Definition: Some power; some knowledge— all we mortals have in comparison to omnipotent and omniscient super-beings we can imagine but cannot be. We have some power and some knowledge. We have the power to change some things we would like to change and to keep some things we would like to keep. We believe some things that will hold true for at least as long as it matters to us, at least as long as our lives are long.

Thing is, we don’t know which things. We can guess but we can’t know. No matter how large a circle of considerations we take into account, there’s always the potential that something outside the circle— maybe something seemingly minor today, would, if taken into account, change everything, making what we can change different from what we expect, making everything we know, wrong.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Which is a good reason to expand the circle, second- guess our assumptions, encompass more considerations. But there’s a limit. It’s not that enough is enough. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. The point is, we have to draw the line somewhere.

Western civilization, it is said, stands on two legs, one of faith, the other of reason. At the base of both of these is a martyr. For faith, it was Jesus; for reason, Socrates. Faith says ‘don’t ask.’ Reason says, ‘ask.’

From Jesus, the West learned how to stop doubting. The circle that includes God includes all that you need to consider. From Socrates the West learned to doubt, expanding our circle to encompass ever more.

Setting aside the particulars of what they trusted and doubted, Jesus and Socrates, and their descendants in thought are our culture’s yin and yang poster-children, guiding us as we work within the limits of our some-nipotence and some-niscience.

When our plans don’t seem to be working, when our expectations aren’t met, when we have yet to reach our goals, when we encounter someone who urges us to consider X,Y, or Z, we wonder about the size of our circle. There are lots of things we could do about it but they all boil down to expanding it to encompass more considerations or not, re-opening our circle or keeping it closed on faith that it encompasses enough.

Eastern civilization is often depicted here in the West as decidedly different. Well it is, but not on the question of faith and doubt. And why would it be? Everyone has a circle of considerations. And everyone’s circle has stuff outside it. The decision- terrain is the same everywhere. Take the Tao. It’s all about the way the universe is, and the way to be in the universe. When it describes the universe , it implies doubt and receptivity to what you may not have considered. When it prescribes the way to be in it, it prescribes faith in certain ways to be as the right ways.

In cognitive science, this question of when to trust and when to doubt is called ‘the halting problem.’ Give a computer a seemingly intractable problem. How does it know when to halt, when to stop looking for the solution? Should it keep churning all of its resources to solve the problem? Or are its resources insufficient, so it should quit looking within its own circle of capabilities?

We don’t just pray for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and can’t; what we should trust and what we should doubt. We’d also like a little wisdom to know when to stop wondering if we’ve got enough wisdom.
July 12, 2004