Here’s a wonderful new book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. The authors, professors Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, argue that it’s “a misunderstanding of knowledge” to think that “it goes on between our ears.”
What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. All of our world-altering innovations were made possible by this ability. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats. Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.
I love it! I made the same point in my book Group Genius: creativity isn’t really about what’s going on inside your head. Of course, each person’s mind plays a key role in innovation; but creativity is always social, even when you’re alone. Lots of us have good ideas when we’re alone, but we can only have those ideas because of previous conversations, interactions, and encounters–with other people, with other ideas, participating in social networks.
Check out Fernbach’s and Sloman’s book The Knowledge Illusion!
The quotations above are from a NYTimes article by Fernbach and Sloman.
One thought on “We Never Think Alone”
A relevant clipping… David Bohm (1917-1992), from Thought as a system (1992): What I mean by ‘thought’ is the whole thing — thought, ‘felt’, the body, the whole society sharing thoughts — it’s all one process. It is essential for me not to break that up, because it’s all one process; somebody else’s thought becomes my thought, and vice versa. Therefore it would be wrong and misleading to break it up into my thought, your thought, my feelings, these feelings, those feelings. I would say that thought makes what is often called in modern language a system. A system means a set of connected things or parts. But the way people commonly use the word nowadays it means something all of whose parts are mutually interdependent — not only for their mutual action, but for their meaning and for their existence. A corporation is organized as a system — it has this department, that department, that department… they don’t have any meaning separately; they only can function together. And also the body is a system. Society is a system in some sense. And so on.
Similarly, thought is a system. That system not only includes thought and feelings, but it includes the state of the body; it includes the whole of society — as thought is passing back and forth between people in a process by which thought evolved from ancient times. Thought has been constantly evolving and we can’t say when that system began. But with the growth of civilization it has developed a great deal. It was probably very simple thought before civilization, and now it has become very complex and ramified and has much more incoherence than before.
Now, I say that this system has a fault in it — a ‘systematic fault’. It is not a fault here, there or here, but it is a fault that is all throughout the system. Can you picture that? It is everywhere and nowhere. You may say “I see a problem here, so I will bring my thoughts to bear on this problem”. But “my” thought is part of the system. It has the same fault as the fault I’m trying to look at, or a similar fault.
Thought is constantly creating problems that way and then trying to solve them. But as it tries to solve them it makes it worse because it doesn’t notice that it’s creating them, and the more it thinks, the more problems it creates.