Epistemology and the Earth Apple

As you can tell by the title of this post, I tend to ignore the common title tropes of the blogosphere. If I were in the business of attracting as many page views as possible, I’d title this post something like “The 3 Secrets of Fabulous People”.  But I write for smart, witty (and already fabulous) people like you!  So what gives with the title?

Behraim’s Earth Apple

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with what we know, the nature of human knowledge, and what is knowable (you know?). It challenges our beliefs. How can you be sure that is true? Does our knowledge truly represent reality?

We live in an age where technical and medical leaps forward convince us that we know a lot. We carry a subtle sense of superiority when we think about the rubes from centuries past who thought leeches were an innovative form of medical treatment. Perhaps even those people thought themselves superior to the generations before them who hadn’t yet discovered “leeches 2.0”.

The idea of epistemology has been in my mind after listening to this a16z podcast on the advances in mapping technology. I’ve always had a love of maps. The “old” 2D paper maps of yesterday (as opposed to the digital 2D map on your phone or in your car) are, to me, like the difference between reading a paper book and watching a YouTube video. The latter conveys information well and may require concentration, but is passive. Paper maps require active reading and imagination, where we convert the information into something useful and have to find our route rather than having it show up as a magical blue line on a computer screen.

In the podcast, the guests talked about Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel Globe (“Erdapfel” being German for “Earth Apple”).  Created in 1492, it was Behaim’s best approximation for the earth’s layout. Painstakingly created from his many travels as a merchant and mariner, it is the oldest existing globe known today. And if you’re like me, when your brain registered the auspicious year of 1492 you immediately thought of something else that year is famous for (when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”).

We wouldn’t use Behraim’s globe to circumnavigate the earth today due to a few minor mistakes – for instance, the lack of North or South America.  His globe represents Europe as one large landmass, with various islands around it. Japan is too big.

It was with this limited understanding of the world that Columbus took off that same year on what he believed was a voyage to India, and that’s what makes me think about us, today.

Did you see what I did there when mentioned how the Americas were missing from Martin’s globe? I sort of made fun of him, as if my present knowledge of the Americas flows from my innate geographic omniscience as opposed to people before me standing on the shoulders of giants like Behraim. That quick sense of superiority is an example of an epistemological bug in our human software, and leaders will take care to remember it.

Nassim Nichola Taleb authored a great book on this epistemological superiority bug and our process for integrating new information into our understanding of the world around us. Undoubtedly, people who come after us will snort in derision as they look upon the body of knowledge we accept as fact today that will turn out to be false.

So what’s the actionable point in all this musing about maps and philosophy? Perhaps, in a word,”humility”. Most of us work in highly complex industries that are impossible for one person to fully understand. It is for that reason that the ancient parable of a group of blind men first experiencing an elephant and arguing over it’s true nature is the central epistemological truth of our age (the story originated from the very landmass that Columbus incorrectly thought he was going to bump in to).

We are all blind, in some respect. Although we may be holding an elephant’s tail, the animal does not resemble a snake – no matter how much we insist that it is so. And make no mistake: today, in some way that is hidden from us, we are all insisting an elephant is a snake.

Overcoming our blindness will never be completely possible, but we can go forward with humility, and know that our own mental maps are likely missing some continents.

Good luck!

P.S. If you also love maps, I recommend this book.