A Guide to Knowledge

The Importance of Knowledge

Appearances are not self-explanatory. All information and sources of information must be interpreted, and our interpretations are notoriously fallible. This means there are no reliable ways to justify ideas as being true or probable, and there can be no authoritative sources of knowledge. Even our senses aren’t reliable. Nevertheless, information can still be physically acquired. Information about what is really there helps to guide its wielder, protecting itself. This form of knowledge is obtainable, and can be recognized by how it tends to persist.

You're Doomed

“Give Up”
Credit: Despair.com

Furthermore, anything we can conceive of doing is either:

  • Achievable, given the right knowledge; or
  • Impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of physics.

A planet-destroying asteroid is hurtling towards the Earth at this very moment, and our only hope for survival is in making use of the knowledge that will save us in time. Knowledge is significant – just as it can trace the trajectory of a single molecule on the tip of a sword in battle, it can determine the fate of trillions of galaxies. We will forever be only scratching the surface of its potential.

The infinite potential for knowledge means we will forever have problems to solve. Problems are inevitable, but they are all solvable with the right knowledge. Since problems are undesirable, obtaining the knowledge that solves them is always desirable. The understanding that eliminates problems can be imparted with good explanations, so we can bring about desirable outcomes for ourselves by searching for better explanations.

Explanatory Knowledge

We can only guess what explains our observations, but some guesses are better than others. Explanations impart an understanding of a system by describing it. The best explanations are the ones that are most constrained by existing knowledge – which includes observations as well as other good explanations. This constraint is the only reason we take any explanation seriously. Occasionally an explanation will accidentally account for things we have yet to observe and solve more problems than we intended for it to solve.

We may not personally care for an explanation’s implications or its predictions. Whether we like it or not, it makes predictions about places both known to us and unknown to us, predictions that we have thought of and ones that we have not thought of. We might try to modify it, but we will fail. That is what a good explanation does for us: it makes it harder for us to fool ourselves. Good explanations are powerful and are difficult to modify without crippling that power.

Since we don’t recognize if any of our ideas are bad until we’ve identified the conflicts between them, it is bad practice to seek – and it is a mistake to believe one has found – ways of securing any particular idea against change. Instead, we must always seek to correct the misconceptions of the past, and to hope in the future to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic. To support the rapid growth of knowledge, we must sustain a tradition of error correction.

Good explanations make interesting, objective claims without being controversial to even the largest audience. They are approachable, lucid and persuasive. They inspire us to share them. After all, seeking good explanations is a key component of progress, and of surviving in the long run. What lies ahead of us is in any case infinite. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life.

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Distilled from arguments presented by David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. (2011)

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