Knowledge without Proof: Newsletter 43

It came to me as a very late surprise, more than four decades in the making. After years of arguing with colleagues, teachers, friends and students, I finally realized that the business of knowledge is a conservative business. I use the term “business” somewhat loosely, as we might do so when saying “funny business” but even the cash and carry part of the knowledge business is a conservative enterprise. Whether it’s the thousand year old buildings in Oxford and Paris (or the burnt down remnants in Nalanda) or the traditions of scholarship that trace the history of one’s work in footnotes dating back to Plato, the world of knowledge pays homage to the eternal.

Even the hottest of all scientific fields - say, machine learning or metagenomics - bears the imprint of history. They are dynamic in comparison to ancient philosophy but decidedly stodgy in comparison to music or fashion. We discover the laws of nature, we write books on the principles of blah and bleh. The halls of academia are filled with old bald headed bearded men who impart wisdom on their good days but demand respect and submission on all occassions. No one, as far as I know, has ever written a book called “This year’s Theory of Everything.” Sometimes I wonder if that’s too sanitized a world for our own good; academia is an institutionalized version of the American playground, where every toy comes with a warning label and indemnity from lawsuits.

Yes, I know that modern civilization is corrupt and decadent, that without a few temples of truth and their zealous guardians we will be cast adrift in a sea of opinion and commercial exploitation. I am also aware that progress, with its mixed benefits, requires us to stand on the shoulders of giants. That generational support needs a solid foundation in scholarship and reason. I am less enamored of the claim that without the order of reason, the order of society will fall apart, but I understand that argument. Still, I wonder what would happen if we set aside all our knowledge claims and treated academia like the fashion industry, with its yearly parades of good looking people strutting around in that season’s new attire. The thought is horrifying isn’t it? But what’s wrong with the thought?

One disadvantage of building upon solid foundations is that we take the world for granted, that it reinforces an uncritical view of knowledge. At best, it thrives on a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. At worst, it’s totally blind to the devastating anamoly, the Black Swan in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s phrasing. Independent of either extreme, this conservatism is a little boring. When Thomas Kuhn and others talk about paradigm shifts, one wonders: why are people waiting for paradigms to shift? Why so much faith in any paradigm? Why carry this huge burden of knowledge upon one’s shoulders? Isn’t it possible to cut loose once in a while; a little bit of rock and roll to supplement all that classical music?

At the very least, we need a little space for epistemic imagination, for dreaming as much as proving. I have this thought of an academic version of the (now vanishing, I believe) 20% time at Google, where we are given the freedom to imagine and create entirely new ideas and world-views without the compulsion to prove, fact-check, hypothesis-test or any other demand of reason. We don’t want the inmates to run the asylum but a healthy dose of madness is a good idea.