A Bit of Ancient Wisdom for April Fools Day
In a minor tractate of the Talmud (Soferim 16:8), the first-century rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is reputed to have said the following:
If all heaven were a parchment, and all the trees produced pens, and all the waters were ink, they would not suffice to inscribe the wisdom I have received from my teachers. And yet from the wisdom of the wise I have enjoyed only so much as the water a fly which plunges into the sea can remove.
This teaching not only injects a healthy does of humility regarding what we know, but it also reminds us of how little we absorb from the available possibilities surrounding us.
In more recent times, Chris Argyris has used the image of a “ladder of inference” to explain how and why we make bad decisions due to limited and skewed information. Out of an increasingly vast pool of data we can draw only a small amount, and what we draw depends on our existing beliefs and experiences. As we apply this information, it tends to send us back to the pool of data to draw more of the same. What might appear to us to be learning, growth, and a virtuous cycle is instead a vicious cycle that limits our capacity to learn.
This subtle cycle requires vigilance to break, but the wise at least recognize the problem.