The More We Learn, the Less We Know – A learning paradox


According to Douglas Adams’ book the answer to all the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything else, is simply 42. Unfortunately, reality isn’t so uncomplicated. Many experts have compiled significant research on how the universe began, how it works, and what it is. It appears to be a never ending story. The more we learn about the universe, the more questions arise. Experts such as Albert Einstein “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know”, and Socrates “I know that I know nothing” have pointed this out. There is one thing we do know: our world is getting more complicated all the time. As recently as the 20th century people only had a black and white television with one or two senders; there are now over a hundred senders you can chose from. Not to mention all the additional options like cable TV, HD, Netflix, cinemas and many, many more. Between black and white there are now over fifty shades of grey and billions of different colors-  literally, for television, but also figuratively, for life in general. As the world around us becomes more complex, the amount that we can really understand about it decreases. Even experts agree on knowing too little, it’s no surprise that information overload gives millennials stress and difficulty to make decisions (choice overload).

blog-knowledge-2Too many choices can lead to alcoholic beverage consumption as seen here

Black boxes

In the 1980s, students with a basic education learned how computers worked, in terms of binary code. Today, the majority of people have simply accepted that they do not understand the technological explanations behind many things they use in their everyday life, such as computers and smartphones. It would be impossible to keep up with the constant stream of new information. This creates black boxes, which are complex structures that we do not understand even if they are explained to us (1). We know their input and their output, but what happens in between or how it works is commonly not understood.


So What Do We Know?

We understand our world through narrative fallacies. From events of the past, we try to understand the world and expectations for the future, these make up our norms (2). We constantly fool ourselves by constructing these subjective narratives, and believing that they are true. Kahneman calls this the illusion of understanding, because if it makes sense to us in the moment, we think we understand its entirety. We think the earth is round and we turn around the sun, but many years ago humans thought the earth was flat. They believed this was the truth, and they believed they fully understood the complexities of the world. Taleb uses the example of the Black Swan in his book. It was always assumed that all swans were white, until the first black swan was discovered in the seventeenth century. This changed the understanding of swans, but also a little bit of the world. Since our perceptions of the world change every day, and is influenced by our past, how do we know ifexperts are saying the right things? Will we still agree with the statements of these experts in the future?

The Chicken or the Egg

The black swan theory is a rejection of the cause-and-effect principle. Humans automatically search for causality. I assume everyone has thought about the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, at least once in their life. To ancient philosophers, the question about the first chicken or egg also evoked questions about how life and the universe began, the causality of life. There are many theories like Darwin’s theory and religion stories, such as the bible, that try to explain our existence. Our brain is trained to link pieces together to form a causal story, even if there is no reliable link between the pieces. Today, we might believe that Darwin’s theory is true, but who knows what we may think about it in centuries to come?


Adams said it was the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. He meant it as a joke, to take reductionism and accuracy in science with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, geeks have since wasted years and massive effort trying to ascribe some deep, symbolic significance to the number and its occurrences. Recently, a new book came out that shows how the number 42 has played a significant role in history- did someone say causality-effect? There is a whole website dedicated to spurious correlations like this, so if you like random facts you should definitely check this out!

“The only thing that is constant is change”, as stated by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. As the world is getting more complex, more black boxes will arise. This keeps us going in a visual circle. It doesn’t make us any wiser since what we see as a fact today, could be seen as an extreme mistake tomorrow. Experts are just as human as us, and human make errors. The lesson I would like to give the readers of this blog is to think for yourself and be your own expert in life. “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future” (Hoffer, 1973). Not only do companies adapt or die, but people should as well. Learning isn’t part of life. Learning is life.

Written by Romy van Baarsen