Human Understanding, Randomness, Free Will, and Delusion – Part V

Kent Bottles

Posted 3/17/12 on Kent Bottles Private Views

I am just as tired of this five-part blog post as you are. That is assuming anyone has bothered to read all five parts (one of my twitter followers nicely tweeted that he liked my posts, but enough already with this particular post that seems to be going on forever). I am happy to announce that this is the final installment. I am unhappy to announce that the seventeen really smart people whose writings I have read for Parts I through IV really have not been able to answer my simple question, “What is going on in the world of Kent Bottles.” The seventeen experts who have accompanied me on this journey so far are: Tom and Ray Magliozzi, Nikoli Tesla, Misha Angrist, Ricki Lewis, Jackie Fenn, Mike Gazzaniga, Kurt Godel, Edmund Gettier, John Barrow, Karl Popper, Francis Crick, Raymond Tallis, Terrence Dean, Benjamin Libet, Tim Crane, and Robert Laughlin.

In Part V of our exploration, we have to deal with one more really smart person and one really dumb person.

The really smart person, whose views I do not always agree with, is Donald Rumsfeld, the youngest and oldest person in the history of the United States to hold the position of Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld is famous for many things, but I want to focus on his classification of knowledge: known knowns (things we know to be true), known unknowns (things we know we don’t know), and unknown unknowns (things we are unaware that we don’t know).(

Slavoj Zizek, the controversial Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic, observed that Rumsfeld left out the fourth possibility: “what we don’t know we know.” I interpret this to mean our collective unconsciousness. For an amusing and intriguing video discussing Rumsfeld and Zizek go to Jason J. Campbell’s Epistemic Modal Logic talk at (

The really dumb person is McArthur Wheeler who was surprised when he was caught after robbing a bank in Pittsburg because he thought that rubbing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to the security cameras. As Errol Morris writes in a fascinating and highly recommended blog The Anosognosic’s Dilemma (, Wheeler was “too stupid to know he was too stupid to be a bank robber.”

Wheeler’s arrest inspired David Dunning and Justin Kruger to write Unskilled and Unaware of It:How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Leads to Inflated Self Assessment. They write, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

Morris shares a conversation he had with Dunning where Dunning said:

“If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance.”

And Morris concludes his five-part essay with the following:

“I have to admit my fondness for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. But is it a metaphor for existence? For the human condition? That we’re all dumb and delusional? So dumb and delusional that we can never grasp that fact? It’s so profoundly depressing and disturbing. Even sad. Dunning gives us no hope. The McArthur Wheelers of this world will never understand their limitations. But aren’t we all McArthur Wheelers?”

I doubt that the philosopher Colin McGinn knows much about McArthur Wheeler, but Morris’ entire blog made me think about the new mysterian school of consciousness studies. The key paper was written by McGinn and is available here McGinn is interviewed in a ten minute video that provides a good overview of all theories of consciousness ( In a nutshell, McGinn argues that consciousness is a concept that the human mind is incapable of understanding and that the material world contains things that physics will never, even in the future, totally understand.

But maybe it is okay if we cannot understand everything about the world we live in. Maybe we should just accept the fact that our homo sapiens brains were not designed to understand everything. Even though Gazzaniga has taught us that our brains will confabulate an answer even when there is no answer to understand.

Perhaps we should leave the last words to a physicist and a novelist.

Freeman Dyson in reviewing a book by a deterministic scientist named Weinberg wrote:

“Our ape-brains and tool-making hands were marvelously effective for solving a limited class of puzzles. Weinberg expects the same brains and hands to illuminate far broader areas of nature with the same clarity. I would be disappointed if nature could be so easily tamed. I find the idea of a Final Theory repugnant because it diminishes both the richness of nature and the richness of human destiny. I prefer to live in a universe full of inexhaustible mysteries, and to belong to a species

destined for inexhaustible intellectual growth.” (Freeman Dyson, “What Price Glory? A review of Steven Weinberg’s Lake Views, The World and the Universe,” New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010.)

The novelist Siri Hustvedt in What I Loved wrote about science:

“It’s a language I’ve come to hate, because it admits no mystery and ambiguity into its smug vocabulary, which arrogantly suggests that everything can be known’”

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