The Illusion of Knowledge

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”(1)

The first step to solving any problem is recognizing there’s a problem to be solved. It’s true for everything from personal issues to the trivial problems of daily living to the gigantic questions of our time. You can’t fix a problem you don’t know you have.

Particularly of late, knowledge itself – or rather the illusion of knowledge – is a problem.

The illusion of knowledge is a little more than simply being wrong and not realizing it. It’s not questioning, or even being willing to question, that which you believe to be right.

Knowledge and truth are rooted in that concept: being willing to question that which we hold to be true. When those beliefs withstand the scrutiny, we can have even more faith that they are, in fact, true.

If an idea we hold to be true fails under investigation, that’s valuable. What we believed to be true is not true, or perhaps more nuanced than our original simple truth. Isn’t that something we’d want to know? Isn’t objective truth the goal, after all?

I think most would agree that The Truth is, indeed, the goal.

I suspect there are two problems that cause people to remain comfortable with their illusion of knowledge.

First, questioning every truth takes time and effort. For truths we believe to be basic and obvious – self-evident, even – there’s little point to re-investigating. The issue, of course, is that what you and I feel might be basic and obvious will differ greatly. As a result, I might be willing to question things that you would not. You’d see the effort as a waste of time because they’re “obviously” true to you.

Second, I was recently introduced to the concept that we wrap our identity in what we believe.(2) Put another way, our beliefs define us. We are what we believe. Questioning what we believe to be true, then, is questioning our very identity. That’s something most people are exceptionally uncomfortable doing, particularly when it comes to those gigantic questions of our time.

As just one example, a passionate climate change denier may have an exceptionally difficult time accepting any evidence to the contrary not because it calls into question climate change being some kind of hoax, but because it calls into question his identity as a climate change denier. The former is nothing more than cold, hard data. The later is deeply personal, whether we realize it or not.

Being open minded is hard; particularly when it also implies being open to redefining yourself.

(1) Often attributed to Stephen Hawking, the quote’s origins are slightly more complex.

(2) From the concluding chapters of The Elon Musk Blog Series: Wait But Why, by Tim Urban.