headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

December 2022

You Never Know When You Know Enough

To the ancient Greeks, everything was composed from four elements, Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, to which Aristotle added a fifth, Aether. In India, the same elements were "discovered," presumably independently, and called Prithvi (Earth), Jal (Water), Vayu (Air), Agni (Fire), and Aakash (Space). These must be the fundamental building blocks of the Universe if widely separated civilizations discover the same thing, right? Once we know those, we can manipulate the material world around us as we wish.

The medieval alchemists, though, even though they extended the concepts of these fundamental elements with a process model based on color stages, were unable to accomplish turning lead into gold, no matter how hard they tried. Their understanding of the chemical world was insufficient for the task.

Antoine Lavoisier's phlogiston experiment. Engraving by Mme Lavoisier in the 1780s taken from Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elementary treatise on chemistry)

In the 18th Century, the discovery of new elements, or that known substances were actually elements in themselves, started to grow. When Antoine Lavoisier, who more sharply defined the concept of "element," published his textbook, Traité élémentaire de chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry), he listed 33 elements, 23 of which have stood the test of time. The 19th Century saw an explosive growth in newly identified and isolated elements.

Part of the reason for that growth in known elements in the 19th Century was due to the work of Roger Boscovich, who in the 18th century developed a precursor of Atomic Theory that proposed that elemental atoms were not solid objects, but points at the center of force that surrounds them. This theory enabled Michael Faraday to predict effects that he could then experimentally demonstrate, though he often had to express his discoveries using the older, more widely accepted concept of solid atoms. Building on the work of Boscovich, scientists were able to postulate components within the elemental atoms, which by their name should be indivisible.

So, when do you reach deeply enough to explain everything around you? We don't know, for we haven't reached that point yet. We do know enough to explain a lot, even if we're basing it on incomplete, or even slightly inaccurate, knowledge. Sometimes that explanation help us accomplish what we want, and sometimes the flaws in it leads us astray or holds us back, just as the "solid atom" explanation had been a hindrance to Michael Faraday.

The same forces of knowledge and learning affect us on a personal level, also. The "common knowledge" that we don't question can make it impossible to learn more nuanced understanding. At times it may lead us completely astray. The known catalog of cognitive biases points out many ways we can fool ourselves. The cognitive dissonance when two things we believe seem to contradict encourages pulling out one of these biases to defend our ego from the possibility that we might be wrong. We build protective walls around our ignorance and preconceptions.

What if we didn't do that? What if we were more open to new ways of viewing the world around us? What marvelous new discoveries might we find?

As Daniel Kahneman pointed out in Thinking Fast and Slow, we don't have the luxury of always considering every nuance of every situation. That's why we have the simpler, faster System One thinking mechanism, that can react quickly though it may jump to conclusions based on past patterns. There are times, though, when we're better served by the more thorough, though more expensive, System Two when thinking about certain circumstances. Perhaps we can even use the reflective System Two to create new models that System One can use when time and energy are in short supply.

It's something to think about, isn't it?

/signed/ George

P.S. I've been working on figuring out when and how to notice that my understanding is on shaky ground, and how I might make it more resilient. If you'd like to explore this realm, let me know. I'd love to have others explore it with me. You could schedule a Zoom Session with me to talk about it.

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