The Tyranny of Knowledge: The Second Uncertainty Principle

February 20th, 2014   •   2 comments   

The Tyranny of Knowledge Part Two: The Second Uncertainty Principle

“Prior to the Greeks books had played no great part in the development, dissemination, and transmission of culture from generation to generation. Now they were to become a cardinal force in advancing and retarding the mind’s expansion.”
James Harvey Robinson

The ancient Greeks weren’t fettered by the existence of a hallowed body of knowledge or by a stifling intellectual tradition.

They had no intellectual past and no sense of history beyond the memories of those who lived to tell. Thought was free and malleable.

It varied teacher to teacher, with no “right” form, and each teacher taught how and what he wanted. While there was a rich tradition of cultural myths, they weren’t written down anywhere.

Myths and knowledge of all kinds were simply passed down by word of mouth, growing and changing with every telling. For the most part, in the absence of scientific jargon, the words they used to describe thought were the words of simple everyday life.

Aristotle was the first to codify knowledge.

He took what he knew (and that was sizable!) about ethics, logic, politics, law, god, science, and psychology and sociology, and wrote them up into a number of volumes so comprehensive that they seemed to encompass all of the world’s knowledge. These were, in a sense, the world’s first textbooks!

The chronicle of Aristotle’s works after his death is ambiguous, but it’s certain that much was lost in the centuries subsequent to their writing. They found their way to the early Arabic scholars who revered them. These scholars copied and recopied them, and finally introduced them to medieval Europe in the twelfth century.

The accumulated knowledge of the western world until this time was pitifully sparse, and the medieval world was ready for more. With the reworking of Aristotle’s works by Thomas Aquinas, who cleaned them up to make them compatible with Christian theology, came the great medieval intellectual revival.

Simply “The Philosopher”

So without peer was Aristotle that he became known simply as “The Philosopher”, and so popular were his baptized works that in many instances they became the sole resource of universities.

For hundreds of years Aristotle dominated the medieval scholarly scene. Non-Aristotelian resources were either banned completely, or those who taught them were heavily fined and often found themselves without students to teach. And why not, Aristotle’s comprehensive works covered every subject imaginable.

Nothing more was necessary, including scientific research of any kind; all was known, and it was easier to use old knowledge than to add to it. The medieval mind was much better suited to faith to than questioning.

And therein lay the rub: it was so much safer and easier to discuss and re-discuss Aristotle’s ideas than to venture out into the uncertainty of questioning and research.

The Obstinacy of Inertia

Ironically, the very compilation of knowledge that so advanced medieval learning, eventually became one of the biggest obstacles to the acquisition of new knowledge. After all, no learning is necessary, no advancement of knowledge possible, when everything is known already.

Historian James Harvey Robinson observed that old knowledge takes no effort at all to maintain: it simply goes on and on under the sheer obstinacy of inertia; it relies on faith alone.

On the other hand, acquisition of new knowledge requires questioning, openness, thought, energy, and above all, courage. Our survival oriented human brains are much better suited to take things on faith than to suffer the discomfort of not knowing.

Francis Bacon once remarked that people are much more prone to believing the popular, superficial, and safe than they are to risking the profound and unknown.

Thinking, he noted, is like a river: what is carried downstream are the things that are lightweight and of little substance, while the weighty things simply go under.

Da Vinci and Galileo

The scientific inquiry that did take place in medieval Europe didn’t happen in the universities where the old Aristotelian knowledge was considered complete and unassailable. Universities had no place in emerging scientific thought that was to materialize in the late middle ages.

Rather scientific inquiry took place among scattered daring new thinkers such as Da Vinci, Galileo, Descartes and Newton, who tinkered with contraptions made up of lenses, wheels, pulleys, and prisms and who based their inquiry on questioning rather than on knowledge.

These were renegades who dared to venture from the anointed path and finally broke the spell of the medieval tyranny of knowledge.

“I think, therefore I am” was not a declaration of purpose, but a statement of doubt.

Descartes realized that the tyranny of knowledge existed not only institutionally and culturally but formed the basis of individual human thinking. Humans, he observed, could not tell the difference between what actually existed in the world and what they conjured into existence in their minds.

While Descartes had no knowledge of neuroscience he “grokked” the basic unreliability of human knowledge.

Thus his famous entreaty to doubt: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt … all things.”

Not some things, but all things.

CONTACT: Ariane David
TAGS: How Memory Works, Tyranny of Knowledge, Aristotle, Da Vinci, Descartes, Francis Bacon, Galieleo, Historian James Harvey Robinson, Ariane David PhD

Papa’s Glasses and the Tyranny of Knowledge

November 19th, 2013   •   5 comments   

By Ariane David PhD

Dr Constance David

Dr Constantin David

When I was growing up we lived in the rear of a language school that my parents ran and in which they both taught.

My father’s office was on the left just beyond the foyer of the large old Victorian house that had been a language school for so many years and the home of a wealthy family for so many years before that.

I came home from school one day and passing my father’s office I looked in.

Stacking optical lenses.

Stacking optical lenses.

I saw him as usual seated behind is large wooden desk, his back to the window, the cat to one side sleeping on a stack of papers. In front of him were a pair of glasses, his extra pair, and a number of round glass lenses that might have come from a camera.

I watched as he took two lenses put them together and held them up to his eye. He added a third and did the same. Over and over again he repeated this process using different combinations.

First and Foremost, He Was a Thinker

Lenses stacked together.

Lenses stacked together.

Finally, apparently satisfied with one of the combinations he taped the stack of lenses together around the edges with white bandage tape. With more tape, he stuck them to the frame of his extra pair of glasses. He put them on and stood up.

He went to the book case, reached for a book and put it back, reached for another and put it back, too. He went to the kitchen, poured water into a glass and poured it out again. He returned to his desk, reached for a pencil in the middle of his pencil cup and returned it to the very same spot.

He walked around with this odd thing on his face for two days. At the end of that time he announced that he had found the answer. He placed the assembled glasses into his briefcase, put on his eye patch, and left the house.

He Had Found the Answer

eye-chart-200I had never known my father without glasses, but a couple of years earlier he had started wearing an eye patch that he switched from eye to eye every few hours. I never understood why, although it had something to do with his eyes no longer working together, so he saw two of everything.

But, he assured me, they worked just fine separately if he used them one at a time. His ophthalmologist had told him that there was no solution to the problem except to wear a patch over one eye.

For all the things my father had done in his life, he was first and foremost a thinker. He thought about social justice, the origin of words, the evolution of music, and how the soul and subtleties of light and color could be reproduced on a canvas.

In Europe he had been a documentary film maker, which led to an interest in cameras and lenses. Of late, his interest had turned to finding a way to design a three dimensional movie projector.

No Problem Does Not Have a Solution

It was the latter that inspired him to seek his own solution to his double vision. He had some knowledge of optics and lenses but no knowledge of ophthalmological principles.

Medical science had told him that nothing could be done for his eyes, yet he was not constrained by the boundaries of their knowledge.

He used to say that there was no problem that did not have a solution if one were willing to forget what he knows and change his thinking.

Problem Solving and Our Creativity

The contrivance on his glasses was his answer to seeing double. From the taped-together stack of lenses the optician was able to derive an optical formula and grind a single lens for each eye. My father never wore a patch after that, only thick glasses.

Several years later, he was asked to speak at an ophthalmological conference where he explained to the assembled physicians what had inspired him to seek a solution to a problem they believed had no such solution.

The way the brain handles knowledge is a double-edged sword. On one hand knowledge is the greatest tool we have for understanding the world in which we live.

The knowledge we possess makes up the raw material for everything we think; it’s an essential component of all our ideas, our decisions, our problem solving and our creativity.

When it is allowed to be fluid and ever evolving knowledge is exciting and inspiring, and leaves us craving more.

The Tyranny of Knowledge

Yet, at some point, knowledge can do just the opposite. It can become the very thing that holds us back.

As we grow complacent and comfortable in our knowledge it becomes stale and our brains grow lazy.

When our brains say to us “I know! There’s no need to look further”, we stop questioning and become willing submissives to the tyranny of knowledge.

CONTACT: Ariane David
NEXT: Part 2 – Aristotle, Schrödinger and the Tyranny of Knowledge
TAGS: How Memory Works, Tyranny of Knowledge

When Loopholes Overtook Merlons: How We See Only a Tiny Bit of What’s Really There

September 5th, 2013   •   2 comments   

Reliably Unreliable Memory

This is the second installment in a series of monthly articles entitled “Reliably Unreliable”. These articles shine a light on undependability our mind/brain, with an eye to improving the quality of our thinking.

Read Part 1: How the War of the Ghosts Helped Find the Sydney

Thinking Outside the Loophole: Seeing What’s Really There

Dr Ariane David Critical ThinkingNow imagine you are an archer in the service of a medieval castle in, say, the year 1100. You defend your castle from the topmost battlements.

From your position high above the ground you have an unrestricted view of the surrounding countryside. You see the enemy advance with its archers and siege engines.

When arrows and random projectiles started hurtling your way you duck behind a merlon and only step out from behind it to launch your own arrows.

And therein lay the problem: in order to do that you step into the line of fire. This, sadly, proved the end of many a castle archer.

Fast forward a hundred years when a new architectural feature hit the castle scene. Dr Ariane David Organizational Cultural AnthropologyThe feature was all about protecting the archers; it allowed them to launch arrows continuously while remaining safe and hidden.

Loopholes in Medieval Europe

This feature, called a loophole, first appeared in ancient Greece in the third century BCE but didn’t find its way to Europe and England until the 12th century.

On the outside loopholes were as tall as a man but only as wide as his fist.

On the inside the slit flared into an opening or embrasure that could be many feet wide. This interior wedge of space gave the archer room to maneuver and launch arrows through the slit.

He could pivot his body to cover a tapering slice of land below, but only a very small area was visible at any given time.

Loopholes were long vertical apertures or windows in thick castle walls.

The benefit of the loophole was clear: it kept the archer safe from incoming arrows. But it had a downside: the view from any single loophole was at best extremely limited.

And therein lay the dilemma of the loophole: archers had to sacrifice visibility and flexibility in favor of safety.

What was given up when loopholes overtook merlons was the larger picture of what was going on outside the view from the loophole.

Loopholes and the Bureaucracy of the Brain

Human brains have their own version of the loophole dilemma, and it’s literally built into our DNA. Survival of our distant forebears required that they be able to process just the right bits information at any given time.

Too much and important information would be buried in the deluge of sensory data. Individuals without this ability did not survive for long.

To handle this, early hominid brains developed a strategy that was so effective it lives on in us today. It is a circular system full of red tape. Out of the millions of bits of random data that enter our senses at any given instant, only the sensory information that fits the criteria for admittance into perception is allowed in.

The criteria have everything to do with what has direct and immediate relevance to the situation at hand. This information enters the brain through short term memory (short term memory is really that: it has a shelf-life of just seconds). Of that information, only lastingly relevant information is transferred to long term memory; the rest is discarded, lost forever.

Dr Ariane David The Bureaucracy of the Brain's Organizing Patterns

Survival required that we be able to process just the right bits information at any given time.

This bureaucracy of the brain takes place within a system called organizing patterns, the real forces for survival. Organizing patterns are the brain mechanism though which all incoming sensory data is classified according to pre-existing patterns already stored in the brain.

Not only is all new information classified in this way, but these pre-existing organizing patterns are the only channels through which information can enter into memory.

These patterns allowed our forebears to react instantly to stimuli (Can I eat it? Can it eat me?) without having to go through a rigorous process of analysis of each new situation. Such a lengthy process would have greatly reduced the chances of eating and greatly increased those of being eaten!

Clear and Organized but Rarely Accurate or Complete

Like loopholes, organizing patterns did a lot for our chances of survival, but as with loopholes there was a price to pay. Organizing patterns gave us the ability to have a clear organized view of the world out of which we could make instantaneous decisions (clear and organized perhaps, but rarely accurate or complete).

What we sacrificed for this security was our ability to see a larger more diverse view of the world. We are literally stuck peering through our organizing patterns. It is a narrow field of vision, limited to the collective information already stored and organized in our brains.

In a circular process organizing patterns alter new information so that it fits into what we already believe. The altered new information in turn reinforces the organizing patterns, and round and round it goes. This becomes our whole world, our wedge of ground outside our loophole; it IS our reality, and nothing really new ever enters our cognition. Change tends to be restricted to a small window of comfort.

Lessons From the Loophole Dilemma

There are some lessons we can learn from the loophole dilemma. Loopholes teach us that what we believe to be fact is in reality a small and very limited view of what is actually there. We are limited by the existing constraints of our organizing patterns, and completely blind to the fact that we ARE limited.

We could also learn that when we think we are changing or acquiring new understandings, we are like the archer pivoting from side to side in his embrasure always within the loophole and always seeing just a tiny area.

In order to see a broader view we would need to leave the safety of our mental embrasures and inquire what might be out there that we haven’t seen, the seeing of which might change everything.

Contact: Ariane David      Call: 818 704 6718      Email
TAGS: How Memory Works, Critical Thinking, The Bureaucracy of the Brain, Dr Ariane David Organizational Cultural Anthropology

How the War of the Ghosts Helped Find the Sydney

August 2nd, 2013   •   5 comments   
Reliably Unreliable Memory

This is the first installment in a series of monthly articles entitled Reliably Unreliable, based on the unreliability of the mind/brain with an eye to improving the quality of our thinking.

Psychology and neuroscience have shown us that memory and decision-making, and thus thinking itself, are constrained within the boundaries of our often unreliable memory and established mental processes.

Understanding the unreliability of these processes is the first step to upgrading our thinking.

A Lesson from the War of the Ghosts

Australian Mail Sydney HeadlineNovember 19, 1941

On Thursday, November 19, 1941 the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney encountered the German armed merchant raider HSK Kormoran west of Shark Bay, Western Australia.

A fire fight ensued, the Sydney sank with all hands following the battle. The German ship was irreparably damaged and later scuttled, the majority of its crew surviving.

The loss of the Sydney was particularly tragic because all 645 hands of the Sydney were lost, the single greatest maritime loss of life ever for the Australian navy.

Six days later, 317 out of the 399 man Kormoran crew were located in seven boats and rafts scattered in the ocean northwest of Carnarvon, Australia. All that was found of the Sydney was an inflatable life raft, empty. The only witnesses to the sinking of the boats were the rescued German seamen.

German Merchant Raider Kormoran

German Merchant Raider Kormoran

In Australia skepticism regarding their truthfulness ran high: they were, after all, the enemy. Over the course of months and years that followed the Germans were repeatedly interviewed by the Royal Australian Navy in an effort to gain clues that would lead to the sunken Sydney.

But the coordinates and accounts varied wildly so that even those that seemed credible didn’t make sense.

The one thing that the Germans did agree upon was that at last sighting, the Sydney was steaming away under her own power engulfed in flames and was eventually lost from sight.

HMAS Sydney

HMAS Sydney

The Next Sixty Years

For the next almost sixty years attempts were made to locate the boats. The Finding Sydney Foundation, a non-profit established specifically to locate them, brought in oceanographers and salvage experts, but all their efforts proved fruitless.

Then in 1994 two cognitive psychologists, Kim Kirsner from the University of Western Australia and John Dunn from the University of Adelaide became interested in the problem from a completely different perspective: could they come up with the location of the Sydney using only what they knew about cognitive science.

Charting Human Memory

Unlike the oceanographers and naval experts before them, they undertook a strategy that charted not ocean currents but human memory. From the transcripts of interviews of seventy of the rescued German seamen, they plotted the stories on a kind of graph.

They noticed that the resulting pattern bore a striking resemblance to a graph they had seen in the work of British psychologist Frederick Bartlett.

Migration of Memory

The Migration of Memory

The Migration of Memory

In the 1930s Bartlett studied the migration of memory, i.e., how memories tend to drift over time, changing in somewhat predictable ways.

In what is probably Bartlett’s most famous experiment, he asked a number of subjects, all English college students, to read an original native American folk tale entitled The War of the Ghosts.

The subjects were asked to recount the story fifteen minutes later and then at intervals after that up to several years. As participants recalled the story over and over again it became more concise and contemporary.

Bartlett observed that the transformations in the recollection of the tale were not conscious but rather unwitting alterations that that allowed the participants to make sense of the story by fitting them to established schemas. The final versions of the story had very little to do with the original.

Memory, Bartlett found, was the active act of constructing past events anew: it was ever changing, even while being somewhat predictable.

Finding the Sydney

Finding the HMAS Sydney

The HMAS Sydney

Professor Kim Kirsner and Professor John Dunn, both cognitive scientists, applied their knowledge of human memory and language to sift through accounts provided by the survivors of the HSK Kormoran to reconstruct the position of the wrecks.

It was this predictability that Kirsner and Dunn used to decipher the accounts of the German seamen.

This formed the basis of the UWA scientists’ analysis through cognitive reconstruction, and ultimately that led to the development of a set of coordinates for the location of the sunken boats. Never expecting to have their predictions validated, Kirsner and Dunn turned over the coordinates to the Finding Sydney Foundation.

The wreck of HMAS Sydney (II) was found on Sunday March 16th, 2008, west of Steep Point off the western coast of Australia. The location was 2.7 nautical miles from Kirsner’s and Dunn’s coordinates in a planned search area of more than 6,000 square kilometers, sixty six and one half years after her disappearance.

What Bartlett, and Kirsner and Dunn proved is that memory is a shape shifter, somewhat dependable, yet altering it’s form every time it’s called up. “I remember” simply means, “these are the memories I’m constructing at this moment.” They may or may not be accurate and we have no way of knowing.

TAGS: How Memory Works

Organizational Cultural Anthropology

August 25th, 2012   •   no comments   

What is This Thing Called Culture?

Culture influences everything we do and think within the organization. It extends out to the farthest reaches of the organization surmounting geographic and social barriers, and it is amazingly resistant to change. Culture is the social container in which everything in an organization takes place. Ignore it at your own risk!

Why is culture so pervasive and so strong?

As with societal culture it’s the job of organizational culture to make sure that nothing in the system gets so out of balance that it becomes unstable, unpredictable or threatens the survival of the group/organization as a whole. If culture had a motto it would be, “Better safe than sorry”. Its core unifying principle is based on values, and the enforcer of this stability is the norms, i.e., acceptable behavior.

It’s also the job of culture to make sure that important survival and success-based knowledge survives and is passed on. A lot of this knowledge has to do with skills, but more importantly and subtly it deals with the transmission of the group’s values and norms, assumptions and beliefs. Thus, we can say that the purpose of culture is to maintain order and the status quo, and to contain and transmit the sum of organizational experience and knowledge to ensure continuity. read more

Thinking About Thinking: Health Care

October 20th, 2011   •   3 comments   

Dr. Ariane David Thinking About ThinkingRecently I had the opportunity to participate in a focus group being held to test public acceptance of a proposed initiative for the California ballot. We weren’t told specifically what was being tested or what position the initiative would take, just that it had to do with health care reform and what part government should play. The facilitator was skilled at building a discussion without forwarding any particular point of view, so the conversation was lively and relatively unguarded.

As the conversation went from a general what’s-on-your-mind these days to health care, the participants began to tell their own health care stories. The surgeon’s wife told of how her husband retired because the pittance the health insurance companies paid him was barely enough to keep his office door open. The man whose wife had chronic serious health issues told of battling read more