In his famous Nobel Prize reception lecture, Friedrich Hayek spoke of the pretense of knowledge. The crux of his argument was that even though we could measure certain things very well, we could only illuminate a tiny aspect of the whole thing. And yet, the argument goes, because we have precise measurements and fancy tools, we pretend to understand the whole thing.
A good example is an attempt to measure something like friendship. People do this kind of thing in “social studies” all the time. We can count very well the number of people a person is connected to, and build all kinds of very fancy network charts. From that, we may attempt to identify persons who are more “friendly,” those perhaps who appear in more networks or who are connected to more persons.
But is the number of networked people really a measure of friendship? And even if it is, do people who are “friendlier” simply have more friends? Or should friendliness be measured by the depth of each friendship, as few as one’s friends may be? Now how exactly do you measure the latter, the depth of one’s friendship? It gets a lot more difficult than simply counting connections, so you may simply settle for that former measurement, that of the number of connections formed. And then you’ll pretend that you understand the whole thing. “Look at all the studies I published on friendship, I’m an expert!”
So the above is a kind of numerical pretense of knowledge.
Yet I have also noticed a kind of a-numerical pretense of knowledge. A verbal pretense. So many of us nowadays are numerically illiterate. Even if somehow we did OK in high school, most likely our college major was very soft on math. And even more likely, our jobs are very soft on the application of any mathematical skills. The result is that many of us forget, or are completely unaware, of what it takes to make a rigorous argument, something that goes beyond just an assertion.
For instance, what is this?
The truth is that getting married and having children is primarily a female fantasy. It isn’t men who dream about having a big expensive wedding with fancy clothes and lots of guests, it’s women. It isn’t men whose biological clock makes them baby-crazy in their late 20s, it’s women. The male biological clock, the male id, is something else: a desire to have as much adventure and fuck as many beautiful women as possible before age takes away one’s vitality and virility. It’s as simple as that.
I shan’t expose the source, but it’s the kind of stuff that passes for profound knowledge across some “dissident” spaces.
Is marriage primarily a female fantasy? How do you prove it? How do you explain then the flourishing of courtly love among the aristocracy in the Middle Ages? How do you explain the domestic ideals of the Victorians?
And let’s say it is a female “fantasy?” To what extent exactly? Is it always true? 80% true? 50% true? How do you know? Anybody familiar with the concept of mathematical probability has a good habit of assigning a probability value to things. So few things are always true. But without that habit, and without the model of a mathematical proof, one may resort to just arguing things that sound nice. Or edgy.
Or take something like elite theory, a concept that I find pretty refreshing. But is it really a lens by which to explain everything? We all read Michels nowadays, well, Burnham’s book about him, well, we listen to Auron MacIntyre’s show, well, we listen to the Prudentialist, well, we read somebody’s tweets. But in any case, we are all familiar now the the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” – the stipulation that in every human community, power is at the hands of an organized minority.
Well, that’s a useful idea to explain all kinds of things and is probably true in many circumstances, but is it really an “iron law?” Just like Leibnitz’s fundamental theorem of calculus? Probably not in the exact sense, right?
First of all, Michels based his study on European political parties and labor unions, but what if the human community is REALLY large? Like one-third of a billion people? Can an elite really coordinate to such a scale? How do you know? In any case, it would need to be a large elite, just assuming linear proportion. But then shouldn’t the elite itself be a community ruled by a smaller elite? And what about that smaller elite? Who rules it?
Also, wouldn’t a very large community with a very large elite sometimes break into factions? Into a kind of distributed elite? How exactly does that happen? Shouldn’t we apply a sort of fluid mechanics model to this? So again, we have to assign a kind of probability value here and not take ourselves THAT seriously.
In addition, what exactly is the elite? How monolithic is it? Pareto teaches us that elites may circulate, which means that at least sometimes they refresh themselves with new blood and ideas coming from outside the elite. But if there is influence from outside the elite, then the power of the elite is not absolute, or at least it is constrained by the values and mores of the society from which the elite is picked from. So again, there is something a bit more dynamic here.
In fact, anybody trained in differential equations would find that rather obvious – a process where elements influence each other, change, and as they change influence each other to change more. So to some capacity, assuming the elite circulates, the non-elite influences the elite, the elite influences the non-elite, they both change by this exchange, then influence one another again, etc., etc.
Does the above mean that non-mathematical arguments are useless? Not at all. But as Aristotle teaches us in his Ethics, an argument can only be as precise as the reigning discipline may allow. And in the lebenswelt, the Lifeworld, the realm of human systems, things often do not allow for much precision at all.
Either Madison or Adams, I don’t have time to check the source right now, proclaimed enthusiastically that the ideas of Montesquieu were an “iron law,” a geometric truth just as eternal as the laws of Euclid. But do we really believe that is the case? Are checks and balances a “geometric truth?” No, they are not. [P.S. It was actually Jefferson].
The way to learn in a prudent way is not to totally adopt new ideas, but to draw inspiration. To discern, to review, and to see how things apply to one’s experience, but always with much skepticism and a grain of salt.
So in an age where most lack even the memory of a solid educational foundation, we should be very careful when making sweeping oh-so-profound assertions regarding the human condition. This actually asserts the ever-true wisdom of the ancients that one should not dabble in philosophy before the age of 40.
There is a pretense of knowledge in too many numbers, and there is definitely a pretense in too many words.
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