sorry, phone blogging, not near the computer).

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