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Resource Insights: Living in a world we can’t understand

Resource Insights: Living in a world we can’t understand.

What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent.

                         –Friedrich Nietzsche

As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

                         –Donald Rumsfeld, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense

We live in an age of enlightenment, in the belief that the entire universe is open to our inspection and more than this, that it is theoretically all intelligible to us. If we just apply enough science and enough rationality, nature will reveal all its secrets to us in ordered sets of data that we can then use to control the entire world around us.

That we can wrest a comfortable life from the Earth is, however, nothing special. Plants and animals do this without resorting to colleges, symposia or research laboratories. And, humans used to do it without these things as well. Ancient Greeks–if they survived childhood diseases, war and the occasional plague–regularly managed to live into their 60s and 70s among balmy Mediterranean breezes. It’s not that there hasn’t been any progress; it’s just that we may not have made as much progress as we think.

And yet, in the age of Big Data we have become ever more enamored with the representations of the world that we gather in the form of numbers and words, believing (wrongly) that the map is the territory.

My father used to annoy his business partners by offering quick-fire solutions to problems–solutions that worked with distressing regularity. When pressed, he often could not explain why these solutions would work, only that he knew they would. His partners, suspicious of things that could not be rendered into rational discourse, eventually bought him out. How could they trust such intuitions, even if they appeared to be on target?

In his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (from which I’ve drawn several ideas for this piece) author Nassim Nicholas Taleb cites the above quotation by Nietzsche and calls it “the most potent sentence in all of Nietzsche’s century.” We tend to dismiss things we cannot understand: “If I cannot understand it, then it must not exist.” And there is the seemingly less pernicious, “If I cannot understand it, it must not be important.”

The second notion is actually more pernicious. I can show convincingly that a person who does not understand a well-supported fact is merely ignorant. But it is much harder to convince someone that something which he or she doesn’t understand–but doesn’t deny either–is actually important enough to pay attention to. Climate change comes to mind.

This is the conundrum of the modern world. The world is so complex that it seems hopeless to try to understand how all things human and natural work together. We live in an age that calls out for explanations of nature and society that provide something genuinely revelatory to the layperson. What we mostly get, however, is hucksterism and public relations, information designed to mislead rather than clarify. Under the circumstances, we are lucky if we occasionally discover a small and perhaps fleeting truth.

We often believe that the explainers know what they are talking about because they speak with such conviction. The economists, the Wall Street analysts, the technical geniuses, the captains of industry, the billionaires, the airwave pundits, they must know something we don’t or they wouldn’t be that successful. But what they know isn’t necessarily what they are telling us. And, what they are telling us is, in any case, almost always designed to advance their interests, not ours.

In such a world, how shall we get through the day? It is best to start from humble premises:

 

  1. Nature knows better than we do in most things. It’s been tested for a lot longer than any human invention.
  2. No one knows the future, but we should strive to make ourselves less vulnerable to damage from extreme events which are the ones that can really hurt us.
  3. Beware of anyone who tells you he or she knows the future with certainty. Unless you are speaking with, say, a scientist calculating the orbit of a planet, such a person is a fraud.
  4. Our social relations–our loves and friendships–are more important than anything else because they are our true anchors in an uncertain world.
  5. The longer a practice or design has been around, say, a book versus an e-reader, the longer it is likely to be around. It has endured the test of time.
  6. There is wisdom in insecurity to quote Alan Watts. We actually live in an insecure and uncertain world. Those who promise to free us from our anxiety and insecurity are merely trying to manipulate us for their own gain. (I would distinguish such people from bona fide practitioners who help those with paralyzing anxiety reduce it to a manageable level.) Do not trust people or pills that promise to end your anxiety. Even if you get temporary relief, the actual uncertainty in your life and the universe will remain.
  7. Just because the world is uncertain doesn’t mean it is implacably hostile. Sometimes good things come from an uncertain future if we are wise enough to be on the lookout for them.

 

None of these principles will deliver you from all of life’s difficulties. But they can help you avoid hucksters who simply wish to exploit you by placing you in harm’s way while they reap the benefits.

Only when we accept that we have a rather limited understanding of the world we live in are we able to act in ways that are prudent for ourselves and our communities and respectful of the Earth and of our fellow beings, human and otherwise.

Kurt Cobb is an authorspeaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How it is Revolutionizing our World | 1913 Intel

Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How it is Revolutionizing our World | 1913 Intel.

Ronald Reagan’s most-quoted living author – George Gilder – is back with an all-new paradigm-shifting theory of capitalism that will upturn conventional wisdom, just when our economy desperately needs a new direction.

America’s struggling economy needs a better philosophy than the college student’s lament: “I can’t be out of money, I still have checks in my checkbook!” We’ve tried a government spending spree, and we’ve learned it doesn’t work. Now is the time to rededicate our country to the pursuit of free market capitalism, before we’re buried under a mound of debt and unfunded entitlements. But how do we navigate between government spending that’s too big to sustain and financial institutions that are “too big to fail?” In Knowledge and Power, George Gilder proposes a bold new theory on how capitalism produces wealth and how our economy can regain its vitality and its growth.

Gilder breaks away from the supply-side model of economics to present a new economic paradigm: the epic conflict between the knowledge of entrepreneurs on one side, and the blunt power of government on the other. The knowledge of entrepreneurs, and their freedom to share and use that knowledge, are the sparks that light up the economy and set its gears in motion. The power of government to regulate, stifle, manipulate, subsidize or suppress knowledge and ideas is the inertia that slows those gears down, or keeps them from turning at all.

One of the twentieth century’s defining economic minds has returned with a new philosophy to carry us into the twenty-first. Knowledge and Power is a must-read for fiscal conservatives, business owners, CEOs, investors, and anyone interested in propelling America’s economy to future success.

Amazon.com: Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How it is Revolutionizing our World eBook: George Gilder: Kindle Store

Game-changing but flawed
July 7, 2013
By William R. Wiltschko
Format:Hardcover|Amazon Verified Purchase

As other viewers have remarked, an information theory-based foundation for polical economy explained by this book is a big new idea. Revolutionary, game-changing, etc., all true. I have recommended the book to several friends, and will continue to do so, but the book is also flawed. The least of these flaws is that the core collection of important new ideas could have been explained in a magazine article. The book is divided into 25 chapters and three parts. Eleven chapters are in part one and are must reading. There are six interesting chapters in part two. All of part three can be skipped except the last chapter.

Gilder has integrated free markets and limited government under an information theory umbrella that credibly shows both theoretically and anecdotally how entrepreneurs drive economic and social progress. This is huge. He showed how more parts of the political-economic world fit together that I had formerly thought disparate.

Besides the length, a flaw of the book is that much of it is a series of extended book reviews. In many cases, I failed to see a compelling link to his information theory of political economy. Another flaw is the intellectual fights he picks with some unlikely targets. One of these fights is an attempt to resurrect “supply side” as a useful term. I agree with him on the substance, but see this as a re-branding loser.

A notable fight is with Nicholas Taleb, author of “Black Swan” and more recently “Anti-Fragile”. Gilder doesn’t acknowledge until the last two pages of the Taleb chapter (#18) that Taleb is on his side. Taleb has railed for years against over-dependence on Gaussian dogma, which is perfectly consistent with the acknowledgement of “surprises” that entrepreneurs produce. Gilder also fails to acknowledge that macro events, such as currency collapses, render moot for a short time any insider knowledge an investor might have about a company or industry. In the last two pages of the Black Swan chapter, Gilder seems to take back everything he said earlier in the chapter. If so, why did he leave in the chapter???

I have tremendous respect for Gilder. I actually met him once when I was at Intel. I respect his digging and digging to understand the economic ramifications of technology. While I think this book is a blockbuster of ideas, it is marred with misguided tangents and padding.

Amazon.com: Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How it is Revolutionizing our World eBook: George Gilder: Kindle Store

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