Friday, September 11, 2020

In Praise of Doubt

Half a century ago or so my Mother made a comment about an engineer she'd met playing bridge. That comment has stuck in my porous brain all these years because as I've thought about it I realize that it speaks to a fundamental truth about modernity, mankind and expertise.

My mother was not formally educated. She didn't graduate from high school. She was funny, a good piano player, and as good a mother as anyone could wish for.

So what was the comment about the engineer that has stuck with me over the decades? She told me the engineer knew a lot about some things but mistakenly thought his specialized knowledge meant that he knew a lot about all things.

As an engineer who knows some things I see the truth in that tendency in myself constantly. I know that there's a lot that I don't know and yet I regularly demonstrate my "expertise" in medical, financial, sociological, psychological, legal, and other areas where my knowledge is lacking. Allow me to demonstrate ;-)

Rene Descartes told us we exist because we think - "I think therefore I am." The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1930 book "The Revolt of the Masses" changed that statement to be, "I doubt therefore I am." Why is that important?

It's because of paradox of the engineer - he thinks he knows way more than he actually knows. We could explore what it means to "think" or to "know" if we had time - but time is short. Suffice it to say that much of what people call "thinking" is nothing of the sort, but rather repeating some thing they read, or were told or some thought they came to after a 5 minute web search. Thinking is hard - people like me are lazy. You see the terrible truth is this line of thought?

I don't think therefore I do not exist as a human - I am a tool to be molded and used. The best we can hope for as non-thinking automatons is that those doing our molding are people of good faith...but that hope is dashed against the rocks of reality throughout history. Teach your children well.

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This thinking we know things we don't isn't an ailment unique to engineers - it's the human condition of our scientific technical age.

It's not that we don't trust experts (often for good reason) but that we don't need experts - we've got the internet, Facebook, WebMd, Wikipedia and thousands (millions) of like-minded souls we can tap into via our social safe spaces to agree man-made climate change isn't real, our current president is a hero and that unicorns exist.

I'd change Jose Ortega's formulation a bit to say, "I doubt therefore I am a philosopher." We all are philosophers, to some degree, in that we want to know answers to fundamental questions - why am I here? why does the universe exist? what is a good life? 

We philosophers don't need to bound the questions - we want to know the universe and everything in it. The crucial point is that we know we can't know many many many things...so we are left to doubt, learn a little and muddle through as best we can. What we end up with is a philosophy that concludes that to philosophize is to live life as best we can. By recognizing that to live is to experience life in all it's messy, ugly, beautiful, maddening aspects we become (and remain) human. In essence by knowing that we don't know, recognizing that there are no simple answers, people to bless or people to blame - we are what God made us to be - human...beautiful, puny, often helpless...humans.

Recognizing the beauty and sadness of the full catastrophe we are here for an instant to love laugh and live...to help those suffering when we can...but most of all to lighten and soften our hearts on this worldly stage in order to live the singular miraculous life God blessed us with in all it's glory.