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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

What do our diplomas really mean?

Like many of you, I’ll graduate at the end of the semester. I think we can reasonably be proud of this. But having been barraged for the past several years with an astonishing amount of information which nevertheless (it has become increasingly clear) failed to constitute even the bulk of our particular fields, we should be careful about what we conclude from our diplomas. If there’s one thing education teaches, it is the depths of our own ignorance. Here I turn to arguably Socrates’ greatest one-liner, “”I know that I know nothing.””

The history of my discipline — and yours, I reckon — is a convoluted narrative tracing the popularity of various truths. Progressively better ones tend to pop up as the preponderance of evidence increases. Ask a Viking where thunder comes from, he’ll say Thor. Ask a physicist, you’ll get a substantially longer answer, and probably closer to the truth. But Knut, knowing what little he knows, is aware of no reason to question the validity of his theory. Where does lightning come from? Other men, obviously, who live in the sky!

All of our epistemic claims are based upon previous epistemic claims, which we’ve taken to be true. This is quite reasonable; we probably have a good deal of information which we believe is evidence for these assertions, and it’s better to make some attempt at understanding the world rather than throw up our hands and resign ourselves to total ignorance. But these more basal claims may themselves be incorrect — who knows how our theories will be seen in light of new information. In philosophy this is known as anti-foundationalism. The positivist philosopher Otto Neurath famously represented the process of scientific progress as akin to rebuilding a ship as one is sailing it.

This has two horrifying implications. The first is that to understand any single phenomenon requires a titanic if not infinite amount of knowledge. The second is that we have no idea exactly which pieces are missing, or exactly how we’ll have to restructure our beliefs when we find them.

I don’t want this to collapse into a trite “”keep an open mind”” message. People who only intend to keep an open mind generally believe they’re correct until proven otherwise. And it’s certainly not my intention to attack education. Without being exposed to a good deal of knowledge it’s difficult to learn how little you know, and that modicum of knowledge is itself important. It’s all we have to go on, all we can use to construct slightly better theories of how the world works. But be aware of how little you know. Proceed with that in mind. Almost certainly, most of our beliefs are way off, and at least one of our most sacred truths will, given enough time, become another hilarious example of primitive gullibility.

All I’m suggesting is that we should approach our beliefs (political, scientific, theological, psychological, philosophical) with a healthy sense of skepticism. We have no choice but to act and think according to what we judge to be right, and we shouldn’t shy away from doing so, nor should we believe unwaveringly in the accuracy of our own intellects. Hubris is the first act of every tragedy.

A little knowledge, they say, is a dangerous thing. But it’s not the knowledge itself that’s dangerous — it’s the confidence. But if, after a full college career, you go out into the world knowing how ignorant you are (and will always be), you may just have learned something.

— Ben Harper is a philosophy senior. He can be reached at

letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

 

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