Skepticism, practically and philosophically is a theory to question the possibility of certainty in knowledge. Unlike Socrates, Karl Popper, Nassim Taleb and a few other scholars, we “executive — styled” humans (except people who have separate left and right brains) are so confident (one can claim that it is overconfidence) in our own knowledge that we have started to defy the laws of nature. (Refer: Google Calico Lab Project). We can’t stop theorizing and being preachy. It is our natural instinct; a reflex to derive inferences about the unseen, things that lie outside our information set. The width of the gap between the things which we ACTUALLY know and which we THINK we know is very large. Nassim Taleb, in his chef — d’oeuvre “The Black Swan” calls this gap as “Platonic Fold”.
Building theories and rules out of a few instances of the past is hard-wired in humans. Generally speaking we try to figure out the attributes of the infinite unknown based on the finite known. Wiki-style learners call this as “causal reasoning” or “inductive learning”; drawing conclusions for the future based on past observations and associate the causal link between the premise (observed) and the conclusion (unobserved).
It is outside our awareness and consciousness to stop making inferences. We hardly see the things as they are and refuse to accept the raw truth. Instead we reduce the dimensions of the truth and make inferences to fit it in our brains. Fighting this is actually fighting with our own self. We tend to reach “general” conclusions without acknowledging that there are traps built into our knowledge gained from observations. This is one form of uniformitarianism. We usually treat the observed facts as evidence (rather confirming evidence) that makes our general theory true. This vulnerability to the corroboration error is known as confirmation bias. However, we must realize (very soon) that a series of corroborative facts cannot necessarily be evidence. Even one observation might render our general theory false.(at worst viciously misleading)
Sir Karl Popper; one of the best philosophers the world has ever seen & one of the best in this field, suggests a mechanism in his famous book Conjectures & Refutations as follows: Formulate a bold conjecture or our so — called “theory” and start looking for observations that would prove us wrong. His idea was that we know with a lot more confidence what is wrong than what is right. This technique is exactly the opposite adopted by us; looking for confirmatory instances. Clearly the mechanism suggested by Sir Popper is extremely difficult. (I have made this claim because the opposite behavior is very easy)
We often fail to take into account the “silent” evidence as it is neither seen nor obvious and ignore its effects. We are naive enough to believe that all possible adverse effects are being considered and keep our plan B ready, however we do not realize that focusing too much on specifics (that are known), at the expense of events that are not seen will NOT render certainty.
The main and the foremost disadvantage of this approach of inductive learning is that it is limited. I will quote two famous examples from “The Black Swan”:
Our observations from millennia that all swans are white was falsified with just a single sight of a “black” swan.
A turkey starts making a general rule of life from the past instances of feeding that it is meant to be fed every day. The feelings of the bird gets reinforced with every single feeding; until Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving something unexpected happens. You know the rest. (the same hand that feeds you can be the one that wrings your neck)
We certainly have a question from these examples. A big one indeed! How MANY observations or past instances would authenticate the validity of our generalized conclusion? Trust me, this is a tricky one; & there is no end to this. Another problem arises when our observations are rendered incorrect. This might be tragic if the ramifications are consequential. (i.e. if it carries an extreme impact).
However, this problem of induction is asymmetric. We tend to selectively acquire inductive learning in some domains but remain skeptical in others. We humans are competent enough with which properties to generalize and which should not. For example, when you show someone a photograph of an Indian man with a weird hairdo and ask her to describe the rest of the Indian population just from the hairdo: she wouldn’t conclude that all Indians have weird hairdos. (even if she is remotely naive) However, if you ask her to describe the rest of the population from India on the basis of his skin-color: she might generalize. This attitude of domain specific inductive reasoning is ingrained in us.(rather biologically)
Of course it is impractical to be skeptical in every situation (we’ll be exhausted), but we must prudently gauge the consequences;
If the situation has little known upside but serious unknown downside, then we must be thoughtful of uncertainty in the process and act rationally.
We can be semi-skeptic in matters where we have little known downside and a huge unknown potential gain.
It’s just that, we need to develop an art of appreciating the uncertainty and to be skeptical in the things that matter, that carry significant value in our daily lives. As the great Nassim Taleb says: “Don’t be a turkey!” & “Avoid being a sucker!” Lastly, I would like to end this article by stating: understanding the behavior and patterns in uncertainty is futile, to measure its probability is indefinitely stupid, but rather how to act under this condition of unknown unknowns must be our greatest hunt.
Thank you for reading my article.
-Inspired, motivated and forever indebted to my gurus Sir Nassim Taleb & Sir Daniel Kahneman
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