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Living in a world we can’t understand

Living in a world we can’t understand thumbnail

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

Engraving by Gustave Dore "The Confusion of Tongues" from Wikimedia Commons 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.

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9 Comments on "Living in a world we can’t understand"

  1. rollin on Mon, 13th Jan 2014 2:11 pm 

    The concept of order and disorder is a human concept. Much of what people think of as order is limiting and harmful, while much of what is considered disorder is helpful to life and continued life.

    The world and the universe is ordered on a much higher plane than most humans can fathom. The order associated with life does somewhat depend upon randomness but is so highly ordered that scientists do not understand it’s basic molecular methods.

    Here is the NY Times critique of “Antifragile …”

    I agree with six of the seven points at the end of the article and partially agree with one of them.

  2. Makati1 on Mon, 13th Jan 2014 3:27 pm 

    Seven good points.

  3. J-Gav on Mon, 13th Jan 2014 3:37 pm 

    I like the humble premises but would make a distinction between two types of humility:
    Our hellishly competitive societies today will make mincemeat out of you if you’re too humble in your daily life. On the other hand, humility before the phenomenon of life itself and the complexity of the world does seem like a good starting point for maintaining our presence on the planet.

  4. rollin on Mon, 13th Jan 2014 6:34 pm 

    To J-Gav concerning the hellishly competitive societies today.

    Maybe we need to weed out the sociopaths. Things will never be good as long as they run the show.

  5. Northwest Resident on Mon, 13th Jan 2014 7:29 pm 

    rollin and J-Gav — Excellent point regarding sociopaths. I’ve read studies which indicate that the personality type most likely to claw his/her way “to the top” tends toward sociopathic. The reason: Those individuals are DRIVEN more than most others to get themselves into positions of power and influence. While most “normal” people are having too good of a time with family/friends and activities, the sociopathic personality dedicates time to plotting, scheming and manipulating to “get ahead”. I suppose that in the development phases of human evolution, there was survival value in having sociopaths take charge of the situation — we needed the fanatics to wage war, conquer nations and subdue nature — or, at least, if you like where we are now and how our history has played out, we “needed” them. Going forward, with fewer and fewer resources left to exploit in order to give the sociopaths the power and control they are obsessed by, we may find that civilization doesn’t have much use for them any more, and that “the meek shall inherit the earth”, after all.

  6. moli on Mon, 13th Jan 2014 10:06 pm 

    lots of philasophical time for those who truely dont care except for thier own material wellbeing. . secure on the side of imperial gain. . trusting in material wellbeing to drive flowery thoughts. until the unseen grips an accounting so deep. .

  7. JB on Tue, 14th Jan 2014 12:20 am 

    Good ideas. I try to live my life in a sensible and sustainable way. I try to improve my land and preserve some woods, maybe plant more trees, or contribute to an organization that wants to preserve some wild areas. But after we’re gone, someone down the line looks at these place and thinks there’s a whole lot of money to be made in all that timber; or turn it into a housing tract, or shopping mall which becomes just another blot on the landscape. There is no one to stop them, so what are we to do? Human society is basically destructive. As individuals we can profit by words of wisdom, but society never gains; and what it gains on one side, it loses on the other.

  8. Makati1 on Tue, 14th Jan 2014 2:28 am 

    JB, unless you are over 60, after you are gone, there will be no ‘housing tracts’ built unless they are made of wood with thatched roofs and dirt floors. You still do not seem to see what total collapse will mean in your life. No big housing contractors will survive as the financial system will be gone that supports them or any other large industry. EVERYONE will earn their bread by their own sweat, not that of someone else like today. That assumes that Mother Nature allows some of us to survive.

  9. Stilgar Wilcox on Tue, 14th Jan 2014 9:59 am

    ‘Dozens of Trade-Offs in $1.1 Trillion Budget Bill’

    Apparently social safety nets were saved in a trade-off for the following defense goodies:

    “Consistent with recent defense measures, the bill largely fulfills the Pentagon’s request for ships, aircraft, tanks, helicopters and other war-fighting equipment, including 29 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, eight new warships as requested by the Navy, and a variety of other aircraft like the V-22 Osprey, new and improved F-18 fighters and new Army helicopters.”

    It would seem any suggestion of future dangers of collapse are absent on Capitol Hill, as the article doesn’t even broach the subject of deficits adding to the massive 17+ trillion debt, instead reassuring us the fat cats are now working together!

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