7: The knowledge trap

Mouse trap

In the previous two posts, we saw how accumulated knowledge can get in the way of seeing things as they are. We also learned a couple of ways to help transcend these preconceptions to experience things directly in the present moment. But what about those things we really do know? Even these may not be as certain as we often think, thanks to the “knowledge trap”.

When you assume…

Most of the time, we go through life learning new things and come to feel that we know what’s what about them. While knowledge no doubt grows over time, there are many things we “know” to be true without ever having learned them. Rather, we simply accepted them as true without considering how or why they are true. That is, we assumed them to be true.

There are many ways that this happens, some of which are even necessary for acquiring knowledge. However, there’s a running list of ways assumptions can go wrong under the usual heading of “fallacies”. How can we distinguish between the legimate and illegitimate forms of assumption?

Let’s start with the legitimate uses for assumptions, since these will help show us what’s happening when we’re naughty and turn people into posteriors. As any scientist or philosopher worth their salt will tell you, assumptions lie at the foundation of all rigorous knowledge of the world. Not only assumptions, of course, though they are an essential part.

These grounding assumptions take several forms, such as axioms and what were once called “suppositions”. We all know about axioms from math class, whether we remember or not. There we were taught that axioms are truths that are simply and self-evidently true. In other words, axioms are things that just cannot be false. For example, consider the principle that something cannot be true and false at the same time, aka the “principle of non-contradiction”.

A supposition, on the other hand, is what in English we would normally call an assumption, albeit with a specific purpose in mind. Specifically, a supposition is something taken to be true “for the sake of argument” or demonstration. For instance, if I assumed that you’re a robot, I might conclude that my efforts to teach you about knowledge are useless (robots are, in fact, stupid). If, on the other hand, I assume you’re a person (no, robots aren’t people), it follows that you just might understand what I’m on about.

As you can see, the supposition I start with can lead to very different conclusions. If you were paying attention, you noticed I introduced two extra assumptions: that robots are 1. stupid and 2. not people. I’ve made a number of claims, but produced no certain knowlege of anything. At this point, you can either believe my claims, or not. Choose carefully, lest we both be turned into dunkeys.

Knowledge is hard

So, we know what happens when you assume or, rather, what’s at stake when choosing our assumptions. As it turns out, choosing good starting suppositions is itself hard. Ideally, I wouldn’t have to assume anything at all, but start with things I already know for sure. The trouble is that most knowledge is built up from sound conclusions, but we need a valid starting point in order to reach these conclusions in the first place. What a pickle.

In the previous section, we saw a glimmer of light in the form of axioms. Since they are self-evidently true, we can rely on them for building sound knowledge of things. However, there’s generally not many of them and they are pretty abstract, as in the principle of non-contradiction mentioned above. So we still need something concrete to build on to get to reasonably certain knowledge. What building blocks are available to us that won’t lead us astray?

Unfortunately, not many. The heavy hitters aside from axioms are definitions and so-called first principles. Definitions are just what you think they are: specifications on what certain words mean. First principles, as they were known by the philosophers of ages past, are basically any foundational knowledge we have that is more than a mere assumption. We’ll get to those in a bit.

Now, definitions are ultimately arbitrary. For the sake of argument, I could define a word any way I like - and you could define the very same word completely differently if you preferred. Definitions, like regular assumptions or suppositions, will affect the outcome of any reasoning done with them. If you change the definition of a word, you can change a conclusion into its opposite or, as the case may be, anything at all. So, choosing good definitions is an art in itself and there’s generally no way to know for sure whether your definitions are sound. Fortunately, there are logical tuning forks for this purpose, but that’s something for another time.

Bring in the dunkeys

From the above, it should be uncomfortably clear that knowing things for sure is really, really hard. It should also be fairly obvious now why the dunkey roster is so deep. Now we must face the most important axiom of all: we were all raised in a barn.

That is, we are all surrounded by assumptions and perpetually on the verge of dunkey transformation. Worse, we’ve lived this way our whole lives. Though this has been true since the dawn of humanity, it is even more true (whatever that means) today. The danger of dunkey devolution is especially great today thanks to what I’m calling the “knowledge trap”.

The knowledge trap is this: the more we know, the more we assume. [1] In other words, the more knowledge we acquire, the more apt we are to think we know more than we do, mistaking suppositions and assumptions for certainty. Worse, we can succumb to this trap without acquiring any knowledge, given our deep bench of dunkeys and ubiquitous access to things that seem true.

Despite what many people and organizations with your best interests at heart will tell you, the vast majority of what you read, hear, or see provides you with no certain knowledge of the world. Such knowledge is difficult, even under the best conditions. However, our present conditions are far from ideal, not least because practicing scientific method is impossible for most of the “truths” and “facts” we are given 24/7.

Now, some people might say that science backs the facts. What could be more obvious? Facts, in fact. Facts need no backing, they simply are so. Point in any direction and you will find a fact, and that fact will be so, science or no. How is that facts come to require “evidence”?

Facts require evidence when they are second-hand. That is, when they aren’t witnessed. In such cases, we lose the certainty of direct experience, and so too the fact. Accordingly, any “scientific fact” is not really a fact at all, but at best the conclusion of a sound and valid argument built up from facts observed during rigorously conducted experiments. Most of the time, however, “scientific facts” [2] are just dunkeys in lab coats. Remember: you can tell a dunkey by its droppings.

Oh nos, fire hose

Of course, rigorously testing and examining every bit of knowledge we have is a fool’s errand. So, we have to rely on our smarts, also known as heuristics, to make snap decisions about the “facts”. Though these are error prone, there is a simple trick you can do decrease the risk of going awry: reduce your “fact” intake.

As most of us surely know in the advanced year of 2021, there’s a veritable fire hose of information available to us at all times. So much so, in fact, that trying to drink from it won’t just leave us soaking wet, but blast the skin right off our faces. By turning away from the fire hose, we avoid the knowledge trap by sidestepping the onslaught of assumptions we are asked to make anytime we read a headline or watch a viral video clip. [3] “Wisdom sets limits even to knowledge”, observes Nietzsche.

However, this is not a counsel to simply put your head in the sand, either. Rather, it is a reminder that you are human, and it is human to err. In other words, know yourself and the limits of your knowledge, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Stick to what you can reasonably know and leave the science to the scientists, whoever they are. Not you, probly.

Remember the yams

Does that leave us to the dunkeys? Are we doomed to error and ignorance? Honestly, yes. But not totally. Fortunately, there are ways of knowing that are not scientific in the narrow, professional sense, but are nonetheless sufficiently reliable for getting on with life. One such way is craft, another is old school natural philosophy, and yet another is phenomenology. To see a combination of these in action, let’s flesh out the idea of first principles mentioned above and remember the yams.

So, what are first principles? Where do they come from? This is the million dollar question. If we want knowledge of the world that isn’t just abstract (via axioms) or arbitrary (via definitions, assumptions, and hearsay), we must have some basic, concrete truths about the world available to us. These are “first principles” - but how do we discover these?

The yams showed us one way of finding first principles: repeated sense experience. After encountering some untold number of yams throughout my life, I was able to draw a yam from memory based on what I “know” about yams. I never did any reasoning to acquire this knowledge, it was somehow simply there when I was looking to draw a yam.

Aristotle, aka “The Philosopher”, describes this process in his Posterior Analytics. [4] The basic idea is that first principles are something like armies or simply groups of people. Each experience of a thing is like one soldier, a first principle is like the army. When enough soldiers are assembled they form an army. Similarly, when we have sufficient experience of thing, we know it in a basic sense, providing us with a first principle. So it happened with my idea of a “yam”.

Now, this way of getting basic knowledge of the world is a bit rough and ready, since sense experience is unreliable and can vary from person to person. Nonetheless, it provides us with enough of a foundation to begin reasoning about things and, besides, even empirical science ultimately begins from such experience. [5]

Doing leads to knowing

These observations lead us to the heart of the Is. Do. Be. philosophy: doing leads to knowing. By engaging with the world and, especially, by practicing a craft we accumulate experiences (soldiers) into first principles (armies), providing us with reliable, practical knowledge of the world.

But the motto is “Is. Do. Be.” not, “Is. Do. Know.”, isn’t it? Quite so. It so happens that “being” and “knowing” have a very intimate relationship, one that we’ll explore in great depth in future posts.


[1] There is probably a better name for this somewhere in the catalogue of human smarts.

[2] This shamelessly overused term is, in fact, something of an oxymoron. A fact is anything that is simply “given”, as in the phrase, “that’s a given”. Since science produces theories and hypotheses that give us tentative knowledge of the world (the conclusions of science are always subject to change in light of later discoveries), the products of science are never simply given, but instead acquired or constructed. Accordingly, it makes little sense to call them “facts”. Rather, science starts with facts, particularly those of experience, and then attempts to understand and explain them and their changes. As you might have guessed, determining the basic facts is not always straightforward.

[3] A conventional term for such things is “hearsay”. “Rumor” also works.

[4] Book 2, chapter 19.

[5] The word “empirical” derives from the Ancient Greek “empeira”, meaning “experience”. More on the relation of science and experience in later posts.