In my last post I talked about how I recently revised my understanding of politics. I want to continue on the topic of things I have been really wrong about. But this time I want to talk about epistemology.

Epistemology is one of those opaque words that I have to look up every time I hear it. logically, I understand the definition, but on a deeper level I don’t really know it. I don’t really know the arguments people have about it, the history of it, I haven’t spent a lot of time arguing with other people about it, and it is just kind of abstract.

Anyway, epistemology just means the study of knowledge. Boring, right?

Except it isn’t boring because it turns out that people really misunderstand what knowledge is, and this misunderstanding has major consequences. Ok, so where to start?

A few Anecdotes

Let me start with a memory of sitting in my high school calculus class after acing a test. I remember feeling so damn proud of myself. I was at the peak of my abilities, and I was sure I could comprehend anything in the universe if I just applied my powers of rationality.

Then, a few years later, I encountered the riddle of the hats (described here). This presented an issue that I keep coming back to years later: if I am so smart, why did it take me three days to solve a simple riddle that requires like two logical steps?

A few more years later, and I was recently married. After graduating from Harvard Law School, instead of taking a real job I decided it was a good idea to move home (like, literally into my parents basement) and run for the state legislature, try my hand at professional poker, and then teach junior high (I can’t decide which of these was the worst decision…probably none of them as bad as my decision to become a pilot in the Air force, which came with a 12 year commitment). Anyway, Mercedes was pretty sure I was being stupid, but she couldn’t really articulate why. I was an expert at rationalizing everything I did, and she would just get angry — and that didn’t make sense to me as a way of winning an argument.

So, just like the riddle made me start to wonder if my rationality had limits, all these terrible decisions beg the question: why would such a smart person do such stupid things with their life? Now, clearly some people have done even dumber things than I have. But the main point is that my decisions reflect a certain lack of, shall we say, wisdom.

Hero’s Journey

Okay, so what does this have to do with epistemology? To get there, I want to reintroduce one of my favorite diagrams representing the Hero’s Journey:

What I want to point out this time is the division between Known and Unknown. What does it mean for something to be known? What does it mean for something to be unknown? This is the question of epistemology.

When I was young, I used to associated the Known with whatever I understood logically, and the unknown with things I didn’t understand logically. Now I want to challenge that.

An Analogy

Recently I read this article about a team building the world’s most powerful neural network in order to simulate a brain. By connecting 1 million separate processors they were able to produce a model of a brain…a mouse’s brain. The human brain is like a thousand times more complex.

So a human brain is like a thousand times more powerful than a massive supercomuter made of a million processors…yet it takes me three days to figure out a simple riddle, and I think it is a good idea to simultaneously take a shot at playing professional poker and running for office in suburban Utah?

To resolve this paradox, I have come to believe that the brain is like a massive subconscious supercomputer with a fairly small calculator that handles our rational capacity. So let’s say there are actually two kinds of knowledge: we can “know” something with our mind-bogglingly powerful supercomputer, or we can “know” something with our solar-powered calculator. Which one do you think ought to be primary?

My whole life I always just assumed that real knowledge was really about rationality and consciousness. Now I think we should turn this on its head.

Let’s take another look at the Hero’s Journey. When people leave the Known, what are they leaving? They are leaving a place where they were raised, where their subconscious supercomputer was trained. Where they subconsciously know all the rules and recognize all the faces. Does it also mean they understand how everything works logically in this safe place? Hardly. The world is really too complicated for us to rationally understand anything other than on a very abstract or superficial level.

So I propose that to really Know something means to be familiar with it on a subconscious level. This level of knowledge comes from things we hardly understand, like genetics (our brain is specifically designed to learn language, adopt culture, recognize faces, etc), faith, culture, experiences…all the intangibles. The Unknown is the world that we are not familiar with on this level.

  1. When I was dating, I often struggled with this question of whether I should ask a girl out. Often, I had this terrible fear of rejection. And you know what? My fear of rejection was always right! Whenever I felt it I got rejected. When I met Mercedes I just knew things would work, and they did. So maybe my fear of rejection was my subconscious supercomputer telling me things weren’t going to work out. Of course, I also had relationships where I didn’t really want them to work out, even if there wasn’t really anything wrong with the girl. In any case, if I were to give advice to my younger self now, I would say: follow your instincts. If the thought of asking someone out makes you feel insecure, don’t do it. If the thought of asking someone else makes you bored or depressed, don’t do it. Instead, wait until you know it’s going to work, and then go all in.
  2. The other day I was at a friend’s house and he was telling me about a business idea. He knows it’s a terrible idea but he will never be satisfied until he gets it out of his system. My response: if you don’t think it’s going to work, it’s not going to work. Wait until you stumble across something you know is going to work, and then go all in.
  3. A few weeks ago I hired a developer. Almost from day 1, I had this terrible feeling that it wasn’t going right. But I kept paying him and he kept making excuses. Eventually I decided to terminate the relationship, but I could have saved myself some time and money if I had followed my instincts earlier on. I wanted things to work, I and had some good justifications for why it would, but on some level I just knew it wasn’t right.

Okay, maybe you get the idea. It can be important to understand what it means to know something because knowledge is important to making decisions.

Previously, I would have argued that in each of these cases, having knowledge of the outcome is impossible. So the best course of action is to manage uncertainty by listing out all of our priorities, determining what course of action will help us achieve our goals, and then proceeding along that course.

A great example of this approach is something I ran across a few years ago when considering a job at a hedge fund called Bridgewater Associates. The founder, Ray Dalio, published a highly rational system of principles to help us succeed. Wanting to get a leg up by understanding the company culture, I did some research and it has stuck with me ever since as a great example of rational thinking.

However, what I want to propose is that in many cases, we should actually make decisions in a highly un-rational way, because when we think rationally we often end up making wild-ass guesses and post hoc justifications. In other words, we should be aware that rationality as a way of knowing, and more specifically, rationality as a way of making decisions, is highly limited and can lead us to make really bad decisions.

To make good decisions, we need to find some way of harnessing the power of our inner supercomputer. And that supercomputer doesn’t always make itself known in the form of articulated reasoning. It’s kind of like my early arguments with Mercedes. She knew what I was doing was stupid, but couldn’t really express why in a way that satisfied me because I was always so damn good at rationalization. But mistaking rationalization for wisdom is one sure way for highly intelligent people to make really bad decisions.

Now, I’m not saying that finding your inner compass is going to prevent you from making any bad decisions. Sometimes our supercomputer just doesn’t have the information it needs to make a good decision. But it has a hell of a lot more information than we can hold consciously, so on average, trusting your instincts is going to lead to better decision making.

What Rationality is Good For

If our rational brain is not good at making decisions, what role should it play in our lives? I will leave a more extended discussion of this question for another post, but there are a few circumstances where rationality is very useful:

  1. Communicating with strangers
  2. Building towers (systems that require long series of logical operations to operate, like tall buildings or computer programs)

So I will end with this bit from an adulterous letter written by Thomas Jefferson:

When nature assigned us [the heart and the brain] the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you [the brain] she allotted the field of science, to me [the heart] that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced; when the arch of greatest strength, or the solid of least resistance is to be investigated, take you the problem: it is yours: nature has given me no cognisance of it. In like manner in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their controul. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart.

Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters