So Much To Learn; So Little Time

Euler diagram representing a definition of knowledge**

Bertrand Russell poignantly captures how philosophy aids our humility regarding knowledge while undermining our intellectual certainty,

Philosophy … while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are … greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt …

So good thinking entails the realization of our fallibility—any idea we have might be mistaken. Limitations on knowledge are further supported by Godel’s Incompleteness theorems in mathematics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.

But note. It’s the ignorant who are most sure of themselves:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
~ Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” ~ W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1920.

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” ~ Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity,” 1933.

It seems all three men anticipated the Dunning-Kruger hypothesis.

Reflecting on knowledge, one of his great passions, Russell said “a little of this but not much I have achieved.” Consider that for a moment. Perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, perhaps the greatest logician of the 20th century, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, and a Nobel laurate in literature expressing such intellectual humility. Contrast his attitude with the certainty of so many ignorant people.

All of this reminds me of some lines from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure,

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.

My own limitations on what I know and can know confront me daily as my time runs out. There is so much I want to learn, but so little time. Here’s are simple examples. I receive daily notifications on academia of articles I want to read but I simply don’t have time. I also get daily emails from people suggesting books and articles that I’m interested in, but I don’t have time to read them either. I scan the New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, Salon, Slate, Aeon, and many other sites but I simply can’t read it all.

Oh to be like Mr. Data on Star Trek and just immediately download it all into my brain. (Another reason for intelligence augmentation, a global brain, artificial intelligence, neural implants, etc.) For now I’ll just have to slog along with the brain I have. But if I can’t have a better brain, I wish I could have more quality time so that I could learn more. That would be worth more to me than the world’s riches.

This is not to say that all claims are relative. For example I am extraordinarily confident about the basic theories of modern science—quantum, atomic, gravitational, evolutionary, heleocentric, etc. as these are our most certain pieces of knowledge,  supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence. Regarding all claims I proportion my assent to the evidence.

Still I admit, to quote Shakespeare again, that (probably)

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio


** Knowledge as justified true belief is controversial because of the Gettier problem.

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4 thoughts on “So Much To Learn; So Little Time

  1. I love me a good diagram! (I probably rely TOO much on physical analogies for ephemeral concepts, but it helps clear the fog regardless.)

  2. “…believe they possess a monopoly on truth”

    Worse than that: they believe they possess a monopoly in utilizing falsehood, as well. (Realized that an early age, after reading ‘The Immortalist’– it could alternatively have been titled The Immoralist.)

    “I am extraordinarily confident about the basic theories of modern science—quantum, atomic, gravitational, evolutionary, heleocentric, etc. as these are our most certain pieces of knowledge, supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence.)

    is correct. Yet someone might logically ask what good is it all; ‘Goodness’ as we define it is an enemy of science. Apropos of:

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  3. In this post, I hear echoes of what you wrote in your book “Who Are We?” Your search for knowledge reflects the universal search for meaning. I have experienced it, and am experiencing it in exactly the same way that you are experiencing it. I am convinced that the evolutionary purpose of human participation in consciousness is to allow humans to make decisions about what to do in the biosphere.

    Abraham Maslow, in his hierarch of needs, placed self-actualization at the apex of the hierarch of needs that are the basis of human motivation, but there is a little something more to motivation. I fear that the no one reaches that completed state of perfection. The quest for meaning is the highest need, and it is a journey, not a destination. It enters the human spirit from many different angles, and the theorists have used lots of different terms. Our animal nature requires activity, and we must act to survive, but our egos and superegos try to make the action meaningful!

    Freud described “libido,” Bergson, used “vital force,” but words like “restlessness” and “boredom” capture a little of it. Longfellow, in his Song of Life, wrote “Let us then be up and doing, for the grave is not its goal….” The lyrics of a song a few years back said, “it’s a restless, hungry feeling that don’t do no one no good, …” and the singer went on to say that he was one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind. The song captured a feeling. The impetus you describe is the quest for meaning, and was likely the cause of all religions.

  4. Hi Dale

    I’m glad you “hear echoes of” some of my own thoughts in your own. I think Victor Frankl captured this best when he said that the desire for meaning was THE fundamental desire of human beings. I don’t know if I’d say the PURPOSE of consciousness is to aid the biosphere but that would certainly be a worthy (chosen) goal.

    As for Abraham Maslow, by chance I did a post on his thought and later in life he argued that self-transcendence was the highest goal.

    Perhaps that is the “little something more” you are hinting at. But again this desire for meaning is essential to all thinking people. And it has driven science, philosophy, religion, art, and, to some extent, the desire to make the law reflect justice. JGM

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