Giordano Bruno

It is taken as axiomatic that truth and human well-being coincide; from the theistic side, that “all truth is God’s truth”, or the rationalist side (“Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true”). This is a useful and valuable heuristic that’s accurate until it isn’t.

It seems that philosophy has been particularly prone to accepting this insight: the rational powers of humanity were assumed as present albeit latent, either requiring some coaxing via anamnesis, as with Socrates helping the slave ‘remember’ a geometric proof, or metastastisized as with the theory of homo œconomicus (Daniel Kahneman, recalling a passage from Bruno Frey: “The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change.”).

There are two closely related ideas here. The first is empirical: evolution does not intrinsically favor truth-discovery: our senses are only capable of taking in a subset of data being generated by the world around us, and of that the majority is throw out and the remainder radically reconfigured to form “knowledge.” The fact that we have developed our sciences as far as we have is a testament to rigor, replication, theoretic consilience and the tests that time imposes.

But coupled with these advances of science are an ideology that this increased knowledge is necessarily beneficial: the idea of a science that eats itself is well-nigh inconceivable. And yet, we’re starting to hit some of these barricades. Explorations into the nature of the self and the nature of free will can be conceptually understood but are almost impossible to understand phenomenologically. A dogmatic adherence to materialism means little when we show ourselves increasingly incapable of describing what, precisely, matter even is (perturbations of various fields? information, holographically projected?). Dark matter may in fact be a side effect of different physical laws obtaining in parts of the universe outside our light cone.

Closer to home, the ever-growing literature of cognitive heuristics and biases emerging out of psychology and behavioral economics is transforming from a dismal science of human failures to an understanding that these rough-grained rules of thumb are what our competitive advantage in fact consists of. The slipperiness of language and our predilection for pattern recognition in the presence of noisy signals are features, not bugs. Language itself may have come about for the purpose of generating social proofs and post hoc rationalizations, and we see this legacy when smart people, exposed to the aforementioned literatures on cognitive biases, weaponize that knowledge in defense of unexamined positions already held, rather than re-examining their beliefs. The Dunning-Kruger effect is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Much ink has been spilt amongst the devout about how to be a better, more observant, more faithful [Christian/Hindu/Muslim/Jew/etc.] but this, too, may be a cart in front of a horse. Religion is more a matter of communities of practice than intellectual adherence or moral codes: to the extent that one can remain a member in good standing in the group without intellectual or moral adherence, they are optional. This is not hypocrisy. Thus, Muslims who travel to Bahrain for the weekend to drink; Christians who affirm divorce and remarriage but not gay marriage.

The hypertrophic intellectualization  of the post-Enlightenment West has provoked both the moralized secularism seen most obviously in liberal America, where vestigial moral concerns remain long after their reasons for being have been discarded, as well as in the fundamentalist immune response in its Christian, Muslim, and other variants.

As part of the ideology of knowledge/truth-discovery, truths are considered to be mutually-compatible and discrete; some truths may be simpler to discover in a particle order (addition before multiplication), but generally one can get anywhere from anywhere, at least potentially. But increasingly we are becoming aware of path-dependencies; the revelation that order matters. That arguments for vaccines, or climate change, or gender & racial equality, or against destructive religions do not simply exist in an vacuum. That individual and collective human systems translate new knowledge into forms compatible with their own being, and that effective communication requires taking into account this translation. Nietzsche, who was easily a century ahead of his time, understood this acutely:

It is not enough to prove something, one has also to seduce or elevate people to it. That is why the man of knowledge should learn how to speak his wisdom: and often in such a way that it sounds like folly!

This is also the primary focus of Spinoza in the Ethics; despite his faith in the possibility of perfect knowledge, Spinoza was well aware of how distorted our perspectives of reality are, knocked about as we are by the passions of joy and sadness, both symptoms of our inadequate knowledge of the causes behind ourselves and the world. His prescription is more and better knowledge but, in Part IV, proposition XVII, he preempts prospect theory and warns that:

Desire arising from the true knowledge of good and evil, in so far as such knowledge is concerned with what is contingent, can be controlled far more easily still, than desire for things that are present.

He goes on to quote Qoheleth, from Ecclesiastes 1:18:

“He who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

Sorrowful knowledge is knowledge that, in the language of Spinoza, diminishes one’s capacity rather than expanding it. Belief in the absence of free will, for instance, can correspond with an idea of one’s exemption from moral culpability. The solution is not abstinence from knowledge, but rather through the production of life-affirming structures for knowledge acquisition; this is the beginning of wisdom.

What does wisdom look like? First, it does not pretend that humans are other than they are. It recognizes in itself the capacity for ego depletion, and therefore may make important decisions in the morning after a good night’s rest. It recognizes it’s own capacity for post hoc rationalizations, and therefore puts in place accountability structures, a technique famously utilized by Ulysses. It looks like empathic communication, seeking an understanding of the perspective of the Other, and modifying one’s presentation to better understand and be understood.

There are no silver bullets. But a pigheaded insistence on knowledge acquisition as intrinsic good, in the ostensible service of truth-discovery, is inadequate by itself, and is as likely as not to end in an ideological cul-de-sac. Truth was rarely the point, but so long as improvements in science’s predictive power correlated to improvements in human welfare, we could pretend that truth was a shared objective. Science, however, is beginning to experience the growing pains that religions around the world have long since learned to live with: the decoupling of insights gained from the lived worlds (Umwelt) of everyday people. As the coupling of truth and welfare drifts we may find ourselves realizing Nietzsche’s dictum:


For whom truth exists. — Up to now errors have been forces of consolation: now we expect the same effect from known truths, and have been waiting for it for some little time. How if this effect—the effect of consolation—were precisely what truths are incapable of?—Would this then constitute an objection to truths? What have they in common with the inner states of suffering, stunted, sick human beings that they must necessarily be of use to them? For to determine that a plant makes no contribution to the treatment of sick human beings is no argument against thetruth of the plant. In earlier times, however, the conviction that mankind was the goal of nature was so strong that it was assumed without question that nothing could be disclosed by knowledge that was not salutary and useful to man, indeed that things other than this could not, ought not to exist.—Perhaps all this leads to the proposition that truth, as a whole and interconnectedly, exists only for souls which are at once powerful and harmless, and full of joyfulness and peace (as was the soul of Aristotle), just as it will no doubt be only such souls as these that will be capable of seeking it: for, no matter how proud they may be of their intellect and its freedom, the others are seeking cures for themselves—they are not seeking truth. This is why these others take so little real pleasure in science, and make of the coldness, dryness and inhumanity of science a reproach to it: it is the sick passing judgment on the games of the healthy.—The Greek gods, too, were unable to offer consolation; when Greek mankind at last one and all grew sick, this was a reason for the abolition of such gods.

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