Learning how to embrace ignorance to become better.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book called “Sapiens” that does a great job of analyzing the story of humans, considering the factors that have shaped our journey on this rock of a rocketship. You see, a common perception is that we are in the driver’s seat, crafting our own destinies out of pure volition. But Harari does a great job of weaving in how we fit into the bigger picture, showing us that the factors at play aren’t necessarily as rosy and architected as we’d like to paint them.
As a scientist, the analysis of the scientific revolution struck close to home. To study its origins, we can actually link it to the question of European dominance on the world scene. The idea that maps charted by different kingdoms weren’t complete, that there were lands and people unknown, was radical. The shift in thinking led to a certain curiosity that could only blossom under the premise that not everything was known. The notion that even divine rulers and priests did not know everything was in fact the key to unlocking modern science as we know it.
The reason this played such a huge factor was that this curiosity sparked two threads that Harris argues are inseparable. The first I already mentioned, was the idea that science was used as a method of inquiry into the world. The second was the desire to discover new lands and claim them for the patriarchy. Already we can see how they are sparked by the same inklings of curiosity. What made them inseparable was the fact that science produced weapons that allowed for the mass conquering over civilizations. This in turn led the governments to repay the favor by investing in science for “philanthropic” reasons as most scientists would like to think.
Here’s why it was revolutionary. Up until that point, you could ask and have answered all of life’s meaningful questions by turning to authority. someone surely knew the answer, perhaps it was your king or your god. The reason that science could advance knowledge and technology so far was only made possible by the acceptance that humans simply don’t have all the answers. With this fundamental truth laid out, the path forward was clearer; we should try our best to figure (pieces of) it out.
Working in theoretical physics, I get a lot of recognition for being “smart” to people I meet outside of the lab. But as far as I’ve come in my journey, there has always been another climb ahead of me, making me feel as if I am playing catch up to my peers. This notion has gotten a lot of press recently as imposter syndrome, that feeling you can’t shake that someone will discover you’re not as smart as you think you are, that ultimately you don’t actually belong.
But with this new perspective, I’ve gotten a fresh take on my lifelong pursuit of learning. It is not my current knowledge that determines my role, stature and influence as a scientist, but rather my attitude. Learning to acknowledge my shortcomings is a lesson not easy to learn, but one that science has time and time again proven to succeed in the long term.