Epistemology – How we know what we think we know, and why it matters

The Age of Deepfakes
July 17, 2019

Epistemology – How we know what we think we know, and why it matters


If you read last week’s blog on deepfakes, you know that everything you thought you knew might be a lie. This week, we’re going to talk about what philosophers call “epistemology”, which is a fancy word for the way that we come to know the things we think we know. While watching politicians and celebrities admit their deep dark secrets in convincing looking videos is fun, if a bit unsettling, the underlying issue of the quest for truth is actually an important practical consideration for anyone interested in driving innovation and growth in business or personal life. Said differently, examining the roots of what we take to be true is a powerful way to break unexamined patterns of thought that are holding us back from greater success.

https://www.xkcd.com/220/

Ok, sure, this might all sound like the kind of abstract musings that make you want to reach for the super soaker, so let’s make it a bit more concrete. We’re talking about a really good idea here, maybe it’s the biggest new invention since the paperclip or realizing that going to happy hour every day of the week isn’t actually making you more happy. We’re talking about the very limits of what’s possible, and you do want to do the impossible, right? Well, maybe that’s not so concrete, but don’t worry, we’ll get there.

Here’s the thing—we are conditioned to trust those we take to be experts or authority figures. Parents, teachers, doctors, news anchors, scientists, whoever’s making all those deepfakes, social media influencers, politicians, anyone with a blog, etc. It’s really comforting to assume that someone out there has the answers, and trusting those with more knowledge and experience is not necessarily a bad thing. Listening to your parents when you are a young child is a good way to stay alive. But heeding their insistence that you become an engineer, lawyer, or doctor might be a good way to end up in a midlife crisis because you didn’t follow your dreams, unless that is your dream, of course.

You might be thinking that you’re actually an exception; you do your own research and draw your own conclusions. That’s great, but ultimately, it’s just another epistemological approach, another way of coming to know what it is that we think we know. I’m not saying that we should abandon expert opinions or research, just that we should be aware of the processes we’re engaging with and their limitations. This kind of awareness is the key to seeing into blind spots and gaining the deep, unique understanding from which great thinking flows.

Let’s say, for example, that you are planning a marketing campaign to grow a business. A typical approach might be to consult gurus to be abreast of the latest ideas, do some market research to learn about potential customers, and review data from previous campaigns for insight into what’s worked before. Each of these steps depends on an epistemology, a way of gaining knowledge, and each has their limitations. It’s worth asking, how relevant is all of this information to this campaign, for this business, right now? How much do those gurus actually know about your specific situation? How many people actually give honest and useful reacts to market surveys? What does the data from a previous campaign actually tell us about what might happen in the future?

There’s another kind of epistemology that’s not as popular among modern “rational” western minds. It’s the kind of deep knowing that comes from personal experience, felt sensations, and instincts. As a complement to those other familiar sources of knowledge, this represents largely untapped potential that’s simply not accessible through reading books or listening to experts. Put another way, there’s something that only you know about whatever it is that you’re trying to do, and that’s actually really valuable information. It’s about asking questions like, who does this business serve and what do they care about? What is it that makes our offering uniquely valuable that nobody else has? What haven’t the gurus thought of yet?

Obviously, these answers are different for every business, every person working within one, and every market they serve. In the case of Oatly, the hippest new alternative milk, success came through a mixture of old school person to person promotion at tons of coffee shops, painting quirky conspicuous murals in cities, and a complementary digital presence. What they didn’t use, apparently, is a marketing department, at least not in the traditional sense. Reading about how they did it, everything just seems to fit, with the feeling of the brand and the particular circumstance of working to claim a spot on crowded barista bars across the country. While there may be some great specific lessons in Oatly’s story for anyone on a similar path, the thing that really sticks out is that they didn’t do what everybody might have expected, and they are crushing it.

Learning to think differently and trust personal gnosis isn’t easy, and there’s no formula for how to get there, though plenty of gurus are offering them. Instead, just consider this an invitation to stop and think about how you are thinking and where truth comes from. And before you reach for the super soaker, just remember that all real innovation and radical success is rooted in this capacity. Like Einstein so famously said, we cannot solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them.