Robert Anton Wilson minted the term "Cosmic Schmuck" in a similar spirit to Murphy's Law. The Cosmic Schmuck Principle seemed aimed at greater ethical behavior among the educated classes; I see this impetus in RAW as an influence from Ezra Pound and Confucius, and also Alfred Korzybski. Also: RAW wrote a lot about hearing and reading formulations like this while growing up:
An X (person or group) appears to have done something lousy.
Therefore all people who seem like Xes are suspect or bad or dangerous, or might do something lousy.
This formulation leads to incivility, bad ethics, injustices, violence, and even genocide. (Think of Hitler making the above statement, and replace X with Jews.)
Yes, but what is this thing called The Cosmic Schmuck Principle? It has to do with pretending to a level of certainty or knowledge that you are unlikely to have, and so you're acting like a schmuck. Oh, but let's have a concise statement from RAW:
The Cosmic Schmuck Principle holds that if you don't wake up, once a month at least, and realize you have recently been acting like a Cosmic Schmuck again, then you will probably go on acting like a Cosmic Schmuck forever; but if you do, occasionally, recognize your Cosmic Schmuckiness, you might begin to become a little less Schmucky than the general human average at this primitive stage of terrestrial evolution. - p. 21, Natural Law: Or Don't Put A Rubber On Your WillyHERE is the text of this incredible little anarcho-libertarian pamphlet on epistemology at Scribd.
Another website excerpts more from the page(s) with the quote I used above; I link to it in the interests of context. I don't know who the man is in the photo. It is not RAW.
Nota bene and what I find very lovable in the Cosmic Schmuck Principle is that it's heavily implied that we are all schmucks, to some degree. And RAW would've acknowledged his own schmuckiness at times. This dovetails really well with the ideas about Wrongology from Kathryn Schulz, who I write about near the end of this piece...
One of the main tropes that runs through Wilson's entire oeuvre is the embracing of uncertainty; one reason being that, in his epistemology, given our nervous systems and how we're wired, coupled with what we've found in quantum mechanics, cultural anthropology, genetics, perception psychology and neuroscience, linguistics, and a whole host of other disciplines, we cannot know anything but the most trivial things for certain, and maybe not even these trivial things. And secondly, this is something to be embraced, not because it is inevitable and seems to have been built into the fabric of the weirdness of "reality," but because it enables us to live with a sense of deep wonder, which he once said was "all the religion we need."
It could be that Pyrrho the Skeptic was the first to advocate for something along these lines (after encountering some "naked wise men" in India?); there seems much to dispute here.
Other ideas that seem to bear a family resemblance in the Wittgensteinian sense: fallibalism, aspects of the sociology of knowledge, Eric Hoffer's "True Believer," and many other forms of social epistemology. I want to discuss - and maybe even elucidate - a few others here.
Richard Rorty and "Knowingness"
One of my favorite academic philosophers of the late 20th century (Rorty died in 2007 at the age of 75), Rorty thought the educated classes, especially via too much theory, had fallen into a trap he called "knowingness," which he may have gotten from someone else, possibly the literary critic Harold Bloom? Anyway, when I first read about knowingness in Rorty's sense it knocked me on my ass, and a definition has stuck in my neural circuits:
"Knowingness is a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe."
Think of the 23 year old grad student who thinks he's "seen it all." He hasn't. Not even close. He "knows" too much. A 23 year old grad student has hardly seen anything, but he is under the illusion he's seen it all. He has been trained to think analytically, and possibly over-analyzes everything, so that nothing is wonderful anymore. This seems born of a deep-seated fear, because another part of himself knows he hasn't experienced much of the world yet. Academics up to the age of 80 have been known to have fallen deeply into the slough of knowingness. It's pretentious to us, but for them, they have defended their knowledge in learned paper after learned paper. Who reads these papers? His colleagues and hardly anyone else. He lives in an academic bubble of knowingness, and many of his fellow academics are hyper-theoretizing and caught in the mire of knowingness also. Females are just as liable to this trap, this "state of soul," as men. It seems a lot like the Cosmic Schmuck Principle, but I seriously doubt Rorty ever read Wilson. They ran in different intellectual strata. But I think it would be a safe guess, were someone to have asked Wilson (who also died in 2007) if Cosmic Schmuckiness prevented a shudder of awe, he'd say yes.
Likewise, I easily imagine Rorty, after reading his books and seeing interviews with him, that he'd embrace the idea of recognizing when you were pretending to know when you really didn't. His theory of truth - which was not a theory - was that truth was something that happened to an idea. And it happened because it was found to be good, pleasurable, helpful. When you're on that track - what helps you get through your days and nights with more humanity - I hazard that you're bending towards less schmuckiness, less knowingness already...
Rorty was often labeled a "neo-pragmatist." I think the Cosmic Schmuck Principle fits into the pragmatist (accused as "anti-philosophy" by some) project snugly.
When I read online about criticism of people between 18-30 who are thought of as "Hipsters," I get a vague whiff that their critics think the Hipsters have too much knowingness, or are Cosmic Schmucks. But because I'm still not sure what truly constitutes Hipster-hood, I will neither defend Hipsters nor join in the scorn. But above all, I don't want to play in the formulation near the top of this article ("An X appears to have done something lousy..."), as it's NEVER fair or just to do so. Moving on...
Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote in 1953 a famous essay on types of intellectuals, "The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History," and he drew upon the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In Daniel Kahneman's recent - astonishingly erudite, endlessly worthsomewhiles - book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he expounds on the Hedgehogs in our midst, the "experts" and (worse, to my eyes) the "pundits."
Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics (a fascinating story in itself), is the go-to guy for insight into our own biases, and how to stop acting like a sucker or Schmuck...even though it appears we're wired to fall into schmuckiness (not the word Kahneman uses!) by evolution.
"As Nassim Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult for us to accept the limits of our forecasting ability. Everything makes sense in hindsight, a fact that financial pundits exploit every evening, as they offer convincing accounts of the day's events. And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future." - p.218
Kahneman illustrates the role of chance in 20th century history: in very minute sections of time, the fertilized eggs that went on to become Mao, Hitler and Stalin had around a 50/50 chance of becoming females. And around 47 million people were murdered because of this chance. (My estimates, based on a few moments rustling around in some history books; Kahneman does not come up with a number in the text.)
[I may have taken tremendous liberty with this past example; I may have made something along the lines of an egregious error. If anyone would like to point it out, I would be happy to hear what that error might consist of. In other words: was I being a Cosmic Schmuck there? Or not? Or does my writing this bracketed paragraph somehow exonerate me from any Cosmic Schmuckery I may have been guilty of in the above paragraph? Are we in a Strange Loop right now?]
Daniel Kahneman then discusses Philip Tetlock's 20 year project of doing massive interviews and questionnaires with "experts" - pundits who forecasted about political and economic trends - and how these experts panned out, with hindsight. The results, which should be far better known than they are, show that these pundits performed, as Kahneman writes, "worse than they would have if they had assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes." (Tetlock got 80,000 predictions for very many questions that had respondents pick whether they think the status quo would remain, there would be more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of those things. Tetlock's book is Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about this very thing, quite amusingly, in The Black Swan: quite often, instead of asking your stockbroker for tips on how to invest in the market, you can ask a taxi cab driver and you'll end up with the same amount of money. Similarly, Tetlock is quoted: "In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals - distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on - are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in 'reading' emergent situations."
Tetlock falls back on Berlin's "Hedgehogs" when talking about "experts" and why we listen to them. Most of the pundits we see are not foxes - who know a lot of things - but "experts" who are loathe to admit when they were wrong, but when forced to admit their wrongness always have many ready-made excuses. They are dazzled by their own brilliance (to my mind the worst of the worst in Unistatian electronic corporate media are Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, not that you'd asked), and they're led astray not by what they believe but how they think. They have a coherent model of the world, and they worship that model. Robert Anton Wilson called this "modeltheism." If you show them they have been wrong in their predictions, they get angry and say they were off by a little bit, or the timing was a tad askew. As Kahneman writes, "They are opinionated and clear, which is exactly what television producers love to see on programs. Two hedgehogs on different sides of an issue, each attacking the idiotic ideas of the adversary, makes for a good show." (p.220)
These Hedgehogs seem like cousins to the Cosmic Schmucks (look at the astounding level of schmuckiness attained by a guy like Rush Limbaugh!), and they seem far too knowing also, eh?
The take-away message? Take the punditocracy with a massive salt-lick, and be a Fox. (Or a non-overweening generalist?)
The Pessimistic Meta-Induction From The History Of Science
The wha? Get it straight, kids, from the sexy intellectual Kathryn Schulz. This same article is collected in the recent book This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts To Improve Your Thinking, pp.30-31. Most of the theories of the past have fallen by the wayside, so why do we, as Schulz says, grant ourselves "chronological exceptionalism"? When I ran across this bit in the book, I was reminded of John Horgan's book The End of Science, in which he asks very many of the biggest names in science whether we know about 99% of what there is to know, or maybe it's closer to 1%? Fascinating book, wonderful on the sociology of scientific intellectuals and the hard-to-pin-down field Horgan calls "limitology," and it's quite readable, with an ending that, for me, had a twist and was surprising. (Horgan's attitude toward his own question.)
I liked what blogger Roger E. Breisch had to say about the Pessimistic Meta-Induction From The History Of Science, and other of Schulz's ideas from her own book, Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margins of Error.
In my own reading of classics, I think I've seen variations of all of the above family members in the writings of Montaigne, and earlier, Lucretius. And still earlier, Epicurus. But I refuse to dogmatize about any of this and would rather declare that I think I've detected more than enough Cosmic Schmuckery in my own thinking and utterances lately...
Here's Kathryn Schulz, Wrongologist, talking about many of the ideas above. It's 4 mins and 19 seconds.