EPISTEMOCRACY, A DREAM (NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB)

EPISTEMOCRACY, A DREAM (NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB)

Someone with a low degree of epistemic arrogance is not too visible, like a shy person at a cocktail party. We are not predisposed to respect humble people, those who try to suspend judgment. Now contemplate epistemic humility. Think of someone heavily introspective, tortured by the awareness of his own ignorance. He lacks the courage of the idiot, yet has the rare guts to say “I don’t know.” He does not mind looking like a fool or, worse, an ignoramus. He hesitates, he will not commit, and he agonizes over the consequences of being wrong. He introspects, introspects, and introspects until he reaches physical and nervous exhaustion.

This does not necessarily mean that he lacks confidence, only that he holds his own knowledge to be suspect. I will call such a person an epistemocrat; the province where the laws are structured with this kind of human fallibility in mind I will call an epistemocracy.

The major modern epistemocrat is Montaigne.
Monsieur de Montaigne, Epistemocrat

At the age of thirty-eight, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne retired to his estate, in the countryside of southwestern France. Montaigne, which means mountain in Old French, was the name of the estate. The area is known today for the Bordeaux wines, but in Montaigne’s time not many people invested
their mental energy and sophistication in wine. Montaigne had stoic tendencies and would not have been strongly drawn to such pursuits anyway. His idea was to write a modest collection of “attempts,” that is, essays. The very word essay conveys the tentative, the speculative, and the nondefinitive. Montaigne was well grounded in the classics and wanted to meditate on life, death, education, knowledge, and some not uninteresting biological aspects of human nature.

The tower that became his study was inscribed with Greek and Latin sayings, almost all referring to the vulnerability of human knowledge. Its windows offered a wide vista of the surrounding hills.

Montaigne’s subject, officially, was himself, but this was mostly as a means to facilitate the discussion; he was not like those corporate executives who write biographies to make a boastful display of their honors and accomplishments. He was mainly interested in discovering things about himself, making us discover things about himself, and presenting matters that could be generalized—generalized to the entire human race. Among the inscriptions in his study was a remark by the Latin poet Terence: Homo sum, humani a me nil alienum puto—I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me.

Montaigne is quite refreshing to read after the strains of a modern education since he fully accepted human weaknesses and understood that no philosophy could be effective unless it took into account our deeply ingrained imperfections, the limitations of our rationality, the flaws that make us
human. It is not that he was ahead of his time; it would be better said that later scholars (advocating rationality) were backward.

He was a thinking, ruminating fellow, and his ideas did not spring up in his tranquil study, but while on horseback. He went on long rides and came back with ideas. Montaigne was neither one of the academics of the Sorbonne nor a professional man of letters, and he was not these things on two planes. First, he was a doer; he had been a magistrate, a businessman, and the mayor of Bordeaux before he retired to mull over his life and, mostly, his own knowledge. Second, he was an antidogmatist: he was a skeptic with charm, a fallible, noncommittal, personal, introspective writer, and, primarily, someone who, in the great classical tradition, wanted to be a man. Had he been in a different period, he would have been an empirical skeptic—he had skeptical tendencies of the Pyrrhonian variety, the antidogmatic kind like Sextus Empiricus, particularly in his awareness of the need to suspend judgment.

Epistemocracy

Everyone has an idea of utopia. For many it means equality, universal justice, freedom from oppression, freedom from work (for some it may be the more modest, though no more attainable, society with commuter trains free of lawyers on cell phones). To me utopia is an epistemocracy, a society in which anyone of rank is an epistemocrat, and where epistemocrats manage to be elected. It would be a society governed from the basis of the awareness of ignorance, not knowledge.

Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one’s own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge—we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups trump the disadvantages of being alone. It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one. Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes. This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

Once in a while you encounter members of the human species with so much intellectual superiority that they can change their minds effortlessly.

Note here the following Black Swan asymmetry. I believe that you can be dead certain about some things, and ought to be so. You can be more confident about disconfirmation than confirmation. Karl Popper was accused of promoting self-doubt while writing in an aggressive and confident tone (an
accusation that is occasionally addressed to this author by people who don’t follow my logic of skeptical empiricism). Fortunately, we have learned a lot since Montaigne about how to carry on the skeptical-empirical enterprise. The Black Swan asymmetry allows you to be confident about what is wrong, not about what you believe is right. Karl Popper was once asked whether one “could falsify falsification” (in other words, if one could be skeptical about skepticism). His answer was that he threw students out of his lectures for asking far more intelligent questions than that one. Quite tough, Sir Karl was.

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Swan
NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB



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