On progress in knowledge

12 July 2016

My weekend routine starts with The Guardian and ends with the FT. Usually, by the time I reach the ‘Companies’ section in the latter, reality strikes and I feel ready to get back to work. I reach full circle – from a tired, reflective mood on a Friday, through long literary Saturday afternoons musing on the margins of the Review section, to some pragmatic planning on Sunday evenings; and I have enough clippings to use in class, from philosophy to entrepreneurship, business ethics, and corporate crime. This last weekend, my routine was upset. It started with a book review on how the bitcoin is “changing money, business and the world”, and ended with a reflection on Philip Tetlock’s views on progress in knowledge and political psychology. (Not to mention the unexpected presence of a Canadian hero instead of a Swiss myth in the Wimbledon final).

The reason I sit here writing about this now is because I find Tetlock’s view refreshingly boring – or should I say, cautious. Heroic (or ‘interesting’) epistemology is either irresponsible, or simply removed from the realities of this world. In other words, boring is good, insofar as theories of knowledge are concerned. The alternative is Descartes’ malicious demon, which leaves us doubt (and thereby, our doubting self) as the only certainty, or Kant’s combination of a priori thinking structures and a posteriori experiential data as an ideal. But how much of our everyday life – endeavors, hopes, disappointments – can really fit within that range, and what hope do such extremes leave for the rest – everything else, the grey stuff that our lives are made of? How are we supposed to ‘know’ anything about all this in-between? My answer to this is – in small steps. Incremental knowledge, as in Karl Popper’s piecemeal social engineering, and Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism.

This is the kind of pragmatic approach that Tetlock seems to adopt, and apply to political psychology. “That Tetlock is totally unfazed by the Brexit miss is, in a sense, the whole point. He wants to replace the model of the all-knowing policy guru with something co-operative, empiricist; something fallible, but open to systematic incremental improvement. It is a vision of knowledge as a process of slowly but meaningfully upping the chance of being right – while acknowledging that it all remains a gamble.” (Robert Armstrong, Lunch with the FT. Philip Tetlock, in the Financial Times Weekend, 10 July 2016, p. 3).

‘Fallible’, but open and pluralist – how refreshing it is that one needs not be a super-hero anymore, to still be able to engage in philosophical debates. We can, after all, live our life in the realm of mere mortals. The Poppers and Berlins of this world, talk some more sense into us; or else – we’ll be left all alone, with only our demons to keep us company up here, on the heights of unattainable Knowledge.