The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged)

“The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” is an important book by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. An earlier healthy memory blog post with the same title as the book has already been written. That post was based on a summary of the book done by Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker. Having now read the entire book, HM feels that this volume deserves more detailed attention.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach are cognitive scientists. Cognitive science emerged in the 1950s to understand the workings of the human mind. It asks questions such as “how is thinking possible?” What goes on inside the brain that allows sentient beings to do math, understand their mortality, act virtuously and (sometimes) selflessly, and still do simple things, like eat with a knife and fork? Currently no machine, and probably no other animal, is capable of these acts.

The authors write, “The human mind is not like a desktop computer, designed to hold reams of information. The mind is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations. As a consequence, we individuals store very little detailed information about the world in our heads. In that sense people are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual brains, but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within our skulls, but also on knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people.” In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, information not held within our individual brains, is stored in transactive memory. The authors conclude, “When you put it all together, human thought thought is incredibly impressive, but it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.”

The authors make a compelling argument that we all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from an illusion of understanding, an illusion that we understand how things work when in fact our understanding is meager. Unfortunately, we are not adequately aware of the shortcomings in our understanding. We think we understand much much more than we actually do. Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware of the risks of having absolute beliefs, that all beliefs should be hedged with some reasonable degree of doubt.

The authors note that history is full of events that seem familiar, that elicit a sense of mild to deep understanding, but whose true historical context is different that we imagine. The complex details get lost in the mist of time while myths emerge that simplify and make stories digestible in part to service one interest group or another. There is a very interesting book by James W. Lowen titled “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got wrong”. He argues that history as taught in the public schools is basically propaganda advanced by the school board selecting texts. HM found this book most instructive. People should be recalled for a defective education, but reading this book is more practical.

It is also important to remember that the study of history is dynamic. New research yields new interpretations of history.

The authors write, “Thought is for action. Thinking evolved as an extension of the ability to act effectively; it evolved to make us better at doing what’s necessary to achieve our goals. Thought allows us to select from among a set of possible actions by predicting the effects of each action and by imagining how the world would be if we had taken different actions in the past.”

It is unlikely that we would have survived had we been dependent on only the limited knowledge stored in our individual brains. The authors write,”The secret to our success is that we live in a world in which knowledge is all around us. It is in the things we make, in our bodies and workspaces, and another people. We live in a community of knowledge.”

But not all of this is knowledge is accurate, meaning that there are degrees of belief and some knowledge is faux. Understanding that our knowledge is not golden can offer us improved ways of approaching our most complex problems. Recognizing the limits of our understanding should make us more humble, and open our minds to other people’s ideas and ways of thinking. The authors note that It offers lessons about how to avoid things like bad financial decisions, and can enable us to improve our political system and help us assess how much reliance we should have on experts versus how much decision-making power should be given to individual voters.

The authors write, “This book is being written at a time of immense polarization on the American political scene. Liberals and conservative find each other’s views repugnant, and as a result, Democrats and Republicans cannot find common ground or compromise.” The authors note, “One reason for this gridlock is that both politicians and voters don’t realize how little they understand. Whenever an issue is important enough for public debate, it is also complicated enough to be difficult to understand.” They conclude, “Complexity abounds. If everybody understood this, our society would likely be less polarized.”

Neuroscience is much in the news as there have been many exciting developments in the field. Little is currently being written about cognitive science, although there are exciting and relevant new findings in cognitive science. The following is directly quoted from “The Knowledge Illusion: ”Our skulls may delimit the frontier of our brains, but they do not limit the frontier of our knowledge. The mind stretches beyond to include the body, the environment, and people other than one’s-self, so the study of the mind cannot be reduced to the study of the brain. Cognitive science is not the same as neuroscience.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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